Skip to content

Emotions of YA Cancer Survivors, Part I: Guilt

Recently I met a fellow young adult cancer survivor whom I will call Tara. Tara is about halfway through her treatment – a few more weeks and she will hopefully be deemed as “cancer-free.” She is amazingly strong and I immediately felt envious of her spirit. We talked about radiation side effects, playing the cancer card, and facing our diagnosis with humor. But the conversation took a serious turn when I asked her about her career.

Tara’s previously cheerful demeanor grew sorrowful and tears welled up in her eyes. “I just feel guilty,” she said. Having felt similarly during my journey (for various reasons) I asked her to elaborate. “I feel bad that everyone at work has to take over for me. I WANT to be there but I just can’t right now.”

Cancer not only attempts to destroy our bodies – it also has adverse effects on our minds. While we’re busy trying to survive cancer, we are often plagued with feelings that seem illogical. (Trust me – they aren’t!) We’ve grown up thinking cancer survivors are supposed to be STRONG and COURAGEOUS and BRAVE. We’re made to feel as if we’re supposed to find some kind of joy in this madness, to discover some “deeper meaning to life.” But when you’re in the middle of the worst pain, anguish, financial hardship, and isolation in your life, it’s difficult to see that this will lead to something greater.

Guilt for the young adult cancer patient comes in many forms. As Tara said, “my co-workers are happy to do anything they can to help me. The problem is, I’m stuck feeling guilty that they’ve got an extra workload.” During my own treatment, the guilt I felt came from not wanting to burden my family or friends. As I journey further into survivorship, it’s because I feel bad that my type of cancer has a high survival rate when other young adults face grim odds; that I still feel unable to work full-time; that I have to rely on others for help.

Guilt is one of the most common emotions faced by survivors, along with fear, anger, and depression. Common reasons one may experience cancer survivor guilt include:

  • feeling like a physical or emotional burden
  • dwelling on past unhealthy choices (tanning, smoking, bad eating habits) that may have led to cancer
  • financial issues created for family members
  • surviving cancer when others do not
  • causing hardship for co-workers
  • feeling like you should be “dealing” with your cancer better (being more positive, for example)

Journalist Suleika Jaouad phrases it best: “From the day I received my diagnosis, guilt has been a steady and quiet companion on my journey.”

Did you experience cancer survivor guilt during your cancer journey? If so, how have you learned to cope?  

(This post is the first of a series. Upcoming posts will address other emotions faced by young cancer survivors and how to cope with them.)