Expressing Negative Emotions When You Have Cancer

Feelings of Anger, Resentment, and Frustration with Cancer

woman feeling negative about cancer
It's important to express negative emotions such as anger when you have cancer. Lara604/Wikimedia Commons

Though we are told to be positive during cancer treatment, most of us cope with negative feelings from time to time. Emotions such as anger, frustration, shame, and resentment can smolder beneath the surface as we try to appear "brave" and courageous. Why is it important to vent these feelings, and what are some ways of releasing these emotions so that you are free to enjoy the positive ones? After all, studies fail to tell us that a positive attitude plays a role in curing cancer, but anger and resentment can eat at our very souls.

Importance of Expressing Your Negative Feelings with Cancer

We’ve all heard we shouldn’t stuff our emotions, but what does that mean? If we are unhappy or are harboring angry feelings, those emotions don't just go away because we want them to. Some people are good at expressing these feelings as they occur, but for most of us, that's not the case. They stay hidden inside where they can turn to resentment and bitterness.

One reason underlying the importance of expressing these feelings is what they do to us physically. Negative feelings such as anger cause our bodies to enter what is known as a "fight or flight" reaction. Our adrenal glands release stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) which in turn cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood pressure. Over the short term, this isn't usually much of a problem, other than feeling jittery and anxious. But over the long term, an increase in stress hormones can lead to chronic anxiety, disrupt your sleep, and increase your risk for infections.

Another reason to express these emotions may be clear if you've tried to stuff emotions in the past. Though they may lie dormant for awhile, these feelings often come out despite the best intentions to keep a lock on them, and often at a time or in a place that's not ideal. Frequently they are set off by an unrelated event - and this can be confusing to both yourself and others as you wonder why something seemingly trivial could cause such an outburst.

What Holds Us Back From Sharing Negative Emotions as Cancer Patients?

There are many things that hold us back from sharing negative feelings with others, whether we have cancer or not. Many of these reasons have been ingrained in us from childhood.

  •  You want to appear "strong"
  • You want to appear courageous
  • You don't want to appear "ugly"
  • You don't want to appear ungrateful

Choosing Someone to Vent With

While it is important to express your negative emotions, it is important to choose the right people to do so with. What kind of friend can help you navigate these emotions?

The Right Kind of Person - Who do you know in your life who is non-judgmental, and can listen quietly without interrupting as you complete your thoughts? Try to think of someone who doesn't feel like they need to fix things, but can instead simply listen.  

The Wrong Kind of Person - At best, some people are simply uncomfortable listening to an honest expression of anger or frustration. At worst, some people may hang on to words you share at this vulnerable time, only to spit them back at you at a time when it's hurtful.


Naming and Understanding Your Negative Emotions When You Have Cancer

A good first step when sharing your emotions is to name them. Some words used to describe negative feelings include:

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Resentment
  • Regret
  • Grief
  • Self-loathing

After naming the emotions, try to think about what exactly is causing the emotion. What are you really angry about? Who are you angry at?

How to Vent – Choose a Way, Time, and Place to Share Your Feelings

When you have found someone to talk with, think about a time and place.  Sharing these emotions can lead to tears and exhaustion -- in other words, you don't want to be interrupted by a child asking for a snack. 

Before you get started, take some deep breaths, you want to feel as calm as possible so you remember everything you want to purge from your thoughts. 

After Venting, What Next? - Don't Miss This Step!

Many of us are familiar with the serenity prayer. There are some things in life that we can change, and some things we simply need to accept. As you think about the causes of your negative feelings above, think about this distinction. For example:

Things you Can't Change

  • Your diagnosis
  • The feelings of other people

Things You Can Change

  • ·Your reactions to unthoughtful people - Check out this article on Handling Insensitive Remarks  When You Have Cancer
  • ·Your assertiveness and your right to say "no."  
  •  Do you remember the old saying that in any joke there is some truth? Even if a comment you  hear is painful, it doesn't necessarily mean it is all wrong. Even if another person is primarily  responsible for your anger, what part may you be playing?

Making it a Ceremony – Venting and Then Healing

Once you have finished venting all of your negative emotions to the full extent, it is important to make a clear step forward – a sign that you are not dwelling on those thoughts, but instead gave them a voice and are now moving on.

One way of doing this is to carefully write down your feelings on a piece of paper, then tear it up and throw it away.

Next Steps

For your friend

  • Don’t forget to thank the person who allows you to vent, and realize they may need some time after talking to you to be alone
  • Also, offer to return the favor
  • Be the kind of person that others can turn to when they need to express negative emotions and vent

For yourself

How can you pamper yourself? You may want to begin with a massage, and massage therapy has been found to have some benefits for cancer patients.

This is also a good opportunity to begin healthy ways of coping with the negative emotions and stress we all face. Perhaps you may wish to learn to do meditation, or maybe yoga. 

Most importantly, be good to yourself. We may be angry at other people when they are insensitive or rude, but often, we are hardest on ourselves. Check out these tips on self-care for health and stress management


National Cancer Institute. Psychological Stress and Cancer. Updated 12/10/12.

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