Rage Against the Disease: The Anger Stage of Cancer Grief

I’ve found in myself, and many of the survivors I’ve met in counseling sessions, that of all the stages of grief, anger seems to have the greatest staying power.

“But grief, and the helplessness it typically brings with it, are usually not well addressed by allowing the anger to take the center of the stage.” — Martha C. Nussbaum

I’ve found in myself, and many of the survivors I’ve met in counseling sessions, that of all the stages of grief, anger seems to have the greatest staying power. Of course we’re angry, and unlike its solemn cousin depression, anger can get us going, fire up the engine and motivate us toward profound acts of courage. Additionally, it has the potential to do the most harm if it becomes entrenched.

The wisdom of Kubler-Ross’s work on grief is that, in addition to providing a framework for an experience that is the fate of everyone, it offers a roadmap for those yet to make the trek. In regards to the anger stage, she writes, “It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the health care system, at life, at your loved one for leaving. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss.”

This does not mean that we develop a sense of righteous anger where we feel free to share our angst with whoever crosses our path. Nor does it mean that we get to hide behind the false shield of “life hit me first, I was just hitting back.” What it does mean is that we drop the need to justify or validate our anger.

Unlike other emotions, we love to question anger. When joyful, how many of us sit around trying to figure out why we’re happy? How many of us have read up on how to manage our bliss? Anger is arguably the most analyzed emotion. Ironically, one sure method for complicating a natural and reflexive process is to overthink it. In the sports world, getting distracted by the mind is called “choking.” There is a wonderful Taoist expression of this:

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets — He is out of his mind! His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him. He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting— And the need to win drains him of power.

The last thing any cancer survivor needs is to be drained of any more power than this disease and its treatment steals from us. The key to grieving through the anger stage is to consider the words themselves. Anger comes from Old Norse angr, meaning grief or sorrow. Stage, from the Latin statum, means “to stand.” Together we arrive at simply standing with our sorrow; no rants or rages, no destructive acts of violence, just a natural reaction to the unfairness of this disease.

Psychologists learned the hard way, that the conventional wisdom of acting out anger, i.e. hitting a pillow, or punching bag, etc. actually creates the effect where anger simply boomerangs back to lodge itself in our psyches. A simple way of expressing this would be; anger out, anger in. Those of us survivors who carry the extra burden of the Y chromosome know that men naturally gravitate toward the “If it angers you, break it” mentality. I personally felt this impulse during the days when the steroids introduced to manage side effects of chemo were playing havoc with my attempts to get all Zen with my treatment.

What’s an angry, cancer-hating, chemically enhanced survivor to do when we find ourselves as the primary star under the spotlight on the anger stage? First and foremost, it’s important to remember that not judging does not mean swallowing anger where it can fester only to reappear as yet one more physical ailment. Secondly, it means that we do not judge ourselves for experiencing moments where we feel we could chew iron and spit nails. Other useful tips for exiting the anger stage include:

1. See anger as a call to attend to a problem, not as the problem itself.

2. Use anger energy as motivational strength to take action.

3. Dilute the negative effects of anger by laughing more.

4. Address the feelings of helplessness that lie at the root of anger through acts of compassion toward self and others.

5. Stop blaming yourself for getting angry; blame is just anger in another disguise.

As a final note, I’ve noticed that occasionally some cancer survivors will turn their anger toward other survivors who attempt to find the positive in the cancer experience. On the receiving end, it can feel like unduly harsh criticism for simply not giving in to the impulse to rage against the disease. From the sender’s perspective, the, “cancer is my friend,” crowd are steeped in denial and quite possibly insane. As someone who, most of the time, resides on the receiving end, I would never try to rob someone of their right to feel anger. Rather than return fire, I understand that it’s not me they are angry with, it’s our common foe, cancer, and rather than their enemy, I feel like an ally.