How to Cope with a Difficult Diagnosis

By Jason M Carlton

There are words no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.” “You have Parkinson’s disease.” “You have diabetes.” A diagnosis of any sort doesn’t mean your life is over… but admitting to yourself and others that it will be different can help you cope. 

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Michelle Hanks, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), works in the Shock Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Intermountain Medical Center. She interacts daily with families who are facing some of the most challenging times of their lives – many of which will forever change that family’s life.

“Some of the diseases people are diagnosed with are all-consuming,” said Hanks. “For example, diabetes is something that controls people’s lives and is never-ending. They must continually monitor insulin levels and be careful with what they eat throughout the day.”

Hanks offers three ways to help people cope with a difficult diagnosis.

First, figure out how to handle the disease

“The grieving process is a very natural part of dealing with a new diagnosis like cancer,” said Hanks. “Education is going to be one of the strongest defenses to getting through the process.”

Patients and their loved ones should do all they can to educate themselves about their diagnosis. This may include seeking out reputable online sources, asking your doctor for information about the disease, or attending support groups. The learning process may include the symptoms and treatments for the disease, and what the future looks like.

Second, include loved ones

No one should ever have to face a challenge alone – especially a life-changing diagnosis. From the start, patients should involve family members and friends in their support group.

“People need to have a safe place to go to express their feelings,” said Hanks. “They should find at least one person, be it a spouse, sibling, son or daughter, or friend, who can walk the path alongside them. Sometimes a listening ear and a loving hug can go a long way to show support.”

Family members and friends can also help by watching for signs of anxiety or major depression. If so, they can encourage their loved ones to see a professional who can help them better recognize and deal with their emotions about the diagnosis.

Third, live your life

One of the biggest disservices someone can do is to turn themselves over to their disease. No one should ever say, “I’m a diabetic.” They are not “a diabetic” – they’re someone who has been diagnosed with diabetes. People should hold on to their personal identity and not allow it to be taken from them.

“Actor Michael J. Fox is a great example of someone who’s held on to his identity,” said Hanks. “He’s accepted the fact that he has Parkinson’s disease but continues doing what he’s always done – act. He is not Parkinson’s. He is Michael and has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.”

Conclusion

Anyone diagnosed with a disease or outcome that’s difficult to cope with should request a psychiatrist to be part of his or her treatment team. Much like a doctor, surgeon, nurse or dietitian, the psychiatrist fills an important role in treating the patient.

NOTE: Adults are strongly encouraged to set up an advance directive, in the event they’re not able to make medical decisions on their own. For more information, visit Intermountain Healthcare’s website for advance care planning