Photo by Suz Redfearn

ANGER AND IRRITABILITY OFTEN GO HAND IN HAND with news of a cancer diagnosis. This normal reaction to the stress of going through a potentially life-threatening diagnosis is understandable, but people who are caring for someone with cancer sometimes bear the brunt of these raw emotions—usually at times when they are doing their best to support their loved ones.

Helen L. Coons, a clinical health psychologist who works with adults coping with cancer at University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, suggests ways for caregivers to address anger and to encourage loved ones to express their feelings in healthy ways.

Acknowledge anger. While it might seem easier to sweep negative exchanges and feelings under the rug, acknowledging anger and its impact on the patient and caregiver can take away much of its power. Sometimes just listening and letting people vent about why they feel out of control instead of trying to solve their problem can help patients better manage their anger, Coons says.

“When we actually listen to understand instead of listening to respond, it tends to quiet people down,” she says. Gentle probing can also help, Coons says. “For example, you might say, ‘So are you angry or upset about the side effects of treatment, the change in your ability to work, or the impact of cancer on our plans?’”

Be direct and acknowledge if you feel that loved ones are taking out their anger on you. Many patients are not aware of how angry they sound or that their interactions feel unkind, Coons says, so helping them understand how you perceive their actions is a good first step. She adds that caregivers might say, “‘I know that you’re really frustrated and angry today and that’s OK. But please don’t take it out on me.’”

Find ways to redirect their anger. People sometimes benefit from redirecting raw emotions to areas where they feel more in control, Coons says. That may mean helping your loved one make a choice about a treatment so they feel empowered in their care. Caregivers can also practice self-soothing techniques, such as going for a walk, taking a warm shower or writing down emotions in a journal, Coons says.

Engage the patient’s oncology care team. Although anger can be a normal emotion for patients, caregivers should discuss loved ones’ mood changes with their oncology team. Certain treatments, such as steroids, can cause patients to feel irritable and sometimes behave aggressively. In addition, patients with brain metastases can have personality changes and explosive outbursts as a result of their cancer.

“It’s important to recognize that there are some direct relationships between, for example, a possible brain tumor and irritability and anger,” Coons says. “In addition, there are certain cancer treatments that can impact emotional regulation and contribute to irritability or mood dysregulation.”

If you feel overwhelmed by a loved one’s emotional outbursts, you may want to ask their oncology team to connect you, your loved one or both of you with a therapist or support group. Coons also stresses the importance of finding a safe space if the patient exhibits rage or threatening behavior. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-SAFE.

K.J. Bannan is a journalist based on Long Island. She took care of her mother, Pauline Bannan, for almost two years. Her mother died from lung cancer in 2019.