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Seeing Red: Coping with Anger During Cancer

Coping with anger during cancer can be difficult.

BY HEATHER L. VAN EPPS, PHD
PUBLISHED SUNDAY, JUNE 10, 2012
In the summer of 2009, Debbie Woodbury was recovering from a mastectomy after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer two months earlier. Although her cancer was caught very early and her treatment was successful, she found herself unable to get back to life as usual. She realized that she was angry.

“I was dealing with what I had just gone through, what I had lost and what I now knew about my mortality,” Woodbury says. “And that brought up a lot of resentment and anger.”

Feelings of anger are common among cancer patients, and those feelings can crop up at any time. According to oncologists, anger is one of the first emotions that patients express upon being diagnosed, but it is also common for those who suffer relapses. Others, like Woodbury, grapple with anger even after their cancer has been successfully treated.

“When you’re going through treatment, it’s hardcore, 24/7 cancer-time,” says Woodbury, 53, of Morristown, N.J. “And when that part of it is over, all of a sudden everything that you didn’t deal with [emotionally] comes crashing down.”

“Anger is a common stage of coping with a crisis,” says Philip Bialer, MD, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Anger evoked by a cancer diagnosis is no different from anger that arises in any other crisis, such as after the loss of a loved one. And although anger is commonly regarded as a negative emotion, it can have advantages for cancer patients. “Some patients can take the anger and say, ‘I’m going to use this to fight back,’” Bialer says, “so it can be used in a constructive way.” 

But for cancer patients to use anger to their advantage, they must first recognize and acknowledge it. Counseling sessions with a trained therapist can provide a much-needed emotional outlet for cancer-related anger. Woodbury met weekly with an oncology therapist who helped her understand that her feelings were normal. 

Patients who find themselves lashing out at loved ones or feeling isolated or depressed may be suppressing anger or simply not dealing with it appropriately.

“If you don’t give vent to [these emotions] as they occur,” Spiegel says, “then they wind up being exposed in the wrong way or being directed at the wrong people for the wrong reasons.” The key to avoiding pent-up anger is to express it in a safe, supportive environment, he adds. “In the therapeutic setting, it’s helpful for patients to express their anger, so we know what’s going on and can figure out how to help.”

Unchecked anger can alienate family and friends or cause disruptions at work. In extreme situations, unresolved anger may make patients more likely to become self-destructive and abuse drugs or alcohol. Indeed, Spiegel’s work showed that group therapy lessened the likelihood that patients with metastatic breast cancer resorted to aggressive or irresponsible behavior as a means of coping with their anger and negative emotions.

Cancer is often accompanied by feelings of loneliness and isolation—feelings that can intensify with anger, which Woodbury experienced after her mastectomy.

“When your surgery is over, everybody wants to move on and go back to life the way it was,” she says. “And the same people who supported you really aren’t there anymore to the same degree, so your isolation becomes much more acute.” 

Cancer patients simply want to be their old selves, Spiegel says, so they often can fail to make their new needs clear to their loved ones and caregivers, which can lead to frustration and anger. And by taking anger out on members of their support network, patients run the risk of alienating the very people they rely on the most.

In conjunction with group therapy, Spiegel teaches his patients self-hypnosis as a stress management tool to help them cope with intense emotions like anger. He also touts the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

Anger is not something that you just shake off once you finish treatment.

“I tell them to do what their grandmothers told them to do: Eat well, sleep well and get plenty of exercise,” he says, pointing out that people handle all types of stress better when they’re healthy and well-rested.

Woodbury was so grateful for the support she received after her surgery that she started her own blog (WhereWeGoNow.com) as a resource for other cancer patients. There, anger is a recurring theme. “Anger is not something that you just shake off once you finish treatment,” she says. “I think that’s the most surprising and shocking thing to a lot of survivors. They think, ‘I’ve been through the worst, and therefore, it should be over.’ Realizing that creates some anger.”

Spiegel puts it simply, saying, “Emotions are your friends, not your enemies, so see them as a signal system that’s there for a reason.”

“Some patients can take the anger and say, ‘I’m going to use this to fight back. So it can be used in a constructive way.”

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