One morning Chris Arauza woke up and his right side felt weak. He could barely walk, but he went to his job as a mechanic, thinking his body would recover on its own. At 25 years old, Arauza was healthy with a wife and a 3-month-old little boy who counted on him. But his body wasn't cooperating, and his boss sent him to the hospital.
He spent a week there undergoing multiple tests and was told he either had brain cancer or multiple sclerosis (MS). He knew he would have to cope with a difficult diagnosis, but which one? "The waiting was scary," he said. "I was worried for my son more than anything, and my wife." A month later, the results were in — he had MS.
Getting an unexpected diagnosis can flip your life upside down. One day you're going strong, and the next you're stopped in your tracks. You have to evaluate treatment options and think how this will affect your job, your family, and your finances. How you move forward affects your recovery, long-term outcomes, and relationships with family and friends.
Here are some tips for moving forward in the face of a difficult diagnosis.
1. Give Yourself Time to Absorb the News
Anger, denial, fear, and anxiety are all normal reactions to bad news. Allow yourself the chance to work through the emotions. How long this takes varies for everyone. It may be a few days, a few weeks, or longer, but you should eventually reach some level of acceptance regarding the diagnosis.
Living in denial or paralyzing fear can mean that you're not seeking treatment or taking steps to manage your health and limit the illness's effects.
2. Create a Support System
The first instinct for many people, especially parents who are used to taking care of everyone else, may be to hide the news. After all, keeping it to yourself means you won't cause anyone unnecessary pain. However, those secrets can cause both internal and external turmoil, and leave you feeling isolated.
Reach out to friends, family, and neighbors. When they know, they will be in a better position to help you and to cope with their own reactions to your illness. Arauza's wife, mother, and stepfather were there with him at every step. His wife understands when he has bad days, and, as a nurse, is able to help him oversee his health. His mom and stepfather help take care of their baby so that Arauza and his wife can both continue to work full time.
"The diagnosis has been just as hard on my wife as it has me," Arauza said. "But it has affected the whole family. They've all learned about MS to understand what I'm going through and what I need from them."
3. Educate Yourself
Search reputable sources to learn as much as you can about your illness and your treatment options. Your doctor can recommend websites to start with, and for in-depth information, you can try the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and any national organizations related to your illness.
Understanding as much as you can about your illness and treatment options allows you to have a two-way conversation with your doctor. You can discuss the pros and cons of treatment options, and ensure that your care plan matches your values and lifestyle. Arauza was given a wide range of medications to choose from and carefully evaluated each one. He weighed his desired lifestyle against the side effects of each possible medication to determine what would best suit him.
4. Take a Deep Breath and Look Ahead
Maybe you only look ahead day by day, or maybe you take a longer view. Your life may not be what you once thought it would be, but you can find a balance.
If you're finding it a struggle to be positive most days, or if the fear and anxiety are preventing you from going through treatment or opening up to family, it may be time to seek professional help. Counselors, support groups (in person and online), and faith advisers can be good sources to learn about what other people are going through and talk through your own fears.
Most of us aren't prepared for bad news, and it is a learning process to figure out how to cope with a difficult diagnosis. With time and patience, you will find a way to adapt to the changes coming.