Cancer survivors: Dealing with guilt when others don't live on

Rochester, Minnesota - At a dinner outing recently, I sat next to a young woman who had just been declared by her doctors to be in remission from her lymphoma. Over the course of the evening, we talked about many aspects of being a cancer survivor.

We joked about her hair growing back curly when it had always been straight. We talked about chemotherapy and feeling horrible. She mentioned the tension of waiting for the next time she would have tests, and the continued status of remission. When I asked her what the hardest part was about being a cancer survivor, she said survival skills.

She was talking about the aspect of survival that we rarely mention, the fact that she'd survived and was in remission while others didn't do well and hadn't survived. She said to me, "No one explains to you how to deal with the guilt of surviving."

This young woman had a strong will to live and a wonderful outlook on life. She'd done well and was celebrating her remission, but was forever changed by what she'd been through as a cancer patient and survivor. This feeling of guilt is a normal part of being human, a manner of searching for the meaning of her survival vs. another person's death. I encouraged her to explore those feelings by either talking with others or journaling. By acknowledging her thoughts and feelings in some way, I hoped to help her let go of the guilt and start enjoying and celebrating being alive.

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