Pushing Back Survivor’s Guilt: Reach Out

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on survivor’s guilt–how it can be the monster under the bed when you receive positive news or pass a milestone in your healing process.  A few days after that, I had the privilege of discussing survivor’s guilt with the #bcsm (breast cancer and social media) community.  That conversation was lively (you can read the transcript here), and included folks experiencing other cancers as well.  And there were several statements during that hour that caught my attention.  Brenda, who blogs at Breast Cancer Sisterhood, said this:

When a friend is diagnosed I hope to give them knowledge & comfort no one gave to me. No guilt.

Chat participant @3lainess stated:

Action helps guilt for me – writing, asking questions, making contacts. Important not to feel isolated.

And then Anne Marie Ciccarella, who uses her blog and Twitter handle to inform and educated about the aftereffects of chemo–and so much more, said this:

Taking action. Doing SOMETHING. Clearing a path for another. Holding a hand. Lending an ear. Offering a shoulder. All ease my guilt.

And with the accumulation of those statements, I knew that there needed to be a “Part II” for the post on survivor’s guilt.  I included several coping suggestions in the first post, but I did not explicitly include a suggestion that seems to be the most important and valuable:  take action.

What Does “Take Action” Mean?

Taking action can be anything that allows you to feel as though you are transforming your survival into a gift for others.  Maybe you participate actively in a survivor’s group that has a lot of newly diagnosed folks–either in person or online.  Maybe you talk with friends and family members of the newly diagnosed about how they can be most supportive to their loved ones.  Maybe you offer your phone number as a resource for someone to call when they are feeling overwhelmed and stuck.

The way that you take action is wide open–so you can custom tailor it to your own energy level, available time, and personality style.  You don’t have to become a power volunteer.  Taking action doesn’t require that you sacrifice your health (physical or emotional) to help others.  Instead, it means that you remain open to learning how your experiences can smooth the road for someone else.  You become willing to let your journey inspire hope instead of miring you in guilt and regret.

Why Does Taking Action Matter?

As I discussed in the first post on survivor’s guilt, one of the pieces that makes survivor’s guilt feel so difficult and heavy is that it is actually a combination of several emotions–a “toxic sludge” of grief, fear, and guilt.  Taking action to turn your health into a gift to others can help push back against that toxic sludge.  Taking action allows you to move past the sense of being frozen to a sense of your own power to help others.  And taking action can help ease some of the fear and helplessness that follow a serious diagnosis.  Taking action allows you to become a “proactive survivor,” as described by Trisha Torrey.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the idea of taking action as a response to survivor’s guilt.


Image Credit: Silhouettes of Tomorrow by ajusticenetwork via Flickr


15 thoughts on “Pushing Back Survivor’s Guilt: Reach Out

  1. Wonderful that you’re part of a vibrant community on Twitter, Ann.

    I don’t have a lot of experience working with survivor’s guilt, but I imagine it’s an under-served community, much like the “good” child in the chaotic family whose needs are overlooked because everyone’s so focused on “pathology.”

    Guilt is toxic, for sure. Making meaning of your health milestone and celebrating this are key.

    You work with some tough populations, girl. Glad you’re here :).

  2. Anne, I very much like this idea of transformation and creating something meaningful out of survivorship. I feel like this is often the work in therapy, no matter what the presenting issue. Taking actions moves us out of our head and into community with other and this is a good thing no matter what.
    Thanks, Allison

    1. Allison,

      That is it exactly–when we connect with others, there is the potential to transform even our most painful experiences into something powerful. Moments when that transformation takes place are why I love this work so much.


  3. Ann,
    I am SO humbled that you chose to share one of my thoughts in this post. I began “officially” volunteering one year ago. (I know because I had to have my annual TB test to gain entry to the hospital floor!) It can be difficult at times because things happen that can bubble up the fears that we all live with as cancer patients. Those fears are far outweighed by the JOY that fills my heart and soothes my soul when I know someone is less afraid because I lent an ear. Truthfully, so much of what patients can do for others is just listen. I have found that most want an understanding ear. Mostly, we “get it” that someone who has cleared the path before us offers the best ear.
    The chat that you refer to (for those who don’t participate) was exceptionally special thanks to your participation!
    I treasure our (virtual) friendship.

    1. AnneMarie,

      You are a powerful advocate for the value of reaching out to others. There is so much passion in your virtual voice as you share your experiences. Getting to know you (and so many others) has been one of the reasons that I am a convert to social media. I am honored to be connected with such wonderful folks.

      Hugs right back,

  4. Hi Ann,

    Being proactive and reaching out to others is a great way to handle survivor’s guilt, I think. Also, I’d throw out there that creative exploration – art, music, poetry, dance – can be a great way to work through the “toxic sludge.” Then, maybe whatever you produce can be a source of support for others, too.


    1. Rachelle,

      I like that suggestion a lot. In fact, while I don’t have formal creative training, in my recently remodeled office, I’ve focused on adding elements that allow folks to be expressive on multiple levels–including a stock of crayons, markers, and colored pencils.


  5. Ann, thank you so much for your discussion of survivor’s guilt. What you had to say in your post and #BCSM chat really hit home with me, and I learned a lot. I have had survivor’s guilt since my friend Faun died seven years ago. We were both alike and in the same age range. She died and I lived. But I don’t dwell too often on this, but I do acknowledge survivor’s guilt as part of who I am.

    I agree that actions really help.

    Thank you for a thoughtful post.

    1. Oh Beth,

      I am sorry, once again, for your loss. It sounds like Faun continues to live in your memories of her. I’ve been so humbled to be a participant in the #bcsm community, and I am so happy that the post and the chat felt helpful to you. A hope to provide support to a wider audience is the reason I began participating in social media.

      So many warm thoughts,

  6. Dear Ann,
    You write so movingly about this experience. I agree that taking action to connect and share is healing for the survivor and for the newly diagnosed. Nothing is so healing as connection.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Carolyn,

      I also think that there is something truly powerful about feeling as though you have been able to transform your suffering in a way that allows you a bit of control and ownership after so much control has been taken away.


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