Tips for Dealing with a Life-Changing Diagnosis

  1. Join a Support Group
    The judgment-free space provides the chance to commiserate and to learn from others' experiences.

  2. Ask for Help
    Family and friends may not want to intrude or may not know exactly what they can do. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Remember that others want to be of help, it makes them feel good to be able to do so.

  3. Seek Therapy
    Expert help can point you to constructive ways to cope with stress after being diagnosed with a major illness.

  4. Don't Be Too Proud to Ask Questions
    Don’t assume you know all there is to know about your illness, especially if it is outside your area of expertise. Make a list of questions for your doctor or specialist, and keep a journal of answers so you can refer back to them. Let yourself be the patient, not another doctor on the case.

  5. Take Control of Your Health
    Find a specialist you trust for guidance, and supplement that with your own research about your diagnosis (while still allowing yourself to be the patient). But just like you tell your patients: avoid questionable message boards and internet sites that may provide inaccurate information.

  6. Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle
    Don’t underestimate the importance of exercise and healthful foods, and don’t be too quick to dismiss complementary therapies; instead discuss them with your specialist. Incorporate activities you love into your daily life.

More than 15 years after suffering a major heart attack that nearly took his life, Gaylord Ray, M’76, H’79, continues to put into practice the lessons he learned from his ordeal.

“We are not here on this earth for a long time,” he says. “Appreciate every day.

Before his medical crisis, Ray rarely traveled. And when he did, it was to attend a medical conference. That has all changed. He and his wife, Cindy, have been to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Hawaii. They are planning a trip to Alaska this year.

“I probably never would have made these trips if I were medically OK,” he says. “I have learned to never put off something you want to do, because you never know if you will have the chance to do it.”

For Addie Briggs, M’97, that means being more compassionate – not just to her patients, but to anyone in need.

“Don’t ask, just do,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t want to ask for help because they don’t want to be a burden. When you see a need, fulfill it.”

Briggs remembers being so weak after a chemotherapy treatment that she could barely carry her book bag. A friend asked if she could take it for her, and Briggs, not wanting to impose, said no. The friend grabbed it anyway

“She didn’t listen,” Briggs says. “I was so thankful.”

While Briggs was able to continue working through and past her medical crisis as the founder of East End Pediatrics in Richmond, Martin Johnson, H’80, had to give up his career as a plastic surgeon when the chemotherapy used to fight his lymphoma damaged the nerves in his hands, feet and vocal cords. He serves today as director of wound care at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.

During much of his life, Johnson collected beautiful artifacts from around the world. After his diagnosis, his priorities changed. He and his wife, Olinda, now are on a mission to share that beauty with others.

“I quickly realized that these are just things,” he says. “While they are significant things, they are not what life is all about. There is a higher priority. Part of that is bringing joy to others by sharing what you have.”

The couple has made dozens of donations to libraries, universities and museums. In 2012, they gave a Sefer Torah, a powerful symbol in Jewish worship and community life, to VCU.

“Collecting isn’t even on my radar anymore,” Johnson says.

As a board member of Esperanca, Johnson helps provide primary health care overseas to Central and South America. The nonprofit is devoted to delivering clean water, health education and disease prevention to those in need. He also visits local schools in Phoenix to teach young students about proper nutrition and hygiene.

“After I had to close my practice, I still needed to feel a purpose,” he says. “I learned through all of this that we don’t know how long we have. We need to make a difference while we can.”

As Dana Holwitt, M’00, H07, was fighting breast cancer, she too felt a strong pull to make changes in her life.

“Life is not a dress rehearsal,” she says. “I learned that I needed to change the way I lived.”

Holwitt admits she had no work-life balance, which was stressful and unhealthy. She now carves out time for loved ones, exercise and therapy to treat anxiety. She even adopted two rescue black labs.

“I reevaluated my relationships,” she says. “I got rid of the toxic ones and spend more time with the people I love.”

She has traveled to Italy, Spain, France and Budapest, makes time for morning meditations and has slowed down her pace so that she can take care of not only her patients, but herself.

“If I didn’t go through the process of battling cancer, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she says. “I wouldn’t be the doctor I am today. When I was the patient, I did not ask for help. I tried to be this warrior. Now, I make sure my patients have a support system.”

If only her classmates from medical school could see her now.

“They wouldn’t recognize me,” she says. “I was always go, go, go. I was quite the spitfire. Now, I am much calmer and more thoughtful. Having breast cancer has given me many gifts I never would have had otherwise. Do I wish I could have received these gifts in a different way? Absolutely! But I am so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the life I have today because of it.”

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