Federated Health Charities’ mission is to improve the health and quality of life of all Ontarians by supporting 21 different health charities providing critical services to those experiencing, or affected by, illness. We believe education and prevention are key parts of supporting the health of our communities so our weekly Health Hint series strives to provide tangible and easy to implement hints and tips on how to maintain your health, prevent disease, and enjoy increased quality of life. Check out our latest Health Hint on receiving a diagnosis of a serious illness. We hope you find it helpful. If you would like to join our efforts to support the health of Ontario please consider a donation to Federated Health Charities.
The Experience of Receiving a Diagnosis:
Receiving a diagnosis for a serious illness can be an incredibly difficult and traumatic experience. Sometimes it can follow a period of illness that leads up to the diagnosis, while other times it can come out of the blue. No matter how the diagnosis came to be though, it is an emotional experience.
A diagnosis can bring on an overwhelming amount of emotions, both negative and positive. It is not uncommon to, initially, feel numb or a sense of shock (Robinson et al., 2020). This is normal as you try to process the information you have been given.
Emotions that are felt when receiving a serious diagnosis are diverse and wide ranging, and this is completely normal. How one person receives a diagnosis may be completely different from how another receives one, and that’s okay. There is no “right” way to feel (Robinson et al., 2020).
Positive emotions that might be felt include relief over finally having answers, assurance that you weren’t imagining symptoms and that there is a logical explanation for them, and confidence from having language to explain how you are feeling (Aboulafia, 2016).
Simultaneously you might experience more challenging emotions. Robinson, et al. (2020) states that some of the most common emotions experienced after receiving a diagnosis include:
- Anger or frustration as you try to come to terms with the diagnosis
- Denial or a refusal to accept the diagnosis
- Confusion, asking “why me?”
- Worry about the future, how you will get by, how you’ll afford the expenses that come with an illness, how your loved ones will cope
- Grief over the loss of your old life and your envisioned future
- Betrayal, feeling that your body has betrayed you by “getting ill”
- Guilt or regret, feeling that you did something to cause the illness
- Blame, trying to find external causes for your illness
- Isolation from lived ones, a feeling that they can’t understand what you’re going through
1. Acknowledging and allowing space for your feelings. The emotions that come with a diagnosis can be overwhelming and it can be tempting to try and avoid or ignore them. This may make it feel easier in the short term, but those emotions will need to be dealt with at some point, so it is best to allow yourself to feel them as they come (Robinson et al., 2020). Do not put a time limit on your grieving process, allow it to ebb and flow as it needs to.
2. Develop a support network. Having a network of support is critical, whether that be family, friends, or support groups. It can be common to feel reluctant to seek support or ask for help out of fear of being a burden, worrying people, or wanting to maintain a brave face, but dealing with a life threatening illness can be isolating if you try to shield others from it (Robinson et al., 2020). Your loved ones will want to be there to support you and you will need that support as you move forward in your health journey.
3. Maintain control where you can. A serious illness can often leave one feeling a sense of powerlessness or like they have lost control, so it is important to manage the parts of your life that are within your control (American Psychological Association, 2013). This may include you diet, exercise, daily routines, social connections, self-care, etc. Controlling what you can aids in maintaining a sense of normalcy and can make it easier to cope with the elements of your life that you can’t control.
4. Inform yourself. Knowledge is power, so take the time to learn about your diagnosis. This can provide comfort as you become more familiar with your illness, a sense of calm as you begin to understand what is to come and allows you to best advocate for your needs and the most appropriate care (Aboulafia, 2016). Write down questions you may have and take them to your healthcare provider (American Psychological Association, 2013). Being knowledgeable about your illness allows you to make informed decisions and empowers you to advocate for your needs.
5. Remember, you are more than your diagnosis. Your illness does not need to become your identity (Aboulafia, 2016). Working through your emotions, staying connected with your support network, maintaining normalcy and control where possible, and educating yourself allows you to maintain your sense of self and keep sight of the fact that your illness is something you have, not something you are.
The journey with a serious illness can be long and it begins with the initial diagnosis. Give yourself time to process, allow yourself to grieve in the way that you need, and be kind to yourself as you navigate your new reality.
Aboulafia, A. (2016, May). 5 Things to Do After Receiving a Chronic Illness Diagnosis. The Mighty. https://themighty.com/2016/05/what-to-do-after-receiving-a-chronic-illness-diagnosis/
American Psychological association. (2013). Coping with a Diagnosis of Chronic Illness. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/chronic-illness/coping-diagnosis Robinson, L., Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2020, September). Coping with a Life-Threatening Illness or Serious Health Event. Help Guide. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-a-life-threatening-illness.htm