This website is for UK-based NHS residents only. If you are looking for our global corporate site, visit here.

Dealing with a difficult diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis you don’t want, whether it’s something physical or psychological, is likely to make you fearful about what the future has in store. It’s normal for your head to fill with questions: What exactly does it mean? What are the possible consequences? Will life as you know it change dramatically? Will you lose your job? What will the impact be on your family?

Everything happens very quickly on TV dramas – but in real life there’s likely to be a wait before you get the next piece of information, which could be test results or a decision about treatment. You might feel as though you’re in limbo, and that everything is on hold. The uncertainty means your mind will probably play out numerous possible scenarios and ‘what ifs’.

Try to continue doing things that bring you pleasure. You may not feel like engaging in anything, but it can help to keep some normality and routine. Spend time with people whose company you enjoy, and take opportunities to offload to and discuss things with them. Connect with your values: identify what really matters to you, and focus your time and energy on those things.

Remember there’s no right way to respond. Some people feel the weight of their own or others’ expectations around how they deal with the news, but none of us are taught how to receive bad news, so we muddle through. We might be upset, angry or practical, or not react much at all if we’re shellshocked. It’s all okay. You might find that your response is very similar to grief – and this is natural, as you are experiencing a kind of loss.

Don’t feel under pressure to be positive all the time, or to look on the bright side, or put a brave face on it. You will have moments when you ‘break’; this isn’t a weakness, it’s human, and more importantly it’s an important part of processing the news.

Avoid random Googling. Look for reliable sources of support and advice that are specific to the condition you’ve been diagnosed with. Stick to factual groups and websites rather than discussion forums, which might just add to any worry and confusion.

Don’t rush into any decisions. Some of us move quickly into problem-solving mode, or feel the need to take control. For instance, someone who’s been told they might need to work less might start trying to figure out how they’re going to pay the mortgage, or worry whether they need to change their job. Try to stay in the present: you don’t need to make any big decisions right now. Give yourself time to think, and wait until you’ve got more information.

Prepare for your next appointment. You might not have very long with your doctor, so make sure you’re ready to gather all the information you need. Write down your worries, feelings and questions – and see if your friends or family can come up with anything you haven’t thought of. When we’re under stress and feeling emotional or afraid it’s hard to take everything in. Plan to bring someone with you if you can, and if they’re willing to take notes for you that’s great.

Accept there will be a period of adjustment. It’s likely that the beliefs and assumptions you had about your body and health have been turned upside down, and you may feel that your sense of identity has been shaken. This is especially true if the diagnosis was unexpected, or if you’ve always been fit and healthy. Some people feel as though their body has ‘let them down’. It will take time to come to terms with this, and you may need to adjust the way you view your body: we’re all vulnerable, and sometimes things can go wrong.

Recognise you won’t always feel like this. The level of fear and anxiety you experience soon after diagnosis will change as you acclimatise to the news. At first it can be overwhelming and all-consuming, but as things progress you’ll feel more informed and in control, you’ll get to know what you need, and feel able to be more proactive.

If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of receiving a difficult diagnosis, CBT can equip you with techniques and strategies to manage your feelings. Begin your journey here.

Other stories

In an emergency
Call 111 - if you urgently need medical help or advice but it is not a life threatening situation
Call 999 - if you or anyone else is in immediate danger or harm
Call the Samaritans 24 hours a day on 116 123