A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Survivor guilt: An unanticipated side effect of cancer

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Survivor guilt is a deep feeling of guilt experienced by people who have survived a catastrophe that many others didn’t. We may relate survivor guilt to military veterans or 9/11 survivors, but it’s a common and normal emotional experience for many groups, including cancer survivors.

Living through cancer and surviving is often the most significant challenge of a person’s life. Many survivors describe feeling as if they’re in a war zone during treatment, with cancer cells being the enemy. In fact, the rate is high for documented post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in cancer patients as their treatments progress.

When an individual is diagnosed with cancer, an early question asked is, “why me?” Over time and with favorable outcome, the question may change to, “why not me?” or “why was I lucky?” or “why did I survive while others didn’t?” While many people feel grateful about their survival, such feelings can be mixed with sadness, grief and guilt.

Survivor guilt emerges when your treatment regimen seems less daunting than another person’s. You may feel you haven’t suffered enough. Or, you may experience survivor guilt when you receive good news about your progress while learning other cancer patients you’ve bonded with aren’t receiving good news. It also may include grief when other patients pass away from the illness. You may even feel no guilt. This is in no way abnormal.

Survivor guilt may be accompanied by sadness and anxiety. These normal emotions can emerge from your experience and from exposure to the experiences of other patients.

While there’s nothing that will completely take away a person’s emotional pain, things can be done to ease survivor guilt. If you or a loved one has been struggling with guilt for a while, it’s important to seek out support to reduce risk of more serious psychological difficulty.

These strategies may help ease survivor guilt:

  • Acknowledge your feelings and recognize they’re part of a normal reaction to an extreme and threatening circumstance.
  • Pursue support by sharing your feelings with family, friends, other cancer patients, a support group and online resources (i.e. blogs). Consider journaling your feelings or finding someone who may have had similar feelings and can guide you.
  • Give yourself permission to grieve and set aside time to grieve for your own experiences and those of others who may have had a different outcome from yours. Grieving is a key part of the healing process best facilitated by connecting with others and sharing feelings.
  • Explore ways to transition your painful feelings into positive action. Participate in cancer events or fundraisers. Consider remembering those who passed away from cancer through special activities of your own, acts of kindness, volunteerism, charity or participation in community events.
  • Explore ways to find meaning in your survival and celebrate it. Give yourself permission to move forward in life in a positive manner in honor of those less fortunate in their journey who would want you to celebrate your survivorship.
  • Seek professional support and counseling to ease emotional suffering.

You’re not alone

If you want to explore resources to help with the emotional challenges that often come with cancer treatment and survivorship, let a member of your oncology team know. They can connect you with the right person to help.

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