Young woman leaning her head on another woman's shoulder

Coping with Survivor’s Guilt and Cancer

Reading time | 4 mins

A few weeks ago, I got the news that my friend Saima had died. It was a Sunday evening and I’d spent the day pottering around my flat, getting frustrated about inconsequential things when a friend sent me a voicemail to let me know.

Suddenly, all the annoyances of the day slipped away. What a privilege it was for me to be able to worry about the tiny details of life. What a privilege it was for me to be alive and get irritated by stupid things like shoe storage and walls that need painting when our girl had taken her final breath at the age of 31.

Saima was an absolute tour de force who had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer before she even turned 30. She was well known within the cancer community for speaking passionately and articulately about what it was like to be a person of colour who was living with cancer. She spoke about the disparities within her community and the white community and  strived to break the taboo of talking about cancer that is so prevalent within many cultures.

She was a trailblazer and a game changer and a really good human. We all feel her loss very, very keenly.

What is survivor’s guilt?

Saima’s isn’t the only loss I’ve experienced over the last few years. The cancer community, and particularly the young cancer community who use Instagram as a tool for connection, are a tight-knit group, and one of the problems with being in that community is that people die.

People you know die.

I am 31 and I have seen far too many of my peers die from a disease that, for some reason, spared me. And that brings with it an abundance of complex emotions that takes a really long time to unpick every time someone I know dies. Sadness, anger, fear and heartbreak coalesce into one big mess that I have to work through.

In addition to that, there is always guilt.

Survivor’s guilt has been a big issue for me over the last few years. It’s a common problem, which is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as difficult and painful feelings caused by the fact that you are still alive after a situation in which other people died.” Generally, it’s connected to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relating to serious accidents or global conflicts, but it’s becoming more frequently associated with cancer survival too.

It’s tricky.

If you stay in the community, you’re going to meet and connect with people who will not survive. So do you protect yourself from survivor’s guilt by removing yourself from the situation, or do you stay and meet the brilliant people who are living with and beyond cancer? For me, it’s a no brainer. I have met so many amazing people, so I’ve chosen to try and manage the guilt rather than to try and stop myself from feeling it.

Tips for managing survivor’s guilt

For quite a while now, I’ve been working through some of the trials and tribulations that come with surviving cancer with my friend Sophie Trew, who also happens to be a cancer and mindset coach. I’ve pulled together some of the things I’ve learned through working with her about survivor’s guilt that may help you if it’s something you struggle with too.

Talk to yourself like you would a best friend

Firstly, when these feelings of guilt come in it’s so important to talk to yourself like you would someone you love. I am so much more empathetic to other people than I am to myself, and I imagine I am not alone in that.

So I think about what I’d tell someone else within the community who is dealing with the dual dilemma of grief and survivor’s guilt, and I apply that to myself. I tell myself it’s OK to feel the way I do, and that no-one is to blame. Cancer is a wily beast which takes lives without rhyme or reason. Surviving is not something you should feel shame for.

Share your thoughts with someone you trust

It’s an age old adage, but a problem shared really is a problem halved. When we talk things out, we can feel less isolated in these feelings and chances are, if you’re talking to a fellow cancer survivor, they’ll be feeling, or will have felt at one time or another, exactly the same. Sophie is often my go-to person for this kind of chat and honestly, it always makes me feel lighter.

Take time out to process grief

We’re often guilty of telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel a particular way, but just sitting with your emotions is a key part of dealing with them. It’s also true that survivor’s guilt is an emotion which is innately embedded in grief, so it’s crucial to take time out to actively process the grief that you're feeling. In the days after Saima died, I went for several swims to remind myself what a gift it is to be a living, breathing human and I dedicated each of those swims to her.

Find a routine

When things feel out of control, it can be useful to set up a routine that include things you enjoy each day. It might be cooking or running or doing yoga. You might find comfort in reading or writing. Whatever it is that makes you feel more level-headed, schedule time for those things into each and every day, carving out time for them around other commitments. It’s a great way to make the overwhelm feel less overwhelming.

Remember you are not alone

And lastly, even though it may feel like you are, you are not alone. There are so many people who have walked in similar shoes to yours who will know how you’re feeling. Ask yourself who you can reach out to, whether it be someone personal or professional. If you’re struggling to find someone who gets it, you can always find me on Instagram.

NPS-IE-NP-00103 October 2020