Dealing with survivor guilt

It may come as a surprise to those who have not experienced cancer, to learn that many cancer survivors suffer a sense of “survivor guilt” when we are in remission. It is difficult to look on as those comrades we have shared so much with during treatment who may not be doing so well.

Why feel guilty?

After all, you haven’t done anything wrong. You are not responsible for anyone else’s outcome. This is what friends and family told me, and yet the guilty feelings lingered on.

In a funny way, the “why me” questions I sometimes asked myself when first diagnosed with cancer, were now 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”.

And I ask myself the question if I have survived, what is the deeper meaning of my life after this experience? Guilt can arise also from a sense that what I’m doing with my life must have greater meaning if my survival is to be justified. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Feeling guilty at surviving 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.

Ask yourself what you are going to do about these feelings.  Are you perhaps feeling guilty because you are still living a less than healthy lifestyle? Then do something about that – adapt the changes you know you need to in order to live a healthier lifestyle. Are you feeling guilty because you feel that you want to do more with your life? Then think about ways in which you can reprioritise your goals and values to achieve a more fulfilling life.

In his book, Travelling Light (The Columba Press) Daniel J. O’Leary quotes Bearwatcher, an Apache medicine man.

In the Apache language there is no word for ‘guilt.’ Our lives are like diamonds. When we are born we are pure and uncut. Each thing that happens to us in our lives teaches us how to reflect the light in the world; each experience gives us a new cut, a new facet in our diamond. How brilliantly do those diamonds sparkle whose facets are many, to whom life has given many cuts.

So when you experience those feelings of guilt, contemplate the brilliant new facet in your diamond and reflect on the way that you can reflect that light in the world. You will best honour the memory of those comrades who have died, by looking to the future and pledging to make the best life you can for yourself and those you care about. Life is a precious gift and you have been given the opportunity to recommit yourself to it. 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 shine with the brilliance of your diamond light.