People are not programmed to suffer, so most terminally ill patients fear suffering. They worry about pain, not being able to sleep or eat, how they will look after surgery or treatment, and their waning interest in life.

They are concerned about who will take care of them and the financial cost of prolonged treatment. They also worry about their spouses becoming single parents and taking care of the children and in-laws.

Some, even after living with the illness for years, cannot get past the fact that they have cancer – but counselling by medical social workers can help.

Coming to terms with the truth

The first premise that is introduced during counselling is that life is imperfect. If patients can accept this, they will accept that obstacles in life – cancer or other life-changing issues – can occur.

Life is like a piece of string, smooth until it gets knotted. These knots grow bigger if you leave them alone, or smaller if untangled. Sometimes there are issues that cannot be resolved, no matter how hard you try.

The second premise is that some things cannot be changed. If they can accept that life is imperfect and that not all things can be changed, they can better accept their condition.

People who are better able to accept their conditions tend to have supportive families, religion, or a positive outlook on life. Studies show that the more supportive the family, the better the patient copes. And staunch believers tend to be more accepting than those with no faith.

Adopt A Positive Outlook

A positive outlook towards cancer can come from religion or life experiences. People who have faced losses or setbacks tend to adapt, and become more resilient and positive. Those who are often sick or have a family history of cancer are often not too surprised if they are diagnosed with cancer. Acceptance is harder for those who were once in good health.

John*, a successful CEO, was fit and careful with his food. He found out he had advanced cancer in his 40s and died when he was 50. He found it difficult to accept his illness and was angry with himself. In his anger, he hurt his family with unkind words and actions, but in time, through counselling, came to terms with his illness. He saw that by hurting his loved ones, he would be perpetuating this cycle of anger even after his death.

Find out more end-of-life counselling in the next page.

Ref: S13