On Anger

When I first got diagnosed with cancer, I was fucking pissed. I feel like people say “I was fucking pissed” and sometimes what they mean is, “I was seriously annoyed.” As in “That dude stole the parking spot I was waiting for, I was fucking pissed.” That’s not what I mean by fucking pissed. I mean FUCKING PISSED. Rage-filled, shaking with anger, ready to beat the shit out of those asshole cancer cells. I think I actually frightened my oncologist when I explained to him how I’m channeling Frank Underwood from House of Cards and that I was going to (spoiler alert if you’re one of the 5 people on earth who haven’t seen Season 2 yet) calmly push my cancer in front of a metro train and walk away. Because, when I’m fucking pissed, it’s a little bit terrifying.

Now, though? It’s been more than 6 months since my diagnosis, and I’m not mad anymore. I’m just not. Disappointed? Yes. Frustrated? Often. Scared? Hells yeah. But angry? Not really. And when I read stuff about cancer being a war, and like, really angry “I am going to fuck you up, stupid asshole cancer” posts, like, I don’t know. It just doesn’t resonate with me anymore.

And I think maybe part of it is this: there are wars like World War II, where we went in, we fucked up the Nazis and Japan, and those who survived came home. (Mostly. I mean, there are still bases in Germany and Japan, but like, nobody is shooting at anybody there anymore.) That’s what non-metastatic, non-recurrent cancer is like. You go in, you fuck cancer up, and you’re like “Goodbye asshole.” Remission is permanent for the majority of people with breast cancer. The Nazis never came back. Oh sure, you’ve gotta be vigilant and take your meds and watch out for those Neo-Nazis who think they can somehow bring about a Fourth Reich, and you’ve got to deal with the emotional trauma that your battle caused you, which I don’t mean to minimize at all, because PTSD is no joke. But facing death isn’t part of your daily existence anymore. It’s easier to stay pissed off during a battle of that duration, to sustain your anger.

Then there are wars like the ones we’ve been fighting near the Persian Gulf. I mean, we fought the first Gulf War, and we were like, “Hooray, it’s over, we won, and it was relatively easy!” And then 10 years later, oh wait, we have to back and do it again, only this time, it’s an ugly 8-year slog. And then 3 years after we get out of that mess, oh look, we’re headed back there again. That’s what cancer that recurs is like. You get all the PTSD and none of the “but you don’t have to take poison ever again” benefits that the WWII vets got. I don’t personally know anyone who’s had a recurrence, so, I’m not really sure if the anger comes back with a recurrence–those of you who have been there, tell us in the comments.

And then there are wars like the war on drugs. It just goes on and on and on, and it’s not likely to end in my lifetime. And everyone sort of forgets it’s going on anymore unless there’s like a big battle between the cartels or something, because, it’s just part of the background noise of our lives. That’s what metastatic cancer is like. It’s hard to stay angry when you know it’s just going to keep on going. Rage isn’t a big part of my world anymore (other than when I get shots that make me go hormone-insane). It’s just too hard to sustain that level of anger when you know it’s just never going to be over.

I think anger can be useful. It motivates people to take action, like, if Lucy Burns hadn’t been angry, she never would have accomplished all she did. But as a patient, there’s only so far my anger can take me. And frankly, I’m gonna be living with cancer for the rest of my life. I don’t want to live the rest of my life feeling pissed off all the time. But even if I did want to be angry, it’s just not there anymore.

I feel like that sounds defeatist. I think there is an expectation when we talk about badass cancer warriors that we’re supposed to be like some rageaholics drill sergeant screaming in cancer’s face or something. There are a lot of things cancer patients are supposed to be–bald, sickly-looking, but self-confident, positive, but not too positive, there has to be room for rage too. But 6 months of this shit, I have learned that cancer looks different on every person that has it. Just like every parent is different, and our choices are informed by our circumstances, every cancer patient is different, and there is no right way to look or feel.

One of my favorite cancer books is Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, by Miriam Engleberg. She says all this better than I do, and you should read her book.

2 thoughts on “On Anger

  1. I don’t know if there is a person in America who hasn’t lost someone to breast cancer. There are people with the BRAC gene who have had 4 generations of women die from this insidious disease. There are people like me who developed Stage II breast cancer at 44 who are (happily) still here after aggressive therapy EIGHTEEN years later. DH lost two sisters and a first cousin to breast cancer, losses that still leave gaping holes in our hearts.

    But the hardest, my beloved mother was diagnosed at 70 with Stage I breast cancer and had a recurrence (her oncologist felt that at her age, she shouldn’t have chemo, only radiation–What The Hell????? She was a young, healthy 70) two years later. And maybe worse than that is having a beloved friend with two babies who was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer–I can’t tell you how many tears (doing it right now) I’ve shed for her. Oh yes, I will be F’ing pissed until the day I die about that.

  2. Data point: it’s been more than five years since my aunt died from a recurrence of breast cancer, and I’m still fucking pissed.

    Beth, I love your honesty here, and I particularly love your generosity – you’re absolutely right, however you feel is the right way to feel (except when the hormone insanity takes over).

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