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 Rx: How to Live Well with Chronic Disease 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Body Health by . View all columns in series
This article was adapted from The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook by David S. Sobel and Robert Ornstein. Publisher: DRx, Los Altos, CA, 1996. May not be reproduced without written permission.

Same Disease, Different Response
Arthur suffers from severe arthritis. He is in pain most of the time and can't sleep. He took early retirement because of his arthritis and now, only 55, he spends his day sitting at home bored. He avoids most physical activity because of the pain, weakness, and shortness of breath. He has become very irritable. Most people, including his family, don't enjoy his company anymore. It even seems too much trouble when the grandchildren he adored come to visit.

Isabel, age 66, also has severe arthritis. Every day she walks several blocks to the library or the park. She works two days a week as a volunteer at a local hospital. When her pain is severe, she practices her relaxation technique and tries to distract herself. She also loves going to see her young grandchildren and even manages to take care of them for a while when her daughter is out. Her husband is amazed by how much zest she has for life.

The difference between Arthur and Isabel is one of attitude. Attitude cannot cure a chronic illness. But cultivating a positive outlook and learning self-management skills can make it much easier to live with. The more confident and determined you feel, the more you will be able to maximize your health. Whether you have arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, lung disease, multiple sclerosis, or a combination of chronic conditions, you can learn to be more active, cope better and be more in control.

To live well with chronic conditions you need to learn skills for managing three areas:

  • Your illness and symptoms
  • Your normal daily activities
  • Your emotions
Managing Your Illness
Any illness is a learning experience. You may not even know you have a pancreas gland until you're told you have diabetes. To manage a chronic illness, you need to become an expert in your disease. This doesn't mean you become a doctor, but you need to learn enough about your condition and how your body reacts so you can take action to minimize disability and complications.

Be an Active Partner
Learn about your medical condition. What makes it worse or better? What action plan should you take if symptoms flare? What are the warning signs that you should get professional medical help? What can you expect from medical care and what must you do for yourself?

There may be specific skills you need to learn: how to measure your blood sugar if you are diabetic, how to properly use an inhaler if you have asthma, how to exercise safely with a heart or lung condition, how to use assistive devices if your have arthritis.

Learn how to prepare for a medical visit - what questions to ask about medical tests, medications, and surgery.

Find community resources:

  • Check out the Yellow Pages of the telephone book. Look under "Health," "Hospitals," "Community," "Social Service Organizations," "Local Government, Information and Referral."
  • Call the national or local chapters of voluntary agencies such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, or National Arthritis Foundation.
  • Ask the reference librarian in your local library to help you find information.
  • Check out the calendar of events in your local newspaper.
Learn to Cope with Symptoms
Most chronic disease symptoms wax and wane. When symptoms are bad, take some consolation in knowing that "this will pass." Learn and practice the proven techniques for dealing with pain, tension, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
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 About The Author
David S. Sobel, M.D., M.P.H., is a practicing physician in adult medicine and Medical Director of Patient Education and Health Promotion for Kaiser Permanente Northern California. He is physician lead for the......moreDavid Sobel MD
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