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The Fallible Caregiver Series: When Anger Knocks, Part 1

I felt it the other day. I feel it more than I wish. It often stirs right below the surface of my moving demeanor. Frustration. Okay, let’s not sugarcoat it. It’s anger. Cancer carries with it a host of issues and reasons to get angry. Stage 4 cancer brings a surging horde of issues and reasons, constantly nipping at you, always trying to swallow you up in self-pity, despair, and pissed-off exhaustion.

I suppose if we are talking about foot bunions, irritable bowel syndrome, or even diabetes, those statements would sound a bit dramatic. And I can be dramatic at times, just ask my wife. But with metastatic cancer, I think my feelings will sit right at home with many of you.

Metastatic breast cancer is a bully

This will be a two-part series on the cancer caregiver and anger. In this article, I will share common areas and ways I feel angry. In part two, I want to share some practical strategies I use to not just fight anger but to find personal peace when I should be angry.

Cancer is a bully that kicks in your front door and pushes you around. It’s always seeking to rip the reins of life from your tired hands. It’s a type of force that is always pining for control of your life, especially your heart. As caregivers, one key area it seeks control over is our peace. Cancer has a knack for evoking anger.

This anger varies according to our relationship with the person with cancer. For example, we have friends and family who feel anger towards Rebekah’s cancer. Rightly so. They stand with us and say, "F#ck cancer!" But a spouse or caregiver has other types of anger as well as that basic, instinctual rage against it. It’s one thing to stand on the sidelines and say, "F#ck cancer"; it’s a very different thing, and a very real challenge, to live with and care for someone with that f-ing cancer.

Three areas of anger

My wife’s cancer tempts me to get angry in three areas of life:

  • At cancer in general,
  • at my wife, and
  • at life derailed by cancer.

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Angry at cancer in general

First, cancer tempts me to feel pissed off because cancer is a life-threatening bully. I hate bullies. Several years back, stage 4 stomach cancer invaded my dad’s life. My dad was a good man, a sweet-spirited, loving man. Cancer thrashed him to the ground and took him away.

My wife, Rebekah, is the kindest person I’ve ever met. She’s quiet and shy. She only wants to do good in life and help others. Cancer invaded her life and throws my sweet wife around the room like a drunk, angry abuser.

We have a friend whose three-month-old granddaughter has cancer in her stomach. They are devastated and broken. F#ck cancer! I’m a Christian. I rarely cuss, but cancer evokes this primal reaction in me to want to jump in the room and throw myself at this monster. But I can’t. And that’s where more anger comes from.

Cancer renders us with a horrible feeling of helplessness. We can’t protect or save the ones we love. Cancer sidelines us with everyone else and we just sit helplessly as the one we love suffers and withers.

I growl even as I write this.

Angry at my wife

Second, I get tempted to get angry with my wife. This is the tough one for me because I know most of the issues I get angry at—angry at her—are not her fault. Cancer, especially metastatic cancer, brings a whole new set of stressors into a relationship. Having a happy and strong marriage is hard enough! But throw an aggressive form of cancer into that mix and it’s a recipe insanely challenging to bake well.

And for me, it’s not even dealing with the hair-pulling insurance companies or all the doctor’s appointments and trips to the hospital for treatment that gets to me. That all piles up over time, don’t get me wrong, but for me, the real challenge is how cancer has changed her and thus our relationship. If you remember from my first article, Rebekah was re-diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer eight months into our new marriage. She was 26, and I was 36.

My beautiful wife is permanently bald from all the radiation. She has a beautiful face—and head! — so I’m thankful for that, but I still miss her long curly hair—we both do. She’s slower than she used to be. I wait a lot for her.

She’s more withdrawn and shut up in her own mind than before. All the radiation has caused her to be more forgetful. She forgets things we’ve done, people we’ve met, shows we’ve watched, and she forgets where she puts things—like car keys and ATM cards.

Her re-diagnosis came eight months into our marriage and about eight months after that, we lost the ability to have sex. I (or we) haven’t had sex in almost seven years. As a 44-year-old healthy man, this is one of the hardest (no, wrong choice of word), toughest parts for me.

And it’s not just about a loss of intercourse; it’s also that her medications suppress certain hormones in her, the hormones her cancer loves, and while this is saving her life, it’s also leaving her with little to no sexual desire. In our newlywed days, she was a tigress, and it thrilled me to no end. Cancer and the resultant treatments have made her into a kitten.

My wife, she knows

She knows this, and it breaks her heart. She feels deep guilt from this change in our relationship. And she definitely tries to help, the way a wife can, but because it’s just not on her biological radar, it’s infrequent. I plan to talk more about this topic in later articles.

But for me, as a caregiver husband, it’s not so much about just dipping my wick, it’s that I often feel alone. Let me say that again because it’s probably the thing I struggle with the most because of my wife’s cancer—I feel alone.

I think for many men, maybe most, physical intimacy is not just a deep want/need, it’s how we feel loved by our spouse. It’s how we feel close and connected. It’s how we feel appreciated and accepted. I plan to talk about this alone feeling in later articles too.

But these issues strongly tempt me to step back, look at my life, and feel pissed off. This leads to the last area we caregivers can get angry about.

Angry at life derailed by cancer

Third, it’s easy to feel angry at a life derailed by cancer. I won’t belabor this because it’s obvious. Cancer throws a monkey-wrench into the wheels and plans of life. When we married, we both worked and still barely made it.

She hasn’t worked since her diagnosis, understandably, but that also means all financial burdens fall on me. Most chores and life work fall to me. We planned to have at least one child together. That plan is gone. We planned to… well if you’re a caregiver spouse, you know.

Okay, this all sounds like a serious bitch fest here. I’m highly allergic to people who complain a lot, so I’m feeling quite sick to myself right now. Yes, what I said is all true, but you can’t live in a pity party for too long lest you become that sucky person no one wants to party with.

So what do we do? How do we fight these feelings of anger living right below the surface and at times erupting forth? More than just keeping anger at bay, how can we find new peaceful and loving feelings toward our spouse and our lives?

In my next article, I will share some secrets I’ve learned through this journey, secrets that make a distinctive difference in my life.

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