*July 2020* by Tess Taft, msw, licsw ©all rights reserved
This is the second part of a four part series on how people cope with cancer. The first installment discussed GRIEF, DEPRESSION, and ANXIETY. This section includes thoughts on ANGER.
When a diagnosis of cancer lands with a thud in people’s lives, treatment and uncertainty strain all the ways they know how to cope. They and their loved ones often feel shoved off a cliff, in free fall, and emotionally shattered. Immediately lost is the assumption that the person with cancer will die of old age. The sense of a long anticipated future disappears, and the present can feel intolerable. How do people cope with these new, scary experiences they were never taught to expect or handle? How do their loved ones cope? What about the children? It’s complicated. Here are some fundamental realities:
• There are different types of “copers” within each family, and different family coping styles that are deemed acceptable by the person with the most authority in a family or couple.
• This person’s role, often unspoken yet clearly understood within the couple or family, determines the rules or guidelines for everyone to follow when it comes to expressing feelings. Families can suffer if the spoken or unspoken “rule” is this: “If you loved her(him) you would do what I’m doing.”.
• People learn to cope in healthier ways over time, as they learn how to live with the stress of cancer in themselves or their loved one.
• Families that support each other well have learned to accept the different styles within their group of loved ones, holding them all in balance.
• The ways we cope define how we are trying to survive emotionally. When it comes to cancer, past losses of loved ones who died of cancer can determine how devastating a cancer diagnosis can feel, even if the current prognosis is excellent. It is easy to forget the vast advances that have occurred in cancer treatment over the last few years and decades.
• The ways people cope with the predictable crisis points in cancer can shift and change over time as people learn to trust themselves and receive support during this new and demanding time of trouble.
The predictable crisis points include: diagnosis, beginning treatment, midway through treatment, ending treatment, recurrence, terminal diagnosis, and dying.
“It’s not fair!” “Nobody can keep me safe! Don’t tell me I’ll be OK!”
“Where is God now?! I thought God would keep me safe!”
“Nobody can tell me I’ll be alive in five years and think I’ll believe them.”
“What’s going on here? My husband was supposed to get sick and die first, so I could take care of him!”
“Hurry up and wait! Hurry up and wait! That’s all I hear at the oncology clinic! Why can’t they get their shit together?
“If I die, my children will be told to do something and then they’ll be told ‘Your mother would have wanted you to do this’! Well, maybe I wouldn’t!”
For some people, underneath the depression and grief are fiery feelings of anger, resentment, and bursts of rage. The anger can stem from feeling suddenly out of control and filled with fear that no-one can take away. Often the anger is focused on the disease itself. But how can you get angry at cancer? So it most often spills out at loved ones or even strangers in the form of criticism. And the well loved victims of such an outpouring of anger can feel silenced: “I can’t get mad back at him (her) the way I used to. He’s (she’s) sick!” I encourage family members to try to understand the source of the anger and respond something like this: “I know you love me. You’re really angry right now.” or “This is hard for me because I love you. I’m afraid too. But stop yelling at me!” or “Hey, don’t talk to me like that! I don’t deserve it!”—and then I advise them stay right there with this beloved person who is lashing out and also afraid that caring for them will be too much for the relationship to bear. It is important to remember that the emotional responsibilities of a healthy partnership must continue through sickness, just as through the healthy times. People with cancer whose beloveds don’t fully engage with them, protecting them from arguments or decision making or personal troubles of their own, can feel just as abandoned as if the other person has left them. So be real. Don’t become a familiar stranger. Go to your ill partner for support, just as he or she depends on you. Trust that below the angry outburst lies the foundation of love, and despair at the possibility of life being cut short, even if the prognosis is good (“for now”, people with cancer often fear). Read more