When I’m asked about whether or not I have experienced survivor’s guilt as it pertains to my existence here in this life with cancer, it’s an unrestrained “absolutely”. Simply put, I have no idea why I’m still here and others are not. Over my years of survivorship, I have met so many beautiful souls who understand what it’s like to be faced with the unbearable news that cancer has become this unwelcome part of your life. The words “you have cancer” create this bond between those of us who have experienced it, and we can unequivocally understand one another’s fear, pain, hope, joy, and grief like no one else can. It’s the club no one wants to be a part of, but once you’re in, the empathy you both give and receive from one another is this unconditional respect and support that has a way of finding you when you need it the most. It’s quite honestly magic.
When I bear witness to the suffering and untimely deaths of some of these incredibly beautiful people who I have turned to with admiration and guidance, pieces of the hope and optimism I thought I had within me slowly drift away. I’m selfishly grateful that my time on this earth hasn’t run out, but for the life of me I can’t understand why theirs had to. It’s a difficult thing to have to remind yourself that their pain and suffering—their death—isn’t necessarily your story, because it hits so close to home that you feel like one day it might easily be you. You feel so much gratitude that so far you have survived, but then you feel like a horrible person for surviving. Guilt on an insanely confusing and hurtful level.
There’s another form of survivor’s guilt though, that isn’t always talked about. It could consume me every second of every day if I let it. Guilt is such a loaded word that can haunt and crush you at every turn. I carry with me tremendous guilt that my children’s innocence and security were robbed from them, twice. When my children were nine, six, and three, I had to let the word cancer enter their young lives. I failed at doing the one thing a mother feels she must do… protect them. The victory we felt as treatment was succeeding was quickly torn away from them again at fourteen, eleven, and seven, when cancer came back for another round. I gave it all I had to kick cancer to the curb, but ultimately I failed.
Once again, I stole from them the promise of having a long life together and replaced it with uncertainty and fear of the unimaginable, again. I feel guilty when treatment zaps my energy and makes me feel like I’m too tired to show up for their activities or like I’m incapable of staying up late for movie night. I carry so much guilt for not being the mom I think I should be, the mom I feel like they deserve. Guilt is front and center when I’m missing out on normal daily life routines for a day at the cancer center. I want so desperately to fix my situation for everyone that loves me, that when there is bad news to share, I feel that I have failed them. Survivor’s guilt, for me, is really about surviving guilt and finding a way to not let it completely consume and destroy me. I’m guilty of holding onto resentment. Seeing other people my age live healthy, carefree lives can make me feel angry and even a little bitter. I have always tried to be selfless, but the “why me” mentality makes me feel selfish and guilty for wishing this nightmare belonged to someone else. I have to work to understand these feelings, realize that it’s normal to feel them, then work at letting them go and not letting cancer bring out something in me that, well, just isn’t me. It’s like constantly quieting demons I never knew existed and feeling incredibly guilty that for some reason they do.
Survivor’s guilt is obviously multifaceted and comes at you so many times and in so many ways. If I’ve learned anything in these four years, two diagnoses, and hours of self reflection and therapy, it’s that I don’t have to completely understand it in order to peacefully release it. I think the beauty of being torn apart by something like cancer and even guilt, is that putting the pieces back together can result in something far greater than what was lost.
These honest truths that I’ve shared hold a lot less power over me once I admit to them, rather than keeping them all inside. It’s OK that I’ve been angry, hurt, resentful, and selfish, because now that I’ve acknowledged it, I get to let it all go. I’ve earned the opportunity to be peaceful, happy, hopeful, and ultimately protected from feelings that I’m not meant to hold onto forever. Take it all in, breathe it all out, and know that surviving guilt is, in fact, possible. These experiences and lessons in survival—which are completely unwanted—are entirely unmatched. Let’s make the switch from survivor’s guilt, to survivor’s growth and be first-hand witnesses to how hard lessons pave the way to beautiful truths.