Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

An interpretative phenomenological analysis exploring the lived experience of individuals dying from terminal cancer in Ireland

  • Kara McTiernan (a1) and Michael O'Connell (a1)

The experience of living with dying has attracted limited research. We utilized interpretive phenomenological analysis to explore the lived experience of individuals with terminal cancer receiving palliative care in Ireland.


Participants were purposely selected from public interviews that had been conducted between 2006 and 2011. The study included the accounts of eight participants (N = 8; six females and two males) with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Participant ages ranged from 36 to 68 years.


Three master themes emerged from the analysis: the personal impact of diagnosis, the struggle in adjusting to change, and dying in context. The results revealed that participants were still living while simultaneously dying. Interestingly, participants did not ascribe new meaning to their lives. The terminal illness was understood within the framework of the life that had existed before diagnosis. They strove to maintain their normal routines and continued to undertake meaningful activities. Management of unfinished business and creation of a legacy were salient tasks. Social withdrawal was not present; rather, participants engaged in emotional labor to sustain valued roles. However, we found that within the public domain there is a paucity of education and discourse supporting individuals at the end of life. The hospice was noted as an important external resource. Each participant experienced a unique dying process that reflected their context.

Significance of Results:

Healthcare professionals need to recognize the subjectivity of the dying process. Dying individuals require support and options to maintain their personhood.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Kara McTiernan, School of Psychology, Newman Building, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland. E-mail:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

A. Armstrong-Coster (2004). Living and dying with cancer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

J. Arndt , J. Greenberg & A. Cook (2002). Mortality salience and the spreading activation of worldview-relevant constructs: Exploring the cognitive architecture of terror management. Journal of Experimental Psychology–General, 131(3), 307323.

S. Atkinson & S. Rubinelli (2012). Narrative in cancer research and policy: Voice, knowledge and context. Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology, 84, 1116.

L. Balducci (2012). Death and dying: What the patient wants. Annals of Oncology, 23(3), 5661.

A. Bandura (1989). Regulation of cognitive process through perceived self-efficacy. Developmental Psychology, 25(5), 729735.

K. Bell & S. Ristovski-Slijepcevic (2011). Metastatic cancer and mothering: Being a mother in the face of a contracted future. Medical Anthropology, 30(6), 629649.

E. Benzein , A. Norberg & B.I. Saveman (2001). The meaning of the lived experience of hope in patients with cancer in palliative home care. Palliative Medicine, 15(2), 117126.

A.F. Bingley , E. McDermott , C. Thomas , (2006). Making sense of dying: A review of narratives written since 1950 by people facing death from cancer and other diseases. Palliative Medicine, 20(3), 183195.

V. Braun & V. Clarke (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77101.

W. Breitbart (2002). Spirituality and meaning in supportive care: Spirituality- and meaning-centered group psychotherapy interventions in advanced cancer. Supportive Care in Cancer, 10(4), 272280.

W. Breitbart (2006). The goals of palliative care: Beyond symptom control. Palliative & Supportive Care, 4(1), 12.

I. Byock (2002). The meaning and value of death. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 5(2), 279288.

A. Broom & P. Tovey (2007). The dialectical tension between individuation and depersonalization in caner patients' mediation of complementary, alternative and biomedical cancer treatments. Sociology, 41(6), 10211039.

M. Bury (1982). Chronic illness as biographical disruption. Sociology of Health & Illness, 4(2), 167182.

J.T.W. Camus (2009). Metaphors of cancer in scientific popularization articles in the British press. Discourse Studies, 11(4), 465495.

A. Carlick & F.C. Biley (2004). Thoughts on the therapeutic use of narrative in the promotion of coping in cancer care. European Journal of Cancer Care, 13(4), 308317.

E.J. Cassell (2004). The nature of suffering: And the goals of medicine. New York: Oxford University Press.

T.H. Chan , R.T. Ho & C.L. Chan (2007). Developing an outcome measurement for meaning-making intervention with Chinese cancer patients. Psycho-Oncology, 16(9), 843850.

K. Charmaz (1994). Identity dilemmas of chronically ill men. The Sociological Quarterly, 35(2), 269288.

H.M. Chochinov & B.J. Cann (2005). Interventions to enhance the spiritual aspects of dying. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 8(1), 103115.

P. Clarke & S.E. Black (2005). Quality of life following stroke: Negotiating disability, identity and resources. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 24(4), 319336.

J.M. Clayton , K. Hancock , S. Parker , (2008). Sustaining hope when communicating with terminally ill patients and their families: A systematic review. Psycho-Oncology, 17(7), 641659.

G. Copp (1998). A review of current theories of death and dying. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 28(2), 382390.

N. Coyle (2004). The existential slap a crisis of disclosure. International Journal of Palliative Nursing, 10(11), 520–520.

N. Coyle (2006). The hard work of living in the face of death. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 32(3), 266274.

C. Exley (1999). Testaments and memories negotiating after-death identities. Mortality, 4(3), 249267.

B.L. Fife & E.R. Wright (2000). The dimensionality of stigma: A comparison of its impact on the self of persons with HIV/AIDS and cancer. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41(1), 5067.

K. Fujita , Y. Trope & N. Liberman (2010). Seeing the big picture: A construal level analysis of self-control. In Self-control in society, mind, and brain, R.R. Hassin (eds.), pp. 408427. New York: Oxford University Press.

M.M. Grumann & D. Spiegel (2003). Living in the face of death: Interviews with 12 terminally ill women on home hospice care. Palliative & Supportive Care, 1(1), 2332.

G. Howarth (1998). Just live for today: Living, caring, ageing and dying. Ageing and Society, 18(6), 673689.

G. Hubbard & L. Forbat (2012). Cancer as biographical disruption: Constructions of living with cancer. Supportive Care in Cancer, 20(9), 20332040.

K.O. Kaplan (2005). Footprints on the sands of time. Death Studies, 29(8), 759767.

R. Kastenbaum (1996). A world without death? First and second thoughts. Mortality, 1(1), 111121.

M.W. Kreuter , M.C. Green , J.N. Cappella , (2007). Narrative communication in cancer prevention and control: A framework to guide research and application. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33(3), 221235.

A. Krikorian , J.T. Limonero & J. Maté (2012). Suffering and distress at the end of life. Psycho-Oncology, 21(8), 799808.

R. Marrone (1999). Dying, mourning, and spirituality: A psychological perspective. Death Studies, 23(6), 495519.

J. McCarthy , J. Weafer & M. Loughrey (2010 b). Irish views on death and dying: A national survey. Journal of Medical Ethics, 36(8), 454458.

M. McCreaddie , S. Payne & K. Froggatt (2010). Ensnared by positivity: A constructivist perspective on being positive in cancer care. European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 14(4), 283290.

P. McGrath (2003). Religiosity and the challenge of terminal illness. Death Studies, 27(10), 881899.

R. McKechnie , R. MacLeod & S. Keeling (2007). Facing uncertainty: The lived experience of palliative care. Palliative & Supportive Care, 5(3), 255264.

C.B. McSherry (2011). The inner life at the end of life. Journal of Hospice & Palliative Nursing, 13(2), 112120.

M. Mikulincer , V. Florian & G. Hirschberger (2003). The existential function of close relationships: Introducing death into the science of love. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7(1), 2040.

R.A. Neimeyer , J.M. Currier , R. Coleman , (2011). Confronting suffering and death at the end of life, the impact of religiosity, psychosocial factors, and life regret among hospice patients. Death Studies, 35(9), 777800.

R. Nissim , D. Rennie , S. Felming , (2012). Goals set in the land of the living/dying: A longitudinal study of patients living with advanced cancer. Death Studies, 36(4), 360390.

C. Willig (2009). Unlike a rock, a tree, a horse or an angel: Reflection on the struggle for meaning through writing during the process of cancer diagnosis. Journal of Health Psychology, 14(2), 181189.

C. Willig (2011). Cancer diagnosis as discursive capture: Phenomenological repercussions of being positioned within dominant constructions of cancer. Social Science & Medicine, 73(6), 897903.

H. Willmott (2000). Death, so what? Sociology, sequestration and emancipation. Sociological Review, 48(4), 649665.

S. Wilson (2007). When you have children, you're obliged to live: Motherhood, chronic illness and biographical disruption. Sociology of Health & Illness, 29(4), 610626.

P.T. Wong & A. Tomer (2011). Beyond terror and denial: The positive psychology of death acceptance, Death Studies, 35(2), 99106.

K. Wright (2003). Relationships with death: The terminally ill talk about dying. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29(4), 439453.

J. Wrubel , M. Acree , S. Goodman , (2009). End of living: Maintaining a lifeworld during terminal illness. Psychology & Health, 24(10), 12291243.

M.J. Yedidia & B. MacGregor (2001). Confronting the prospect of dying: Reports of terminally ill patients. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 22(4), 807819.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Palliative & Supportive Care
  • ISSN: 1478-9515
  • EISSN: 1478-9523
  • URL: /core/journals/palliative-and-supportive-care
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 12
Total number of PDF views: 72 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 380 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.