Don’t Rage Against the Machine

sailboatI was surfing a breast cancer forum today and was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of people crying out in anger and frustration and not being able to express that to loved ones. It made me feel sad for them and a little confused. I guess I am pretty lucky  to have such awesome Bosomers like yourselves around to listen to my every rant but I also realised I haven’t felt those particular emotions that often. I remember clearly the day I got the diagnosis and coincidentally we had booked months before to go and visit our lovely friend Karen in Scotland. The flight left a few hours after I left the breast cancer clinic and the whole journey to the airport is a bit of a blur. Once we were on the plane though, the memories are sharper. There were two young women drinking champagne and giggling a few rows in front of me and I was shouting at them in my head “Don’t you know that stuff could KILL you?” On the other row of seats in front was an older man who dared to stretch his arms in a glib, bored fashion. Didn’t he know that serious and life-threatening things were afoot? How could he be so cavalier with his body movements? A week later on the flight home, Sleazyjet lined us all up in a very narrow corridor for 20 minutes before letting us on the plane. As the heat increased and my claustrophobia ratcheted up, I was a hair’s breath away from screaming at everyone, “GET ME OUT OF THIS CORRIDOR! I HAVE BREAST CANCER GODDAMMIT!”

So I’ve definitely felt that rage and sense of injustice, but it passed fairly quickly and I haven’t really seen a strong resurgence. Reflecting on why this is so and all I can think is that I accepted the diagnosis fairly early on. However, this is not a wisdom I gained from this particular life drama but from many others that have come before it. It was a lesson that was hard won. The psychological definition of acceptance “is a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognising a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest.” I would differentiate acceptance from acquiescence which implies a more passive state or sense of giving up. I’m not talking about throwing in the towel. I’m talking about letting things that you can’t change be what they are. I don’t have all the science to back this up as there is this grey area between psychological theory and clinical studies so forgive my very subjective take on this.

There are studies to show that the opposite of this state of acceptance which I will say completely unscientifically here is the fight or flight response. This evolved as a way to get us to run very quickly away from creatures with sharp, pointy teeth that wanted to eat us. It works really well for short term problems but is not so great in the long run and can lead to heart disease, weight gain, depression etc. A cancer diagnosis can produce this response but it’s not good to hang onto it. Cancer is a long term threat to life so you need a more sustainable coping strategy. Legging it or punching cancer in the face ain’t gonna cut it. On a side note, just for reference, this is why telling someone they can ‘fight’ cancer isn’t the best statement to hear. Being in cortisol-fuelled emergency mode will do more harm than good. Also the whole reason I got cancer is because I can’t ‘fight’ it. My immune system is being very silly and thinks cancer is its mate. Cancer is the ultimate frenemy.

Connected to this is getting a good nights sleep. Not an easy feat I accept. There is evidence to show that people with depression don’t experience vital parts of the sleep cycle and this interferes with their ability to process information from the day’s events and incorporate it into their sense of self. I feel that it’s vital to my mental health that I make cancer part of my identity. I will live with it for the rest of my life, whatever that looks like. The tricky bit is to accept cancer without letting it subsume the whole. Much as the physical manifestation of the disease is attempting an aggressive takeover of my body, it is trying to do the same to my mind. Ignoring it or yelling at it (or random strangers on planes) won’t make it go away. Just as I had to accept my lumpy boob, so do I let cancer become a part of my self. A small, but profound part.


6 thoughts on “Don’t Rage Against the Machine

  1. Sokari

    This is wise advice and knowing it will always be a part of your life to varying degrees. Anger works at times but continiously it is counter productive. I don’t believe one can experience life without constant variation of emotion, the hard part is getting a balance that leans towards healing rather than harming.

    1. Heidi

      Yeh I agree that anger is useful sometimes and denying it can be more damaging than expressing it. I think it’s good to learn to spot whatever emotion you’re feeling and deal with it whatever way works for you. That’s a tricky thing to do quickly and I know I don’t always succeed and find myself freaking out in the aisles of Asda ; p xx

  2. Karen

    This makes so much sense, Heidi. Longterm fight or flight just ends up in adrenal overload. As you know, I have a tendency to do that, so I’m not saying I’ve solved that challenge at all! But I’ve been trying to work with it. A parallel thing that has helped me work with my fears and anger at times is, “Make friends with the things that scare you”. Which is a relief when it works! Anger and fear are so exhausting, and sometimes there can be an amazing relief in changing how we think about the things that trigger fear and anger in us.Trying to make the trigger not be a trigger any more. The other thing that I’ve found helpful is that thing we’ve talked about before, “Don’t focus on the mountain just look at the next step ahead on the path.” Suppose it’s about being in the present and not being overwhelmed by some big thing. But actually, what you say about anger being useful sometimes, is a really important insight too – I suppose it’s just a question of how we channel it. A friend of mine goes out into the woods with a pillow and beats up the pillow while roaring madly! He knows he needs to release his anger safely somehow, and that’s his solution! It helps him! Bit easier in a rural area, I must admit!

    1. Heidi

      thanks darling Karen for such a thoughtful and wise post. I love hearing other people’s take on these deeply personal processes. The trigger thing is very interesting and being self aware is so vital to tackling that. I guess that’s the underlying thing to all this. Knowing how you’re feeling when you’re feeling it or quickly after and responding, whatever that may emotion is or the coping strategy. Be it staring at the sea, watching rom-coms or beating a pillow to death ; ) I love you my friend.. xxxx

  3. Kat

    It seems to me just a HUGE achievement that you have been able to accept the situation, and it seems to really be paying dividends in your ability not battle emotions so much as surf their waves as they come… You must have freed up so much energy to work on the things you CAN do to help, that might otherwise have been spent on denial and resistance. You’ve inspired me.

    I think you’re right, we fear acceptance esp of illness because we often wrongly mistake it for surrender. The challenge is for people around you to hear you and accept for themselves – they may find it easier to protest or be in denial, which puts you in the position of therapizing other people’s reactions to your illness!

    I also think that acceptance in general can sometimes waver and anger and grief return, but that’s also ok. In your case you’re so self aware that seems like you have the ability to process these feelings if and when they come up and know that you can return to a baseline of acceptance.

    Anyway much to ponder on. I still think you need to watch out, cancer patients will be flocking to your blog to ask you what the secrets to life the universe and everything are! Wise lady. xxx

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