We hear about the diagnosis of disease often in our day-to-day lives. Chronic illness might affect our coworkers, our family members, the celebrities we watch on television, and the politicians we vote for. It’s a natural and common thought to assume, “it won’t happen to me,” but in reality, it very well could.
According to the American Cancer Society, 38.4% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, while 9.4% will be diagnosed with diabetes, and millions of others will be diagnosed with respiratory disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and other chronic illnesses.
If you have been recently diagnosed with a chronic disease, you’re likely feeling overwhelmed, emotional and perhaps even hopeless. Don’t despair; there are ways to manage your feelings, and seek support and cope with your diagnosis.
Glenn Barron, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at Family & Child Development, leads a support group for people with chronic illness and their caregivers. The group is specific to cancer patients, but the advice transcends to those suffering from any sort of chronic disease.
Upon being diagnosed, Barron advises, Take a deep breath. This is a life altering diagnosis. It may be even terminal. With that diagnosis comes grief, which can look and feel like depression, though usually it’s not. A loss of health means the loss of certainty in your life. Certainty is something that we crave. And suddenly it’s changed and lost.
So, what can you do to support yourself in this uncertain time of your life?
Face the Diagnosis
Upon your diagnosis, you may experience denial, be tempted to ignore your illness, and in some cases, even refuse treatments. But according to the American Psychological Association (APA), facing your diagnosis head on is the best way to cope. The APA has conducted research which suggests people who face their diagnosis become psychologically more well-adjusted, peaceful and content than people who remained in denial and avoidance.
Mental Health Counselor Glenn Barron also believes that a large part of denial and refusal of treatment comes from the fear of treatment, which people think may be more horrible than the illness itself. This fear can be easily disarmed by getting informed with the true facts about your illness.
After the initial shock of your diagnosis wears off, you’re going to have a lot of questions. Barron advises to research your illness, the treatments you can expect to face, and the options you might have. Write down lists of all your questions for the doctor and get familiar with the medical terms of your illness so you can communicate more easily with your doctor, nurses and specialists. Find out what kind of behaviors and habits you can change to be healthier. Simply changing your diet or exercise routine can make a world of difference in your physical and mental health.
Involving your Family
Your immediate family will most likely be directly involved in your care. But when it comes to telling extended family and friends the details about your illness, remember you only need to share as much as you’re comfortable with sharing.
When telling young children about your illness, use your best judgment. Depending on the developmental stage of your child, you may or may not choose to share as much information or specific details, compared to an older child. For older children, Barron advises, just answer their questions as honestly as they’re asked. You don’t want to give them ‘beat around the bush’ kinds of answers. You want to be direct, and give them the answers that they need. Kids are going to see through our veiled attempts to protect them by not sharing.
Often it’s your partner who becomes your main caretaker; however, it could be a close friend, relative or neighbor. No matter who the person is to you, it’s important to remember they are feeling stress, anxiety, grief and pressure, just like you are. It’s important to be sensitive to their feelings and needs, and not to overwhelm them with your needs as their patient and loved one.
Having a solid support system is instrumental in coping with chronic disease. Not only do you need the support of your family, but you need the support of other people who share your experience. Attending group therapy will bring you together with people who are fighting the same battles, dealing with the same stressors, and experiencing the same pain while working to support and help each other.
Barron explains the strength of support groups is showing people they are not alone, and they don’t have to go through any of their illness alone.
There’s someone out there that’s going through something like they are. And there’s someone they can call if they need to… they don’t feel quite so isolated… Part of it too is educating them on how to ask for help. If they’re struggling with anxiety, fear, grief, depression, to be aware that usually that’s the time to call somebody, Barron says.
Barron also emphasizes that being in the group doesn’t mean you will have to speak. If all they want to do is come to the groups and listen, or be heard, that’s important too. Hopefully they walk out of there knowing that other people understand what they’re going through.
Maintain Daily Normalcy
The American Psychological Associationsuggests minimizing your life stressors when dealing with a chronic illness. While it’s true you need to stay as stress free as possible, it’s also true that you should maintain as much normalcy in your life as you can. If you loved going to book club before your diagnosis, continue going. It’s important to stay engaged with friends and family, to be social and continue with your normal life activities. Of course, there will be changes and interruptions, attending treatments and doctor appointments for example, but it will stabilize your emotional well-being to continue your normal life activities.
Remember your Worth
Resilience is a trait that you can learn. You’re constantly going through adversity. Resilience is a sign of how you bounce back, and going through chronic disease, resilience is so important to that,Barron says. He also encourages using the attitude of gratitude and forgiveness, and forgiving yourself. For example, if you’re a smoker and have developed lung cancer, forgive yourself instead of being mad at yourself.
Don’t believe everything you think, Barron advises, for example, think: I’m sick but I’m not worthless, I can still help others.
If you need to talk to someone, please reach out to us at Family & Child Developmentif you would like to speak to a therapist about coping with chronic illness.
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