Anger After a Cancer Diagnosis

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Getting a cancer diagnosis scares the holy heck out of even the most steel-boned of humanoids.  The stress of doctor’s appointments and the confusing array of treatment options, insurance limitations and medical bills often engenders fear and frustration.  After suffering biopsy’s, x-rays, surgeries and getting “properly pilled and properly billed,” (as Dr. Seuss writes) most patients experience a twisted mobius strip of feelings.

I interviewed Attorney, author and breast cancer survivor, Andrea Schneider (no relation to Schneider Family Services) to find out how she coped with the anger and frustration after a cancer diagnosis.  Andrea was diagnosed with Multifocal Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS).  This means she had early cancer, contained to the ducts, in more than one location.  She felt shocked to learn her only treatment options were mastectomy or radiation with tamoxifen.  “How could the choices be so extreme for such early stage breast cancer?” Andrea wondered.  In her book, You Are Not Alone:  Life After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis, she describes how frustrated she felt that no doctors would recommend a specific treatment.  She wondered if the doctors were holding back recommendations to avoid a malpractice lawsuit.  Andrea came to believe that the doctors wanted her to feel empowered to choose the best option for herself.  She feared the unknown, “What would the procedures be like?  How would I feel?  What if they found more cancer and it was worse than they previously thought?”  Andrea managed her fear and frustration by spending hours researching reliable medical internet sites, interviewing other cancer survivors and talking with friends and family.  She channeled her anger into research that helped her make the best decision for treatment.  Her research and courageous story fill the pages of her informative book.

I met Dr. Brian Koffman, currently fighting a brave battle with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.  He told me, at a writer’s conference, that he found anger helpful.  It gave him energy and fight to battle this most deadly disease.  You can read about his battle with Leukemia on his very entertaining and helpful website, Brian Koffman’s Awesome Transplant  and CLL Adventure.

Channeling the energy of anger can help you work on your recovery like your life depended on it.  Fear and anger can get you moving to do research, attend doctors appointments, and talk to friends and family. After you take action, other more positive emotions have room to emerge.  How can you let anger go and feel more positive?

Find Meaning and Purpose

It helps to find some purpose or meaning in the struggle.  Dr. Koffman says that, “Writing, Talmud and Zen,” give meaning to his life.  He feels an obligation to the readers of his blog to provide helpful information and support.  Andrea found meaning and purpose in her two young children.  Her youngest was only 18 months old when she learned she had cancer.  The drive to survive for her children gave her daily life a deeper purpose.

Embrace Humor and Silliness

What do you call a person with a compulsion to get lymphoma over and over again?  A lymphomaniac. Yes we can laugh at the Big C.  Dr. Koffman writes, “I have a need to laugh.”  It’s a human need and an immune system booster.  Laughter clubs gather people together to do some serious laughing.  Deep belly laughs trigger multiple centers of the brain that can activate the body’s natural pain killers.  Let yourself play silly games like designing your perfect imaginary friend (I’d pick comedian Robin Williams for my imaginary friend.)  Play the sugar game.  Take a few sugar packets from a restaurant and see how many people you can secretly provide with sweetness by dropping a packet into a purse or pocket without detection.

Social Support

Research suggests that social support, that includes friendship and family connections, strengthens our coping skills.  The hormone oxytocin is secreted producing a feeling of calm connection that actually buffers the negative effects of stress.   Andrea says, “Phone calls, emails, presents, dinners, just knowing that people cared about me was very helpful.”

Diet and Exercise

Andrea exercises regularly and finds it a great stress reliever.  She took up running, yoga, and walking.  Dr. Koffman enjoys hiking and maintains an active lifestyle despite physical weakness.  Both Andrea Schneider and Dr. Brian Koffman changed their diets after getting diagnosed.  Andrea ate more fruits and vegetables, and cut back on alcohol, chocolate and red meat.  Brian became a vegan, eating mostly raw foods.  A healthy diet consisting of mostly plants lowers cancer risk and increases survival rates of cancer patients.  A diet rich in plant foods help you maintain normal weight which further improves health outcomes.
Anger serves a positive function after a diagnosis.  It gives you energy to get moving on your treatment and recovery.  After that burst of anger, embrace humor, nurture your social support system, exercise and eat healthy food.  You’ll feel better, recover faster, and have the best outcome.  For more information read Andrea Schneider’s book and check out her blog.  You can get an autographed copy of her informative book from her website.  Also read Dr. Koffman’s blog for inspiration, information and great links.  Be well!