Tips for overcoming cancer survivor’s guilt
For many years after my dad’s death, I purposely ignored Father’s Day. It was a punch in the gut reminder that cancer took this amazing man from our lives. I also finally recognized I was suffering from survivor’s guilt, as many cancer survivors do. It took many years (and a great counselor) to finally accept that my cancer survivorship and his death were unrelated. Keep reading to learn some tips for overcoming cancer survivor’s guilt.
Understanding survivor’s guilt
Survivor’s guilt is a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. It affects many people impacted by cancer, other diseases, accidents, war and more. The most common form of survivor’s guilt stems from someone feeling guilty that they survived while someone else died. It may also arise out of guilt that a loved one took time from work to care for you or you feel that you aren’t making changes or promises you committed to during treatment (doing something, achieving a goal, etc.).
Facing survivor’s guilt from my dad’s death
The ache of missing my dad never leaves, the hole in my heart is still empty. And for the longest time, I felt responsible for his death. [I shared a very personal outlook on this in “Surviving the guilt of my dad’s death.”]
My family was stunned when I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 21 years old. It, of course, hit my parents hard. After my diagnosis, my dad several times told me that he prayed to take the cancer from me. I scolded him for saying things like that. My treatment was horrible, and at times scary, but I would never wish it on anyone, let alone my family.
Throughout my treatment, my dad went to the doctor a few times due to exhaustion and just not feeling well. Each time he was told that he was most likely tired from the stress of having a daughter with cancer. So he pushed it off. Almost a year into my treatment, I received good news that chemo would be ending soon, and days later we learned the devastating news that my dad had late-stage multiple myeloma.
For six years, we fought his cancer when it returned, and celebrated when it went away. But then research didn’t catch up to his next relapse and no new treatment options were available. So he made the decision to be in control of his own life. He died at home surrounded by those who loved him most.
Accepting my dad didn’t magically take my cancer away
When my dad died, I felt an overwhelming grief and….. survivor’s guilt. How could I be alive and healthy after cancer when he died from cancer? What if I hadn’t been in treatment when he started to not feel well? What if he hadn’t prayed to take my cancer from my body?
I know deep down it is not my fault that he died. It is not anyone’s fault, just that horrible disease. It knows no boundaries. But I reminded myself that I am in control of my reactions and I can push back on those boundaries.
So I took control and became a cancer advocate, mentor, storyteller and more. And I began sharing my dad’s story. I let him be the shining example of the need for more cancer research and better treatment options. After all, my family and I had six beautiful years with him, thanks to research outcomes.
And then someone commented how awesome it is that I share his story to make a difference. Another mused on his legacy of helping in the progress of cancer research, how he is an example of the good that comes from research and the need for continued new treatment options. Yet another said how brave of him to want to share his story through his family, knowing he could impact the future of his own family’s health and others.
When I changed the perspective of his story, I slowly felt that heavy weight of guilt lift.
It is honestly an ongoing balancing act. I want him here, experiencing new days with our family. But something extraordinary happened when I finally let go of the guilt…. I saw my dad’s journey as his. Yes, I am very lucky to be part of his story, but he owned his story. And I’m honored to share it as I can, to help others, be a voice for change in his name. He would be so very flattered and humbled to know he continues to make a difference for others.
Your cancer story is your own
The most important thing to remember that no two cancer journeys are the same. Even those who had the same cancer type and treatment may experience varied outcomes, side effects and reactions. Our bodies are unique. It’s one of the things that makes this disease so terrible and challenging to cure.
Tips for overcoming cancer survivor’s guilt
Let yourself grieve those no longer here.
Grief is a tricky thing. It hits people so differently, in various forms and time. But it’s important to allow yourself the time and opportunity to acknowledge the loss, sadness, anger and other emotions. Focusing on the person rather than your own guilt helps refocus the story to be about them, not your guilt of being ‘lucky enough’ to survive.
Do something positive in memory of someone who died.
Acts of kindness for others and spreading gratitude provide benefits to you and others. These acts help keep the person’s memory alive while also giving you a positive purpose. Volunteer or donate to a charity that person supported. Send a card or call someone to check in. Do a kind gesture/favor for someone who helped you through treatment. If you need more ideas, click here. Here are 10 acts of kindness and also some ways to spread gratitude in the world.
You don’t need to face survivor’s guilt alone because I assure you that you are not alone in feeling it! There are many opportunities for support. In person and online support groups bring together those facing similar situations. A licensed professional can also provide individual support and resources for overcoming cancer survivor’s guilt and managing grief.
If you’re reading this, you are still living. That’s AMAZING! Embrace and honor that! Focus on the gratitude of your breaths and choose what makes you happy. Then go do it. I shared some ways that I embrace new chapters here.
Continue caring for yourself.
Remember that your life and health matter. So take care of yourself. Schedule follow up care appointments and preventive screenings, get active, find stress relief tactics, eat healthy and do what you need to ensure that you continue living your best life.
Choose your happiness
Facing trauma and grief can be a tough process. But you need to start somewhere. Hopefully these tips for overcoming cancer survivor’s guilt are a start. Carrying that guilt keeps you from living a life of happy, loving ease. And isn’t that why we fight against this disease? To have another chance at life. So please don’t wait to get support.