The Anger Thing

I’ve said it before, more than once: cancer patients are angry. Even when they feel good, even when the news is good, they’re angry.

When I was still having chemo, I was more aware of it because I wasn’t dissipating the energy with vigorous physical activity. When I could finally join easyGym, I was glad that I could finally pound it out, pedal it off, lift it or press it or push it away from myself 14 kg or 20kg or 50 kg at a time. Mostly that works really well, also paying off in endorphins and endocannibinoids.

Afterwards, freshly showered and dressed in clean, non-sweaty clothes, I stride a block to the bus stop with my gym bag slung over my shoulder and I never hear a peep from my back. I get on the bus and sometimes, I give up my seat to someone who looks more tired or debilitated, or to a mother with a stroller and half a dozen bags, so she can sit while she talks reassuringly to her baby who may be getting a fussy about being in a moving vehicle filled with strange people and voices and noises and smells. 

Then it’s a block and a half from where I get off to our house and I just walk it. I don’t have to think about it, although I do. It’s still a thrill to walk blocks at a time without having to worry about finding a place to sit/perch/lean because my lower back is screaming I’ll kill you, I’ll kill your whole family! It’s a dream come true and that’s not an exaggeration.

What, me angry? Well, yeah.

I’ve always had to deal with anger, and not just my own. Old Eternal (my late mother, formerly known as Old Unkillable) was an emotional person. We laughed a lot but she also cried easily and yelled even more easily, and it was hard to know what would set her off. In her later years, she was firmly convinced that venting was good for her. It probably was but it was hell for the rest of us. Once she had reduced everything to scorched earth and rubble, she felt better but everyone else caught in the blast area had lost the will to live. Which she couldn’t understand––she’d been the one who had felt bad, now she felt better, what did we have to complain about?

It made me a firm believer in the value of distraction and forgetting. Bad day? Tomorrow will be different, don’t dwell on it, forget it. Failure? Tomorrow you can fail better, don’t dwell on it, forget it. Somebody’s wrong on the internet? Be glad it’s not you, don’t dwell on it, forget it. 

Cancer? You might as well get mad at the weather. Don’t dwell on it––well, try not to, not any more than you absolutely have to. But forget it? The best I’ve been able to do is not wearing a funny cancer shirt every day. (I’ve gotten most of mine from Cafe Press but there is actually a place called http://www.funnycancershirts.com and their humour takes no porisoners.)

That’s actually been a big step for me, not wearing a funny cancer t-shirt every single day. They were like security blankets or good luck charms––in your face, cancer, screw you, you’re my bitch, my boot’s on your neck. When I looked in the mirror, I read it backwards and knew I was covered on both sides of the looking glass.

I didn’t think funny cancer shirts had anything to do with anger but they do. Whenever I’m out in my Secretly Hoping Chemo Will Give Me Super-Powers, I get smiles, laughs, even compliments from people who know the geography of Cancerland. And maybe a little discomfort from those who don’t.

But I’m not angry at them. I’m not angry at anybody or anything. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. But I’m angry. On the bus, I’ll give up my seat to a tired, over-burdened mother or an older person and smile as I do it. But don’t play sidewalk chicken with me because I will walk straight through your face.

Well, no, not really. But I probably look like I might, or like I want to. Part of it is my standard woman-walking-by-herself expression but part of it is anger. It’s like static you can’t get rid of no matter how good the connection is, or a hum from the mains or the amplifier––you can’t hear it under the music but the music isn’t always playing.

It’s not just sidewalk chicken with strangers. I’ve apologised to more than one friend since I started chemo last January. 

My version of chemo-brain has been more in the area of anger-management, and the side effects from the progesterone don’t help. What this means is not that I should get a free pass because chemo-brain and side-effects. It means I have to be careful and think twice. Not other people––me. Because if I am competent enough to understand the problem, I am competent enough to take responsibility for it. Which also means I’m competent enough to do what I can to avoid getting into trouble. And if I do get into trouble, I’m competent enough to apologise.

Prior to the Diagnosis of Doom, I went years, even decades, without owing anyone outside my immediate family a serious apology. In sixty-mumble years, I have fallen out with very, very few friends. There are people I’ve lost touch with but only because life, not because we fell out. 

After the Diagnosis of Doom, I started getting my affairs in order; I also resolved to leave no bad feeling behind if it’s in my power to prevent it. I don’t mean I think I can  please everybody. I’m sure there are people who simply don’t like me but that’s true of everybody and that’s not my problem––”Bite me” is a legitimate answer to certain complaints and observations.

(Just to be clear, it also doesn’t mean I’m not angry about racism, sexism, ageism, cruelty, climate change, famine, war, budget cuts for the poor, tax breaks for the rich, smug Tories and the Religious Right who have the gall to call themselves conservatives. I’d consider it an honour if the latter two couldn’t wait to see me go. The only thing better would be if the Westboro Baptist Church picketed my funeral but I doubt they’d come to London just to curse me. But I digress.)

Anyway, I’m not proud of the fact that I’ve had to apologise to friends––good people––for the sharp edge of my tongue. It’s humbling, to say the least. It’s also a relief to know the people in my life are capable of forgiveness. As my Aunt Loretta (one of my three moms) told me many, many years ago, all apologies are mandatory but all forgiveness is optional––i.e., just because you apologised doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be forgiven. There’s a big difference between I want to say I’m sorry I hurt you and Hey, I said I was sorry, now let’s forget it. The former is the A answer; the latter is adding insult to injury. Forgiveness is part of the healing process for the injured party, not a get-out-of-jail-free card for the one who hurt them.

Of all the dispatches I’ve made from Cancerland, this one has been the most uncomfortable. Revving myself up to make cancer my b!tch, finding things to be happy about, talking about exercise, giving the history of my hair in photos, posting pictures of myself pole-dancing with my IV tree during Chemo Dance Party, telling stories, talking about physical problems or even my feelings about mortality––those are easier subjects. 

But this is a blog about the cancer experience and anger is part of that. Even so, just saying Cancer patients are angry states the fact without any of the attendant mess––it’s so clean, it’s practically antiseptic. You picture someone sulking because they’re in a bad mood, not blowing up in what should have been a rational discussion or biting the hand that comforts.

While I would love to guarantee that I’ll never screw up again ever, ever, ever, I know there are no guarantees in this life, least of all from me. I can only promise to be mindful, and that my intentions are good.

Now, I know some people out there are thinking, The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Protip: the road to heaven isn’t paved with bad intentions. All roads are paved with good intentions––it’s up to each one of us to watch where we’re going.

Even those of us in Cancerland.

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10 thoughts on “The Anger Thing

  1. Hm, no funny radiotherapy shirts. I understand that. I’m still too tired to have thoughts of making anything my bitch or kicking anything’s ass. I can’t even really be angry, I’m just tired.

    • I’ve been there, too. Chemo fatigue flattened me, and anaemia was worse. Although as I understand it, next to radiotherapy fatigue, chemo fatigue is like needing a cup of coffee. Hang in there.

  2. Great essay as usual. Prednisone is another med that can make hanging onto your temper difficult. It even makes my dog cranky and slightly aggressive. I don’t let him hang out in the yard alone when he’s taking it. For his sake as well as everyone else’s.

  3. This blog is an interesting read. Speaking for myself only, I had & still have anger over terminal cancer claiming my wife. 6 months after she perished, I started chemo & radiation. I haven’t felt any anger at all over my own cancer. Dismay & distress, certainly! Pet scan as of 6/24/15 ( which date would have been our 23rd wedding anniversary) showed that I was cancer free. I noticed that you are facebook friends with Marta Randall; I generally devour her posts. Best of all worlds to you.

    • If I had lost my husband before I’d begun treatment, I’d still be angry about that, too.

      I made my first sale to Marta Randall, who bought my first story for New Dimensions 11, ‘way back in 1979. I generally devour her posts, too.

    • P.S. Congratulations on being cancer-free! I know it may not be very easy to be happy about that for yourself, but it’s a good thing. Every time cancer is eradicated in someone, it’s one more victory fr all of us.

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