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Guilt and Cancer

Posted 6/19/2013

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  Many of us easily feel guilty, to a greater or lesser degree, about any number of things. There are jokes about "high octane" guilt, often attached to particular ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Coming from a very WASPy family, guilt was not a central theme of my childhood (instead, the emphasis was generally on "pulling up your socks and getting on with it"), but I surely know lots of women who feel that guilt was part of their daily diet. Guilt related to a cancer diagnosis comes in many flavors. The cancer guilt that I hear most often is either related to feeling responsible for the diagnosis (e.g. eating too many hamburgers, not managing stress, not getting enough sleep, not exercising daily, etc) or is survivors' guilt ("why was I so 'lucky' to have Stage I cancer and am doing fine?").

  Whenever I meet a woman for the first time, I try to probe around re guilt. Especially if she is ruminating about being at fault, about having done or not done something that brought on cancer, I leap on the opportunity to tell her, to promise her, that cancer is a biological process, a total matter of bad luck, and she had nothing to do with its' cause. The survivors' guilt is tougher, and I surely struggle sometimes with that one. I have known and lost so many wonderfu women to this disease, and there is no reason why they died, and I, so far, have been well. The clause that keeps me grounded is "so far".

  This is a delightful essay by Laura Price from The Huffington Post about this topic. I give you an excerpt and a link to read more:

Coping With Cancer's Ugly Sister: Guilt

Of all the feelings you expect to go through when you're diagnosed with this deadly disease, guilt is not top of the list. Yet  almost all the fellow cancer survivors I've met since my diagnosis say they've felt guilt to some degree. Guilt because they feel the cancer was somehow their fault; guilt for taking time off work; guilt for letting others look after them; guilt for causing loved ones to worry; guilt for surviving when fellow cancer patients have died. You name it, we've probably felt  guilty about it.
Then there's the guilt that consumes our families and friends: the guilt my mother suffers because the cancer skipped straight from her mother's generation to mine; the guilt she feels for not being to swap places and go through it instead of me; her guilt for having somehow unwittingly passed on a genetic fault.
Irrational? Certainly. Avoidable? Not so much.
Sadly, guilt and blame go hand in hand with cancer. Often we don't know what caused it, so we blame ourselves,
according to Cancer Research UK. Was it my lifestyle? My eating habits? Did I cause myself too much stress? Am I going to bring back my cancer by eating this chocolate bar?
And where do these thoughts get us?


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