It's normal for every cancer patient to think about the possibility of death throughout their cancer journey. Yet, being told that your cancer is no longer treatable thrusts you into a brand new reality, which can be extremely difficult to come to terms with.
Oncology Social Work Manager Linda Greeff says, "The challenge is to learn to live as fully and joyfully as you can - making the most of whatever time you have - until you die - instead of dying while you are still living. And one of the best ways to do so is to get those all-consuming negative emotions under control, freeing you up to better deal with what now lies ahead”.
It's devastating to discover that your cancer treatment is not working and that anything that's done going forward will be to buy as much time as possible while focusing on your quality of life. "Your world will be turned upside down once again as you're overwhelmed with a whole range of emotions,” says Greef, including:
It's essential not to isolate yourself or to shut down at this point, but to rather surround yourself with people who you value and trust. "You also need a safe place to offload and to work through all of these difficult emotions with the help of a professional,” says Greef. "Dying is not a process that's easy to come to terms with. It's vital to work on developing a more positive attitude as this will enable you to adjust and to come to terms with what now lies ahead."
The aim should be to find ways to:
- Become more accepting of what is happening to you
- Create some form of meaning from this hardship
- Make the most of whatever experiences and time you have
- Set a goal of making memories and enjoying the time you have with loved ones
- Reach some form of closure and find peace.
"It may also be helpful," she continues, "To come to terms with the fact that 'healing' is so much more than simply being cancer-free. Your counsellor or oncology social worker will help you to gain an understanding that 'healing' actually means:
- Accepting that dying is not a failure but a natural part of the cycle of life
- Respecting your body, mind and spirit by making time to be quiet and reflective, with the focus on your needs
- Learning to take it one day at a time, living as fully and as meaningfully as you possibly can.
It may be beneficial to focus on the fact that having time to prepare for this phase of your life can be a huge privilege for you and your family. "Families who choose to share this process openly and who allow themselves to express feelings of sadness, anger, uncertainty and fear as well as grief and joy, tend to experience less trauma and to cope better after the death of a loved one," adds Greeff. "Allowing emotions, planning healing rituals and consciously thinking about the legacy you are leaving are important factors to consider as part of navigating this final transition for you all. So try to be as open as possible with your loved ones and encourage them to talk openly to you too”.
In addition to dealing with your emotions, it's important to try to regain some form of control which will go a long way in helping you to process what is going on. The best way to cope here - and at any stage of a cancer diagnosis - is to remain an active member of your treatment team. So insist that you are still consulted when it comes to any form of decision-making and especially about palliative care options such as comprehensive pain management and whether you'd prefer to remain at home, and always ask for the help and support you need from your medical team and your loved ones.
Listen to our experts share fascinating insights into Palliative Care and the unique support that this form of care provides to cancer patients at any stage of their journey, here.
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A diagnosis of terminal or advanced cancer will affect both you and your loved ones. Everyone will react to this differently and it's important not to shut down to ensure that your wishes and needs are well communicated to both your medical team and your family.
Linda Greeff, an oncology social worker and cancer survivor herself, believes that a patient's long-term survival is most impacted by the first treatment intervention. She shares her insight from her own experience with being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
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