Coping with an Unexpected Diagnosis
- As popular 1980s singer Debbie Gibson celebrates her 53rd birthday, she reached the milestone despite having dealt with the tick-borne illness Lyme disease that impacted her emotional and mental health.
- Coping with a diagnosis can be an emotional experience which is normal according to psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik. People facing a health challenge are encouraged to tap into their support group to help navigate their emotions. These groups can include loved ones like family and friends, or an unrelated group banded together while battling a common illness.
- Genetic testing can help patients cope with their mental health following a diagnosis and can help doctors determine the best course of mental health treatment. This may be especially helpful for people struggling with issues like anxiety and depression.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is caused by “The bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and rarely, Borrelia mayonii.”
- People get infected with Lyme disease when they’re bitten by black-legged ticks.
Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migraines. If left untreated, an infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system such was the case with Gibson.
Singer Debbie Gibson is turning 53 after having spent more than three decades in the music and entertainment industry. The “Only in My Dreams” singer’s milestone birthday comes after she learned to live with a Lyme disease diagnosis which is a tick-borne illness, later in life. Learning to cope with a diagnosis can be challenging and SurvivorNet has practical guidance to help you on your journey.
“Now I see life as an adventure,” Gibson told People.
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For longtime followers of music, Gibson’s hits like “Shake Your Love,” “Out of the Blue,” and “Staying Together” were staples of the 1980s. Gibson’s award-winning career also includes acting roles on television and in movies to the present day. However, the beloved entertainer started noticing unusual symptoms in 2013. She noticed increasing food sensitivities, fatigue, migraines, back pain, and night sweats.
“When I was in the throes of Lyme and didn’t really know it, I’d take a Xanax to help me sleep…It started wigging my body out and was triggering something to do with the Lyme, and my body couldn’t handle it,” Gibson described.
It took the “No More Rhyme” singer nine months of experiencing symptoms before she was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is caused by the “bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and rarely, Borrelia mayonii,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People are infected with Lyme disease after being bitten by black-legged ticks.
“It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migraines. If left untreated, an infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (e.g., rash), and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks,” the CDC explains.
If the disease goes untreated, it can enter the nervous system. That’s what happened to Gibson after she was diagnosed several months after becoming infected.
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“I was in debilitating pain,” Gibson said but in her quest for treatment to relieve herself of the effects of the disease, she turned to homeopathic remedies such as ointments and creams. However, we should note, that the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says, “There’s little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific health condition.”
“I’ve come to a place where I’ve learned to expect the unexpected with my health, but I know I can get through it. And every time I get through it, I’m reminded of how strong we all are,” she said.
Gibson has also turned to a kinesiologist which helped her using exercise and body movement.
She also learned to put herself first when her emotional and mental health was at stake.
More on Coping with a Diagnosis and Mental Health
“It’s a gift when an artist, or when anyone, knows themselves really well, and then you can just be specific in what you need to do your job at an optimal level,” Gibson said.
“That’s where I am now: I know what I need, I’m not afraid to say no to things and I’m not the people pleaser I used to be. I’m just fine saying, ‘You know what? That’s just one thing too many for me.’ Because nobody’s there to pick up the pieces in the end,” Gibson said.
Her most recent album, “The Body Remembers” was inspired in part by her journey with Lyme disease and the role it played in her emotional health.
“I feel like I have clawed my way out of my holes in situations with my health…So to have this album culminate that challenging time as proof that you can make lemonade out of lemons really is the greatest feeling in the world,” Gibson said.
How to Cope With a Diagnosis
Gibson’s journey to officially being diagnosed took several months and while knowing what’s wrong provides some relief, wrestling with your new reality can still be emotionally draining. It’s important to remember that coping with a stressful event such as a health diagnosis can spawn a wide range of emotions that range from fear to anger to determination to overcome it.
Psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik told SurvivorNet that the patient or person going through a stressful event should accept that emotions will be fluid.
“The patient or person going through the stressful event should accept that emotions will be fluid. You may feel fine one day and then feel a massive wave of stress the next. It’s also important for those you look to for support whether that’s a therapist, friends, and family, or both to understand the fluidity of stress-related emotions,” Dr. Plutchik said.
Some tips to help you cope may include seeking a therapist to help improve your mental health. The mental health professional can provide talk therapy, and medications or guide you towards lifestyle changes such as exercise and eating habits.
Another important thing to do when faced with a diagnosis is to tap into your support group. Your support group can be made up of loved ones like family and friends. These groups can also be made up of people facing a similar disease who can offer first-hand coping mechanisms. Cancer Care offers support groups, one-on-one counseling, and financial guidance in person (when it’s possible) or by phone.
Managing Your Mental Health in the Face of an Unexpected Diagnosis
A diagnosis of cancer or a disease can offset your mental health in ways you may not expect. As Dr. Plutchik previously noted, your emotions will be fluid. This also impacts your broader mental health. SurvivorNet has some tips to help keep your mental and emotional health in a good space while you cope.
The National Institute of Mental Health says you should seek professional help if you are experiencing severe or distressing symptoms that have lasted two weeks or more, such as:
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Struggling to leave bed in the morning because of your mood
- Trouble concentrating
- Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy
- Inability to perform normal daily functions and responsibilities
The National Institute of Mental Health also emphasizes the role of self-care in maintaining your mental health. They advise people to try to make the following acts of self-care a part of their daily lives:
- Regularly exercising
- Eating healthy, regular meals
- Staying hydrated
- Prioritizing sleep
- Exploring relaxation programs or techniques
- Setting goals/priorities
- Staying positive
- Connecting with others
WATCH: Colon cancer survivor Evelyn Reyes-Beato shares how she coped with her diagnosis.
SurvivorNet previously spoke with colon cancer survivor Evelyn Reyes-Beato who shared how she coped with her emotions surrounding her cancer diagnosis.
“Your mental and your emotional help your physical gets in line,” Reyes-Beato shared with SurvivorNet.
“But if you keep all of the emotions in, the way I see it is that stuff is going to eat you up inside, and it’s not going to leave you heal. So you have got to let it out when it’s going to come out and don’t worry if you think that other people are seeing you as weak – You’re not,” she continued.
To further help patients wrestling with their mental health may consider genetic testing for more help. It has been shown to be able to match people with the best medication for mental health treatment. While genetic testing has been helpful when it comes to making treatment plans for other diseases such as certain types of cancer the ability to use it to help people who are suffering from things like anxiety and depression is relatively new.
“Doing the genetic testing has absolutely transformed the landscape of psycho-pharmacology,” psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik tells SurvivorNet.
“It’s something that I highly recommend for anybody that is taking medication, whether they are being treated for cancer, or not … I recommend it for children who are taking medication. I recommend it for elderly people. Anybody who is taking medication, I think, can greatly benefit from genetic testing,” Dr. Plutchik added.
Understanding Lyme Disease?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in most cases, Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics.”
The CDC recommends listening to the following Lyme disease prevention steps:
- Use insect repellent
- Remove ticks right away
- Apply pesticides
- Reduce tick habitat
Some of the early signs and symptoms which may include chills, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, and fever tend to appear within the first month of infection. As the disease matures, symptoms continue in the form of:
- Severe headaches and stiffness in the neck
- EM rashes on various areas of the body
- Loss of muscle tone or drooping on the face (Facial palsy)
- Arthritis and severe joint pain
- Heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat
- Disease or shortness of breath
- Nerve pain
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- Should I consider going on medication to help with mental health struggles?
- Would genetic testing help determine the best treatment for me?
- What is the likelihood that the test will recommend the right treatment?
- What can we do if I don’t find success with the recommended treatment?