Because (Struggling To Understand And Accept Survivors Guilt)
The following is a story that I had written for an annual book compilation project. I submitted two pieces. This was the piece that was not chosen. The other piece I will share at the end of March after publication. In the meantime, I must thank my good friend, and fellow survivor Lara Vaughan Lazenby for being my mentor on this piece, challenging me to write as deeply and personally, and of course, grammatically correct.
Survivor’s Guilt. Two words that make no sense being put together. These two words combined make the ultimate antithesis.
Surviving cancer should be celebrated. But for many, like myself, the fact that I am here, sharing this story, others are not. Medicine could not save their lives. This leaves me with a daily struggle of “why me, why not them.” That is right, I carry guilt because for whatever reason, for whatever cards were dealt, whatever fate has decided, I am still here. Others are not.
This feeling is not to be confused with that of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the movie whose main character George Bailey, wonders what the world would have been like without him. Quite the contrary. I have much to be thankful for over these past thirty years than to wonder in that way. Especially to be blessed with two wonderful daughters who mean the world to me.
The feelings I have are for those who either were unable to get through their fight, or faced additional challenges caused by treatments or late side effects. Why them and not me? Many of us went through the same treatment regimen. Some were exposed to less of the toxicity than many of us from decades ago. Technology and advances in medicine are supposed to provide better and safer success, yet I continue to say good-bye to too many. And even with my own multiple and severe health issues from my treatments, here I still stand. Why?
I am nobody special. I am not a celebrity or professional athlete. I was not in the middle of discovering anything earth-shattering. I did not lead a squeaky-clean life. Some of those who have passed never even got to experience life beyond childhood. And though I lack the power to make the sun set and the moon rise, I will state this is not fair. Between the doctors, the medicine, our bodies, reactions, and the multitude of other factors, why I am still here, writing this story, and others are not?
Over my thirty years of survivorship, I have personally met hundreds of other survivors, some from all over the world. From the middle of my treatment schedule, others came to me and asked me, “what is it like?” trying to find out what to expect as they began their own cancer battles.
I soon found myself being someone other patients and survivors could talk to because I “got it” when it came to the emotions and struggles of getting through treatment, and issues with life after cancer. In the social media circle of support, I often found myself between survivors who had misunderstandings about feelings as a result of support from others. I found myself a voice of reason to help others understand that the mind of one person dealing with cancer, does not necessarily mean you automatically understand the mind of another. Others simply view my day to day life as a longevity that they hope to enjoy with a family and a productive life after cancer. Most importantly, to advocate for yourself and your health.
When it came to those who would pass away, I spent much time with them and their families just trying to offer the awkward comfort. All the while wondering about their thoughts as I sat across from them thinking to myself, “why me and not them?”
I have spent several years in therapy dealing with my survivor’s guilt. I do not know if I can ever let go of it. Maybe I may not even want to.
A friend of mine, named Danny, shared a meme on Facebook that is relevant to all of us who have survived, no matter how long our survival has endured. “One day, you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through, and it will be someone else’s survival guide.”
My name is Paul Edelman. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma thirty years ago. I went through six weeks of radiation therapy, one day at a time. I endured eight months of chemotherapy, a total of sixteen treatments, one dose at a time. I took each day of my remission one day at a time. I fought every challenge of discrimination in the workplace, in the insurance industry, and even in medicine, one day at a time. And when I did not feel well, and all doctors could do was shrug their shoulders in puzzlement, I made them look harder. When I was told I could not have a family because of my treatments, I became one through adoption of two beautiful daughters. I enjoyed a lengthy career doing what I loved. And I have been blessed to meet and know so many other survivors.
But still, why me? Why not them? Because. Just because.