Coping with a Life-Threatening Illness


A serious health problem can disrupt all aspects of your life, whether it’s a chronic or life-threatening illness, such as cancer, or a major health event such as a stroke, heart attack, or debilitating injury.

illness

Many serious health problems seem to develop unexpectedly, upsetting your life out of the blue. You may feel overwhelmed by waves of difficult emotions—from fear and worry to profound sadness, despair, and grief—or just numb, frozen by shock or the feeling that you’ll never be able to cope. The emotional upheaval can make it difficult to function or think straight, and even lead to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

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Common emotional responses to serious illness include:

  • Anger or frustration as you struggle to come to terms with your diagnosis—repeatedly asking, “Why me?” or trying to understand if you’ve done something to deserve this.
  • Facing up to your own mortality and the prospect that the illness could potentially be life-ending.
  • Worrying about the future—how you’ll cope, how you’ll pay for treatment, what will happen to your loved ones, the pain you may face as the illness progresses, or how your life may change.
  • Grieving the loss of your health and old life.
  • Feeling powerless, hopeless, or unable to look beyond the worst-case scenario.
  • Regret or guilt about things you’ve done that you think may have contributed to your illness or injury. Shame at how your condition is affecting those around you.
  • Denial that anything is wrong or refusing to accept the diagnosis.
  • A sense of isolation, feeling cut off from friends and loved ones who can’t understand what you’re going through.
  • A loss of self. You’re no longer you but rather your medical condition.

How you react emotionally and the degree of psychological distress you experience depends on many different factors, including your age, personality, the type and prognosis of the medical problem you’re facing, and the amount of support you have. Whatever your situation, you should know that experiencing a wide range of difficult emotions is a normal response to a potentially life-changing situation. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak, going crazy, or won’t be able to meet the health and emotional challenges that lie ahead.

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Facing a serious diagnosis

Everything changes when you learn that you have a life-threatening illness. Perhaps you cried, sought out the comfort of loved ones, or did your best to distract yourself or pretend like nothing had changed. Or maybe you simply froze, unable to process how your life had suddenly changed out of all recognition. Or perhaps you even jumped into action and started tackling your health problem head on.

It’s important to remember there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to respond. We’re all different, so don’t tell yourself what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing after a diagnosis or serious health event. Give yourself time to process the news and be kind to yourself as you adjust to your new situation.

Allow yourself to feel. It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing your emotions, but they exist whether you’re paying attention to them or not. Trying to ignore your feelings will only increase stress and maybe even delay recovery. But if you allow yourself to feel what you feel, you’ll find that even intense, disturbing feelings will pass, the initial distress you felt at news of your diagnosis will start to ease, and some aspects of life will even return to normal.

Be patient with the pace of treatment and recovery. After receiving an initial diagnosis or suffering a major health event, it can take time and an array of tests and consultations before your medical team settles on an appropriate course of treatment. It’s easy to become anxious as you wait for a clearer picture of what your road to recovery will entail. But scouring the Internet and relying on what can often be inaccurate or scary information will only make you feel worse. When you’re faced with a lot of unknowns, you can still care for yourself—eat a healthy diet, exercise, sleep well—and pursue those relationships and activities that bring you joy.

Be open to change. Rationally, no one would consider having a heart attack or receiving a cancer diagnosis as ever having any positive consequences. But it can happen. Some people diagnosed with life-threatening conditions do undergo a change in perspective that focuses them on the important things in their lives—those things that add meaning and purpose. Negative emotions such as anger or guilt can even sometimes have a positive effect, motivating you to meet treatment goals, for example. Keeping your mind open may help you to find the positives and better cope emotionally in even the darkest situations.