Every year in America, 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer. Another 1.5 million learn they have diabetes. And 720,000 others suffer their first heart attack.
As one professional athlete said, “When I left home to go to the doctor’s office I was one person. After learning I had cancer, I came home a different person. Nothing seemed to matter. My career was over and my life probably was too. I was devastated, completely devastated. So was my family.”
Like it or not, many of us will find ourselves facing an unexpected serious diagnosis or an unpleasant health event. Mitigating that moment is virtually impossible: feelings of disbelief, anger and sadness come with the territory of dire health setbacks.
Fortunately, there are coping strategies that may positively affect the outcome of the disease — or at least impact the quality of life the sufferer experiences.
Here is a case history of a man who had to deal with two severe conditions:
Norman Cousins was an author, journalist, educator, and longtime editor of the literary magazine, Saturday Review. In his late 40’s, he developed a crippling tissue disorder which left him unable to move. His doctors told him that he had a 1 in 500 chance of recovery.
“Being unable to move my body was all the evidence that I needed that the specialists were dealing with real concerns,” he stated. “But deep down, I knew I had a good chance and relished the idea of bucking the odds.”
Why this optimism in the face of an incurable disease? Cousins deeply trusted the “life force.” He didn’t accept the grim verdict of the doctors because he refused to underestimate the capacity of human will.
Since he saw his situation as a challenge, not a death sentence, he didn’t endure “the cycle of fear, depression and panic” which most patients in his condition would have experienced. “The belief system has an impact on the healing system,” he said.
With the blessings of his primary physician, Cousins left the hospital, checked into a hotel and began taking massive doses of vitamin C. He spent his time watching Marx brother’s comedies and other funny films — there was a copy of E.B White’s A Subtreasury of American Humor by his bedside.
Cousins reawakened feelings of love, laughter, faith and optimism. It was a struggle, but Cousins, to the amazement of the medical community, overcame the disease.
About 15 years later, Cousins had a second brush with the eternal when he had a major heart attack. Employing proper nutrition (including vitamin therapy), exercise, deep muscle relaxation practices, and “life force” enhancing activities, he again recovered.
When Cousins passed away at 75 in 1990, he had lived ten years after the heart attack, a much longer period than his medical team had thought was possible.
The approach Cousins used to his illnesses is mirrored in the advice professionals offer today.
These are some tips for dealing with major health concerns:
- One day at a time works. Take it slowly, especially when processing that first blast of bad news. Give yourself space to process and integrate the information. Whatever your reactions are, anger, sadness, confusion — it’s ok and it’s appropriate for you.
- When speaking to professionals, take notes. You won’t be able to recall everything you learn during emotionally charged times.
- Keep the communication lines with your physicians open. Feel free to contact them with questions.
- If Norman Cousins had a central message, it was this: take responsibility for your care. Educate yourself about the problem, don’t be afraid to question medical advice. Understand the goals in treatment and actively participate in the decision making.
- Expect a positive outcome. Celebrate small gains.
- Seek support. If you don’t have family, find a support group. Talk with someone who has had to deal with the same illness. Pay attention to your feelings.
- Seek second opinions. Uncertainty or lack of confidence in the direction of care can be harmful.
- Don’t allow the problem to define you. It’s a challenge, but do what you love in spite of the challenge.
- For the right patient, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy and meditation may be helpful.
- Remember these words from Norman Cousins: “We are not capable of banishing death. The final triumph is beyond us. But we are entitled to the fullest measure of help the world has to offer…death becomes tragic only when we have allowed things to die inside us that give meaning to life.”
The Norman Cousins story can be found in two of his books: Anatomy of an Illness and The Healing Heart. Both are available online.