The diagnosis of a serious illness is a major life-changing event. In addition to the profound impact upon our health, there are practical issues which require attention. The impact is not entirely physical. Most people feel understandably anxious and uncertain about the future. Common reactions to the diagnosis of a severe illness include denial, fear, resentment or a sense of hopelessness. Our individual responses are highly personal and depend on many factors. Even the hardiest of individuals have days which are difficult and filled with worries. Other people may also react in ways which are unpredictable. There is no unique, right way to react to the diagnosis of serious illness. There are however certain responses which are normally associated with optimal treatment outcomes, maximised function, happiness and hope. There are many positive actions which we can take to cope most effectively at this difficult time. Some of these positive actions are discussed below.

Remain calm and positive

Anyone can be positive when life is going well. It takes great courage and resolve to remain upbeat when confronted with the worst that life can offer. Our expectations need to be realistic. There are however definite advantages to remaining calm and positive. There is clear evidence from scientific studies that there is an association between positive thinking and best treatment outcomes. Some authors have suggested that a positive frame of mind may provide some boost to the immune system. We still need to still make important decisions on a daily basis.

A calm mind allows us to make rational decisions and function more normally. Remaining strong is never easy. Supportive friends are always a great help. During these most challenging of times many individuals discover their spiritual side. Often people still have difficulty coping. It is worthwhile asking your doctor about counselling. Many doctors have excellent counselling skills. Are there other services in you area? You might make enquiries about psychologists in your area who might have special expertise. Never be afraid to ask for help or support.
Learning and understanding

There are many advantages to be gained from learning about our illness. Many people have concerns which are unfounded. Sometimes these fears are reduced when we understand the illness more fully. We gain a more realistic set of expectations by learning about the illness. There is an opportunity to become aware of all possible options for effective treatment. We can anticipate problems and deal effectively with practical issues.

There are many ways we can learn more about our illness. The local library often has useful resources like books, brochures or tapes. If you have difficulty finding suitable material ask the staff to help you. Ask your family doctor where further information might be accessed. The local bookstore often has useful books on common illnesses. Useful books can be purchased on-line. Often there is an organisation for sufferers in your state or country. Not only do these organisations provide useful information and support they frequently offer discounts to members.

The useful links section of this site provides links to many websites containing detailed information, contacts and resources about common illnesses. During the process of learning more about your illness many people encounter other individuals who provide help, advice or emotional support. Not uncommonly inspiring individuals are found who provide useful role models. Learning more about you illness is highly beneficial.

Maintain your overall health

It always pays to maintain your overall health. Other secondary health issues can arise if we do not pay sufficient attention to our general health. Maximising our overall health also provides the best possible opportunity of reducing the impact of illness. Sometimes we can slow the progression of our illness. Healthy, nutritious food is often surprisingly tasty. Regular gentle exercise is not only beneficial for our health but also focuses our thoughts on enjoyable activities. Fresh air and physical activity is good for our body and mind.

Many illnesses are unpredictable or episodic in nature. Frequently, our worst expectations are not realised. Do not automatically assume the worst case scenario. Sometimes illnesses progress more slowly than we expect.

Maintain your self-esteem

The diagnosis of a serious illness frequently provides a serious challenge to our self-esteem. All of a sudden we have become vulnerable. There is often some loss of independence. Some sufferers have concerns about their body image or worry what other people will think about them. Such concerns are common and understandable. Enhancing our sense of self-worth is always worthwhile! There are almost limitless resources for improving self-esteem.

Many excellent books are available on this issue. Ask at you local library or bookstore. There are also extensive resources on the web. Joining a support group is often beneficial. There are often opportunities to participate in self-improvement or learning activities. Many people have discovered hidden talents during the most difficult times.

Continue to make plans for enjoyable activities

Live each individual day to the full. Continue to make plans for a range of activities which you enjoy. Remaining active is good for your mind and body. Be sensible and know your limitations but approach activities with a positive and open-minded attitude. Continuing activity provides a reminder of the good things in your life. Involving friends in activities helps build and maintain relationships. Alternatively, taking time out alone gives you time to think things through and attend to emotional housekeeping.

Practical arrangements

When the time is right, practical arrangements require attention. It is amazing how often practical issues seem to crop up at the most inappropriate time! There are often pressing concerns with respect to legal, financial and general lifestyle issues. Also consider the needs of those around you. If your family, friends and carers are happy, rested  and feel appreciated they are less likely to become tired and frustrated.

Building a support network

You need not be alone. There is often a surprising amount of practical assistance and emotional support available to people diagnosed with serious illness. Doctors, nurses and other health care professionals can often provide considerable support. Many people remain unaware of community and volunteer groups in their area who can offer assistance and support. There is an ever-increasing opportunity for support groups on-line. Preferably however join a support group at a local level. If there is no group in you area consider establishing your own group. Perhaps you might contact someone in an existing group to ask for advice regarding recruitment, publicity and administrative issues.

The role of alternative therapies

Maintain an open mind about alternative therapies and learn more. Conduct your own independent information search and do not simply believe everthing people tell you. Be receptive to ideas but have healthy scepticism. Avoid expensive ripoffs and scams. There are many individuals who seek to profit from the misery of other individuals less fortunate. The consumer protection section of our useful links will guide you towards further information regarding such schemes. Many people do get measurable improvement from alternative treatments. There are many well-established and reputable alternative therapies and practicioners.

Wishing you improved health and many happy days!

By Andrew Rylatt (Medical Doctor)
27th January 2004
Coping with the Diagnosis of a Serious Illness
Rediscover Hope
Strategies for Life's Tough Times
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