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The privilege of the ‘orange’ light

Fri 16th Oct 2020

With acceptance comes freedom for many facing a terminal diagnosis.


THE world has a tendency to turn a cancer diagnosis into a battle. We talk about fighting cancer, beating it, battling it. For some people, this fight continues in the face of a terminal diagnosis. They rally against it with everything they have. For those people, the fight is right; that's how they choose to respond to their diagnosis.


For others, there is not a fight, or a battle. Instead, there is acceptance. Not resignation, not surrender, rather the brave and gusty decision to accept their terminal diagnosis.


While it does come with a great weight, with this acceptance also comes a true understanding of their mortality. Their energy is channeled into quality, not quantity. Into living their best life in the time they have left.


Members of the Advanced Breast Cancer Group, a free support network for women with a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, run by psychotherapists Mary O'Brien and Pia Hirsch, have all, to varying degrees, come to a place of acceptance. This place is different for everyone. It doesn't come quickly, or easily. There are stages, setbacks, good days and bad, but there is a desire to acknowledge and accept their diagnosis, and to move forward with their lives in a positive and meaningful way.


"Often, when women first join our group, they are very distressed and have a feeling that they are going to die immediately," Mary says. "As they spend time with the group, and they see other women who are living longer, that sense of immediate panic is replaced with something calmer and accepting."


One woman in the group described the process as "the privilege of the orange light", drawing an analogy with traffic lights. They have been given a chance to know what is coming, and to make immediate changes to make the most of the life they have left.


For some women, this means retiring from work much earlier than they had planned, in order to take a trip or spend time with family. For others, it affords them the time to put things in place that will help and support their loved ones after they have gone. For others still, the changes could be more radical - leaving an unhealthy relationship or rebuilding a relationship that had broken long ago.


Mary and Pia say that accepting a terminal diagnosis does not mean a person is living in fear or depression. Quite the opposite. 


"These women are not bitter, or angry," Mary says. "They are not focused on the cancer, or why this happened to them. Of course, there are good days and bad days, but they have come to a place of understanding and acceptance."


The Advanced Breast Cancer Group is a vital part of these women's lives, for many reasons. Importantly, it is a safe place where they can accept their diagnosis in their own way, at their own pace. It is a place where they can talk openly about it with other women who genuinely understand their situation. Holding space for acceptance, and the myriad emotions that come with it, is a core function of the group.


The group, which has been in operation since 1999, meets weekly (via Zoom at the moment, due to Covid19).


"At a very basic level, our job is to turn up each week and hold the meeting," Pia says. "We don't have set topics, we don't have guest speakers. We let the women determine what is discussed, and offer insights if we have something to contribute."


"We listen, and do our best to contain the emotional experience," Mary says. "Sometimes there is anger, frustration and great sadness, but there is also a great deal of support and laughter and positivity. We get to hear a lot of great news, treatments that are going well, or wonderful holidays, little milestones that mean so much."


Often the acceptance of a terminal diagnosis is harder for those around them. There is an urge in all of us, when faced with someone else's diagnosis, to rally against it, to say things like "you'll beat this" or "keep fighting". Sometimes, this is appropriate, and can be a great source of hope and power. However, it is also important to support those who accept their diagnosis for what it is and who choose to spend the rest of their lives making every day count. It is important to see the great bravery behind that acceptance, and celebrate the 'privilege of the orange light'.


To learn more, or donate to this invaluable group, go to


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