I’ve been struggling to try to write this blog for a week now. Some friends and I were chatting a few days ago. The discussion was about survivor guilt. It’s a complicated emotion because on one hand you’re thrilled to have won the battle with cancer and want to shout about it and celebrate. On the other, you know people who are having a difficult road through the illness or have lost their battle all together.
I think all survivors must feel it to some degree. I know my friends do and I know I do. You know that no matter how your journey through this illness went, there is always going to be someone who had a harder time than you. What seems almost routine and successful to you didn’t work at all for the person sitting next to you, and that is jarring. You want there to be a really concise reason why it worked for you and not for somebody else. But there isn’t, and it sucks because it should have worked for the other person.
My friend is struggling with being a survivor. She is struggling with the fact that her treatment was surgery without radiation or chemotherapy. Because she missing those treatments she is struggling with identifying herself as a cancer patient. She doesn’t feel brave for having gone through the surgery and coming out okay on the other side. She does feel that I was brave for going through the surgery, radiation and chemo and came out okay on the other side.
The truth is, I don’t feel brave either. It’s not bravery when you have no choice. It’s not brave to choose chemo and radiation when the other option would probably mean death. The bravest thing we both did was to put our trust in the people who were going to save us. Sure we made choices, but our choices were made based the information the people we trusted with our lives told us. My biggest fear was not the chemotherapy or the radiation, it was the surgery and what my life would be after it.
You know that feeling you get when somebody tells you they have cancer? That, “shit, I don’t know what to say” feeling. That, “my problems are nothing compared to his” feeling. That, “I don’t want to ask how he’s doing because it might be bad news” feeling. That, “I don’t want to talk about my good news because it will just remind him of his bad news” feeling. We all get that too.
But here’s the thing, at least for me. When I was sick, I knew I had cancer and I dealt with the feelings when I was diagnosed and throughout the treatment. Talking about it didn’t make me feel worse, it often made me feel better to get it out there. Hearing somebody else’s good news made me feel happy and not bitter. The truth is, through my journey I had victories. I also had setbacks. That’s life. I like to think other cancer patients feel similar to that but I can’t speak for them. I do know that when I was in chemotherapy, there were very few mopey, down people. We would trade stories about what we had and where we were at and nobody seemed to be keeping score of who had a tougher time than the other.
I know I’m rambling a little at this point but here’s one last point I want to make. That first moment when you get diagnosed. That moment when there is a person telling you you have cancer. We are all the same. We all have that feeling of dread and wonder what our future will look like and how long it might be. We are all “real” cancer patients.