women with head in hands in a tunnel Survivor
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by Malcolm Bedell July 10, 2019

6 Tips for Cancer Patients Experiencing Survivor's Guilt

After the rigors of treatment have successfully come to a close, many cancer survivors find themselves confronting an unexpected emotion: guilt. It can be a confusing response; after all, after a patient is declared cancer-free or in remission, some patients expect a sense of relief and joy to be their overwhelming response. However, the people many patients meet along the way may not have had the same response to treatment, and some new friends and associates will invariably succumb to the disease. For some, this reality can lead some patients to stop wondering, “Why me?” and start asking, “Why NOT me?”
 
This type of so-called “survivor’s guilt” is common in cancer patients, but it can affect almost anyone at some point in their lives. For example, survivor’s guilt has been noted in members of the military who may have seen friends injured or killed, while they survived. Passengers in car accidents that proved fatal for some occupants of the car have described feelings of survivor’s guilt, as have people who have narrowly avoided being caught in a natural disaster, airline crash or mass shooting.
 
A battle with cancer can be compared to any of these traumatic experiences, and surviving that battle can lead to the same feelings of guilt, or in extreme cases, even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Managing these feelings can be challenging, because there’s so much we still don’t know. We don’t know why one person responds more positively to treatment for the same type of cancer as someone else, or why one person’s cancer advances while another’s is kept at bay. These questions can lead to profound sadness and a deep sense of guilt.
 
Managing these feelings is an important part of any cancer patient’s journey; grief, sadness and sorrow over the loss of friends and family is normal, and are actually indicators of your well-developed senses of compassion and empathy. Here are techniques that can help you cope with these feelings, and prevent them from overwhelming your day-to-day function.
 
Accept and acknowledge that your feelings are normal. The first step to managing survivor’s guilt is to acknowledge that it is there; that these are feelings you are experiencing, and that they are vital, valid and real. For some patients, attempting to put these feelings into words can help. In addition to talking with friends or fellow survivors, take time each day to put pen to paper to articulate your thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, giving complicated feelings a name in this way can help us to process them.
 
Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of those you love. In celebrating your own success with cancer treatment, or even in getting so caught up in the day-to-day rigors of treatment, you may not have taken time to grieve your loss. Grieving is different for every person; there’s no set schedule or process, but ensure that you’ve given yourself the time and permission to do so.
 
Honor your loved one with a gift of time or resources. Taking an opportunity to volunteer at your local cancer center or support organization can be an excellent way to remember and pay tribute to those we have lost.
 
Be rigorous in your questioning of your guilt. Ask yourself why you are responding to the loss of someone else with feelings of guilt. Some question the value of their own lives, relative to the loss of a loved one. While these feelings can help to motivate positive lifestyle changes, remember that your survival doesn’t mean you owe anyone anything. You don’t have to prove yourself “worthy” of having survived.
 
Practice stress-relief techniques and explore your own sense of spirituality. Explore methods of spiritual support, including mediation and yoga, that can help you to unwind and get in touch with your emotions. If more formal methods of practicing relaxation aren’t for you, even relaxed, deep breathing exercises can help clear your mind and help your muscles relax. If you practice a specific faith, seek out the guidance of spiritual leaders or clergymen for extra support.
 
Know when it’s time to reach out for extra help when you need it. Almost every town or city has a cancer survivor support group, whose members may be better able to relate to the emotions you are experiencing and offer support. If feelings of survivor’s guilt begin to feel unmanageable or begin to interfere with your ability to perform day-to-day tasks, seek the counsel of an individual or group therapist or mental health professional, and reach out to  your cancer care center for additional resources.

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