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Frequently Asked Questions about Serious Illness

People often have questions about serious illness and what can be done to help a person emotionally when they are coping with a serious medical condition. Here are some answers.

Q. How important is it to treat the mind as well as the body during a serious illness?

A. When people are ill, it’s important to deal with the illness on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels. If you treat just the body, you short-change yourself.

We don’t know exactly how the mind/body connection works, but we do have biochemical evidence that there’s a connection.

Q. What are some areas where psychology can help those patients diagnosed with a serious illness?

A. There are six areas where psychology can help:

  • finding the best fit in medical interventions
  • forming a support group to help the patient
  • dealing with the needs of family and friends
  • reducing the side effects of medical treatments (like chemotherapy)
  • managing pain
  • helping patients cope with the “after-illness experience.”

Q. How has psychology helped with specific illnesses?

Psychological interventions are helping gay, HIV–positive men better deal with their diagnosis, using stress management techniques, social support and body relaxation training. The interventions are intended to counteract the fact that, for some people, finding out that they are HIV-positive may lead to social isolation and poor coping strategies that could suppress the immune system.

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Heart Attacks
Psychological interventions can help before and after heart attacks. Brief psychological counseling before medical procedures produces shorter stays in the critical-care unit, less emotional distress and shorter hospital stays. And after heart attacks, group therapy for recovering heart patients improves psychological well-being and cuts the death rate in the first three years of recovery. In addition, research has shown that two hours of psychological counseling per week for seven weeks reduces by 60 percent the rate of rehospitalization for heart patients.

Cancer patients who have psychological interventions have shown an improved quality of life as well as improved their physical health. Targeted group therapy and relaxation training have been shown to improve patients’ moods, lower their emotional distress and improve their ability to cope with their illnesses.

Organ Recipients
Psychologists can also help medical teams identify the best transplant candidates. Psychologists are extensively involved in assessing who is most capable of dealing with the required medical regimen. Psychologists also intervene with those who are weak on such skills, but who can develop them through behavioral change strategies and support.

Q. Why is it so important for patients who are diagnosed with a serious illness to deal with their feelings at an early stage?

A. Being upset about having a serious illness is perfectly normal and reasonable.

Patients need to feel a sense of mourning, loss and fear — all of that is reasonable. The goal is to let them experience it and move through it then they can emerge stronger and are more likely to manage their negative emotions. If they feel they have to cover up every negative emotion, they can’t get beyond those feelings.

Q. What is the first reaction most patients have when they have been diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer?

A. The first reaction with cancer is a fear for loss of life. ‘Cancer equals death’ is the first thing people go through. Am I going to die? After that issues begin to differ for each person on what happens next. What treatment do I undertake? How do I make a choice? Will it be effective? What else can I do to conquer my illness?

Frequently Asked Questions about Serious Illness

American Psychological Association

APA Reference
Association, A. (2020). Frequently Asked Questions about Serious Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.