Organizing in the Face of Illness

Blah, blah, blah, blah, You Have Cancer, blah, blah, blah…

That’s about all you hear when you receive a serious diagnosis. Then you start to research your condition, investigate treatment options and plan your future. You are so stressed, the last thing you want to think about is getting organized. Yet, getting organized can do a lot to reduce stress for both you and your family.

stress  Organizing in the Face of Illness stress








This post was inspired by Albuquerque professional organizer Hazel Thornton’s blog article Organizing to De-Stress a Major Illness. With her permission I have put my own spin on her original content, which can be viewed here.


Organizing Your Medical Records and Important Papers

When you face a major illness, you feel out of control. One way to feel more in control is to create a control binder. A control binder keeps all your medical records and important papers together and organized, so you can find what you are looking for when you need it. You may keep it at home, or take it with you to medical appointments.

Create a Control Binder.  Get a 3-ring binder with tabs, create sections for research, second opinions, medical history, appointments, treatment plan, medications, contact information for health care professionals, and a miscellaneous section. Chances are your insurance and billing papers will fill an accordion file all by themselves, so establish secondary storage for overflow.

Organize your Important Papers.  Before entering the hospital, you will be asked for copies of important papers, including advance directives (Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney). LifeinCase® is an example of one personal document storage system, but there are numerous products with varying price points.

Organizing Your Support System

People with support systems are healthier and recover more easily from illness than those without them.  Your support system can be a network of family, friends, neighbors, loved ones, colleagues and professionals. It can be uncomfortable to ask for help, but think about how you would feel if the tables were turned, if a friend or family member were ill. Give them the same opportunity to do for you what you would be happy to do for them. Not everyone can or wants to help the same way. Fortunately, there are many ways to help and a number of free online tools make it easier for everyone involved.

Appoint a communications director. Communicating the same information over and over to concerned friends and family can be emotionally and physically exhausting. This applies to both the person who is ill and to caregivers. Designate a trusted friend or family member to speak on your behalf. Caring Bridge is a free web service that connects people experiencing a health challenge with their family and friends. With CaringBridge, you can communicate en masse, rather than one by one, and they can stay in touch with you. MyLifeLine is a similar site. If several people need to be kept aware of your schedule, calendar sharing programs like Google Calendar may be useful.

Designate a support services manager. There are all kinds of services that may be helpful to you and your family.  Do you need meals prepared? Your dog walked?  Your car serviced? Food shopping? Someone to accompany you for medical treatment? Someone to take your mother-in-law to the doctor’s (which you ordinarily do)?

Your support manager can organize these activities, providing you and your family the support you need and offering friends many different ways they can help. Online tools such as Lotsa Helping Hands, Care Calendar, and Meal Train let friends know what you need help with and when, and enable them to schedule when they can help.

Your support system could help you with housekeeping chores, or you may qualify for Cleaning For a Reason, a program that provides monthly free house cleaning for cancer patients.

This is no time to worry about whether bills are being paid on time. If you are responsible for family finances, appoint a trusted advisor to take over this task or to help you accomplish them.

If you’ll be getting care out of town, hotel stays for you or family members can be expensive. Check to see if the medical center participates in a hosting program, like Hosts for Hospitals that provides patients and family members with free lodging.

 Organizing Your Medications

Major illnesses usually involve major medications. A organizing system that works for 2 or 3 prescriptions may not work for a dozen or more, many of which change frequently. You’ll need a system to keep track of what you’ve got on hand, when they need to be renewed, what you need to take and when, and what you’ve already taken. Many kinds of daily and weekly pill dispensers are available. Since medications may make you drowsy or unable to focus, designating someone to help you manage your medications is a good idea.

Organizing Your Self

Stress and medications both impact memory, decision-making and the ability to focus. Keep a notebook handy to jot down reminders of calls you need to make, grocery lists, questions for doctors, etc.  Create checklists to help with daily routines, doctor visits and health care treatment. offers hundreds of pre-made templates as well the option of creating your own.

Be kind to yourself. This is not the time to beat yourself up over all the things you are not doing. Give yourself permission to do less by asking for help and putting some things on “back burner.”  This may mean relaxing some of your standards, and forgiving yourself for accomplishing less than you would like.

Nearly everyone knows someone who is in the midst of a health crisis. Maybe you are the person who is ill, or maybe you are the caregiver. Maybe it is your family that is going through this, or maybe it’s a friend or relative. Often, you wonder what can I do?  Keep this post. Share this post. Offer to help when asked.

On a personal note. My youngest was 3 when I was diagnosed with cancer (he is now 27). After treatment, I remember sitting on our porch on a glorious spring day with him on my lap, thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this moment, right now.” But soon I was back at work, in my old routine, and the lesson of what is truly important receded. Serious illness often brings with it a mindfulness of what really matters in life. Hold on to it. It is the one gift your illness is giving you.

Much of the information for this post was taken from a blog article by professional organizer Hazel Thornton at Organized for Life in Albuquerque, NM, home of The Clutter Flow Chart Collection  — with these handy tools by your side, clutter will simply flow out of your home, office and life!


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