When a person is diagnosed with a chronic illness such as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, COPD or cancer, they often feel distraught. Within a few minutes their life is turned upside down and changed forever by an important and profound loss: the loss of health. The news comes as a shock especially if it is an unexpected diagnosis. What’s more, learning that a disease is treatable but incurable and lifelong gives rise to a range of emotions.
Every person experiences distress, pain, physical symptoms, thoughts and emotions and tries to make sense of their predicament in their own unique way. No two persons suffering from the same disease will show the same reaction. Having said this, diagnosis is often met with disbelief, feeling out of control, experiencing intense feelings of confusion, grief, fear, anger, denial and depression. All these feelings are very normal in the initial stage of a chronic disease and also during the journey of the disease.
People’s responses to illness may be affected by several factors such as the type of illness, age, type of medical treatment, severity of illness, his/her knowledge of the illness, cultural context, personality, previous experience of trauma, stressors before diagnosis, social support, education level, financial situation, pre-existing psychological distress and other factors.
The experience of many losses
A chronic disease brings with it many losses. Some losses may be real and some losses may be anticipated. Potential losses might be the loss of the fantasy of being healthy, the loss of freedom, loss of independence, the loss of bodily functions such as mobility, loss of part of self (such as in the case of amputations, loss of hair), loss of self image, loss of attractiveness, loss of self-esteem and even loss of hope. Sometimes one also has to deal with the loss of a role in the family due to the limitations created by the disease like for example when a mother loses her ability to do chores around the house. Another example of a potential loss is the loss of being a bread winner when a person cannot hold a job due to the nature of the chronic disease.
Not all of the above mentioned losses are experienced in the initial stages of a chronic disease, however a person definitely needs to grieve for the person they were before being diagnosed. They also need to integrate the chronic disease in his/her personality meaning being able to own “ I am a person who suffers from diabetes” or “I am a person who has Stage 4 Cancer”.
Facing this new reality
Some people can cope with chronic disease diagnosis. They just do it. They might struggle for a while, but come to accept the chronic disease. They force themselves to get up. They refuse to let it get to them. They fight. They fall but manage to get up and go about their business of living. Others may need professional support, and that is where therapy comes in! Therapy can make the difference between living and being alive with the disease. It can help a person learn to cope a little more every day.