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What to Do When the Doctor Has Bad News

People react to grave health news differently. Some get angry, others shrivel up in self-pity. Some people lose their faith in God, others find it. Some families fall apart, others draw closer together.

What everyone has in common is anguish and confusion about what to do next.

“Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to proceed. You just have to do the best you can,” says Jessie C. Gruman, Ph.D., president of the Center for Advancing Health, and author of AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You—or Someone You Love—a Devastating Diagnosis. “This period is so difficult and full of uncertainty that your aim during the first few days is to absorb the news and weather your emotions.”

Drawing on experience

In writing her book, Dr. Gruman relied on the advice of doctors, psychologists, and more than 200 people who had dealt with a life-altering diagnosis, as well as her own experience of surviving cancer and heart disease.

“In my own case, every time I received a serious diagnosis, I was stunned and devastated, yet I knew I had to learn about my condition and the treatment decisions I had to make,” she says. “When your life is knocked off kilter, your best hope of returning to health depends on your resilience and resourcefulness to get what you need.”

From her personal and professional experience, Dr. Gruman offers the following advice:

  • Be aware you won’t always feel the way you feel right now. “In the beginning, there’s so much confusion and fear that it’s hard to believe you’ll ever get a handle on it,” Dr. Gruman says. “But you will, and when you learn about your condition and treatment plan, your mental state will improve and you’ll likely find strength you didn’t know you had.”

  • Take your time. Unless you’re in a hospital emergency room and have to make an immediate decision, don’t rush into treatment until you have a second opinion and more information. “Of course, your doctor will advise you, but in the end it will be up to you to decide between one treatment plan or another, between one specialist or another, between a hospital that’s close to home or one that gives better treatment but is far away,” she says.

  • Choose whom you tell. “It’s a good time to move slowly and protect your privacy,” Dr. Gruman says. “Share your situation with people who will be helpful and who will offer support and comfort.”

Looking for support

That said, the mental and emotional challenges brought on by serious illness are considerable for the person with the disease and for his or her family, and at times family members may not be up to the task of providing all the support that’s needed.

In these situations, you may find it helpful to talk with a trusted therapist or spiritual adviser who can act as a sounding board as well as a guide through the difficult days ahead.

“In the midst of all this turmoil, it’s important to know you’re more than your disease,” Dr. Gruman says.

Although serious illness can shatter your sense of control, it doesn’t mean the strength and knowledge you have attained in your life are irrelevant to the challenge you now face.

“You’re the same person you were before your diagnosis, and your history, experiences, and wisdom remain,” she says. “Your aim at this moment is to make it through with all the grace you can muster, all the support you can find, and all the dignity you deserve.”