Readers Write: Survival Guilt

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Readers respond to the question posed by CURE: Survivor guilt is a topic that is just now being explored in cancer patients and survivors. Did you experience any guilt after your diagnosis or treatment?

As a survivor, I always rejoiced in living my life to the fullest with no guilt. Until one of my friends who had stood by me so strongly in my fight, lost her fight five years after my remission. She was much younger than me with a two-year-old son. It was at her funeral that I was overcome with guilt. It hit me hard! But as I tried to make sense of it, I remembered all I wanted for my friends to do if I lost the battle is to be happy and live every day, so that's what I'm doing to remember my friend. If you are one of the lucky ones to beat this disease, the ones lost aren't gone if we remember all the kindness they left behind. So, I'm smiling and busy living!

Nita K.

Yes, I have survivor guilt. My cancer was in situ, found early, very small, and a lumpectomy with follow-up radiation took care of it. I have been cancer-free for 12 years. My daughter and I participate in the Komen Race for the Cure and she is about to do her ninth Komen 3-Day in my honor. I don't feel I deserve this attention. The doctors, researchers, etc. should be getting the attention. I am grateful it was as small and easily removed as it was.

Barbara G.

Yes, I, too, experienced guilt. Two years before my diagnosis my brother died from multiple myeloma. From the time he was diagnosed he suffered much pain, and we knew his prognosis was bad. For my breast cancer treatment, I went through chemo and radiation, and my prognosis was good. I kept thinking: Why was I saved and he wasn't? That was 13 years ago. For me, my volunteer work saved me. Through volunteering with breast cancer patients and hospice patients, I finally began to understand and accept my being here. I have to say my religion also played a big part. Since that time, I have experienced two more bouts of cancer and a renal artery aneurysm that was found and again I was saved, this time by surgery. I am grateful for every day and am living my life as such.

Susan K.

Yes, there is some guilt with being a survivor! I have lung cancer and responding to treatment for 10 years now. When other friends and family cannot be saved as I am, it’s very hard to talk with those who have been left behind, especially when people say, “I wish that something like your meds were available to them.” They are happy for you, but still sad over their loss. It’s hard to explain your feelings at that time. Was I spared this extra time for a reason? Just luck? Best doctors? Who knows.

Laura B.

My mom and I went through cancer together. A non-smoker, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. I accompanied her to doctors' appointments and round after round of chemotherapy. She never complained about the side effects except for worrying about losing her hair. Then, in the midst of helping her, I found a lump, and even though my last two mammograms had been clear, somehow I knew. I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in 2007. I had always feared medical procedures, but I told myself that if she could come through surgery, so could I. If she could get through chemo, so could I. If she could sail through radiation every day, so could I. She was my inspiration. My hair fell out after two weeks, and at least I could convince her that it was an excuse to buy a collection of baseball hats. As the months went on, it became obvious that Mom wasn't going to recover while every indication was that I would. The last thing that we did together was to walk the Relay for Life. We walked the circle of the stadium with our family cheering for us. She was weak and tired and having breathing problems, but she refused to give up. I knew that I would be around for other survivor races and she would not. It wasn't fair, she had had more chemo than I had; she had worked as hard as I had to get well. Every year when I walk in Race for the Cure or Relay for Life, I remember her spunk and I wish that we could both have been survivors. I know, however, that her last wish was for my recovery and both of us are happy that her wish came true.

Barbette T.

Yes, I have and still do experience survivor’s guilt. I'm divorced and have no children. The only family I have is my elderly mother. Sometimes I feel guilty that I'm still here when others who are very loved and make significant contributions to the world lose the fight, but I'm certainly glad to still be here. I do serve on the American Cancer Society Relay for Life planning committee, survivorship sub-committee, team captain, and have raised several thousand dollars individually toward our team's goal. Contributing these efforts is very rewarding and help me feel that I do have a meaningful purpose on this planet.

Neva B.

At 28 I had breast cancer. I had an 18-month-old son and was pregnant when I had a mastectomy. A good friend and co-worker, 10 years older, was diagnosed shortly after. She and her husband had just adopted a little boy after years of trying to get pregnant. I lost my baby two months later, my marriage fell apart, yet I was "OK" physically. My friend died after a relatively short fight. My husband left me within the year, and with strong feelings of rejection, I suffered tons of survivor guilt that she died leaving a loving family, and I didn't die. I still think of her, but thank God every day for the life, the family, and the love I have.

Sue H.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 56, I had not had a mammogram in several years. My primary doctor noticed the lump during a routine exam, so I owe her my life?and certainly learned my lesson. Reading breast cancer forums, I became aware of many young women who were fighting this disease. I was very fortunate that my cancer, while stage 2 because of size, had not spread to the lymph nodes. Meanwhile younger women, some with little children, were not getting such good news; some were stage 4 and many eventually lost their battles. I felt guilty that I, who had been so negligent, had survived, while these women, who had been responsible about their health, lived fewer years and had to leave young children motherless. I have learned that cancer is not fair.

Joan E.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I immediately felt guilty because I felt that my past history of obesity was my own fault and had probably caused the cancer. Later, when I only needed a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation, I felt guilty again because of all the other cancer patients I’d known who had to go through mastectomies, chemo, lymphedema, etc. I always felt that I had “cancer lite!” I guess that I have a very high guilt quotient in my life. However, my diagnosis did convince me to work hard to keep off the 80 pounds that I’d lost, and to limit my alcohol intake.


Absolutely! I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 34, 19 years ago. At that time, I knew no one who had survived cancer. Along this journey of cancer treatment, many women in our small town have turned to me for support and many of them have not survived. I have asked myself and God why have I survived and others have died. Many have been my age and have left behind children the same age as my own. When I have mentioned to my friends, my feelings of survivor's guilt, they do not understand. I am finally glad to hear someone else might have the same feelings as me. Only a few months ago, I was diagnosed with my third recurrence and I now have been able begin to let go of the feelings of survivor's guilt and focused more on my own survival. I have to believe that God has a plan for me that I cannot understand.

Cindy D.

Yes! I had rectal cancer diagnosed three years ago at a screening colonoscopy. No history, no symptoms. I had surgery, chemo, and radiation. Prognosis was good. A year ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer. I had surgery and chemo, and 15 months later, I am doing well, but I go through periods of feeling like I don't deserve it. Sometimes, I feel awkward. Sometimes, I recognize that every day is a gift. Going through cancer, and surviving, doesn't fix pre-existing emotional issues and sometimes creates others.

Michael B.

In December I will be a 12-year survivor of esophageal cancer. Yes, I do have survivor's guilt. I belong to an EC support group sponsored by ACOR and when we lose someone to EC, it's just so hard for me to send a condolence note. Do they wonder why I was spared and not their loved one? Why was I chosen to be one of the lucky ones? All I can do is offer hope to those dealing with EC that even though it is a deadly cancer, some of us do survive.

Mignon L.

Absolutely, I felt tremendous guilt when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer 12 years ago. I felt guilty that I was dragging my family through all the mess of emotional stress and worry.

Dorothy P.

I did not experience any guilt after my treatment for lymphoma. I come from a large family (six counting me) and was asked by a friend, “Do you not wonder why this happened to you?” My reply is “No. If it had to happen to a member of my family, I would rather it happen to me.” I did six chemo treatments, lost my hair, was tired, and have only recently be diagnosed as having lymphoma again. I’ll do it all again if that is what is necessary and know that I will be OK.

Betty H.

I am not sure that I would necessarily call it guilt, but I did experience a great deal of questioning. I am a registered nurse by profession and was diagnosed five years ago with stage 3 metastatic colon cancer to lymph nodes. In my cancer support group, there was another nurse. He was also diagnosed at the same time as I was; we had our surgery at the same hospital around the same time. He was a few years younger than I am, his cancer was stage 2. He also had a colostomy. I was fortunate and did not have to have a colostomy. When he died after two years post surgery and post chemo, I was devastated and troubled. I could not grasp why I survived and my cancer was more advanced and he did not. The answer to that question still goes unanswered.

Joseph-Bernard S.

Am I overcome with guilt because, so far, I've survived breast cancer while others haven't? No. Do I worry about whether breast cancer will comeback like a thief in the night and silently set-up shop? Yes. However, sometimes I say “one gin and tonic won’t hurt” and "I won't exercise, today." If alcohol and not exercising can raise my risk of recurrence, why do I break the rules? My doctor says everything in moderation, including moderation, but I feel guilty. My real guilt is I didn’t call my friend, Susan. We met two years ago when I filmed her makeover for my website. Since then, we’ve talked every few months. I just discovered she died, last week, after 14 years of living with metastatic breast cancer. Two weeks ago, my little voice said, “call her.” I didn’t. She was a brave and precious friend. I want a gin and tonic.

Brenda Ray C.

No. No "survivor guilt" at all, or none that I was aware of, anyway. Knock on wood, it's been 11 years now since my stage 1 breast cancer. I feel guilty about lots of things, but not about still breathing and enjoying life.

Carol R.

My mother had a bilateral mastectomy in 1974. Two years later she was dead after the disease had spread throughout her body. In 2001, my beloved step-daughter underwent a lumpectomy and several courses of chemotherapy and radiation. In little over a year, she was dead. Two weeks after my girl had her surgery, I had a bilateral mastectomy. I recovered rapidly and needed neither chemo nor radiation, only tamoxofen. In the past eight years, I have lost several loved ones to breast and other cancers, but I am still alive. Guilt? You better believe it. I deal with it by trying to be a better person, to help people whenever I can, and to make a small difference in the world. These actions give me a little ease.

Audrey M.

I am not sure if I have “Survivor’s Guilt” or not. Maybe you can tell me. Sometimes, I feel that I killed my mother when I told her my diagnosis. I found out about my early-stage breast cancer diagnosis on March 26. I revealed this information to my mother on March 28. Her 62nd birthday was just the day before. She was already in a semi-fragile state and lived in a personal care/nursing homes for the past five years for her daily needs. My mother had always expressed that cancer was the most serious thing that you could get in your life. She was afraid every time the doctors spoke with her on a serious level that it was cancer. That is the reason why I hesitated to reveal this to her. Once I told her, she was very worried and it showed in her demeanor and facial expression. Although my sister and nieces and I had one of the best visits with her that day, when we left her on the front porch of the home to say goodbye, she seemed different. I wonder if she worried about me all that day and into the night. The next morning I was called and told that she had suffered a heart attack in her sleep. Did telling her affect her outcome? Did she give her life, no matter how battered, to me so that I could go on? I wonder.

Melissa D

At 42, when the surgeon biopsied a lump, he said, "I'm sorry, we found cancer." I was sad too, but a good friend of mine had been diagnosed two months earlier and it became unimportant to ask, "Why me?" If it could happen to someone as sweet and caring as she was, then why could it not be me? I moved on, even when cancer was found on the other breast about 12 years later. During that time, I took life one day at a time, thought more clearly what I wanted my life to mean to me and to others. I had studied psychology in graduate school and learned a great deal about how people grow from one level to another and that buffeted the storms that were to come. Sometimes that meant ending relationships with others who prevented me from becoming the person I wanted to be but I was also able to show that cancer doesn't stop dreams but creates them. Facing my mortality at a pretty young age made me realize life was worthy of much more from me and that has made me a better person. Though I am sorry I had to have cancer, I've grown so much since then.

Rae J.