6 Ways to Conquer a Scary Diagnosis

Life goes on after receiving news of a frightening illness. Here’s how.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 05, 2007
5 min read

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.

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.

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."

Because feelings of shock and bewilderment may continue to overwhelm you in the days following your diagnosis, digesting information in very short, pithy chunks can be helpful, suggests Ingram. So, whether you're attempting to learn more about your disease by searching the Internet, reading books on the topic, or speaking with various health care professionals, beware of overwhelming yourself with too much information all at once.

Be patient when learning information about your disease. When a serious illness is first diagnosed, it's not always possible to pinpoint its scope. Often, additional tests or even surgery is required to fully understand the extent of an illness and related health problems. It may take weeks or even months to determine the proper or complete course of treatment.

"Initially, it's hard to find information that's sufficiently tailored to your condition," Gruman tells WebMD. "It's difficult to tap a physician's expertise at the very beginning."

While some people have a hard time not knowing exactly what to expect from an illness, recognizing up front that it may take some time can help quell anxiety. In the interim, don't dwell on the unknown at the expense of your well-being, advises Gruman. "Make sure you continue to eat enough, drink enough water, and get the rest you need," she says.

Choose the support that works for you. How you come to terms with a scary diagnosis is a very personal decision. Choosing whom to tell and lean on for support is a significant part of the process, and there's no right or wrong way to do it.

"You choose -- the amount of information you'll tell, and who you want to be with you," Gruman says.

Joining a support group whose members relate to your experience can be invaluable. Ingram went to five different support groups before finding the one that worked for her. What began largely as a group to educate cancer patients on the illness morphed into something much deeper. "Eventually, we showed each other our scars, we flipped off our wigs, we laughed, we cried," Ingram tells WebMD.

Be open to a positive change in perspective. It's not uncommon for survivors of a grave diagnosis to report feeling that their lives have been made fuller by the experience, even in the wake of irrevocable physical losses. So says Leslie Ingram Gebhart, breast cancer survivor, life coach, and co-author of The Not-So-Scary Breast Cancer Book, who underwent a double mastectomy. While she admits to missing the sensuality she associated with her breasts, Gebhart has moved beyond it. "Now, the size of my bra is not relevant," she says earnestly.

"Know that myriad joys and possibilities remain," Gebhart tells WebMD. "Even cancer can recede into the background when focusing on the possibilities."

The key, it seems, is allowing yourself to be open to these possibilities. "Whether you're going to live one more week or one more decade, you want the quality of life to be as rich and alive as possible," says Ingram.