You Can’t Turn Off Cancer Survivors’ Guilt

CURE Ambassador Program | <b>Michelle Velez</b>

People without cancer may not understand the guilt survivors feel when their disease improves and others take a turn for the worse.

Recently I found out that someone I really care about has been diagnosed with cancer. It is stage 4 and the prognosis is not good. Then I found out that this person has decided to cease all treatment and go onto hospice care. It hit me like a bus.

Last year, a woman who reached out to me after hearing about my story took a turn for the worst when her melanoma came back and metastasized on the brain. We talked regularly and became pretty good cancer buds over the months. As I started to get better, she got worse and then one day I just stopped hearing from her. I reached out every day and finally googled her name looking for an obituary. I found a GoFundMe instead, explaining that she had a massive stroke and was in the hospital. I was able to get a hold of her husband only to learn that it was not looking good. She died a few weeks later.

Two years ago, a close family friend died after fighting for six years to beat ovarian cancer. She lived life fuller than anyone I know and still had so much to give. Every time I think of her, my stomach does a flip.

Then there are the people with cancer I have interviewed over the years as a journalist. I can think of four off the top of my head that really stick out to me. Every single one of them are gone.

These people are a constant part of my daily thought process – and it's always riddled with guilt. Why did I survive, and they didn't? Why did I beat stage four, but my friend will not? It almost feels too good to be true that somehow I beat it. And I'm always worried something bad will eventually happen, because how could I be so lucky? Then I feel selfish for thinking about ME when they are the ones who lose everything. When I try to explain these feelings to my loved ones, they always tell me I have no reason to feel guilty for surviving cancer. But you know what? I do. All the time, I feel the guilt.

I had no idea before I went through this that survivors’ guilt is a real thing. It's really hard to wrap your brain around the concept that you got lucky. People say luck has nothing to do with it, but I can't help but feel lucky when I think about the fact that I just happened to get a cancer that was treatable. Why was I so lucky when so many others are not? Then when people you know start dying, you can't help but wonder why the hell you're still here and they are not. You also wonder if they feel any sort of resentment towards you about it.

I just want you to know that if you are experiencing these feelings you are not alone. Life after cancer is hard to navigate and there are so many things like this, that you never hear about. Finding your new place in the world is a really strange phase, so don't be too hard on yourself. Your experience is legit and unless someone has actually gone through it, it is very difficult to understand.

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