Meet the end-of-life angels who prepare the terminally ill for the day they die

·8-min read
breast cancer maggie's terminal illness
breast cancer maggie's terminal illness

Lisa Punt doesn’t cry at work. She has never cried at work, even though work, for Punt, is counselling people with terminal cancer and the friends and families of people with terminal cancer.

It must be about as difficult and heart-rending as work can be. Most of us would surely feel tearful when helping people face their own death. And not just their death, but all the concomitant details associated with it, big and small. Who will look after the children? What will happen to the house? What will my spouse do without me? And who’ll water the plants?

What is required of Punt, however, is calmness. “I don’t think I’ve ever been tearful within a consultation or within that interaction. And I think the reason for that is that we [the counsellors] bring to that therapeutic relationship an element of empathy, so we can see what they’re feeling, but at the same time we try very much to step outside actually feeling that emotion that they are experiencing.”

It’s a tough job, Punt says, but it is also a meaningful one. “We see the difference we make.”

Sometimes, though, a particular case will hit a counsellor harder than usual. In those cases, Punt tells me, that counsellor can talk about it with their colleagues, unpicking the feeling and carefully managing it. This process ultimately helps them support the patients and families who need their help. “We are there in a professional capacity,” says Punt, “and we are there to deliver formal, psychological, emotional support, which is part of our training.”

cancer care terminal care illness Maggie's
cancer care terminal care illness Maggie's

Punt, 51, is the centre head and a cancer support specialist at Maggie’s Cambridge. Maggie’s Centres are places where people with cancer – and their friends and families – can come for support and advice. The centres are beautifully built, designed to be an antidote to the strip-lit hurly-burly of a typical hospital. Within them, staff offer services such as yoga classes, financial advice and, most importantly, a friendly ear.

Maggie’s Cambridge, which is where Punt takes my call after delivering a counselling session, is in the grounds of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. The centre is temporarily housed in former accommodation for hospital staff, but Punt and her colleagues are working towards building a permanent home. “It’ll hopefully be very soon,” she says.

Diagnoses of terminal illness, says Punt, affect people very differently. “When someone walks through the door, we’re trying to work out, ‘What are their major concerns?’ When they’re faced with a terminal disease, they may very much have huge levels of anxiety, fear and worry. There are things like finances, or, ‘How is my partner going to manage when I’m not here if I’ve always sorted out the car insurance or the health insurance?’”

First, the warm, down-to-earth Punt helps her visitor work through their fears around death and dying, which must be no mean feat. The visitor might then be in a better position to address their more practical concerns.

People worry about mortgages, credit cards and life insurance. They wonder whether to retire on the grounds of ill-health and take their pension, or go off sick to ensure a death-in-service payout for their next of kin. They are concerned about funeral arrangements. They might be disinclined to write a will, feeling it to be an acceptance of defeat, but if they seek guidance on that they are offered it, often being given time with a solicitor, free of charge. “Once these things are done,” says Punt, “you have more cap-acity for life, even in the face of death.”

It is breadwinners who tend to worry the most about money issues, says Punt. They are more likely than not to be male, but it is the fact that they are the main earner, rather than their gender, that seems to be the strongest determinant of concern about a family’s financial stability.

Men are less ready to be emotionally voluble, says Punt, and are more likely to attend a support group if its stated purpose is something other than just talking. That purpose can be something as mundane as gardening or sharing bacon butties, but its effect can be to encourage conversation that is as valuable to men as it is to women.

Maggie's cancer centres and gardens terminal illness
Maggie's cancer centres and gardens terminal illness

Men and women alike wonder about their partner finding someone new, and it’s not uncommon to feel anxious about being replaced. You might call this the “I bet you’ll end up with Barbara” worry. As Punt puts it: “When children are involved, that’s a very emotive situation. Perhaps a mum is dying and there are two young children who are going to be left behind. Who is Dad going to meet and who’s going to be in the shoes of Mum? That can be a real concern.

“But then, on the other hand, there may be someone who actually gives permission to their partner to go out and find somebody and to not be lonely. It’s such an individual thing. I think the beauty of what we’re able to do, and the privilege we have, is that we can sit with somebody, whatever their fears and worries and concerns are about when they have died, and we can work with them.”

Punt tells me about a family she worked with fairly recently (we have changed some details for the sake of their privacy) where a married man with a son and daughter was told he had a year to live. It was his desperate wife who came to Maggie’s first, recalls Punt. “He was totally in denial and just carrying on as normal and she was trying to sort everything out.”

The husband eventually came for counselling, too. Punt and her colleagues then supported the family in starting a range of conversations. There were finances to discuss, plans for the garden and some decorating that the man had wanted to see through. There was their children’s education, at school and at home. “He wanted to show his son how to shave,” Punt says.

Where appropriate, the children were involved in these conversations. They were given time with an art therapist, who helped them articulate their emotions in a gentle setting. They were given the option of sitting with their father till the end, and they took it.

The man died at home, says Punt, surrounded by his family. “I think the last few hours were not desperately comfortable. But I think it was as good as it could be.”

What will happen to my family after I am gone?

Mandie Malcolm, 32

I had just turned 26 when I discovered a lump on my breast. Because a lump can be any of several things, I wasn’t too worried. What a shock I got when the doctor said it was cancer. Worse, it was secondary cancer: it had spread aggressively. I was told soon after the diagnosis that I probably had a couple of years to live.

It was petrifying. My mum was with me when I got the news, but the worst thing was breaking the news to friends and family. We’re very close, and they’re all supportive, but I knew it must be hard for them as well. I was always thinking about dying and leaving them behind. At the same time, there was so much I still wanted to do, like travelling the world.

Mum started using Maggie’s Edinburgh before I did. When I went myself, I was nervous on the way over, but from the moment I walked in they were all so friendly. Thanks to Maggie’s I’ve had loads of one-to-one counselling sessions and group sessions with other people going through the same as me. I go to yoga classes at the centre, and I’ve had loads of help with my finances. There are horrible, complicated forms to fill out in order to get benefits, but the adviser from Maggie’s helped me with the paperwork and took all the pressure off. My family gets a lot of support, too.

The diagnosis was six years ago and I’m still here. I have managed to get through everything I wanted to do, and now I’m just adding things to the list. After chemotherapy, I had hormone treatment, and because it was easier on my body I was able to do things like visiting Australia. I’ve run a marathon and I’ve been writing a column for my local paper, The Falkirk Herald. After my diagnosis, I thought that I’d never get to plan my own wedding, just my funeral, but I got married last year – it was a really special day.

A lot of people say, “I know what you’re going through”, but they don’t really. Through Maggie’s I’ve made a friend, Leslie, who’s in the exact same position as me, and it’s nice to be able to speak to somebody like her. One of the worst things is that you feel out of control of what’s happening to your body, and that time’s ticking away.

My outlook on life has changed hugely. Because I’ve spent so many days in bed and not feeling great, I really appreciate feeling good. I appreciate every day I’m given and I want to be surrounded by nice people, enjoying life rather than putting things off. Just going for a long walk with my dog is something that means a lot to me.

I’ve had a lot of different treatments and am probably starting to run out of them. Things have been better than the doctors thought, but I’m still realistic. Every extra birthday is special.

It's easy to make a donation. Just call 0151 284 1927 or visit telegraph.co.uk/2021appeal

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting