Few of us will ever have to contend with the news that we have a terminal, incurable disease. However, some of your patients will undoubtedly face that overwhelming revelation. If they’re facing heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for men and women, or terminal cancer, it will always be a painful realization. Whether it becomes clear through MPI cardiology or an MRI, it is now your responsibility to alert them. After you inform your patient of their terminal diagnosis, you’ll need to provide resources, but above all, guidance and emotional support. Coping with a terminal illness diagnosis can be a lonely road, but there are ways you can empower your patient during this difficult time, knowing there are myriad factors that can dictate how they will react.
Help Them Prioritize
Unfortunately, individuals with incurable diseases have to make incredibly difficult end-of-life decisions while trying to face the reality of their shortened life. The emotional and physical toll this takes is only compounded by the mystification and despair of loved ones who suffer a different kind of pain alongside them. To navigate these feelings, ask your patient to consider these questions after receiving a terminal diagnosis:
- What do I want to do with my time?
- What matters most to me?
- Who should I contact to get my affairs in order?
- What type of care do I need?
From here, take time to help your patient set their priorities and learn more about their condition. You may encounter resistance, as it may seem impossible for them to think about their final arrangements. However, focusing on the inevitable may help your patients come to terms with their diagnosis. After some time has passed, ask your patients to consider what they would like their end-of-life care arrangements to look like; whether that be palliative care, an at-home nursing staff, continued treatment, or something entirely different. You may also want to put them in touch with a grief counselor, as they have extensive education regarding the various ways to comfort and support terminally ill individuals.
Be aware that patients may exhibit a variety of behaviors—shock, anger, and sadness are all common reactions. To handle every situation, equip yourself with the proper tools. One way health professionals can help terminally ill patients is through active listening. Everyone reacts differently, from denial to anger to frustration, and there will likely be moments where the pain is harder to handle than others. Give your patients permission to feel as they overcome grief and journey into acceptance—know the process of getting there is often complicated and messy.
Offer Various Resources
Provide your patients with as many resources as possible—support groups, information about communicating with friends and family, and your personal number so they can reach out as symptoms worsen are great examples. Additionally, support groups can be monumentally important as they offer understanding that comes from shared experience. Maximizing your patient’s community of love and support ensures their loved ones will have people to lean on after their passing. In fact, for many terminally ill individuals, the fate of the people closest to them is a tough element of dealing with their diagnosis. Your patients might experience feelings of awkwardness initially when discussing their diagnosis with their family members. As their doctor, you can give them the courage to speak clearly about their needs.
Coping with a terminal illness diagnosis is a personal ordeal, and there is really no ‘right way’ to do it. By taking the proper steps, you can make it easier for your patient during their final moments.