04/26/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

Reclaiming Your Life After Being Diagnosed as Chronically-Ill

When asked the hypothetical question "What would you do if you only had 24 hours left to live?" most of us would fantasize about joyful activities we have always wanted to do but never had the chance. We would list exciting ideas like skydiving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. In the land of the theoretical it is a fun question that provokes you to think about events that would make you happy, but in reality this question evokes very different emotions. If you were actually told you only had 24 hours left to live, chances are you would feel overwhelmed, depressed, and afraid.

Until it is compromised, it is hard to realize how important your health is. With the stresses of work, relationships, world events, we often take for granted living in a healthy body. But when you are told you have a chronic illness, or an incurable disease, suddenly all the details of life melt away as you are left to look at the harsh reality of human mortality.

When dealing with chronic illness you of course have to address the body with whatever medical path you choose, but your mind and spirit need healing as well. Illness impacts the psyche just as much as the body, yet your mental disposition is something that you have control over. The more you can focus on your emotional self, the less you will feel trapped by hopelessness.

It is natural for anyone discovering that they are facing a chronic illness to feel such complex emotions as anger and resistance. It is hard to accept, and often the medical establishment does not embolden patients with the psychological tools to best deal with this new upsetting reality. But having strategies to feel empowered even in the face of suffering is the difference between living life to the fullest, or waiting around to die. Everyone realizes that they are not going to live forever, but those that have full knowledge of their expiration date, or know they will be in immense pain until that moment, are confronted with a set of challenges that may seem insurmountable. But they are not. Even through this type of extreme adversity, beauty and joy can be the predominant aspects of your life.

In Richard Cheu's new book, Living Well With Chronic Illness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide, he explores the emotional paths of those thus diagnosed and helps articulate specific methods and strategies to improve their quality of life even if the quantity is decreased. His ideas are not esoteric or vague, but tangible and practical. Drawing from his involvement as a caretaker of his wife suffering with chronic illness, as a medical professional, and as a chaplain who has counseled thousands, he possesses the trifecta of relevant experience -- the personal, medical, and spiritual.

I work with people at all stages of illness, from those who have just found out they have a serious illness, to those who have been floundering for months, trapped in negative emotions and unable to make any sense of what is happening to them; to those who are nearing death. At each of those states, there is important emotional, practical, and spiritual work that can be done. A chronic illness diagnosis is not a death sentence. It is a junction in your journey through life that takes you on a different direction than you desire or anticipated. There's no doubt that your chronic illness has wounded you. But a wounded warrior gets up, in spite of the wounds, and moves forward again, and again, and again.

From personal experience, when I discovered that I had a tumor attached to my pituitary gland and hypothalamus in my brain I was devastated, confused, and fell into a depression. The doctors told me I would not be able to have children and then sent me on my way as a 26-year-old woman to digest this reality and make decisions for my medical path. At first I felt paralyzed and had no idea how to process this information. There was also the added anxiety of dealing with the reaction of my friends and family -- not only the pressure to soothe them in this time of concern, but also the concern that some people would pull away. It is hard to be around someone who is sick and depressed, and many don't know how to deal with that burden.

I wish that during those dark days, I had access to a book that so well articulated not only how I felt, but also how I could actually come to change my viewpoint. It took me years to begin a proactive path of psychological and spiritual healing. Although it saddens me to think of the time wasted in an emotional rut, once I fully committed myself, not only did my life drastically improve, but so also did my health. Despite what I was told by doctors, I was able to get pregnant naturally and had a baby girl three years ago. You never know the power of perspective and the possibility to heal drastically through an improved state of mind. And even if you cannot completely cure yourself, you can love the life you have amidst the complications of your illness.

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