At 15, I beat cancer. The treatment worked, there was no more evidence of the disease, and I was starting to feel better physically. But mentally, I was a wreck. I didn’t sleep at night, was constantly angry, and felt like I didn’t deserve to survive while others were dying.
I hated myself because I had my whole life in front of me, but I didn’t want it. I thought there were more deserving people out there who should have survived. And then I felt guilty for feeling that way. Survivor's guilt, a symptom of PTSD, is what seems like an endless cycle of mental and emotional pain. It’s a cycle I’m still going through every day.
But I’ve found things that have provided some relief, and maybe they can help you too:
Know that you’re not the only one experiencing survivor’s guilt
The first time I experienced survivor’s guilt, I was confused, scared, and embarrassed. I should’ve been thrilled that I was still alive, that I got to keep living my life with my family and friends. But I wasn’t happy. I was angry. And I felt alone because I didn’t think anybody else was feeling those things.
My feelings didn’t make any sense to me. I think that’s because society expects you to be happy once you finish treatment or overcome a near-death experience. You should be celebrating your life and living every day to the fullest. But that’s not always the case, and it’s rare that people talk about that, which can leave anyone struggling with survivor’s guilt feeling like they’re an anomaly.
But I promise that you are not alone in these feelings. I’m proof of that. And millions of other people are experiencing that same guilt, anger, shame, depression, etc. The Journal of Loss and Trauma found that 90% of the survivors in their study experienced a form of survivor’s guilt.
And knowing this, knowing that what you’re feeling isn’t abnormal or messed up, can help. It can lessen shame or embarrassment, and that might provide some relief.
Talk to a therapist, family member, or trusted friend about your survivor's guilt
Dealing with something so traumatic is hard to do alone. But I also know that talking about it can be scary and make you feel even more shame because that’s what I felt. It took me two years before I could discuss my feelings out loud. I was embarrassed and felt like I was letting everyone down because of my guilt, anxiety, and depression. I felt like I had to put up a happy facade and pretend that my life was wonderful when in reality, I didn’t think I deserved to be alive.
But the first time I admitted how I felt in therapy, it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I had finally taken away some of its power by talking about it, and I learned that what I was going through was much more common than I thought.
I’m going on three-plus years of consistent weekly therapy sessions, and I still have a long way to go, but having someone to talk to and be honest with has been life-changing.
Find a support group of people who understand what you’re going through
While talking about your experience to anyone is helpful, it can also be helpful to talk with a group of people who understand what you’re going through.
For me, this wasn’t a by-the-book support group. Instead, I joined a Podcast by and for AYA cancer patients and survivors where we met on Zoom and discussed various topics relating to the cancer experience. We talked about everything from treatment to relationships to the mental health aspect of cancer treatment and survivorship. While not everything focused on survivor’s guilt, it all focused on our shared experience of having cancer. It made me feel heard and understood because everyone had gone through a similar situation.
I look forward to these monthly meetings, getting together with people who understand things that my family and my therapist may not because they haven’t experienced it themselves. And when we do cover survivor’s guilt, I feel comfortable sharing because I’ve built trust with these people. I know that I can be open and vulnerable with them and not face judgment, and I think everyone, especially people dealing with mental illness, should have a place like that.
Discover an outlet that lets you relieve your stress and anxiety
At times, it may feel like you can’t escape the guilt and shame, and all you want to do is curl up and cry. And while there’s nothing wrong with having a good cry when you need it, sometimes you need to find another activity to distract you or give you an outlet for your emotions.
I’ve found that writing helps me because it allows me to share what I’m feeling without having to say it out loud. The University of Rochester Medical Center suggests that journaling, or daily writing about whatever feels right, can be beneficial too. It can help organize thoughts and feelings and organize negative thoughts and feelings.
Another possible outlet is meditation, which focuses on controlled breathing and mindfulness, and can be as simple or challenging as you want it to be. It can be self-guided or guided through video and audio, whatever works for you, and can reduce stress and negative thoughts, improve focus, and more.
While I am a horrible dancer, sometimes I use it as an outlet. I just put on music and dance around like no one’s watching. It lets me forget about the negativity running through my brain, gets my heart rate up, and can increase certain anxiety and depression-decreasing chemicals in my brain.
I have been dealing with survivor’s guilt for many years, and when it first began, I didn’t think there would be a day when I didn’t feel guilty for surviving. But I can honestly say I’ve made progress by doing all these things. I still have bad days, but these have helped me get through each day, and I hope they can help you too.
Photo by BM Capture.