Cancer and Guilt: Irrational Companions

13 Jan


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?

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.


9 Responses to “Cancer and Guilt: Irrational Companions”

  1. Aziz Kassim January 13, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

    Great piece thank you for sharing. I enjoyed it.

  2. Sarah January 14, 2012 at 4:39 am #

    Really well done, Susu. All the people you mention in this post who might be affected by guilt will read this and feel a sense of release.

  3. CorpWell Opinions January 14, 2012 at 11:28 am #


    Take guilt to the next level.. must I say it again, you are a hero.. Let go.. Turn it over..

    This is a destiny you have no control over.. Live it well, what people are giving you is the love they have for you. You are not taking any thing from them, just “giving them” a chance to show you that they care, and how much they care.

    One day you will be better and look back and realize that this has solidified your family for ever.. made them stronger like a fortress that can’t be taken down by misunderstandings, any passing wind nor tornado or fad, hatred or prejudice..


    Who could this be!
    Someone who has loved you from the first breath you took at your Mom’s side.

  4. Owen January 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Your best post yet. Honest, well-crafted, original. Especially like the inclusion of your journal entry. There are a lot of people out here following your blog, carrying around your words throughout the day.

  5. Sajda Ouachtouki January 14, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Great post Suleika. I’m really looking forward to reading more!

  6. Susan Ayari January 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Thank you, Susu, for your honesty and insight. You are a brave and intelligent young woman and your writing is a gift for those who think these thoughts, but have no way to articulate them. You are their voice; you are our voice. Bless you and your family!!

  7. paperlessworld January 19, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    How much good fortune can one have, when you have Acute Myeloid Leukemia? With friends and family like your describe, to have doctors like at Mount Sinai’s Derald H. Ruttenberg Treatment Center. Of all the stages Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about in dealing with cancer – denial, fear, anger – I had forgotten about the guilt. I have spent last week at the Mayo Clinic with a brother-in-law following invasive surgery for diagnosed melanoma. It was good for me to read the perspective of a patient, of the things not to say. With my own great friend in NYC with AML, I knew what friends and family were going through, but not the patient. May your tears of gratitude be enriched by all the people who care about and for you.

  8. Hadiza March 31, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    Hello sulekha. I am glad I found your blog, I am going through a similar journey to yours at the moment. And fervently praying that your transplant goes well. First of all ‘thank you’ for articulating so nicely all my feelings for the past 4 months. As for guilt- I know exactly what you mean. I feel like I have seriously depleted my stock of goodwill. I am also finding all the attention very had to deal with. I am a natural care giver and not a receiver. I will tell you what has really helped though. My family telling me that there is no where else they’d rather be or nothing else they would rather be doing. And also if situations were reversed I bet you would do exactly the same for them with no expectations

  9. Sophie May 22, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    I’d like to say thank you for sharing this. It touched me. As a cancer survivor myself you wrote exactly how I feel. Except I could never put it into words.

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