My mother is terminally ill - should I quit my PhD?


We found out last summer that Mum has terminal cancer in her bones and found out three weeks ago that it has gone to her liver. She has a prognosis of 1-2 years currently. Obviously this is a major upset and extremely distracting. The PhD was already a major challenge to put it mildly and I am really struggling to do any work at all. Currently I am suspended (18 months in), but due to submit a report to upgrade from MPhil to PhD in mid May. My latest meeting with my supervisor was incredibly positive which I should be happy about, but instead feel under more pressure from myself. She said what I had written was 'really useful' and the beginnings of a publishable article. It would be great to hear from you if you've been through something similar. I am willing to try virtually anything to get me through these difficult times - I've tried hypnotherapy, counselling, time off, coaching, acupuncture etc. Should I just do an MPhil, thinking about doing a PhD when all this personal stuff is done and dusted? I was lucky enough to get funding so ideally want to carry on, but at the moment feel decidedly unsure about this. My confidence is through the floor, I just feel like I can't do it, even though I've had good praise.

Avatar for Eska

Hello 007, sorry to hear you sad news about your mum.

I can only relate my own experience of losing a sister at the very start of my PhD process, she died a week before my official start date. I could not concentrate on the work for at least six months afterwards, although I did plod along doing things. I chose to keep going because I wanted life to go on. I didn't want any more loss at that time. Looking back, it was great for me to have that sense of purpose to carry me forward, but it was not a productive first year at all - a fact not helped by my first supervisor who wasn't right in a few ways.

I was lucky not to have started until after those precious last months with my sister. I'm not sure how you will manage that. For me, being with her came before everything else and there was not enough head space just for dealing with that alone, never mind a PhD.

Only you know how you feel and of you can do it. But I hope my story helps in some way.

Best Esk xx


Dear Esk
Thanks very much for sharing your story. It helps to know that others have trodden the road before me. I'm not sure how it will turn out in the end, but I suppose none of us do. I think it's trying not to regret too much and tackle those negative emotions before they get out of hand. I have a lot of support from friends and family as well as the professionals so think I will be alright. I think it was John Lennon who said 'Things will be alright in the end, and if they're not alright then it's not the end.' Best wishes.


I've no experience myself but I wanted to suggest something. Would it be possible to change to part-time status so that you could maximise your time with your mother, but still feel that you were doing something? A friend of mine lost her husband to cancer during her PhD and the AHRC allowed her to do that. It was a financial struggle but for her that was the best solution.

Avatar for Eska

Yes, I am part-time. I could not not have got away with an unproductive year otherwise.


Hi, dont have much advice as such to add simply to say I can truly relate, my 34 year old much loved sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year and it put simply in many ways beyond difficult. I am trying to carry on with PhD, but going at a snails pace... but hope to finish at some point. I dont think there is a right answer but you just have to do what you can manage and try and take care of yourself in the process. All good wishes.


hi anon007, Eska, bewildered
I lost my mother towards the end of my phd. The whole family suffered a big blow because she died suddenly (she was in good health). I didn't do any phd work for 6 months. I was advised to suspend my phd but I didn't. I suppose everybody has different ways of coping with grief. For me, I went ahead and continued (full-time) to finish the phd. My mother would have wanted me to do so. Strange as it sounds, doing the phd was therapeutic for me because it gave me something else to focus on, instead of being swallowed up by my grief.

When I miss my mother, I always write a letter to her. This works for me. I can then express myself without involving other people. I know how tiring it is for people to listen to how sad their relatives/friends are.

I have to say also, during the last months of writing the thesis, my funding also finished. I was supported by my boyfriend, from food, clothes, hair cuts, small holidays etc. I couldn't have done it without him.

At this time you need a lot of support.
Whatever it is you choose to do, think of yourself first.

love satchi


Dear everyone

Thanks so much for your responses. Helps to make me feel as though I am not alone in this. Satchi - I have learnt to think of myself first, thank you for that. I know that my Mum wants me to finish my PhD - just not sure whether this is actually possible. Redridinghood - thanks for sharing about your sister, sorry to hear about that. Good luck in your path too and I hope you take care of yourself too. Bewildered and Eska - thanks very much for suggesting the part-time option. I will look into that. Best wishes Anon007


Hi anon007,

I can also only relate my experience but I hope it helps. My mother was diagnosed with incurable, but controllable, cancer before I started my PhD. It was controlled with some treatment and pain management until last April when it became very aggressive and she needed correspondingly much more aggressive treatment and several emergency hospital admissions. At this point I was 14 months into my PhD. According to her consultant she responded well but she felt absolutely awful and needed a lot of support this last year. Last month, after another emergency hospital admission, we learnt that the aggressive cancer had returned. She died 3 weeks ago.

I completely relate that you are concerned that you may not be able to finish your PhD. I made the decision in July last year to go part time (I am funded and my funders have been supportive) and if I had not done this I would not have coped at all. As it was I was able to upgrade in December last year and am (somewhat) confident that I will complete. I could also provide support for my mother without wrecking myself. These are some of the other things I found / find useful:

Asked my supervisor to help me break down really complicated tasks into manageable chunks.
Cried in my supervisor's office and didn't worry about it.
Regular exercise (in my case cycling).
Counselling (find a different one if the one you have doesn't help).
Told people what was going on.
Worked more when things were easier and didn't work when it was too tough.
Only do easy, dull things when my concentration or confidence is worst.

I am not intending to return to full time, I will take just under 4 years instead of 3 and I am happy with that.

It's tough. There is no 'right' thing to do. It does sound like you have good strategies but you will probably still wake up at 3am from time to time and everything will feel very bleak and impossible. Be kind to yourself.


Dear anon007 and everyone else,

It has been so uplifting and inspirational to read each of your stories. My heart goes out to every one of you.

anon007 - Have you asked your Mother what she would like you to do? Maybe that might influence your decision.

I lost my Mother when I was 18. She is still my greatest role model and the most important woman in my life.

I am now 45 and in the final year of my PhD. My greatest support - financially, mentally, and physically - during this time has been my husband.

I am interested to know if you have a strong support network around you - friends, other family members or a devoted partner?

Each year of my study has been punctuated with death. In 2010 my beloved Sister died. In 2011 my primary supervisor, who was my greatest academic support, died. Then last year my Brother died (cancer). Trying to grieve while undertaking fulltime research has been difficult. My research has been done in fits and starts with extended absences where I did nothing at all for a total of 18 months. However, I am now back on track and things seem to be falling into place.

As someone has already said, we all grieve in different ways and it is very much an individual thing in deciding whether to continue, change to part-time, or defer your candidature. Obviously each choice has its merits. I would like to argue the merits of deferring and spending as much time as possible with your Mother so that you have no regrets when she is no longer with you. Deferring means you won't be torn between your research and being with her. It also means that if you want to do some research unofficially when you feel like it - you can. Study can wait. To quote John Lennon again "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Sometimes life (time with your Mum) needs to take priority over the other plans (PhD).

But then again, maybe study is what you need to help get you through - what is in my opinion - the toughest loss a woman faces in her life. It certainly was for me.

Big Hugs


Dear Yve

Thanks for sharing your story, it means a lot. I'm sorry to hear you have lost your mother so recently. It sounds like going part time was a good idea. Thanks for sharing your list of things that help you get through - that is really helpful. I will try and put my own list up. Have you got any more tips up your sleeve for coping with difficult times?


Thanks for sharing , means a great deal. I have asked Mum what she wants me to do - and it's to continue and finish my PhD (if that's what I want to do). Yes, I have a very supportive partner which is great and a wonderful support. I'm sorry to hear about your multiple losses - but you still think that the loss of your mother was the greatest loss? I think I will end up deferring, hopefully completing in 4 years not 3, so part-time really.

Tips for coping with loss

Write a journal.
Give the day a mark out of ten.
Try to do something memorable on each day.
Spend as much time with loved ones as possible.
Scheduling - schedule your time more effectively so you have plenty of 'me time' and healthy activities.
Enjoy the passage of time - note the seasons and the weather.
Live in the moment. At this particular moment in time note precisely how you are feeling, sights, sounds, tastes, what you are doing.
Take each day at a time, each hour at a time, each minute at a time, each second.
Do deep breathing for ten seconds.
If you are really struggling, ask yourself 'What can I do to distract myself for 5 minutes?'

Appreciate being cosy wherever you are - snuggle up in a blanket
Put the heating on.
Try to control your expenditure/maximise income if you can. Monitor it.
Have a cuddle or hug from a loved one
Concentrate on the feelings of warmth, beauty, finesse or other pleasant feelings.
Enjoy reassuring aromatherapy - like frankinscence.
Try to get everything that is broken fixed.
Ask for help from friends and family.
Don't make big decisions at this time - like moving house. Appreciate what you know and love.
Do some cardiovascular exercise - keep yourself healthy and well.
Give yourself your favourite free treats when you concentrate on your safety - like a cup of tea, lipsyl or a hand massage.

Ask for support from friends and family - ring them or pop round.
Schedule activities where you meet people or talk to them on the phone.
Utilise professional support - from your GP or other service where you can.
Now is a good time to just see the friends and family who nurture you, not see the ones who are like leeches!
Appreciate the thing you have lost - with photos, momentoes, just remembering how they were and imagining them being as they were. Their spirit and soul live on in our memories at least.