Question: How many cancer patients does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: A few months after my April 15, 2009, mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction, I changed a light bulb. The light fixture had a cover which I removed to get to the bulb. Everything went well until I tried to reattach the cover.
As I struggled, I got more and more frustrated.I didn’t want to give up and give the job to someone else; I wanted to make it work. And then, suddenly, all I wanted to do was smash the darn thing onto the ground.
Which I did.
The cover exploded on impact and plastic shards sprayed everywhere. I stood frozen in horror and yet felt strangely satisfied. In that split second, I let go of all restraint and expressed exactly what I felt – and I felt anger.
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” William Saroyan
I was good and angry all right – and it wasn’t at that light fixture. I had just gone from healthy to disability and disfigurement. All I saw when I looked in the mirror was an angry, red cancer scar from hip to hip, a reconstructed mound where my right breast had once been and a missing nipple.
And that was just the physical stuff. Receiving a cancer diagnosis was mind-blowingly frightening. Submitting to painful tests and surgeries overwhelmed my flight or fight impulse. My body image was in the toilet. Emotionally and physically, I was a train wreck.
I was angry about it all; I just didn’t know it until I smashed that light cover to smithereens. After that, two things happened. The first was that I kept running into things that made me angry. Family and friends wanted to get back to “normal” before I was ready. I struggled with loneliness. The technologist who conducted the first mammogram after my surgeries was an insensitive idiot.
The second was that I got help dealing with my cancer anger. Luckily for me, my cancer center offered oncology therapy. My therapist helped me recognize the depth of my anger and reassured me that being angry was entirely normal for cancer patients. She also encouraged me to talk it out – first with her and then with others.
“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle
It wasn’t easy facing my cancer emotions once a week for a year, but the process healed me. I hadn’t even realized how much until a few weeks ago, when I met a young ministerial student as part of The Connection’s Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project.
As a patient educator, I shared that I still have pain most every day from my TRAM flap reconstruction. She seemed genuinely horrified that I was still suffering three years after my surgery and asked me if I was angry about it.
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Mark Twain
My answer caught me off guard, because I had to say that I wasn’t, and that surprised me. Somehow that year of therapy and all those tears immunized me. I’m not a vessel of unresolved anger. I’m sharing my cancer emotions and living my life after cancer with acceptance.
(I originally posted this piece as a guest blog post on No Boobs About It. To this day, that light fixture is still without its cover. Whenever I look up and see it missing, I’m reminded of my cancer emotions that day and happy to be living life after treatment.)
Survival > Existence,