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When you have a serious illness

How to process and understand your diagnosis

When you have a serious illness, it's more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open between you and your doctor. In fact, you may want to take a relative or friend with you to your appointment to bring up questions that you haven't considered or have forgotten, as well as to provide support during the appointment. Later, he or she can help you recall the details of what the doctor said.

Ask precise questions

When faced with the prospect of a serious illness, the more information you have, the better. Ask your doctor:

  • What is my diagnosis? Can you explain it to me in detail?
  • Is my condition chronic (long-term) or acute (severe or rapid onset of symptoms, but short-term)?
  • Is it likely to get worse?
  • What is the recommended treatment? What are the benefits and risks of this treatment?
  • Are there any alternative treatments? What are the benefits and risks of these treatments?
  • Will I need medication? If yes:
    • How will it help my condition?
    • What side effects should I be aware of?
  • How long will this treatment take? Can I stop if I'm feeling better?
  • What activities, if any, should I avoid?
  • Should I be alert for any physical signs and symptoms?
  • When should I schedule a follow-up appointment?
  • Do you have any literature on my condition?

Before your visit, take a moment to write down any questions you want to ask your doctor (PDF).

Take the initiative

  • Learn all you can about your medical condition. (The Internet is often a rich source of medical information—but make sure the source is reputable.)
  • Ask questions about your treatment, and keep asking until you understand it.
  • Don't suffer in silence – tell your doctor about any discomfort or side effects that you are experiencing. Tell the doctor when a treatment or medication isn't working.
  • Share information about how you feel physically and emotionally.
  • If you want to review the information your doctor has written about your condition and treatment, request your medical records.
  • If you have any concerns about your physician's diagnosis and treatment recommendations, consider getting a second opinion.