9 Things to do to help deal with a terminal diagnosis

Griping with fear and sitting at the edge of her seat, Sheila was waiting at her physician’s office for an appointment to discuss the results from her recent - extensive - diagnostic testing. In her heart, she felt a deep sense of solemnity and seriousness about this visit (which was just one out of dozens in recent months).

Coughing up blood. Night sweats. Crippling fatigue. Nervousness about this appointment was easy for her to handle in comparison to the agonizing symptoms that had persisted for about six months prior to this appointment.

“Sheila Baldwin…”, the nurse called out while holding a clipboard that likely revealed Sheila’s lifelong fate. Accompanied by the nurse, Sheila crept to the exam room where she received news that changed her life forever.

“You have Stage IV lung cancer. It’s extensive and untreatable. I’m sorry,” muttered the physician after stiff and routine “hello-how are you doing today” chatter. None of that cordial greeting mattered to Sheila. In fact, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, nothing the physician stated before or after the news made any kind of imprint in her memory. While the provider worded the news differently, all Sheila heard was:

“You are going to die.”

You’ve just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Now what?

Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is the worst news to hear from your doctor. After Sheila’s appointment ended, she felt as though a lump was stuck in her throat and her body was left numb from the news she just heard. It’s normal for a sea of difficult questions to bombard one’s thoughts after being hit with such heavy news. Questions that did not have immediate answers flooded her mind:

  • Should I get a second opinion?
  • Does God care about me?
  • How can I find happiness?
  • Why is this happening?
  • How can I make the most of the time I have left?

Receiving a terminal illness diagnosis from your doctor

During the appointment in which you receive a diagnosis, you will likely be in such utter shock that any further information discussed may not be absorbed.

It’s important to follow-up and schedule at least two appointments with your provider in which you can discuss the details of your case and the recommended treatment options. Before the second conversation, be sure to bring a list of questions and/or concerns you have so you forget nothing when seeking the information you need.

When it comes to such a serious medical matter, it’s critical that you seek second or third opinions from other providers. Even if the diagnosis stays the same, you may hear different opinions on how long you can expect to live with the terminal illness and various treatment options.

Considerations about sharing your diagnosis

People differ in the ways they share information about a terminal illness with others. Some people keep this information private, especially in the time period after diagnosis and before the exploration of treatment options. Those who have young children will often keep the information low key so that things can stay normal for as long as possible.

Other people are quite verbal about such a change in their health status and may also take to online resources for support such blogs and chat forums. How you decide to share your diagnosis and health information is entirely up to you - no one else.

Nine things to do after being diagnosed with a terminal illness

It’s important to not allow yourself to completely shut down after receiving the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Greta Greer, Director of Survivor Programs for the American Cancer Society, explains that:

“Some patients never accept a terminal diagnosis and die seeking treatment. Others get the diagnosis, say, ‘OK,’ and start putting their affairs in order.”

To help cope with the grief that accompanies receiving a terminal illness diagnosis, be sure you:

    Do not neglect or forget to perform hygiene tasks and other activities of daily living (ADLs). Practice deep breathing or meditation to help maintain peace and tranquility. Never perceive a doctor’s estimated timeline as a death sentence or a definitive outcome. Your story is not over yet. Feed your soul with spiritual and emotional food - whether that be in the form of prayer, reading, deep conversation with a close friend, or whatever you normally do to fulfill these needs. As difficult as it may be, try not to sit and dwell on the diagnosis or define yourself by your illness. You are still you. Set out to fulfill each day as if it could be your last, without actually telling yourself that it is your last. Reconcile any past relationship strains, interpersonal disputes, or unanswered questions that are left open-ended with the people in your life. Get your final bodily disposition arrangements in order to the best of your ability. Even if you cannot afford a policy for a funeral or cremation, have your wishes for your body in writing whether it’s for organ donation, cremation, green burial, etc. Make decisions and have formal documentation drawn up that determines end-of-life choices, such as your code status, comfort care measures, a do not resuscitate (DNR) order if desired, durable power of attorney (POA), etc.