Walking into sunset

Overcoming Cancer Survivor Guilt – Maureen Johnson wrote, in her novel ‘Girl at Sea,’ “Guilt isn’t always a rational thing, Clio realized. Guilt is a weight that will crush you whether you deserve it or not.”

As explained, guilt can be a mixture of feelings – normally it unites the words ‘blame’ and ‘regret.’ The feelings of guilt can also push people toward playing the ‘What if’ and ‘If only’ game as they try to analyze or rationalize what could have been done or how they could ‘right a wrong.’

It is one of many emotions that run the gamut through the emotions of many people who have or are living with cancer. People with cancer may feel guilt for a variety of reasons.

Tracey had breast cancer. The first time, she didn’t have to have chemo, the next time she did. “But I didn’t get sick like everyone did. I would sit in the cancer center and see people being wheeled in or wheeled out, ambulances come to get someone who was very sick after his or her treatment, and all I could think about was, my cancer wasn’t like their’s. They really had cancer.”

Sue had ovarian cancer – stage one. She had surgery, and pretty much that was it, other than blood tests. “I never really saw it as cancer because one, it got caught and taken care of pretty quickly, and two, I was not having to face what a lot of people I knew had.”

Both women admitted to feeling guilty for surviving.

Feeling guilt is common among survivors of most out of the normal events – like natural disasters, like Hurricane Harvey that hit Texas in a big way. Cancer patients feel guilty because they got through the treatment without ‘scars.’

Psychologist call this type of guilt – imagined guilt or survivor guilt. Tracey talked about feeling guilty when she saw fellow cancer patients in the cancer center, and saw many who were in advanced stages or who responded poorly to treatments. Tracey was not having that issue. Other cancer patients have concurred with Tracey’s statement, and felt the same way.

The survivor’s guilt happens to when cancer patients start talking about the stages of cancer they have , the treatments received and more. Finding a commonality does seem to help.

At the same time, it can be a negative. In a lot of these case, though survivor guilt ensues. Jeanne spoke recently of feeling some sort of melancholy because she felt responsible when a fellow cancer patient reached advanced stages and died. “It is like I feel like I should have helped her or something. I wonder, why me? Why did I survive and she died?”

A study from the ‘Committee on Cancer Survivorship’ in the early 2010s offered the following tips to overcoming cancer survivor guilt.

First, examine the base for the guilt. To accomplish this, one should find a qualified therapist. Talk therapy, journaling or participating in a support group is encouraged. Letting go of guilt is not easy, but can help improve your well-being and your ability to cope with cancer.

Secondly, remember that cancer is not anyone’s fault. Even the experts don’t have a full understanding of why most types of cancer develop. People with cancer feel guilty about their lifestyle choices they made, like cigarette smoking. An important way to overcome the guilt is to let go of mistakes you think you made in the past.

Thirdly, focus on positive things in your life for which you are thankful. Do something you enjoy. Find a hobby.

Survivor guilt is real, but can be overcome.

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