You have a recurring rash on your arm. What do you do? Most people immediately turn to Dr. Web for an impromptu diagnosis. A little electronic wisdom will either immediately dispel your fears or give you a reason to visit your doctor. Either way, well played, my friend, well played.

What happens, though, when something less everyday happens and your medical situation is suddenly alarming — your sister, say, is diagnosed with a rare and serious disease or you yourself are given the dreaded cancer verdict? Though you turn once again to the web, this time the stakes are much higher and it feels like a different experience entirely. After all, life depends on this. It’s time you learn how to investigate (and talk to doctors) like a pro.

Begin with Mayo

Before you waste time wandering through random blogs or popular press articles, read what Mayo Clinic has to say about your diagnosis. The website of this respected medical institution will provide you with the standard medical opinion of your disease or condition. This is where you can learn what the latest batch of doctors are taught about your illness in med school. The general rundown will be easy to read and easy to understand. Best of all, you can trust the information will be up-to-date and accurate.

Once you grasp the prevailing medical opinion, you will most likely want to learn more by venturing in other directions. Some of us immediately want to go more technical, others want to explore the alternatives.

If it’s cancer that ails you, go to the American Cancer Society website. The information here will be more specific than what you read on Mayo’s website, plus you’ll get more facts and figures and statistics. Best of all, it’s a very easy-to-navigate site. While you’re at it, visit the website of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Considered the gold standard in cancer treatment, they focus more on treatment and in some cases specify how they go about things. This is good to know before, during, and after talking to your doctor.

For other diseases and illness, a great place to go is to the medical societies linked to your illness. Often they specify the clinical guidelines the recommended treatment plan doctors are advised to follow — for your illness. Your son was diagnosed with schizophrenia? Look at what the American Psychiatric Association says. Your daughter has a rare hormonal disease? See how the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists advises its doctors to treat patients. It is important to know if your personal physician is following the guidelines or deviating from the script. You may need to ask, why?

Check out PubMed

Having made this deeper dive into more practical information, it’s time you get your feet wet on a website sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. PubMed is a search engine for medical journals. Type in your disease and what pops up is an exhaustive list of whatever has been published on the subject. While many of the articles will not be available to you online, you can read the abstracts and get some idea of what scientists are doing to learn more about your disease. If you’re not a scientist, much of this information will be confusing to you. However, it’s worth trying to understand — and you may need to look up every other word — and anything you read that intrigues you can be printed out and brought to your doctor. Ask questions.

The Alternative Path

This is the trickiest part of your research as it could lead to false hopes. While true hope is your most valuable ally, disappointment is a heartless, two-faced friend you don’t want anywhere near you while you’re sick. The Complementary and Alternative Medicine website of the NIH, while it doesn’t necessarily condone any specific practice, does provide a list of common, non-mainstream treatments and therapies. It also warns of common pitfalls and so is a must-read for that reason alone.

While learning what questions to ask is helpful, the more important part of your alternative research begins with other patients. Start reading the patient message boards and blogs to hear what other people are trying and doing. For instance, go to the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer message board and see what other patients are saying. Find a support group in your area (again, this can be done online). If nine out of 10 people say some supplement is helping with nausea, it may be worth trying. If nine out of 10 say they had a bad experience with something you thought might be cool to try, why waste your time, energy, and most likely money?

It is from other patients (and parents of patients) that you will learn and feel encouragement. No one knows the reality of an illness more than those who have faced it themselves. Say hello to your compadres! Bemoan your fate, complain about time wasted in waiting rooms, learn.

For those with rare diseases or in worst case scenarios, you would be wise to see whether any scientists are running clinical trials for experimental treatments. Again, type in your illness and see what comes up. And this is key: Find a way to talk to the scientists involved. Even if you don’t meet the criteria, they know what is happening in the field and can give you advice. Speak up.

Though you may be seriously ill, it is important to remember one thing: Sadly, this is the moment you must be your strongest. Now's the time to become your own best advocate. Research, learn, talk to your doctors, talk to other patients. You've entered another country, one you never expected to visit, one you never wanted to see, but now that you've arrived, it's well worth exploring. Illness, after all, is just another lesson, just one more life teacher. How can you use the experience to become more compassionate, more kick-ass, more wise, more you?