A lone red bird sits on a telephone wire

What is Survivor Guilt?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, survivor guilt is defined as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died.”

Many of us living with lung cancer feel this stress on a frequent basis, especially when others in the community pass away. In fact, in a recent survey of 108 lung cancer survivors, 55% of respondents identified as having experienced survivor guilt.1

Why do we feel survivor guilt?

Why do so many lung cancer patients feel survivor guilt? When first diagnosed, we often believe that we have dismal future prognoses, either because we have been told this by a medical professional or because we have googled outdated survival statistics online. If we end up doing well and benefiting from new treatments for lung cancer, we are overjoyed but also often wonder why we are so fortunate while others on the same treatments may not be.

Compounding this feeling, we frequently reach out to people in the lung cancer community like ourselves for support through online sites or in-person support groups, making very close friends quickly with others going through similar experiences. While it is wonderful to have friends who truly understand, it is also devastating when these friends experience progression or pass away.

Coping with the loss of so many friends

I have been thinking a lot about survivor guilt and how I experience it lately. As an almost seven year survivor who never expected to be around so long, I have had numerous friends die from lung cancer. It’s actually an odd position to be in as an otherwise healthy 54-year old woman; usually individuals don’t experience frequent loss of friends until they are quite elderly. Pretty much every week, sometimes even more than once per day, I am confronted with mortality. Friends develop more severe disease, are hospitalized, go into hospice, or die.

Sometimes, these are close friends, sometimes they are people I met and maybe shared a meal or drink with at a meeting once, and other times, they are people I only know from their online presence. Still, it is difficult to learn about others dying from the same disease I have and just go on with my daily life. However, it is equally impossible to stop everything and truly mourn for each individual. These conflicting feelings lead to survivor guilt.

In addition to feelings of sadness, I often feel irritable with my loved ones and unmotivated to perform my normal routines after learning about a death in the lung cancer community. I only learned recently that these feelings are common to those experiencing survivor guilt; others include anger, obsessive thoughts, difficulty sleeping, fear, and headaches.2

Combating survivor guilt

So how can we combat survivor guilt? I certainly wouldn’t advise stopping to form helpful relationships with other lung cancer survivors. I have found such friendships and connections to be incredibly valuable and important. Instead, when I have a friend who passes away, I try to ask myself how they would want me to live my life.

Over time, I have found that the most valuable way I can recognize and honor such relationships is by continuing to advocate for increased awareness and research for lung cancer.

Guilt shouldn't stop us from sharing our story

I’ve realized that since my lobectomy and becoming NED early this year, I have hesitated to post my quarterly scan results in the lung cancer groups that I have joined. It seems unfair and somewhat selfish to post positive results while others are dealing with difficult issues.

However, recently someone in one of my groups said that she really needed to hear some good news! This helped me to understand that survivor guilt should not stop me from sharing my story; others need hope from those of us who are doing well to encourage them to continue with their own journeys.

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