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Your Health

July 12, 2023

Living Life to the Fullest After a Terminal Diagnosis

By Jennifer G. McKechnie, MSW, RSW, Psychotherapist

Any number of documentaries and articles can be found about individuals living with a terminal diagnosis. Seemingly a serious and dark topic, one might be surprised by the messages from people who are close to death. Something that is quick to stand out is that as much as we sometimes can feel that a terminal illness represents an end, many speak of it as a beginning.

Yes, a beginning.

A beginning of how they wanted to live the remaining days of their lives. A beginning to not taking each day – each moment, for that matter – for granted. Understandably, it may not be the beginning that we are looking for. But, in reality, it is the beginning that many of us may, at some point, encounter. What we do with that beginning remains to be seen.

Exploring the topic of life after a terminal diagnosis, I can’t help but reflect on my own personal experience. When I was a young adult, my father was delivered the crushing news of a stage four cancer diagnosis. I remember my mom bringing me to the parking lot of a local department store, where I falsely believed we were purchasing a karaoke machine (I had a fascination with karaoke at the time).

Instead, she told me that my dad was diagnosed with an illness that they would try to fight, but that may eventually take his life. Over the course of the next four years, I watched as that happened. But I also watched something else happen. For my dad, and for countless others, a terminal illness became the start of something different: valuing the moment.

Admittedly, there were days that were not good either emotionally or physically. However, there were even more days of doing the things he wanted to do: travelling to places he wanted to go and eating the foods he wanted to eat (this included many, many cookies).

So, this brings us to the point of this article. How do we live life to its fullest after a terminal diagnosis? From what I have gathered from my own personal and professional experience, here are some ideas:

  • Take time to connect with the people in your life who are worth having a new beginning with. Remember that friend from high school who had the ability to make you laugh until your stomach hurt? Reach out.
  • On days when you feel up to it, consider trying the things you always wanted to try but were worried about embarrassing yourself (e.g., the local trampoline park, a salsa dancing class, speed dating). We spend so much of our lives worrying about what other people think until we realize, “Hey, what does it actually matter?!”
  • Stop and listen to the birds. Or look at some trees. Or watch the local squirrels fight over a peanut outside of your window. Press pause on day-to-day stressors to remember that the world is a lot bigger than each of us. And taking in those moments of awe that we miss out on far too much in our busy lives can be a breath of fresh air.
  • Make yourself comfortable. As much as possible, think about being in surroundings that help you feel grounded, safe, and that are textured with the smells, sights, and feelings of spaces in which you have felt most at home.
  • If you are physically able to, or if your needs can be accommodated, think about going on the trip you’ve always dreamed of (e.g., a glance from the Empire State Building, setting your watch to Big Ben, or a view from British Columbia’s Highway 99).
  • If travelling feels like too much, think about having family or friends travel to visit you so that you can fill your home with the sounds of their voices and laughter.

When it comes to living life to the fullest, some of us may feel deterred by financial limitations or fears of leaving our loved ones behind with debt. Well, here’s something you may not have been aware of: If you have life insurance, it may be possible to access up to 25% of your death benefit (even while living) in the event of a terminal illness. This is a way to fulfill certain dreams or goals, cross items off your bucket list, or help with costs related to comfort in your final weeks or months.

Whatever it is that you would choose to do after receiving a terminal diagnosis, remember that we all have different reactions to this type of news and perspectives on what to do with it.

I hope that if I ever find myself in this situation, I will follow in my dad’s footsteps – and take the opportunity to find ways to keep doing the things I love – in a new way. For my dad, that meant trading the driver’s seat of his motorcycle for a seat in a sidecar. His smiling face and the newfound ability to eat cookies (no hands needed as a passenger!) while enjoying one of his passions is a memory that brings me joy even after all these years.

Yes, in one way a terminal diagnosis can represent an ending. But, in another way, it is the final call – an opportunity to live your life in a different and meaningful way.


Jennifer G. McKechnie is a trauma therapist working with both children and adults. Jennifer utilizes interventions such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, as well as Polyvagal Theory in her work. She values ongoing learning as a key part of maintaining and growing her practice. When away from the office, Jennifer incorporates self-regulation techniques into her day by connecting with nature through running, as well as spending time with her partner and pets.

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