Coping With Anger When You Have Cancer

A woman with from cancer angry in her hospital bed

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It's common to feel anger when you have cancer. Unfortunately, emotions such as anger, frustration, resentment, and sometimes shame can smolder amidst everything else you are coping with. Though people are often told to be positive during cancer treatment, everyone copes with negative feelings at times, and cancer certainly provides abundant opportunities. In contrast to what some well-wishers may tell you about being positive, it's extremely important to vent and express these emotions. After all, studies to date haven't found that a positive attitude improves survival, but we know that anger and resentment can eat at the very soul of people.

Let's look at anger during cancer, some of the situations that cause it, and how to release these emotions in a safe and healthy way.

Anger With Cancer

There are many reasons to be angry when you are diagnosed and living with cancer. Some of these include:

  • Cancer isn't fair. Cancer can affect anyone. Even lung cancer is increasingly common in young women who have never smoked and are "doing everything right."
  • Cancer (and cancer treatments) cause symptoms that can make you angry. And even if these symptoms don't cause anger directly, cancer fatigue and much more make it harder to cope with.
  • Health professionals can fail you. Many people have their diagnosis delayed, or they have to wait for what seems like forever.
  • Friends and family can fail you. For most people, relationships change significantly after a diagnosis of cancer. Friends you thought would never leave your side may suddenly disappear.
  • You can't do what you once did. Not only might family and friends not understand how you are feeling, and expect you to be your pre-cancer self, but most of us are hardest on ourselves.

We just touched the surface with what can make you angry, or resentful, or bitter. And all of that's added on top of the normal anger most humans experience from time to time. How can you deal with all of this? Let's look at why you should and then how you can.

Importance of Expressing Yourself

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t stuff our emotions, but what does that mean? If we are unhappy or are harboring angry feelings, those emotions don't just go away because we want them to. Some people are good at expressing these feelings as they occur, but for most of us, that's not the case. Those feelings stay hidden inside where they can turn to resentment and bitterness.

Anger Can Affect You Physically

One important reason to express negative emotions is because of what they do to us physically. Anger and other negative feelings cause our bodies to enter what is known as a "fight or flight" reaction. Our adrenal glands release stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), which increases heart rate and blood pressure, and cortisol, which has an inflammatory effect on the body. Over the short term, this isn't usually much of a problem, other than feeling jittery and anxious. But over the long term, an increase in stress hormones can lead to chronic anxiety, disrupt your sleep, increase your risk for infections, and more.

Anger Eventually Comes Out Anyway

Another reason to express anger may be clear if you've tried to stuff emotions in the past. Though the feelings may lie dormant for a while, they often come out (sometimes "erupt") despite the best intentions to keep a lock on them. And when this happens, it's often with a person, or at a time or place that's not ideal. Frequently, they are set off by an unrelated event — and this can be confusing to both yourself and others as you wonder why something seemingly trivial could cause such an outburst.

Barriers to Expressing Anger

There are many things that hold us back from sharing negative feelings with others, whether we have cancer or not. Many of these reasons have been ingrained in us from childhood.

  • You want to appear "strong"
  • You want to appear courageous
  • You don't want to appear "ugly"
  • You don't want to appear ungrateful

It may take a little time to reframe your thoughts so that you realize that expressing anger is actually courageous, it takes strength, and it's not ugly. It's you being genuine and real, and authenticity is beautiful.

Expressing Your Anger

It's fairly clear that expressing that anger is a good idea, but it's harder to know how to begin. Breaking it down into a few steps is helpful.

Choose Someone to Vent With

Simply expressing your anger to anyone can sometimes backfire. Not everyone is comfortable with negative emotions, and it's important to choose the right person or people to be open with. What kind of friend can help you navigate your anger?

  • The Right Person: Who do you know in your life who is non-judgmental, and can listen quietly without interrupting as you complete your thoughts? Try to think of someone who doesn't feel like they need to fix things, but can instead simply listen.  
  • The Wrong Person: At best, some people are simply uncomfortable listening to an honest expression of anger or frustration. At worst, some people may hang on to words you share at this vulnerable time, only to spit them back at you at a time when it's hurtful.  

Naming Your Negative Emotions

A good first step when sharing your emotions is to name them. Some words used to describe negative feelings include:

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Resentment
  • Regret
  • Grief
  • Self-loathing
  • Crabbiness

After naming the emotions, try to think about what exactly is causing the emotion. What are you really angry about? Who are you angry at?

How to Vent

When you have found someone to talk with, think about a time and place. Sharing your anger can lead to tears and exhaustion — in other words, you don't want to be interrupted by a child asking for a snack. 

Before you get started, take some deep breaths. It's important to feel as calm as possible when you start talking, so you remember everything you want to purge from your thoughts.

After Venting, What Next?

Many of us are familiar with the serenity prayer. There are some things in life that we can change, and some things we simply need to accept. As you think about the causes of your anger and other negative feelings above, think about this distinction. For example:

Things You Can't Change

  • Your diagnosis
  • The feelings of other people

Things You Can Change

  • ·Your reactions to unthoughtful people: For example, there are a number of ways to handle insensitive remarks about your cancer.
  • ·Your assertiveness and your right to say "no." 
  •  Your part of the problem. Even if another person is primarily responsible for your anger, what part may you be playing? Note that this isn't a get out of jail free card for the one who offended you, but simply a way to help you cope with your feelings.

Making It a Ceremony

Once you have finished venting all of your negative emotions to the full extent, it's important to make a clear step forward. Going back to discuss the feelings again, or "rehearsing them" won't bring you the relief you need.

Consciously acknowledging that you've vented and can now move on is a way to help you stop dwelling on those thoughts. You have given them the voice they needed, and you are now free to move on. One way of doing this is to carefully write down your feelings on a piece of paper, then tear it up and throw it away.

Next Steps

When you've finished your venting (or several venting sessions if needed), think about how you can reward both yourself and your listening friend.

For Your Friend

  • Don’t forget to thank the person who allows you to vent, and realize that they may need some time after talking to you to be alone
  • Also, offer to return the favor
  • Be the kind of person that others can turn to when they need to express negative anger and other negative emotions and vent

For Yourself

How can you pamper yourself? Whether it's a bath, a walk in the woods, or a massage, make a point to pamper yourself. People are human, and humans will fail you, even those who love you the most. But far too often we fail ourselves as well. Take a moment to think about how you would want to pamper a dear friend, but pamper yourself in this way instead.

Consider Counseling

Sometimes, venting your feelings with a friend isn't enough. Finding a good therapist isn't a bad idea for anyone with cancer in general (and may even improve survival rates according to some studies), and can be extremely valuable if your anger continues to eat at you. A counselor, especially one who is experienced in working with people with cancer, may be able to help you work through ongoing concerns you have and equip you with tools that can help you navigate the road ahead as well.

A Word From Verywell

Anger and other negative feelings are common with cancer, but unfortunately are hard to deal with in a society that praises a smiling cancer face. It's okay to be angry. The problem is when the anger is buried inside and festers. Finding someone who is comfortable listening to your not-so-positive thoughts is priceless as you continue your journey.

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