I Do Not Subscribe to Survivor Guilt

When I was young, I was a pleaser because I thought that was the key to happiness. Someone would need something and I would say “yes,” no matter what the personal cost. I wanted to be that go-to person because, honestly, I thought it would get people to like me. It started out innocuously enough in grade school.

“Hey, can I have your basketball?” asked a student.kidsPlaying

“When I’m done playing with it,” I replied.

“I won’t be your best friend.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. Here you go.”

And I’d give up the ball, and then they wouldn’t play with me anyway. I thought that living for others would get me happiness. Instead, what it got me was a nasty cycle of regret, resentment, and ultimately, guilt… the most worthless of all emotions.

It took me a very long time to eventually let go of being a pleaser. If you asked what the catalyst was, I couldn’t point to just one thing; invariably, it was a host of experiences that led me to one of my mother’s favorite sayings: “The word ‘no’ is a complete sentence.”

Once you figure out that it’s okay to say “no,” it’s like a spring breeze blowing through a window. And you can use it in so many instances. Want to grab Indian food? Want to help me lift a gun safe? Want to be my wing man on my blind date? Want to go see the latest Nicholas Sparks movie? Want to give me your ball so I can be your best friend?


The reason why this was such an epiphany for me was that I learned that the only life I can actually live is my own. No matter how much we love our spouses or our children, we can not live their lives for them, nor they for us, because that’s not what life is about. Life is our journey, our personal path. Yes, it is exceptionally important to make others happy, but the only way to do that is by making yourself happy. Because once you’re happy, you tend to want to share it. It can’t be forced. It has to be organic.

And no, I’m not talking about being selfish. I’m talking about doing for those you love and care about without crossing the resentment line. Because let’s be honest, once you resent someone, it’s very hard to un-resent someone, and how people treat us really is our own choice. If someone is a taker and you keep giving, what is the incentive for that person to become a giver? Hint: there is none.

So having said all of this, over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed more people talking about suffering from “survivor guilt.” For those who don’t know, many cancer survivors who have lost loved ones, themselves, feel guilty about living through something that took someone else.

“Why did I survive? What’s so special about me? I had much worse cancer than my uncle, or niece, or sister, or friend, or mom. Why am I still here?”

compassion2It is a brutal, lonely feeling that, thankfully, I only suffered from for a brief amount of time. When I thought about why I never dwelled on survivor guilt, I originally looked at it from a nature or nurture standpoint, but I couldn’t find my answer. And when I can’t find an answer, I go back to the beginning, and the beginning for many suffering is the question, “Why am I still here?”

And that was the first part of the answer for me. I might be naive, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason, including getting cancer or experiencing a traumatic event. Sure, it took me a while to figure it out that reason, but once I discovered that I had a voice to tell stories and that people liked hearing them, it helped define my purpose for battling cancer.

The second part of my answer was the lesson it took me almost my entire lifetime to learn: that theirs, or yours, is not my life to live. I can only live one: mine. Yes, cancer guts me on a regular basis by who it takes, some I know, some I only read about, but I don’t feel guilty about surviving because I’m doing something with my survival. I’m using it, owning it, and cherishing it.

The good news is that every single person suffering from survivor guilt can attempt to do something about it, but it’s not the easiest path. I’m not guaranteeing that all people suffering are going to benefit from this, but what I am saying is that I believe in turning cancer into a purpose. It absolutely, unequivocally helped me get over any survivor guilt that I once had.

FreedomWhether it takes six minutes or six years to reach that purpose doesn’t matter; all that matters is that it’s searched for and, hopefully, found. It must also be unabashedly personal; it has to move you, envelope you, become part of your DNA.

And no matter what, please know that it’s not a crime to survive cancer, and it’s not your fault when someone dies, not matter how painful it might be.

[Adapted from Dan Duffy’s post on the Huffington Post]

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