The Guilt of Outliving Friends ... and Cancer


It is normal to feel guilt when you survived cancer and friends and family members do not. Here is one writer's way of coping.

I was in hospice with a very dear friend, as we were saying goodbye and waiting for the breathing tube to be removed. Sharry was such a wonderful person and we adored her. The last request my friend made was that she wished she could have a dog with her. Her whole life was centered on animals, grooming them, taking care of them and rescuing them. Her daughter had texted me that Sharry was in hospice. I asked her if she wanted Sita, my beautiful service dog, to come. Her daughter replied that she did and told her mother that Sita was on her way. Sharry nodded before she slipped into the coma. Both of us are certain Sharry understood she would have a canine with her when she passed.

Since Sita was a service dog, she was allowed in the room, and immediately became a therapy dog. She climbed up on the bed next to Sharry and refused to leave her. Sharry was in a circle with friends and family crying softly because we loved her so much.

A pang entered my heart when Sharry’s mother asked me how I was doing with my cancer. Sharry worried constantly about me and took care of Sita when I was away. She was there with my dog when I took my mother to the emergency room. Now she was the one dying instead of me.

I replied shakily, “I am fine and I am alive.” I felt so guilty. I still miss Sharry terribly, and it has been several years.

That same year, I lost two other close friends to cancer — one of them Sharry’s husband. I lost another dear friend from a heart attack. All of them were younger than me. And since then, I have lost more friends to this devastating cancer disease.

Just a couple of month ago, I spoke at a celebration of life service for a member of my church who passed from cancer. My voice trembled the entire time I spoke. Ironically, we shared the same oncologist and saw each other in the waiting room frequently. But her vicious cancer took her in a very short time. I miss her every Sunday and know she was a far better person than I am.

Hell yes, I feel guilty! I am single and these people had spouses and children and grandchildren to miss them. Why am I still alive eight years later?

Why does a loving God, or higher power, or whatever we believe in, allow one person to die and another one to survive? I truly do not believe that higher power is picking out one person who deserves to live and someone else to die. That is not my concept of a loving spirit, and my faith in God helps me through all the terrible times.

I feel that life can be random and unfortunate. Drunk drivers may kill one person while another one survives. Horrible storms may devastate one family and the neighbors are all right.

With cancer, so many factors enter into the equation of survival. What type (mine is a slower-moving one), when was it discovered, what type of medical help is available and is the environment causing some problems? An example would be someone living next to a chemical factory. I could go on and on. And the reality is there that we all die sometime.

Why do we get the disease in the first place? Sometimes it boils down to one tiny cell that started the whole terrible process.

How do I cope with survivor’s guilt? Not always well — I always have and will feel guilty. I do think one of the most insensitive things to ever say is that God still wanted me alive for something. That is such a conceited and awful approach. Every one of us has unfinished business and a reason to live, even an elderly person with a pet.

But what I can also say is that in my time still on earth, I will support the families left behind to grieve these loved ones. A card, an email, a text or a phone call can make all the difference in the world to the friends and family.

Also, I can take advantage of every single moment I have left. To feel guilty helps no one, but to reach out helps someone, so I concentrate on reaching out!

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