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Three strategies to help you cope with the shock of a serious diagnosis

There is nothing that can fully prepare you for the moment you or someone you love receives a serious illness diagnosis. No class or course. No qualification or training. No pre-prepared script. So, when it does happen, what do you do?

Sadly, it’s an all too common occurrence to hear of someone being diagnosed with a serious illness. If you or someone you love has been through this or are in that place now, my thoughts and prayers are with you.

This article is not a theory lesson and the strategies haven’t been randomly chosen. All three of these strategies have helped me, and others, find some peace and calm amidst the storm.

Life will never be the same

In February 2015 my world was turned upside down. I received a call that let me know, after months of tests, I’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancer. I hung up the phone and wandered around my home in shock, no-one was home. I practiced what I would say when my beautiful man came home. The pain I felt just thinking about telling him was heart-wrenching.

Initially, I felt a mix of emotion; relief and guilt are the two I remember most.

Having the diagnosis was a relief. After months of tests, there was a name for what was going on inside me. Guilt struck me hard. The news I was about to share with those I loved would cause them pain and I felt responsible for that. Those conversations were tough. But, as tough as they were, they had to be done – they were part of the process.

I continually reminded myself that I was safe and that I was surrounded, both physically and spiritually, by people who were cheering me on. And from that, I drew strength to face those first few days.

How you feel will be unique to you.

You may experience similar emotions or perhaps the mix of emotion is different for you; it’s such a personal experience. Know that what you feel is okay – there’s no rule book and no specific emotions that you must feel.

3 strategies to help you cope

In the time immediately following diagnosis, and indeed throughout treatment and the healing journey, I found these three strategies useful.

1. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel.

Feel what you feel and honestly express it – share it with people you feel safe with and journal about it. Don’t fight how you feel, don’t hide it and don’t pretend you’re okay if you’re not.

Name how YOU feel. You might be sad, angry, scared, ashamed, guilty or feel something else. There’s no one way to feel, it’s personal to you. Pushing ahead saying you’re okay when you feel like you’re crumbling isn’t going to help.

2. Allow yourself the time and space to process the news.

For me, it meant cancelling the appointments and work I had planned for the rest of the day and the following two days. It’s important to allow yourself time to process the news. Initially, you might choose to only share with those closest to you, shunning social media posts.It’s up to you what you share and when you share it.

Big news can propel us into a state of shock, be kind and compassionate to yourself. You might sit and stare into space, wander around feeling lost, or not know what to do with yourself. This will pass but right now you’re processing the news. And that’s okay.

3. Be mindful of your thoughts.

Our mind tends to jump to the very worst-case scenario. Avoid creating a story based purely on what’s going on in your mind. Seek facts from reputable sources and experts.

Well-meaning people, whether you know them well or they’re people you pass in the street, will offer opinions and advice. It’s common for others to share stories of someone who knows someone who was also diagnosed with X, Y, or Z. Be wary of taking on board everything everyone says. In fact, it’s okay to ask people to stop – hearing those stories is unlikely to be of help to you. Choose who you listen to and take advice from.

If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with a serious illness and are feeling scared or uncertain, reach out to someone you trust and feel safe with.

I wish you well on your journey. It won’t be easy, there’ll be ups and downs, highs and lows, and we cannot control the outcome. But within you is a depth of courage and strength that you can draw on. Go well.

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