Thursday, September 22, 2011

Verdict: Not Guilty

I'm not guilty.

Whew, that felt good.

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, I have felt the shame and blame that accompanies so many people diagnosed with this horrible disease. Our society is inundated with information that often elicits feelings of guilt among even the toughest of us.

Through some kind of overload osmosis, various information sources tell us to feel guilty for our breast cancer. You know the all-too-familiar messages of cancer being caused by not bearing children young or not bearing them at all, not eating certain fruits and vegetables, having certain lifestyle choices, yada yada yada.

The message is loud and clear, and until recently, I've been tuned into the You-Are-To-Blame-for-Your-Breast-Cancer station.

And then there's survivor's guilt.

You see, a great friend of mine died of breast cancer young; she was a lot like me and in my same age group. I will be focusing on her story and our friendship on Oct. 13. Her death shook me like nothing else.

And then survivor's guilt entered the picture.

Because she died and I lived.

Don't get me wrong: I am glad to be alive. But for the last six years since her death, I have been plagued with the question: why did she die and why did I live? 

I was not a better person than her.

I was not more proactive in my medical care.

I was not more of a cancer warrior.

I have been haunted by her death again and again. And I feel this way about people with metastatic cancer. They are good people, proactive in their health, and yet, they are unlucky enough to get a terrible cancer card from a cruel dealer. They do not deserve to suffer from and die of cancer.

Until September 12's #BCSM Twitter chat, I was locked in a prison of survivor's guilt. This chat, whose participants I respect and greatly admire, focused on the issue of guilt.  It was an emotional, intense discussion, and for me, a truly enlightening and life-changing one.

I realized, during and after this discussion, that I had no reason to feel guilty. I am alive, so far, due to luck. And luck is something I have no control over. I did nothing wrong to get breast cancer, and I did nothing right to have lived thus far. Like others diagnosed with this disease, I just did my best to live. 

And here are things we should all perhaps keep in mind:

We have no control over who lives and who dies.

Wondering why some people live and others die is futile. The answer is out of our reach.

We are not omnipotent or in total control of our universe.

We have the power to hope and the power to help others. Human kindness goes a long way.

Since the BCSM chat, I became liberated....for now. (Of course, I never really know when that guilt monster will rear its ugly head again).

Guilt has two first cousins: shame and blame. These three culprits are all interconnected. There's no longer a place in my life for guilt and its low-life relatives.

I'm writing a book titled Calling the Shots: Coaching Your Way Through the Medical System. Please feel free to subscribe to this blog by clicking the orange subscribe button. I am a professional writer and have published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on my breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. I can be contacted at and


  1. First of all, Beth, I love the title of this post and yes, I bet it did feel good to say that! You're so right about the survivor's guilt. I keep asking those same questions even though I know there are no answers. As you said, "Wondering why some people die and others live is futile. The answer is out of our reach." All of us know this, of course, but still the questions come. I'm still working on putting "guilt" and its two cousins, "shame" and "blame" in their places. This post is a big help to me for doing that. Thanks for writing it. Just saying those words, "I'm not guilty," out loud helps somehow. I'm going to keep repeating them from time to time!

  2. Nancy,

    Thank you, as always, for your loyal readership. Like you, I have grappled with survivor's guilt. But like you said, there aren't any answers. Yes, the guilt needs to be worked out, and I've been working on it for a long time.

    And, yes, it did feel good to let myself off the hook!

  3. Great post, Beth! I can get engrossed by what I eat, supplements I take, and I often feel guilty like I'm not doing enough to fight cancer. Thanks for the "Get out of Jail" card. Guilt and shame are definitely prisons that I occassionally visit.

    I have lost many friends to cancer, and I think it's human nature to wonder why. I don't feel guilty; just sadness and anger how unfair cancer can be. That's when I turn to God and just know there are things in life that can't be explained and to live my life to the fullest in their memory. Thanks for your perspective, Beth. And best of luck to you with your book!

    Tami Boehmer

  4. Love this post, Beth. 10 years on, and I still face those questions of why did I get cancer & why did I survive.

    It's hard for other people to accept that cancer is complicated and we don't really know what causes it. We know certain things increase our risk, but we don't know why one person rather than another gets it. And the same is true for survival. But cancer is scary & people want a reason - that way, they can feel comforted that they are safe.

    After 10 years I think there's just a certain randomness. And I find that weirdly comforting. Glad you're able to throw off the cloak!

  5. I am terrified right now for a much younger woman who is in a terrible fight at the moment. I feel horrible that I didn't step in when she was dx'd with a stage 1 disease (she did reach out to me but then, like many of us, withdrew). I am upset that the people around her didn't lay things out on the table regarding the statistical "results" when she was faced with options. They did not, I am angry, I am sad and I am guilt-ridden. And today, I hope for the cure. She has few options. This touched a nerve. And helps me see, the feeling is normal. Still can't wrap my brain around it... but, I doubt I ever will. Thank you for sharing. AnneMarie

  6. Tami,

    Thank you for reading my posting and commenting. I'm sorry for your losses, and I know all-too-well the anger and sadness that comes from losing people dear to us.

    You are welcome for the "Get Out of Jail Free" card. I like how you put that!

    By the way, your strength and faith are really admirable.

  7. Hi Julie,

    Yes, I am glad I have finally been able to throw off that cloak, as you say. Cancer is so complicated and you are right: people are always looking for reasons to understand and grapple with the world. It's hard to wrap our minds around the beast that is cancer.

  8. Oh AnneMarie,

    Thank you so much for sharing. I can understand your pain and regrets, but here's the thing: you are only human. We all have moments where we feel we could have done better.

    But "shoulds" can be very harmful to our psyche. It doesn't help you or the woman who is fighting the battle of her life for you to beat yourself up over this.

    Just continuing to be her friend and maybe a simple act of human kindness are enough.

    I thank you so much for opening up and sharing your pain. We all have our own personal trials and tribulations, but it's not a good thing to put ourselves on trial.

  9. I am not this far in my journey yet.But LOVE reading all of your blogs.
    You girls who have been thru this are amazing to me and I wish I could be as strong as you all are.
    I know that someday I too may have to deal with these guilt feelings.
    Right now...I am being selfish.
    I just want to survive all this

  10. Debbi,

    Thank you for reading and posting a comment. There is nothing selfish in wanting to survive.

    We all want that.

    You are stronger than you know. Just going to chemo shows great courage.

    Good luck with chemo. I'm sending cyberhugs your way.

  11. That was a great chat, Beth, no question. Survivor guilt never seems to quit, and neither does guilt for many other reasons that we can't control. I suffer greatly from it, and mostly because of my cancer. There was nothing I could do to prevent my cancer, but now I am taking charge of my life and doing the things I can control, including lifestyle changes. And it feels wonderful.

    Thanks for this great post!