Coping with the anxiety of waiting for a medical diagnosis

In 2018, my body gave me the scare of my life.

I start this story with my poo – a topic no one likes to talk about but a critical health topic.

I started to see blood in my stool, a serious symptom that no one should ignore.

My GP referred me for an “urgent” colonoscopy which required a three-month wait in the public system.

For me, it has been an unbearable time during which I succumbed to suffocating anxiety in the absence of a reassuring explanation for my symptoms.

I focused on the worst case scenario, which was that I had bowel cancer. I became worried about imagining a life hijacked by chemotherapy and surgery. I was afraid of dying when my children, then aged three and five, were too young to really remember me as adults.

It wasn’t until later, looking back, that I realized how traumatic this period of my life was. As I focused all of my attention on my physical health, my mental health suffered.

Maybe with the help of an expert, I could have managed my anxiety better.

A common response

It’s normal to feel anxious while waiting for a potentially serious diagnosis, says Grant Blashki, senior clinical advisor at beyondblue and a general practitioner with 25 years of experience.

And while there is a clinical condition known as health-related anxiety, Dr. Blashki cautions against over-medicalizing appropriate worrying.

“We all have bumps in life – unwanted medical news, relationship breakdowns,” he says.

“It’s not necessarily a mental health issue.”

However, Dr Blashki cautions against catastrophism.

“While you wait, don’t assume the worst. Try to hold back,” he says.

“Modern medicine has progressed rapidly… compared to previous generations [and] it’s important to keep that feeling of hope. “

As my experience shows, it’s often easier said than done, but there are some simple techniques that can help, says Dr. Blashki.

Tips for staying grounded while waiting for test results:

  • Stick to the facts. “You want good quality information,” says Dr. Blashki. “Avoid too much Google search, especially if it’s not credible information. If you’re looking online, make sure it’s authoritative.”
  • Have a clear understanding of the process. “When will the results be back? Who provides you with results? “
  • Go slowly. “We’re used to instant answers and solutions. We want information, we google, bam, it’s in our hands,” says Dr Blashki. “Be patient. Sometimes the medical tests take a while.”
  • Quarantine the concern. Dr Blashki says he often suggests that patients with a long wait for results set aside a little time each day to focus on the problem. Use the time to get away from it all, solve problems, or do some research, then “put it away so it doesn’t become obsessive.”
  • Try to avoid hyper-vigilance. It’s easy to fall into the trap of obsessive self-control, like looking for lumps or other symptoms, says Dr. Blashki.
  • Establish “mental havens”. Schedule time for activities like meditation that let you release stress and worry, says Dr Blashki, who also suggests keeping paper next to the bed to write down your worries if you wake up during the night. . “Say, ‘I’m going to take care of it tomorrow morning and I’m not going to think about it until then.'”

Dealing with the bad news

If, when it comes, your diagnosis is bad news, be kind to yourself.

“Give yourself time to adjust,” says Dr. Blashki. “Surround yourself with supportive family and friends – share the load. “

Write down any questions you have before medical appointments in case you get frozen in the moment, and don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare professional if you don’t understand something.

“Communication is essential,” says Dr Blashki. “Doctors can easily get caught up in the lingo, and it can be overwhelming. Ask for written explanations that you can take with you. “

When it comes to dealing with your emotions, expect some ups and downs.

“Desperation and worry often come in waves,” explains the general practitioner.

“You feel good for a few days, ‘I can handle this’, and then you wake up one morning and you think, ‘Damn’.”

Woman and Man Stand Together for Anxiety Story Awaiting Health Diagnosis
“I consider myself lucky,” writes Nicola Heath of her final diagnosis of ulcerative colitis.(

Provided: Nicola Heath


My unexpected diagnosis

I felt both stressed and relieved to soon find out what was wrong with me as I headed to the theater for a colonoscopy in May 2018.

When I woke up from the anesthesia, I found out that I had ulcerative colitis in a small part of my colon.

I consider myself lucky. I do not have bowel cancer (although I am more at risk of developing it in the future). And while for some ulcerative colitis is an incredibly debilitating condition (it has been cited as the reason former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped down in 2020), mine is well managed with medication.

I’ve seen my daughters take some important steps, like starting school and surprisingly adding another baby to our family in 2019.

For me, the experience has even been good.

Confronting my own mortality gave me a glimpse of what really matters in life.

I’m not perfect – I always yell at my kids to put their shoes on and brush their teeth in the morning, but I try to sweat the little things less and make sure I tell them I love them every day .

Nicola Heath is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, ABC News, SBS and more. You can follow her on Twitter at @nicoheath.

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