How Do You Deal With “Survivor Guilt”?

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“Survivor guilt” is a not uncommon reaction to surviving a traumatic event that others have died in, for example, survivors of combat, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or air crashes. Survivors feel guilty that they have survived the trauma and others – such as their family, friends, and colleagues – did not.

Survivor guilt was first identified during the 1960s. Several therapists recognized similar conditions among Holocaust survivors, including anxiety and depression, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance and nightmares, physical complaints and mood swings.

When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) was published, survivor guilt was removed as a recognized specific diagnosis and redefined as a significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cancer-related survivor guilt

It may come as a surprise to those who have not experienced cancer, to learn that many of us suffer a sense of “survivor guilt” too.  Cancer-related survivor guilt is a complex, multi-faceted emotion. Not only can we feel guilt at “surviving” when others have not, but we may also feel that because we have been diagnosed with an earlier stage disease, or that we didn’t have to go through chemotherapy we are somehow less “deserving” of sympathy.

We might feel guilty that our lifestyle choices somehow contributed to a cancer diagnosis. If we have discovered we carry the BRCA1/2 gene, we may feel guilty that we could pass this gene mutation on to our children.

We might also feel guilty that we weren’t the “perfect” cancer patient (whatever that is!) or that cancer wasn’t the wake-up call it was “supposed” to be in our lives.  I’ve had to use a lot of [] in my sentences here as each statement is so subjective!

Over to you

As some of you know, I  write a monthly article for Patient Empowerment Network and this month I am focusing on the topic of survivor guilt. I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Have you experienced cancer-related survivor guilt? What form has it taken for you?  What has helped you cope with these feelings? Do you have any advice for others who may be experiencing this too?

I’d be delighted to feature your quote in the article, mentioning your name and linking to your blog or a social media network of your choice.

Please leave your comments below. I’m looking forward to hearing from you on this important topic.