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How to Empower People with a Serious Illness

Serious illness is more than a crisis of the body; it is a crisis of the soul. Many patients react to a serious disease by becoming paralyzed by fear. Resistance quickly crumbles, and is followed by depression and despair. Yet others marshal the inner resources needed to overcome the crisis.

How can people be empowered to mobilize their innate resources for health and healing? The twin keys to unlocking the door are Comprehension and Communication.

Comprehension means first understanding that the outcome of most common diseases-cancer and heart disease-is rarely inevitable. Your illness need not be your fate. Every doctor has seen patients with a life-threatening illness make a miraculous recovery after they were thought to be beyond hope. But because medical science is unable to explain these extraordinary occurrences, their importance is often ignored. Medicine is so enamored of the apparent infallibility of science that it has become blind to other possibilities. Remarkable recoveries are dismissed with the derisive term, “anecdotal,” a code word for meaningless

Countless times, I have observed two desperately ill patients lying side by side in the Intensive Care Unit, seemingly in identical clinical circumstances. At the critical juncture, one would start to show signs of improvement, and go on to live, while the other would go downhill, deteriorate, and die. The cause of that divergence has always been a profound mystery to me, and one of vital importance. Clearly, the importance of a patient’s state of mind is a critical factor in determining the outcome of a life-threatening illness. Self-empowerment is possible, and it does matter. Research has validated what doctors have always known: the will to live is as potent a force for healing as any pill or procedure.

Comprehension also means becoming learning everything you can about the disease afflicting you. Get online. Do the research. Becoming more knowledgeable is vital to becoming an active participant in your own care. Become informed. Educate yourself about your illness, using the internet, library and resources like the Library of Congress, American Heart Association and Cancer Society.

Communication begins with your doctor. Let him or her know that you plan to be an active partner in combating your illness. Ask questions. Find out about alternative approaches-their risks and benefits. And never hesitate to get a second opinion.

Communicating with your loved ones is also vital. Friends and family members are often skittish around sick people. They often tend to avoid meaningful interactions. This can reinforce a patient’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Open up to them about your feelings. Tell them how you would like them to be with you. Encourage them to express their heartfelt feelings by taking the lead and letting them know what’s going on within you.

Most importantly, communicate with yourself. Learn to use simple relaxation techniques as well as journal writing to re-enforce your self-belief, keep you centered and aware of what’s happening within you. Relaxation and/or meditation techniques are easy to learn. They simply involve becoming quiet and visualizing a beautiful scene from nature or, repeating a word or phrase that is meaningful to you such as God or Peace, or simply focusing your attention on your breath. Journal writing is a powerful way to express inner feelings.

If you would like to become inspired by patients with life-threatening illnesses who found the inner strength to combat their afflictions, I suggest you read my recent book, Courageous Confrontations. It tells the stories of seven patients whose will to live imposed new realities on their disease. Often they survived, not because of their medical care, but despite it. These wonderful people prove that all of us have the power to impose new realities on illness. Your crisis can be an opportunity to change the quality of your life, as well as your relationship with yourself and others.

Richard Helfant, MD is a Harvard-trained cardiologist. Courageous Confrontations, Dr. Helfant’s latest work, is an inspiring book about patients who found the inner strength to combat a life-threatening disease.