Recently, a survivor asked me “who or what to get angry at” when we are diagnosed with cancer? And I think there is a lot encompassed in this fascinating question. It caught me off guard for a minute. I have had a few days to think about it and here is my first attempt. I welcome your views!
Is the question “who/what do we get angry with” the same question as “who/what to blame”? Blame to me refers to causality and responsbility. In general, I think no blame is to be had as there is still a lot unknown about our body, “the black box”. With the exception of some exposures that are known to increase cancer risk (e.g. asbestos, nicotine, HPV), I do not believe that blame can be assigned at current time and age.
But back to the question – “who/what do we get angry with”? To me this question refers to “where do we target our anger at”? The question implies that anger is like a “hot potato” that has to be gotten rid of as soon as possible before we “burn our fingers”. It may be acted out and projected onto targets with whom we feel safe (e.g. our loved ones) or anonymous (e.g. strangers or objects). We may spend a lot of time and energy on suppressing or numbing our anger (with exercise, alcohol etc). Many of these approaches are unhealthy, not safe, or even destructive: they may make us angry that we are angry, perpetuating our anger only more.
But what if we look at anger differently? What if we view anger as a sign that nudges us to pause and reflect on what we are dissatisfied with or what is bothering us? Anger is a normal emotion to have and represents a validated stage of the grieving process, which many cancer survivors may go through as they “try to find the new normal” in the aftermath of cancer diagnosis and therapies.
It starts by recognizing that you are angry – this acknowledgment itself may already be cathartic, validating, and healing. Sometimes the “working through” your anger is quick and easy – but sometimes it may be more painful and challenging, requiring honest self-reflection and support from our loved ones and perhaps even a professional. All we can do is our best.
If we think and feel our way through our anger, then our anger may become less intense or even disappear. The freed up energy can instead be redirected to unstuck ourselves and proceed to the 6th grief stage: finding meaning and purpose. Pursuing new adventures and making new memories. You are more than a (permanent) reaction to your cancer diagnosis – it does not need to define you – you can rise above it and transcend it – in your own unique way – at your time and pace. My wish is that you treat yourself the same way as you treat others…..with more compassion, kindness, respect, and forgiveness.