Cancer and guilt

Wednesday 26 February 2020

I thought I’d use my ‘blog’ today, to explore a word raised by many of our visitors, and it appears to be a universal problem. Yes - guilt - something we humans seem to have to live with. While each person's experience is different, guilt can be a an exhausting emotion. It uses up emotional energy at a time when our batteries are running low.

Guilt is generally associated with something we’ve done (or not done).  It’s one of the most common, and troublesome emotions that people with cancer, and the people around them seem to feel - and it can cause anguish and sleepless nights. has written a useful article on coping with guilt. I’m quoting their introduction, as it explains things better than I could:-

‘Many people living with cancer experience guilt—a feeling of blame and regret that is usually difficult to acknowledge and express. Guilt often leads people to replay "what if" and "if only" scenarios in their minds, trying to figure out what they could have done differently or how they could “right” a wrongdoing….’

Cancer and Guilt

There seem to be things to make the person with cancer feel guilty.  Sometimes it may be that they feel their lifestyle choices, such as smoking, or sunbathing etc, may have led to them getting cancer.  (I would say there are many and varied factors that contribute to cancer developing, many of which are yet to be discovered, so it’s possibly a waste of valuable time and energy worrying about what caused it originally...?)

Others have told me that they feel they have not always been a ‘good’ person (whatever that is), and are troubled by the thought that they are being punished in some way, by getting cancer. Guilt, perhaps, making them doubt their value as a parent, child, friend. Being able to talk about how you feel, support and counselling can help rationalise the thoughts, and enable you to forgive yourself and move on.

Survivor guilt  - managing to survive your cancer when others have not done so well, causes distress for some, particularly as friends, family and fellow patients are sometimes seemingly less fortunate than them. It’s not a rational thought, but can cause significant distress. Again, the opportunity to talk to someone about those feelings can be very helpful.

Many people with cancer tell me they feel guilty about ‘being a burden’ and taking up family and friends time and emotional/physical energy by having to care for them as their health deteriorates.

On the other side of the coin, sons, daughters, partners feel guilty about not being available to help when they feel they should, or are getting tired and stressed by the demands of caring.

Occasionally, either intentionally, or unintentionally, we’re made to feel guilty by the words and actions of those we care about. A degree of emotional guilt being forced upon us, by those who know which ‘buttons to press’.

What guilt can do to you

(adapted from Dealing with Feelings of Guilt, Lalor, D)

  • It can make you become over responsible, striving to make life 'right'. You may overwork, give too much of yourself, or be willing to do anything in an attempt to make everyone happy .
  • Make you over-conscientious. You may fret over every action you take as to its possible negative consequence to others, even if this means that you must ignore your needs and wants.
  • Make you over sensitive. You may see decisions about right and wrong in every aspect of your life and become obsessed with the tenuous nature of all your personal actions, words and decisions.
  • Immobilise you. You can become so overwhelmed by the fear of doing, acting, saying, or being 'wrong' that you eventually collapse, give in, and choose inactivity, silence, and the status quo.
  • Interfere in your decision making. It may become so important to always be 'right' in your decisions that you are unable to make a decision lest it be wrong.
  • Be hidden by the mask of self denial. You may hide behind the mask of self denial because it is less guilt-inducing to take care of others first. You honestly believe it is better to serve others first, unaware that 'guilt' can be the motivator for such 'generous' behaviour.
  • Mislead or misdirect you. As many irrational beliefs lie behind guilt, you may be unable to sort out your feelings. It is important to be objective with yourself when you are experiencing guilt so that your decisions are based on sound, rational thinking.
  • Be a motivator to change. Guilt and the discomfort it brings can be used as a barometer of the need for change and a way to move in a different direction in your life.

What can we do to manage guilt?

There are a number of things you can do to help ease the intensity of guilty feelings:-

  • Recognise the emotion, name  it and think of ways to move on.  This might be through talking it through with family and friends, or seeking support elsewhere. Support groups, (including face to face or online support) is one way forward. If the feelings are causing significant distress, then counselling may be helpful.
  • Just as you would forgive someone else in your position, forgive yourself. None of us can maintain good relationships with others without practicing forgiveness regularly. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to others.
  • What’s in the past, even yesterday, cannot be changed - so think of new ways to deal with today and beyond…
  • Realise none of us are perfect, and there will be bad and good days. If guilty feelings are seemingly running alongside feelings of low self esteem, low mood, and unhappiness, it might be worth going to see your GP to check you are not becoming clinically depressed.
  • As a carer, try and take some time out - recognise guilt comes with the territory, but is often imaginary. You can’t do everything, and nor should you be expected to.

Now, I’m feeling guilty as I feel I haven’t covered enough about the topic, but I’m hoping there are enough ideas, explanations and suggestions to help you realise you are not alone.

If you’re feeling guilty, be kind to yourself. It can help to talk through the feelings, so you may like to drop into your nearest Maggie’s Centre, or join in conversations on our online forum?

Warm wishes


Original blog written by Sue Long, Cancer Support Specialist, (updated April 2020)


Coping with guilt -  Cancer.Net

Dealing with feelings of guilt  - (Diana Lalor)    Cottesloe Counselling Centre (Australia)

'I felt guilty for having breast cancer'  (news and personal story)    Breast Cancer Now

*Cancer and survivor guilt  (blog)   - Sue Long -  Cancer Support Specialist

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