Overcoming Survivor's Guilt as a Young Adult 2x Cancer Survivor
I never would've thought I'd share my story of everything I've overcome as a 28-year-old two-time cancer survivor. At 3, I was diagnosed with Leukemia. At 20, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Half of my childhood was spent in the hospital and then right before my 21st birthday, I underwent major surgery to remove half of my thyroid. Talk about traumatic experiences. My life has focused on how I survived cancer, how others didn't survive, and how blessed I was to make it through. I was able to live my life to the absolute fullest, experience optimal health, and have an amazing support system and mentors to help me through this journey. Even though the journey was no easy ride, I am infinitely grateful to have survived cancer in order to be a hope and inspiration for others. Cancer took me to the darkest place, the depth of my soul, but I could always feel the light at the end of the tunnel. I was able to carry on with my life and heal myself in a holistic way.
Survivors' guilt is guilt associated with surviving a traumatic experience that others did not and is very much a real, difficult hurdle to overcome. Others were lost, why did I survive? I beat cancer and was able to continue to live, blessed with a second chance. Watching my peers be denied that second chance took a huge toll on me emotionally at a young age. As a teenager, I hid my story. I felt guilt, shame, humiliation, and judgment. What if I wasn’t liked by my peers because they thought they would get sick? What if they assumed I was picked for something “just because I was the girl that had cancer.” Or never hearing the end of how much my family sacrificed and did for me (which I am beyond grateful for). These questions lingered with me, but I turned that perspective around and now I am grateful for this adversity and experience. I'm telling my story because every story has a purpose behind it that can help others.
As I became more immersed in sharing my story within cancer communities, I had very heavy emotions attributed to it. I could feel others' pain and loss of hope for those that have passed, yet here I stand in front of them very much alive and well. Again, asking myself “why did I survive, and the others did not?” This heavy feeling of going to fundraisers with parents whose child had passed from cancer and there I stand in front of them, very much alive. Feeling their pain of loss and them thinking, what had she done differently for her to survive, why did my child not?
Being a cancer survivor is a badge of honor, I accept, respect, and appreciate what I went through. Meeting others like myself who went through the adversity and came out on the other side, knowing you’re not alone in this fight. Do not feel shame, guilt, humiliation, or judgment for having gone through something so tragic, just know you’re here for a reason. I no longer allow that guilt or unworthiness to take my energy, for I am here for a reason, I chose this life. While I was doing research for my book, A Survivor's Story, I came across research that really struck a chord:
“No one seems to realize their true potential, true self, and that their brain is a supercomputer that can change your thoughts in an instant, faster than a millisecond. The power that you hold as an individual is so insane. We apparently can’t fathom this information and so we are like, “yeah, whatever, it is easier to play this role of a victim instead and live in fear.” Let’s talk about the identity gap, this is the gap between who we really are and how we appear. How we appear: the identity I project to the outer environment, who I want you to think I am, the façade, ideal for the world. Who we really are: how I feel, who I really am, how I am on the inside, ideal for self. (9)
“When we memorize addictive emotional states such as guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, judgment, depression, self-importance, or hatred, we develop a gap between the way we appear and the way we really are.” (9) This gap varies from person to person, it depends on past life experiences, throughout different points in our lives, the bigger the gap the more addicted to our emotions we memorize.” (Reference 1)
This emotion of guilt and unworthiness can run our entire lives and not in a good way. You have already been through enough being a cancer fighter/survivor. You don’t need to put yourself through more mental and emotional distress. Do not feel bad for surviving because you have been blessed with a second chance to help others. It’s a great thing to be different, your story will inspire others to help and find a cure for cancer. Maybe it helps them get through a rough day, just know God (or whatever you believe) put you on this earth for a reason, you have beat cancer for a reason. Survivors' guilt is tough to overcome but know that you can do better and be better every day. No one said the journey was going to be easy, just know you are special and here to help brighten the world.
Photo courtesy of author.