I Am A Cancer Patient Success Story, and That’s Great?

by Christian BullockSurvivor, Hodgkin LymphomaMay 11, 2021View more posts from Christian Bullock

As my cancer survivorship is extending into my fourth year in August of this year, I’ve become reluctant to feel lucky.

Luck is waning. Guilt is waxing.

My survivor’s guilt comes in the form of being a “model” lymphoma patient:

  • Only having to go through 2.5 cycles of ABVD instead of the planned six
  • Only having ten radiation zaps
  • Having a terrific support system in place

There are so many who are not as lucky as me.

There are those with the same diagnosis as me that go through the entirety of their planned treatment. Have more side-effects. Or had non-existent support systems.

Or relapse.

Or die.

I know that I should feel fortunate to have gone through treatment and be where I am today. Sure, I had some unexpected issues, such as:

  • A chyle leak during my lymphadenectomy
  • An extravasation incident during my first chemo infusion
  • A need to have a 2nd PICC line due to the first one being pulled out of position (from helping my wife build a swingset for my kiddos, so worth it?)

Truthfully? These are small potatoes compared to the kinds of issues others experience.

Thinking about the day I celebrated hearing “no evidence of disease” from my oncologist, I was lucky (guilty) to have pizza and a beer with my family. Thinking back from that time through now, it has become apparent:

I combat my feelings of survivor’s guilt by absorbing myself into trying to do good when possible.

I think it’s just in my nature, this feeling of guilt. I live with a general sense of guilt. I’ve got it good! Really good!

But I’m a selfless person, always have been.

I think these two things tango inside of me – a feeling of guilt and actionable selflessness.

And being a cancer survivor has amplified it for me.

I’m selfless to a fault.

I live my life for others. For my wife, to have a fulfilling career of self-employment. For my kids, to grow up with as many opportunities as possible. For my parents, to show the appreciation of all they did for me. For my twin brother, to know he’s the best dang person in the world.

For others I know, I do what I can // when I can // as much as I can.

To make my bubble of people – the fraction of humans I know on this Earth – live better lives.

To be happy.

As such, this turned-up survivor’s guilt has inadvertently changed some of my central behaviors.

I don’t know about karma anymore. I think many of us in life – even if we don’t always think it – like to think in a general sense that those who do good get some good in return. And those who are evil do not.

It’s hard for me to believe this after going through what I did.

I’m here to make others happy with no expectation of anything in return.

Additionally, I’m someone who has a hard time saying, “No.” This has amplified even more now with the survivor’s guilt that I have.

If I can help, I’m always about it.

But when you’re saying yes to everything, what do you give up? For me, it’s a lot of free time I used to have. Some days, I’m lucky to read a chapter of a book I’m reading.

When I do have those fleeting free moments, I try to seek sunsets. And starry nights. I look to cherish these micro-moments in our everyday life – spending an extra beat or two taking them in – because they should be appreciated. You never know when you won’t be able to anymore.

How does a clear night with the stars out make you feel? There’s nothing else that gives me a more incredible surge of feeling – both positive and negative.

I think that a clear night sky gives me my micro-moment of personal therapy.

Honestly, when starting to write about this topic of “survivor’s guilt,” I had a hard time starting. Me? Survivor’s guilt? I don’t know about that!

However, spending some time with this and a not-wanting-to-disclose-the-number of drafts I’ve gone through has helped me process how my survivor’s guilt has manifested from my own unique cancer experience.

And you know what? Survivor’s guilt is also a unique experience.

My survivor’s guilt is uniquely dealt with by an overwhelming need to say “yes” and be in a “doing state.” It can and does sometimes get to an extreme form of selflessness that sometimes means I’m not taking enough time for myself or my family.

But it’s my way of coping, my unique survivor’s guilt experience that I’m living.

Perhaps by fine-tuning that selflessness, I can start to regain a better balance of feeling lucky than guilty.

I suppose it’s one of those terrific characteristics of being a cancer survivor that only those who have gone through what you’ve gone through can “get it.

Thanks for reading.

Want to hear Christian read this post? Click here to sign up for Perkatory on Thursday, May 27th at 7:00pm ET!

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.

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  • Rhea Watson says:

    This is so well written and well said! I am also a cancer survivor who felt like I had the luckiest experience with cancer – leading to so much survivor’s guilt. Leukemia, 2.5 years of treatment, no hospital stays outside of my first month, no terrible side effects except mouth sores and the occasional sleepless nights from the steroids. I now feel the need to make my experience worth something! I’m an oncology nurse now. Your statement “I combat my feelings of survivor’s guilt by absorbing myself into trying to do good when possible” hit me to the core. Thank you for putting into words what I can only attempt to describe to my family and friends.

    1. Christian says:

      Thanks Rhea! I appreciate it. That’s great that you’re an oncology nurse! Goodness, there aren’t many other professions where there are more caring and kind souls than in oncology nursing. And talk about “absorbing” yourself into giving back. Take care of yourself <3

  • Gordon McKavanagh says:

    Thanks for sharing your story here and feelings of survivors guilt. I especially liked how you talked about your extreme selflessness and trouble saying “no” to people. I definitely have trouble with this as well and am working on setting aside time for taking care of myself.

    1. Christian says:

      Great to hear it, Gordon. Yep, definitely a work in progress here.

  • Katerina says:

    Thank you for sharing your powerful story, I have been struggling for a while now and at times feel alone because no one around me really understands this feeling. I can’t wait to hear everyone speak on May 27, because it truly helps knowing you are not alone in feeling like this. 🙂

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