Celebrating Being Cancer-free

Anniversary flowers.

Anniversaries of momentous events are generally worth celebrating. Even though we kept it low-key, our 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year was a memorable milestone.

Birthdays fit the bill, too, especially if they end in zero or five. That’s our western culture for you.

Even the anniversary of a loved one’s death needs to be remembered, reverently, openly, and most certainly emotionally. My dear mother would have been 100 on June 22. I can still hear her comforting voice, soft and clear.

Some anniversaries, however, give me pause. I always feel that way each year I get the all-clear pronouncement from my urologist.

I have been cancer-free for 10 years post-robotic prostate cancer surgery. My PSA continues to be immeasurable, meaning no detectable cancer.

When I posted those results on social media, I did so with hesitancy. I hesitated because I know too many people who have not made it through their cancer journey or are currently struggling with the disease.

I am a sensitive old guy, and posting about my good fortune could be tantamount to rubbing it in. I certainly didn’t want to come across with that attitude.

Research shows that such a mindset stems from survivor’s guilt, also called survivor’s remorse. It’s a circumstance where a person survives while others in the same situation don’t, and you feel conflicted, guilty, and remorseful about your outcome versus theirs.

It might seem irrational, but the condition applies far beyond dealing with cancer. People who survive motor vehicle wrecks or a military conflict while others are maimed or killed exhibit survivor’s guilt.

A friend of mine survived the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. He happened to be away from the barracks at the time of the explosion. Guilt and anger ebbed and flowed throughout my friend’s life.

I empathized with him at the time but didn’t fully comprehend his feelings until I went through my own traumatic experience. When I met other prostate cancer patients who didn’t have the same successful outcome as me, I understood my Marine friend’s agony more fully.

Despite my reluctance, I am glad that I shared my decade of good fortune on social media. I credited my skillful surgeon and expressed thanks for the excellent medical insurance that got me through physically and financially.

A few of the comments in response to my post drew my attention and perhaps sent me over the hump of the lingering compunction. One particularly caught my eye. A former student shared about her current struggle with cancer.

She thanked me for sharing my good news. She said that seeing that others make it through the Big C gives her and other patients like her hope. Reading that brought me great joy.

Signs of hope in nature.

Her response deeply touched me because she has already been through the cancer medical mill with her husband. As a young man, he fought the good fight and won. His humility concealed his challenging journey.

Now his wife is traveling down the cancer highway. I wish her and her family all the best and will endeavor to stay in touch.

Society can easily be dismissive of others without really knowing their unique situations, hardships, and achievements. Friends need to pay attention.

Venezuelan visual artist Carlos Medina captured my sentiment with this quote, “A soul that carries empathy is a soul that has survived enormous pain.”

We can empathize by recognizing and being with the hurting, listening to their stories, or simply holding them in prayer. In those encouraging actions, there is no remorseful guilt. 

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Feeling guilty about surviving cancer

foggyridebybrucestambaugh
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.

hopebybrucestambaugh
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.

liferenewingbybrucestambaugh
Life renewing. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014