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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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 August 2014.

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