Feeling guilty about surviving cancer is a problem many face.
Surviving cancer is an amazing accomplishment. Any survivor will tell you that the fight, albeit extremely challenging, is been worth it once won. But accepting the title “survivor” comes with baggage for some. Instead of being able to celebrate survivorship with complete freedom, feelings of puzzlement can be overwhelming. Survivors may experience feelings of reservation at celebrating their good fortune. They may begin to wonder “Why me?” It may be difficult to accept the fact that some with breast cancer survive and others do not. So how do we get past those feelings and learn to accept our fate with joy instead of remorse or guilt?
Survivor’s guilt is very common among survivors who’ve experienced traumatic events in their lives, and cancer isn’t the only event that can bring these feelings to light. Wars, disasters, accidents or other types of illnesses are among the life-changing events that can stir up feelings of sadness or guilt for those who survive. Wondering why survival was possible for some and not for others can be overwhelming. Among those in the breast cancer community, survivor’s guilt is often more common because of the tightly-knit sisterhood. I know this to be true in my own life.
In my experience, when I was first diagnosed, I wanted to find others who shared the same diagnosis. I wanted to compare our stories and understand the reasons behind their treatment plans. It was difficult to understand why some doctors recommended one path of treatment and others chose a different route, especially when we shared the exact diagnosis. It became even more difficult for me when I learned of the death of some of those ladies earlier this year. I didn’t know much about survivor’s guilt at that time, but felt devastated and remorseful over the fact that I was still living and they were not. In my quest for understanding my feelings, I began to research and found that survivor’s guilt is a very real thing and it’s another part of the cancer journey that must be accepted and processed. Some survivors never experience survivor’s guilt and others are overwhelmed by it. I fell somewhere in the middle. I wondered why. Cancer is not a competition, but curiously, I was comparing my course of treatment to others. I wondered if anyone else did the same. Sometimes, I wondered if perhaps, and I hate to admit this, I hadn’t suffered enough. I didn’t need to go through chemotherapy. I hadn’t lost my hair. My treatment plan was different from those I knew with the same diagnosis. They seemed to have suffered more. Where did this crazy feeling of comparison come from?
This weekend, I’ll celebrate my second anniversary of being in remission, and while I’ve not been given the “all clear” by my oncologist, as far as we know right now, I have no evidence of disease. I want to celebrate freely and enjoy the fact that I’m still here and doing well, but I can’t help but think of those who are not. How do we get past the feelings of guilt that come at times like these? The only way I have found to move forward is being able to share my feelings with others. Being able to talk about the feelings of guilt and sadness have helped me process them and accept the fate of others.
It has been challenging to learn that it’s acceptable to feel okay about surviving. As I celebrate my cancerversary this year, I’m planning on remembering those who’ve passed away but I’m also going to focus on the beautiful gift of life ahead of me. I don’t want to let survivor’s guilt engulf me. The hard reality about breast cancer is that some will survive and others will not. None of us know which category we’ll fall into and none of us should feel guilty about survival. Survival is a basic human instinct. We all fight for it, we all deserve it and some of us even get to celebrate it.