Cancer survivor’s guilt is real and it’s common. Not all survivors experience it, but many do. Some oncologists believe that most cancer survivors experience some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. For me, cancer survivor’s guilt is a feeling of unworthiness that floats just beneath the surface and is triggered by the loss of someone I knew or admired, or anyone who seemingly lived a more meaningful life than I have.
Saturday was my 7-year cancer survivorship day–my cancerversary as I call it, but I didn’t celebrate this year. Someone I admired, who truly made the world a more positive and better place, lost her battle.
Many of us fall into the ‘why me’ mindset when we get our diagnosis. What did I do to deserve this. Why me. Why now. Insert your own ‘why’ here.
Don’t get me wrong–I am grateful, thankful beyond expression for access to healthcare, for waking up every morning, for sunny days and rainy days, for grass and pavement, I am thankful for everything. Yet I still ask why me. And that little crack in my wall of gratitude brings me to guilt. It makes me feel that my gratitude is phony.
But there’s more guilt to be had. It is nearly inevitable that someone you know will not survive their fight with cancer. Their cancer will win, and then as a survivor, your questions become ‘why her’ or ‘why not me’ and trust me, I am scratching the surface here. My emotions have gone to levels more dark and twisted than I care to admit.
The most difficult emotion to deal with is relief when it is not you. Let that sink for a moment. You can argue that it’s a normal self-preservation mechanism, but I can tell you it amplifies the guilt to a level that is deafening. And it’s a vicious cycle.
I went to a conference in 2018 excited to learn from the rockstars within the makeup company–the influencers. As I write this, I’m looking at my notes and the very first class I attended, the first word I wrote during those three days, was “Whippy.”
Whippy talked about being authentic and leaning into your own uniqueness. I listened, took notes, and took pictures. She was the most positive force of energy you can imagine, and like tens of thousands of others, I adored her. She made the world a better place, and Saturday I learned that she died from her cancer.
She was young and left behind four small children. She taught everyone within her sphere to love themselves and love others and that positive energy is within each of us and it can make the world a better place.
I cried and grieved for someone I never met, but who should have lived. The guilt that is on a loop in the back of my mind came front and center and it was a difficult place to be. On Sunday I focused on remembering Whippy’s positivity and self-love and did my best to fight that thought ‘why not me instead.’ I told myself over and over that I am worthy of surviving. If Whip taught us anything, it’s that everyone is worthy.
I found some articles with tips on how to cope with survivor’s guilt:
Survivor’s Guilt – Medical News Today
Survivor’s Guilt in People With Cancer – Very Well Health
And The American Cancer Society has a 24/7 hotline (800-227-2345).
If your guilt feels exceptionally heavy, like depression or anxiety, please talk to someone. A friend or family member who is not dismissive of your feelings, a health care professional, call a hotline.
You matter. We are each here for a reason, even if we can’t always see it. I can’t explain why the most brilliant stars are plucked from the sky, but remember that whether you shine your light a little or shine your light bright, you matter.
Heaven received an angel this weekend. We’ll keep the light going here, Whip, while you ignite the cosmos. Shine on, beautiful soul.