How to Deal With Cancer Survivor's Guilt

Categories: Survivorship & Mental Health

January 20, 2020

Most people think that surviving cancer is a time for celebrating. While it is a happy time, it can also come with other emotions. One of those emotions might be guilt. What is there to feel guilty about, some might ask?

As a cancer survivor, you've had a life altering experience where you met new people while in treatment and may have even lost some of them to cancer along the way. Why them and not you?

You may also experience guilt about the amount of time and energy invested in you by family and friends when you're typically the caretaker of others in your family. It's important to know that this is a normal feeling, but it also can't be ignored.

Let's take a look at what it is and what you can do to counter feelings of survivor's guilt.

What Is Survivor's Guilt and How Does It Affect You?

Survivor's guilt, considered a part of post-traumatic stress disorder, is the overwhelming feeling of sadness some cancer survivors experience. When you survive, while other people you know don't, you could feel guilty that you'll continue living your life, while cancer cuts other lives short. You may be plagued with thoughts of worthlessness and in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide, because you're allowed to continue living and someone else wasn't.

Those feelings are common with anyone who experiences something tragic in their lives and survived it. War veterans often get it when they lose fellow soldiers on the battlefield. People involved in a car or plane accidents also can feel guilty that they survived while fellow passengers didn't. Battling cancer is traumatic, so it's not surprising survivor's guilt can play a part in your emotional health.

Survivor's guilt can also show up in a couple of other ways as well. Sometimes guilt is for the loved one that sacrificed a lot to help you in your battle with cancer. You may have a friend who took time off their job to drive you back and forth to treatments, which made their paycheck a little less than normal. You may feel guilty because you think it's somehow your fault they lost wages.

There's also the guilt some people feel when a second chance at life presents itself and you realize you haven't followed through with all the promises you made while battling cancer. Guilt settles in and you feel depressed as if you somehow blew the new chance at the life you got.

This type of guilt is long-lasting and hard to get rid of. To avoid letting the depression spiral out of control, you will need to ensure that you are getting the support you need after your cancer treatments have been completed.

Learn More About Compass' Cancer Survivorship Program

5 Tips for Dealing With Survivor's Guilt

The first thing to remember is that you're not a bad person for having these feelings. It's normal to have some feelings of guilt, but it's not good for your overall mental health. Learning to cope with those feelings will help you come to terms with your emotions one day at a time.

 With that said, here are five tips to help you deal with survivor's guilt.

1. Allow yourself to grieve

It's okay to grieve the loss of those you knew who didn't win their battle with cancer. Friendships form with others you go through treatment with. The passing of one of these friends is no different from losing anyone else close to you. No one will fault you for it if you take the time to feel sad over the loss of someone you became close with during cancer treatment. Just be sure to focus on them as a person, and not on your guilt of being "the lucky one."

2. Do something positive in remembrance of those you lost

An act of kindness for other people uplifts any sorrowful mood you might be in. When you do them with someone special in mind, you're keeping their memory alive while giving yourself a purpose to your life. For example, you could volunteer at a charity that your friend was passionate about. Giving of yourself to the same cause they believed in, will keep their memory alive in your mind and in your heart. 

3. Show a kind gesture to someone who helped you during cancer treatment

For cancer survivors who are feeling guilty about causing disruption to the lives of their family and friends, you have an opportunity to give back. It may help relieve your guilt by showing a kind gesture to those who helped you.

This doesn't need to be expensive. It can be a heartfelt, handwritten thank you note. Or, maybe when you're feeling up to it, host a few of the people who helped you for dinner at your home. Even if you order food to eat in, it's the gesture of gathering them together to show gratitude that matters. 

4. Find a stress-reliever

Survivor's guilt causes stress. Stress then becomes a host to other problems in your life, both physical and mental. Find a way to relieve it to keep it from taking control of your emotional being.

Take up Yoga, sign up for dance classes, go on walks with friends or loved ones, or join a church. Try out a few different things and find what helps you the most. Fit it into your schedule a couple of times a week to keep you from spending too much time feeling sorry for yourself.

5. Find support groups or look for professional help

Survivor's guilt shouldn't be something you deal with alone. Opening up to loved ones about what you're going through is certainly ideal. But, let's face it. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing these kinds of feelings with someone we're close to.

Seeking a neutral person who won't judge you for what you're feeling or experiencing is important. Should you find yourself having these feelings, you need to consult an oncologist or an oncology social worker to get recommendations for experts in dealing with any anxiety issues you may have. 

Seek out a professional that knows how survivor's guilt can affect you and knows how to help you cope with the feelings it causes. Also, consider joining a support group as well. There's nothing more valuable than sharing experiences with other people that are in or have been in your shoes. They know exactly how you feel and can offer advice on ways to combat it.

Cancer survivor's guilt is normal, so don't feel bad if you're experience it. Overcoming can take time and some help from others. Talk about it with a professional if you find that that the feeling is becoming more intense or you can't get past it. You had professionals fighting cancer right along with you, you can do the same for as a cancer survivor. Here, at Compass Oncology, we focus on you and your loved ones, through every part of your journey. We strive to help you gain the best attitude toward your new life as possible.

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