Dealing with Survivor’s Guilt


The very first blog I ever wrote for CURE asked the question, “Why me?”

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, John Smelcer

I had only recently been diagnosed with stage 2 non-specific, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and I was literally getting my first immunotherapy infusion in Ambulatory Infusion when I wrote my first blog. I asked the same questions anyone diagnosed with cancer would ask: What did I do to deserve this? But now, on the other side of cancer, having endured half a year of chemotherapy and having rang the bell on the oncology ward, the same question arises, but it is different, full of guilt.

At the same time I was going through my cancer ordeal, I had friends going through their own ordeal with cancer. Sure, our types of cancer were different. Two had brain cancer, which unfortunately comes with a very low cure rate. Fortunately for me, the cure rate for non-Hodgkins lymphoma is very high—around 90%. And while I’m certainly glad to have survived to get more time to spend with my wife and children and friends, I can’t help but feel guilty that these other people weren’t given more time. Throughout my six months of hospitalizations for chemotherapy and during the ensuing months of recovery, I wrote poems about what I was experiencing. I was brutally honest. I held nothing back. The poems are sad, tragic, irreverent, and at times, hilarious. I dedicated one of the poems I wrote to five friends: two who passed away from cancer around the time I was diagnosed and three who were going through treatment at the same time as I was. Within half a year of my ringing the bell, the other three passed away—one just a few days ago. She had a family, a young child, a loving, doting husband and a brother and parents who loved her. Why did she not make it while I did? She loved and she was loved. She had dreams of the future. By every account, she was a good person. Yet while she is forever gone from her family’s lives, I get to see my family every day. I get to sit in a coffee house and write blogs to share with you.

I don’t have an answer for you. Survivor’s guilt is real. Maybe there is no rhyme or reason for who survives and who does not. Maybe it is just the luck of the draw. Maybe it is God’s Plan, as someone suggested to me just the other day. All that I know is that I’m certainly not more deserving of anything than those friends were. But I have come to realize that it’s okay to wrestle with the confusing emotion. It simply affirms our humanity. I’m proud to share the poem from my new poetry collection, Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor, now available online.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

for Charlie C., Chuck E., Amy S., Carol B. & Jim P.

I got to ring the bell on the oncology ward,

signaling that I’m all done, cancer-free. I’m going to live.

But some of my friends didn’t make it.

Two died from cancer months before I was diagnosed.

A friend of the family recently passed after a stint in hospice.

Another thought her cancer went away, but it returned with a vengeance.

All this brings me back to the questions I asked at the beginning:

“Why me? What did I do to deserve this?”

But the question is different now, full of survivor’s guilt.

Why do I get to live and they do not? Why me? I’m not special.

They were loved as I have been loved.

Instead of celebrating,

the bells that toll for them will be funeral bells.

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