Losing my temper: Embracing anger after a breast cancer diagnosis
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for almost a decade now and, typically, crying comes easily to me. When I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer at 31, though, I felt the need to armor myself. My mother was diagnosed with stage III at 38, and when I told her, she cried, but then she got mad. Really, really mad. Later, after I’d told others around me and received the pitying stares, and the “you’re too young for breast cancer,” “you’re strong,” “at least it’s the good kind,” and “you’ll fight this” comments, I realized how freeing and refreshing the anger she encouraged me to feel truly was. I needed someone to allow me the space to rage. I needed someone to scream “it’s not fair” over and over with, cursing our genetics.
Some people think anger is negative and, no, it won’t fix the problem, but I found it helped me process the problem. That anger, for me, was a gift.
It was this welcoming of anger that allowed me to not only understand that my diagnosis was real but motivated me to make decisions and ask for help. This anger gave me purpose to make firm decisions, instead of wavering about what I wanted or needed from doctors, friends, and family. I made a firm decision about a bilateral mastectomy. I pestered plastic surgeons until I found the perfect one for me – one who listened to me, spent time with me, and was just as careful as I wanted to be. I decided I wanted to wait for the sentinel node biopsy results before undergoing reconstruction – I wasn’t comfortable rolling the dice if the pathology report came back positive. The last thing I wanted was another surgery or to have another hospital stay.
What may have been even harder is that I had to accept I needed to ask for help. It’s always been hard for me to ask for help – because of the need to be perceived as “strong” (whatever that means). But I had to force myself to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do the simplest things for myself. I asked my mom to travel and stay with me after the surgery. Though my partner was there to help me with cooking, lifting, and more, I needed my mom because, unlike anyone else I knew at the time, she’d done all of this before. She was there to get frustrated with me that the surgery had to happen at all, cry tears of joy with when the sentinel node biopsy results came back negative, and yell at me in the hospital for pretending I didn’t know her post-op, calling her “a strange lady” while I, in a drug-induced haze, laughed at my own joke. Yeah, my mom could still get partly angry and then laugh at me while I had breast cancer, and that was okay. Maybe it was a kind of mission, maybe I personified cancer into a villain I needed to slay, maybe it was a way of coping, but for whatever reason, I harnessed that anger, and that anger gave me the confidence to ask for help without feeling disempowered or fragile.
Women so often feel like they need permission to feel certain ways. As women, we’re often scared to show anger. What if we’re deemed difficult? Hysterical? What if people don’t take us seriously because of that anger? What if you do get mad, and someone slaps you an offensive, sexist, or racist trope? I mean how many women have been told they have “resting bitch face” just because they aren’t smiling 24/7?
Paradoxically, we’re also discouraged from showing any kind of grief and disparaged when we do. If we mourn, we’re, again, “hysterical” or delicate.
We’re deemed too emotional if we’re not the shiny, plastic, hollowed-out versions of “model women.” Some of us hide it, either because we want to or feel like we must. If we do feel like we must, it’s usually to spare others the burden of watching us get upset. Maybe you, like my mom did when she was diagnosed, want to shelter your children from your suffering as parents are wont to do. There is something incredibly brave in this, and I do not disparage anyone from dealing with this kind of trauma in whatever way they want or feel is best for themselves and their loved ones. What I want to emphasize, though, is that if you’re able to open yourself up to all the possible emotions you might have, if you give yourself permission to react however you want, you might find yourself like I did -- more empowered, amped up for survival mode, and, honestly, more able to deal with the sadness. It seemed I needed Wrath to come out and drag Fear and Sorrow kicking and screaming behind it for me to believe and understand what my diagnosis really meant.
For me, my diagnosis meant, that suddenly -- like, literally, within a week -- my life was going to drastically change. I knew, from my mom’s experience, that breast cancer, regardless of what stage or how long you’ve been in remission, is haunting. After learning of my diagnosis, I recalled a moment over the previous summer where my mom told me her doctor found something “suspicious” that he was sending to be tested. After I got off the phone with her, I sobbed uncontrollably. I realized that I – just like my mom – was hiding my true emotions to make her feel better. Now I know she would rather have had me respond with genuine emotions and anger because, even though I was worried, I was super angry that she was having to play this excruciating waiting game again and that there was a possibility that she’d have to cycle through all she survived last time again.
After my own diagnosis, I knew the experience would haunt me forever. I think it about it a lot. Every. Single. Day. I know many women, and people impacted by cancer in general, experience this. It’s not a one-off. It’s infuriating to have to watch it come back in our loved ones who have already been through it, and it’s infuriating to constantly fear it will find you again. And, again, it’s not fair that not only did cancer change my life and body forever, but now it’s constantly sitting in the back of my head poking me in the brain, taking up entirely too much mental space. This, in itself, made me want to scream then and makes me want to scream now.
Some of us, the lucky ones, are surrounded by people who open their arms to us and let us rage, let us grieve. Others, though, don’t have that kind of support, so I’m here to give you permission to feel what you want to feel. I know it’s dangerous for many women, or even impossible for some, to openly get mad and rage, but when you’re alone, if you can and if you want, punch your pillow, stomp around, write a letter to cancer full of curse words and insults, scream into a pillow, scream in your car, scream anywhere you can. There are so many ways to deal with a diagnosis and trauma, why not explore them all?
So, my advice to those diagnosed is to let yourself rage. Be Medusa. Show your wrath, scream at cancer, turn it to stone, then kick it over and watch it crumble to pieces around you. Sure, it’ll still be there, but you might feel more empowered afterward.
Khristian Roberts is an LBBC Young Advocate and was diagnosed with DCIS breast cancer at 31 while living in Austin, TX. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and, later, DIEP flap reconstruction. Khristian teaches college writing, works as a kickboxing instructor, tutors, and edits for an academic journal. Khristian’s love of education and experience dealing with breast cancer diagnoses have merged into a personal mission to advocate for diagnosed women and raise awareness for the disease, especially among young women. Khristian, 33, currently lives in Chattanooga, TN, with her partner, two dogs, and entirely too many books.
Emotional/Mental Health, Mindfulness/Wellness, Side Effects