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Coping with a Difficult Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with a serious medical condition can cause you to experience a wide range of emotions. You may feel numb, overwhelmed, angry, panicked, shocked, stressed or a combination of all of these.

You might worry about how your life will change. You may wonder how you’ll handle treatment or how you’ll pay for it. You may be fearful of dying. You may be angry that this happened to you. It’s normal to experience all of these feelings when you receive a difficult diagnosis such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s or diabetes.

Being diagnosed with a serious medical condition can cause you to experience a wide range of emotions. You may feel numb, overwhelmed, angry, panicked, shocked, stressed or a combination of all of these. 

Getting this type of news isn’t something you can easily prepare for, and it’s hard to predict how you’ll respond. Learning to cope with these emotions is something you can try to figure out as you move forward. Check out this article for some thoughts on how to handle a difficult diagnosis, including some tips for how to cope.

10 Tips for Coping With a Difficult Diagnosis

Everyone’s experience is unique, and everyone responds differently when presented with difficult news from a health care provider. However, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, research shows that after getting a diagnosis, many people have some of the same reactions and needs. Here are some of the suggestions you can consider when it comes to learning how to cope and move forward:

  1. Take some time to process the news. When you first receive a difficult diagnosis, you may feel numb, overwhelmed, angry or desperate. Whatever you’re feeling, take some time to sit with those emotions and process what you’ve been told. Try not to make any big decisions right away and give yourself a chance to work through your initial emotions.
  2. A young woman enjoying a nature walk with her father.Create a support network. There may be times when you want to be alone to process your new reality, but having a group of people you can talk to and lean on is important, according to the American Psychological Association. When you’re ready, build a network of supportive people. For example, maybe someone in your family can come to your doctor’s appointments and take notes or help you ask questions. Maybe you have a friend you can cry with or laugh with when you need a break. Maybe a neighbor can help watch over your house or pets when you’re gone for treatment or hospital stays.
  3. Reach out to support groups. Ask your health care provider if there’s a support group for people with the same diagnosis or condition and consider joining. Within a support group, you can share information, concerns, best practices and more. You can also lean on one another for emotional support that you may not get from others.
  4. Get help and support from professionals. Working with a mental health professional can help you learn how to handle the emotions you’re experiencing. You may need someone to guide you in developing coping strategies or help you figure out how to share the news with others or plan for your future. Talk to your health care provider about getting help and check out the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health resources, along with the TriWest Behavioral Health website.
  5. Female patient reads brochure in ER waiting room.Educate yourself. Learn all you can (or all you’re ready to learn) about your diagnosis, your options for treatment, next steps and anything else that’s on your mind. It’s important to remember, however, that not all information is good information. You can ask your health care team where to go for reliable, evidence-based information.
  6. Establish consistent communication with your health care team. You should be an integral part of your own health care and have consistent communication with your team. Share your questions, concerns and thoughts at your appointments. Be your own health care advocate. Speak up when you don’t understand something or when you have a question. For example, ask for more information about the pros and cons of different treatments or ask for details about the side effects of certain medications.
  7. Focus on maintaining healthy habits. There may be things about your health that are outside of your control, but establishing healthy habits, such as getting enough rest and eating a healthy diet, may help you cope with stress, maintain your energy levels, and improve your mood. Discuss with your health care provider what lifestyle choices you can make to ensure you’re taking good care of yourself. What type of foods are best? What kinds of exercise can your body handle? How often do you need to take your medications?
  8. Find joy in your life. Your diagnosis may bring many challenging times along with it, so it’s important to continue with activities that bring you joy and provide meaning to your life. For example, if volunteering is really important to you, figure out a way to continue doing it – even if you have to change how you used to go about it. Stay connected to family and friends that you love and cherish, and seek out activities that give you the biggest emotional reward.
  9. Avoid spending too much energy on “what ifs.” For many of us, when we receive difficult news, it’s easy to jump right to all the worst-case scenarios. Even if we’re waiting on more information, it’s common to go straight into worrying about all the “what ifs” and imagining the worst possible outcomes. Instead, when you’re ready, try to listen, wait for all the information, process it, ask questions and then react.
  10. Create an action plan. When you receive a difficult health care diagnosis, you can feel overwhelmed thinking about everything that needs to happen next – such as phone calls you have to make, tests you have to schedule and details you have to iron out. Try to take it one step at a time. Figure out what you need to do, the order it needs to be done and make a plan to tackle it step by step. Once you develop a plan, this is a great time to ask your support network to step in and help.

Additional Resources

As you move forward, you may want to do your own research to find resources that are available to support you. You can find a lot of information online, but make sure it’s reliable and accurate. Search out government sites or information from reputable medical schools or national nonprofit organizations related to your health condition, such as the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association. Here are some good places to start your research:

  • MedlinePlus has health information from the National Institutes of Health and other trusted sources on more than 650 different health conditions.
  • MyHealthfinder is a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that offers carefully selected health information and resources from government agencies, nonprofits, universities and other trusted sources.
  • The National Institute on Aging offers tips on how to find reliable health information online.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has a booklet entitled Next Steps After Your Diagnosis: Finding Information and Support that provides a ton of great information and resource suggestions. For example, the booklet provides 10 important questions to ask your doctor after you receive your diagnosis, as well as a list of trusted health information sources to check out.

There is no blueprint for how to cope with a difficult diagnosis. There is no right or wrong way to handle the news. You can use what you find helpful in this article and design the best way forward for you.

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