Feeling guilty about surviving cancer

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Life sometimes is a foggy ride. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

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.

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A sign of promise. © Craig Stambaugh 2014.
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.

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A sign of hope. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
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.

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Life renewing. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

My journey with cancer so far

By Bruce Stambaugh

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2010 I got the call I had dreaded. My preliminary test for prostate cancer was positive. A follow up biopsy confirmed the results. My journey with cancer had begun.

My immediate reaction was more of disappointment than surprise. My father had died of prostate cancer, and my older brother had had his cancerous prostate removed a year and a half earlier.

I saw the miseries my father had been through, and I knew what inconveniences my brother dealt with. Still, it was that immediate family history that resulted in my early diagnosis, for which I was most thankful. My doctors tested my PSA level twice a year.

Nevertheless, my initial emotions resembled the steepest, most winding roller coaster at any amusement park. Only, this turn of events wasn’t amusing. It was sad, frustrating, discouraging, lonesome, unacceptable, and agonizing all rolled into one.

At the same time, I knew that with the early diagnosis that I likely would have many more options than other cancer patients with much worse prognosis. And yet, this cancer was in my body and I was not happy about it.

I had been close to cancer before. Besides my father and my older brother, other close relatives and friends had had cancer. Too many acquaintances, former students and friends have either had cancer, are currently in their own battle with cancer, or have died because of it.

Each of their experiences touched me. Still, when the doctor tells you that you have cancer, everything changes.

Yes, it had been detected early. Yes, it likely could be removed or radiated. But it was still cancer. There is no good cancer. Cancer is cancer. Any action to counter the disgusting disease had the potential for unwelcome and unwanted physical, mental and emotional consequences.

Even so, I have found both friends and renewed friendships so far along this rocky path. I have been proactive in asking questions, and others have reached out to me.

Blues Brothers by Bruce Stambaugh
Kim Kellogg, Millersburg, OH, Randy Murray, Orrville, OH and I have formed our own prostate cancer support group. We meet about once a month at a local restaurant.

I meet periodically with two friends, both also in the midst of dealing with prostate cancer. Hearing their stories helps me to understand that each situation is different, and requires decisions that are best for each individual. The road to being cured from prostate cancer is different for every patient. Indeed, for some, there is no cure.

My route took me to a new urologist who laid out the best options for me, naming one by one the potential side effects, both short and long-term. None of them were pretty, including incontinency and impotency.

I have chosen robotic surgery as the best way to deal with my cancer. It is the least invasive, least painful, has the least blood loss, and the quickest recovery time, assuming all goes well. Plus, the surgery will remove the cancer from my body.

My particular prognosis for recovery is good, much better than hundreds of thousands of other cancer patients. I don’t find much solace in that, however.

Statistics show that one in six men get prostate cancer, and some of them are as young as 30. Early detection through testing is paramount, especially with a family history of the disease.

Others who have been down this road ahead of me say it’s important to maintain a positive attitude. That is how I am approaching my surgery. With supportive friends and family, I am comforted knowing that I do not have to walk this journey with prostate cancer alone.

Footnote: I especially appreciate the information and support received so far from Gabe Canales and his Blue Cure Foundation, along with all the good folks who post on Gabe’s Journey with Prostate Cancer Facebook page.