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Coping with Anger During Treatment of Childhood Cancer

Anger is a normal and expected response to loss or unwanted change in our lives. After the loss of her child, one mother could no longer drive through her neighborhood without being angry at the Christmas decorations that her neighbors had painstakingly put out during the holidays. She could not help but think, “What a waste of time.” “Is that the only thing they have to do or worry about?” Over time she recognized she felt alone. She felt that she was not like everyone else and they did not understand her. Her anger moved to sadness and, at times, depression.

Grief is a tricky and complex process. Everyone recognizes that grief is something we experience when we lose someone close to us; however, grief shows up in many other life circumstances. Grief is the normal response to loss, which can be experienced in the death of a loved one, when we receive a cancer diagnosis, while our child is battling cancer or whenever our life circumstances are threatened.

What does grief look like? Grief can come in stages. At first we may feel shock or denial. We cannot believe this is really happening. Sometimes we may feel the urge to bargain. If I go back to church or make other life changes maybe my circumstances will change. Often we feel angry. Why is this happening to me? It is not fair. I am a good person. It is not unusual to feel angry with God, doctors, neighbors, family members and even strangers. Another stage of grief is sadness and depression. We may feel hopeless, alone and fearful during this stage. The final stage of grief is acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that we approve, like or understand our situation. It simply means we accept that it is our current reality.

Grief can be messy. It does not proceed evenly through the anticipated stages. Sometimes it may skip a stage only to cycle back later. It often feels like one step forward and then two steps back.

When we experience anger as a grief stage it can either be internalized or externalized. Internalized anger is directed inwardly towards ourselves. We feel sadness, guilt, shame and/or depression. Externalized anger is when we are angry at the world. People and things irritate, annoy and frustrate us. When we are dealing with life threatening issues we begin to see life differently. We may change our priorities, let go of trivial concerns, become impatient with gossip, feel frustrated with mundane issues and resent people who do not understand our new priorities.

It is understandable that we feel anger when our child is battling for his or her life and someone else is focused on what feels like trivial concerns. The trick is to manage our anger so we do not make our situation worse. Yelling at or insulting a neighbor or friend who is complaining that their son did not get to play first base may negatively impact future support from that friend and end up making us feel bad about our explosion.

Let’s look at five skills that can help us deal with the natural anger which arises during our battle against cancer.

  1. COPE AHEAD: It is important to recognize that we are going to find ourselves in situations where people are insensitive and/or are focused on issues that pale in comparison to our battle. Coping ahead means we are prepared for these times. You might create a witty line to clue them in to their insensitivity. Or you may be prepared to simply walk away when you start to become irritated.
  1. NAME AND CLAIM YOUR ANGER: Many times it is helpful to simply be aware of and recognize your anger. Once you recognize you are feeling anger, it is helpful to explore why. Once you name and understand your anger, it is easier to normalize it. For example you may say “I am so angry at my sister for ranting about her son’s teacher when my daughter has not been to school for the last month. I am annoyed that she does not think about my situation before she shares. It is insensitive.”
  1. PROBLEM SOLVE: Sometimes managing our anger means speaking up. If someone is insensitive or continues to trigger our anger, we may need to confront them about it. Usually sharing what happened and how it impacted us is all that is needed.
  1. SELF SOOTHE: Take time each day to decrease your distress and your vulnerability to anger by soothing your senses.   Listen to relaxing and/or uplifting music, light a candle, wrap up in a warm blanket while drinking your morning coffee, use your favorite lotion, read a devotional, look at pictures of beautiful beaches, or eat a piece of your favorite chocolate.
  1. TALK IT OUT: Vent to friends, family or a counselor. They can listen, understand and help you find ways to cope as you wrestle with the anger stage of grief.