Thursday, January 19, 2012

Guilt Stricken

I always talk a lot about 'what I've learned' since I've had cancer. A lot of lessons have been about the way in which I should approach life, the importance of relationships, support, love, strength, and positivity. One thing I didn't expect to feel was guilt but it has been part and parcel during this journey.

Let me explain...

I certainly don't feel guilty for having cancer, but there's a certain amount of guilt that comes along with having cancer. I think about all the pain I have caused so many of my friend and so much of my family (obviously unintentionally) and although I know I didn't have control over having cancer, it was still because of me that more tears were cried by those close to me in 2011. Intentional or not, I feel guilty.

Not working is a major source of guilt. I look at all of the other people who go to work during treatment or a few weeks after surgery and wonder if I should have done the same. Personally, I don't think I could have done it, and I think the time off helped me heal both physically and emotionally but none the less, I have inconvenienced a number of people by being off and financially, Keith has been supporting us for the past 10 months (along with my Long Term Disability [about 45% of my wages] and money from friends and family). Having friends and family give you money is such a bizarre feeling. I felt guilty for taking the money and then even more guilty for spending the money. Any time I bought something outside of the 'essential list', guilt would creep up into my chest. As for work, I think some times people look at me thinking 'You look healthy, and you were healthy enough to (insert activity here). Shouldn't you head back to work soon?' I know some women who have worked all through treatment and it makes me feel guilty that I had the time off. All I have been told by other 'cancer friends' is 'Don't go back to work too early - take the time to heal so you can go back at 100%' and yet I've already set a date for myself to go back to work.

Guilt also rears its ugly head when speaking to someone who has had a later stage of cancer too. It's almost like when I say 'stage 2' or 'single mastectomy' it fads away in their 'stage 4' or 'double mastectomy'. It's a bazaar feeling that I may not be able to explain properly but I wonder why I came out of it with 'only' stage 2 and the loss of one breast. I have met so many women who have gone through over five surgeries, and who have been through chemo twice, and who have had cancer spread to other part of their bodies and I some times feel guilty that mine wasn't 'that bad'. I'm certainly not envious, but I feel guilty saying 'I'm cancer-free' when they may never be.

I think some times we hold different standards for others than we do ourselves, both higher and lower, depending on the situation, but in the case of cancer, I have held myself to a bit of a higher standard and I think guilt has a little something to do with that. For example, because I have been able to take almost a year off work, I shouldn't complain about recovery because at least I don't have to work through it. For example, because I have such a strong support system, I should be a little stronger because I have others there to pick up my slack when I'm not 100%. For example, because I knew after speaking to my oncologist that I would one day be cancer-free and others are not so lucky, I should be very grateful for what I have.

While I'm on the topic of guilt - there is a lot of guilt associated with the death of a loved one, 'I wish I had told her...', 'Why did I say...', 'She'll never know that...'. I'm not trying to be morbid, but when you're diagnosed with cancer, I think it's natural to think about death. You think about your funeral, who would come, what would people say? I think so often we say things after someone has died that we wish we would have told that person while he or she was still alive. Maybe to relieve that guilt, we could start telling people what they mean to us before they die. This may seem like an odd thing to say but have you told your mother/husband/sister/son what he or she means to you lately? Even if you think they know, some times it needs to be said and some times it's just nice to hear.

I have felt guilt from a very early age. I hold guilt for things that people don't even remember happening. Actually, the morning of my diagnosis, prior to knowing I had cancer, I was getting ready to get in the shower and asked my mom if she thought that having cancer would negate one particular guilt-filled moment in my life. Her response was something like 'Katie, don't say things like that.' Little did we know, I actually had cancer. I always thought that something like cancer would cancel out all the bad that I had done in my life but instead it's just another thing to deal with. Unfortunately, in life we cannot control our own Karma by erasing the effects of one decision with something like a cancer diagnosis. Instead, the 'bad stuff' stays in the 'bad stuff pile' regardless of what we're faced with.

My point is, I had enough guilt prior to cancer and it is just something that you don't hear about very often - 'Hi, I'm 26, have cancer, and feel pretty guilty about the whole thing.' Now, maybe this isn't a common feeling of other cancer patients, may be this is just my thing. I just wasn't prepared for Guilt. I knew Sadness and Anger would all be at the party and even their asshole friend Fear but I thought Guilt was staying at a cousin's villa in Spain until I was at least back at work. To those of you who have been the victim of guilt, know that you are not alone although I am not quite sure how to shake it or 'deal' with it (ignoring or hiding feelings is way easier than dealing with them - even though I'm sure it will all come back to bite me in the ass soon enough. If you ask Keith, I'm sure he would say that I deal with all of my issues, over and over and over again).

I want to leave you with a quote from a woman who used to be neighbours with my mom. She moved years and years ago but some time in the summer she dropped a card off at my mom's for me and inside was a generous gift because she had heard that I was sick. She sent me a Christmas card this year and inside this is what she wrote;

"Dear Katie,

I think of you often, your courage and inner strength.
Hope your life is on course more times than not.
(and then she wrote out a quote by Mary Anne Radmacher)
Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying 'I will try again tomorrow.' "

Mary S., thank you.


  1. In a funny way, the “why me” questions I sometimes asked myself when first diagnosed with cancer are now reversed. That “why me – why did I get cancer when others don’t” has been turned around to “why me – why do I get to survive when others don’t”. And I ask myself the question if I have survived, what is the deeper meaning of my life after this experience? Guilt can arise also from a sense that what I’m doing with my life must have greater meaning if my survival is to be justified.

    1. It's so true. The exact same thoughts have gone through my head (some times daily).