September 6, 2019

Managing the guilt that can arise after surviving cancer

Madison, Wis. — Cancer patients unsurprisingly rejoice if they receive news from their physician that they have been cured of their disease or have entered long-term remission. But it is also common to experience feelings of guilt, especially if someone they met during treatment or another close friend passes away from cancer.

“Survivors’ guilt” is often a combination of feeling guilty about surviving when someone else did not, as well as feeling guilty about not doing as much as they think they should to live their lives to the fullest.

“It is not uncommon for cancer survivors to experience guilt when a friend or acquaintance passes away from cancer,” says Erin Costanzo, PhD, a clinical psychologist with UW Health. “We often associate guilt with our conscience, as a sign that we have done something wrong. In this case, however, guilt does not indicate wrongdoing but reflects a deeper understanding and empathy toward those who have or are suffering.”

Costanzo works with patients in all stages of cancer treatment, including survivors, and offers the following tips for survivors who are experiencing feelings of guilt. If you are, or someone you know is, having difficulty coping with survivors’ guilt, please contact a physician, psychologist or other member of a clinical care team. For UW Carbone Cancer Center / UW Health patients, you may schedule an appointment with the cancer psychology team directly at (608) 265–1700.

Tips for Managing Survivors' Guilt

Acknowledge and talk about your feelings

First and foremost, know that it is normal to have feelings of guilt, and for these feelings to change day-to-day. It is helpful to connect with someone who is a good listener and to talk about how you feel.  

Find outlets of self-expression

It is important to make space for your feelings.  Maybe you journal to write out how you are feeling or express your feelings through artwork, such as painting or drawing. It is also helpful to take pauses during the day to tune into your emotions.

Seek a support group

It is important to know that you are not alone. Join a local in-person or online support group to connect and share with others who have similar experiences.

Talk to a psychologist or counselor

If your feelings of guilt are interfering with your day-to-day life, you may benefit from meeting with a psychologist or other counselor. UW Cancer Center psychologists, as well other psychologists and counselors, are able to help you cope with survivors’ guilt and other long-term emotional side effects of cancer treatment.

Volunteer with an organization that helps cancer patients

Sometimes channeling difficult emotions into positive action can help. Volunteering to help cancer patients, or for another cause that is important or meaningful for you, is a great way to cope with feelings of guilt.