By Dr. Michael Szabo
Has this happened to you or a loved one? You’ve just been diagnosed with a worrisome health condition and your doctor shrugs their shoulders and says, “There’s nothing you can do.” My reaction would be maybe you should consider a new doctor! Not only is a definitive statement like this not helpful, it’s also simply not true. There are always things we can do to be healthier, and there is always hope that our health can get better.
The first thing you can do, of course, is disregard that doctor’s statement. I can think of five more things you can definitely do.
Learn a lot
Try to find out more about your diagnosis. Where can you get reliable information? Stay far away from content that has been written in order to sell you something. Look for health content that has been vetted by trusted sources without any ulterior motives, whose sole mission is to educate you about your condition. Examples are hospitals, universities and government health agencies.
Get an experienced doctor
Once you know a bit about your condition, seek out a physician who can speak to your diagnosis from the wide view of experience. Sometimes your family doctor will be that person. But many times, especially in the case of rarer illnesses, specialists will be more knowledgeable about the effective treatments that exist and the lifestyle interventions that are known to modulate your symptoms. These experts have walked this path many times with people just like you. Booking an appointment with one of them will go a long way towards helping you feel more positive and in control of your illness.
Improve your lifestyle
No matter what the medical condition, there is always a place for a discussion about lifestyle. All illnesses are modulated by what we eat, how we deal with stress, how much we exercise and how well we sleep. It’s amazing how focused we can get on finding some miracle drug or intravenous vitamin drip that will fix us, rather than looking at the basics of how we live our lives. We often underappreciate and underplay the impact our lifestyles can have, and this is certainly to the detriment of our health. So, another thing you can do is have a pointed discussion with your doctor to address these issues and make a plan for changes that may help your condition.
Consider group support
Another avenue to explore is a patient support and advocacy group. There are many online groups focused on specific chronic health conditions and they often provide helpful information about local resources. Connecting with other people who have had similar experiences can help you direct your own quest to improve your health.
A note of caution, however. Patient groups sometimes veer away from research and evidence-based medicine and, quite frankly, become antagonistic towards the medical profession. I’ve heard of cancer support groups that are convinced doctors know the cure for cancer but are deliberately hiding the truth because of a perceived over-reliance on pharmaceuticals.
There is an element of truth here: I think we do often focus on pharmaceutical approaches first while neglecting to get a better picture of the whole person and the aspects of their life that may have contributed to their cancer. Optimal treatment should ideally be wholistic and involve all areas of an individual’s life, including nutrition, exercise, toxic exposures, stress and sleep. Having said that, one cannot completely dismiss the role of pharmaceuticals as an important aspect of treatment in that same wide approach. I would be cautious about listening to voices in the patient advocacy communities that take that view.
Be wary of wild claims
Many people turn to alternative treatments when they feel that the conventional medical profession has nothing to offer them. Alternative medical practitioners, such as naturopathic doctors or traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, sometimes claim to understand the root causes of illness better than traditional doctors. They may tell you their treatments are more effective, capable of reversing or even curing the disease.
Be wary of these assertions. It is absolutely untrue that we have successfully unraveled the definitive underlying causes of most complex diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and autoimmune diseases such as lupus. Conventional medicine and alternative medicine are often at odds because of a difference in how we interpret medical evidence. Small studies that fail to look at meaningful clinical outcomes are often used as proof by alternative practitioners that a certain treatment is effective. Conventional medicine, on the other hand, is based on stronger evidence. In medicine, it is important to look to innovative approaches to complex diseases that are difficult to treat. But research takes time. I get concerned when alternative practitioners market themselves as miracle workers.
What an alternative practitioner should be telling you is that they will try to address the factors they believe are contributing to your disease, and see if it helps, but there will be some risk, it will be expensive and the outcome is uncertain. Patients need to understand the truth – and that alternative practitioners benefit financially from their recommendations, as most sell the supplements and other treatments that they want you to try. This is another difference compared to a traditional doctor.
If you do take the alternative medicine route, look for a practitioner who is fully transparent. If something sounds too good to be true, then beware. Sometimes it may be reasonable to go into uncharted territory and test whether an alternative treatment helps your symptoms, but it is critical that you approach it with these points in mind.
The bottom line is, never let a doctor tell you, “There is nothing you can do.” There is always something you can do, even if it’s a matter of controlling your symptoms or improving your quality of life rather than seeking a cure. Find a doctor who has a positive, encouraging attitude. This is an important aspect of treatment that will help you manage your health proactively going forward.
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