This tips sheet presents some things you can do to take good care of yourself and help yourself cope when you receive a frightening medical diagnosis.

If unsure, clarify the diagnosis

If you are confused in your initial medical appointments (or you feel that your diagnosis is unclear or you may not have been diagnosed accurately), move quickly to get more information or a second opinion. Cultural and individual differences in communication styles sometimes mean that doctors can be indirect, unclear, or confusing in how they communicate the results and implications of medical tests.

Talk to knowledgeable friends/family/professionals

Talk to trusted and knowledgeable people before making any big decisions about treatment and next steps. Some ways to do this include:

  • If you have any doctor friends, now is the time to reach out and ask for their advice/input.
  • Get a second opinion from a different doctor.
  • Talk to family and friends and ask them to put you in contact with other people they know who have received this diagnosis.

Don’t do too much online research

Doing some research about your diagnosis on reputable sites can be very helpful. However, doing too much research will not be helpful. The internet is populated with all sorts of obscure facts, unlikely scenarios, and misinformation. Furthermore, people tend to seek out discussion boards to post questions and stories when things are not going well for them. This means that spending a lot of time reading about other people’s experiences is unlikely to give you a balanced perspective regarding your own treatment options or prognosis. So, after you’ve done some basic research online, you know what you’re dealing with, and you’ve made your treatment decisions, step away from the internet.

Take medical leave if you can

When you are first diagnosed, you may feel a strong desire or a sense of responsibility to keep working, no matter what. However, consider taking time away from work for a while if you are able. The organization and programs will survive without you while you take time to explore and pursue treatment, or adjust to a “new normal.” Do not quit your job right after you are diagnosed, but do take some medical leave if you are entitled to it. If no medical leave policy exists for your position, talk to your manager about flexible working arrangements and how the organization may be able to support you during this time.

Protect your energy/time

When news of the diagnosis starts to filter out into your wider networks, many people may reach out to express support, offer help, and ask questions. Such expressions of concern are well meant, but responding to them can be difficult and exhausting when you are already feeling depleted and overwhelmed. Don’t feel bad about establishing boundaries that help protect your time, energy, and attention for what is most important right now—you and your immediate family. Some ways you can do this are:

  • If you have a website or use social media, put up a post explaining that you appreciate all the concern and support, and that you will read/listen to every email and message, but that it may take some time for you to reply because you are focusing on family during this season. This will help relieve any pressure you might feel to respond to messages immediately.
  • Don’t answer the phone if you don’t want to in that moment. Let it go to voicemail, or get a family member or close friend to answer your phone and take messages for you.

Remember that this is an opportunity to practice resilience

It can help to think of this situation as an opportunity to practice resilience. During the course of your work you have likely seen many people who have shown courage and resilience in difficult circumstances. Although this diagnosis is not a path you would have chosen, it can be an opportunity to practice courage and resilience yourself, and to develop more empathy with others who are suffering and feeling powerless.

Accept help from family and friends

During this time, it will be extra-helpful to have a community nearby to surround and support you. If you are fortunate enough to have family and friends in a position to help, let them. This can be difficult, especially if you are used to being strong, independent, and the person who usually helps others. Remember, however, that others are offering you a gift of care, love, and compassion. Honor them by receiving it, with gratitude, if you are able. This may might look like:

  • Going back to your home country temporarily if you’re living and working abroad.
  • Moving in temporarily with family.
  • Saying yes when people offer to help.
  • Telling people how they can help (providing meals, childcare, cleaning/laundry, taking you to medical appointments etc.)
  • Asking a friend or family member to be the point-person who organizes and/or solicits help (a meal roster, a childcare roster, finances, etc.).

Expect life to feel strange for a while

It is a huge shock when you first receive a frightening medical diagnosis. Expect that you will feel strange for a while. It’s quite common to spend some time feeling oddly calm and as if you’re thinking very clearly. In other moments you may feel very upset, overwhelmed, and fearful. Here are some other common reactions you may experience:

  • Feeling like your life has gone into slow-motion.
  • Feeling like all your priorities have crystallized, and nothing is more important than family and friends.
  • Feeling disconnected from the rest of life, and surprised that everything seems to be continuing on “as normal” around you in spite of all that has changed for you.

Expect things to feel awkward/weird with some friends and family

A lot of people who care about you are not going to know what to say or do when they hear the news of your diagnosis. Expect that people are going to offer you unwanted advice and say other things that annoy or upset you. If you expect this dynamic and try to remember that people generally have good intentions, it can help you be patient and gentle with other people’s efforts to connect and support you.

Let yourself feel what comes

During times like this, intense feelings come and intense feeling go again. You’re likely to feel many waves of intense feelings, some of which seem contradictory or at odds with each other (e.g., gratitude and fear.) Try not to put pressure on yourself to feel a certain way or to only focus on the positive all the time. If you put too much pressure on yourself to identify silver linings in a dark situation or only look on the bright side, you can deny yourself the honesty and catharsis that comes with naming difficult feelings like fear, anger, resentment, and grief.

Focus on the basics

Check in with how you’re doing with self-care basics. Eat as well as you can. Get as much sleep and rest as you can. Exercise if you are able. If you can take care of the basics, you’re already doing a good job of taking care of yourself during a challenging time.

Seek out things that “fill you up”

During this season it’s especially important to seek out things that you are grateful for, that bring you joy and hope, that refresh and renew you. Some ways people commonly do this include:

  • Spend time outside, and go for walks if you’re able
  • Talk to others
  • Read novels or watch TV (but nothing too heavy or depressing!)
  • Read memoirs of other people’s experiences with your illness
  • Create something (cooking, gardening, sewing, etc.)
  • Focus on and appreciate the simply routines of life
  • Spend time with children
  • Spiritual practices, rituals, and traditions such as prayer, gatherings, yoga, meditation, etc.

Contact a counselor

The IRC has an Employee Assistance and Resilience Program (the EARP) that provides free counseling to IRC staff members and their family. Talking to a counselor can be a very good way to process some of your feelings related to the diagnosis and formulate a plan for next steps. Learn more about how you can contact a counselor here.