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Finding out that you are near the end of life

This section covers how you may feel after being told you have a life-limiting illness and are approaching the end of life. It discusses how family and friends may react. Everyone copes in their own way, but it’s natural to experience a range of strong emotions and for these feelings to change often.

Hearing the news

Learning that you may not have long to live can be a shock – even if you were in some way expecting it. You may already know that the cancer has spread, or you may have been feeling unwell, but hearing that you are dying can be extremely upsetting.

We all know that death will happen to us one day, but most of us hope we won’t die anytime soon. So suddenly realising that death may be close, and what that means for you, may take a while to sink in.

For some, the news that the cancer can’t be treated may feel frightening or seem hard to accept. For others, it may be a kind of relief.

There is no right or wrong way to react. Give yourself time and space to take in what is happening. Reach out to friends, family or professional help if you want support – especially in the early days.

You may have lots of questions. And you will find information on these pages about practical, physical and emotional matters. Or you might not want to think about it for a while, and instead take time to come to terms with what your doctors are saying to expect. You may not take much information in right away, so try to avoid making big decisions in the first day or two after being told if you can.

It’s a hugely shocking thing, but we are all mortal and we all live as if we are not. And that’s one of the hardest things I think; we live as if life will go on forever and we’re so shocked when we find out that it doesn’t.” SUSAN

How you might feel

You may have many strong emotions. After the initial shock, it’s common to have feelings of fear, denial, anger, despair, helplessness, anxiety and depression. Your emotions might change, sometimes from day to day or even from hour to hour. This is part of the process of making sense of what is happening.

How you respond to these feelings will vary. You may find it hard to think clearly at times. It’s natural to cry or feel completely overwhelmed; you don’t need to put on a brave face. Other times you may feel quiet and reflective — you may avoid people and not want to talk. You might get a burst of energy or anxiety and start making plans.

Some people compare these feelings to waves at the beach. The first waves may knock you off your feet, then your footing becomes a little stronger. There may also be calm periods between these waves. But, at any time, a large wave can suddenly come back and knock you off your feet again. Your emotions may go up and down and may not hit in any particular order. People often say their fears are stronger when it’s quieter at night, and that they don’t always share how they’re feeling.

It may help to talk – You may have your own ways to respond to these emotions. At first you may not feel able to share your feelings. But as you start to process things it may help to talk and find a path forward.

You may decide to talk to a trusted family member or friend. Or you could consider seeking professional help through a palliative care specialist or nurse, general practitioner (GP), counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist or spiritual adviser. Other people in a similar situation offer a unique perspective, so you may want to consider joining a support group.

Telling people

There is no easy way to start this conversation, but you may find it helps to practise what you are going to say.

  • When you feel ready, decide who to tell and what you want to say. Think of answers to possible questions, but only respond if you feel comfortable. You don’t have to share every detail.
  • Choose a quiet time and place.
  • People react in different ways. They may be uncomfortable or not know what to say. If they get upset, you may end up comforting them, even though you are the one dying. Denial is a common reaction – they may be convinced there’s a cure or that the doctors are wrong.
  • If you’d like help telling people, call Cancer Council 13 11 20. They can help you find the words that feel right for you. Another option is to ask your doctor or nurse to help you share the news.

Do people who are dying need to be told?

Sometimes family members learn cancer is terminal before the person who is dying. They may think the person is too young, old or sick to be told the truth. They may worry about the health or emotional impact if the person knows they are dying. People who are dying usually have a sense of what is happening. Trying to keep it a secret may mean they feel alone when they most need support. Ask the person if they would want to know and follow their wishes. Knowing they are dying gives them time to prepare for death. The health care team can help you have this conversation. They can also suggest ways to explain the situation if the person has dementia, memory problems or issues understanding. 

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed July 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Jane Phillips, Head, School of Nursing and Professor, Centre for Healthcare Transformation, Queensland University of Technology and Emerita Professor Palliative Nursing, University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Prof Meera Agar, Palliative Care Physician, Professor of Palliative Medicine, University of Technology Sydney, IMPACCT, Sydney, NSW; Sandra Anderson, Consumer; A/Prof Megan Best, The University of Notre Dame Australia and The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Lauren Breen, Psychologist and Discipline Lead, Psychology, Curtin University, WA; David Dawes, Manager, Spiritual Care Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Rob Ferguson, Consumer; Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar, Counsellor, Psychotherapist and Social Worker, One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy, NSW; Justine Hatton, Senior Social Worker, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Caitlin MacDonagh, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Palliative Care, Royal North Shore Hospital, Northern Sydney Local Health District, NSW; McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer; Palliative Care Australia; Belinda Reinhold, Acting Lead Palliative Care, Cancer Council QLD; Xanthe Sansome, National Program Director, Advance Care Planning Australia; Kirsty Trebilcock, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA.

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