Survivor’s guilt is a very real thing. I’ve been working on this post since I lost a dear friend I made at our oncology office two years ago this year. This post is dedicated to my dear friends, Judge and Linda Dean.
Walking into the waiting room of a blood cancer oncology office is—I’m being honest here—sad. The chairs are filled with elderly men and women of ages 60 and up battling a form of blood cancer, and it never fails that I’m usually the youngest one in the room.
Before I “beat” cancer, I entered that room bearing a bald head and a similar diagnosis to other patients who were forced into a club no one would ever sign up for.
But it was because of my GIANT bald head, port in my chest, and scars I owned that made me feel connected to the other patients despite the age difference. However, due to my “youthfulness,” the odds of surviving were much higher for me than that of my older cancer comrades.
I’d often whisper to Klay how sad and awful it was looking at all of these people cancer effects. All I can think about was how many of us wouldn’t reach remission, never have the opportunity to get a stem cell transplant, and ultimately weren’t going to come out on the other side of this.
And that was daunting. As I type this the thought of so many people who passed that I no longer “bump” into in the office or the hospital makes my heart hurt. I literally feel my chest tightening, a sharp pain in my chest, and anxiety rising. I’m literally crying right now because this guilt I feel from being a survivor makes me crazy emotional.
Feeling The Agony Of Survivor’s Guilt
Survivor’s guilt wasn’t something I thought about at all during the whole process of having cancer. I mean I always knew it was a real thing, but I didn’t know how cruel it could be.
It never dawned on me that hearing of other patients passing away in rooms right next to mine or learning of those who died and who had similar diagnoses would affect me so deeply-.
Even people I didn’t know, but would frequently see in the oncology office, the infusion room or hospital hallways started disappearing.
And I often wonder if they were doing great and not needing to come in as much, but the dark voice inside my head haunts me with thoughts of just the opposite.
When I walk in my oncologist’s office–that once made me feel like I knew everyone–it’s now filled with unfamiliar faces that are in the beginning stages of their treatment.
And it’s not just looking around about all those infected with blood cancers and knowing that some won’t make it that I feel guilty about.
I feel guilty that I was able to have two kids before cancer could fry my ovaries and take the option of having more away from me. Many young women I’ve talked to weren’t able to try to salvage some of their eggs (because it takes weeks to do) and their cancer was so aggressive, immediate chemotherapy was crucial.
I feel guilty when I speak to people who’ve lost loved ones to this disease. I feel guilty that my friends and family have been through so much because of me and this damn leukemia. I feel sick to my stomach when I see an image of a mother holding their dying child on social media wondering why that child has to die and I’m still here.
“Take me instead,” I’d declare and offer up myself to God to save a child from suffering But children are dying, andI’m still here. I will never understand that–NEVER.
I feel guilty when I see or meet someone who has two stem cell transplants or has multiple cancers or who have it worse than me. I feel like I shouldn’t complain. There are so many people who I’ve met that endure much more pain, and extreme quality of life-changing health issues that are still moving forward with their fight.
Why I Don’t Like Using The Word ‘Survivor’
I sort of have an issue with the term “survivor”. It makes my cancer journey sound like I beat it because I fought hard to live. And, in turn, it makes others who lost their “battle” sound as if they weren’t fighters and that’s why they aren’t here today.
Even saying that someone “lost the fight” or whatever (which I just said above) gives the implication that they just gave up. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. Either way that didn’t lose; it wasn’t exactly a fair fight to begin with.
I can’t will my body to heal. I can’t physically fight the cancer cells that infected my body. All I can do is trust my medical staff to guide me with their knowledge of the best way to beat the odds.
I often feel like I didn’t survive; I just got lucky. It easy to succumb to the survivor’s guilt that comes with surviving something so many died from. It can put you in the deepest, darkest hole and keep you there if you hold on to it.
Finding Purpose Through Survivor’s Guilt
We all want to understand why this happens to us. As humans, we try to find our purpose in everything we do and experience; and getting diagnosed with cancer and going through the physical pain, the treatments, the awful feelings that enter your head, makes you wonder “why me?”
Why was I did I get this disease?
Why are there so many terrible, evil people out there who have healthy bodies–no medical problems–only to do terrible things to people?
Why am I still here instead of them?
These questions plague the minds of those who’ve “survived”. And the “why’s” never stop, we never get answers we so desperately search for. It makes you question everything especially when it takes someone you know.
My Personal Experience Of Losing Someone To Cancer
There were some I met, befriended, and lost. I particularly cherished a friendship that was born all because a woman liked my beanie.
And that’s how I met and fell in love with Linda and Judge Dean.
It was January 2015, when Linda made Judge ask me where I bought the beanie I was wearing. Both of us (Linda and I) didn’t have any hair then, so I pulled off my hat to look for a tag or brand name to share with them.
It didn’t take long for Judge and Klay to hit it off. Judge is like a teddy bear who loves to tell jokes and make people laugh.
That day was the first time Linda was going to meet my doctor (she was switching physicians), and so she asked if I liked him, how things were going, etc.
We traded our cancer diagnosis’ stories with each other. She had just found out she had cancer that month and had completed her first chemo treatment at another hospital.
We talked the rest of the time until one of us got called back, and so I passed on my information to her if she ever wanted to talk, text, catch up, or just needed someone who understood what she was going through.
My heart was filled with warmth that day. I instantly fell in love with the two of them and they were amazing friends to us that year.
If Judge found out I was in the hospital, he’d come find me, chat, visit, make sure I was OK and always offered to bring me food when he’d make a food run for Linda who was usually in a room a few doors down.
They’d always check on me, search the waiting room for us at appointments, come and talk with us if we were both getting infusions, or see if we were in the hospital at the same time—and a lot of times we were.
Linda and I couldn’t see each other when we were in the hospital and often relied on the hospital phones or texting to catch up. That’s the thing that severely sucks about cancer–having a low immune system–and being stuck in isolation away from other patients who are ill and potentially contagious.
Judge called me a few times at the end of October and early November of that year and told me Linda wasn’t doing very well; he wanted to give me a heads up on her health so I wouldn’t be blindsided should something happen.
I saw her and met one of her daughters who came down to celebrate her 70th birthday. She’d struggled and had overcome obstacle over obstacle time and time again. Her body just wasn’t recovering quick enough to move forward with a stem cell transplant.
After her 70th birthday, the cancer came back and was extremely aggressive. They did some chemo but couldn’t push the dose too much because she was so ill from the round before. So she was already sick and then they are making her sicker.
But Linda started to do a lot better; she wasn’t going to be taken down that easy. Her leukemic cells went down tremendously and things were looking a little brighter for her.
Then I got the call.
My heart sunk into the pit of my stomach as I read Judge’s name on the screen of my iPhone.
And just like that, she was gone.
My strong, inspirational fighter had left us. “She passed 15 minutes ago,” he said.
Everyone at our oncologist’s office knew we were friends, We’d spent so much time in the hospital even the nurses who cared for us when we were admitted knew that we all had become very close.
Judge told me he reached out to me so quickly because he didn’t want me to find out from someone else. Sure enough, about 15-20 minutes later, I was receiving messages and calls from some of the nursing staff.
It was only fifteen minutes after he lost the love of his life that he thought I was important enough to call. I love that man so much, but he didn’t have to do that; they had other family members and friends who supported them, but I became much like an adopted daughter to them. At least that’s what they’d always say to me.
Judge is always thinking of others and was a spectacular caregiver to Linda. And I know he knows it, but he’s very thoughtful and insightful in so many areas of life.
It’s hard when someone you know is fighting the same disease you’re fighting, and then in one quick moment, they die. The reality of how many people cancer takes from this world becomes scarier, more real, and even more painful when that happens.
Linda had the same type of cancer I had (Acute Myeloid Leukemia). But her body couldn’t fight like mine could. And I hate that about this disease.
So I sit in the waiting room and look around at the filled chairs waiting to get called back for a blood draw or an appointment. And it’s sad knowing not everyone in the room isn’t going to make it—and I have no guarantee I will even make it, should it return.
When Linda died, I just felt like I’d lost someone who was a soulmate to me. She was my cancer soulmate. She understood the feelings that would go through my head or hers when we received unhappy news.
When she needed someone to talk to I was there. She was so down to earth and funny, and we’d just talk about anything and EVERYTHING. There was no shame in her game and none in mine, so we just let it all hang out.
But life isn’t fair and that beautiful spirit was taken away from us and I just wonder why it wasn’t me. She’d always tell me, “No, you’re going to be fine. You have those boys at home and they need their mama around.”
The last time I saw her she was so happy. It was right after her birthday. She had all of her daughters down at the same time; her family and friends had a party to celebrate it. She was just tickled about it.
Of course, we were at the doctor and I heard her voice and went in to see her. Everyone at the clinic knew we were friends and kept tabs on each other. Looking back now I wish I would have done more for her–well for both of them.
I still can’t believe she’s gone. She fought so hard and when I thought she’d throw in the towel, she’d fight harder. I needed that motivation because we all have rough days, moments of doubt, and thoughts of giving up.
I feel so guilty that I’m here and she’s not. She should be here with Judge. I hate the thought of him being without her.
But I know she is watching over us now. I often feel her presence around me. I hope she knows how much I loved her.
In Remembrance Of Those We Lost To Blood Cancer
The year 2015 was not very kind to us. Not only was it around the holidays when she passed, I was in and out of the hospital, and we had several deaths occur between our family and friends. My grandpa was having triple bypass surgery. It was a mess. And then I end up being in the hospital for almost six weeks straight.
I’ve been unable to do this the past two years because I always fell ill around this time of year; I’m talking about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light The Night Walk.
This is my first time to ever do anything like this–and I’ve been so excited to participate in the walk this year, However, due to sick kids and I’m not feeling well myself, we ultimately unable to go this year too.
I donated money to honor my friend Linda.
I do believe that honoring those we’ve lost by donating to a cause in their name does help take away some of the survivor’s guilt.
In remembrance of Lind and for the many people blood cancers have impacted over the years, I plan to continue to contribute to nonprofits, advocate, and bring awareness to the hard truths about blood cancer.
If you’d like to donate to this cause, please do so today! Every dollar counts! Even if you give $5 and 20 people donate, that’s $100 contributed to helping us find a cure for blood cancers.
Has anyone else experienced survivor’s guilt? I’d love to hear from you and hear your thoughts or ideas about it. Please feel free to share, pin, comment, and like this post!
Planning to light up the night tonight,
PS. Happy Veterans Day to all those who have served and are serving our country. And a special shout out to my favorite vet–the hubs.
Thanks for being our hero and setting an example for our boys! We love you!