Survivor’s Guilt

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

People going through cancer treatment at the same time often form their own peer group. They see each other in chemo, in radiation, and in various support groups. The fortunate ones do well, but they often feel guilty when others in their cohort succumb to the disease.

Survivor’s guilt is a well-known phenomenon, but it’s usually thought of in the context of war, disasters, and other catastrophic events. Why does one person live when others perish?

With cancer, it’s a slower, more subtle process. There’s a gradual realization that many of the people who once gathered together for a support group are no longer living.

Sometimes it’s expected. Some cancers clearly have poorer prognoses than others. But sometimes it seems completely arbitrary, especially when a person’s “cancer buddies” are those with the same cancer.

I’m not a fan of using military metaphors when writing about cancer, but it may be apt in relation to survivor’s guilt. It’s difficult to be a survivor if your buddies didn’t make it. Survivors often feel more weariness than celebration.

I don’t mean to suggest that survivor’s guilt is ever-present in the minds of those of us with cancer. It’s not. It just flits in and out of our consciousness, especially when another death occurs.

Sometimes it helps just to recognize this guilt and give it a name.

I’ve found that it’s also beneficial to memorialize those who have died. They would be pleased that life continues. Memorials can take the form of donations, participating in cancer walks, volunteering, or simply planting flowers in their honor.

I’ve often written that cancer brings a profound sense of community. It’s really the best thing that came out of my cancer. But by bringing connection, community also brings loss. It’s inevitable and often painful.

But that sense of community is so good and so strong. Harold Kushner captured its essence when he wrote, “What cannot be achieved in one lifetime will happen when one lifetime is joined to another.”


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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