Surviving cancer can take an emotional toll. Survivorship comes with a tangled host of emotions, from joy and relief to even fear and guilt.
After a battle with breast cancer your emotions may seem strange or uncomfortable but are often completely normal. It’s common to question why you survived while others did not, but the term “survivor’s guilt” is often misused.
“It is not very common to have survivor’s guilt in the true sense of the phrase unless the person has lost a close relative or friend to cancer,” said medical oncologist Dr. Marleen Meyers, director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center Survivorship Program at NYU Langone. “More often people feel fortunate that they survived, but many people need to find a reason for why they survived when others didn’t.”
Coping with the difficult feelings of battling cancer can last after treatments have stopped.
“These feelings can go on for a long time. It is hard to accept that something bad happened (cancer) but something worse did not happen (death). Not having explanations makes people feel vulnerable and feel a loss of control,” Meyers said.
Working on acceptance
The journey from diagnosis to a clean bill of health is a long and winding path, and survivors often search for answers: Why did I beat cancer?
“People like explanations and find comfort in clear-cut cause/effect. Often they look for a behavior that is different: smoking, sun exposure, use of hormone replacement. Sometimes people like to think it is because they didn’t have a compelling family history. At times survivors’ thoughts turn to why they got cancer at all. This is especially true of people who have good lifestyle habits,” Meyers said.
Trying to teach people to change what they can and accept the rest is not easy.
“It is important to be proactive about your health from the time of diagnosis. By working on lifestyle changes, people get back a sense of control. Reminding patients that the overwhelming majority of people with cancer survive is also comforting. Also having the opportunity to speak with people who have been through this allows patients to see that life goes on,” Meyers said.
Sense of control
Key to overcoming difficult emotions is to stress that there is much the survivor can do both during and after treatment to feel better and in control.
“Exercise, eating well, meditation are some of the things that help people get through. I encourage people to try to maintain their lifestyle as much as possible,” Meyers said. “A diagnosis of cancer is terrifying. It is important to speak with your doctor about your fears of treatment side effects and fears of death.”
This is particularly true if the survivor has lost a loved one to cancer and may be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“It is equally important to live in a ‘non-cancer world’ both for better quality of life and for distraction,” Meyers said. “Finally, for those who suffer with survivor’s guilt, it helps to talk to others going through this. In a sense, they are giving back and know they are not alone, and that can be very comforting.”