Cancer: Survivor’s Guilt

Cancer survivors may be troubled by survivor’s guilt. Some may experience it more deeply than others and it may linger longer for some. People may experience guilt for different reasons. There are many different ways to look at guilt. 

Who do you feel guilty towards? Sometimes you may know the answer. For example, you may think about a cancer patient who had your same tumor type and who you connected with when you received infusions at the treatment center. Or someone you met waiting for doctor’s visit appointments. Or a loved one who put their own life on hold to support you. Sometimes you may not feel guilty towards anyone in particular (yet).  

What do you feel guilty about? Your guilt may reflect something you did but didn’t want to do or something you didn’t do but wish you had. Sometimes you may feel guilty that you’re doing better or worse than someone else. 

Survivor’s guilt represents the notion that you survived, while your peer did not, making you perhaps feel that you could (or should) have tried harder to save the other person. This leads to wondering about your purpose. Why was I spared? Does my fate have another mission to complete?  Do I deserve more time? These thoughts may lead to feeling guilty that you aren’t using the extra time given as intensely, meaningfully, or purposefully as you could. You may also feel guilty that you were a burden for your loved ones, holding them back from living their lives. These are classic examples of survivor’s guilt. Knowing we humans, there are probably many more unique reasons than these that we can find to feel guilty. 

Guilt can manifest in many ways. Self destruction (e.g. drugs, alcohol, nicotine, underperformance at work, relationship dysfunction) and overcompensation (e.g. showering someone with presents) are two examples. It can look like or coexist with anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress. Guilty thoughts and feelings are a normal part of the journey and cannot be easily eradicated, but we must try to make them manageable and tolerable to stop them becoming all-consuming and killing our joy. 

Acknowledging both the thoughts of your brain and feelings of your heart rather than repressing them will allow you to channel your energy into a force of growth rather than destruction. It will allow you to take steps towards changing your perspective into a more realistic one. 

  • Recognize that feeling guilty will not bring someone back to life or undo your (in)actions.
  • Remember that it is easy to realize after the fact what you could/should have done. 
  • Let your relationships provide the love and support you need when things are good and bad. Work with your loved ones in synergy; catch each other when you fall. 

Having honest conversations with your loved one(s) may allow you to share and take ownership in your life decisions. And of course, the passing of time can also be healing, allowing you to grieve what or who has been lost. If the guilt causes any dysfunction, there is no shame in talking with a professional, which may be necessary if talking to your loved ones about your pain perpetuates guilty feelings.

Everyone needs to find their own way towards making peace with guilt. Hopefully this will allow a weight to be lifted off your shoulders, so you can breathe more freely, stand up straighter, and allow yourself to enjoy more. Embracing the extra time you have been given after your cancer diagnosis is the best way to honor those you may feel guilt towards. And, please remember that you are only human and you are enough! 

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