How to Cope with Survivor’s Guilt If You Had Cancer

Daniel Marcus';

By Daniel Marcus

Posted on September 30th, 2021 in News, Myths & Tips

When a person has strong and unshakeable feelings of guilt because they were able to remain alive following a life-threatening situation while other people did not, they experience what is known as survivor’s guilt. It is a usual reaction to traumatic events, as well as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a very serious mental health issue that requires therapy. There is a wide range of people who may experience survivor’s guilt, including war veterans, crash survivors, witnesses to a horrific event, first responders, and last but not least, cancer survivors.

A 2019 study found that between 55% and 64% of people who survived lung cancer deal with extreme feelings of guilt. Their reaction is quite natural, as lung cancer deaths account for 25% of all cancer death in the United States, and 361 lung cancer patients die every day across the country. To get a clearer idea about what goes on in the mind of a person with survivor’s guilt, it is important to mention that there are usually three aspects they feel guilty about, namely surviving when other people died, what they did during the event, and also what they failed to do during the event.

Why Do People Who Had Cancer Experience Survivor’s Guilt?

When it comes to people who overcame cancer, they experience survivor’s guilt differently. Contrary to popular belief, their emotional response is not only related to the fact that they are still alive while other cancer patients are not, as it goes beyond this idea. Accordingly, people with a history of cancer have feelings of guilt concerning the following aspects:

  • the loss of a fellow cancer survivor: this is perhaps the most common trigger for survivor’s guilt and is bound to be experienced by nearly every cancer survivor since they usually know other people who struggle with malignant disease as well
  • the news of recurrence in a fellow cancer survivor: cancer survivors who currently have no evidence of disease who hear that a person whose cancer had been successfully treated was diagnosed with the disease again can experience survivor’s guilt because they are healthy and the person is no longer in good health
  • having less difficulty with cancer treatment and experiencing fewer side effects: this can also be a source of guilt for cancer patients who do not experience debilitating side effects as a result of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, as they may think of other fellow cancer survivors who struggle with treatment
  • passing on their genes: cancer patients who have just been informed that they have a genetic mutation that can trigger cancer that they can pass on to their children may become so preoccupied with this aspect, as well as afraid that one of their children will have to suffer from cancer too, that they will eventually have feelings of guilt
  • impacting the lives of their loved ones: cancer is a terrible disease that takes a heavy toll on the wellbeing of the patient and also on the wellbeing of their family and people who struggle with a malignant disease may feel like a burden for their loved ones, who are usually the people who take care of them by driving them to medical appointments and to chemotherapy sessions
  • being unable to cope with cancer in a healthy way: people who have a hard time maintaining a positive attitude while battling cancer may harshly judge themselves for being unable to deal with their illness in a healthy way like other cancer survivors
  • not having a life-changing experience triggered by cancer: people who have just become cancer-free may feel guilt over the fact that they did not have a spiritual epiphany or awakening as a consequence of their suffering during their fight with cancer even though they rationally know that not every cancer patient will experience this

As you can see, there are countless other reasons why people who had cancer may experience survivor’s guilt. However, you should keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list, which means that people with a history of cancer may have feelings of guilt about other aspects of their life as well. If you are a cancer survivor and find it difficult to deal with your guilt, we strongly advise you to talk to a counselor or therapist, as they have the necessary expertise to offer you good and effective coping mechanisms that will ease your emotional burden.

The Real Emotions Behind Survivor’s Guilt

Because survivor’s guilt can manifest itself as a very broad spectrum of emotions that are grouped under one label, therapists who focus on the impact cancer may have on the psyche of the patient advise that we redefine survivor’s guilt as specific emotions that will eventually help cancer survivors cope and heal emotionally. The following are the core emotions behind survivor’s guilt experienced by people who had cancer:

  • empathy: cancer survivors feel empathy as a novel and heightened sensitivity toward other people who are battling the disease, but they may end up experiencing a confusing mix of emotions such as relief, sadness, gratitude, and hope
  • sadness: people who are now cancer-free should allow themselves to truly feel sadness in order to let it go by looking for the places, comforts, and people who make them feel safe enough to experience their sadness
  • anger: it is a very powerful energy that requires action to be released, which can be done in private or only mentally by recognizing the people in your life whom you can vent to and who will attentively listen to you and respond to you in a supportive manner
  • grief: this is a very common emotional response to a loss of any kind, and it cannot be avoided, which means that cancer survivors who experience grief have to go through the middle of it in order to conquer it, which may entail unexpected crying, feelings of uncertainty, lack of energy, and sleep disturbances
  • anxiety: as a strong feeling that can easily trigger physical sensations, anxiety is often the result of making unfavorable comparisons between ourselves and other people, overgeneralizing, dwelling on the negative and overlooking the positive, and taking things personally and cancer survivors who experience a lot of anxiety should regularly keep in touch with people who lift their spirit up, as well as try to have positive and reaffirming thoughts
  • pressure: the reason why pressure is usually felt by cancer survivors is that they feel that they have a moral duty to give back or pay it forward, but the good thing is that they can use it to pinpoint the good and find meaning in their survival

Cancer survivors should keep in mind that survivor’s guilt is real, and it comes in many emotional forms, which is why they may initially not recognize it for what it is. The key is finding the people in their life who can listen to what they have to say without judging when they express their emotions and who will not dismiss or invalidate their feelings. These people may come from their family, their friends, a therapist, or a cancer support group.

Practical Coping Mechanisms for Cancer Survivors Who Feel Strong Guilt

Because holding onto feelings of guilt related to your survival as a person with a history of cancer is unhealthy, you should find effective coping mechanisms that will ultimately diminish or completely eliminate those emotions. If you keep survivor’s guilt to yourself for a long time, you have a high risk of struggling with depression, which can greatly affect your mental health.

Furthermore, since survivor’s guilt may be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder, this should prompt you even more to seek help or to take action so as to deal with your feelings of guilt. The following is a list of practical advice that you can apply in your daily life, which is meant to alleviate survivor’s guilt if you had cancer:

  • keep in mind that cancer is not your fault: even though you may feel guilty about certain unhealthy habits related to your lifestyle that have contributed to your disease, such as cigarette smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, you should find the strength to forgive yourself, and you should also remember that cancer is usually the results of a combination of risk factors, not just one
  • be mindful that your feelings will come and go: you should keep in mind that your feelings of guilt will most likely diminish over time, which should spark a little hope for the future in you
  • share your feelings of guilt: this is perhaps one of the most important steps you can take toward your emotional recovery, as sharing your feelings with other cancer survivors, as well as with the people who are close to you will make you feel relieved and will ease the emotional burden you are carrying
  • be thankful: focus on the positive things in your life, count your blessings, and look for activities that make you feel relaxed
  • find your own healthy ways to cope with survivor’s guilt: these may include activities such as making art or singing, which can help you express your feelings and thereby deal with them in a healthy way
  • accept your emotions and allow yourself to really feel them: the process of coping with survivor’s guilt will not be a short or a very easy one, but this should not discourage you, and you should learn how to accept your emotions for what they are and also to experience them as they come by surrendering yourself to them
  • take care of yourself: practicing self-care is extremely important as well, and it can be taking a nap, reading, taking a relaxing bath, listening to soothing music, journaling, or aromatherapy
  • help other people: many cancer survivors who have feelings of guilt experience the urge to help others, especially cancer patients, so you may want to volunteer, share your cancer journey, send a care package to someone, or donate blood

Obviously, these are only some tips on how to cope with survivor’s guilt as someone who had to fight cancer. A therapist will give you more ideas in this respect if you choose to go to therapy, which we encourage you to do, particularly if you feel that your emotions get in the way of your daily routine. Finally, connecting with other cancer survivors may help to a great extent, as you can learn coping mechanisms from them too.