What happens if your cancer treatment stops working

Before you read this: Thinking about death and dying can be really difficult – lots of people prefer not to focus on it, and that’s fine. If you’re not sure it’ll help you to read about these topics, it might be a good idea to go to a different page instead. You can come back to this page at any time you like. 

Sometimes cancer treatment doesn’t work. We wish that wasn’t the case, but sometimes doctors do have to tell people that their cancer can’t be cured. 

Finding out your treatment won’t work can be a shock. There’s no right or wrong way to react. Here we’ll go through some of the emotions that you might feel, decisions you might want to make and the care you might have.  

Dealing with your emotions

There’s no easy way to talk or read about finding out that your treatment won’t work. It’s a horrible and extremely painful situation. Everyone reacts differently – and there’s no right or wrong way to react. People often experience a whole range of different emotions. Some emotions may come and go quickly. Others can last longer. 


Continuing to believe that your cancer can be cured and that everything will be OK isn’t unusual. It can provide a lot of comfort, and means you don’t have to think about what the news really means. But as time goes on, it may be harder to convince yourself that everything is fine. And denial can also stop you from doing and saying the things you most want to. 

Sometimes people might think you’re in denial when actually you just want to focus on other things. You may want to spend time researching a holiday you know you might not be able to take, for instance. That’s fine and it can help to explain to other people why you want to do this. 


Most people feel angry at some point. You might get angry at your doctors or nurses, or at your friends and family, or at yourself. You might feel like the whole world is against you. It’s totally understandable. This is an incredibly unfair situation, and you might not be able to get over your anger completely. But finding a way to manage it will help you focus on other things.  


You might feel really upset. That’s totally natural. You might feel too low to share your feelings with others – don’t let anyone pressure you into talking if you don’t want to. Sometimes it can help to write difficult thoughts down.  


It can be difficult and strange to look around and see people doing everyday things. You might sometimes feel like those things are pointless now, and that you don’t feel like doing anything anymore. This is a common feeling – and often changes with time. Talking about how you’re feeling often helps. 


You might feel completely powerless, like your situation is totally out of your control and impossible to change. It’s OK if you feel like this. Not being able to do certain things can be really frustrating. But you can still get involved in decisions about how and where you are treated, as well as choosing how you want to spend your time – which can help you feel less annoyed. Some people find it makes a big difference to stay in control of the things they can influence. 


It’s only natural to have questions about death and dying. You can ask your doctors, nurses, Youth Support Coordinator, youth worker, social worker, psychologist, counsellor, religious leader or hospital chaplain questions. They might not always be able to give you a specific answer, but it can still be helpful to have some information and to talk through the issues that are on your mind.  


You might feel that no one really understands what you’re going through. Everyone’s experience of cancer is different and each situation is unique, but a lot of people find it helps to talk to other people who have been told their treatment isn’t working.  


You might be worried that you’re causing your family and friends a lot of pain, and you might be scared about how they will cope after you’re gone. Talking about these sorts of things is difficult for everyone, but if you feel able to, it can help to share your feelings. You’ll probably find the last thing people close to you want is for you to feel bad about them. 

It’s only natural to have lots of questions and there’s no such thing as a stupid question. So ask everything that’s on your mind. 

Sharing your feelings

We always want to encourage you to be honest about what you’re going through, but we also know that talking about dying is about as difficult as it gets. You might find sharing your thoughts and emotions with other people is just too difficult – it’s important you do whatever feels right for you. 

A lot of us struggle to talk about death, and in some cultures it’s considered disrespectful or dangerous to the person who is ill to mention dying. If this is the case for you, try to let your care team know, or ask a friend or family member to let them know for you. 

This is a very personal, emotional time, so don’t feel forced into doing anything you don’t want to. But if you do want to talk, talk to people you know won’t make things harder for you. You might find you just end up crying on each other’s shoulders, but even that can make both of you feel better. It’s a very natural reaction. 

If you want to talk but don’t feel ready to speak to your family or friends, your care team might be able to help. Or, if you’re religious, you might want to speak to someone in your community who you trust. There are also professional organisations that can offer support at this time – you can ask your care team to share the details for organisations in your area, or nationally, who can help.  

An important note on treatment

Your medical team will have looked at every treatment option available to you. However, we know that sometimes people might look online for other possible treatment options. Your family and friends might do the same. This is understandable but it’s important to remember that these options are often in a different country, will be expensive and may not help you. If you do find something, please speak to your care team directly for advice. 

Making decisions

As time passes, you might find your feelings become less intense and more bearable. It might sound strange, but some people do say they’re gradually able to adjust to finding out that treatment isn’t likely to work. If that’s the case for you, you might find yourself thinking about things you want to do, say or get sorted. 

There might be new things you’ve always wanted to do. Or you might want to spend time with the people you love, doing what you already love. Whatever you choose is up to you. 

You might want to talk to your doctors and nurses about advance care planning, or they may offer this to you. They’ll be able to help you decide how you would like to be cared for if you become too ill to make choices. You might not want to think about things like that, or you might like to talk through where the best place would be for you to stay, how you want to be treated and so on. Your family and friends can be involved in these conversations too. 

You might also want to talk to your friends and family about anything you’d like to happen at your funeral, about what you’d like to happen to your things – or just what you would want them to do on your birthday. You might want to let them know some of your best memories. Or you might not want to think about any of this. But whatever you choose to focus on, don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. This is an incredibly tough situation, and getting the right information is really important as you think through what you want to do now and start making any decisions for the future. 

There is no right or wrong way to handle this news, and it’s important you are able to act how you want to. Whatever you are feeling and thinking is natural and understandable. 

Where to find more information about incurable cancer

You can talk to your Teenage Cancer Trust Nurse or Youth Support Coordinator if you’re on one of our units or are being supported by us. They should be able to talk with you and your family about what’s on your mind. They can support with any tough decisions you might have to make, and help you preserve your memories for your friends and family. 

If you’re not being treated on one of our units, you can speak to your clinical nurse specialist or someone on your clinical team. 

Marie Curie also have lots of resources about living with terminal illnesses and a support line run by nurses and trained staff. 

More help and info on talking about dying