3 Things Not to Say to Someone with a Chronic Illness

1. “Why don’t you just try exercising more and eating healthier?”

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I first tell a friend that I have a chronic illness. And while it may be a well-intentioned question, the reality is, autoimmune conditions do not yet have a cure, and eating well and exercising is unlikely to make one’s symptoms dissipate.

While some patients may swear by a certain diet, such as going gluten-free, or adopting a particular exercise regimen, many others do not see a noticeable difference in their symptoms, despite extensive lifestyle changes. Also, such a sentiment often puts an unnecessary burden on the patient, who may feel like they ‘deserve’ their disease for not adopting ‘enough’ of a healthy lifestyle, when in fact, many scientists believe that there is a strong genetic component to autoimmune and other inflammatory conditions, which is beyond the patient’s control.

So please, the next time you think to tell someone to eat more kale to cure their painful rheumatoid arthritis- think again.

2. “Are you sure that’s what you really have? Maybe it’s just depression?”

When someone confides in you that they have a chronic health condition, they want to feel supported. The last thing they want is a friend or family member putting doubt into their mind about their health.

Furthermore, many patients go years from doctor to doctor seeking an answer about their health problems. When they finally get a diagnosis- although shocking and often devastating- there is a certain amount of relief that one experiences in at least knowing ‘what you have’ and the reassurance that what you’re going through is real. Asking someone “if they’re sure” about their condition, is essentially invalidating their health issues, right when that individual has finally found some closure.

Finally, asking if “it’s just depression” is simply unacceptable. Studies have shown that people with autoimmune conditions have a higher incidence of mental health problems such as depression. However, this shouldn’t be brushed off as “just” depression. Moreover, when I personally have been asked this question in the past, it made me think, ‘is this person saying it’s all in my head?’ This, in turn, made me more reticent about sharing health-related news in the future.

3. “It can’t be that bad, can it? You’re just exaggerating!”

For someone else to brush off your disease is the ultimate slap in the face. Many people with chronic health problems have an invisible illness, meaning that on the outside, they may look fine, but on the inside, they are suffering. Symptoms like chronic pain, organ and tissue damage, and fatigue are not usually noticeable to the naked eye.

Even health care professionals often don’t empathize with their patients’ complaints, telling them that they are exaggerating, or accusing them of being a hypochondriac. The result is that the patient may internalize their suffering, and not turn to their physician or loved ones for the medical help and support they need.

Unless you yourself have experienced the relentlessness of having a chronic condition, you can never know what someone with an invisible illness is going through. All you can do is listen and be there for them.

 

Did you like these tips on what NOT to say to someone with a chronic illness? If so, please like, share, and comment below!

When your doctor doesn’t believe you

Have you ever complained to your family physician about your symptoms, only to be totally dismissed?

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or not, your ailments may be ignored or written off as ‘not a big deal’ by a health care professional.

This has often happened to me over the course of the last 7+ years of having an autoimmune condition. For example, before I was even diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, I was told that my symptoms, including joint pain, eye and mouth dryness, recurrent ulcers, yeast infections, and fatigue had a plausible, non-disease related cause, and weren’t really a ‘big deal’ anyway.

Even worse, other health care professionals told me my symptoms were nothing more than a figment of my imagination.

Worse yet, after many unproductive visits to doctors’ offices and labs, with little to no explanation for what could be wrong, I actually started to believe…could I be imagining this?

One family MD, for example, told me my joint pain was probably a result of ‘texting too much’. As a fresh-faced teenager, I probably didn’t look like someone who could be experiencing debilitating joint pain. But that shouldn’t matter. In fact, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, affecting those 16 years and younger, affects over 50,000 people in the United States alone.

Another time, I needed a referral to see a rheumatologist. The nurse who checked me in asked, “How does someone your age need a rheumatologist? Did you wear high heels too much in high school?” Not only was her questioning intrusive, rude, and uncalled for, it invalidated my experience as a patient with a chronic health condition.

As a result, I became even more reticent to explain my health issues with the people who I should be speaking with the most…health care professionals! And sadly, this is too often the experience for others living with autoimmune or other chronic health conditions.

The Sjgoren’s Syndrome Foundation recently shared a tip on social media, stating, “Remember that just because a symptom can’t be seen easily, it is still important. If you feel that a physician dismisses your Sjögren’s symptoms, help educate them and/or find another physician”. Many commenters responded by lamenting their own experiences with not being taken seriously by their healthcare providers. One woman commented, “My dentist keeps telling me to stop making excuses for my bad teeth”, referring to the fact that Sjögren’s often has a devastating impact on patients’ teeth, despite maintaining a solid oral hygiene routine.

If I had to give one piece of advice for anyone with chronic health problems, diagnosed or not, I would say to never give up. If your physician doesn’t take you seriously, move on. This doesn’t mean that you don’t listen to your doctor’s medical advice; this means that if they tell you it’s ‘all in your head’, or ‘it can’t be that bad, can it?’, and you know they are wrong, then you stand your ground.

Remember, you are the best advocate for your own health! Check out these helpful tips published by WebMD about talking to your doctor.