Ruth’s husband Andrew was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2011, three years after he had retired. Andrew’s cancer progressed quickly and he died in their home in Yorkshire in 2012. Before Andrew died, Ruth spoke to the doctors about how long he had left to live.

Photo of Ruth and Andrew

Ruth's experience

When Andrew was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, we knew from the outset that it couldn’t be cured. But we were told that there were treatments that would give him extra time. My first thought was, “How long does he have?”

When Andrew was diagnosed, my first thought was, “How long does he have?”

The doctor told us that he couldn’t tell us exactly how long Andrew had and it would be very difficult to estimate.

He said that the average for people with a similar diagnosis to Andrew was four years. But Andrew’s cancer had spread around his body and they didn’t know how well he’d respond to treatment. So I thought that maybe we had two to four years depending on how treatment went. We concentrated on the here and now rather than the future.

Talking about dying

When we talked about the future Andrew said, “As the cancer progresses.” He didn’t say, “When I die.” So we talked about “As the cancer progresses.” It enabled us to plan ahead – we sorted out finances, Wills, computer passwords, and bills. These were the practical things we needed to sort out.

Talking about the future enabled us to plan ahead.

Emotionally, it was difficult to talk about. Andrew and I both knew that there wasn’t a cure and that he was going to die from prostate cancer.

Talking to Andrew's doctor

For fifteen months, Andrew responded really well to treatment and was feeling reasonably good. But then he developed a very bad spinal cord compression. He was unable to walk and at that point it was clear that things were very serious. He spent nearly a month in hospital and his consultant told us that the cancer was back with a vengeance and that they wanted to fast track him home.

Andrew didn’t want to know how long he might have. I know that he knew what the score was but that he just didn’t want to speak about it.

Andrew didn’t want to know how long he might have.

I asked Andrew’s doctor how long he might live for. She told me that she could give me some indication of how long Andrew might live for if I wanted to know. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know if Andrew didn’t – it might have created a barrier between us.

I wanted to know what I should expect. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know how long Andrew would live for if he didn't know.

But I wanted to know what I should expect. I needed to plan what was going to happen when he came home, the arrangements that would need to be made and whether I needed to speak to other members of our family and friends. At this point I think I felt quite out of control, so speaking to the consultant was my way of regaining some of that control and it helped me to plan for his homecoming.

It’s difficult to accept that cancer takes its own route at its own pace. This is what makes it hard for the medical profession to give clear responses to questions about length of life. But I found them to be very sympathetic and willing to answer questions where they could.

It’s difficult to accept that cancer takes its own route at its own pace.

My tips for men, family and friends

  • Ask how long someone has left to live if you want to know. The doctor may not always be able to give you an answer. And if they can give you an answer, it won’t be exact. And it might not be the answer you want. But if you’re ok with that, then you should ask.
  • Try to explain why you want to know to the doctor or nurse. It might be that you want to be able to plan care at home, plan a trip, get time off work, or organise some quality time with your family. They might be able to help you work out those things, even if they can’t give you exact timings.

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