There is no right or wrong way to feel when you hear that you have a terminal (or life-limiting) condition. You might feel numb at first, and unable to take in the news, or strangely calm and matter of fact.
As time passes, you may experience a range of emotions.
It’s normal to feel some or all of the following: shock, fear, anger, resentment, denial, helplessness, sadness, frustration, relief and acceptance.
You may also feel isolated and alone, even if you have family and friends around you.
You might not experience all of these feelings, and if you do, they will not necessarily come in any particular order. Whatever you feel, you do not have to go through it alone.
When you hear the news
Hearing that you have a terminal illness can be a frightening experience. Many people will be unable to take everything in. If you are alone in the consultation, ask if you can bring a relative or friend in to hear everything the doctor has to say. This may involve asking for a follow-up appointment so that someone can be with you.
Ask the doctor what support is available to you. They may refer you to the palliative care team, which specialises in caring for people who are seriously ill and are expected to die.
Your doctor will also know of any local sources of support, available near you. This may include information services about your illness, financial benefits you may be entitled to, support groups and counselling.
Find someone to talk to
Not everybody wants to talk about what they are going through. Some people might not want to talk about it at all at first, and this is normal. However, a terminal (sometimes called life-limiting) diagnosis of a terminal illness can bring up worries and fears, and it can help to talk about these so that they do not start to feel impossible to deal with.
You might want to talk to your partner, family, friends or doctor, or to a nurse, counsellor or religious minister.
People close to you will be dealing with their own feelings about your diagnosis. If you or they are finding it hard to talk about it, you might want to talk to someone less close to you. Your doctor or nurse can help you to find a counsellor.
You may also want to talk to other people who are in a similar situation. This can help if you are feeling alone or confused about how others deal with the news that they are dying.
Knowing that you have a life-limiting condition inevitably leaves you living with uncertainty. You will probably have questions to which there are no definite answers, such as how and when your body is going to change, how this will affect your independence and relationships, what will happen at work, and how much time you have left.
Not knowing exactly what is going to happen to you can feel overwhelming and upsetting. It is normal to feel like this, and it is OK to talk to people about how you are feeling.
You might like to call Cancer Council 13 11 20, a free, confidential telephone information and support service run by Cancer Councils in each state and territory. Specially trained staff can answer your questions about cancer and offer emotional or practical support. They can also put you in touch with other sources of emotional and practical support.
If you think you are depressed
Everyone is unique and you will react in your own way to news that your condition is life-limiting. It is normal to feel emotions such as shock, sadness, anger and helplessness.
However, for some people, the feeling that they are not able to cope with their situation does not go away and they feel too low to do any of the things they want to. If this happens to you and these feelings persist, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor. Medicine often helps and counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can make a difference to how well you feel you are coping.
Find out about benefits
You may be entitled to financial benefits if you are ill and need treatment or care. Your doctor will be able to advise you about this.
Carers Australia (1800 242 636) can advise on allowances and support for your carer.
Living with your diagnosis
One step at a time
What you are dealing with can feel overwhelming, but you may be able to make it feel less so by thinking about it as smaller 'pieces'. Decide on some small achievable goals so that you gain confidence. This could be something like putting family photos into an album, or visiting a friend.
You can still think about bigger issues, such as where you would like to receive your care in the future, but don’t feel that you have to tackle everything at once.
Write down your worries
Some people feel helpless and that everything is out of control. Writing down worries and questions can begin a process of deciding what is important to you and how to tackle it.
If you wish, you can use what you have written to help you talk about things with your family, friends and carers.
Look after yourself
Try to take some time to do things that you enjoy. This is particularly important when you are feeling tired and weak.
If friends and family offer help, try to accept this and give specific examples of support you need and would like. For example, someone might be able to help by taking you shopping, bringing you meals to put in the freezer or driving you to appointments.
Some people find that complementary therapies, such as massage and aromatherapy, can help them feel better.
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Last reviewed: October 2020