“No matter what kind of cancer you’re diagnosed with, coping with its emotional toll can continue long after active treatments are over. The aftermath can lead to a tangle of complex feelings. For those who enter the world of cancer survivorship, guilt is often one of those emotions.” -– Julie Grisham (Guilt: A Lasting Side Effect for Cancer Survivors, June 29, 2016)
After attending a men’s cancer support group called, “Just for the Guys,” a six-week series sponsored by the Inova Schar Cancer Institute’s Life with Cancer program, I thought I’d gain a kindred connection with some of the men battling cancer or, at the very least, learn some new coping skills to deal with mine. However, what I walked away with was an immense feeling of guilt. During each session, I kept on thinking: Who am I to talk about my cancer when some of these men are in fact dying? Why are you even attending this group!? Your cancer is nothing compared to some of these men!
I realize there’s no logical reason for feeling guilty, however…I do nonetheless. I’m sure that this struggle with guilt is partly caused by comparing my cancer to other cancer patients. I should not relate my cancer and stage level with another cancer patient…but I do. And it was easy to compare my cancer with the others in the “Just for the Guys” six-week support group. When you’re sitting next to someone who is making arrangements for palliative care at a hospice center or another who is struggling to accept his own mortality as a Stage IV Lung Cancer patient, it’s hard not to feel guilty. Actually, I equate this experience as to sitting in an ER with a papercut and there’s a gentleman next to me with a gunshot wound.
While my struggle with feeling guilty is triggered by comparing my cancer to other patients, it’s also caused by the following comments:
- “Alex, you’re looking good,”
- “I can’t believe you have Advanced Stage IV Cancer,” or
- “Wow! I was expecting you to look sickly or something.”
Again, there’s no logical reason for feeling guilty by the positive comments people are saying to me…but I do. Likewise, I feel even more guilty when a coworker, unbeknownst of the situation, learn that I have cancer and wonders why I’m still working during my chemo/immunotherapy treatments. Now, I do appreciate a nice compliment as much as the next guy. And giving someone a pleasant compliment is a great way to let them know that you care about them. However, when I hear the “Alex, you are looking good” type of comments, these seem to only magnify my feeling of guilt.
So, why do I feel guilty? I know it’s not entirely based on comparing myself to others or hearing “you look good” statements. I just know that I’m struggling with guilt right now. However, despite this feeling of guilt, I find comfort in knowing that I’m not alone. There are many other cancer patients and survivors who experience guilt (better known as survivor guilt) as well.
According to Cancer.Net, there are many cancer survivors living with guilt. The reasons could include: 1) not catching the symptoms earlier, 2) worrying about being a burden to family and friends, or 3) surviving cancer while others did not. Although cancer patients experience immense joy when they learn that their cancer is in remission, many of them may feel guilty because they survived, whereas others did not. Following my first fight against Stage III Melanoma cancer that went into remission, I experienced survivor guilt after a good friend/mentor lost his battle against pancreatic cancer. Following his death, I began to think “Why not me!?” Today, as I fight against Stage IV Melanoma cancer, I find myself thinking the same thought when I meet a cancer patient who is not doing well with their treatment.
How to overcome survivor guilt. As I was writing this blog, I began to feel a bit better, especially knowing that I’m not alone. And if you know someone who is experiencing survivor guilt or you’re dealing with similar guilt feelings, Vicki Kennedy, a licensed clinical social worker who works with the Cancer Support Community in Washington, D.C., and Donna M. Pisano, a psychologist who volunteers with the Cancer Hope Network, recommend the following:
- Recognize, acknowledge, and express guilt feelings;
- Strive to find gratitude in daily life;
- Don't isolate yourself;
- Practice small acts of kindness; and
- Exercise regularly.
For additional resources:
- Explore stories about the emotional struggles of facing cancer
- Lost in Transition: Watch a short film about transitioning from patient to survivor
- Surviving Survivor's Guilt After Cancer
- Readers Write: Survival Guilt
- Coping with Guilt
Prayer Request: Heavenly Father, I come before you and ask that you provide comfort and strength to those cancer patients suffering more than me. If it’s your will, give them a full remission. If not, provide them enough grace and assurance that the life to come is full of joy and happiness. I pray also for their families. Give them the supportive encouragement that they need to walk alongside the one with cancer. In Your love, bring them all closer together; a stronger union that cancer cannot break. I ask this in Your Holy Name, Amen.
Clinical Notes: So far, I have been handling both the clinical and FDA approved treatment well. I will have to undergo this type of treatment through May 2018.