Exploring guilt and cancer
Since my first diagnosis of breast cancer guilt has stalked me. Even when I’ve thought I’d put that beast to rest, up it pops in various guises. My guilt as a parent for causing my family to suffer has been a long term one. But it’s probably speaking to them now as adults that has helped me let go that burden. And in many ways seeing them as kind and sensitive people people i realise dealing with difficult times and illness has contributed to who they are. Carrying the BRCA2 gene tipped me again into a spiral of grief and guilt but somehow staying with that and recognising that for what it is has helped me move through it. I didn’t choose this any more than my father did. And what I learned years ago was that we can’t protect our children from everything all we can do is love them and help them to navigate it as best we can. And I’ve just had to relearn that one with my BRCA2 diagnosis.
Survivor guilt is another layer again. As I’ve lost friends and colleagues to breast cancer I’ve grieved for them with an added complexity. What made the difference? Why did I survive and not them? In some ways I’m embarrassed I’m still here, four diagnosis later. I mean, WTF?
I’ve just had my results post mastectomy and I’ve no lymph node involvement and my margins were clear so there would be little benefit with chemotherapy and no radiotherapy needed. I remain on endocrine therapy of course and also to have some preventive treatment for my bones. That’s all! In any other context that would be a lot. But not if it’s cancer, I’ve got off lightly and I know it- and yes you guessed I’m feeling a bit guilty too, compared to others who are having to deal with so much.
It’s a form of madness to feel guilty you haven’t died, to feel guilty your treatment isn’t as bad as others, to feel guilty you’ve survived more than 20 years since your first diagnosis. I know it makes no sense but it’s easy to carry guilt along with everything else. But it serves no purpose and is fuelled by a media that feeds a view of the cancer experience which is unrealistic, overly simplistic and laden with judgment. You’ve got to fight it, you’ve got to be brave, you’ve got to protect others from your pain, you’ve got to hide your baldness under a pretty scarf, you’ve even got to walk through the night in your bra to evoke sympathy. ITS EXHAUSTING!
When the practice nurse dressed my woundthis week, we discussed our shared experience of breast cancer. It’s tough, we agreed. So let’s leave that there. The truth is it’s tough, let’s stop imposing expectations on everyone who walks this path. They need to find their own way, they need to be kind to themselves, they need compassion from all of us and they need to celebrate when they can count the years from their treatment and feel well. Guilt is when we carry the « shoulds » of others expectations. Let’s just stop and have a compassion for all who travel the journey imposed by a breast cancer diagnosis and grieve for those we lose and celebrate the life of those who recover. It’s simple, isn’t it?