Coping with Illness: We are More Alike than Different

Author’s Note: This post is a revised version of one that originally posted at the Strangely Diabetic blog.  I have been thinking a lot recently about why I built the kind of practice that I did, and what my passion is when it comes to therapy.  I realized that I wanted to share that with my readers as well.  So, here we go!

If you look at my home page (or my tagline), you probably know that my practice specialty is helping patients and caregivers who are coping with serious illness.  Now, you may have noticed that I didn’t say, “coping with diabetes” or “coping with cancer” or “coping with lupus.”  That is deliberate on my part.  My interest in the mental health side of coping with illness began, as it does for many, with seeing the effect of a serious illness (breast cancer in this case) on dear friends.  I continued to focus on coping and cancer throughout graduate school, all the way through my dissertation.

Then I had the experience of being on the patient side of the health equation.  Along the way, I recognized that many of my own emotional experiences in coping with health challenges were paralleling the experience of the cancer patients I worked with.  That made me curious, so I started reading more, and being more engaged with diverse patient communities.  And what I learned was this: the emotional effects of coping with serious illness seem to fall into similar categories no matter what the physical diagnosis is.  When it comes to coping with health challenges, we are more alike than we are different.

Here is just a small sampling of the themes that I hear from my clients, no matter what diagnosis they are coping with, or whether their role is as patient or caregiver (or both):


  • Uncertainty about the future.
  • Concern about being a burden.
  • Frustration with navigating insurance and the health care system.
  • Financial stress and worry.
  • Sense of isolation.
  • Physical pain and challenges in daily activities.
  • Sense that life is controlled or limited by physical health.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Concern about impact of health on relationships.
  • Feeling unmotivated, rebellious or “stuck” when it comes to making healthy choices.
  • Fatigue–both physical and emotional.

As I said, that’s a small sample.  The truth is, dealing with serious illness, whether it is acute or chronic, is an incredibly stressful experience.  And, for many, many people, serious illness is accompanied by serious depression, anxiety, or relationship challenges.

So, I would just like to take this moment to encourage you, if you have been reading along in this blog and seeing parts of your own story, to get some support.  You don’t have to see a psychologist (although we can be very helpful folks).  Maybe your support will come from an online or in-person group, or a pastor, or a friend, or a loved one.  But please, make sure that it is coming from somewhere.  And don’t be afraid to ask for more support if you need it.  Each of you has a story that is powerful and unique and important.  Asking for support may be one of the strongest and bravest things that you ever do.

Not sure where to start?  Feel free to call, email, tweet or message me.  I’ll be happy to answer your questions about how to get the support ball rolling.

7 thoughts on “Coping with Illness: We are More Alike than Different

  1. Asking for support is a sign of strength in my book. We live in a world of “pulling up your own boot straps” so it goes against the norm to ask. But, it is (as you have put so well) the best thing to do.

    1. JoAnn,

      Changing that norm is another one of my passions. I want to help make it normal to ask for help. It is one of the reasons I have written a bit about the tough times in my own life. We all need help and support. I want the courage to ask for help to be the kind of courage we celebrate.


  2. For my dissertation I looked at how parents manage family life when they (the parent) have a chronic relapsing illness. My committee made me pick a particular illness but I did argue with them about that… because I thought the type of illness did not matter so much….
    One of the things that jump out as I did the literature review was the importance of the mental health of the parent and their emotional availability to children even in the face of managing a difficult illness. I think that the work you are doing so important! Best, Allison

    1. Allison,

      I didn’t know that you had done this work! Thanks so much for sharing. My passionate message to the world is that we can improve both physical and relationship health by supporting mental health. It’s one of the legs of our tripod.


Leave a Reply