Oftentimes, people who have experienced cancer know that with a diagnosis comes feelings of major guilt. All types of guilt. The guilt of feeling like a burden on those surrounding you, not being able to work, not having energy to do what you used to be able to, and being physically and mentally unable to do anything other than stare at a television or the wall. For me, one of the worst types of guilt is survivor’s guilt.
Survivor’s guilt is the psychological response to someone else’s loss, such as property, identity, or life, usually after a traumatic event. For someone who doesn’t understand, it’s like constantly asking yourself the question, how do I still have my home, job, life, etc. when my friend or family member does not? Symptoms range from mental to physical with things such as depression and anxiety to headaches and loss of appetite.
Because of my diagnosis, I’ve met so many wonderful people that I feel lucky to call friends. They always say that cancer is the shittiest club with the best people, and I have to say that I fully agree. It’s unfortunate that we needed to get sick in order to meet, but I’m so grateful to have them in my life. Sadly, the other side of making friends in the cancer community is that there is so much loss. Death is the only certain thing in life, and it feels like it happens so much more frequently and quickly when you make friends in this community. My survivor’s guilt is related to three incredible people in particular.
My first experience of survivor’s guilt was after losing Wes. I didn’t know him for long, but his warmth and humor always brought a smile to my face. He loved wearing his collection of ugly holiday sweaters and sending pictures of himself wearing them in our group chat. He had enough sweaters to not repeat wearing any of them throughout the whole month of December! He loved being an Eagle Scout and was part of the NYLT (National Youth Leadership Training) teaching leadership skills to younger scouts. He was a patient service representative at a hospital and finished his Firefighter I certification a few months after diagnosis. He was engaged to the love of his life, and they got married shortly before colon cancer took him away. Why am I here when he isn’t?
Farran was a special person who had a gift for getting people together. She created Digi’ween, the digital Halloween party for young adult cancer patients and survivors amidst the COVID-19 pandemic when no one was allowed to leave their homes. There were chat rooms, a scavenger hunt, movies, trivia, and more. She created a young adult cancer movie night and had assembled a list of movies that she wanted to see. The whole group messaged in the chat box with one another while watching the movies, and it was so much fun to be a part of. She and I were getting ready to lead a blood cancer-specific young adult cancer group so that we could exchange treatment plans, stories, and support. She had an awesomely quirky personality and a fierce love of bubble tea. She taught us all the *correct* way to order it so that we couldn’t go wrong. She was going to do so much more in this world. Why am I still here when she isn’t?
Survivor’s guilt has hit me the hardest with this third person. I met Janna in the sixth grade, and we’ve been best friends ever since. We’ve been hiking, biking, running, exploring, and sitting in cafes talking about our lives. She somehow always managed to like a band before they became popular and had great book recommendations. She went to college for marketing and research and received her master’s degree in order to further her career. Shortly after she graduated, she was found unresponsive on the floor in her room. She was in a coma for less than a week, after which she passed away. They say it was an undetected heart arrhythmia. I had to look up what that actually meant, only to find out that it’s a vague diagnosis and they don’t really know what happened. It’s called SADS, sudden arrhythmia death syndrome. I believe the acronym is well-fitting. She didn’t have cancer, she wasn’t sick. She was seemingly healthy. It was all so sudden and it doesn’t make sense. I was the one who had cancer—I always assumed I would die before she did. It breaks my heart to think of all the things she wouldn’t get to do in life that she wanted. She never got to enjoy the fruits of her labor for her master’s degree. She would never get married to her boyfriend or have kids of her own. At the time of writing this, her birthday had just passed not too long ago. It was the second one where she wasn’t here to celebrate. How is it possible that I’m living in a world where she no longer exists?
A haunting symptom of survivor’s guilt is wondering if there was something you could have done differently to change the outcome of the situation. Maybe if I reached out more or was there more, things could have been different. Logically, I know I couldn’t have done anything to prevent what happened with any of these people, but I think about it anyway. Another aspect of survivor’s guilt for me is having the feeling of selfishness. My life has definitely changed after cancer, but I am still here breathing, living, and writing this article. I have more opportunities to do things in my life and I feel selfish for feeling so guilty. It seems like a never-ending loop of horrible feelings. I suppose cancer didn’t think it was affecting us enough, it felt like it needed to add this, too.
I’ve come to learn that aging is certainly not a right, but it’s a privilege that not everyone gets to experience. I ask myself the question, “Why am I still here?” and I don’t have the answer. But for Wes, Farran, Janna, and many others, I hope I’m making you proud.