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6 Ways to Conquer a Scary Diagnosis

Life goes on after receiving news of a frightening illness. Here’s how.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Imagine sitting in a doctor's office and being diagnosed with cancer or some other grave illness. In this paralyzing moment, whatever was consuming your life minutes before suddenly recedes far into the background as you face completely new and seemingly terrifying territory. Though you may feel as if time has stopped, you must go on. But what is your next move?

To find out, we turned to the experts -- those who not only have lived through a scary diagnosis, but who have harnessed their coping mechanisms to share with others.

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Perhaps no one is better qualified for this task than Jessie Gruman, PhD, survivor of three separate diagnoses of cancer plus a life-threatening heart condition. A social psychologist and the founder of the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Health, Gruman has written the book After Shock: What to Do After the Doctor Gives You -- or Someone You Love -- a Devastating Diagnosis.

Now, she and others share their personal experiences on how best to cope in those initial days after a scary diagnosis, when the sting is still strong.

Tips for Coping

Go easy on yourself. Make no mistake: A scary diagnosis is a personal crisis and should be treated as one. You needn't act as though nothing in your life has changed, advises Gruman. Instead, she suggests letting go of certain things if you feel overwhelmed -- even if temporarily -- and sticking to those that are absolutely necessary, like scheduling and keeping doctor appointments.

"This is a rainy day. It makes sense to give yourself time to think, to understand what's happening, to not go to work if you don't feel up to it," Gruman says.

Know that you won't always feel this way. Many people describe feeling shock and numbness upon learning they have a serious health problem. That's normal and, believe it or not, insists Gruman, the intensity of these initial feelings doesn't last forever. Having received a cancer diagnosis on three separate occasions, she recalls feeling "devastated" every time. But she also reports that, each time, the feeling of dread eventually lifted. "You're not always going to feel this bad," Gruman says.

Expect to absorb only some of what you're told. As soon as you hear a doctor tell you that you have a serious illness, chances are you'll absorb very little else of that conversation. That's completely normal. In a survey of 150 cancer patients by Amgen, 71% of respondents said that, initially, they had difficulty understanding information about their disease and treatment options.

"Your attention span becomes very short, maybe because of shock," says Carolyn Ingram, EdD, a psychologist, breast cancer survivor, and co-author of The Not-so-Scary Breast Cancer Book. "There's a part of you that's very preoccupied," Gruman concurs. "When we're really stressed, it's hard to take in new information."

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