survivor guilt in cancer


I have been reading a blog here (which blog unfortunately I cannot remember now) where the blogger was feeling a “survivor guilt” because s/he had early stage cancer, was now doing well, but was nevertheless feeling guilty of surviving while many others did not.

I have been hearing survivor guilt in cancer patients for some time. I wonder whether it is used to cover overlapping but distinct concepts?

The wikipedia entry for survivor guilt, although not specific for cancer, explains it; notice how different it is; i.e. those feeling survivor guilts blaming themselves for the death of others.

In cancer, I do not think any of the cancer survivors blame themselves for the death of others. But I know from many survivors that they will not feel good about their own survival (at least time to time) when they see others who are lost to this disease. It may be one of the reasons driving the patient advocacy, fundraising events, and support groups with which cancer patients and others affected by this disease relentlessly work to control and to reduce the burden of cancer (thank you all).

To me, this is different than the survivor guilt expressed by some cancer patients diagnosed with early-stage cancers or good/easy cancers (I do not appreciate this classification by the way), such as thyroid cancer, which generally have relatively good survival rates. I sense that this guilt is different. I kind of feel like some patients may blame themselves for not going through the same serious ordeal as other patients, such as advanced cancer patients do (multiple surgeries, chemo, and radiotherapy, recurrences, unavailability of effective treatment options etc..).

Do the doctors, media, and others who categorize these cancers/patients as easy to treat/cure have a role in this survivor guilt and somehow lead some patients to be apologetic about their own survival? Is this comparison among different cancers even useful or healthy?

I care about all affected by cancer regardless of their prognosis and I said it many times, only because it is true that, cancer affects all of us. In so many different levels. I just wished noone was apologetic about surviving cancer. Let’s continue to direct our collective efforts to help effective control and treatment of this disease in every cancer patient.

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5 thoughts on “survivor guilt in cancer

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  1. Great post.

    I am guilty of feeling survivorship guilt – I think many, if not most, cancer patients feel this way. There are different levels of guilt though as well as different types of guilt. The one I feel the most is the one about my family (wrote about it here: http://thesmallc.com/2015/03/14/conflicts-of-guilt/). And yes, there are also times when I feel guilty that I am in remission while others are still trying to get there or are in a worse situation than I was/am.

    You raised a good point when you said, “Do the doctors, media, and others who categorize these cancers/patients as easy to treat/cure have a role in this survivor guilt….” I think it def. contributes to how we feel. It has now become a culture in cancerland to use this type of “language,” for example, when referring to cancer as a “battle.” No. That does not help us at all. I think it creates pressure among cancer patients to survive, when we have no control over the outcome. It also separates us.

    I am still dealing with survivorship guilt and I am not sure how to control it. I think this is what makes us humans though, in a way. But others cope with this emotion pretty well. I want to reach that level as well.

    Thanks for posting about this.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Alice B Carlson and commented:
    This really hit a nerve. I understand Survivor’s Guilt, or whatever you want to call it, when it comes to cancer. As I sat in my car reading this blog, tears streamed down my face. I am a 3 year survivor of renal cell carcinoma, kidney cancer, and there are several reasons that the survivor’s guilt kicks in with me. First, renal cell carcinoma is very difficult to detect early. It doesn’t give any symptoms until it’s very advanced. Mine was Stage 1 and was only discovered because I had a CT scan for something else. Second, renal cell carcinoma, if caught early has a very high survival rate. Third, I am missing a third of my kidney, but this type of cancer doesn’t usually require a lot of extra treatment. They only try things like chemo and radiation in the more advanced stages. Fourth, is the personal connection I feel to so many of my friends who have passed away or endured so much in their fight for cancer. Why did my friends Pamela and Jeff have such battles with colon cancer, and why did Pamela ultimately lose hers? Why did my friend Betty die recently just a few months after her leukemia diagnosis and why did my friends Debbie and Judy suffer with their cancer and lose their battles. The one that hits the hardest is why am I still alive and doing well, when Karen, who was the flower girl at our wedding pass away from recurrent breast cancer this January at 38?

    It may not be true survivor’s guilt, but I definitely feel it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a thyroid cancer survivor, I do not feel guilty for having the so-called “good cancer”. I’m grateful that I didn’t have to have chemo because there is a targeted therapy for the most common thyroid cancers, but I don’t think I’ve had it easier than other cancer survivors. Thyroid cancer puts your life on hold for years and it changes you physically, mentally, and emotionally. With a high recurrence rate and increased risk for other cancers, it is an experience that will leave you feeling like you will never be safe again. There are very little resources for thyroid cancer survivors. No walks, no scholarships, very few support groups, etc… Many oncologists won’t even treat patients with thyroid cancer and so they are stuck with endocrinologists (who are generally terrible). Plus, living without a thyroid is a huge challenge that will go on for the rest of our lives. So, no, I don’t feel guilt. I don’t think we should compare cancer. Mine is worse than yours is a bad mindset. Cancer is cancer. I agree with you that cancer survivors should work together collectively for the greater good. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post raises a valid issue, which I’ve been wrestling with. I know I was lucky because I’m still here and currently out of treatment. I worry sometimes that my gratitude may come across as gloating, which it patently is not. I am sad for those who are still struggling and those we’ve lost. That shouldn’t conflict with my gratitude, but sometimes I feel like it does. Thanks for bringing this up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks for your comments 🙂 when I wrote this post I was not sure which kind of feelings it would evoke in everyone. I loved your words “… should not conflict with my gratitude” a lot. I am happy for you and best wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

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