You would think that surviving cancer would be like holding a winning lottery ticket. After all, you’ve “beaten death” haven’t you? You get to live. You should be elated but it doesn’t always work that way. Many survivors feel a sense of guilt for living when many others don’t make it. I have spoken here before of my own sense of guilt when I meet women with whom I developed a bond as we went through treatment together, and who now have a recurrence. I was part of a close-knit group at a cancer support centre who met on a weekly basis and shared our hopes and fears, shared tips on how we coped, admired each others creative ways with scarves or new wigs, marvelled at the fuzzy growth of hair when it first re-appeared after chemo, and understood and shared what each other was going through in a way no one else could. Several of these women are now battling a recurrence and some have died and I think of them so often, and ask “why them?”
In a funny way, the “why me” questions we may have asked ourselves when we were first diagnosed with cancer, are reversed. That “why me – why did I get cancer when others don’t” has been turned around to “why me – why do I get to survive when others don”t”. Just as there was no answer to why some get cancer and some don’t, neither is there any answer to why some survive and some don’t.
Survivor guilt brings up issues of searching for meaning and feelings of deep responsibility to live the best life because after all you owe it to yourself and to those others who haven’t been so lucky. You ask yourself “Why am I the one to survive?” and “If I have survived, what is the deeper meaning of my life after this experience?” These questions have led many survivors to re-evaluate their lives and reprioritize their goals and values.
What helps me find meaning in all of this is a deep desire to give something back, to help other younger women with a diagnosis of cancer. Sarah McLachlan has a beautiful song, the chorus of which comes often to my mind when I feel saddened at the thoughts of those friends and family who have died:
I will remember you
Will you remember me?
Don’t let your life pass you by
Weep not for the memories
Feeling guilty at surving is a common experience and a perfectly normal reaction to what you have gone through, so acknowledge your feelings, but don’t let life pass you by, feeling guilty because you have survived where others haven’t. Life is a precious gift and you have been given the opportunity to recommit yourself to it. Don’t ask why, there is no why. Your time to go will come around again, but for now, it is your time to live, so armed with the lessons you have learned from your cancer experience, look to the future and move on with your life.