The Inequity of Cancer Survival


I’ve learned that “survivor’s guilt” can be another symptom of our disease.

cartoon drawing of blogger and male breast cancer survivor, khevin barnes

Those of us who have lost a friend or loved one to cancer sometimes have another challenge to face as we move ahead with our lives. It’s a well-documented phenomenon known as “survivor’s guilt” and I have only recently discovered it afflicting my own life. It’s a subtle, but troubling, sort of remorse that we can develop with regard to accepting the loss of someone close to us while we continue to survive.

My wife died of ovarian cancer 25 years ago. It was a difficult, tumultuous time for both of us and my struggle to get back into life after her passing took me several years. But I never felt a sense of guilt when she was gone as I knew how pointless that would be. I had plenty of time to be fearful, to be anxious, to cry and even to laugh at life’s absurdities during those four long years that we battled her slow decline and all of the ups and downs that went with it.

After she died, I wondered about how much longer I would live and just how long the many reminders of her would continue to linger. It wasn’t that I wanted to forget her and erase the past, but there wasn’t a day that went by for many months that something didn’t trigger a memory and the sadness that went withwith it.

She was just 47 when she died, and I was a year younger. Eventually I realized that I had time for a “second life” and that didn’t mean giving up on all of those good memories of our years together—just that I was starting new ones.

My own male breast cancer showed up 17 years after her death and since that day in 2014, my health has been mixed with the usual colds and flus and a couple of surgeries. I’ve been fortunate to maintain an active life with racket sports, off-road mountain biking, traveland a long and satisfying professional career.

But only recently, after a bout with COVID-19, did I begin to really sense that my time, too, is limited as I begin to show the rust of old age and have just celebrated my 72ndbirthday. And along with a murky image and acceptance of my own transition into something inevitable, I also feel a sense of “dis-ease” as in discomfort, over the fact that I survived to live a full life while she did not.

Of course, the question arises, “Who am I to say that a life shortened by cancer cannot be fulfilling in every way?” The truth is, I believe it can be.

But I also know that she would have been a gift to the world. I knew that 25 years ago, but only now, after living my own long and fortunate life, is the realization of what I believe shemissed starting to hit home.

While I consider my own twinge of survivor’s guilt to be minor in terms of its severity, many people have more pronounced symptoms such as nightmares, difficulty sleeping, flashbacks to the traumatic event, loss of motivation, irritability, a sense of numbnessand thoughts about the meaning of life.Cancer survivors have a number of choices, including cognitive behavioral therapy to address these issues.

I’m grateful that I’ve experienced this delayed episode of survivors’ guilt as it has reminded me that our beliefs about life and death as well as our thoughts about our own cancer can inspire us or backfire on us.Perhaps more than anything, cancer has taught me to examine and process these out-of-the-blue thoughts and feelings when they appear.

In my mind, surviving cancer is not just about the physical battle that stresses our bodies. It’s also about identifying those sometimes-irrational thoughts that have the power to derail us from our quest to carry on.

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