Guilt, like cancer, is a greedy guest feasting on its host. It is nondiscriminatory. We have all felt it, wondered what it was doing there, willed it to go away.
I?m aware that feeling guilty about having cancer is more than a little irrational. But when it comes to cancer, guilt is a mercurial, equal-opportunity burden that affects both patients and caretakers.
The topic of guilt came up during a support group meeting for young adults with cancer. I was comforted to hear that everyone in the room felt some form of guilt related to their cancer. I certainly had. From the day I received my diagnosis, guilt has been a steady and quiet companion on my journey.
In the outpouring of love I?ve gotten since I began writing about my disease, guilt has never been too far away. Intermixed in the spectacular and candid messages of support, I?ve also received dozens of apologies from friends, classmates, and acquaintances who feel guilty for not being in touch or not realizing what I have been going through. Some people feel guilty just for being healthy when I am sick.
Sometimes, guilt is a self-inflicted wound. Although I know I shouldn?t, I feel guilty about being a burden on others, taking up too much ?space? with my problems and causing pain to those I love. How could I not? I trust that others with cancer know what I mean.
Not long after my diagnosis, I wrote in my journal about my own feelings of guilt.
I feel guilty when I start feeling sick or get a fever. I want to apologize, for I know I will soon make the life of my loved ones hell. My mother will have to drive four hours in the middle of the night to take me to the hospital in New York City. Family will have to take sick days from work. After long days at the office, my boyfriend will spend night after night sleeping between two hospital chairs. My father will ?hold down the fort? at home (this translates to lonely nights spent worrying by himself and feeling very far away from my hospital room). My brother, typical of most 20-something ?bros,? doesn?t talk much about his feelings, but I know the weight of the responsibility as my donor lies heavy on his heart. He has trouble sleeping. Often, when I wake up from nightmares, I hear him tossing and turning in his room next door.
At times, I have blamed myself for lifestyle choices that might have led to my cancer. During my many travels to developing countries, might I have been exposed to some kind of environmental toxin? If it weren?t for all those late nights during college spent studying and going to parties, would I still have fallen sick? Did my vegetarian phase at age 8 strip me of important nutrients and compromise my immune system? Too much junk food? Were my jeans too tight?
The belief that cancer happens for a reason can be an attractive line of thinking ? where there?s an effect, there must be a cause. This is what a logical mind tells us, but it?s usually untrue. Even when a patient is found to have lung cancer after decades of smoking, is cancer still the patient?s ?fault?? Even if there is a correlation to the choices a person makes in life, cancer is always deeply unfair.
Guilt takes other forms for patients, like feeling shame for the envy we feel about those who are in good health; feeling guilty about the disproportionate amount of attention we receive, and even guilt about surviving cancer when so many others have not.
I?ve learned that guilt is made less powerful when you confront it ? writing about it, talking about it, bringing my fears and thoughts to the fore, out into the open. For me, the cure for guilt, to the extent that there is one, has been sunlight.
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced su-LAKE-uh ja-WAD) is a 23-year-old writer from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Her column, ?Life, Interrupted,? chronicling her experiences as a young adult with cancer, appears weekly on Well. Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter.