Cancer: Negative Emotions Aren't All Bad

Negative Emotions Aren't All Bad
Sometimes it helps to just get mad.
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Love, prayer, and a positive attitude have all been proven to aid the healing process, but I was surprised last year to learn about the power of a negative emotion—one I wouldn’t list as necessary for conquering a life-threatening disease.

Life dealt my close friend, Barbara, a double whammy at the beginning of January 2006. First came a diabetes diagnosis, and within only a few more weeks, she learned she had cancer in her left breast. After many tests and consults with a few doctors, both in and out of the town we live in, she suffered yet another blow. Both breasts held malignancies, one more advanced than the other.

I accompanied her as she consulted two doctors. One was a local oncologist and the other a cancer specialist at a university research hospital two hours away. Barbara knew that two sets of ears were of value when important words sailed her way like darts at a target board. The doctors have limited time, and they spout information at a rapid pace, so it’s easy to miss something. We both asked questions. The subject of her diabetes had not been addressed by these doctors, so I asked the specialist if chemo would have any effect on this other serious condition. Nonchalantly, he said, “Of course. It will make the diabetes go wild.” Barbara and I both bristled at his casual, uncaring comment. We left each appointment silently, heads whirling with information. On the way home, we stopped for dinner and discussed the options presented that day. I felt as if we spoke about some unknown person, not the woman across from me whose friendship I’d treasured for thirty years. We weren’t ready to bare our emotions quite yet, even to each other.

Barbara’s life became a series of medical tests, reams of literature to read, and doctors who offered clinical information but little comfort. She no longer had a husband to help make those all-important decisions regarding treatment, so she turned to her adult children and a few close friends who might act as sounding boards. Our phone conversations became more frequent than usual. Barbara is a strong person, and finally, she felt ready for the treatment agreed upon. There would be several months of chemo, then a double mastectomy, followed by a series of radiation treatments. It was not a program for sissies.

One morning in March, I called her and near the end of our conversation, I asked her if she’d cried yet. Her answer surprised me.

“No, I haven’t cried,” she said. “I’m not sad. I’m mad! In fact, I’m furious that this has happened.”

I had shed tears more than once. The sadness was mine, not hers. How could I feel otherwise as I watched my good friend prepare to meet the challenge of her life? Not only did she have all the cancer treatment to come, but she still needed to spend time learning more about living with diabetes, which she dealt with, not once in awhile, but on a daily basis. Maybe I should be angry like Barbara I told myself. But anger never swam to the surface for me. Love and support were foremost in my mind, and anger didn’t fit into that plan. Instead, fear became my frequent and silent companion, walking beside my every day.

Barbara started chemo treatments during the chill of early spring. Friends took turns driving her to and from the hospital a hundred miles away. She hated depending on others, as she’d always been the one to help anyone in need. “It makes me so mad to have to ask people to do this,” she told me over coffee one morning. As the treatments continued, she came to accept the fact that she needed to rely on her friends.

She faced the side effects of the chemo with spirit and funny remarks that helped put her support group at ease on more than one occasion. Her hair fell out, and fatigue moved in. She continued to play bridge every week, showing up with a different wig each time. Her bridge partners graded the wigs and then voted on the very best style for her. The winning wig, ash blond, short and framing her face, became the one she finally wore every day.  She played cards, went out to eat, attended concerts and art showings while her hands shook with tremors, and exhaustion left her weak. She didn’t talk about her anger, but it simmered below the surface all through the chemo. Her clipped words and a hardness in her eyes belied the smile she wore in public. I believe her anger became her driving force to get through the three-fold treatment.

A double mastectomy interrupted summer, but in record time, Barbara took up her active social life once more. Humor served her well in this phase, too, as boob jokes popped into conversations frequently. The months slid by, and I felt hopeful that she’d beat this life-threatening disease as she moved into the third part of her treatment. My sadness and fear lessened considerably, while my admiration for her only increased.

She didn’t verbally express anger, but I thought often of the comment she’d made to me months earlier. I think that powerful emotion gave her the energy needed to go through the seven weeks of radiation treatments, the final part of her treatment. She insisted on driving herself to the appointments, remaining the independent widow she’d been for several years. Her hair began to grow back, but she was reluctant to discard her wig. ”I look like a porcupine,” she said. The wig had become a security blanket of sorts. Finally one day in late autumn, she tossed it aside and faced the world with the shortest hairstyle she’d ever worn. “Here I am, World. Like it or not.” She looked more like the Barbara we all knew and loved.

When the new year rolled around, Barbara greeted it cancer-free, had her diabetes under control, and a smile on her face that showed in her eyes, as well. I’d never been a proponent of using rage as a solution to anything. Not until I watched Barbara harness anger into a positive force that surely aided in her healing.

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