Cancer and Guilt


Do you feel  guilty since having a cancer diagnosis?  Do you spend time feeling responsible that you in some way caused your cancer?

This month’s blog post comes from a young  breast cancer survivor who shares her perspective on dealing with guilt after cancer.  She has gained a healthy relationship with her guilt and instead of allowing the guilt to paralysis her has become empowered to live a healthier life!  

Check out her blog at


Judy Schwartz Haley by Darrah Parker

Judy Schwartz Haley by Darrah Parker

I went to the doctor expecting another prescription for antibiotics, and came home with a referral to get a mammogram and ultra-sound.  As it turns out, it wasn’t mastitis at all; it was breast cancer.  My husband and I were both students at the time, and we had an infant; cancer was not on our agenda, or in the budget.

The first thing I had to do was wean my baby from breastfeeding in preparation for the mastectomy.  She lost her favorite source of comfort and food, and then immediately lost two pounds.  Cue the mother’s guilt, and the beginings of survivor guilt.  Those guilty feelings did not stop there.  My medical condition not only presented a significant financial liability to our little family, but it impacted my husband’s educational and career decisions; he passed up many opportunities and limited his own options in order to help me, and keep our family close to my doctors.

I immediately launched into a little research project of my own devising, determined to identify exactly what I did to cause my cancer.  During those long weeks between diagnosis and the first step of treatment, surgery, I wallowed in a pool of self-blame.  But I didn’t get in there alone; I had plenty of help.  Well meaning acquantances asked me what caused my cancer, interrogating me on my health and behavioral history, from exercise and eating habits, to smoking and household cleaning supplies.  Family members suggested I must have done something to deserve this diagnosis.  The internet bombarded me with articles that insisted certain behaviors and diets cause cancer, while others prevent cancer.  The onslaught of attention and dubious information came with a very clear message: cancer is simply the result of a specific behavior.

I wish cancer was that simple.

It has taken me the entire two-and-a-half years since diagnosis to understand that cancer is still an enigma, not just to the public and patients, but to the medical establishment as well.  It’s a numbers game, and we’re playing the odds.  Doctors deal in likelihoods and correlations rather than absolute cause and effect.  Considerable research continues, and the collective knowledge about cancer expands exponentially every year, but despite the licentious use of words like “cure” and “prevention” flaunted by the media, there is still no cure for cancer, and there is still no guaranteed prevention for cancer.  But I can take action to improve the odds.

I can exercise and eat better, but there again the guilt kicks up.  Quite simply, I don’t exercise as regularly as I should, and I don’t eat as well as I should.  It’s easy to beat myself up over this, and then once I’ve thoroughly chewed myself out, I take to the couch with a pint of ice cream.  A little perspective is useful.  In truth, I have changed significantly since my diagnosis.  I do exercise more, and my diet is completely unrecognizable from my pre-cancer days.  I now go through more vegetables in a week than I once did in several months.  Trying to consume as many different kinds of fruits and vegetables each week has become a kind of game for us.  I used to occasionally detour to the produce section to pick up one or two items; now the produce section is the whole point of the trip.  That is, when we don’t get the veggies from the farm.

Looking back and acknowledging how much my diet improved changed everything.  Yes, there is room for improvement, but there is always room for improvement.  I have changed, significantly and in lasting and sustainable ways.  By recognizing and focusing on my success, it was easier to build more success.  I don’t have to beat myself up in order to encourage continued improvement; that actually has the opposite effect.  I don’t have to compare my diet or behavior to anyone else; this is not a competition.  Whether or not others judge me has no bearing on whether or not the cancer returns.  Neither does guilt.  I will continue to improve my eating habits, and work on exercising.  Hopefully this will improve my odds of avoiding a cancer re-run; either way, it will make me stronger and healthier in the process.

I am still learning how to release those feelings of guilt.  It is difficult, like kicking a habit, but I understand that sustainable change is gradual.  I just keep at it, persistently improving myself.  Every once in a while I still catch myself feeling guilty about the cancer, and then I feel guilty about feeling guilty, and then I remember how far I’ve come and give myself a break.  Nobody deserves cancer; not me, and not anyone else.

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