Anyone who has been diagnosed with a chronic disease has experienced the unsettling cycle of emotions that accompany such often-shocking news. Fear. Anxiety. Denial. Depression. And in many cases, isolation. The feeling that no one can understand what you are going through.
No matter how life-threatening or relatively low-impact a diagnosis may be on one’s health, these feelings are a natural reaction to anything that promises to upset one’s equilibrium. We have routines, goals, and plans for the future. When facing a new diagnosis, we are subject to almost-certain change. Amidst navigating the decisions in how to handle our care, we wrestle with our fears and anxieties towards the future. While each individual will have different concerns on a micro-level, the overarching questions will be the same. Is my life in danger? How will my lifestyle be impacted by this diagnosis? Is the future I have planned at risk?
Usually, any diagnosis comes with some sort of care plan. Whether it’s lifestyle change, medications, or a more intensive treatment like surgery, physicians will recommend treatment options to address or improve a patient’s medical condition. Physicians will equip you with as much medical knowledge as they can to help patients make informed decisions about their treatments. And while good doctors will also ensure that patients feel taken care of emotionally, that responsibility is not included in a physician’s job description. Most hospitals have social workers, who help patients navigate any changes that come with a new diagnosis. These resources range from legal and monetary to practical to spiritual and emotional.
In many cases, mental health plays a huge role in a person’s ultimate health outcomes. Plenty of research has shown that emotional support impacts the overall effectiveness of patients’ treatments1. Health outcomes usually depend on how well we follow our care plans – the more we take our prescribed medicines, adjust our diets, and exercise, the more our health will improve. In light of all these changes, it can be hard to maintain a positive attitude, especially when facing a potentially terminal illness, financial stress, or other challenges. A human truth presents itself. When we feel depressed, we lose motivation. Without motivation, we stop following our care plans. The result is a downward spiral in care plan adherence, health condition, and emotional health.
What can break this negative feedback loop and bring back motivation? Hope. The assurance that someone has been through the same thing before and survived, or settled in to a new normal. Empathy. Talking to someone who understands. These kinds of connections can make or break an individual’s emotional capacity to fight through a difficult care plan or prognosis, thus affecting their physical recovery. While social workers and other hospital resources can alleviate some of the emotional burden on patients, true empathy can only come from speaking with others who have shared experiences. For example, Chicago-based nonprofit Imerman Angels provides one-on-one peer mentoring for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers. With a large global database of volunteer survivors and caregivers, Imerman Angels pairs these volunteer mentors with individuals currently facing cancer or supporting a loved one. Their support seekers’ testimonials show the power that hope and empathy can have in overcoming life-threatening diseases.
Emotional support is often an opt-in addition to care. But empathy benefits everyone. If emotional support should were part of the standard of care, rather than an afterthought, I think we would see positive outcomes in care plan adherence and even survival rates.
- Jane Turner, Brian Kelly. “Emotional dimensions of chronic disease.” West J Med. 2000 Feb; 172(2): 124–128. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1070773/).