Overcoming Survivor Guilt After Cancer & Other Catastrophes

I thought I understood survivor's guilt. Then I became a colon cancer survivor.

Posted Mar 01, 2019

Colorectal cancer is the second most deadly cancer in the United States. Since March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, I decided to share my own story in hopes of bringing awareness to this disease, as well as to offer support to other survivors. 

As a disaster psychologist, I had helped others with survivor’s guilt first hand. In the wake of the crushing 2016 flood, our team from the Humanitarian Disaster Institute deployed to the Baton Rouge area. We went to provide disaster mental health care training and conduct research on what helped people cope with tragedy

This was an important trip for me: It was the first time I was well enough to deploy and lead a team in the field since being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Three years earlier, at the age of 35, I found out I was facing my own personal disaster. During my cancer battle, I undertook a year-long period of treatments that included radiation, multiple rounds of chemotherapy, and major surgery that resulted in a permanent colostomy. 

I felt so relieved when I found out there was no longer any evidence of cancer after finishing my treatments, and I continue to be incredibly grateful that this is still the case, nearly five years later. But it wasn’t just the cancer that surprised me. I also wasn’t ready for how difficult the long road to recovery was going to be, especially my struggle with survivor guilt.  

"Dry Guilt"

In Baton Rouge, a common response we encountered among those whose homes were not devastated by winds and flooding—or not devastated as badly—was the feeling of “dry guilt.” One person even described herself as having “minnow guilt”—minnow, as in a small freshwater fish. “How can I feel bad when I only had two feet of water in my home, but my neighbor had six feet of water?” These more fortunate survivors felt as though they’d committed some sort of wrong for having fared well when so many had lost their homes. Dry guilt is one expression of survival guilt.

Understanding Survivor's Guilt

At the root of survivor guilt is a comparison of suffering. No good can ever come from these kinds of comparisons, especially since we don’t really know what another is experiencing. 

Lives that look shiny and happy on Facebook can be riddled with dysfunction and pain. Others who may have a flair for the dramatic might always be moaning “woe is me” while the obstacles they face are not as weighty as those faced by others. Even making that statement is problematic, since everyone responds to challenges differently! For example, studies have shown that comparing ourselves to others while using social media negatively affects well-being and increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. We found similar findings among Hurricane Matthew survivors, whose guilt came from comparing their disaster experiences to that of other survivors. 

Though I’d never consciously compared what I endured as I battled cancer to what those I lost had faced, the one comparison that mattered was undeniable: They were dead and I was alive. 

Recognizing Survivor's Guilt

I was afraid to approach the loved ones and even their friends and colleagues of people I had lost because I felt guilty about living. I feared my beating heart indicted me and might wound them even more. Though I knew intellectually that their suffering has no correlation to my survival, my gut bellowed otherwise. 

It has taken quite a bit of time for me to realize it wasn’t that I just couldn’t let go, but that I was actually holding onto my survivor’s guilt. Though painful and though I wanted nothing more than to have it gone, it had served a purpose in my life—it was protecting me from what lay beneath the guilt. Underneath my survival guilt, I saw a small glimpse of what I had so desperately tried to bury. I saw pain, anger, numbness, anxiety, and shame layered beneath the survivor guilt. I had felt guilty for living when my friends had not been as fortunate.

Steps Toward Overcoming Survivor Guilt

Recognizing the cause and underworkings of my guilt was the first step toward trying to overcome my survivor's guilt. Now I can see that breaking loose of survivor's guilt doesn’t rest solely upon my shoulders. I often tell others that disaster recovery always takes place in community. The same would seem true in this case. Recently, I’ve opened up to a couple of close friends. I’ve reached out to someone my survivor's guilt had prevented me from seeing. I sought counseling. I’ve also been able to discuss my survivor's guilt in my professional life more recently, too, like with this piece. I think breaking free from survivor's guilt may be as much (if not more) about surrendering our guilt as it is about the actions we take. 

The more I’m able to practice self-compassion, the more I’ve been released from the weight of somehow feeling responsible for what happened to those I’ve lost. Each time I share my struggle with trusted loved ones and other survivors, I’m reminded that I’m not alone. Likewise, it feels like each time I open up, my survivor’s guilt is being slowly and methodically chipped away. 

Looking back, I know in my head that it wasn’t my fault about what happened to my friends and colleagues. I’m now finally in a place to be able to start embracing this reality and release some of the guilt I’ve been carrying in my heart. 


Adapted with permission from A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina & Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press).