By Debbie Woodbury , Founder WhereWeGoNow
Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.
~ Maya Angelou
The dictionary defines an emotion as “a conscious mental reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body." Notice there is no value judgment as to the negativity or positivity of our emotions, which are simply reactions.
The truth is we often think of anger as negative and try to avoid it at all costs. The social message is loud and clear: Don't overreact, don't yell, don't curse, don't scream, and don't ever be impolite. Hold it in at all cost. But, how do we cope with cancer anger? As a cancer survivor, I remember a lot to be angry about. Although I never wondered “why me” I did feel anger about changes to my body, loneliness, and having to deal with past emotional traumas stirred up by cancer. I was especially angry when a year had passed since my diagnosis and I was not yet "over it."
I also remember being really angry at people who wanted to move on and forget about cancer before I was ready to do the same. I felt alone, abandoned and unheard. As my anger increased, it got too big to share with those same people. The only thing that saved me was being able to voice my anger to my therapist, who encouraged me to curse, yell and be impolite. I know it is only due to her being there for me that I was able to work through my cancer anger and get to a better place in those relationships.
The experience which made me the angriest was my first mammogram after my diagnosis. I was already emotional about returning to the scene of my initial bad news, but the technician's insensitivity pushed me over the edge. She started off on the wrong foot by talking loudly about my history in the middle of the waiting room. In the dressing room, she asked me again about my history (she couldn't seem to understand why only one breast was to be imaged.) Finally, I realized she didn't even believe I had a mastectomy, despite the fact that I told her so many times. Her reason, “Many patients don't always know the difference between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy.” Really? You try having a mastectomy and then tell me you don't know the difference.
Next, she declared (despite her lack of a medical degree) that my DCIS was "not breast cancer." This shocked me, but I looked her straight in the eye and responded that it was in fact cancer. Not to be deterred, she argued that there was some debate whether it was or wasn't. At that point, I stopped talking because I didn't want to break down and cry, or punch her. Despite my silence, she kept talking. She told me she knew someone else who had DCIS and she had a mastectomy too, "So she wouldn't have to worry about it anymore." Could she not sense my intense worry and upset at that very moment? Or did she actually think that my mastectomy made it all better and I had nothing to worry about anymore? When the mammogram was completed, she offered me a rose. I didn’t want to take it, because I was nauseous from the whole experience, but did. Just barely holding myself together, I got dressed and walked as fast as I could to my car where I broke down and cried. When I got home, I threw the rose in the garbage.
A day later, I was still furious and called the breast center to complain. When I talked about it later with my therapist, she applauded me for calling, but asked why I felt I had to hold it all in while I was there, rather than let the technician see the hurt she had caused. It was an excellent question.
The bitterness of cancer anger was exactly what I was feeling before I made that phone call. By judging my anger as negative and holding it in, I let it eat through me, rather than using it to deal with the source of the problem. Once expressed appropriately (by complaining about how I was treated) my anger burned clean my resentment and bitterness. I felt validated. I felt empowered and I felt heard.
How have you coped with your cancer anger? Have you been able to express it constructively, or have you held it in like I did?
Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
The healing power of sharing her story as a cancer survivor compelled Debbie Woodbury to found WhereWeGoNow, an interactive community for cancer survivors creating inspired healing, wellness and live out loud joy. Debbie is also a blogger at The Huffington Post, an inspirational speaker, a support volunteer with The Cancer Hope Network, a member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board, a patient educator with the Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project, a wife and mother, and a former very stressed out lawyer. You can also find Debbie on Twitter and Facebook.
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