Making sense of a diagnosis of incurable cancer: The importance of communication

Main Article Content

Elizabeth Anne Lobb
Judith Lacey
Winston S Liauw
Lesley E White
Annmarie Hosie
John H Kearsley


Purpose:  Patients diagnosed with incurable cancer may experience existential distress

and difficulty in re-appraising their lives because of uncertainty about the future.


Objectives: This study sought to understand how patients living with incurable cancer made sense of their diagnosis, how they prepared for the future and what support they wanted from their health professionals.


Subjects:  27 patients were recruited from the oncology and palliative care service at three metropolitan hospitals.


Methods:  A qualitative research approach was used. Semi-structured face-to-face interviews were conducted. Interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim.  Data was analyzed using the constant-comparative method. 


Results:  Participants did not express a need to make sense of their diagnosis nor always ascribe to a particular religious belief; rather, many relied on a personal spirituality or philosophy to bring meaning to their experience. Importance was placed on their doctor keeping up with technology, being honest, and being confident and positive.


Conclusion:  Participants in this study had incurable cancer but making sense of their current situation was not a conscious priority. For these patients, uncertainty was a positive, as certainty for them indicates death is approaching. What these interviews suggest, from the patient’s perspective, is that there is an implied contract between doctor and patient during this period which involves the doctor managing the flow of difficult information so that the patient can maintain normality for as long as possible. Understanding this helps to explain the difficulty of having advance care planning conversations within this setting, despite the many opportunities that a longer disease trajectory would seem to offer.


Article Details

How to Cite
Lobb, E. A., Lacey, J., Liauw, W. S., White, L. E., Hosie, A., & Kearsley, J. H. (2015). Making sense of a diagnosis of incurable cancer: The importance of communication. The International Journal of Whole Person Care, 2(1).
Empirical Studies
Author Biographies

Elizabeth Anne Lobb, Calvary Health Care Kogarah, Cunningham Centre for Palliative Care, School of Medicine, the University of Notre Dame, Sydney


Department of Palliative Care

Judith Lacey, Calvary Health Care Kogarah, Southern Oncology Specialists, St George Private Hospital


Department of Palliative Care

Winston S Liauw, Cancer Care Centre St. George Hospital Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales

Associate Professor

Department of Medical Oncology

Lesley E White, Calvary Health Care Kogarah

RN, CNS, Post Grad Dip Oncology & Palliative Care

Department of Palliative Care


Annmarie Hosie, Calvary Health Care Kogarah, School of Nursing, the University of Notre Dame, Sydney

RN, B.Hlth.Sci, M.PallCare Aged Care

Department of Palliative Care

John H Kearsley, Cancer Care Centre St., George Hospital Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales


Department of Radiation Oncology



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