“Why Me?” The Lasting Scar of Survivor's Guilt and How to Cope

Posted: September 20, 2021


Mental Health






Being part of the cancer community is an invite to the most fabulous club you never wanted to be part of. But when you’ve “graduated” from treatment, it can feel like you cheated fate. 

Feelings of doubt, fear, anger, and confusion might set in. After all that’s happened or people that you’ve lost, your brain screams, “Why me?”

Those of us fortunate enough to come out on the other side of a diagnosis may find that feelings of guilt arise when we lose friends, loved ones, or our heroes (RIP Chadwick Boseman). 

Those feelings? They’re all perfectly normal, bud. Let’s talk about survivor’s guilt.  

Why We Get the “Why me?” Feeling After Surviving Cancer 

Traumatic experiences or events, like cancer, can produce feelings of survivor’s guilt. It’s more than a vague feeling of “I shouldn’t have made it,” and sometimes it can blossom into a serious mental condition. Extreme cases of survivor’s guilt are considered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Any degree of guilt is a common feeling for thrivers post-treatment. Some reasons you may feel survivor’s guilt include: 

  • Your diagnosis was early, and your treatment more manageable than others

  • Your cancer might be hereditary to your children

  • You struggle mentally vs. feeling like a Hallmark card quote

  • You feel like you “owe” caregivers

  • You’ve lost a treatment or hospital buddy 

  • You beat the odds against you

  • Grief tourists are insincere with support

And much, much more. 

So what can we do? Unfortunately, there is no making sense of who gets bonus time and who trades suffering for surrender.

Identify where these feelings stem from, make peace with the situation, and address mental health concerns head-on. 

Coping Mechanisms to Work Through These Emotions

Grieving is key. Allow it. Welcome it. Mourn what was and could have been. There are ways to help get over this hump into fully embracing survivorship. 

“Survivorship might begin at diagnosis, but it’s a life-long journey.” Tammy Faulds, Inner Travel Grief Coaching

  • Connect with others who get it. A support group or online forum like buddhi can provide much-needed assurance that you’re not alone. That’s because you’re not. We’re here to share in all of the frustration GIPHYs, tears, and small wins. 

  • Write it out by journaling. Survivor’s guilt is hard to navigate. Suleika Jaouad, the author of Between Two Kingdoms and creator of The Isolation Journals, knows this feeling all too well. That’s why she has shared her story and created a resource-rich community for others to navigate this season through journaling. 

  • Share, but only if you want to. Some find it helpful to talk about their pain or to pour into helping others. This could look like sharing your story in a blog or discussion forum, fundraising, or writing a book. Remember: don’t feel any pressure to do anything other than live life on your terms and “do you.”

  • Connect with your soul through prayer, meditation, or yoga. No matter your religion or philosophical views, getting in touch with your spiritual side can be just as healing (if not more) than physical medicine. Attending a place of worship, having sanctified time to yourself, or doing mindfulness activities can nourish the soul. 

  • Let loose through expressive therapy. Get in touch with your creative and abstract side. Expressive therapy taps into your deepest self to bring out feelings through music, art, or dance. We especially love Twist Out Cancer’s Brushes With Cancer + Twistshop art therapy programs!

Getting back to life after cancer is hard. The burden of survivor’s guilt makes it more complicated. We’re here for you, bud. 

How do you cope with the “why me?” sentiments, and the lasting scar of “survivor’s guilt” post-treatment?

To continue reading, create a free account or login to buddhi.