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Living with dying

Positive aspects of life threatening illness

When people discover that they have a life-threatening illness they often experience negative feelings such as fear, anger or sadness (see 'Roller coaster feelings'). But people may also gain something positive from their illness experience.

Unlike people who die suddenly, for example in an accident, people who have a life-threatening illness have a chance to prepare for death and put their affairs in order. A man said that the diagnosis had given his wife and family time to prepare for his eventual death.

 

His illness has helped his family come to terms with his eventual death.

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His illness has helped his family come to terms with his eventual death.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 57
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Before we finish is there anything you would like to add that we've not covered that you think is important?

Oh gosh. As you said it's been so wide-ranging hasn't it. No, I don't know. I just hope that anybody who is watching this and who is feeling depressed and down... that there are worse ways to be... there are worse ways to go... there are worse things to happen to people.

That there are positive things from this and that. Well, I mean, coming to terms with it and being able to deal with my wife and my family and my children. If I were run over by a bus tomorrow then that would be a terrible thing and an awful shock and suddenly to have to come to terms with that for my family would be awful. And an awful lot of people have to do that. Well, now they've come to terms kind of with what's happening to me now and they can see and hear that I'm well and healthy and positive and still performing, still working and... yeah fine. If I were run over by a bus tomorrow it wouldn't make any difference because they're already prepared themselves, you know?

I kind of guess I'd rather not be run over by a bus, its just a bit messy and uncomfortable. So, you know, maybe a quiet, gentle... mind you, was it Dylan Thomas? “Do not go gentle into this night of rage. Rage, rage, rage against the storm...”  Well I'm kind of raging in my own little way... But I'm also trying to make the most of it.

But you don't seem as if you're raging at all really?

It's... no.... I'm not. I mean the rage... that sort of rage is counter productive and I wish to be positive and I wish to enjoy. 

I don't want to rage particularly, no, no. I still want to drink good beer and fine wines and enjoy good meals and travel to see places I've never seen if I can possibly do it. If I can afford it, and if I can... and if I'm healthy enough to do it.

People we talked to were often very touched that their friends and families took the opportunity to express their affection and appreciation. Some said that as soon as they told others about their illness they received unexpected cards, flowers, good wishes, and compliments. A woman with ovarian cancer received over 200 cards and wonderful messages, which made her feel good about herself.

 

People sent her cards, flowers and good wishes, and paid her compliments, which made her feel...

People sent her cards, flowers and good wishes, and paid her compliments, which made her feel...

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 52
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So have you had lots of support from friends and relatives and colleagues?

Oh, absolutely brilliant. The other room is similar to this one and people sent me cards and flowers and goodness knows what, and they would all go up on the window. This was the first time, and there were over two hundred cards all over the room and I wouldn't take them down until I was in remission. So I had all this power and all the energy and all the love coming to me. 

So, I mean, I have been so well blessed by friends and relatives and neighbours and people, when you've got cancer they are honest with you, they tell you what they think about you. They tell you what you have been like during your lifetime, what they have admired you for, what silly things you have done, you know, everything comes out. It's sort of... it's all in the general arena. 

People, you know, it's not like, people can live and die and never be told how wonderful they are. You have cancer and people come out with all kinds of things, which is good. It makes you feel good about yourself.

A woman with colorectal cancer suggested that, “good things always come out of bad”. When she discovered she was ill her relationship with her partner of 16 years got even better, and they decided to get married. She said that her illness had made her readdress what mattered in life. She enjoyed not working and the opportunity to visit places and go to the beach whenever she wanted.

 

Her illness has made her relationship with her husband even better than it was.

Her illness has made her relationship with her husband even better than it was.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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We've talked about the support groups the healing groups and the importance of sharing things with people and not holding it in yourself. Have you been able to talk to close friends and family members, apart from people in those groups?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, we don't have much family. All our parents are dead. It's a relief that mine aren't here to go through this with me, but we do have a lot of friends and some very close friends and our phone bill went sky high, as did other people's, phoning me. Yeah, I've kept a very open dialogue with lots and lots of people and I mean yeah we trod the road together really.

You and your husband?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean we've always had a long and wonderful relationship but I didn't think it could get so much better but it actually has done. I mean our depth of feeling is about a million times deeper than it was. We didn't know that those depths were there but again going through something like this is incredibly bonding. And we've sat up in the middle of the night with pots of tea and tears and we've laughed and cried together. We've been through the bad news together, we've been through the good news together and it's made us value each other in a way we didn't know was possible and that's the great thing about this.

A woman with breast cancer said that a shortened life expectancy encouraged her do things she had been putting off. It also made her deal with her family differently. For example, she made sure her children knew that they were loved. As the result of her illness members of the family showed their feelings, exchanging “great big hugs”.

Many people said that their illness had helped them to appreciate life and the beauty around them. One suggested that good could come out of evil because you “wake up to find how wonderful life is”. A man with prostate cancer suggested that benefits could always come from what appeared to be disaster. He said that illness could be character building.

 

Illness has made her appreciate her life, her family and friends and she is determined to enjoy...

Illness has made her appreciate her life, her family and friends and she is determined to enjoy...

Age at interview: 75
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 74
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But the good thing that has come out of it is that it was like a wake up call, life doesn't go on forever. Apart from cancer I'm getting old. I can't run about with children the way I used to and take them to museums and things. But the good thing is I have a lot of friends because I have so many outside interests. 

I was surprised at how very loving and kind they were. I had, I suppose in the first instance, I had about sixty cards from various people, all so loving and kind and so this has made me appreciate life and made me appreciate my family and friends and so this the good side and I'm determined to enjoy every moment of the life that I've got, which I do. 

I love being with the children and I love my garden, I like gardening. I can do a bit at a time. So there is some good out of evil, you know, you've got to make it the way you want it to.

Others also suggested that various aspects of their lives had improved at the result of terminal illness. One woman, for example, learnt to paint and write poetry at the day care centre of her local hospice. She had also got involved in other things outside the hospice, such as the production of a book and an art exhibition.

 

Since she became ill she has learnt to paint and write poems and has become involved in many...

Since she became ill she has learnt to paint and write poems and has become involved in many...

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 42
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I always said that when I had breast cancer originally, although it was an awful experience a lot of good came from it. A lot of people with breast cancer have negative experiences about when they're ill, in that their friends or relatives can't cope with the situation and get very upset or won't talk about it. I actually found the opposite. 

People I hadn't seen for years came and knocked on my door and said, 'I heard you were ill'. People sent me flowers and cards and letters and things. And it was actually quite humbling to see how much I actually got, people I didn't even think would bother. It was great in that respect. I wish I hadn't had breast cancer to find all these things out. And then, this thing about, you know, I'm going to die sort of thing, because of that I had an arrangement that I would go to the hospice, one of the local hospices one day a week. And I go on a Thursday. And they chose Thursday's for me because they have a creative writing group there, and they thought that would be something that I would like to join in, and like everybody else who joins the creative writing group, I wasn't really sure what it was. I thought we might be writing short stories or something nice like that, no, no, no, no, no. Nothing as easy as that. 

Its not a very big group, at the moment there's only four or five of us, but, because we're in that group lots of things happen to us. We get involved in lots of other things outside the hospice. We've been involved in the production of a book. We've even beem printed in a book, with other people with terminal illnesses. We've been involved in an art project with the local castle museum. We've had art work on display there, its still on display. Some of us were interviewed for a television program to do with the art thing. We've also been involved now with another art gallery, in town, with photography. We're doing lots of photographs up at the hospice of different things to do with the hospice and different people. That's going to be in an art exhibition, that opens in September. 

I'd have never have done anything like that. You know, I was a busy woman I worked.When I first had breast cancer I worked fulltime. I had four children, my life was very busy. I didn't have time to do things like that. And I've written poems and done painting and you know, done lots more sort of arty things at home that I'd never done, or had time to do before.
 

This woman also said that having faced terminal illness her worst fears had been met and she no longer feared other things such as spiders or dentists. She also thought that her experience of illness had given her a new confidence. She said that she could talk to people more easily because if she said silly things she could blame her medication.

 

The experience of being ill has given her much more self-confidence.

The experience of being ill has given her much more self-confidence.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 42
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One other thing about being ill is that you have to talk to lots of people about very personal things. You have to talk to health professionals about your body and all that sort of thing. 

And I've just realised that, I just said to you I'm very shy at parties and things and I don't cope very well, and its just made me realise that in actual fact, since I've been ill, because I know that my life might be limited and I do feel a bit like I must go out and sort of grab things while I can, I think it gives you confidence actually to talk to people because I can say silly things or get embarrassed and I can just say 'oh, it's the tablets' you know? 

I take all these tablets. They make me go 'wheurgheurgh' and I can get away with a lot of things that I wouldn't even have dreamt of attempting before. And, so it's sort of given me a confidence and I said this to my counsellor a couple of weeks back. 

I don't think that I'm scared of anything now. I mean, I find some things very scary and there are lots of things I would be apprehensive about, but I'm not scared of any-thing. I'm not even scared of dentists or spiders any more, which is quite good. And it's almost as if you're worst fears have been met, so you don't have to worry about them any more. 

Hmmm. It puts things in a different light.

It does a bit. It does. It puts things in a different light. And so it is easier to go out and meet new people and do new things because you have to do it sometimes. And you manage all right, so you might as well do it other times as well. So I think being terminally ill has actually given me a lot more self-confidence. I think so.
 

Some reflected that they probably would not have liked being very old or 'senile' and preferred to die while they had all their faculties. A woman with lung cancer said that she was grateful for every day. Eight years previously she had been told that she was likely to die, but yearly chemotherapy had kept her alive. She said that she made sure she enjoyed life and that she didn't waste any time.

Last reviewed July 2017.

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