Helping Yourself Live

When You Are Seriously Ill

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

You have learned that you have a life-threatening illness. Even if you have the loving support of family and friends, you may feel alone as you question your future health. This article is intended to help you live with your life-threatening illness.

Acknowledging Your Illness

Learning that you are seriously ill is a blow. If the onset of the illness was sudden or unexpected, you will likely feel shock and numbness at first. This is a natural and necessary response to painful news.

You can only cope with this new reality in doses. You will first come to understand it in your head, and only over the weeks and even months to come will you come to understand it with your heart.

To acknowledge that you have a life-threatening illness-be it cancer, heart disease or something else-is to acknowledge a major life transition. This transition is one that at some level we think only happens to other people, not us. Yet, inexplicably, it is happening to you. You are faced with a multitude of questions. What treatment should I pursue? Will my treatments reverse, delay or cure my illness? Who can I talk to about my thoughts and feelings? Am I going to die?

Facing the Unknown About the Illness

Discovering that you have a life-threatening illness naturally makes you take inventory of your life. You have a right to have questions, fears and hopes. Illness establishes new directions and often causes some questioning of old directions. New thoughts, feelings and action patterns will emerge. The unknown invites you to question and search for the meaning of your life, in the past, present and future.

Accept Your Respnse to the Illness

Each person responds to news of illness in his or her own unique way. You, too, will have your response, be it fear, excitement, anger, loss, grief, denial, hope or any combination of emotions. Becoming aware of how you respond right now is to discover how you will live with your illness. Don't let others prescribe how you feel; find people who encourage you to teach them how you feel. After all, there is no right or wrong way for you to think and feel.

Respect Your Own Need for Talk, for Silence

You may find that you don't want to talk about your illness at all. Or you may find that you want to talk about it with some people, but not with others. In general, open and honest communication is a good idea. When you make your thoughts and feelings known, you are more likely to receive the kind of care and companionship you feel will be most helpful to you.

But if you don't want to talk about your illness, don't force yourself. Perhaps you will be able to open up more later on, after you have lived with the reality of your illness for a time.

Telling Your Family and Friends About Your Illness

Your family and closest friends deserve to know what is happening to you. Tell them when you feel able to.

Be aware that everyone will react differently to your news, just as each seriously ill person reacts differently to his or her own illness. Many will be shocked. Many will cry. Some will refuse to believe it. Some will spring into helpful action by running errands for you, offering to clean your house, etc.  

Many will not know how to respond. Because they don't know what to say or do, or because your illness may arouse their own fears of mortality, they may even avoid you altogether. Know that their apparent abandonment does not mean they don't love you.

Even children deserve to be told about your illness. As with all people, children can cope with what they know. They cannot cope with what they don't know. Be honest with them as you explain the situation in language they will understand. Don't overexplain, but do answer any questions they may have.

Be an Active Participant in your Treatment

Many people are taught as "patients" to be passive recipients of the care provided by medical experts. But don't forget-this is your body, your life. Don't fail to ask questions that are important to your emotional and physical well-being out of fear that you will be "taking up someone's time."

Learn about your illness. Visit your local library and consult the medical reference books. Request information from educational associations, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Heart Association. Ask your doctor, nurses and other caregivers whenever you have a question.

If you educate yourself about the illness and its treatments, you will better understand what is happening to you. You will be better equipped to advocate for personalized, compassionate care. You may not be in control of your illness, but you can and should be in control of your care.

Be Tolerant of Your Physical and Emotional Limits

Your illness and its treatment will almost surely leave you feeling fatigued. Your ability to think clearly and make decisions may be impaired. And your low energy level may naturally slow you down. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Nurture yourself. Get enough rest. Eat balanced meals.  Lighten your schedule as much as possible.

Find Hope

When people are seriously ill, we tend to get caught up in statistics and averages about physical deterioration, treatments and survival. These can be helpful to know, but they don't always provide spiritual and emotional comfort.

Even if your future is guarded, you can find hope in your next treatment, your next visit from someone loved, your spirituality. At bottom, hope means finding meaning in life-whether that life will last five more months, five more years or five more decades.

Embrace Your Spirituality

If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. You may find comfort and hope in reading spiritual texts, attending religious services or praying. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you are angry at God because of your illness, realize that this is a normal and natural response. Find someone to talk to who won't be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings you need to explore.

Reach Out for Support

Many of us grew up believing, "Do it on your own so you don't have to depend on anyone else." But confronting a life-threatening illness cannot and should not be done alone. As difficult as it may be for you, you must reach out to your fellow human beings. Most of us know who we feel comfortable turning to when we are under stress. Who do you turn to? Give yourself permission to reach out for prayers, support and practical assistance.

If you do not have a large circle of family and friends, find out about local support groups for people with life-threatening illness. You might also consider seeing a counselor one-on-one. Whatever you do, don't isolate yourself and withdraw from people who love you.

About the Author

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and presents dozens of grief-related workshops each year across North America. Among his books are Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas and The Healing Your Grieving Heart Journal for Teens. For more information, write or call The Center for Loss and Life Transition, 3735 Broken Bow Road, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526, (970) 226-6050 or visit their website, www.centerforloss.com.

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