Survivor’s guilt: what it is and what to do if you suffer from it

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After breast cancer, you may feel all kinds of emotions: positive and/or negative. If you are feeling emotions such as anxiety, sadness or even embarrassment, you may be experiencing “survivor’s guilt”. We’ve put together a few tips to help you through this common feeling.

First of all, what is survivor’s guilt?

A person with survivor’s guilt experiences painful, complex and ambivalent emotions about being alive after a situation in which others have died. This feeling is usually associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): an anxiety disorder associated with severe traumatic events such as an accident, memories of war… but it can also occur following breast cancer.

Survivor’s guilt can manifest itself as a mixture of empathy, sadness, anger, fear, grief, anxiety, pressure, and many others. This feeling can occur in different situations and take different forms. For example, people with breast cancer may feel guilty about other people with breast cancer, or guilt about the fact that they are still alive and feel pressure to give their lives more meaning to justify this second chance.

What to do when you feel this way:

In order to reduce and manage the feeling of guilt, the first step is to succeed in recognizing the feeling, and take a moment to reflect and identify it: is it empathy, fear, sadness? Then, know the source and allow yourself to experience it. This feeling is valid! Defining and accepting your limits is also a good way to realize that doing what you can is enough.

One thought that can also help when experiencing guilt is to remember that it is possible to be grateful without letting it get in the way of empathy. Try to speak kindly to yourself, as you would to a friend or loved one.

A diagnosis of breast cancer brings many changes to your life, some of which can be overwhelming. It is important to give yourself time to accept these changes and to remember that everyone is different. It is normal to deal with your emotions in your own way. Remembering that sometimes there are no logical answers or explanations for what is happening can also help you feel better. There is no reason for what is happening.

If a death has occurred, it is important to take the time necessary to grieve. Time is restorative, and sometimes we shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to get better right away.

Sometimes, seeking support is necessary to feel better and to fight against this feeling of guilt. Joining breast cancer survivor support groups can be a solution. Talking to someone you trust who is a good listener can also help or contacting the Foundation for free psychosocial support services.

So, this feeling is not uncommon and should not be dismissed or viewed in a negative light: normalize it. There are many solutions and tips to help you feel better and see it disappear over time.

If you are experiencing doubts or questions related to breast cancer before, during or after diagnosis or treatment, call us at 1-855-561-ROSE to learn more about our psychosocial support services. We are here for you.


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