Cancer and Guilt

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

OCTOBER 06, 2017

Of all the useless and soul-sapping feelings we sometimes have, guilt must be near the top. Many times, when I meet someone with a new cancer diagnosis, she is struggling with :" What did I do to bring this on?' or "What did I not do to bring this on?" The answer, of course, is almost always nothing. We do know that there are cancers that are related, sometimes to tobacco or alcohol use, but those habits surely do not guarantee cancer, and many people develop those illnesses without that history.

Some years ago, I worked with a delightful woman who had lung cancer. She had smoked for a few years in her 20's, but had stopped decades ago. Nevertheless, it haunted her, and she tortured herself with guilt and self-criticism. It was finally relieved when another women in our support group made this suggestion for a response when someone asked her: "Did you smoke?" (which happened all the time, sadly). The perfect response was: "Only after sex."

In this excellent article from WebMD, Dr. Wendy Baer examines guilt and cancer. She divides guilt into several types, and I think this is quite useful.

4 Ways Guilt Can Creep in During Cancer

By Wendy Baer, MD

Sadness, worry, surprise – these are some of the reactions you'd probably expect in the face of a cancer diagnosis. You may be surprised to hear that another very common emotion for people diagnosed with cancer is guilt. Guilt is a complex, negative emotional state that includes feelings of despair, isolation, sadness and worry. People dealing with cancer may experience several specific types of guilt for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common:

Pre-Cancer Guilt

Some people undergoing cancer treatment can't help but think about, even hyper-focus on, their pre-cancer lifestyle or habits (before they got diagnosed). Smokers often have a great deal of guilt about tobacco use that increased their risk, or may have even caused, their cancer. The same is true for people who drink alcohol in excess. Pre-cancer guilt is also experienced by people who believe they caused their cancer by leading "stressed out" lives, either in terms of their relationships or work. "I knew being in this awful marriage was going to kill me one day." "I was always staying late at work, I never had time to exercise!" "My boss yelled at me daily, and it made me sick!"

The way to manage pre-cancer guilt is to refocus your attention to the present time. We can't change history, but we can learn from it, and develop habits today that foster healing and well-being. Some patients make major relationship or work changes after cancer; they see cancer as a "wake up call" to live a healthier lifestyle including relationships that are supportive and work environments that are better suited for them.

Read more at WebMD's Cancer Blog.

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