Getting Good And Angry: How Expressing Anger Just Might Help When It Comes To Cancer

Here’s one that screamers, hair-pullers, and dish-throwers alike will appreciate:

Turn’s out it’s good for your health to express your anger.

Now that may very well be one of those annoying things people come up with as they’re telling you how to live your life, now that they’ve co-opted that right, seeing as you have cancer. But it seems that research may actually back this up.

In a study published in 1975 entitled “Psychological Attributes of Women Who Develop Breast Cancer: A Controlled Study,” English researchers Stephen Greer and Tina Morris ran a series of psychological tests and detailed interviews on 160 women admitted to Kings Hospital for breast tumor biopsies. All interviews and testing occurred the day before the operation, before women know what their provisional diagnoses would be.  Information from the interviews was verified by separate interviews with husbands or close relatives.

And the two found something odd. Of the 69 women diagnosed with cancer, nearly half of these had, according to the researchers, “extreme suppression of anger, and, in patients over 40, extreme suppression of other feelings.”

Look–it’s not enough to say, “Well, better learn to throw some punches when you get angry; if you don’t, you just might get cancer.” That’s surely up there with our list of stupid things people say.

And in some ways it’s hard to know what to make of it at all. But if we add to it another study, we might be able to create a hypothesis.

Psychologist Daniel Weinberger at Case Western Reserve has been studying individuals who experience significant distress, but are so socially inhibited in expressing this distress that they keep it under wraps. Weinberger calls them “repressors.”

As support for such a concept, Thomas Begley, in an article entitled “Expressed and suppressed anger as predictors of health complaints,” revealed the results of a study of owners/managers of small businesses. In it he examined expressed and suppressed anger and the connection with anxiety, depression, and physical complaints. His results were statistically significant and quite clear: there was a direct relationship between suppressed anger and all three health complaints.

So let’s return to the idea of repressing illness and its connection to cancer. Weinberger’s and Begley’s studies, put together, yielded two possibilities to me (and I’m open to suggestions; for I don’t think I have ‘the answer’ to why anger suppression and cancer seem to go hand-in-hand in numerous studies).

Perhaps repressors might not feel socially comfortable complaining enough to get themselves  to the doctor–until the time for the best action has passed. They simple don’t feel comfortable expressing their pain.

Alternatively, if these repressors do make it to the doctor, but don’t feel their needs are taken seriously, they’re likely people who wouldn’t insist on a second opinion, wouldn’t want to go over their doctor’s head, and then, when the time finally has arrived, wouldn’t agitate enough to get the early appointments in for biposies–until once again crucial time has been lost.

What I myself have found in my practice, and there is some research backs my finding up, is that those who easily express their anger seem to do better over the long-term once they’ve received a cancer diagnosis.

One out-there lady was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and, statistically, things looked pretty bad, but, she claimed forthrightly, “I’m too mean to die.” To this day, 6 years later, she is still going strong, nasty as can be. [Her doctors could hardly stand her, and the bodies of health care professionals she went through in her search for better treatment piled up as she moved on from one ‘incompetent jerk’ to another.]


In her article “Psychological response to cancer diagnosis and disease outcome in patients with breast cancer and lymphoma,” Tina Morris (again), with co-researchers Keith Pettingale and John Haybittle, did find support for my experiential findings. They noticed that male lymphoma patients who died on the early side for the experimental group, before five years following the diagnosis, had higher scores on suppression of anger scales. They more often reported “avoiding seeking information” or “keeping busy” as ways to avoid thinking about their diagnosis, while, ala Fay, patients who more easily expressed anger thought about their diagnosis and about how they were going to attack it–and in the case of Fay, nearly attack anyone who couldn’t get her the best options and treatment.

AND–a  1979 study by psychologist Leonard Derogatis and his team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine determined that long-term survivors of breast cancer expressed significantly more levels of anxiety, hostility, alienation and other negative moods surrounding their illness than those who succumbed earlier. [Who would have thought that expressing “anxiety, hostility [and alienation]” would be on one’s list of to-dos, ever?]

Not only that, but in a 2010 research study coming out of New Zealand, breast cancer sufferers who tended towards emotional suppression suffered statistically more side chemo-related side effects. Breast cancer patients who suppressed emotions–and anger in particular–had more symptomology, specifically mouth sores and heart palpitations, than those who more readily expressed their hostility and frustration. [See “Emotional suppression tendencies as predictors of symptoms, mood, and coping appraisals during AC chemotherapy for breast cancer treatment” by Schlatter & Cameron.]

I’m definitely not a general advocate of hostility and alienation expression–but it looks like there’s something to it when it comes to surviving the potentially unsurvivable–and surviving it with less suffering.

Surely one shouldn’t have to be as “hostility expression experts” likes Fay to make it. And I have many patients who have survived poor prognoses who are not perfectly impossible–but the statistics on anger, both before diagnosis and after, and its impact on illness and survival are intriguing.

Maybe it’s time to pull your adolescent daughter’s hair (I’m sure she has it coming, anyway), dump a Coke with ice over the head of your idiotic financial planner, and let loose on your poor unsuspecting spouse–just in the name of experimental science and your physical health, of course.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

Leave a Reply