Guilt, like cancer, is a greedy guest feasting upon its host. It is non-discriminatory. We have all felt it; wondered what it was doing there; willed it to go away.
First things first: I should acknowledge that I’m aware that feeling guilty about having cancer is more than a little irrational. But when it comes to cancer, guilt is a mercurial, equal-opportunity ‘employer’: both the patient and her caretakers are called to its duty.
The topic of ‘guilt’ came up the other night at my support group meeting for young adults with cancer. I was comforted to hear that everyone in the room felt some form of guilt related to their cancer. I certainly had. From the day I was diagnosed, guilt has been a steady and quiet companion on my journey.
In the outpouring of love I’ve gotten since I began this blog a week ago, guilt has never been too far away. Intermixed in the spectacular and candid messages of support, I’ve also received dozens of apologies from friends, classmates, and acquaintances who feel guilty for not being in touch or not realizing what I have been going through. Or more generally, just guilty for being healthy when I am sick. (We could call this caregiver’s guilt.)
I want to remind them–remind you–that these feelings of guilt, both on your part and mine, are universal and natural. It’s OK not to know what to say. And, I’ve learned: it’s also OK to feel guilty! We run into trouble with guilt when we try to ignore its presence.
The topic of guilt is bigger than illness alone. I suspect we could all benefit from a better understanding of it. Where does guilt come from? Why is it so hard to dismiss? In what forms does it manifest itself? And how can we get rid of it?
To reflect on guilt, then, can be an important act of self-realization. If there’s wisdom in the Shakespearean maxim–‘To thine own self be true’–then the difficult act of reflecting on guilt can yield hard-won self-truths. Guilt, after all, is not something ‘out there’ that we adopt and bring home. It’s in ourselves.
In many cases, guilt is a self-inflicted wound. Although I know I shouldn’t, I feel guilty about being a burden on others, taking up too much “space” with my problems, and causing pain to those I love. How could I not? I trust that others with cancer know what I mean.
Here’s a glimpse into a recent journal entry of mine:
“I feel guilty when I start feeling sick or get a fever. I want to apologize, for I know I will soon make the life of my loved ones hell. My mother will have to drive four hours in the middle of the night to take me to the hospital in New York City. Family will have to take sick-days from work. After long days at the office, my boyfriend will spend night after night sleeping between two hospital chairs. My father will ‘hold down the fort’ at home (this translates to lonely nights spent worrying by himself and feeling very far away from my hospital room). My brother, typical of most twenty-something ‘bros,’ doesn’t talk much about his feelings, but I know the weight of the responsibility as my donor lies heavy on his heart. He has trouble sleeping. Often, when I wake up from nightmares, I hear him tossing and turning in his room next door.”
At times, I have blamed myself for lifestyle choices that might have led to my cancer. During my many travels to developing countries, might I have been exposed to some kind of environmental toxin? If it weren’t for all those late nights during college spent studying and going to parties, would I still have fallen sick? Did my vegetarian phase at age eight strip me of important nutrients and compromise my immune system? Too much junk food? Were my jeans too tight?
Trying to pinpoint the source of something as cryptic as cancer is a study in the absurd.
The belief that cancer happens for a reason can be an attractive line of thinking–where there’s an effect there must be a cause, our logical mind may tell us–but it’s usually untrue. Even if you are diagnosed with lung cancer after decades of smoking, cancer is rarely the patient’s fault (and if there is a correlation, it’s still deeply unfair).
Other common themes of guilt include: feeling ashamed for envying those who are in good health; feeling guilty about the disproportionate amount of attention you receive when you’re sick; and ‘survivor’s guilt,’ the guilt of surviving cancer when so many others have not.
The cure for guilt–to the extent that there is one–must be sunlight. Bring your fears and thoughts to the fore, out into the open. Guilt is made less powerful when you confront it.
Fellow cancer warriors and their loved-ones, any additional advice on how to deal with guilt?