By April Morris, LCSW, Therapist
Whether it's cancer, a heart condition, or another chronic or catastrophic illness, a bad medical diagnosis is a stressful and sometimes traumatic event. If you're like most people who receive devastating health news, you start by imagining the worst-case scenario and focusing on the limitations and changes the condition will bring to your life.
Your medical providers can help you deal with the physical components of the diagnosis, but they aren't always equipped to walk you through the emotions that come with it. My history working in an oncology unit has equipped me to work with clients who are trying to move forward with their new medical diagnosis. Here are some tips I give my clients.
1) Get to Know Your Condition
It might sound simple, but learning as much as you can about your condition empowers you to move forward with confidence. Talk to your doctor and ask lots of questions. I encourage my clients to have a planner or binder where they keep everything related to their diagnosis, including appointment dates, their meds list, and any questions that come up between appointments. Take the notebook with you to every appointment so you can take notes and remember your questions.
If you want to research your condition online, ask your doctor which sites they recommend. Online sources are not all created equal, and bad information is often worse than no information at all.
2) Manage Your Relationships
Now, more than ever, you need to surround yourself with positive people—people who don't add stress to your life. Identify those people in your circle so when you are struggling, you know who to call for support, advice, or a listening ear. Another component of managing your relationships is learning to say "no," if a friend asks you to do something you don't want to do. It's important to strike a balance between surrounding yourself with people who support you and conserving your energy.
Tell your friends what you need from them. They often want to help but don't know what you need, and don't want to "bother" you. We are all so different—one person might want friends to check in on them often, and another might need to set limits. Figure out what works for you and tell your friends. And if that changes, tell them again. What you need, or think you need, will change as you move forward with your life. If you tell friends you are too tired for more than a weekly check-in call, but a month later you wish they'd call more often, tell them!
If you don't have a strong support system, ask your doctor if there are any local or national support groups for people with your condition. The Psychology Today directory has a comprehensive list of support groups here (you can search by state and most major cities). With social media, there are so many ways to connect. You do need to be careful though. If you get accepted into a private Facebook group and the comments are really negative or worst-case scenario, leave the group.
3) Manage Your Emotions and Expectations
People expect they should be able to adapt right away, but often it's not that simple. First, allow yourself to feel. It's okay to be angry and to grieve. Explore and embrace these. This is where it might be helpful to see a counselor or therapist who can help you sort out complicated and frightening emotions. Your friends and family are struggling with their own reactions and may not be able to provide the support you need.
4) Ask for Help
I worked with a man who suffered a traumatic brain injury and couldn't drive. He really struggled with losing his independence and having to rely on others to drive him places. It's common in the Midwest for us to think we can handle everything on our own. Learning to ask for help is important for your own mental and physical health.
5) Don't Put on a Brave Face
Putting on a brave face for everyone is exhausting. It's OK to not be OK. I get that you don't want to share your whole story with everyone who asks, "How's it going?" But you can say something like, "I've had better days," or "You know what? Today is a pretty good day." Telling everyone you're fine invalidates your emotions and reality.
I've worked with people who say, "I'm the strong one in the family. I can't let on how I really feel," or "I have to hide my pain from my children." While you might not want to show your children every intensity of emotion, they do need to see how you manage your feelings and struggles.
6) Set Small, Realistic Goals
Declutter your commitments, prioritize medical appointments and treatments, and set small goals related to nutrition and exercise. Starting small with what your day or week will look like can take away some of the uncertainty that comes during this stressful time.
A bad medical diagnosis can be life-altering, and it's normal to feel a range of emotions after getting the news. People with a chronic medical condition are two to three times more likely to develop depression, so it's important to keep tabs on your emotional state. There are many ways to cope with a chronic illness, and it's important to find what works best for you. Focusing on your overall health and well-being will impact your emotional health as well as your physical health.