A person with cancer experiences a wide range of emotions, sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes on an hourly basis and sometimes even on a minute-by-minute basis. I call it unpredictable emotional turbulence. A few of the emotions that often rise to the surface uncontrollably at times and without warning are fear, uncertainty, vulnerability, anxiousness, disgust, despair, hopelessness, loneliness and anger. Probably the two most powerful of these feelings are fear and anger. I don’t feel fear as often these days, so maybe that indicates anger is the stronger of the two since I still get plenty angry on occasion.

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.

Often people with cancer feel guilty for not “doing cancer right.” They feel guilty for not feeling positive and may even wrongly feel their lack of positivity affects their cancer outcome. It doesn’t. They feel guilty for whatever it is they might really be feeling that doesn’t fit the mold of “proper cancer fighting behavior.” They often feel, well, angry.

Anger, just like any feeling, is not good or bad in itself. It’s just an emotion that sometimes you need to feel. In fact, it can be quite a useful feeling. It can be a great motivator. Just like I always told my students, it’s ok to feel angry. It’s what you decide to do with your anger that matters.

Feeling angry can be beneficial to a person with cancer. It provides a means to vent and let off steam. After all, if anyone deserves to feel angry, it’s someone with cancer. I believe it’s even essential to feel anger in order to “process cancer,” just not all the time.

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. 

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.

So if you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with cancer, allow yourself (or them) to feel all emotions including anger. Then try to figure out (or help them to figure out) a way to use it in a positive way. It might take a while to figure something out, but you will.

I am not an angry person, but I do get angry sometimes. When I do, I do what I always do, I write about it.

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