Ways to Conquer a Scary Diagnosis

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on January 27, 2020
4 min read

Being diagnosed with a serious condition like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease can bring a wave of tough feelings and situations.

“It can be a scary time, even if it’s a recurrence of a disease you’ve dealt with before,” says Amy E. Allison, PhD, a psycho-oncologist at the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University.

You might wonder how your life will change. Concern about what treatment will be like will probably come, too. You might worry about how you’ll pay for your medical expenses. Thoughts about dying could come, as well.

“That’s common, even if your condition is not immediately life-threatening,” Allison says.

But a diagnosis can also be empowering. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can begin to care for yourself and improve your health.

“You may discover strength you didn’t know you had and build stronger relationships with some of your loved ones, too,” says Rebecca Axline, a clinical social worker at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute.

Know that it’s OK to be upset. A positive attitude can improve your quality of life and may help you make healthy choices. But if you’re not feeling positive, that’s all right, too.

“Research doesn’t show that feelings like anger, fear, and confusion will make you sicker,” says Laura Howe-Martin, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. But ignoring or pushing feelings down can make you feel worse, she says.

Negative emotions may even have an upside. One recent study found that anger and guilt motivated people with cancer to set goals and exercise more.

“You’re allowed to be realistic about what you’re facing. And you should grieve parts of your life that you might lose because of your medical condition,” Howe-Martin says. “Doing so can help you move forward.”

Be ready to set boundaries. When others learn about your illness, they might offer advice or share stories about others who’ve dealt with the same condition. “They probably mean well, but it can be draining. You have to protect your own energy,” Axline says.

It can be hard to think fast when you’re on the spot, so try to memorize a straightforward statement. “I tell [folks] to hold up a hand and say something like, ‘I need to stop you, because I’m not in a place to hear this right now. I hope you understand,’” Allison says.

If you feel rude or uncomfortable, she recommends you add, “I’d love to hear how you’re doing,” or, “My doctor told me it’s important to limit what I hear during treatment.”

Figure out how much information you need -- and where you’ll get it from. Some people feel empowered by learning everything they can about their condition. Others may find that overwhelming.

“Neither is wrong or right,” says Allison. “What’s important is to know what you’re comfortable with and communicate that to your health care team and your friends and family.”

It’s equally crucial to make sure you only get information from reputable sources. “There’s a lot of scary and incorrect information on the internet,” Allison says.

If you’re not sure where to find good sources, ask your health care team.

Keep in mind that even information that is correct may not be framed in a way that’s applicable to you. “For example, say you read your condition has a 5% survival rate,” Allison says. “Well, you’re a person, not a statistic -- that number doesn’t take your health history and circumstances into account. That’s why it’s important to talk to your health care team about what you’re facing.”

Try to avoid “What if.” Shortly after diagnosis, you may still be waiting on information about your condition or your treatment plan. Try not to predict the future, and stay away from "What if" scenarios.

“You may think you’re preparing for the situation, but what you’re really doing is increasing your stress levels. That makes it hard to take care of yourself. And if what you’re imagining does happen, you’ll have [to go through it] twice,” Allison says.

Consider professional support. “Right after a diagnosis, you might blame yourself or wonder what you did to deserve your condition,” Howe-Martin says. “That’s normal, but sometimes it can be hard to work through those feelings alone, or even with the help of friends or family.”

Even a few talk therapy sessions with a mental health professional can help you learn strategies to feel better. (Ask your doctor for a recommendation. Your medical center may have someone on staff who has experience with your condition.) You can also get help with medical billing problems and similar issues from social workers or hospital administrators.

Stick to your regular routine as much as possible. After a diagnosis like cancer or Parkinson’s disease, you may feel like your whole world has turned upside down. While many things may have changed quickly, “Your diagnosis shouldn’t take over your whole life,” Allison says.

Axline agrees. “Try to follow your usual routine whenever you can,” she says. “It will give you a sense of control and reaffirm that you are not your health problem.”

No matter what your “new normal” looks like, make time to take care of yourself.

“It may feel like the last thing you have time for, but think of it as part of your treatment,” Allison says. “Regular exercise, healthy food, good sleep, time with people you love, and even activities that make you smile or laugh are the foundation for good health and healing.”