By Bruce Stambaugh
I wasn’t surprised when I got the word. Three years after my successful prostate cancer surgery, I remained cancer free.
Of course, I was glad, ecstatic really. But after getting the all clear from my doctor, I never celebrate, and I don’t gloat. I know I am one of the fortunate ones. Far too many people diagnosed with cancer never hear those blessed words, “cancer free.”
I had excellent doctors who expertly monitored and guided me through my journey. When it was decided to do the robotic surgery, I hoped and prayed for the best results.
Fortunately, my prayers were answered. Those of too many others with cancer have not been, will not be. At times, I feel bad about that, guilty even, sometimes to the point of depression.
I never know when those feelings will arise. I’m not even sure what triggers them. I just know at times I feel really sad for others, and guilty because I made it while others did not.
I recognized that an important first step in fighting this negativity was to personally acknowledge my situation, and seek the appropriate medical and therapeutic help. It’s good to be honest, especially with yourself.
It was also reassuring to learn that my anxiety propensity is fed by a genetic disorder only recently diagnosed. Medicine and diet help balance my emotions. That doesn’t eliminate my remorse, however.
Whenever I share these survivor guilt feelings with others, reactions vary from understanding to bewilderment. Some question the idea entirely, and wonder how in the world I could feel the way I do.
There is no easy answer, just like there is no good cancer. Cancer is cancer. Guilt is guilt, whether it is justified or not. Like so many other survivors, I ask the obvious questions. Why was I saved? Why were others not?
I am not sharing for sympathy. I do so for understanding, not for me so much as for all the others who suffer similarly.
I am not alone in dealing with this survivor’s guilt syndrome. The condition ranges far beyond the circles of cancer victims. Firefighters, military personnel, first responders, victims of violence all hurt likewise.
The good news for me, besides being cancer free, is that I try not to let my sporadic despair overwhelm me to the point of hopelessness. I always have hope, and always hope the best for others.
I tell my own story when asked. But I found a pair of other actions far more helpful. Simply being there, and listening to others are both critical to cancer victims, their families and friends, and to survivors, too.
I have found a sincere presence, and kind, active listening beneficial healing approaches to all touched by this horrible disease. Such support encouraged me during my ordeal, and I try to do the same for others in need when and where I can. There seem to be too many opportunities lately.
I greatly appreciated the encouragement given by my loving wife and family. I also belong to a very supportive small group with other cancer survivors and victims. We share openly and honestly with one another, without judgment or shame. We meet regularly to stay in touch with how each of us is doing on our cancer journey.
Still, when that dreaded guilt shows its ugly face, I know what to do. I visit and I listen. Purposeful focusing on the needs of others helps me heal, too.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2014
7 thoughts on “Feeling guilty about surviving cancer”
Lovely, lovely photos, and sentiments. My mother had surgery for colon cancer in early May; we were surprised and thrilled that it has not spread. Yet at the age of 89, now 90, I wondered the same things, and did not stand up and announce her good news at church when almost at the same time, a 64 year old sister of one of my house church friends died of colon cancer, and another man at church, early 50’s, simply did not wake up one morning. We celebrate Mom’s good fortune and thank God for extended life with her, and try not to feel guilty for her and for us. Thanks for sharing your story too.
Thank you, Melodie. I greatly appreciate you sharing your comments, too.
Very poignant post, Bruce. I can’t help but be mystified by why cancer exists in the grand scheme of things. A few years back, I lost a cousin who was a healthy 32 years old to a ravenous cancer that ate him down to nothing in a matter of months. Hopefully there’ll be a full-on cure someday.
Thanks, Jarret. Indeed, let’s hope there is a cure sometime soon.
I really appreciate how you put words to very difficult emotions and experiences. I experienced (and at times still experience) that same guilt as you in my cancer recovery. Why did I make it? Why didn’t I suffer more? Why did someone else have it worse than me? Like you, I too found meaning in reaching out to help others. Thank you for your wonderful insights. I am glad you are there. May I post this to the PACS website?
Thank you for your insightful reflections and thoughts. You gave words to experiences and feelings I have had as well. Like you I too have found meaning out of my experiences by helping others. Thank you for your honest reflections. May I post this blog entry on the PACS website?
Absolutely you may post it. I would be honored. I wrote it so that others, like yourself, would know that we are not alone.
Blessings to you in your ministry to others in need.
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