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29 October 2014
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Myth, taboo and stigma

Although being given a terminal diagnosis is a terrifying prospect, it doesn't mean you can't enjoy the time you have left. Dr Ros Taylor takes a look at how you can take control of your life and overcome the stigma attached to your illness.

Terminal diagnosis

The diagnosis of a terminal illness strikes terror into all those at the receiving end, whether this is you or someone close to you. Your mind will jump forward to images of leaving loved ones, to loss of dignity and to you lying in bed, dependent on everyone around you. All the magazine articles, friends' depressing tales and soap opera storylines merge into one frightening vision. Time stands still, priorities change and life and death take on new meanings.

These reactions are normal. The goal is to try and find a way through the overwhelming emotions and practical hassles of coping with a serious illness: to reach a level of acceptance that allows you or whoever is suffering to make the most of whatever time is left. It's about living with an illness, rather than dying from an illness - and continuing with the pleasures and responsibilities that give our lives colour and meaning. Access to appropriate information and support, ideally in the local community, is critical in helping patients make wise choices from the mass of possibilities presented at diagnosis.

Seizing control

Our culture in recent years has focused so much on youth and beauty that it's become harder to bring discussions about death and dying into the open. Many journalists and celebrities have shared the stories of their terminal illnesses, but it's still hard for most of us to discuss diseases such as cancer.

Much of the challenge of living with a terminal illness is about living with uncertainty and still feeling in control of your future. If you seize control, you and your family can make this a very precious time. Having goals and staying creative are both important parts of life, and these become more important if your future is limited.

Reassuring loved ones

Patients often find that their friends and family keep their distance after a diagnosis of cancer. A level of fear comes into the relationship and this further isolates the patient, who needs friendship and support more than ever before.

Life may be different after a serious diagnosis, but the person is the same. People have described feeling 'untouchable' or 'infected' once cancer is diagnosed - however, you can't 'catch' cancer. So patients must constantly reassure those around them that they're the same person as they always were and that company and contact is vital.

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