It Happened To Me: Survivor Guilt

I started this blog post a mess – I had no direction or goal, just a topic that I knew I had to address – survivor guilt.  As I began to compose my thoughts and gather some research, it became clear that the goal is to help those who have ever felt like I do and provide a few tools to manage the plethora of feelings that come along with survivor guilt.

I recently attended a wake of a beloved father and husband who passed away far too young due to brain cancer.  As I waited in the ever-growing receiving line (it was incredible to see so much support), my outward composure didn’t accurately reflect the war going on inside my head.  My mind was racing and I started to panic.  My train of thought went like this:

The family – they’re devastated.

Why does cancer claim the lives of some people and not others?

Why did it claim him and not me?

What if it does claim me?

I shouldn’t be thinking of myself at a time like this.  STOP.

But I’m terrified.  What if I die, too?

This is the same family who prayed for me while I went through my battle. 

How will they feel when they look at me?  Do they resent me?  Do they ask, why my dad but not her?  I wouldn’t blame them if they thought these things, because I’m thinking them, too.  

Survivor.  Guilt.  It’s very real and extremely confusing and painful.  I wish that “fear” was incorporated in the term, because it mixes so seamlessly with the guilt that it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins.  Fear of death, fear of resentment, and guilt for feeling either.

I went down the Google rabbit hole in an effort to understand survivor guilt and determine ways to cope.  I found this helpful articleSix Tips for Handling Survivor Guilt.

Hendriksen’s tips include remembering that we are capable of handling sadness and loss (#2), considering those who love us and how they feel about our survival (#3), thinking outside of ourselves (#5), and the importance of self-care (#6).

While it isn’t easy to achieve complete absolution of guilt, I believe the overarching theme of her tips sends a message – refocus your attention and try to think outside yourself.  None of us are in control of who gets cancer and who doesn’t and we must try to remember that when faced with the crushing despair we sometimes feel for surviving.  EMBRACING life, not just trudging through it, is how we honour both ourselves and those we’ve lost.

Hendriksen concludes that while guilt can be used for good and allows us to live each day to the fullest, survivor guilt is misplaced.  She closes the article with a paragraph that I feel compelled to share, word for word:

“Guilt has a place in our emotional repertoire—it motivates us to make amends—but with survivor guilt, it’s misplaced. So grieve your losses, but remember that it wasn’t your fault, others are glad you’re still here, and that you can use your survival to pay it forward.” – Ellen Hendriksen 2017, Six Tips for Handling Survivor Guilt

Cassandra Umbriaco is a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at  

Cassandra loves travelling as much as she can, dresses that twirl, anything Disney and her little red Fiat – Luna. Read more of Cassandra’s posts here.

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