Coping With Bad News


A couple of weeks ago a reader wrote me about receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer. This reader and I have corresponded for the last three years. Although I’ve never met her, I feel like she is a friend. She asked if I had ever written about coping with an illness. I had not. She wrote, “This is not part of our plans!”

When we retire, and especially if we retire early, the last thing we expect is news of a serious illness. In 2014 I met a man who told me when he received his cancer diagnosis, everything important in life came sharply into focus. Much of what he worried about was suddenly trivial. After beating cancer, he continued to center his attention on his newfound vision.

While we may not have received a cancer diagnosis, we all encountered blows of some kind in our life experience. Life has a way of throwing us curve balls. It’s almost never expected, whether we just retired or were at some other juncture in life.

As I researched for this post, as usual, much of what popped up was how to handle a financial set back. With retirement, whether it is preparation or crisis, money takes center stage. It took quite a bit of digging to find information on coping with an illness. In the process, I asked myself what I would do if I received a diagnosis of breast cancer.

If I received bad news, I would re-visit previous life skirmishes asking myself how I coped.  What did I do that worked for me?  What would I do differently now? What lessons did I learn, which could be applied to the present situation?

For the last two years I’ve practiced mindfulness, mastering the skill of staying present. The past is behind us; the future has yet to unfold itself to us. What we have is the present, the here and now. Focusing on the present has reduced the number of times my mind runs headlong into the future on mind spinning mode, creating worst scenario outcomes. Mind spinning often results in our conjuring a bad situation into an even worse situation. In the case of devastating news, staying present can provide calm in the face of the hurricane. Add a few deep breaths.

Fight or flight. I tend to go into fight mode when receiving bad news. Rather than run from it emotionally and mentally, I start gathering as much information as I can. I like to make informed decisions. Knowing what I’m facing also provides a sense of some control in what is potentially an uncontrollable situation. Never one to throw my hands up and say, “there’s nothing I can do about it” instead I dig deep for information. Knowledge is power.

Like the man I mentioned above, there may actually be some good news embedded in the bad news. He had an epiphany about what was really important to him in life. Everything small by comparison just fell away, leaving him with a sense of really living.

Another woman I know forced a rosy outlook during her battle with cancer. She said she didn’t have time to be negative.  The fact is we have emotional ups and downs during any crisis. I meditate.  One of the objectives I appreciate about meditation is letting the negatives into your thoughts, dealing with them, then letting them go. It’s ok to feel down at a time like this. We can’t be up all the time. To me, constantly projecting Little Mary Sunshine in the face of bad news is a stress in itself.

Bottling up emotions may also block others from helping you. If you have a spouse or life partner, it is probably as important for their welfare as it is for yours, to open up and let them in. They are also in pain. Most probably they are worried about you. Shutting them out by pretending everything is still normal may do more harm than good. The situation is not normal. They may need to cry along with you — let them.

Take your partner or a close friend with you on medical appointments. I know many, many people who did not include their spouse thinking they were shielding them from more bad news. If you are really partners, now is not a time to dial back the relationship. They can be an advocate for you, perhaps hearing something from a medical professional you missed. Emotionally, they can hold your hand during any delivery of news, either good or bad. And you can hold theirs.

You both need all the support you can get. Include family and friends with information. Back to the woman who put on the rose colored glasses, she never shared any news of her condition. I always wanted to hug her. She was even resistant to that. I know people who didn’t want their children informed of a diagnosis, robbing them of the ability to support and, in worse case situations, say a meaningful goodbye.

I’m not a psychologist or therapist, but I am an advocate of going to a counselor when needed. Receiving any devastating news may be a time when counseling is in order. Talking to a professional can help clarify positions, direction, actions to be taken, not to mention dealing with the emotional toll. Seek professional help for your mind and emotions just as you are seeking professional help for your body. Attending to your spiritual self by talking with a minister or priest may also help.

This is just my personal take on what I would do if faced with devastating news such as a cancer diagnosis. As always, we have to do what works best for us, as individuals, and our family in any particular situation. It is not easy to retire and receive bad news. However, as in any other moment in life, there are actions we can take to move us in the direction of a more positive outcome.

For the reader who inspired this post and all of my readers dealing with bad news of any kind, you are in my thoughts and prayers.

6 comments on “Coping With Bad News

  1. Thanks so much Kathy! I feel famous. Ha. You are a PEACH! Thanks so much for this. So much of this resonates – live one day at a time is something I must do. Also, that man is so right – I used to be obsessed with how much I could get crossed off my to-do list each day – now I feel very different – if things don’t get done because I’m relaxing at the library, so be it! I have been very open about my diagnosis with everyone – not so much on Facebook- (I mentioned it one time there in connection with a bouquet of flowers and other gifts my daughters sent), but with all my “real” family and friends. I’ve had a couple meltdowns, but just with my husband – I am trying to be positive for others. The 3 hour long appointment last Thursday with surgical oncologist, chemo oncologist, and radiation oncologist went very well, but I did have a lot of crazy anxiety – I started to calm down as soon as I got out of there. I’ve never done well with medical appointments so that really isn’t new for me.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts and prayers and doing that research,




  2. Such an important post Kathy. I find it so sad that anyone would choose to exclude their family and close friends from what is happening. And I so agree that taking a second person along to anything other than a routine medical appointment is very important. When my partner needed a hip replacement his surgeon said I was the most important person in the room, simply because I was more likely to remember what we were told than my partner would.


  3. I was fifty when I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer (which, at the time, had a 20% five-year survival rate). I am a silver lining type and my doctor, who recognized that quality, told me that “You’ll find that cancer provides you with an opportunity to figure out what is important to you and to set your own priorities (and get out from under those priorities others have been setting for you).” He was so right! The experience was so clarifying, and I discovered that I could use what I jokingly called the “cancer excuse” to get out from under some stressful responsibilities that I had let myself get guilted into at work. For a while, I found myself in a magical place where I was able to plan for the future as though I might have one while still living every day as though I might not have a future. I lost a bit of that balance as cancer-free months turned into years and then decades of remission. What I haven’t lost is the sense that every day I am alive is a small miracle worth celebrating.


    • Jean, I’m so glad you recovered and are here today to tell us about it. This is a beautiful story. I especially like your reference to getting “out from under some stressful responsibilities”. I think all of us allow ourselves to “get guilted” into doing activities we don’t necessarily feel tuned into. Unburdening ourselves is good medicine, cancer or no cancer. Thanks for sharing. K


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