Cancer Survivorship and Guilt

Cancer isn’t over when you receive the news that there’s no evidence of disease. Life after cancer doesn’t exist because experience with cancer never truly goes away. The emotional trauma that comes with cancer is difficult to walk through and overcome. Every person diagnosed with cancer carries the effects of disease and cancer treatment for the rest of their lives.

Many cancer care centers say that a cancer survivor is a person who is in any type of treatment or recovery. Cancer survivors live with the fear they won’t remain in remission. Every day is a reminder of what they went through to stay alive. They go about their lives with disruptions in their thoughts about the cancer returning, and often wonder why they survived while others didn’t. Questioning their own survival is common for cancer survivors.


Surviving cancer can lead to feelings of fear, knowing there is always a chance of the cancer returning. Guilt is also a familiar feeling for those who survive cancer. Survivor’s remorse can occur when some people live while others do not. Survivors question why they escaped death when others who were diagnosed with the same disease did not. The list of people who experience survivor’s guilt includes:

  • War veterans
  • First responders
  • Survivors of terrorist attacks or a mass killing
  • Cancer survivors
  • Transplant recipients
  • Crash survivors
  • Those who lost a loved one to suicide
  • Those who lost a loved one due to an overdose

This list is not limited to only the people mentioned above. Survivors can hide their feelings of guilt, and deal with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. If you know a cancer survivor, take some time to ask them how they are coping with their feelings. After active treatment finishes, most people stop asking how cancer patients are doing.

The Cost of Survival

When a cancer survivor completes treatment and is told they are cancer-free, they feel joy. Receiving the news that the disease they battled is now defeated brings a feeling like no other. What outsiders don’t know is that feelings of sorrow can follow the diagnosis. Every cancer patient/survivor knows someone who didn’t survive. The guilt of being alive is real. The trauma of cancer treatment also plays a part in the survivor’s guilt. Surviving is not easy, and those who say “You should be glad you’re alive” don’t understand what it takes to be alive. Cancer treatment tears down a body. Once treatment is over, the body still needs to heal. While bodies are healing, the mind is also learning to cope with life after treatment. Individuals dealt with brutal medications, surgeries, and radiation. Even after treatment, they are exhausted both mentally and physically. Post-treatment includes dealing with new bodies and a new state of “normal.” Their lives will never be the same.

Cancer survivors also work on the process of acceptance. They try to accept everything they went through. For some, cancer ripped them away from their security, self-image, and confidence. They didn’t choose to have cancer.

Signs and Symptoms

A survivor can feel many different emotions; the feeling of guilt is one of the most prevalent. The signs and symptoms of survivorship guilt include:

  • Having flashbacks to the time they were receiving care.
  • Being obsessed with the past.
  • Being irritable and angry
  • Having dark thoughts and feelings
  • Dealing with fear and confusion
  • Feeling hopeless

Physical and Emotional Issues

  • Sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Social isolation
  • Thoughts of suicide

There are other components to survivors’ guilt. Friendships are made while undergoing treatment. The bond between those who share similar experiences can create a feeling of strength and belonging. Learning of the death of that friend creates a void. Sometimes the survivor fills the void with unhealthy activities or thoughts.

The risks of PTSD are sometimes based on past experiences. Regardless of the diagnosis, a person can feel guilty; they have a disease because of life choices. Questions and guilt abound. Some of the questions are

Self-doubt surrounds the survivor. A cancer survivor said, “I blame myself. I should have noticed the change in my body. I should have gone to the doctor sooner. If I did everything right, I wouldn’t be sick.” Unfortunately, cancer, in some cases, is genetic. No one can prevent a genetic disease, just like no one can stop the environment from affecting their lives. We can’t deny our genetics or where we live. We don’t always have a choice in our environment, and we never choose our genetics. People who follow proper nutritional guidelines and workout can also be diagnosed with cancer. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

Tips to Cope

  • Accept your feelings. Allow yourself to feel what surfaces. Take the time to explore those feelings and process them. If the feelings are overwhelming, seek counseling or a support group.
  • Connect with others. By looking up your illness on the internet, you can find groups connected to a treatment center. Another option is to call your local treatment center to find out more about therapy.
  • Look within yourself. Use techniques like yoga, meditation, art, or exercise to relax and refocus on your feelings.
  • Self-care. Give yourself time to take a walk in nature, book a massage, or find a healthy way to relax and reset.

Survivors’ guilt can be overwhelming, especially when people think you should feel lucky to be alive. Accepting the fact you survived isn’t easy. Losing friends to the same disease is painful and scary, and If you are experiencing these feelings call Achieve Concierge. We will formulate an integrative treatment plan with your preexisting specialists, naturopaths, and any other practitioners necessary to help receive the care you need. For more information, call (619) 393-5871.

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