October 15, 2001
The Power of Anger
Karen Ritchie, MD
In the cancer world, positive thinking has become a moral obligation. As if dealing with cancer and its treatment weren't bad enough, women with cancer have to face family, friends, and even total strangers who scold them for saying anything they consider negative. (see Angels and Bolters)
Even some gatherings that call themselves support groups do not allow their members to express unpleasant feelings. Some support groups allow, even encourage, women to be honest about what they feel, but in other groups women who admit to sadness or anger are subject to a lecture. They soon learn to deal with those feelings alone. Many, many women cry in the car on the way home from a so-called support group.
We seem to think anger is evidence of weakness or moral failing; or at best, merely bad manners. Because anger makes other people uncomfortable, women with cancer are expected to ignore it or stifle it, to pretend everything is fine. Once again the Barbie doll rules our world - we are expected not only to look like her, but also to act like her.
But some women find strength in their anger. Anger can be a source of power, the source of energy to make needed changes. It seems that wrongs get righted only when someone gets angry enough to do something about it.
This was true of Nancy Brinker. She was angry that her sister died of breast cancer, and angry that she left teenagers. She believed that with better information her sister might have lived. Her anger drove her to establish the Susan Komen Foundation, named for her sister.
Because of the Komen Foundation, patients in the United States have a small but significant voice in how government research funds for health are spent, the medical world has discovered to its great surprise that women's health issues are not the same as men's issues, and a woman can admit in public that she has cancer without feeling shame. Cancer treatment will never be the same, and health care for women will never be the same. All this happened because Nancy Brinker was angry.
This may be true in your life, also. Anger may give you the energy and the courage to make positive changes in your life, to do what needs to be done. Or maybe it will give you the impetus to say no to someone or to get rid of something you should have given up long ago.
Anger can also be a means of grieving. Different people grieve differently - some are sad, some are numb, and some are angry. To grieve means to face the losses and accept them, to feel them emotionally. This is the way to get beyond the experience; you can't go around it, you either stay stuck where you are or go through the grieving process.
Women with cancer are angry because of the many losses. Cancer invades their bodies and their lives. They lose their hair; they lose health, time, and money, and they may even lose friends. They lose parts of their bodies, they lose a sense of security, and they fear they may lose their future.
They also lose their illusions. Some believed that healthy habits were a guarantee against cancer, or that their health insurance would cover everything. Losing illusions is painful, all the more so because it doesn't seem like losing something real. But it is a real loss. We are fond of our illusions and rather attached to them, even if they are false. We hang onto our illusions even if we know better (good people don't get cancer) or if our illusions don't even make sense (if you get regular mammograms you won't get cancer) and their loss is painful.
Grieving means looking at all the things that are gone, counting them up and recognizing how much they meant and how much they will be missed. This process usually means anger. Don't let anyone talk you out of your anger. It doesn't mean you are weak - in fact it means just the opposite
You are entitled to your feelings. If your friends and family can't listen to your anger, you may want to find someone who can.
- Of Interest:
- No Heroes, No Losers
Angels and bolters: a field guide to the wildlife of cancer
What Now? Life after Cancer