Overcoming survivor guilt

March 22, 2017 | by Joseph Kash, MD

Cancer survivorship can be one of the most emotional times of your life. Here you are, finished with treatment — now what? You may be wondering how life will go on.

Although happy to be alive, you may also find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of regret and guilt. If you’re questioning your coulda, shoulda, wouldas in your life after treatment has ended, you aren’t alone.

Cancer survivors can feel guilt at various times. During treatment, you may feel guilty about being a burden on your caregivers. Later, you may feel guilty about those who have not been as fortunate. Why did you survive while a friend and fellow patient did not? This is often referred to as survivor’s guilt.

Perhaps your friend had the same type of cancer and treatment. The earlier “Why me?” now becomes “Why not me?”

Many people who overcome a traumatic event — including a long-term illness such as cancer— face survivor guilt. Survivor guilt can come in the form of regret, blame, sadness or depression. It can cause symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, irritability and loss of motivation.

Letting go of these feelings can help improve your well-being and your ability to cope with life after cancer. Try some of these strategies to reduce guilty feelings:

  • Remember that cancer is not your fault – or anyone else’s. Avoid worrying about lifestyle choices you have made in the past, such as cigarette smoking. It is important to let go of any mistakes you think you made in the past and forgive yourself and others.
  • Know that your feelings of guilt will come and go. Just like all difficult emotions triggered by a diagnosis of cancer, your feelings of guilt will change over time. As they say, this too shall pass.
  • Share your feelings. Talk about the guilt you are feeling with someone you trust like a family member or close friend, or talk with a counselor or social worker.
  • Join a support group. It helps most people to know that others have been in their situation and have experienced similar feelings of guilt. Find a local support group or join an online support group.
  • Focus on positive things in your life for which you are thankful. Find activities that are soothing or help you relax. Do things that you enjoy, such as seeing a friend or watching a funny movie.
  • Find other healthy ways to express your emotions. Consider expressing how you feel through creative activities you enjoy, such as music or art. Or write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Using creative arts to express your emotions can help you live better.

You survived cancer. Give yourself a moment to appreciate that fact. You won’t be able to live life to the fullest if you dwell on things that are out of your control. Try to let go of the guilt, look ahead and enjoy this precious life.

If you find that guilt impacts your ability to function in daily life, let your doctor know. Your doctor may recommend you seek the support of a professional counselor to help manage your emotions.

Get 6 tips to fight the fear of cancer returning.

Explore cancer support services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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