How Cancer Patients Can Manage Anger | Online Support Group

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Anger is a common, normal emotional state that we feel from time to time. It can range from mild irritation or annoyance to intense rage and fury.
When we feel anger, physiological changes in our body take place, including increased blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and adrenaline, a natural stress hormone.

News stories are full of people who are unable to manage their anger and then cause injury to property, themselves or others. Road rage is increasingly common with drivers becoming aggressive toward other drivers, resulting in threats of harm and even shootings.

Some people have become so overwhelmed with anger after losing their job that they return to their workplace with a gun to get even. Sadly, it seems more and more people are losing control of their anger and causing harm.

Fight or Flight Response

What are we to do with this very common, yet potentially damaging emotion?

Understanding a little bit why we experience anger helps us to diffuse it and manage that feeling more effectively. When we believe that we are being threatened, we respond instinctively with anger and aggression. This is actually an adaptive response which enables us to protect ourselves and our family when we need to fight off an attacker who wishes to harm us or steal from us.

That instinct to fight and protect was necessary back in the Stone Age when humans had to search for food, battle other tribes for land and resources, and fight off attacking animals on a daily basis to survive.

In modern times, we rarely have to fight off attackers or physically protect our property. However, today we can feel anger when we have to wait too long in the doctor’’s office, when someone cuts in front of us in the checkout line at the store or when someone is rude to us.

Anger can feel out of control and unpredictable, yet we all have the ability to gain control over how we manage this intense emotion. The consequence of not learning how to manage our expression of anger is that we can develop physical problems like hypertension, chronic headaches, digestive problems and insomnia.
Our personal and work relationships suffer when we behave aggressively toward others.

Challenges for Cancer Patients

Mesothelioma patients and their caregivers have special challenges and problems to solve on a daily basis which can lead to feeling frustrated and angry. Some of the common reasons that mesothelioma patients and caregivers can feel angry include:

The first step in managing anger is acknowledging its presence and understanding it’s an acceptable emotion in light of a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Healthy Ways to Manage Anger

We aren’’t able to avoid all the things that enrage us or change people and events out of our control. But we can learn to change our reaction to those things by:

  • Expressing our anger
  • Suppressing and redirecting our anger
  • Calming ourselves

Expressing Our Anger

If we are able to find a way to assertively talk about what bothers us to the person who upset us, then we are more likely to get our issue addressed.

For example, if our physician consistently runs late for our appointments, then we may feel understandably angry. Some patients don’t express their anger at all. Other patients may misdirect their anger and start yelling at the office assistant who is not responsible for the physician being late. However, if we are able to assertively talk to the physician about our anger, we are more likely to have our concerns addressed.

Assertive communication is a skill we need to learn because we are not born with it. In order to communicate our needs assertively, we must first clarify our exact needs.

In the example of the physician consistently being late, our need may be that we need to see our physician in a timely manner because we have to return to work. We may need an explanation about their tardiness.

Next, we can say directly to our physician — not his staff — that we feel like our time is less valuable than their when we consistently wait more than an hour to be seen. We then can ask to be scheduled on a less busy day or ask what else can be done to be seen in a timelier manner.

Suppressing and Redirecting Our Anger

When we suppress and redirect our anger, we acknowledge that we feel angry, but we hold it in and redirect it positively or constructively. In situations where anger frustrate us, but we aren’’t able to assertively communicate with an yone, then swallowing our anger and engaging in another activity is helpful.
Some healthy ways to redirect our anger include:

  • Talk with a friend
  • Go for a walk or go workout to blow off steam
  • Write about what is bothering us
  • Try to see the humor in the situation if possible
  • Avoid catastrophizing the situation that angered us

Calming Strategies

We need to become aware of how our body feels when we are angry. Some physical symptoms that people experience when they are angry include:

  • Headaches
  • Feeling flushed
  • Racing heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach in knots
  • Shaking or trembling

When we notice that we are starting to feel angry and can’t express, suppress or redirect our anger, the best solution is to try and calm down. Activities such as taking the dog for a walk, lying down and taking deep breaths, getting a massage, listening to music or doing anything that soothes us will help diffuse our anger effectively.

It’s also helpful if you have a hobby such as scrapbooking, woodworking, playing cards or painting.

Unfortunately, there are times when mesothelioma patients or their caregivers will become irritable or verbally aggressive toward their loved ones because of their anger and frustration dealing with the challenges of mesothelioma. This is called misplaced anger.

Sometimes we take our anger out on those we are closest to because we are confident they will love us regardless of our outbursts. It’s important to realize this misplaced anger is very damaging to our close relationships because we may not have these loved ones in our lives if we treat them poorly.

There are many understandable reasons mesothelioma patients and the loved ones will feel anger during their battle with the disease.

But it’s important that we maximize our quality of life and preserve our important relationships by managing our anger in a healthy way.

Questions and Answers from the September Online Support Group

Q: Is the small intestine usually removed during surgery for someone with peritoneal mesothelioma?

A: This is a rare case, but it can happen if the surgeon needs better access to the tumor. (This was the case for someone on the call).

Q: Are stomach cramps and diarrhea common after peritoneal mesothelioma surgery?

A: Symptoms vary from person to person, but in rare cases the intestine may need to be removed in order to remove the tumor in its entirety. Side effects of this include gas cramps or lower abdominal pain.

Q: What is short bowel syndrome and how might it affect someone with peritoneal mesothelioma?

A: Short bowel syndrome can affect someone who had a part of their intestine removed. This syndrome can affect someone who as a significant amount of their bowel removed. It usually doesn’t happen to most people, and it only happens when a huge amount of the bowel is taken out. If you or someone you know suffers from short bowel syndrome, advocacy groups that help people with Crohn’s disease may be able to provide resources to minimize the pain and other side effects.

Q: Should someone with mesothelioma have a flu shot before or after treatment? What about caregivers?

A: Yes, flu shots are generally important for anyone with a pulmonary disorder, but make sure to speak with your oncologist about when to get a flu shot if you’re undergoing cancer treatment. Caregivers and anyone in close contact with a cancer patient should get a flu shot as well, including children. A nasal spray version of the flu shot is now available for children between the ages of two and eight.

Q: Can someone with mesothelioma fly on a plane or be around a big crowd of people?

A: If you feel healthy and if your doctor approves, you can fly and be in public. If you recently had surgery or chemotherapy, your immune system may be too weak to spend much time in public. It is best to wait until you’ve recovered from cancer treatment before you fly or enter a big crowd. There are steps you can take to protect yourself in these types of situations, such as wearing a protective face mask or using bacterial wipes to disinfect your seat on the airplane.

Q: Can you get mesothelioma from radiation?

A: Yes, but it is quite rare. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of all mesothelioma cases are caused by prolonged asbestos exposure. However, a small amount of cases are caused from radiation treatment of other cancers, such as breast cancer and Hodgkin’s disease. Secondary cancers developing from radiation therapy most commonly appear 10 to 20 years after treatment.

If you have follow-up questions on anything discussed here, you can call [[++default_phone_number]] to speak with Karen Selby, our on-staff nurse. Don’t miss the next online support group, on Wednesday, October 8. Sign up today!


Dana Nolan, MS, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor who leads The Mesothelioma Center’s monthly support group. She specializes in working with individuals affected by cancer. Dana practices in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

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