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Coping with a Chronic or Terminal Illness

January 12, 2016

Nearly 50 percent of adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic health condition, while terminal conditions like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s are the leading cause of death in the U.S.,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Learning of a chronic or terminal diagnosis can be challenging for many people and their families, but there are several ways to adjust to life with a long-term illness.

Dealing with a Chronic Illness

According to the CDC, 117 million Americans have a chronic health condition. High blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis are some of the most common chronic conditions in the country.

Being diagnosed with a chronic condition is life-changing for most people. Their initial reaction is typically one of fear, anger and disbelief. This is normal, and in most cases, these feelings go away over time. However, it isn’t easy. It takes ongoing effort and support for someone to come to terms with an illness.

When you are diagnosed with a chronic condition, managing the disease becomes part of your everyday life. Coping with symptoms and adjusting to the physical changes the disease may cause is one of the most challenging things about living with a chronic condition.

However, there are effective ways to cope. Studies show that the way you approach your diagnosis can impact your quality of life. For example, one study involving women with breast cancer showed that those who directly confronted their diagnosis had a more positive frame of mind three years after treatment, compared to those who avoided their diagnosis or who were depressed during treatment planning. Many other studies have shown that social and emotional support have a positive impact on a person’s health and efforts to manage a chronic illness.

Understanding your condition, finding support and self-management are all important coping strategies. When you are first diagnosed with a chronic condition, it’s critical to get as much information about the disease as possible. It’s common to have several questions, so talk to your doctor to get answers. Ask about specific things you can do to improve your health. He or she can give you advice about how to best manage your condition and point you to resources that will help you with this process.

Studies show that when people are focused on managing their disease, they have better quality of life and improved physical and emotional outcomes. Self-management typically involves making the best lifestyle choices for your health, including regular diet and exercise. Staying positive and making sure you regularly visit your doctor — and follow his or her advice — is critical to living with a chronic condition, as well.

Coping with a Terminal Diagnosis

Dealing with a terminal illness requires a great deal of emotional strength and support. In some ways, the initial reaction to a terminal diagnosis can be similar to a chronic one — fear, anger and shock.


But these feelings may be intensified because no treatment or lifestyle changes can cure the disease. No one likes to talk about death, and facing it is even more difficult.


It’s understandable if you don’t want to talk about your diagnosis initially. Take time for yourself to absorb what you’ve just heard from your doctor and tell your loved ones that you’ll be taking this time. When you’re ready to talk, they will be there to listen and offer their support.


When you’re ready to discuss your diagnosis, get all the information you can from your doctor about what to do next. Often, this involves discussions about symptom management and palliative care to make sure you’re comfortable and to minimize stress. If you can, also share your feelings and fears with loved ones. Tell them about your concerns and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Managing your health care, day-to-day tasks and other financial matters when you are seriously ill can add additional stress, so let close family members help you take care of some of these responsibilities.


In addition to support from close family and friends, talking to someone in the same situation also may provide comfort. Someone who is facing a terminal illness may be able to understand all the emotions you’re feeling. Not everyone deals with this news in the same way, but listening to others’ stories may help you feel less alone. Talk to your doctor to get information about local support groups or a referral for counseling services.


Dealing with a very short prognosis is especially difficult. During this time, it’s important to surround yourself with those you love and people who are supportive and positive. Seek comfort in the things you enjoy and share these moments with your loved ones — whether it’s recounting funny family stories, watching your favorite movies or having a family meal together. Set short-term goals that give you something to look forward to, like visiting your favorite museum or park or attending an upcoming family gathering nearby. All these things can help you stay positive, even during such a difficult time. 


Millions of people will be diagnosed with a chronic or terminal disease every year. Though lives are forever changed after these diagnoses, that doesn’t mean people should stop living as best as they can. With a chronic diagnosis, self-management and ongoing support from your doctor and loved ones can help you better cope. With a terminal diagnosis, support is just as important. Seek support when you feel stressed or need someone to talk to, and most importantly, spend time with those closest to you and take things day by day.

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