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Dealing With Guilt

It’s Okay (and Normal) to Feel Guilty About Surviving Cancer

Grace remembers running into an old high school friend at the local convenience store as an encounter that led to her feeling exceptionally guilty about surviving cancer.

“Jane asked how I was feeling,” recalled Grace. “I told her I was great. I had finished my second surgery and there were no signs of cancer and I was finally starting to relax and feel like myself again. Jane congratulated me, gave me a hug and paid the cashier for her Junior Mints.”

Two weeks later, Grace learned that on that same day, Jane had received news of her own cancer diagnosis: stage IV pancreatic cancer. “Just three months after that, I attended Jane’s funeral,” said Grace. “I felt so guilty because I had survived and she didn’t. She left two young teens behind. My kids still had their mom.”

Guilt greets us in many forms

Grace was experiencing classic survivor guilt, which is common and normal among people who survive an experience that others do not—a soldier, the driver in a multipassenger auto accident, survivors of an earthquake. Cancer-related survivor guilt, however, is a tangled ball of emotional threads. “Cancer survivors experience guilt for reasons that extend far beyond simply surviving cancer when others have not,” wrote cancer survivor and advocate Angela Long in an article published by The Oncology Nurse APN/PA. Perhaps you can relate to one or more of these forms of guilt Long addresses:

  • Feeling like you did something to cause your illness or that you could have prevented it in some way.

  • Learning a fellow survivor has experienced a cancer recurrence while you have no evidence of disease.

  • Being diagnosed with an earlier stage of disease than others. You feel like others have it worse than you do because you have a better prognosis.

  • Experiencing fewer side effects than others in treatment.

  • Learning you have passed a gene mutation on to your children.

  • Not being a good enough patient. You feel like you shouldn’t complain or are ashamed for being sad or angry.

  • Not being a good enough survivor. You want to put the cancer experience behind you, but see other survivors getting involved in fundraising, advocating or volunteering for cancer-related events.

  • Feeling badly because cancer has affected your contribution to family finances, care of others and work-related tasks.

  • Feeling strange because you haven’t gotten the “wake-up call” some survivors mention. You haven’t experienced the epiphany other survivors describe.

To help work through some of your thoughts and feelings about survivor guilt, and to learn more about how to self-manage emotional reactions to cancer-related stress using an innovative digital platform, visit CanSurround.


Esposito, L. (2016). Overcoming cancer survivor guilt. Retrieved from, February 27, 2016.

Grisham, J. (2016, June). Guilt: A lasting side effect for cancer survivors. [web log comment]. Retrieved from, February 27, 2016.

Long, A. (2014). Survivor’s guilt—let me count the ways. The Oncology Nurse APN/PA 7(4). Retrieved from, February 25, 2017.

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