When someone you love has terminal cancer…

Pretty flowersA few months ago, I read a lovely email a friend shared with me from her family doctor.  My friend’s husband had just been diagnosed with a terminal cancer and the doctor wrote, “We are all on the same path towards life’s end.  Your husband is a bit ahead of us and we lament this and the loss you are experiencing now and as time goes by.”

She and I spoke on the phone and I admired her courageous spirit.  I shared with her advice a friend had given to me when my mom was told that her cancer was terminal.  The advice felt a bit like having cold water thrown in my face, but it helped me fight my tendency to grieve early and often.


This is a bold statement and one that I did not adhere to as well as I would have liked, but the idea behind the statement would jolt me out of the grips of grief into a beautiful moment with my mother that was happening right in front of me.

Fortunately, I captured some of those moments in emails that I wrote to a few of my closest friends, and I was able to share them in my memoir, The Tiffany Box.  Deciding that you want to take notes on poignant or sweet moments may help you notice and experience more of them when you are with a loved one who is living with terminal cancer.  It’s a bit of a contradiction, I know, but I work hard to focus on the “living with part” and not the “terminal part,” even though both aspects are always in the room.

Here are some of my thoughts on dealing with really tough situations when someone you love has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer:

1)   Fight with every ounce that you have to be present to your loved one.  See them.  Let them see you.  Sometimes just making eye contact is enough.  Usually eye contact accompanied by a slight smile or a tear is more than enough.  Don’t underestimate the power of touch.  Holding someone’s hand can say more than words, “I’m here. I’m with you. I love you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together.”

2)   Look for beauty.  Grace moments happen, but you have to look for them—it’s like watching for a shooting star—you need to be looking to see one.  A moment of grace can be as simple as light coming through a window illuminating a flower, a cup, or a person’s face.  Beauty gives us a moment to reset, to rest, to fill up when the journey is long and hard.  Sometimes it’s a sound like laughter or a bird chirping.  Sometimes it is the taste of a ripe in-season piece of fruit.  Sometimes it is the beauty of seeing the love between two people (include yourself in the picture).  Love is beautiful.  Let it fill you up.  Soak in grace moments and make time for beauty.

3)   Small acts of kindness matter.  I remember the nurses who cared for my mom.  There were some who just knew how to do tiny little things that made my mom so much more comfortable.  Maybe they put gloss on her lips or ice chips in her mouth.  Or maybe they raised her bed or got her an extra pillow.  But noticing acts of kindness and being kind helped smooth the way on tough days.

4)   Practice mindfulness.  It helps to remember to breathe.  I tend to hold my breath when I’m stressed which makes everything instantly worse.  Sometimes just trying to get breath into my belly seems like a big accomplishment.  If I can, I let my belly get full with breath and then exhale big too.  Again and again, five sets if I can.  And I also try to remember to watch my thoughts.  What I mean by this is paying attention to what I call train cars.  I love stories, telling stories and listening to stories, but this also means that with n seconds I can have one negative thought of what might happen in the future that is horrible and within seconds I can attach on an entire line of train cars with a full story that is chugging along into a future disaster.  As soon as I realize that I’ve added on train cars to a piece of news, I stop.  And look at just the facts.  “Just the facts, Ma’am” is what I tell myself.

5)   Pay more attention to the person with the terminal cancer than to medical tests and results.  I know from personal experience, that families can often fixate on sharing medical information about what test, surgery, results just happened or are coming next.  The messages fly around through emails, voicemails and phone calls.  Waiting is horrible.  Not knowing results is horrible.  Sometimes knowing results can be horrible. Not talking to the person who is ill is more horrible.

As a dear friend or family member, you have the rare opportunity or wake up call to drink in that person– like a special, one time only flavor at an ice cream store.  Enjoy the person who is living with the terminal illness.  Whatever enjoy means, do it.  Enjoy their touch, their lack of touch, their smile, their grumpiness, their idiosyncrasies.  You have them right in front of you.  Savor them. When you know someone you love has terminal cancer you are on notice.  Fight hard to take advantage of each moment spent together.

The interesting part about adopting this code of behavior is that it tends to improve all relationships.  In reality, like my friend’s family doctor said, “We are all on the same path towards life’s end…”  and kindness, love, noticing beauty, savoring those we love and being present are wonderful ways to be on the journey.

I want to tell you that I didn’t follow these guidelines perfectly.  I gave myself goals and I fell short and was kind to myself as often as I could be.  Exhaustion and sadness sometimes won, but in the end, I was aware that fighting the good fight to love and be present was enough.

xo Kathleen




Quotes about Life Gifts from those who are living with a serious illness
Quotes about Life
Gifts from those who are living with a serious illness

The author

About Kathleen Buckstaff: Kathleen Buckstaff is an award-winning author, columnist, performance artist, cartoonist and photographer. She currently writes for The Huffington Post and wrote regularly for the Los Angeles Times and The Arizona Republic. Kathleen performed her one-woman play to sold-out theatres in CA, AZ and NYC and expanded the play into a book called The Tiffany Box, a memoir which was honored in 2013 as a USA BEST BOOK AWARDS finalist. Kathleen’s book Mother Advice To Take With You To College: Humor, Inspiration and Wisdom To Go was released in March of 2014. Kathleen’s abstract photographs of lilies were exhibited for the first time in April of 2014. Kathleen has a BA in Creative Writing from Stanford and a MA in Journalism from Stanford. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, their three children and their dog Lily.