How to Deal with a Medical Crisis

Medical experts answer more than two dozen key questions—about second opinions, clinical trials, the limitations of insurance, and other significant topics—to help patients map a road to recovery

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I feel like this whole thing is completely out of my control.

• When people who, until recently, were complete strangers start talking about life-or-death decisions while you’re nearly undressed, it’s natural to feel as if you are no longer in control. Some people react by trying to take charge of everything. “That’s a way of coping with anxiety—the mistaken belief that if you can control all aspects of it you can control the outcome,” says Marie Tobin, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “It’s a delicate balance between participating in one’s care and believing you have all the answers.”

Gauthier, who specializes in the psychology of cancer patients, says, “Think about, What are the areas where I do have control? Can I accept that I do not have control over the cancer cells?” If you feel well informed and collaborate with your doctors in making decisions, you can usually overcome the out-of-control feeling. Tobin stresses the importance of “having a therapeutic alliance with [your] doctor, feeling like [your] treatment is a cooperative effort.”

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My whole life seems so different now. How can I tell if the way I’m reacting to this crisis is healthy?

• “It is normal to experience distress, disorientation, anxiety, fear,” Tobin says. The trouble occurs when those feelings become incapacitating and lead to “functional impairment.” If your negative feelings are having an effect on your daily life—if, say, you don’t want to get out of bed, you’re avoiding friends or family, or you’re feeling overwhelmed by things that normally wouldn’t bother you—you should ask at the hospital about psychological help. You may want to join a support group or consult a mental-health professional.

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So my family and I should watch for warning signs that I’m not coping well?

• Yes, but with debilitating stress or anxiety, as with most medical problems, heading it off at the pass is a better strategy. Mental-health problems are real, physical side effects of disease, and they respond to preventive techniques. Just as you would take an antinausea medication to offset the effect of some chemotherapy drugs, you should work to reduce your disease-related stress during your treatment.

Support groups can be a tremendous help—talking with other patients reduces the sense of loneliness many patients feel. Peers also have in-the-trenches advice that doctors and nurses can’t supply.

Ask about on-site support groups at the hospital where you are being treated. Also, many organizations dedicated to specific diseases offer advice and support groups. Some of their Web sites provide forums that can connect you with other people who are going through something similar. “There are online discussions through the disease-specific organizations that some people find very beneficial. They’re educational as well as supportive,” says Marilyn Lees-Reinish, the manager of the department of social work for Loyola University Medical Center.

Here are some cancer-specific support organizations around the Chicago area: Gilda’s Club, in Chicago (; Jennifer S. Fallick Cancer Support Center, in Homewood and Mokena (; Wellness House, in Hinsdale (; Cancer Wellness Center, in Northbrook (; Wellness Place, in Palatine (; and LivingWell Cancer Resource Center, in Geneva (

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Should I update my will? And when should I assign power of attorney to someone?

• “You want to sit on this end and see what happens when they don’t [update their wills]?” Lee-Reinish says. In other words, yes, do it. It’s not morbid; it’s sensible. Think of it like doing your taxes. “The best gift we can give our families is to let them know what our wishes are,” Lee-Reinish says.

As for power of attorney, at some point in this process—especially if you are having surgery—you may be handed a form to express your wishes if you become unable to communicate with your doctors. “Every patient is given a power of attorney and living will form when admitted to [Rush],” says Erin Schneider, the American Cancer Society patient navigator at Rush.

People avoid filling this out because it makes them anxious or they imagine it will jinx them. Try to overcome those feelings. There is no downside to making your wishes known. “That should be an automatic thing that we all have, no matter what our age,” Lee-Reinish says.

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illustrations: Harry Campbell



5 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I purchase Chicago Magazine from the news stand nearly every month. On the cover page for this article in the magazine, it says "To access Last year's Top Doctors List, visit and enter the code chicagomagdocs".

And, on the cover of the magazine, it says "TOP DOCTORS Get Access to our List see p.61".

This is very misleading, as your web site does not allow access to the list, even with the above stated code, unless you are a subscriber. Is that correct or am I doing something wrong?

5 years ago
Posted by Chicago Magazine

We're having some technical difficulties with the passcode. If you can please create a free online account at you'll be able to access the Top Docs list right away.

We apologize for the difficulties.

If you have any questions please email us at

5 years ago
Posted by eworon

I am entering "create an account"

5 years ago
Posted by debrasue

I created an online account and I still can't access the doctors list.

5 years ago
Posted by AMS

Creating account

5 years ago
Posted by Bill O.

If you're having problems creating an account, feel free to contact me at

Bill Oakes
Chicago Magazine | 435 N Michigan Avenue, Ste 1100 | Chicago 60611

5 years ago
Posted by meggie

I ordered the top docs magazine for the list of top docs because my son moved to Chicago. I was trying to find out what docors were good. I paid seven dollars to have the magazine sent to me in Michigan and I have not one doctors name. I read the above comment and I also can't access the names. I get Hour Detroit and they always have the list in their magazine and I thougt you did the same thing.

5 years ago
Posted by ellenw

I have a subscription to Chicago Magazine, but cannot access the top doctors'list. Please tell me how to proceed. Thank you. Ellen W.

5 years ago
Posted by Helen

I also tried to access the list and am having no such luck. Why can't you just publish it every year like you used to. I found it very helpful and have saved these magazines for years. I am now trying to access the list. Are you going to fix this problem?

5 years ago
Posted by katiecooke


5 years ago
Posted by Lisa M.

Did anyone get the list of top doctors to work? If so plz tell me how.

5 years ago
Posted by Chicago Magazine

Per our arrangement with Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., we have removed our Top Doctors list from We posted that list, first prepared exclusively for Chicago’s January 2008 issue, as a supplement to our January 2009 feature How to Deal with a Medical Crisis. Castle Connolly allowed us to keep that list up on our Web site for only three months.

That doesn’t mean you no longer have access to the list. While supplies last, copies of the January 2008 issue are available from Chicago at our customer service number: 800-999-0879.

Please see for more info.

Thank you.

5 years ago
Posted by Cathyculben

I had a subscription and do have the January issue for 2009. I thought the magazine listed topdocs. Now that I have an emergency, I notice that the list has to be accessed online. I have had no luck accessing the list online. Can the list of topdocs be emailed to me? If not, how can I access the list. What is the point of not including the list in the magazine?

5 years ago
Posted by clay

I would like to access the site of Top Doctors in Chicago as in Chicago Magazine

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