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Dealing with 'survivor guilt' after cancer

Dealing with 'survivor guilt' after cancer

Written by  Facing Cancer Together
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(Harrisburg) -- Surviving cancer is often times the most daunting challenge a person faces in life. While many people feel grateful or proud to have survived cancer, others feel guilty.

leslie-vogel-survivor-guiltSome people who have faced a cancer diagnosis liken it to a battle, or a fight to be won. It can be a traumatic experience for the patient and their family as they face the physical and emotional struggles of cancer treatment. The hard reality is that not everyone survives the fight. That's where "survivor's guilt" comes in.

Many who have survived ask, “Why me and not them?” Leslie Vogel is a breast and ovarian cancer survivor who says she struggled with feelings of guilt about beating the disease when others didn't. Vogel now works with other cancer survivors as a patient advocate with PinnacleHealth Women's Cancer Center.

She spoke with witf’s Megan Lello recently about about her so-called "survivor guilt":

Leslie says, “When I see a young person who dies, for me personally, that is the toughest thing. It’s really hard to see families struggle to make sense of it and move on. It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.”

Leslie has seen many versions of survivor’s guilt, that’s because she now works in an oncology office helping cancer patients. She feels that this opportunity is a gift, and a way to give back after surviving cancer herself. “I am grateful for being able to help cancer patients communicate what they’re experiencing,” she says.

survivor-guilt-young-womanShe offers some advice for those who are experiencing feelings of guilt: “If it feels right to communicate, continue to talk about it and don’t forget the hugs.”

Aside from the guilt that can come from surviving and seeing someone else not make it, there are other types of guilt that can manifest itself in different ways. She explains that it could be as simple as a person feeling guilty that all they needed for cancer treatment was surgery while someone else may need intensive chemo and radiation. Leslie says, “That person may feel odd about not needing more.”

And, guilt sometimes presents itself in the chemo room. “ If one person gets a good report, it is hard to get good news and have a person next to you get not so good news- that can be a type of guilt,” she says.

Leslie reminds us that feelings of guilt are normal, but that some may not feel guilt and that’s not wrong- “They’re grateful to be alive.”

survivor-guilt-young-manIf you are suffering from a prolonged sense of guilt, there are people like Leslie available to help you process those feelings. A patient advocate, therapist, support group or member of your church staff may be able to help you talk you through your feelings.

Have you struggled with similar feelings of guilt? What has helped you deal with it?  Please leave a comment below.

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#1 sandra gahm 2013-12-12 21:14
I am a survivor, stage II ovarian cancer. Finished chemo April 2013. Now that I am going in every three months for checkups I feel guilty because other people seem so much sicker than I ever was. I never really felt like a sick person while receiving treatment. Normally, when I go to my appointment someone will strike up a conversation with me and their diagnosis is usually worse than mine. While I was waiting for my appointment the last time a lady was so nervous she couldn't complete her new patient questions, so I filled it out for her. I seem to be a born helper. I don't understand why I feel this way. I have a lot of anxiety right before my appointments with my doctor, but its manageable. My doctor is wonderful. I don't want to feel guilty because I am well. I am thinking about volunteer activities. Any advice would be helpful. Thank you.

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