Full Range of Emotions

The Angry Breast Cancer Survivors. Image Source: http://www2.macleans.ca/2008/11/20/the-angry-breast-cancer-survivors/

Cancer experiences elicit a wide range of emotions. Hope, fear, relief, uncertainty, vulnerability, anxiousness, disgust, despair, hopelessness, loneliness, anger.

Hope is widely embraced in pink ribbon culture, marketed as a solution to the pain of breast cancer and sometimes a healing modality as well. Fear is something pink ribbon culture uses to elicit strong support for the Cause and to encourage specific behaviors. Anger, however, is usually suppressed in the mandatory optimism of pink ribbon culture, absorbed into a sea of presumed solidarity and consumptive bliss. Anger is dangerous to the status quo because of its transformative potential. When people get angry, they might just act differently.

A prominent blogger in the breast cancer community, Nancy Stordahl, wrote specifically about the usefulness of anger for both individuals and society. In “It’s OK to Feel Your Anger,” she acknowledges that she has experienced anger and shares with her readers the numerous and specific occasions that elicited the response. She writes,

When I first received the phone call from the doctor who gave me my diagnosis last spring, I was shocked and then angry. He delivered the news matter-of-factly as if letting me know I had an ear infection or strep throat.

I was angry cancer chose me. I was angry the disease of breast cancer still existed. I was angry for not taking better care of myself. I was angry at my mother for not being here when I needed her the most and I was angry that she didn’t get cancer until she was 74. I was angry to get cancer at my age, way too young in my mind, as if getting cancer at a later age is better. It’s not. I was angry for putting my family in this predicament, a place they didn’t deserve to be. I was angry for losing control of my health and my life. I was angry at cancer for interrupting the smoothness of my life, for changing its course, for just butting in where it did not belong. I was angry for these and lots of other reasons too.

These days what makes me angry about cancer is hearing news like yet another fellow blogger was diagnosed with mets last week. And another friend, also with mets, was hospitalized and still another recently ended up in ICU with chemo complications. I get angry when I hear over and over again only 5% of dollars donated to organizations proclaiming to fight cancer is spent on research and less than 2% on metastatic cancer research. I get angry when the focus continues to be on awareness and pink ribbon campaigns and I get frustrated when well-meaning people don’t take time to question. I get angry when people I know and people I don’t know keep dying from cancer.

I get angry when so much potential on so many fronts is lost. 

The occasions and situations that evoked anger for Nancy are not unjustified. Loss, callousness, pain, profiteering, ignorance, injustice. All valid reasons to get angry. She explains further why it is important to process the anger in constructive ways.

Anger is like a pot of boiling water on the stove.

The water starts off at a slow simmer; gentle bubbles gurgling, creating just a little heat and steam. As the temperature builds, it becomes hotter, more intense, then dangerous as it reaches its boiling point with scalding water and vaporizing steam, both capable of causing bodily harm. If you allow the boiling to continue, eventually the water disappears and you end up with nothing but an empty, burnt ill-smelling pot.

Anger too can simmer, intensify and finally boil over if you try to keep it in or covered up. Just like the “boiled out” pot on the stove, concealed or covered-up anger can eventually leave you feeling empty, burned out and accomplishing little.

The trick is to allow yourself to feel all your emotions, even anger.

Learn to use your anger to fight back in your own way, not the way somebody tells you to. Properly channeled anger can be a motivator or call to action. If you let yourself feel the anger, harness it and use it to accomplish something, you have then successfully utilized its energy for something constructive.

As Nancy suggests, suppressing anger to placate the demands of pink ribbon culture can leave people feeling burnt out and empty, while also stifling their ability to act in authentic and constructive ways. Since expressions of anger are not welcomed in the culture, doing so requires breaking some rules. Not talking about anger is rule #1.

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