Combating Survivor's Guilt

January 11, 2011 Cobie Whitten

I was diagnosed with colon cancer in October of 2009, I had my first chemo treatment in Dec of 2009 and had my last chemo in April of 2010. I had complications from the chemo and radiation that required me to go back to the oncology clinic on a regular basis for labs and fluids through August of 2010. I still have monthly visits to have my port flushed and for routine labs that require me to continue to visit the clinic. There are times when I walk into the clinic and see so many people struggling with their personal battle against cancer and often feel like I am intruding as I am now well into my recovery phase. I find myself feeling guilty as I still have my hair, I am not wrapped in a blanket sick from the chemo, and am sitting next to patients that may see me as ‘too healthy’ to be there.

What you are describing is called "survivor guilt" and it is not at all unusual during recovery from cancer and its treatment. Guilt after surviving a trauma also can occur after war, plane crashes, natural disasters, and other events where people feel they have no control over outcomes. Just as cancer is actually hundreds of different diseases with a myriad of treatments, there are also a variety of emotional responses one may have throughout the cancer journey.

Every individual diagnosed with cancer is on their own journey. The waiting room in a cancer treatment center is filled with individual stories, some very painful and others uplifting and healing. When we focus on the superficial exterior of others, we sometimes miss the complexity and depth of their experience. Some individuals with early stage disease, minimal treatment with few side effects and excellent prognosis suffer more emotionally than those with later stage disease and poor prognosis. Judging what others may or may not be experiencing and then judging ourselves can be paralyzing.

Cancer is not equitable or fair; accepting what you can control and releasing what you cannot can be therapeutic. Some cancer survivors describe that they feel less guilt when they "give back" to the cancer community in some way. The period after cancer treatment ends can be a ripe time for self-reflection and an examination of how to move forward. Seeking help from a mental health professional or spiritual adviser can significantly help cancer survivors process their experience, reassess goals, and realize being in each moment.

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