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In Control Again

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What do you do when your doctor tells you that you have an ongoing, chronic condition? —That the symptoms you're experiencing are probably not going away? —That your ailment is treatable and may get better but it may get worse?

There's actually quite a lot you can do to take charge of your condition and manage it successfully. Here are 10 ideas to help you feel more in control.

1. Learn everything you can about your condition. Knowledge is power. Ask your doctor about every detail of your condition. Visit the library. Go online for information.* Call your health insurance company. Talk to friends and acquaintances. Find out who else has the same condition and ask them questions. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be to make informed decisions about your condition.

"I have much to learn from this if only I allow myself to learn."
— Allyssa (cancer)

2. Keep your doctor fully informed. Doctors are a great help and reference but they're very busy people. Book frequent follow-up appointments. Call them with updates on your condition or to discuss new treatment options that you hear about. Be a good patient but a persistent one.

3. Get a second opinion. Two heads are better than one. Your primary physician may be outstanding, but the opinion of a second doctor or specialist will give you greater perspective on your condition and may also present you with additional treatment options.

4. Be disciplined about taking medications and following through with treatments. Many treatments take days, weeks or even months to become effective. Make your treatments part of your everyday routine like brushing your teeth, fixing dinner or putting on makeup. If your self-care is regular and structured, you'll get the most out of it.

5. Consider general lifestyle improvements in addition to prescribed treatments. If you are overweight and out of shape, have poor nutrition habits, smoke, have too much stress in your life or get too little sleep, your body must work harder to fight a chronic health condition of any kind. Look at yourself realistically and see if there isn't something more you can do to improve your lifestyle. Start with small improvements, like adjusting your diet. There are many resources available to help you understand how much of which foods you should be eating. Start with a basic one like Join a health club. Talk with a trainer, nutrition specialist, nurse or counselor. Find a friend you can confide in and ask them to help you 'stick with it' and be committed to maintaining your new, healthier habits.

6. Locate and join a support group. No matter what health problems you have, someone else has them too, and is dealing with the same fears, feelings, struggles and hopes that you are. The support and common bond of others who truly "know" what you're experiencing can be invaluable. Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about a support group near you. Look up Social Services in the yellow pages and call them. Call the main number of your local hospital and ask for 'information on support groups'. Perform a search on the Internet.** The information, friendship and perspective you receive from a support group may be as important and effective as any treatment a doctor can give.

"I try to make each minute count."
— Fern (cancer)

7. Keep a journal. Does your condition have ups and downs? Are some medications losing their effectiveness for you? If so, keeping track of your condition may help you and your doctor better understand how your body is responding and fine-tune your treatment. It may help you pinpoint any foods, conditions, habits, etc. that affect your condition. Most chronic health conditions have a number of possible treatment options. It may be time for you to try something new.

8. Strengthen your spiritual health. What's important to you? What gives you peace or motivates you to live life to the fullest? Many people are comforted a great deal by exploring their spiritual side.*** They see their physical health as only one part of a bigger picture. Now may be a good time to visit your pastor, priest, rabbi or other spiritual advisor, consider a retreat or seek out a prayer or meditation group in your area.

"It's painful and it's scary, but it has helped me figure out what's important in my life."
— Louise (cancer)

9. Have patience. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Successful treatment takes time and there will surely be victories and setbacks along the way. By doing the right things — staying informed, following treatments and therapies as prescribed, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and giving your body time to heal itself — you'll be giving yourself the best chance possible to manage and minimize your condition.

"It's a problem but it's not a show-stopper. I take each day one at a time."
— Carolyn (arthritis)

10. Find another focus. Discover other interests. Look for something outside yourself to 'get fired up' about. Try a new hobby or revisit an old one. Support a worthwhile cause. Become a volunteer for something you care about – your church, a local school, or community program. Call an old friend. Go to the library. What’s important is staying involved and active to avoid allowing your chronic disease to take over your life with symptoms of depression and hopelessness.

Becoming an active participant in your own care is something you can control and it's perhaps the best way to minimize and treat your chronic health condition. Dr. Len Stafford of the National Institute of Health sums it up appropriately as he says, "With the right support, many people can learn to live with, treat and manage their own conditions. This can help them to prevent complications, and avoid getting further conditions. Even small improvements can have a huge impact."

* These online resources offer excellent information about a wide variety of chronic health conditions:

** Go to your favorite search engine (,,,, etc.) and type in "Support groups for _______" (fill in your condition: cardiovascular disease, heart disease, lung cancer, prostate cancer, high blood pressure, etc.)

*** Several excellent books on exploring personal growth while living with chronic illness are available in stores and online. May we recommend:

  • Sick and Tired of Feeling Sick and Tired by Paul Donoghue and Mary Siegel
  • The Chronic Illness Experience: Embracing the Imperfect Life by Cheri Register
  • Peace, Love & Healing by Dr. Bernie Siegel
  • Good Days, Bad Days: The Self in Chronic Illness and Time by Kathy Charmaz

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