What Is A Terminal Illness And How Does It Progress?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Terminal illnesses can be difficult to discuss. After all—the thought of facing a life-limiting condition can be overwhelming and may evoke many emotions in many different people. However, understanding the many different “faces” that terminal illness can have and learning how to cope with it can provide a sense of empowerment and hope to many.

In this article, we will explore the possible power of perspective in coping with a terminal illness,  offering practical advice for those experiencing it themselves (or supporting a loved one).

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What is a terminal illness?

A terminal illness, as defined within the medical community, is a condition that generally remains incurable and can result in a person’s death. The progression of such illnesses can vary, possibly manifesting at a rate of either rapid or gradual deterioration.

Regardless of the pace, the ultimate prognosis usually involves a limited life expectancy in many. This discussion aims to comprehensively understand terminal illnesses, emphasizing their etiology, presentation, management and psychological implications.

Etiology and presentation of terminal illnesses

Terminal illnesses can encompass many different conditions, each of which can have unique etiological factors and clinical manifestations. Some of the most common examples include:

  1. Advanced-stage cancer: This condition can be defined as a group of diseases that may be characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. Cancer may then metastasize to distant organs in advanced stages, possibly rendering it incurable and life-threatening. Examples of this can include stage IV lung, breast and colorectal cancer.

  2. Late-stage heart failure: Heart failure can be a chronic, progressive condition where the heart's ability to pump blood can become impaired. In its late stages, the heart may be no longer meet the body's demands, possibly leading to multi-organ failure or an elevated risk of death.

  3. Neurodegenerative diseases: These conditions can indicate the progressive loss of neurons, possibly leading to cognitive and motor impairments. Alzheimer's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are well-known examples to many. In their advanced stages, these diseases may severely compromise an individual's functional abilities and life expectancy.

Management and palliative care for terminal illness: A guide 

The primary goal of managing terminal illnesses for many is generally to provide symptomatic relief and maintain the individual's highest possible quality of life. Palliative care, a specialized medical approach, can do this by addressing patients' physical, emotional and spiritual needs with life-limiting illnesses.

Critical components of palliative care generally include pain and symptom management, communication, decision-making support and care coordination among healthcare providers. In some instances, hospice care may also be recommended for patients with a life expectancy of six months or less, possibly providing comprehensive end-of-life support for the patient and their family.

Exploring the emotional impact of terminal illness

Being confronted with a terminal diagnosis can lead to a wide range of emotions that can significantly impact an individual's mental well-being. It can be helpful to recognize and address these emotional reactions to support those who may be experiencing the effects of such a condition.

We’ve summarized a few possible emotional experiences below: 


Grief, loss, relief and overwhelm

Experiencing grief can be a natural response to the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Individuals may mourn the loss of their envisioned future, unfulfilled dreams, and the potential impact on their loved ones. Common grief-associated emotions can include anger, guilt, sadness, and relief. Understanding and validating these emotions can be crucial in helping patients come to terms with their diagnosis. An online therapist can be especially helpful in doing so, as they can provide unbiased third-party support and encouragement.

Coping strategies

Developing effective coping strategies can be helpful for many who may be facing a terminal illness. Some suggestions for coping with emotional upheaval can include:

  1. Open communication: Some may find value in promoting honest and open conversations about the diagnosis, emotions and expectations with family, friends and healthcare providers.

  2. Emotional support: This can look different for everyone. However, many may try to seek counseling services, support groups or spiritual care to help process emotions and connect with others who may be experiencing similar challenges.

  3. Self-care: It can be important to prioritize physical and emotional well-being by engaging in activities that promote relaxation, self-reflection and one’s overall health.

  4. Education and planning: Ongoing education can help many to understand the illness, treatment options and prognosis to make informed decisions about care and end-of-life preferences.

  5. Focus on quality of life: Many can find value in emphasizing the importance of creating meaningful moments and experiences, cherishing time with loved ones and engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment.

Caring for someone living with terminal illness

Offering a listening ear and empathetic support to a loved one living with a terminal illness (or their family members) can positively affect the emotional well-being of all involved. 

Assisting with everyday tasks, such as cooking, cleaning and running errands, can ease the burden on a person living with a person experiencing terminal illness. This practical support can allow them to focus on their emotional and physical needs.

Caregivers can also benefit from prioritizing their emotional well-being and seeking support when needed to continue providing the best care for their loved ones.

Coping strategies for those experiencing the effects of terminal illness

There are several different coping strategies that can benefit those who may be experiencing the effects of terminal illness: 

Finding meaning and purpose in the moment

Discovering meaning and purpose amidst the possible challenges posed by terminal illness can be an integral aspect of coping. This process can involve nurturing relationships, exploring creative outlets or engaging in spiritual practices. 

Through these steps, individuals may find that they can maintain a sense of purpose despite their diagnosis by focusing on what brings a sense of fulfillment and joy.

Practicing gratitude

Incorporating gratitude practices into daily life can help those living with terminal illnesses to maintain a positive outlook and appreciate the present moment, even in the face of adversity. Some strategies for cultivating gratitude and mindfulness can include:

  1. Gratitude journaling: Regularly writing down things for which one is grateful can help foster a positive mindset and promote feelings of thankfulness.

  2. Mindful meditation: Engaging in mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing or body scans, can help individuals cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of their thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.

  3. Savoring the moment: Making a conscious effort to appreciate and fully experience positive moments can help to counterbalance the challenges associated with a terminal illness.

  4. Expressing gratitude: Expressing appreciation can help reinforce positive connections and deepen relationships.

Seeking professional help

Seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor can help individuals navigate the complex emotions accompanying terminal illness. Therapists can provide guidance and support in developing coping strategies tailored to the individual's needs.

What are the benefits of online therapy for terminal illness?

Online therapy can be an important way of supporting individuals who live with terminal illnesses and their families as they navigate the complex emotional landscape that can be associated with their diagnosis. By engaging in virtual therapeutic interventions, patients can avail themselves of various benefits that help them adapt to their new reality.

One of the critical advantages of online therapy is the emotional support it provides, creating a safe and non-judgmental space for individuals to express and process their emotions. This support can be invaluable in helping patients understand and cope with emotions such as grief, anger or nervousness. These emotions can all be worked through from the comfort of the patient’s home as well, which can make adherence and adoption to the treatment plan far easier for many.

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Effectiveness of online therapy for terminal illness—does it work

Research has consistently demonstrated that therapy can profoundly impact the well-being and quality of life of individuals living with terminal illnesses. Various therapeutic approaches have been found effective in addressing the emotional, psychological, and social challenges patients and their families face—including online therapy, specifically.

Key findings from this body of research include improved psychological well-being, with online therapy being scientifically suggested to significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety disorders, depression and psychological distress that can affect individuals who are living with terminal illnesses. By addressing these mental health concerns, patients can experience improved emotional well-being and overall quality of life.

Online therapy has also been scientifically suggested to be just as effective as other forms of intervention, a hypothesis that has been reinforced over 60+ quantitative reviews and studies. 


The power of perspective can play a crucial role in how many are able to cope with terminal illness. By accepting the reality of the situation, finding meaning in it and practicing gratitude and mindfulness as they go, individuals can maintain a positive outlook despite the challenges they face.

Emotional support, professional help (such as online therapy) and practical assistance can be essential components of coping with terminal illness for both patients and caregivers. By understanding and addressing the unique needs that those affected by terminal illness may have, we can help to improve their quality of life and support them on their journey.

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