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Coping with loved one with cancer who is depressed, angry, and mean

Posts: 1
Joined: Jan 2011

My 83 year-old mother was first diagnosed with lung cancer back in 1983. She underwent surgery to remove the tumor with follow-up radiation. She recovered physically but her personality changed radically with the diagnosis. Growing up she was fun, funny, and supported me and my family in everything we did. A truly great Mom. But once she heard the word "cancer" she became deeply depressed, angry, and mean. She also survived surgery for thyroid cancer a few years later, with no follow-up treatment. In 2008 she was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Then in 2009 she was diagnosed with Stage IIIA lung cancer and had surgery to remove the tumor, with no follow-up treatment. She has been coping with cancer is some way or another for almost thirty years.

Problem is with each diagnosis and medical intervention her depression has deepened, and her anger and meanness make it very hard to be around her. She continually says mean things to me, and, especially, to my 85 year-old father who also has health problems. She is driving me away and I have a lot of guilt. She's wearing my Dad down, and I don't know how much longer he can tolerate his living situation. We have suggested counseling and support groups to her and she absolutely refuses. I suggest books and movies to occupy her time and she refuses all my suggestions. She even warned me not to get her a Netflix subscription for Christmas because it would be a waste of money. When she receives gifts she often looks at the giver and says, "What am I going to do with this?" My Dad puts it best when he says, "She's impossible." She is very thin, weak, and is getting to the point where she refuses to leave the house. There are many times when I can't believe the things that come out of her mouth. She is critical of me and everyone I love. I used to call my parents three-to-four times per week, and I'm now down to one phone call. I visit once per week. I truly dread having contact with her. I took my Dad out to a movie and dinner tonight. He tells me that she doesn't understand why my sister, my kids, and I don't call her much anymore. I'm at the end of my rope. I have all this guilt for not being there, but when I am there she really upsets me. What to do?

Posts: 829
Joined: Aug 2010

I guess I can understand why your mom is angry after all she's been through. Can't imagine how it would be to deal with this for 30 years. She's 83 years old and probably doesn't even realize she's being like that. I'm sure it's so hard on you, your dad, sister & kids. Is she getting any treatment now? Sounds like she's giving up and maybe doesn't care anymore. If I was you I'd try and ignore it cause who knows how much longer she'll be here.
Take care! "Carole"

Posts: 1491
Joined: Aug 2010

One of the things you might mention to whomever takes her to the doctor is that sometimes this bad irritability and attitude is not just emotional but can be physiological: it may be that she is in need of some type of medical intervention as in one toxin or another may be building up in her body. We've all heard and read about the mental confusion that occurs during sepsis: this can take many forms and intensities.

It's worth asking about it, jaw.

Other than that, I refer you to my advice to my children about such a person in their life: explain kindly to your mom what she is doing to everyone and then show her every kindness of which you can think. You want to walk away from this feeling you did everything you could. At the end of the day, whenever that is, you want to be able to look back and feel good about your actions and attitude.

And let go of the guilt - it is not useful at all in this situation, jaw.


bluerose's picture
Posts: 1104
Joined: Jul 2009

I am sorry to hear about your Mother but I can understand her anger and depression because I was similar to her going through all that I did. I am a 23 year cancer survivor and it was only very recently that I realized that anger was in fact a big part of the trouble I was having with my family. I had no idea I was being like that but when I look back now I remember thinking 'where did that come from?' - fits of anger. I was always so shocked. What I am saying is that it can be out of your Mother's control at the source but overtime has worsened because it hasn't been diagnosed and controlled.

If your Mother had radiation to the lungs and it went as far up as the throat her thyroid might have been affected and that can mess with one's personality big time. If she was radiated as low as her ovaries she might have had hormonal changes which can do the same thing. I really think that she had some kind of physiological change from the treatments that produced a persoanlity change, as you would see it.

Also, or maybe too, she has gotten into that 'pushing people away from you' thing that often happens when people are very sick. Without realizing it they are doing that if they think they have little time left and want to protect family and friends from their own private hell and that too could be part of the cause for the temperament change.

She does sound terribly depressed but besides all of the possible reasons I have mentioned who the heck wouldn't be depressed with all that has happened to her, my guess her chemical imbalance is huge by now - just from treatments but also from her circumstances. We all go through stages of loss of our health and anger is one of them but sound like she has gotten stuck in anger for way too long.

A counsellor is the best idea and if one of the family members can get her to listen more than the others then that person needs to convince her that she needs to talk to someone and maybe they would even agree to come to the house to make it easier on her. The other thing you can do is have a one on one talk with her doctor or a counsellor yourself to see what they would suggest for her and the family and maybe on her next visit to her doctor for physical reasons, or her oncologist, they can have a heart to heart with her as well - with another family member present for support. She will probably be ticked off that the family has spoken to the doctor about her attitude but too bad - it's for her own good. Just explain to her that she wonders why no one comes around and that while you think maybe in part she can't help her anger issues it isn't pleasant to be around.

I guess the other thing you can do is just ignore her comments but that isn't really helping her and the wedge between the family and her will no doubt deepen. Depression is one thing that she can make better with meds and counselling is something that will help as well. I go into counselling once in awhile to check in and it really helps. For survivors/patients of cancer we feel a total loss of control over our own body that we thought we knew but is now seemingly fighting against us and it's not an easy thing to handle, especially when other cancers keep coming up - no time to recover - one disaster after another.

Your Mother could have some post traumatic stress disorder too but that has to be determined by a psychiatrist or psychology.

You can tell her that you talked with other survivors who say that they have experienced the anger and depression that she is experiencing and that some of us have chosen to make our situations better with the family by accepting help from doctors and counsellors.

Cancer isn't easy on anyone in the family, no doubt about that. I think the bottomline is that she needs professional help and someone has to be up front with her and tell her that family isn't coming around because she is being too harsh with them. Tell her that you are sure she doesn't mean to be but it could be the result of part of her treatment side effects made worse by not dealing with it all earlier. Tell her that you all love her and want the best for her including a better relationship with her but she has to want to help herself too in this. Maybe if she realizes that part of this might not be her conscious fault she might accept help more easily, I hope so. She has to take responsibility for the mean attitude though and she can't possibly want to be remembered like this to her family but she just needs some help in moving through the anger stage with whatever intervention would help for her conditions.

Hope some of the suggestions this site will help you and yours.

All the best.



Posts: 6
Joined: Jan 2011

thank you

Posts: 6
Joined: Jan 2011

i guess i should have read on down lower because what you are going through sounds so much like what i am going through with my younger sister. i don't have any answers for either of us but you aren't alone in going through this. somehow for me anyway it make it a little bit easier to deal with. mike

bluerose's picture
Posts: 1104
Joined: Jul 2009

Validation of your issues when it comes to cancer and knowing then that you aren't alone in your feelings and with other people's actions in it all is really important. That is one big reason that sites like this are so important. It lets caregivers and survivors/patients a feeling of not being alone in how they are feeling or thinking. Very important.

Anger is something that sneaks up on a survivor, often they don't even know they are being angry or hurtful, just dealing with lots of stress so hopefully they have someone who loves them who will tell them how they are affecting others and themselves and help them get help. I didn't have that and it was much harder to figure out on my own. Sounds like you have alot of family support there so you should all really try to get your loved one with cancer good care to deal with the anger issues and other issues they might face as well.

Take care and hope things get better for you and yours.



Posts: 1
Joined: Feb 2011

Hi there, I share the same feelings as you. I am totally confused, beyond confused and feel horrible about myself because of my feelings and my words, and my actions.

My husband was diagnosed w/lung cancer this fall. He's 40. He had one lobe of his lung removed. He's a smoker, w/emphysema very bad on the other side. He has always been wound on the tight side, intense, not a joyful chap, more a dry, english, critic, but very interesting and willing to take risks.

The cancer diagnosis was so horrible to hear, dreadful to be on this journey. Our marriage was strong. He fought it well and went thru the radiation and surgery very well. But coming out of surgery, it was like he was a different person, mean, impatient, it was like the anesthesia permanently altered him. 1 week after surgery his prognosis was and still is very good. The radiation had killed the cancer and no metastasis.

You would think he would have an epiphany, or spiritual experience from this. But he is very angry. He started smoking again right out of the hospital. He became and stayed angry. Then just b4 his post op chemo (4 weeks after surgery) he decided to relapse into heroin. He had been sober 11 years. I confronted him and he said he had stopped. But didn't. I threw him out 2 days later, which happened to be the day after his first day of aggressive chemo. I had caught him lying about the drug use, and because I have children in the home, he had to go. He came back home 2 weeks after that, appears to be drug free, but he is very hard, and cold, and often shocking. Yes, he's still mad.

I get it. He doesn't know what he'll do for work. I get it. He may get cancer again, from the lung cancer or from treatment... I get it. What do I do? He is angry, critical, and depressed, and negative, and I (and this is the worst of it....) I am not able to find love for him, I was blown away by the heroin relapse, and now everyday is full of depression and angry verbal tones. For me, when he started using heroin again, the trust left, and quite honestly so did my sympathy. I know I sound horrible. I lost all my sympathy for him, I admit it.... and I know I don't have cancer.... but everyday, the more he feels sorry for himself, the harder and harder it is for me to be nicer.... and I find myself being really challenged to not be cruel back. And I fail, fail, fail, all the time. This man is fighting cancer, and having chemo.... and I am being horrid to him. I know I am in a pattern now, and have to stop it. Yes, I am going to counseling, and No, he wont go too, he will also not go alone to a different counselor.

I don't know what is right anymore, or what is understandable/acceptable. I only know that no one in my house wants to come home. None of us want to live here. Divorce has been brought up many times. He has 5 more weeks of chemo, and then he says he'll have a better outlook. I dont get it? Then again I'm not the one in chemo. or the one with cancer. I just don't know how to manage this, and I am not very proud of how mean I have been back to him. You are not alone in your feelings. I don't know what the answers are, I wish I did because I sleep next to this person every night, and I run interference when he gets on the kids (not his kids, 2nd marriage). And then I am mean and horrible, and then he throws up, or looks pale, or loses more weight.... I guess tomorrow is another day.

Cindy54's picture
Posts: 454
Joined: Aug 2006

Sometimes older folks have a tough time dealing with trauma, not just physically, but emotionally. When my Mom had cancer it was a time of never knowing if the nice Mom or the mean Mom would appear. In the hospital after her surgery, she was sweet as anything with the nurses or doctors. She would talk or answer them. With me, she stared straight ahead and would not speak. I would tell her I was leaving to get something to eat and she would nod, but that's all.

When she got home, she was very angry. Nothing I did made her very happy. She would get so angry that she would visibly shake. Then we went through a time of her just sitting and crying. I mean crying non stop for hours. I would comfort, plead, cajole her. She would say she could not stop. So a lot of what you are experiencing with your Mom is probably a result of all that she has been through. Surgery takes a toll on older folks. So do meds. My Mom had seizures. That changed her moods a lot. I can remember one night when she had to use the potty chair and I simply could not get up soon enough to help her. She got so angry that she could not do it herself that she looked me straight in the eye and asked me to kill her. I tried to joke about it and said they would put me in jail...did she want that? Yes, she said. The next morning she was fine.

I have no advice for you except to be there as much as you can for her. Try to lighten things up for your Dad's sake as well as your own. Maybe bring her something unusual...a flower or something special to eat. I know milkshakes worked for my Mom..they were cold and easy to swallow.

I so wish you the best in all this. I know it is not easy. But if you back away now and something does happen, you will face a lot of what ifs...can you really handle those? Try as best you can to stick things out in whatever way works for you.

Hugs, Cindy

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