05 May 2009

Phases of a life-threatening illness

There are four phases in dealing with life-threatening illness.

Understanding how other people cope with a life-threatening illness may help the patient and his or her family prepare to cope with their own illness.
A life-threatening illness may be described as having the following four phases:

  • Phase before the diagnosis.

  • The acute phase.

  • The chronic phase.

  • Recovery or death.

The phase before the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness is the period of time just before the diagnosis when a person realizes that he or she may develop an illness. This phase is not usually a single moment, but extends throughout the period when the person has a physical examination, including various tests, and ends when the person is told of the diagnosis.

The acute phase occurs at the time of the diagnosis when a person is forced to understand the diagnosis and make decisions about his or her medical care.

The chronic phase is the period of time between the diagnosis and the result of treatment. It is the period when a patient tries to cope with the demands of life while also undergoing treatment and coping with the side effects of treatment. In the past, the period between a cancer diagnosis and death usually lasted only a few months, and this time was usually spent in the hospital. Today, people can live for years after being diagnosed with cancer.

In the recovery phase, people cope with the mental, social, physical, religious, and financial effects of cancer.

The final (terminal) phase of a life-threatening illness occurs when death is likely. The focus changes from curing the illness or prolonging life, to providing comfort and relief from pain. Religious concerns are often the focus during this time.

National Cancer Institute


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