A Natural Emotion That Often Accompanies a Diagnosis of Advanced Breast Cancer
When life does not go according to our desires and expectations, we frequently react with anger. The anger that stems from coping with a deadly disease can be more intense than what people experience in more ordinary circumstances and can surface in unexpected ways at surprising times. A terminal disease naturally spawns a host of disappointments. You may feel singled out from others who have been cured of cancer or who are in remission. You may be upset that so many others appear to be in good health and look to be long-lived. The hand you have been dealt could seem unfair, and you may ask, “Why me?”
You may be mad, too, about the troublesome and limiting side effects caused by treatment and the cancer’s progression. You may be irritated by the time, trouble, and expense required to take care of yourself and may become exasperated in having to take many medications and having to tolerate frequent blood draws, scans, and appointments. You may feel short-tempered around others who do not understand, or seem not to care about, what you are experiencing, including loved ones and healthcare providers. Perhaps, too, you resent media reports proclaiming that breast cancer is highly curable.
All this anger is human, reasonable, and should not be denied.
Your anger may also be directed unfairly at yourself. You may be infuriated and remorseful believing that you caused your own cancer. If you experience such thoughts, keep in mind that others engaged in, or did not engage in, the same activities that you did, and they did not all get cancer. Outside of rare instances when people inherit a breast cancer gene that carries a high probability of malfunctioning and causing cancer early in life, your cancer is the result of multiple factors, including the natural aging process. Furthermore, the body of scientific studies has not conclusively shown that breast cancer is linked to any particular personality type, painful life event, or emotional state. The worry that you brought about your own demise is likely ill founded, as is the notion that you could cure your illness if you “straightened out your act” or were not depressed. Even if you did do something that contributed to your plight, remember that you were doing the best you could at that time and would likely do things differently if you could have seen into the future.
All this anger is human, reasonable, and should not be denied; rather it would be helpful for it to be expressed when possible in a manner that is not harmful to you or others. Sometimes anger is the result of not being proactive and needing to assert oneself. If this is the case, it may subside when you take more control of decisions in your life, even in small ways, like choosing when you want to do something, or in big ways, such as in deciding what you think is best for your treatment rather than deferring to others. You may understand and better control outbursts if you write about your anger in a journal. You can possibly transform your fury through creative endeavors such as drawing or molding in clay a likeness of your anger or in expressing it through dance or movement. Depending on the situation, you could discharge your anger in a number of ways, from squeezing a ball in your hand, to screaming or yelling, to physically exerting yourself, such as in ripping magazines or throwing pillows around. The act of expressing your feelings safely is what is most important.
Anger can creep up or break loose out of the blue. You may find yourself furious over a trivial matter, or you might burst out crying unexpectedly. Be wary of displacing your anger onto someone who is not to blame. People experiencing great loss can find themselves in the position of needing to apologize for treating others unfairly. Forgive yourself if this occurs since this is not unusual and you are in unusual circumstances. Anger can be like a storm that passes and clears the air, but if you find that yours is habitual and harmful, try some of the activities above or talk with a counselor.
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Excerpted with permission from Breast Cancer Recurrence & Advanced Disease, by Barbara L. Gordon, PhD, Heather S. Shaw, MD, David J. Kroll, PhD, and Brooke R. Daniel, MD, copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. For more information, visit barbaralgordon.net.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.