Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s Guilt

When I speak about lung cancer, especially to a group of people who may not know much about the subject, I sometimes compare the number of daily lung cancer deaths to a full jumbo jet crashing to the ground—with no survivors. It is a dramatically powerful metaphor. Not only is the number of daily deaths an accurate comparison, so is the fallout of surviving such a tragic crash, for the fortunate ones: Survivor’s Guilt.

Survivor guilt was first identified in the 1960s among Holocaust survivors. Similar symptoms were also seen in people who survived traumatic experiences, such as combat, natural disasters, and even massive job layoffs. As our understanding increases about lingering repercussions caused by these profoundly impactful experiences, the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” emerged.

In addition to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, withdrawal, loss of drive, and mood swings, classic symptoms includes inexplicable feelings of guilt.

Some people who receive a lung cancer diagnosis ask, “Why me?” Survivors experiencing survivor’s guilt wonder, “Why not me?” trying to figure out why they survived when so many others do not.

Having survivor’s guilt does not mean that survivors are ungrateful that their life was spared. They actually are likely to have found new purpose, meaning and appreciation for their life. But as they learn of the hundreds of thousands who lose their battle—and especially as they lose beloved lung cancer friends—they may be overcome with a deep sadness accompanied by an odd combination of feelings, such as unworthiness of what seems to be a special dispensation of grace. In essence, survivor’s guilt is deep empathy for our fallen comrades fighting this same battle.

A Physical and Mental Battle

Fighting the number one cancer killer can be every bit as intense as a soldier fighting in a warzone. No one who fights a lung cancer battle comes through unscathed or unchanged. The lucky ones—whose cancer was discovered early—undergo surgery. They bear physical “battle scars.” Others may go through go a combination of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or radiation. Every lung cancer patient who has undergone treatment has been in the war trenches—even if their wounds are not visible.

It’s not the medical treatment alone that defines the battle. The psychological warfare can be even more challenging than a course of treatment.

Sadly, the majority of lung cancer patients don’t make it through the first year. The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is about 17 percent. Fortunately, due to recent treatment breakthroughs and the potential for early detection, the survival rate is expected to increase soon.

Oftentimes, when I mention I am a long-term survivor, people congratulate me. It’s an awkward and somewhat embarrassing moment for me. I usually say, “thank you,” but I feel as though I am taking credit for something I did not do. After nearly 12 years I should have a good response. But I don’t. I can’t take credit for my own survival. My life (and death) are in God’s hands. I trust God has work to do in me and through me. And I cannot even acknowledge that fact without making an unspoken accusation that the 20 million people around the world who have died of lung cancer since my own diagnosis lacked God’s grace. I do not believe that. Nor do I believe that when my time comes that I lack God’s grace by departing this world. Who can make sense of these lives being lost?

With each passing year from my diagnosis, I see atrocities that I simply do not understand. A young father taken before his son celebrated his second birthday. An expecting mother who must terminate her pregnancy to undergo treatment. A child diagnosed with lung cancer. In addition to the heartbreak and anguish these people and their loved ones endure, the world suffers a great loss of unmet potential.

Nevertheless, I Live and Breathe.

To combat survivor’s guilt, I suggest doing one or more of the following:

  • Connect with a lung cancer advocacy organization. (See LungCAN for more information)
    • Volunteer (help with a charity event or be a phone buddy, etc.)
    • Donate money to support research or serve the others with lung cancer
  • Make every day count
    • Make amends
    • Plant a garden
    • Give someone a gift today
    • Rest
    • Be grateful
    • Go to lunch with an old friend
  • Share your story/lung cancer experience
    • Send it to the local newspaper or ask them to write a story about lung cancer
    • Share it here on or on another lung cancer website (see link above)
  • Talk with a counselor who specializes in post-traumatic stress

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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