© 2005-2012 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All rights reserved worldwide.
Many people living with or touched by cancer experience guilt—a feeling of blame and regret that can be difficult to acknowledge and express. Guilt often leads people to replay "what if" and "if only" scenarios in their thoughts, trying to determine what they could have done differently or how they can “right” a wrongdoing.
Different forms of guilt
People with cancer may feel guilty at various times for different reasons. Some forms of guilt you may experience include the following:
- You may wonder if you could have noticed symptoms earlier or gone to the doctor sooner.
- You may worry that you are a burden to your family and caregivers, feeling badly about your inability to perform certain tasks.
- You may feel guilty that the treatment you received did not work the way you had hoped. Remember, it's the treatment that failed, not you.
- You may feel guilty about the financial costs of cancer or the time you have to spend away from family or work for treatments. Consider asking for help with managing the cost of your cancer care.
- You may feel guilty because you survived cancer while others did not. This is often referred to as “survivor's guilt.”
- You may blame yourself or feel embarrassed or ashamed of lifestyle choices and habits—like smoking or sunbathing—that may have increased your risk of getting the disease. For example, some people with lung cancer worry that they will not receive as much support because they believe that others will think that their behavior caused the cancer. Read more about living with lung cancer.
Meanwhile, family, friends, and caregivers of people with cancer may also feel guilty during or after the cancer experience.
- They may feel guilty that they are healthy while someone they care about is ill.
- They may feel guilty that they cannot help more or make the person with cancer healthier.
- They may feel guilty for feeling stressed or sad.
Letting go of guilt
Feelings of guilt are common, but it is not healthy to dwell them. Letting go of guilt will help improve your wellbeing and your ability to cope with cancer. To lessen the intensity and frequency of feelings of guilt, try to:
- Remember that cancer is not your fault—or anyone's fault.
- Let go of any mistakes you think you may have made in the past, and be forgiving of yourself and others.
- Acknowledge that you aren't alone. Many people have been in your situation and have experienced similar forms of guilt.
- Know that your feelings of guilt will come and go—just like all difficult feelings. Emotional reactions to cancer often change over time.
- Share your feelings of guilt with those that you can confide in.
- If you feel that you can't talk openly about your feelings with friends and family, try talking with a counselor or social worker. Learn more about the benefits of counseling, how to find a counselor, and how an oncology social worker can help.
- Focus on positive things in your life for which you are thankful.
- Join a support group. For many people, it helps to know that there are others in a similar situation with similar feelings. Learn more about support groups and finding one that is right for you. Several resources for support can also be found on the Internet. Read about online communities for support.
- Find activities that are soothing or help you feel well. Make it a point to do things that you enjoy, such as seeing a friend or watching a funny movie. Read more about coping with cancer through humor.
Last Updated: March 22, 2010