May 18, 2022

The Toll of a Diagnosis: A Candid Conversation on Life, Death, and Terminal Illness

This piece originally appeared on

Katie spoke with three women all touched by cancer about the mental health issues that accompany a terminal diagnosis.

There’s one invisible symptom of a terminal diagnosis that we don’t talk about enough: Mental health struggles. For both patients and caregivers, the concept of speaking about the possibility of death is often uncomfortable and overwhelming. What does it mean to grieve, and why is it so hard for many of us to face the reality of a terminal diagnosis? While there are no right answers to these impossible questions, the first step is to acknowledge that it’s OK not to be OK, and that no matter how you’re feeling, you’re not alone.

While our friends at Exact Sciences are working to detect cancer when it’s more treatable, they also understand that facing a terminal diagnosis is the reality for many families dealing with disease. With their support, Katie spoke to three women about processing grief, and what they wish they’d each known before their lives were turned upside down by cancer.

“I remember saying, my husband has never smoked. He eats right. He’s healthy. He’s a nice person,” Katie recalls of her late husband being diagnosed with colon cancer. Like these women, Katie also had a difficult time speaking with her husband about his illness and the possibility he might die. “I remember when my husband was very sick, he said ‘having cancer is the loneliest experience in the world,’” Katie remembers. “It broke my heart.”

Terminal illness, death, and grief are topics that death doula Alua Arthur wants to help normalize so families don’t feel like they’re facing these inevitable events in the dark. She explains, “Death is one of those words that we’re not allowed to say, particularly when somebody is ill. It’s off the table.” Arthur believes that one of the best ways we can begin to heal is through conversation. “We need to culturally begin to talk more about death and dying, and recognize that death isn’t a failure,” Arthur says, adding, “We allow people to be human, and finite, and messy. We give them space.”