One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 is to more effectively manage the guilt or shame that I sometimes feel concerning my cancer. It seems unfair considering all the other unpleasant emotions that cancer triggers, but guilt in its various forms is a constant enemy waiting to attack cancer survivors and their caregivers.
It’s been well documented that many cancer survivors have feelings of shame or guilt, particularly around the notion that they may have played some part in causing their cancer. Certain cancers, for example lung cancer, have especially strong stigmas attached to them in this regard. “He smoked heavily, so what did he expect?” When it comes to cancer we often subtly, or not so subtly, blame the person for his or her disease. Friends, family members or strangers often do this unwittingly, in an attempt to rationalize a painful reality and to cope with it better themselves. Human psychology being what it is, whenever we can construct an explanation for something, it makes us feel a little better. Experts, such as renowned scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, emphasize that blame only robs an individual with cancer of the present by directing their attention on the past—it undermines them when they most need to focus their energies and face the reality of having a life-threatening disease.
While gynecological cancers don’t involve the same degree of stigma as lung cancer or some other forms of the disease, I’ve still experienced times when I’ve felt that I might be to blame for my illness. Leading up to my diagnosis, I was having symptoms that could indicate uterine and/or ovarian cancer and my doctor recommended surgery. At first I was somewhat hesitant due to fear and denial of my situation. I had never been hospitalized or had any type of surgery before, now I was being informed that I should have a total abdominal hysterectomy as well as the removal of my right ovary. My gynecologist had to “twist my arm” to a certain degree. I ultimately consented to the procedure when I realized that it was in my best interest. What would the outcome have been if I had chosen to have the operation sooner? Would my endometrial cancer be less advanced, lower than the stage III that I am currently diagnosed with? Would it have had time to spread to my lymph nodes and affect my right ovary?
There is no way to determine these things for certain, but I do regret my hesitancy to take action. Everyone has done things that they wish they hadn’t. My argument is that there is a difference between taking responsibility for the consequences of actions and feeling like you deserve to be blamed. It may be true in some cases that our lifestyle or health care choices increase the odds of getting cancer or contribute to cancer progression. No doubt in such circumstances changing certain behaviours may improve your health. However, allowing a patient to absorb blame and feel shame will almost certainly make matters worse. Instead, it’s better for cancer survivors not to let shame and guilt keep them from moving forward, getting the support they need and deserve, and living in a healthier way. Shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens to carry. From everything that’s known about the emotions and health, acceptance and forgiveness are what we need to cultivate and enhance healing, not self-condemnation and self-blame.
This having been said, there are numerous other ways in which guilt manifests itself in the lives of cancer survivors. Guilt takes sinister forms for us, like feeling shame for the envy we feel about those who are in good health; feeling guilty about the disproportionate amount of attention we receive, and even guilt about surviving cancer when so many others have not. I remember feeling guilt-ridden when I was undergoing cancer treatment and unforeseen complications occurred. My condition ultimately caused me to spend over a month and a half in Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. As my primary caregiver, my mother had her life completely turned upside down. Although she is semi-retired, she took a leave of absence from her part-time job and rearranged her daily schedule to visit me. My brother also took some hours off work at the law firm where he practices. Suleika Jaouad, a young American fighting leukemia, describes herself in similar circumstances:
“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).”
Finally, as I’ve alluded to, some cancer patients experience the discomfort of what is termed survivor guilt. I’m aware through various sources that I’ve outlived several of my former cancer ward roommates. Perhaps it’s only human nature to occasionally wonder why I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve remission, when so many women diagnosed with my form of cancer have lost their agonizing battle.
For more information regarding guilt and cancer or to seek professional advice contact the psychosocial oncology department at your regional cancer centre or reach out to other cancer resources in your community.