One day in July, my husband scheduled a visit to the doctor to have his shoulder examined after he hurt it in a bad fall. That is when we discovered he had a cancerous tumor in his arm. It came as such a shock to both of us. Overnight, our lives turned upside down, and over the next several years, he battled off and on with two types of cancer.
During that time, he experienced a variety of emotions that you would expect from anyone coping with such a diagnosis. One of the emotions that seemed to intensify was his anger. Sometimes it seemed like the littlest things would set him off. It was rarely directed at me but still very difficult to be around.
As human beings, we all experience feelings of anger. But when someone is facing a cancer diagnosis, this is one emotion that often intensifies. Many of my clients come to me with concerns about their spouses’ anger. It can feel frightening to see your partner so upset. In this article, I explore the correlation between cancer and anger and how to deal with your spouse’s anger during their cancer journey.
Why Do Cancer Patients Get Angry?
Anger is one of the many emotions we experience as human beings. There is nothing wrong with this emotion or any other that a person may feel. Like all emotions, anger is the result of a person’s thoughts. They may not be aware of those thoughts, but they are at the root of the emotion.
When someone gets a cancer diagnosis, many aspects of their life change instantly. They have to visit the doctor frequently, get all sorts of scans and tests, and receive treatments with many side effects. They also may experience sleeplessness, nausea, or pain much more frequently. Their body may change, and there may be things they can no longer do. The physical and emotional toll of the diagnosis and treatment is huge.
This can be a lot to adjust to. So it’s understandable that someone with cancer might be experiencing more anger than usual. They often feel like they have lost control of their life, body, and privacy. It can feel frustrating and frightening and leads to feelings of anger.
How Do You Help a Cancer Patient Emotionally?
It’s important to remember that emotions in and of themselves are not bad and are perfectly normal. They are part of the human experience. Your spouse needs to be able to express and feel their emotions as they come up. In order to support them, you want to “make space” for them to express how they are feeling in a safe and non-judgmental way.
If their anger is directed at you or turns physical, you want to take steps to protect yourself emotionally or physically. Just because they are facing a massive challenge in their life, physical or emotional abuse should never be tolerated at your expense. You can find compassion for them while still protecting yourself. We are all responsible for our actions, no matter the circumstances. It’s important to remember that you can only help someone as much as they want to be helped.
How to Deal with Your Spouse’s Anger During Cancer
Now that you understand where anger comes from and some of the thoughts and feelings your partner may be experiencing let’s talk about how you can cope when your spouse is feeling this emotion.
1. Remember, It’s Not About You
It can be easy to take your spouse’s anger personally, but it’s important to remember that it isn’t about you or your fault. How a person feels is always about what is happening inside them. And when someone is going through a cancer diagnosis, a lot is going on! No matter what they say or how they act toward you, remember that you are not the cause of their feelings.
We often take our emotions out on those closest to us because, unconsciously, it feels safe to do so–especially with those who love us. This may seem counterintuitive, but your spouse may subconsciously feel safe to show and express to you how they are feeling. If their anger is directed at you, it’s OK to walk away or leave the room. You can remind yourself that you are both dealing with a lot and still trying to figure it all out. This can help you find compassion and understanding for their struggle while at the same time protecting yourself emotionally.
2. Create a Safe Space for Every Emotion
When your spouse is angry, sad, or frustrated, you may feel like you need to cheer them up or reassure them. And you may find that it only makes them angrier or more irritated when you do. This can feel frustrating as you only want to help. But often, what they want is simply to be heard and have their feelings acknowledged. When we try to comfort or reassure, we are not actually acknowledging the pain that person is in.
While it is difficult to see someone you love hurting, it is not your job to fix it for them. It is simply not within your control. Instead, you can offer a safe and judgment-free place for them to express their anger or whatever emotion they are feeling. You can acknowledge their feelings without trying to fix them or make them better. This is powerful for them and you. So when the anger comes up, the best thing to do is create a safe space for them to experience what they’re feeling. Read more on this topic here: How to Support a Spouse or Partner During Cancer Treatment by “Holding Space.”
3. Create Boundaries
If your spouse’s anger is directed at you or if it becomes physical or violent, then you need to set boundaries. Many people misunderstand boundaries. They are not conditions you put on others’ behavior. Those types of boundaries rarely work because we can’t control how other people behave. Instead, think of boundaries as conditions you set for yourself to protect yourself emotionally or physically.
For example, if your spouse gets angry and starts slamming doors, you may set a boundary that you leave the room when they behave this way. It has nothing to do with trying to stop their actions (that rarely works) and everything to do with protecting yourself. Now, you may tell them your boundary or not; that part is up to you. If you tell them, it must be from a place of love. For example, “It’s upsetting to me when you get angry, so I’m going to leave the room.” Notice there are no threats or efforts to control. There is simply the action you will take to protect yourself emotionally or physically. To learn more about setting boundaries, read Placing Boundaries Out Of Love.
4. Seek Support for Yourself
Dealing with your spouse’s anger throughout the cancer journey can be extremely exhausting. And that’s understandable, which is why it’s just as important to seek support for yourself. Understanding what is causing their anger and making space for it is important, but you will still need to process your thoughts and emotions so that you can show up in the way you want to.
I highly recommend getting support from a caregiver support group, a coach, or a therapist. Many hospitals have support groups for caregivers, and you can also find groups online, especially on Facebook.
I have created a free support group on Facebook specifically for people who are caregiving for their partner with cancer or any serious illness. In this group, you can express your feelings in a judgment-free zone while finding inspiration and tips for coping while on this journey. You can join the group by clicking here: Stronger Together.
5. Seek Support for Your Spouse
Your spouse might be expressing anger because of underlying feelings of sadness, fear, and loneliness. It may help them to see a coach or therapist who works with people who have cancer or join a support group of people going through a similar experience. Your spouse must be first open to the idea. They may not be open to getting support, and that’s OK too. Remember, this is their journey to navigate in their own way. If they are open to it, you can support your spouse by finding a coach or group where they can connect with other people in their situation. If you’d like some resources, you can email me at email@example.com.
Navigate Your Spouse’s Cancer and Anger with a Coach for You
It can be tough to manage your partner’s cancer and anger at the same time. The emotional toll of having a partner with a life-altering illness can have negative effects on both partners. Thankfully, there are support systems like a coach for you when your partner has cancer.
I would love to chat about how I can help you during this time by providing compassionate guidance that can increase understanding between you and your spouse, help defuse stressful situations, and provide strategies for effectively discussing issues unique to this experience. There is no reason to go through this alone. Reach out today!