A Letter To Someone Diagnosed With A Chronic Disease
And 3 Things Science Shows Will Help.
I’m writing this letter to you because I know how you feel. You may have just been diagnosed with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or an autoimmune disease, or perhaps you’ve suffered all your life with asthma, high blood pressure, allergies, arthritis, thyroid issues, sinus issues, gut issues, migraines, back pain, chronic fatigue, depression or anxiety. Whatever it is that has taken hold of you, I’m writing to say that I know.
I know about the endless medical appointments and their incalculable cost. I know how hard it is to find the right drugs and the right doses, and sometimes even the right diagnosis. I know about the constant worry about your disease’s cause. And I know about the untold fear of not ever getting better.
I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease 12 years ago. I went to see a doctor because I was exhausted and riddled with arthritis. I thought I’d be prescribed medication and told to put my feet up for a week. Instead he said he thought I had lupus — an illness that meant my immune system was attacking my own body, and an illness for which there is no cure. After prescribing long-term medication for my symptoms, he sent me away to live the rest of my life with a chronic disease.
But I’m writing this letter to say two things:
- You are not alone. According to the World Health Organization more than one in two people are diagnosed with a chronic illness in their lifetime. We are all in this together.
- There is hope.
This hope comes in the form of new scientific breakthroughs. I’m an investigative health journalist and after I got sick, I traveled around the world to make a feature documentary and write a book about the latest research into mind-body medicine, which is the the scientific line of enquiry to understand how our mind and body interact to affect our health. I’m talking about peer-reviewed academic research coming out of places like Harvard, Stanford and Yale, which has exploded in the last five to ten years with thanks to advancements in modern technology, such as:
- Research linking the brain to the gut to the immune system
- Research showing the importance of group support in improving outcomes for sick people and how feeling part of a close connected community affects our biochemistry in a way that makes it a keystone in the foundation of health
- Research showing that stress reduction techniques like meditation can flip the switch on genes affecting disease and slow the rate of cellular aging in our body
- Research showing that the interaction between a patient and a doctor can significantly alter the way a sick person’s body responds to treatment.
After implementing what I learned, I am happy to say that as I write these words, I am well and I don’t require any medication. While I’ve had setbacks along the way, my life is unrecognizable from what it was when I first got sick.
My hope is that this letter finds people who feel they have run out of options and that it gives you a starting point for your own evidence-based health deep-dive. If it does find you, here are three things to get you started right away.
- Prioritize Your Health
As I wrote in my piece Health or Wealth? Finding The Work-Life-Health Balance, we live in an age where success and achievement is often valued over and above our health. When I got sick, everything in my life was out of whack — my diet, my stress, my emotions, my sleep, my exercise, my relationships. It wasn’t until I realized that my health had to come first, that I found the time and head space to find balance again.
2. Change Your Stress
This is not about somehow finding a way to cut out all the stress in your life. The human stress response is as natural as our need to breathe air. This is about making use of stress as a force for good and learning to re-frame harmful chronic long-term stress. Here’s a meditation 101 if you want to get started on learning some proven chronic stress reduction techniques. Here’s an explanation of how to determine good stress from bad stress.
3. Find Your Tribe and Get Support
As Dr. Dean Ornish recently said, the real epidemic in our culture is not just heart disease, cancer, or obesity; it’s loneliness and depression. One in ten Americans is taking antidepressant medication. Research has shown that people who feel isolated and alone are far more likely to get sick; and when you’re sick it can feel like no one in the world understands. Find a group of people who understand what you are going through. They may be close friends or family members, a local community group that meets regularly to discuss their illness, or even just a group who meets to discuss books, meditate or play cards. There are also wonderful online communities. Put your energy into the groups that uplift you; the ones that offer practical tips and problem solving solutions as well as their love, support and empathy.
I can’t promise all this will make you live longer. But I can promise, you will live better.
Wishing you wellness,