A woman holds a light in her hands.

The Guilt of Surviving

Survivor’s Guilt: noun, a condition of mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died.

I should have died in 2019

I actually came pretty close a couple of times. A massive tumor, involved lymph nodes, too sick for chemo and barely surviving surgery, my prognosis was bad. Immunotherapy was a Hail Mary and no guarantee that I would improve at all. But it did work. I got better. Although my cancer is not gone, I am at a place where I can live an objectively normal life.

Guilt weighs on me

As lucky as I feel, there is also a shadow of shame and guilt. As I share my story online, I always hesitate before clicking “post.” Will my good scan update or photos of a date night discourage the person who reads it? When I moan about a bad day at work, I cringe at the thought that there is probably another cancer patient who wishes they could work. I know you shouldn’t compare your cancer experience to someone else’s and there is always someone who has it worse, but the survivor’s guilt has really been weighing on me lately.

Why me?

I have met cancer patients with lower-grade tumors and earlier staging who decline and pass quickly. I’ve also met plenty of patients with my almost identical diagnosis not make it six months. Why me? Why am I doing ok and surviving when so many others are not? We talk about survivor’s guilt often in my Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Support group. Whether sharing good news or even ringing the bell to signal the end of treatment can be very difficult when you know that someone else may never have that chance.

There is no "good' cancer experience

One of the most encouraging things I’ve learned from the support group is to not minimize your experience because someone could have it worse. Cancer sucks. There is no “good” cancer experience. I try to not dwell on the idea that I am not allowed to celebrate my good luck, because someone else may not be as fortunate.

Losing a dear friend

However, this has been made more difficult as we mark a full year since losing a dear friend to cancer. His name was Michael and he was diagnosed with liposarcoma just a week or two after I landed in the hospital fighting my bladder cancer. We were both in separate hospitals at the same time fighting with all our might, but as I began to improve, he got worse. He succumbed to his cancer in March of 2020. I have struggled with the question of why. Why did I, who had a more severe diagnosis live, when he should have by all accounts had a better chance. Why did I live when he died?

Cancer doesn’t have a why

Survivor’s guilt is an unfortunate part of the cancer experience. We may wonder and ask ourselves why often, but cancer doesn’t have a why. We will never really know why it strikes down one person and spares another.

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