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Living with a terminal illness and looking for support? Our Support Line team are here to help. 

 Reopens today at 8AM

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 0800 090 2309 Calls are free from landlines and mobile phones. Find out more about our Support Line.

Coping with change and uncertainty

Everyone responds in their own way when they’re told they have a terminal illness. Most people initially feel shock and disbelief, even if they thought they might hear this news.

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After the initial shock

Over the next few hours and days, this initial shock and disbelief may be replaced by powerful and overwhelming emotions. These may include:

  • denial
  • anger
  • numbness
  • fear
  • sadness
  • loss of control
  • frustration
  • guilt
  • acceptance

All of these feelings are normal and most people will experience some or all of them. As time passes, people generally find that feelings of distress become less intense and frequent.

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Coping with your feelings

Many people find it helpful to talk to those they love and trust. It may also help your family and friends to understand more about your situation and how they can support you.

If talking to family and friends is too difficult, or you don’t have people you can turn to, you might want to talk to someone who is removed from your situation.

Your doctor or nurse can help you find a counsellor or bereavement support service in your area. You can also search online for one in England  , Scotland  , Wales   or Northern Ireland  .

My aunt died of breast cancer, and I have had cancer. It taught me that it’s not as unmanageable as it seems and you realise that support is available. Because I’ve been through cancer myself, I understand it better.
Hilary, Marie Curie Helper

You may find it helpful to talk to other people who have the same condition as you, or are living with a terminal illness. Ask your doctor or nurse about local support groups. Many specialist charities also offer similar support through forums like the Marie Curie Community   and email contact services. Our article 'Coping with your feelings' has more information.

How you choose to handle the situation should be your decision. Don't let other people pressure you into talking about it before you feel ready. This is a very personal and emotional time.

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Coping with uncertainty

Having a terminal illness is likely to make the future seem uncertain. You may have questions that currently have no definite answers. You might be wondering how your health will change, the effect your illness will have on your independence, relationships and working life, and exactly how much time you have left (the prognosis). 

Not knowing what is going to happen can feel overwhelming and upsetting. Again, it may help to talk to family and friends about how you’re feeling. Or you may prefer to speak to someone who is going through a similar experience about how they’re coping with uncertainty.

External websites

NHS Choices England   – find health services in England

NHS Wales   – find local health services in Wales

NHS 24   – find local health services in Scotland

Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland  

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