Survivor Guilt After Cancer Treatment
I’ve never wondered why I was diagnosed with cancer. Many people have asked me, “Why on earth would you, a young, healthy, happy person with no family history get breast cancer?” Even when other people wondered, I never have. I guess I figured that “Why?” wasn’t the point. I had cancer. I had to deal with it. I had to look ahead.
Since my diagnosis, I have had one friend die of cancer and another one who will die soon. Both were young, healthy and happy people with no family history. Parallel stories. My question (to which there is absolutely no answer) is:
“Why did I get what I got (a F-bomb crappy, but treatable cancer) and they get what they got (a life limiting form of cancer)?”
I think about this Every. Single. Day. Sometimes this thought makes me feel sad. Sometimes it makes me feel scared. Sometimes it makes me feel guilty.
This is another instance when I am so glad to be a nurse (Silver Lining) because I am able to self diagnose what’s going on here: I am experiencing a version of survivor guilt.
Survivor guilt is often experienced by those who have survived a major disaster. It is common to feel guilty about having survived when others died. Now, this typically refers to catastrophic events such as 911 or a tsunami or some other disaster (no reason to go on with examples and make myself feel worse!). I happen to think that a cancer diagnosis (of any kind!) is pretty darn catastrophic. I know without a doubt that my world stopped. Completely.
Anyone who has had a cancer diagnosis is forever changed. There are no two ways to say it. What I know from my clinical experience is that this feeling of guilt is a normal part of being human. It is a way of searching for the meaning of my survival vs. another person’s death. Normalizing these feelings doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, though. FBC keeps on giving (or perhaps taking is a better word).
Unfortunately, survivor guilt brings with it a host of issues that can cause depression, anger, and self-blame that may even compromise health. UGH. I certainly don’t want to go down any of those unproductive and paralyzing paths.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled to be where I am. I don’t know what’s in my future. None of us does. But through this ordeal, I have faced fears, challenges, and heartbreak. I know that I have also learned lessons I couldn’t have learned any other way.
What I now know for sure is that life is a precious gift; however after my hospice work, I actually already knew that…I guess it’s just been reiterated – in a BIG WAY. I have been given the opportunity to recommit myself to it (Silver Lining). My time to go will come around again, but for now, it is my time to live.
In the Apache language there is no word for ‘guilt.’ Our lives are like diamonds. When we are born we are pure and uncut. Each thing that happens to us in our lives teaches us how to reflect the light in the world; each experience gives us a new cut, a new facet in our diamond. How brilliantly do those diamonds sparkle whose facets are many, to whom life has given many cuts!
– Travelling Light by Daniel J. O’Leary quoting Bearwatcher, an Apache medicine man.