Survivor’s guilt. It’s a term that encompasses such a vast well of complicated emotions that it can be hard to understand. For pancreatic cancer patients and survivors, this is an all too familiar term; however, without resources, survivor’s guilt can become highly distressing. So, let’s unpack what survivor’s guilt is, and the best ways you can cope with it.
If you’re experiencing survivor’s guilt, please understand that these feelings are totally natural. We also want you to know that it is possible to overcome these feelings. You are not alone in feeling this way and recognizing when survivors’ guilt is affecting you can help you regulate and control these emotions.
Please do not continue this article if topics such as death, cancer, medical trauma, or any other subjects related to survivor’s guilt/ trauma may trigger an intense emotional response. Your safety and well-being is of the utmost concern to us and our organization. If you need support coping with these feelings, please consult a medical professional. If you find yourself experiencing a mental health crisis, dial 988 for assistance.
*This piece is intended to educate and provide reassurance cancer survivors who may be experiencing survivor’s guilt but is not a substitute for professional mental health services.
Understanding Survivor’s Guilt
The term survivor’s guilt, also called survivor’s syndrome or survivor’s remorse, is a psychological condition that is linked to a traumatic experience. According to the National Library of Medicine, survivor’s guilt arises in people who have witnessed, or been exposed to death and have stayed alive. People internalize those experiences, which can create feelings of depression, guilt, and negative self-image. Specifically for patients or loved ones who have had someone in their life go through cancer, survivor’s guilt often arises when another person passes away from the same or similar disease.
There are two types of survivor’s guilt, according to Mental Health Center.org. The first type is event-based, meaning that the survivor’s guilt is attached to a specific traumatic incident such as a car crash or natural disaster. This type of guilt is often characterized by feelings of responsibility for the lives lost, feeling undeserving of survival, or guilt over their lack of physical injury.
Sometimes cancer survivors feel some of these similar feelings, but typically they experience the second type of survivor’s guilt. Existential guilt is not linked to a specific trauma event. It is characterized by broader feelings of guilt over having what others do not. Unfortunately, due to the low rates of survival for pancreatic cancer, it is not uncommon for survivors to experience this guilt.
Cancer patients can feel both types of guilt at different times and at different severities. Trauma, and trauma response, do not always appear right away and can be recurring.
The important thing to remember is that you are not alone, and there are ways to cope with the guilt, and symptoms to look out for after finishing treatment. Things will get better. 💜
Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt
Both Healthline.com and Medical News Today note that one of the most common symptoms is characterized by intrusive, looping thoughts, where a patient’s mind goes over and over the trauma event, considering the question of ‘why (not) me?’ Other symptoms may also include:
- Sleeping problems, including insomnia or nightmares
- Irritability, emotional volatility, and abrupt mood changes
- Social isolation or withdrawal
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide: if you are experiencing these thoughts, please dial 988
- Loss of motivation or trouble concentrating
- Physical symptoms such as headache, stomach ache, body tension, or nausea
Some patients may experience these symptoms with greater severity than others. For example, patients who have a history of mental illness, abuse, or substance misuse, according to Medical News Today.
Surviving Survivor’s Guilt
Survivor’s guilt can take a toll on you and your family and friends, which is why it is so important to address feelings of guilt when they arise. Allowing yourself to express your emotions helps you to work through them in a healthy and positive way. Here are a few strategies you can use to help you cope with survivor’s guilt when these feelings come up:
1. Take time to process
The National Foundation for Cancer Research suggests that acknowledging your feelings of guilt is the first step in dispelling them. Taking time to process your experiences -defining how you feel and why you may have those feelings – will begin to make them feel more manageable.
2. Remember Gratitude
Fort Behavioral Health recommends that patients practice gratitude. Taking the time to remind yourself of family and friends, and how they feel about your survival, will help you cope with your own negative emotions. Acknowledging that your survival is important to others will help you slowly accept it for yourself. Taking time to be mindful of yourself and the positive attributes of your life may also bring you some peace.
3. Give back to the community
Centerstone.org believes that giving back to the community that helped you through your diagnosis. Whether you donate to your local community, or get involved in your cancer community, knowing that you are paying it forward helps lessen feelings of guilt. Simply doing good can pull you outside of yourself, and those negative feelings.
4. Talking Helps
The National Foundation for Cancer Research notes that talking to others, no matter if it’s a therapist, support group, or friend, can also help you work through guilty feelings. Having an outside perspective to recontextualize your thoughts can sometimes put them into perspective, and make them less consuming and overwhelming.
5. Create a Self-Care Routine
Routines are highly beneficial for managing stress and negative emotions, so taking the time to create space in your day for routine and self-care can help alleviate some of those survivor’s guilt symptoms. Self-care can mean anything from mediating to taking a walk or resting, as long as it feels calming and soothing to you. GoodTherapy.org recommends that those experiencing symptoms should also make sure to have a nutritious diet, as this can not only heal your body, but heal your mind.
If your symptoms and emotions are severe, seeking professional help is your best option for coping with survivor’s guilt.
If you or a loved one is experiencing these feelings, please contact your doctor to discuss options for care. You do not have to face this alone.
Project Purple has resources for connecting with other patients and finding ways to get involved in the pancreatic cancer community. If you are interested in participating in any of our events, please click here for more information.We also have a podcast and blog that details the other stories of survivors. No one should have to feel alone as they recover from treatment, or mourn the loss of a loved one. Remember, you are worthy of survival. 💜