When you receive a life-altering diagnosis like cancer or diabetes, your instincts might tell you to duck and cover. Our brains are designed to protect us by decreasing our capacity to absorb sensory input and messing with our ability to make solid, rational decisions. What can you do after the bomb drops in order to cope with the challenges ahead?

Fear is normal

Selma Annala, a Portland, Ore., recreational therapist, certified lifestyle counselor and stress-management therapist who supervises Integrated Cancer Services for Legacy Hospitals, says: "First we reassure patients that fear is a normal response after diagnosis and can be overcome. Next, we help them slow down the decision-making process. It's natural to want to make all the big decisions immediately as a way of regaining control. We help them prioritize and take one step at a time."

The Department of Health and Human Services provides five basic steps to help you cope after a diagnosis so you can make better choices and get on with the business of living:

Step 1: Take time to carefully examine your options and make important decisions

There's usually no reason or benefit to making snap decisions, unless your condition is an immediately life-threatening situation. You may need to research and consult multiple resources for opinions. Though you might feel motivated by a sense of panic to "do something now," most physicians encourage patients to let some of the shock recede before taking further action.

Step 2: Get the support you need

Look to your family, friends and extended support network for people whose opinions you trust and whose experiences are similar to yours. Check out support groups or services provided by local hospitals. Visit medical association websites like the American Cancer Society or the American Diabetes Association for valuable information and links to further research.

Don't let others make important decisions for you. You'll need someone to accompany you to medical appointments and be a second set of eyes and ears, but don't allow yourself to be railroaded into treatments you're not comfortable with. Annala says: "It's common that once someone hears a word like 'cancer,' they don't hear anything else.  Have someone tape record and take notes so you can check back later for information you may not have heard properly." Many hospitals have health advocates on staff to help navigate patients through treatment and recovery.

Step 3: Speak with your doctor

While one doctor may diagnose, patients will likely need specialists to treat their condition. Finding the right ones can be daunting, but there are plenty of resources to help. Ask your diagnosing physician and other doctors you already see for recommendations. Talk to family and friends. Visit sites like The American Society of Clinical Oncology  and the American College of Surgeons for lists of doctors in your area. The National Cancer Institute and the American Medical Association have tips for helping you select a physician. And you can use the provider search tool to find the one that's right for you.

Create a list of questions for your physician about your specific diagnosis, treatment options and prognosis. Don't hesitate to get a second (or even third) opinion. Don't worry about hurting your doctor's feelings by questioning advice or taking too much time. No one's time or opinion is more valuable than yours right now.

Step 4: Seek out information

While the Internet provides an instant, endless supply of explanations, opinions and options about your diagnosis, be careful what resources you pick. Anyone can write a medical opinion, but not everyone's an expert. Choose reputable organizations and information based on careful review of current scientific findings published in respected medical journals. The Mayo Clinic has a "find it fast" section with basic information. The National Institute of Health's patient health library lists conditions, medications and treatments from A-Z.

If you're interested in alternative or integrative practices, check out websites for professional organizations like the American Association of Oriental Medicine or visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine for links and referrals.

Step 5: Decide on a treatment plan

Once you've done your homework, decide on a specific treatment plan to best meet your goals. Depending on the severity of your illness, your goals may range from "do whatever it takes" to "just keep me comfortable." Wherever you fall on that spectrum, having a specific plan will help you feel more in control.

With a little time, a lot of support and a sense of control, patients discover that there is life outside the blast zone. Step by step, you too can get through it.


Jeanne Faulkner

Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.