A Tornado of Survivor Guilt

This article was originally published on CureToday.com on June 11, 2019.

Facebook reminded me of a memory I shared five years ago on this day (May 15th, 2019) in which I posted: “Celebrating being done with my last chemo! We did it! Nurses sang Happy Last Chemo.” Beneath the caption I posted a picture of my oncology nurses surprising me with a small cake that captured them singing "Happy Last Day of Chemo" (sang to the tune of "Happy Birthday").

One of the nurses had also made a large fake candle piece out of some medical supply odds-and-ends. I remembered feeling relieved and excited to be able to share the news with my family and friends. I felt a deep sense of joy and happiness as I thought about the amount of time that had passed since my last chemotherapy treatment.

I felt an incredible sense of joy and gratitude sweep over me as I reflected on the significance of this milestone anniversary. To my surprise seeing this picture unearthed lots of hurts and painful memories, too.

The post also reminded me of when my oncologist told me I was going to need a second round of chemotherapy and feeling like I couldn’t do it. I had been so beaten down by the first round of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery that I felt like all my coping reserves had been depleted. I couldn’t help but remember the way the needle felt every time it punctured my skin each time the port in my chest was accessed for chemotherapy. I remembered how much I struggled and desired to be done with chemotherapy. I recalled how fatigued and weak I felt by the end. Like a marathon runner nearly faceplanting as legs give way, collapsing across the finish.

The nausea, fear, anxiety and worry came rushing back from that day thinking about having to wait a couple weeks before doing another scan. These difficult emotions multiplied when I realized I have my five-year post-chemotherapy scan scheduled in a couple of weeks still hanging over me.

After taking a few moments of further reflection I started to share the post with a new caption. But no sooner than I had finished typing I found myself quickly deleting what I had just written: “Feeling incredibly grateful! 5 years-ago today I completed my last chemotherapy treatment.”

I quickly deleted the post because I could feel survivor guilt trying to form as emotions like joy and sadness crashed into one another.

I sat in silence in front of my laptop gazing at Facebook’s prompt to post something that read “What’s on your mind, Jamie?” As my gaze became more intense, so did my emotions. The updraft of emotions caused survivor guilt to swirl inside of me like a tornado.

I started to worry that if I shared that it might others going through cancer treatments feel worse. I wondered if I shared if it would pull up the hurt and pain experienced by those that had walked alongside through my treatments. I thought about friends and colleagues I lost to colon cancer in the years following my last treatment session. I felt horrible for feeling happy when so many feel hopeless. I even started to feel guilty for feeling guilty.

As my guilt threatened to funnel out of control, I remembered meeting an elderly woman leaving her last chemotherapy appointment as I sat in the oncology unit’s lobby nearly six years ago waiting to be called back for my first drip chemotherapy appointment.

My nervousness and fidgetiness must have caught her attention as she walked toward the exit. She paused and asked if she could give me a hug. I silently nodded with affirmation. I don’t remember her exact words she whispered while slowly leaning to embrace me. All that I remember is her smile and that she wanted me to know she had made it through this round of chemotherapy.

As I thought about this small act of kindness from a stranger, the sadness that had swept in like a cold front in the middle of an unexpected storm began to dissipate. My survivor guilt downgraded and eventually passed. Like the elderly woman’s smile that broke through my worry several years before, hope emerged from behind cloudy emotions.

Being reminded of past and present struggles reminded me that today was not meant for guilt, but rather gratitude. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go so I can let Facebook know what is on my mind…