Learning you have an illness is difficult enough—but then you have to grapple with what to do with that information. Here, experts and those who have been through it share the crucial next steps—and some comfort, in the process.

By Jennifer King Lindley
October 03, 2016

It may start with a nagging symptom, a troubling scan, or a phone call. In an instant, your life seems to split into before and after. We all hope it will never happen to us, but odds are you or someone close to you will have to navigate this traumatic terrain at some point. Forty percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime; breast, lung, and colorectal are the three most prevalent types for women. Heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and other life-changing illnesses are also all too common.

“There’s initially a feeling of complete shock. It may last hours or days,” says Gary McClain, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City and the author of After the Diagnosis: How Patients React and How to Help Them Cope. Although you may want to crawl under the covers and stay there, you need to take in complex medical information, help loved ones cope, and juggle the rest of life. Even in the midst of a crisis, the dog needs to be walked.

“Being sick can be a full-time job,” says Patty Ribera, a professional organizer, a former nurse, and the founder of Critical Organizing, which provides medical, financial, and estate organizational help. And it’s one that you’ve had no training for: What do you do first? Whom do you tell? Calm your mind, gather your support crew, and follow these early steps.

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