Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

Survivor Guilt

The following is a link to a newsletter article that has been published in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s quarterly newsletter for cancer survivors.  This was my second submission.  I am copying the story here, but for it too look really cool (and of course, see the other topics that are discussed) make sure you check out the link.

Question:  I recently lost a fellow cancer survivor and am experiencing survivor’s guilt. Do you have any suggestions for coping with these feelings?

Answer:  First, please let me express my sincerest sympathy for the loss of your friend.  Survivor’s guilt is a common and often underestimated feeling experienced by both patients and caregivers. As a survivor or caregiver, we are expected to just be grateful and simply move on. Do not ask questions. But we do.  A year after my own treatment ended, I trained and participated in a peer-to-peer program with the American
Cancer Society called “Cansurmount.”  The concept is to match survivors of cancer with patients who are struggling with their own diagnosis, treatment, or survival.

My first patient was a 14-year-old girl who would eventually pass away from the same cancer that I had, leaving me to ask, “Why her and not me?”
As someone who was fortunate to have beaten the odds, it was not long before I found myself facing an unexpected and insurmountable wall
of self-doubt, which I refer to as my survivor’s guilt. Perhaps survivor’s guilt is a way for our hearts and minds to remind us of where we came from, and what we have endured. The important thing to realize is that this feeling is often overwhelming, but can be alleviated.

With technology, I have been able to widen my experience and knowledge of cancer patients and survival. I have participated in Internet support
groups for over 15 years and finally accept that with 22 years of survival behind me, I am a long-term survivor.  Surviving also means that I have
experienced loss. In just over a decade, I have said goodbye to well over 100 friends and relatives who were not able to achieve that remission.

The question I still ask myself is always the same, “Why them and not me?”  But what gets me through each and every day is knowing that my survival mattered to those who have passed.  My experiences inspired them just as theirs inspired me. There is no way to know the reasons that some survive and, sadly, others pass. The answer can be as simple as the one that comes from a parent when a child asks, “Why?” and the parent responds, “Just because.” It is cruel and it hurts.

It matters that you are here now and asking this question because at some point someone else will read your question when they are questioning
their survival and know others have gone through a similar experience.  Reach out for help. Support from others with personal experience or
professional knowledge (like the staff of the MSKCC Counseling Center) is essential to help us understand that what we feel inside is common and
expected, and can be overcome.

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