Friday, May 1, 2009

Survivor's Guilt

This is how the story goes:

I had a friend around my age. She died. I lived.

I lived because she died.

Faun and I became fast friends, well, fast. We met at a breast cancer survivor's group, and even though I was the newbie to a well-established group, she and I hit it off. Turns out she was a teacher and a writer. Like me. And she was from the East Coast. Like me.

And she was a breast cancer survivor. Like me.

Or so we thought. Five months after we met (and five months after my last chemo treatment), she experienced a recurrence. Well, that's not exactly accurate. The cancer had never really gone away in the first place.

I'll spare you all the gruesome details, but I took her to chemo regularly and was there for her -- until the very end, about four years later. Ironically, those chemo days were good days for us as friends. We had hours to talk, and then I brought her home, sat on the edge of her bed, and we laughed and shared secrets for a couple of hours.

We even had plans to compile an anthology of essays and poems by a variety of people who've had breast cancer. And, of course, we'd contribute our work to the anthology. We would brainstorm regularly about how this book would evolve. Our dream of collaboration never happened, though.

She died July 3, 2005, at the age of 47.

Yet, she saved my life.

You see, six months after she died, my oncologist called to tell me that my MRI revealed something odd in the same breast in which I had breast cancer five years before. He was understandably very concerned. I was understandably very panicked.

I got an ultrasound and biopsy and had the abnormality removed. As I waited for the lab results, which seemed like an eternity, I became obsessed with all of what Faun went through. I wondered if dying young was something else we both would have in common.

During this time, I did some serious thinking that If I could get another chance at life -- if I could do it all over again -- I would get a double mastectomy instead of the lumpectomy I chose at diagnosis. I decided then and there that I would get a double mastectomy, no matter the outcome. Even if I never got a recurrence, I reasoned, the constant scares and mammograms did a number on my psyche. I thought of the rock group Boston's words: "All I want is to have my peace of mind."

I remember when the biopsy results revealed that the "abnormality" was benign -- simply scar tissue. I felt a tinge of happiness, but it was mostly fear. I knew if I didn't get my "evil twins" removed, I would get breast cancer again. I just knew it. Something was telling me that breast cancer would once again be in my future.

Fast forward to all the doctors I hired and fired and drama and trauma in order to get the double mastectomy, the topics of previous postings. After an 11-month battle navigating through the medical system, I finally found myself happily in the OR with a gaggle of doctors ready to remove my breast tissue and reconstruct my breasts from my post-menopausal belly fat.

The next time I saw my oncologist, he beamed from ear to ear, telling me that the double mastectomy was the right thing to do becauseI had many precancerous cells in my supposedly healthy breast. I most likely would have gotten breast cancer again in a few years.

I asked him, "So, I avoided death twice?"

He responded, "Yes."

Had I not seen what Faun went through, I might not have been so proactive and insistent on the double mastectomy. Her suffering and death had anchored itself in my mind and kept me fighting for the surgery.

Now, about two and a half years after my surgery, I still get back pain and have residual aches, but I refuse to feel sorry for myself. I refuse to be a whiner. I refuse to be a complainer. Oh, I have my moments, but I know each day is a gift.

I have recovered and gotten a clean bill of health. I'm grateful to be alive. At the end of this week, I am flying to China to adopt my baby daughter. And Faun's dream has lived on in me: I have been published in an anthology focusing on breast cancer.

Yet, I will always feel survivor's guilt. I do wonder why Faun died and not me. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad I survived, but at the same time, I feel guilty that I feel glad I survived.

But then I think that perhaps her spirit is watching over me, that perhaps she's my guardian angel who takes pleasure in knowing that I'm bearing the torch that is keeping our dreams alive.

Beth L. Gainer is a professional writer and has published an essay on her breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. She teaches writing and literature at Robert Morris College in the Chicago area. She can be contacted at and She also blogs on the adventures of her cats, Hemi and Cosette, at



  1. This is an amazing post. Just when we think we're out of ideas . . .

    I don't think you ever told me about Faun.

  2. She was really special to me. I don't talk about her often, but it was a very dark time for her (fighting a losing battle) and me, as I was getting flashbacks because I was barely out of treatment myself.

    I don't regret having her in my life.

  3. I have lost so many dear friends. One that was diagnosed behind me, and at an earlier stage than I was. We can't help but see ourselves in them.