Coping with Survivor’s Guilt

cancer survivor's guilt

You fought cancer and won. You should feel strong, thankful and elated, and for the most part, you do. However, one other emotion rears its head now and again. When it does, it can overshadow all the others. That feeling is cancer survivor’s guilt.

If you experience what’s known as survivor’s guilt –which is defined as deep feelings of guilt, unworthiness or culpability in someone who survives a catastrophic, life-threatening or otherwise traumatic experience when others do not– you are not alone. Countless cancer survivors go through the exact same thing. For some, it’s an occasional pang or an emotion that comes and goes. For others, it can take over their thoughts and emotions, causing depression, feelings of numbness and loss of interest in daily life.

When you initially received your diagnosis, you may have wondered, “Why me?” Now that you have made it through (and especially if you know others who did not), you may question, “Why not me?” While these thoughts and feelings are perfectly normal, it is important to take action to overcome this phenomenon, as it can become overwhelming if you don’t. The following steps can help you let go of the guilt and reclaim the hope, joy and gratitude inside.

Acknowledge and Recognize Your Feelings

Understanding that the way you feel is normal and reasonable can help you accept them and move forward. It is also important to know that the feelings of guilt may come and go, especially when triggered by a loss or other event.

Realize That No One Is to Blame

Cancer is ugly, awful and nobody’s fault. Even expert’s don’t fully know why some people get it –and why some cancer fighters survive– while others do not. Forgive yourself and others for any sort of responsibility, real or imagined, understanding that each of us does the best we can in any given situation.

Talk About Your Feelings

Do not allow shame or embarrassment to lead you to push down or hide your emotions. Suppressing your feelings can have a rebound effect that is much worse than your initial guilt. Share how you feel with your partner, a trusted friend or a mental health professional, such as a counselor or therapist.

Find Positive Forms of Expression

If talking about feelings is a challenge for you, look for other, healthy ways to convey your emotions. Some examples might be journaling, painting or drawing, digging in the garden or even screaming and crying in the shower. Let it out and let it go.

Focus on the Good

Learn to live in the moment and take note of all the wonderful things each new day holds. Start a gratitude journal, listing 5 – 10 reasons you are grateful every morning. Take time to practice self care, providing the exercise, nutrition and TLC your body needs to remain strong and amazing.

Seek Support

If you don’t already belong to a cancer support group, now might be a good time to find one. Discovering that you are far from alone in your feelings can be tremendously helpful, and you can gain practical advice from others who truly understand where you are.

Make a Difference

Take the energy that the guilt requires and transform it into positive action. Join a fundraiser, volunteer your time and services or make a donation in memory of someone you have lost or in honor of your own survival. Just as others deserve to be remembered, your life deserves to be celebrated, and there is no guilt in that.


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