Survivor’s Guilt : When Something Good, Becomes a Problem

When you or a loved one are diagnosed with cancer, survival tops your priority list. As time passes, you meet other cancer patients. Some of them survive. Some of them die. Learning that one of your friends has died of cancer, always brings with it a sadness–and sometimes, guilt. It’s a phenomenon known as survivor’s guilt.


As a 5-year -survivor of stage IV lung cancer, my husband, Dan, tries to encourage others on their journey. I, in turn, try to encourage caregivers that there is hope. There are new treatments and new tools in the palliative care toolbox to help patients deal with the side effects of cancer treatments. There are also a lot of support groups and systems to help both patients and caregivers.

When it starts going bad.

We recently found out that someone we know “lost her battle with cancer.” I don’t even want to get into the controversy surrounding that statement. I don’t like it much, but for all intents and purposes, it works. We wonder if we lied to them. Why have we had the grace of this time, when others with terminal cancer don’t? Survivor’s guilt rears its ugly head.

In the back of your mind, you wonder if you were wrong to give hope. Did you sell them a bill of bad goods?

How to Support a Caregiver


Another thing you wonder is, “Why are we so fortunate when they are going through this hell?” That can place a heavy load on your shoulders, that you were never meant to carry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people diminish their experience of living with cancer, just because theirs wasn’t staged IV. Anytime you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, it’s scary. Comparison is the devil’s playground. Nothing good ever came of it. So, avoid comparison at all costs.

As a caregiver and spouse, I also deal with the guilt of avoidance.

I tell friends of cancer patients to be there for them and support them. Yet, when survivor’s guilt kicks in, I find it hard to do, myself.

We have a friend, with the same diagnosis as my husband. She’s been through the ringer and lost more than I could ever imagine to this terrible disease. Her husband writes Caring Bridge posts that make me cry every time. In fact, when I get the alert that he’s posted an update, I dread reading it.

It’s so painful –and frightening.
I’m afraid of our future, and I get a glimpse of it in her story.

So I completely understand when people don’t know what to do with our pain and potential future.

Talk to someone.

When experiencing survivor’s guilt, it helps to:

  • Remember that these feelings will come and go. They are just part of learning to cope with uncertainty and the arbitrary nature of cancer.
  • Share your feelings with a trusted friend, Sometimes saying what you’re thinking out loud can do a lot to banish the boogie man of survivor’s guilt. If you can find a support group, you’ll soon discover that you aren’t the only to have these thoughts and feelings.
  • Do unto others. Think about how you would feel in their shoes. You’d certainly never begrudge someone surviving. You want people to survive, even if you don’t. So, don’t feel guilty about surviving cancer or having a loved one who does. Live well and make it count!

What are YOUR thoughts?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it.

Thank you!

About Heather Erickson

I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness.

My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

The Erickson Family, Photo by Everbranch Photography

7 thoughts on “Survivor’s Guilt : When Something Good, Becomes a Problem”

  1. I do not know Heather. Sometimes I think survivor’s guilt comes from us being so helpless in these situations.

    I know when Mom was sick for so many years with Alzheimer’s it would make me feel bad because I felt good???? Because I had a mind that worked, could think, and reason, when hers was all over the place.

    When she died, the question of, “What more could I have done?” was constant for a long time.

    As time passed though I realized there was no more I could have done. I gave to her all I had to give, and today I lay down at night with no regrets.

    It is just that we are so powerless when it comes to diseases and the sufferings they cause. We have to leave that part of it up to the doctors and medications. That always seemed a little cold hearted to me.

    We can do for them emotionally and spiritually all we can do, but as far as the cure of it all, there we stand. Love you, Dan and yours, God Bless, SR

  2. How did all the test come out? God Bless, SR

  3. This post is helpful. People don’t tend to talk about survivor’s guilt or any guilt surrounding cancer/death really. I had a friend who was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at 46 years old. Every time I called her she had more bad news. Yet, she always seemed so positive. I dreaded calling her because it made me so sad. For two years I called her every other month or so. And then I didn’t call for 5 months. When I went to call her I thought I’d check the obituraries first just in case. She had passed away. I felt awkward and didn’t reach out to her husband or child. When I think of her, I feel bad I wasn’t there for her in the end. I also wonder why neither she or her husband called me. I wish it would have ended differently.

    • I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, Nancy. So often when someone dies, the surviving family is in a fog. They rely on things like word of mouth and obituaries to spread the word. I’m certain it was an oversight that you weren’t called, and that they would love to hear from you now.

      When I was younger, a young man I dated went into surgery and never came out. I had sent him a letter (back when we did those things) rather than call. His mom got it the day he became brain dead and read it to him as he lay comatose. I felt so much guilt about that. Why didn’t I call? Why didn’t I take his fears about the surgery more seriously. Then my dorm mom told me that maybe he needed the words that were in my letter as he lay there. Maybe his mom needed them, too.

      Months after a funeral, people stop calling and stopping by, but the pain remains for survivors. I would encourage you to do the uncomfortable, and call. They will appreciate that you are thinking of them, and how much your friend meant to you. It will also give you some closure. Bless you, Nancy. I will keep this matter in my prayers.

  4. I’m sorry to hear about your friend. Thank you for sharing–and understanding. Your words are helpful and I appreciate your prayers.

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