Facing terminal cancer with grace and courage

Don’t forget to download the free guide that accompanies this month’s articles. In it, I show you three simple steps to help your patients choose to live well with cancer. You can grab your free copy here.

Also, exciting news….next week I am delivering some brand new, totally FREE live workshops! You can reserve your seat here, but don’t wait too long to sign up because spaces are limited.


“Do not go gentle into that good night, raging against the dying of the light” - Dylan Thomas


Human beings have an innate desire to hang on - we are hard-wired to fight for survival, so when a person living with cancer hears the prognosis, “There’s nothing more we can do,” it’s understandably hard to comprehend and process.

However, as the disease advances, “fighting for life” can begin to cause undue suffering, and “letting go” may feel like the right next step.

Along the way, there are few, if any, right or wrong decisions. Rather, it’s important to find a way forward that respects the patient’s wishes as they approach their final days.

Healing beyond the cure

It’s easy to fall into the belief that there’s nothing you can do to help your patients when the diagnosis is terminal, but I believe there is ALWAYS something that can be done for the patient - something that will bring healing beyond the cure.

And I also believe this starts and ends with HOPE. Not false hope of a magical cure-all, but instead hope in their remaining days. This could be hope for a dignified death, hope for reconciliation with estranged loved ones, or hope for releasing suppressed emotions and gaining inner peace.

Why we hold on

Instinctively, we humans want to do anything and everything we can to survive - it’s how we manage to avoid extinction as a human race! But within this space, there are a number of fears that arise, some of which may be so strong they are all-consuming: fear of change, fear of the dying process, fear of what happens after death, fear of losing control, fear of being dependent on others, fear of what this means for those being left behind. It is quite normal for both the person who is ill and their nearest and dearest to feel resentment, guilt, sadness and anger at having to face the prospect of death.

Hope remains

But even in the face of death, hope can remain: hope for a restful or pain-free night’s sleep, hope for another visit from a particular friend or loved one, hope for a quiet and painless passing from this life into whatever is hoped for in the (after)life that follows it. There is a beautifully written Jewish prayer that says, “I do not choose to die. May it come to pass that I may be healed. But if death is my fate, then I accept it with dignity.”

Courage and grace

It takes real courage to accept death with dignity, but in doing so, it can enable the person who is living in this experience with terminal cancer to let go of the fear of death with grace. Perhaps they sense it is time to let go. Perhaps the “fight” has worn them out and they have no more energy to struggle on. Often the body lets go before the mind is ready to. Refusing to let go can prolong dying, but it can’t prevent it. Acknowledging this can help the patient and their loved ones to see death as a release from suffering, rather than a spectre to be feared.

Indeed, the person who is dying may feel distraught at the thought of causing grief for those whom they are leaving behind, and so being given permission to die can help relieve this distress. For the patient’s nearest and dearest, it can be a great act of kindness to say to them, “When you feel it is time to go, that’s ok - I will be ok.”

Unfulfilled life ambitions

Most of us have things we’ve dreamed of doing, but perhaps never made the time to do, or maybe didn’t feel we had the skills/abilities/money/right circumstances [insert any number of reasons!] to pursue.

Now may be a good time to make a list of these things and identify ones that can still be done - no matter how difficult. For some of these dreams, it’s perfectly ok to let it be just a beautiful dream - what’s most important, though, is that there’s no guilt being carried around in their “trunk of unforgiveness” - in this case, unforgiveness of self.

Letting go

What do I mean by a “trunk of unforgiveness”? Well, it’s a term I heard a friend use once about that heavy baggage we all cart around with us, holding onto past grudges and hurts, refusing to forgive the person who wronged us - and more often than not, refusing to forgive ourselves. Now, more than ever, there is no better time to let go of what’s inside that “trunk of unforgiveness”. Help the person nearing the end of their life to unpack it, lay it all out in front of them, and help them to visualize physically letting go of all these past hurts. This may help them to pass in peace.

The remains of the day

It is helpful to ask the person with terminal cancer certain questions, so that their dying hopes and wishes are fulfilled as closely as possible:

  • What makes life worth living for them?
  • What would make it too difficult to continue?
  • In their last remaining days, what would be comforting to them and make them feel safe?
  • What would they most want to avoid in their final days?

And so, when the time comes to let go of life, their hope for a dignified death can happen, with grace, and with courage.


I would like to dedicate this post to one of the most incredible and funny men I have ever had the honor and privilege of knowing - my “surrogate father” (not really, but that’s what I used to call him), godfather to my daughter, and all-round man of God - Robert. May you be dancing to Morecambe and Wise forevermore, bringing sunshine to the souls around you!


In the free guide that accompanies this month’s articles, I show you three simple steps to help your patients choose to live well with cancer. You can grab your free copy here.

And don’t forget, next week I am delivering some brand new FREE live workshops! You can reserve your seat here. I can’t wait to see you there!

© Essential Cancer Education


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