Coping with a life-threatening illness

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Coping with a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, can be stressful and scary. Read about why it's ok to be afraid and also why it's ok to think about dying.

Key points

  • It is normal to feel worried or afraid, even when treatement is going well; it is also normal to think about dying when you have a life-threatening illness.
  • It may be difficult to talk about death with your parents or friends, but it may be helpful for you and them to share how you're feeling.
  • If you are having trouble coping, talk to your health-care team so they can help.

It’s OK to feel afraid

A life-threatening illness means any serious illness that has the potential to shorten a person’s life and often requires immediate treatment. When you have a life-threatening illness such as cancer, it is normal to feel worried or afraid sometimes. Some teens with cancer experience:

  • fear of pain and suffering
  • fear of the unknown
  • fear of loneliness
  • fear of dying
  • worries about an uncertain future

Which of these worries or fears have you experienced? Which fears or worries have you experienced that are not in this list?

Even when you are focused on surviving cancer and treatment is going well, there are still times when you will feel worried the treatment will not work or that the cancer will come back. It’s normal and OK to let yourself feel afraid sometimes, but it is not OK to live in constant fear. If you feel that you’re always fearful, seek help from your health-care team.

It’s OK to think about dying

You may find yourself thinking more about life and death, especially if you know someone with cancer who has died. Thinking about death or dying when you have cancer is normal. Sometimes even young people die from their cancer because there is no cure. Having a life-threatening illness such as cancer can make you question things you never thought about before.

Some things you may be wondering:

  • Will my cancer be cured? What are the chances of cancer coming back? When will it come back? What if my treatment team can’t get rid of my cancer?
  • What is the meaning of life? Why are we here?
  • What will happen to me if I die? What does dying feel like? Does it hurt to die? What will happen to my body when I am dying?
  • What will happen to my family, my friends, all my stuff?
  • Will everyone be OK? Will they forget about me?

It is OK to ask these questions. Thinking about dying is normal when you have a life-threatening illness.

These are really hard questions to deal with on your own, but they can also be really hard to talk about with your family and friends. If you are thinking about questions like these, your health-care team can link you to a social worker, child life specialist, psychologist or a chaplain in the hospital. You could also talk to someone from your own religious or spiritual community. These are people who understand and are comfortable talking about hard topics related to life and death. They will listen and be able to give you some guidance if you ask for it.

Facing a life-threatening illness is challenging, especially for a young person. By learning to cope with the feelings, questions and uncertainty that arise, you are building valuable skills for the future. Many teens find that after dealing with these issues they find strength and maturity that other teenagers don’t have.

Some teens who have faced a life-threatening illness have coped by focusing on:

  • making the most of each day
  • planning what they will do to leave a legacy behind
  • working to prepare themselves and others around them for the possibility that they may die

Sometimes it is difficult for parents and teens to talk about death. Teens don’t want to see their family sad. Even when the doctor has given bad news, everyone may pretend that death won’t happen. It is important to talk about your feelings and fears with your family. If you think you may die from your cancer, and want to know the truth, you should ask your doctor. You can even ask your doctor alone.

Sometimes teens want to know the truth so that they can plan their lives. If a teen knows that they may die in six months, they may choose to do certain things such as take a trip, plans lots of fun things to do, film a video and so on. If a teen does not know they are going to die, they will not have the opportunity to plan their life in this way.

Parents are often scared of telling teens if they are going to die because it is very sad and scary. Parents may worry that they will remove all hope from their teen, and just want to protect them instead. This can sometimes be good and sometimes be difficult, especially if the teen wants to do certain things before they die.

Remember to have lots of talks with your friends and family for support and be as honest as possible.

You may also not want to know what the future holds. That is OK too. If you decide you do not want to know, your health-care team will respect your decision. You need to be the one in charge of deciding how much information about your future you want from your health-care team.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019