Riding the Emotional Roller Coaster through Anger
by Dave Dravecky
There’s something about having cancer that many people don’t like to talk about. It’s often unattractive. It’s scary. Some people will say it’s always wrong. So, most of us try to smile and pretend it’s not there. But sooner or later, the reality of dealing with cancer will expose it. What is it? It’s ANGER!
Anger is a very real part of the cancer experience. We may be more or less angry than the person next to us; we may have different triggers that cause it to explode to the surface; we may express (or suppress) our anger differently. But at one time or another, we all feel the emotion of anger.
I had to deal with anger in a big way during my journey through cancer. For a time, I didn’t deal with it well. I was miserable. I was not pleasant to be around. I was moody. I didn’t say much. I didn’t share what I was feeling with my wife, Jan, or anyone else. As a result, I lashed out in random acts of anger that had no relationship whatsoever to what was happening around me.
Facing the reality of our fear, frustration and hurt is difficult, so most of us do our best to ignore those feelings.
Because of the emotional pain Jan and I experienced during my battle against cancer, we sought the help of a Christian counselor. The help we received made a tremendous difference for both of us. One of the things I learned is that anger is usually a response to three different emotions: fear, frustration or hurt — all of which are a part of a journey through cancer.
Facing the reality of our fear, frustration and hurt is difficult, so most of us do our best to ignore those feelings. We bury them deep inside, but they don’t go away. Instead, they produce anger, which can be just a cover-up for being afraid to deal with the reality of cancer.
I know how scary it is to acknowledge and talk about those deep emotions. It was scary for me then, and it’s still scary! But as I learned how to talk about those feelings, I began to free myself from the tyranny of my anger. When I dealt with the core issues inside, I was less inclined to express anger in situations where there was no cause.
When we are battling cancer, it’s so important for us to understand the message of anger, to learn from our anger, and to recognize it as a signal that there are core issues inside that need attention. And it’s just as important for people who are around cancer survivors — friends, loved ones and caregivers — to be sensitive to the fact that people who are suffering will get angry.
To be on the receiving end of anger is scary. So, it’s important for the individual who would encourage an angry cancer survivor to be very sensitive to understanding why that anger is there and to accept it for what it is. When you accept anger for what it is and give a person permission to be angry — not permission to be abusive or to remain locked in anger, but permission to experience that emotion — you open the door to a relationship where you can discover the issues that lie behind the anger. Then you can begin to talk about it, which helps in the journey of pain and suffering.
There is great freedom in knowing you can share your deepest thoughts and fears with someone who accepts you and, in the process, gives you the encouragement to cope. No one wants to stay angry. The goal is to move from a place of anger, which keeps us from dealing with what we’re up against, to a place of peace and contentment that comes from effectively communicating what’s really going on inside.
When we don’t deal with the issues of cancer head-on, we end up in bondage to our emotions, especially anger. Christian psychologist Gary J. Oliver calls anger a warning signal. Like the engine warning light on a car, it tells us something is wrong. And if your engine light is on, I hope you’ll be better equipped to stop the car, lift the hood, and take a look inside.
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Dave Dravecky is a former Major League Baseball star whose battle with cancer is chronicled in two books, Comeback and When You Can’t Come Back. He and his wife, Jan, are the founders of Endurance with Jan and Dave Dravecky, which offers comfort, encouragement, prayer support, personal contact, resource referral, literature and hope to those coping with cancer and amputation.
Edited and reprinted with permission from The Encourager newsletter, published by the Outreach of Hope.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 1999.