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Cancer Guilt: Not for Me, Thanks

September 22, 2015

” Sometimes, I feel guilty saying that I have cancer because I didn’t lose my hair.”

” I feel like I don’t really have the right to feel bad that I have cancer. I only had surgery and not chemo or radiation.”

I have heard versions of the above expressed by people living with various forms of cancer, at different stages of cancer and who have undergone different types of treatment. I did feel this “cancer guilt” intensely for perhaps about an hour one day soon after my diagnosis. This relates back to the fact that I was diagnosed with the supposedly “good cancer”. I thought about it and tried to understand my confused feelings and then I decided that I was going to own my cancer. This doesn’t mean that I completely banished feelings of confusion; rather, I made the ongoing conscious effort to tell myself that I am going through something real and challenging to me. My experiences are valid and stand alone irrespective of what other people think.

This was an unusual thing for me to do because I often spent long periods of time worrying about how others would perceive me or a comment of mine. This still happens to me occasionally, but nowhere near as much, and it is a huge relief. For instance now, if other people think I should be all better at this point almost one year after my surgery, that’s their opinion.  I tell myself that their opinion in no way reflects what my reality is, how I feel and what I know my current health status to be.

Playing the cancer card isn’t about getting pity. Okay, maybe it is about getting a little bit of empathy if you want to get a seat on public transport and you’re really tired that day. No one wants a cancer diagnosis. It is an incredibly challenging health condition to go through, for everyone involved. The reality is that a cancer diagnosis forces many to confront the notion of death.

” I wasn’t meant to live and I feel guilty because (this other person) with the same kind of cancer passed away.”

Surviving cancer is not about guilt. It is about gratitude and strength. It can be about celebrating a person’s life. It can be about grieving that a person had to go through any sort of pain. It can be about intense love and hurt and joy and sadness. The word “cancer” can be a trigger for some, even years later. But hopefully, cancer, either the word or the condition isn’t about feelings of guilt.

Even today, when I disclose my cancer diagnosis, it is not because I want the other person to think “oh poor you” or because I want to inflict feelings of guilt on someone else in any way (i.e. look how good you have it, I have cancer). It is because I am still doing tests and going to doctor’s appointments and am occasionally exhausted past the point of uttering a coherent sentence and not up to meeting or socializing. It is okay that I am not 100% yet. It is alright for me to acknowledge this chronic health condition in my life. The cancer will have to be dealt with for a little while longer and in the meantime, it is still a part of me.

The reason I don’t share this information with everyone I meet is because many people honestly do not know how to react to the disclosure of a diagnosis. During support group sessions, we have interesting conversations about when to tell people, friends or potential partners or colleagues. All human relationships become tricky to navigate. But if I am in a situation where I need or want to mention my diagnosis, I have stopped second guessing myself and will go with it. It is not my job to protect everyone else. It is my responsibility to take care of myself, physically and mentally.

From what I’ve read and experienced, the guilt is a normal and common reaction while going through cancer. Like many other emotions, it resurfaces at unexpected times. I’ve found that it helps to remind myself that of some of the concepts I’ve mentioned above. Self-care is so important. It helps to recognize that whatever experiences you are going through are valid and do not have to be compared to others. I will not be made to feel guilt that I will likely survive this cancer. I will celebrate that and continue to be grateful. So cancer guilt? Nope. Not for me.