15th April 2020
Cancer guilt is exhausting and suffocating. I should say my cancer guilt, as I can only speak for myself. As with all the emotional responses associated with cancer, the delay in their emergence has really taken me by surprise. I think that’s one of the many reasons why dealing with it has proved so challenging. I was doing just “fine” in the immediate aftermath. The last couple of months in contrast have been an emotional rollercoaster. My head is, quite frankly, in a state of turmoil.
So let’s start with what exactly I feel guilty about. It’s quite a list, largely illogical, and I appreciate that none of this is “my fault”, but it doesn’t stop me feeling guilty.
Firstly, there is the impact on my family – family life has changed forever. I didn’t ask for this but nor did my husband, or my children.
Then there is the impact on my parents, brothers and their families.
The impact my absence has had on work, especially now with coronavirus.
There is the fact I worked as much as I did before I was diagnosed (and was very happy doing it), without appreciating how much of an effect it was having on my family, especially my children.
Not feeling 100% optimistic about the future – or at least, my future.
And the most overwhelming guilt? Guilt for not feeling more grateful.
I have so much to be grateful for. First and foremost, I am alive. The cancer is out. There were no lymph nodes and no mets. It could have been so much worse – but it wasn’t. Stage 2 (albeit high risk) disease was much better than stage 4. There are people who have it far worse.
I have an incredible family. A rock of a husband, three amazing children. I am not going through this alone or unsupported. My friends have been total pillars of strength. My colleagues at work have been so supportive. Our church and school communities have rallied round us as a family. We are held in prayer. We have been overwhelmed with the level of support from every direction. Even with the corona-related worry that everyone is consumed with, the care, support and concern is still there for us.
Not only that, but during these crazy corona times, we are fortunate enough to be able to stay connected with family and friends. I so desperately miss the face to face, physical presence of my friends, but a “virtual catch up” is better than nothing, and I know we are so lucky compared to so many.
It also appears I have, because of the cancer and now coronavirus, been given this incredible opportunity to spend time with my family, lots and lots of it. Perhaps it is a chance to play catch up.
As I said…so much to be grateful for.
And this is where the wrestle in my head begins.
When I have so much to be grateful for, I feel so guilty for experiencing all the anger, frustration, and every negative emotion that I feel. Why can the gratitude not be enough to wipe out everything else? For whatever reason, it is so hard to allow the two conflicting emotions to coexist.
It is like having two children, vying for my undivided attention. If I embrace the gratitude, the pressure in the cooker builds once more. Succumb to the need to allow the vent of anger or frustration, and I berate myself for not being grateful enough. It is like living on a fault line right now between these two opposing tectonic plates.
But I need to allow the anger. To suppress it is not healthy, and I appreciate it is necessary in terms of the grief cycle process, but to do so feels so incredibly ungrateful. I keep being told it is natural, and important to express it, it’s all part of the healing process, but it is so hard.
Maybe we are hardwired to feel guilty, I certainly think I am, but I wish the guilt would just disappear. I’m sick of it and it seems to serve no purpose but to act as a huge (and I mean huge) stick to beat myself with.
If these emotions are like children vying for my undivided attention, maybe I need to start behaving more like a parent. I can’t favour one child over the other. We celebrate each child’s difference and acknowledge their individual contributions with equal importance. It is impossible to give two children undivided attention simultaneously, so why am I trying to do that now in respect of these emotions?
I need to give myself permission to ebb and flow, like a tide. Exercise some self-kindness. Allow myself to vent the anger, the sadness, the frustration – as is right to do, but then use the gratitude as a soothing balm, rather than allow the guilt to embroil itself in matters where it has no rightful place, turning one child against the other.
I appreciate that seeing what I need to do and actually doing it are two very different things, but recognising a problem is halfway to solving it…hopefully.