Survivor guilt is a theme I see frequently when I visit online support groups:
“I feel bad complaining about my cancer, I know it could be so much worse.”
“I had this dear friend in my support group. She died last month. I feel so guilty that I’m still here.”
“My cancer was only Stage I. As I finish treatment, why do I feel so tired and depressed? Am I just a complainer?”
I get these feelings, too. My cancer was Stage I. Because its pathology was really bad, I did everything: surgeries, chemo and radiation.
While cancer is by far the scariest and most difficult experience of my life to this point, I heard many stories from my support group that were far worse than my own – stories that made my hair stand on end: Women who ended up in the hospital because of the side effects of chemo. Radiation burns that actually blistered and got infected. Reconstruction surgeries after mastectomy that went terribly wrong: infections, mistakes, multiple hospitalizations.
When it was my turn to talk, I sometimes felt sheepish. I’d make excuses, “Okay, I know this isn’t as bad as some of the things we’ve heard today…”
And that’s where the leaders of that support group would always jump in and correct me. “All cancer is terrible and terrifying,” they’d say. “All cancer patients suffer. It’s not a contest to see who can suffer the most.”
That always helped. I’d still feel a little guilty (guilt seems to be my default emotion), but I’d feel less guilty.
I don’t go to support group meetings regularly any more, but here’s what I’d say if I heard another, newer cancer patient make excuses for her good prognosis, or lament the loss of someone who didn’t win the battle:
Rejoice that your cancer seems to be treatable. Remember that the friends you lose probably would rejoice that you may be one of the lucky ones. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel the bad feelings so that you can move on. Remember that all you can do is all you can do.
And then, I’d tell a story about this Catholic nun I met while doing a book project years ago: “None of us deserve the bad things that happen to us,” she said. “But then, none of us deserve the good things either.”
You could take that as a harsh statement: We don’t deserve things.
In the context of cancer, I prefer to understand it this way: You didn’t deserve to get cancer (a bad thing). Nor did you deserve to have a relatively treatable cancer (a good thing). Life is more random than any of us really want to admit. Try to be strong in the face of bad news. And be grateful when the news is good.
Try to avoid guilt. Usually, you have little control over cancer. So it doesn’t make sense to feel guilty about it.