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
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
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
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
"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,"
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
"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."