Welcome to SURVIVING ON HOPE our new, monthly column from Support Volunteer Debbie Woodbury. Debbie blogs honestly about the emotional realities of life with cancer – loneliness, grief, anger, uncertainty – and the strategies that make surviving on hope possible – gratitude, support, humor, and joining with other survivors at her blog WhereWeGoNow.
In addition to her service as a CHN Support Volunteer, Debbie Woodbury is a patient educator with Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project and a member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board at Overlook Medical Center. Debbie is a ten-year breast cancer survivor, a speaker, and the author of two books, You Can Thrive After Treatment and How to Build an Amazing Life After Treatment.
A few months after my mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction, I had it out with the light fixture in my walk-in closet.
Like me, the bulb was burnt out. Removing the cover to replace it was easy, but I couldn’t get the cover back on for the life of me.
Suddenly, my brain made a hard left turn and all I really wanted was to smash the darn thing onto the floor.
Which I did.
The cover hit the floor and exploded. Shards of plastic sprayed everywhere. It was a moment of violent, beautiful clarity that shocked me awake.
I was a cauldron of red-hot anger, and I hadn’t even realized it until that moment.
Looking back, it’s my denial that shocks me now. Of course, I was angry. My entire life had been turned upside-down. I had a bright red scar from hip to hip, and a reconstructed mound and missing nipple where I used to have a breast. I was afraid, lonely, guilt-ridden and traumatized.
My anger was that part of me that railed against it all. It was the part that hated submitting when punching someone or running made much more sense to my fight or flight impulse. It was the part of me that was sick and tired of letting cancer dictate my life.
Anger was as valid an emotion as any other. By making itself known when that light cover hit the floor, it forced me to deal with it. Luckily, I met with a therapist at my cancer center on a regular basis. She encouraged me to talk through my anger, first with her and then with others.
Our conversations helped me sort through my general anger at having cancer and my specific issues with family and friends who didn’t understand why I “wasn’t “over” cancer. She also reassured me that it was normal to feel anger as a result of living with cancer.
Months after the walk-in closet incident, I returned to the breast center for the first mammogram of my remaining breast after my mastectomy. As I wrote in an earlier post, the technician’s ignorance and gross insensitivity made me “over the top angry.”
As extremely difficult as that experience was, I didn’t swallow my anger. Instead, I was able to express it constructively and get a resolution that worked for me.
Denying my anger and characterizing it as “bad,” resulted in bad behavior (and, ten years later, the light in my walk-in closet is still missing a cover.) As a normal emotional response, anger isn’t good or bad – it just is. Dealing with it openly can be difficult, but it’s a lot more constructive than smashing things.
You can read more about my struggles with cancer anger in “Seeing Red: Coping with Anger During Cancer” from CURE.
Survival > Existence,