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Processing a Family Member’s Terminal Cancer

It’s news we all dread. It’s a possibility that comes with almost every cancer diagnosis, but one you may push to the back of your mind. Your family member’s cancer is now terminal. You’ve likely got so much going on as you’re hitting your career stride, finding the right life partner, and coming into your own as an independent young adult. The news of terminal cancer can feel like a threat to all that you’ve worked to achieve, but you can’t ignore it or the feelings it triggers. Properly processing your feelings is a vital part of coping healthily with your family member’s terminal cancer.

Here are a few ways to help you process the tough news and lean in to letting go of your family member. 

What Does “Terminal” Mean?

Terminal cancer, or end-stage cancer, is cancer for which there are no more treatment options for remission or cure. Treatment will cease and the healthcare plan will shift to hospice care. Terminal cancer will eventually cause the person’s death. Terminal cancer does not mean accepting hopelessness, though. Rather, terminal cancer means that your family member’s cancer treatment goals have changed. At this phase of the cancer journey, attention will turn from finding a cure to keeping your loved one as comfortable and happy as possible.

Understanding and Adjusting Your Expectations

There will likely be many unknowns and unanswerable questions as you and your loved one navigate the end of their cancer journey. While it’s impossible to know exactly what lies ahead, know that there may be several changes to your loved one’s care plan and needs, their physical symptoms and appearance, and your role in your loved one’s care team. 

It’s normal to want to know how long your loved one has left to live. Unfortunately, predicting how long someone will live is difficult. The doctor has to take into account factors such as the type of cancer, what treatments they’ve received, their overall health, and others. Even then, their best estimates won’t always be accurate.

Expressing Yourself

Talking about serious issues can be uncomfortable and difficult. But talking about your loved one’s terminal cancer, despite how hard it can be, may be what’s best for you (and in turn, best for those around you). As you process your family member’s terminal diagnosis, try these approaches to help express what you’re feeling and communicate better.

Tap Into Your Creativity

Journal, paint, compose music — anything to help you get the feelings from inside you to where you’ll be better able to understand and sit with them.

Join Therapy

Consider getting a therapist if you don’t have one, or lean on your current therapist. Grief therapy, which focuses specifically on the grieving process and saying goodbye to your family member, is another great option.

Lean on Others

Lean on your close friends, partner, or other family members. They may understand what you’re experiencing in an invaluable way because they are working through it, too. Communicating with your family, friends, and healthcare team can help you cope. 

Families who talk things out tend to feel better about the advanced-stage and terminal cancer stages. Talking openly about death can help you and your family support your loved one’s end-of-life planning. Consider scheduling regular family meetings to bring you all together to talk about what you’re going through.

Talk to Your Loved One

You may also want to talk to your loved one themself about what you’re going through together. While the cancer journey has focused largely on them until now, this could be a chance to hear each other and gain another trusted perspective. 

Find Peer Support

Peer support may be helpful for processing, as well. Regardless what type of cancer your loved one is facing — end-stage multiple myeloma, skin cancer, or breast cancer — there are people who have gone and are going through the same thing you are. Connecting with people who know what you’re going through can be an invaluable source of support. Find your crew. 

Maximizing Each Moment

It’s difficult to see the positive when a loved one’s cancer is terminal. Knowing in advance that a person’s end is forthcoming can be an opportunity, however — to be present during the time you spend together, to make memories, and to maximize every minute you have with your family member. The best you can do is try to live fully and for today.

Living Life After Loss 

Even when you know it’s coming, the death of a loved one can be tragic and life changing. Nothing can truly prepare you for life after your family member’s death. Grief is unpredictable and disorganized, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Even though you likely began grieving during your preparation for this ending, you’ll likely experience more intense grief or different feelings related to your grief. 

Finding ways to hold your lost loved one close to you during your day-to-day life is an important part of coming to terms with and moving forward after their death. Starting a meaningful ritual is one way to remember or pay tribute to the person you lost to cancer. Memorialize the special person in a way that feels right to you.

Your feelings won’t stick to a schedule as you cope with the news of terminal cancer. Through healthy, intentional processing of your feelings, you can understand, learn from, and sit with your feelings no matter how uncomfortable they may be. You can expect to be processing and dealing with your feelings for a while, and that’s okay. The important part is to face these feelings and process them in healthy ways that work best for you and your needs.