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How to Process Grief After Surviving Cancer

cancer grief guilt illness Oct 08, 2021

by Ilana Shapiro Yahdav and Kim English Hanlon


The cancer diagnosis and treatment is a rollercoaster of emotions, as is learning that the treatment worked and you are cancer-free. Everything you and your support team worked for resulted in remission, yet there is likely a mix of emotions that accompany it: fear of relapse, worry about letting your guard down, and missing the regular visits with people you may have grown close with during treatment. This joyful news can also be heavily weighed down by guilt - guilt that you survived and others did not. 

Let’s talk about the word ‘guilt’ for a second. Per the Webster dictionary, guilt implies intent to harm. We highly doubt that cancer survivors intended any harm to those who are no longer with us or who had a less optimistic prognosis. Herein lies the juxtaposing emotions that are often labeled as ‘guilt’ but are really ‘grief.’

Grief is the conflicting feelings around when something familiar ends or changes. There are many things throughout the cancer rollercoaster that one may grieve: health, diagnosis, aspects of the treatment during and after, changes to body, trust in body and self, friends and family who were not there, losing the ability to work, to name a few. 

One may grieve what could have been different, better or more. They may grieve their life as they knew it no longer being the same. They may have lost people and gained people - both of which brings about many emotions. 

They may ponder the many “why me?” questions: why did I get cancer in the first place? Why did I survive while many others were not so fortunate? Why do I feel so relieved yet so sad at the same time? 

Many grievers also experience a loss of trust in God or faith in a Higher Power. “How could G-d let this happen to me? How could G-d spare me and not the others?” 

Existing in tandem with all of those emotions, many also may find gratitude and a renewed zest for life, with a deeper appreciation of its fragility. 

All of these feelings are normal and natural. Grief is normal and natural*. Just as you saw doctors to help your body, you need to seek support to help your heart. Cancer is an exhausting rollercoaster in so many ways and on many levels. 

It is very healing to find a compassionate listener, someone you can trust and confide in without judgement, analysis, or criticism. This can be a friend, relative, therapist or support group. It is helpful to have a consistent outlet for your grief. 

Allow yourself to feel and share your true emotions without explaining them away (Tip: Avoid thoughts that begin with “at least…”). Remember, all of your feelings are valid.

Carve out time for regular reflection, acknowledgement, and validation of emotions (whether it’s within a journal or to a trusted person).

Have compassion and grace for the non-linear path that can be healing of the heart.


This blog post was originally published in the Live & Thrive Blog on June 3, 2021.