Dr Rob McLachlan: Living with a chronic illness

A chronic illness can last from a couple of months to become lifelong. Often, it’s treatable but not curable

Dr Rob McLachlanDR Rob McLachlan, a senior registrar, says half of all consultations in primary health care are for a chronic illness. Research in the United States suggests that 7 out of every 10 deaths each year are from a chronic illness.

Those with a chronic illness are two-to-three times more likely to develop stress, depressive and anxiety conditions.


Dr McLachlan says the response of many who have contracted a chronic illness is a feeling of distress because of the massive changes to living day-to-day. There can be a feeling of guilt too, say with a disease like diabetes where patients might feel bad about eating habits that they fear could have led to the disease.

Grief can be present for the life-style that has gone with the diagnosis. It can start with denial, progress and bargaining and anger and remain as sadness.


The first step to begin to cope with a chronic illness is to face up to the diagnosis, Dr McLachlan says. Once that’s done it leads to a better long-term psychological adjustment. He says it works, as studies have shown, particularly in women with breast cancer.

“We know that if you look at their psychological health 3 years after diagnosis … and they’ve demonstrated an aversion to this from a few months to several years then they’re worse off than if they’d faced up to things from the outset,” he says.

He says methods for coping include learning about your condition. It doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone has the ability to understand their condition better.

Interact with health professionals to learn how to get the best out of your treatment under them. Dr McLachlan says accepting your condition and that it may be chronic is not resignation. He says the nature of a chronic illness is not just psychological; not just social and not just biological – it’s a combination of all three and it’s different for everyone.

Getting the best from your medical appointments is important, Dr McLachlan says. He has a checklist that he titles ‘Come prepared’:

  • List of questions/concerns to address
  • Bring your medication list/tablets-not just the ones you need replaced.
  • Consider bringing someone to the appointment
  • (don’t make another appointment straight afterwards ideally)
  • Let us know if you need to leave by a certain time.
  • Appointments can be moved/linked
  • Investigations can be done closer to home.

He says to manage those elements of your life that you have control over. Eat healthily, exercise as you can and don’t forget to pursue hobbies. If you find you spend time with people who are not supportive of you, spend less time with them.

Find support:

  • Let go of unnecessary obligations.
  • Time off work/alter hours.
  • Seek financial support.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help of family, friends, health professionals.
  • Support groups; join people with similar experiences whether scleroderma-specific or not.