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Published on April 26, 2019

woman looking down sadly

Coping with survivor's guilt after treatment

Among the many emotions you may feel upon finishing cancer treatment, one can be especially surprising: guilt. This feeling is common, though it can be difficult to understand if you've been looking forward to experiencing happiness and joy after treatment.

However unexpected, guilt may arise for various reasons. Some people may feel responsible if they find that cancer has not only changed their life but also affected relationships or dynamics within their family.

As a cancer survivor, others may feel like they've been given a second chance at life and set unrealistic expectations for how they think they should live moving forward. This can include things such as setting grandiose goals for themselves or trying to live an extremely healthy lifestyle. Falling short of these expectations—whether they are real or perceived—can cause guilt.

Guilt also may appear when survivors become preoccupied with existential questions like why they survived cancer but not someone else.

No matter the source of the guilt, the feeling is complex and can be confusing. If you are experiencing survivor's guilt, you are not alone and there are ways of coping. Here are some methods other people have found helpful in dealing with guilt after cancer treatment: 

  • Participate in a support group at Gundersen or in the community. Other cancer survivors often can relate to how you're feeling and serve as sources of support.
  • If you have lost friends or relatives to cancer, take time to grieve them.
  • Keep in mind there is nothing wrong with appreciating finishing treatment and surviving cancer. These are significant life events and worth recognizing.
  • Reach out to your social worker at Gundersen or a mental health professional about how you are feeling.
  • Remember that the guilt you are feeling is common and you are not alone.
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