Coping with Guilt

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2016

Many people living with cancer experience guilt. Guilt is a feeling of blame and regret that is usually hard to acknowledge and express. Guilt often leads people to replay "what if" and "if only" scenarios in their minds to figure out what they could have done differently or how they could “right” a wrongdoing.

People with cancer may feel guilt at various times for different reasons. For example, you may feel guilty because:

  • You could have noticed symptoms earlier or gone to the doctor sooner.

  • You worry that you are a burden to your family or caregivers.

  • The treatment you received did not work the way you had hoped.

  • The cancer comes with financial costs or causes you to spend time away from work for treatment. Consider asking for help with managing the cost of your cancer care.

  • You survived cancer while others did not. This is often referred to as “survivor’s guilt.”

  • You blame yourself or feel embarrassed or ashamed of lifestyle choices and habits that may have increased your risk of developing cancer.

Family, friends, and caregivers of people with cancer may also experience guilt because they:

  • Are healthy while someone they care about is ill

  • Are not able to help more

  • Cannot make the person with cancer healthier

  • Feel stressed or sad themselves

Coping with guilt

Although feelings of guilt are common, it is not healthy to dwell on them. Feeling very guilty about events outside of your control and the inability to let go of guilt can lead to depression. Although depression is more common among people with cancer, it should not be considered a normal part of living with cancer. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of depression and how to find help.

Letting go of guilt

Letting go of guilt can help improve your well-being and your ability to cope with cancer. To reduce guilty feelings:

  • Remember that cancer is not your fault—or anyone else’s. Experts do not fully understand why most types of cancer develop. Sometimes people with cancer feel guilty about specific lifestyle choices they made, such as cigarette smoking. But it is important to let go of any mistakes you think you made in the past and to forgive yourself and others.

  • Know that your feelings of guilt will come and go. Just like all difficult emotions triggered by a diagnosis of cancer, your feelings of guilt will change over time.

  • Share your feelings. Talk about the guilt you are feeling with someone you trust or with a counselor or social worker. Learn more about the benefits of counseling and how an oncology social worker can help.

  • Join a support group. It helps most people to know that others have been in their situation and have experienced similar feelings of guilt. Learn more about support groups and how to find the right one for you. Also read about online communities for support.

  • Focus on positive things in your life for which you are thankful. Find activities that are soothing or help you relax. Do things that you enjoy, such as seeing a friend or watching a funny movie. Read more about coping with cancer through humor.

  • Find other healthy ways to express your emotions. Consider expressing how you feel through creative activities you enjoy, such as music or art. Or write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Learn more about finding comfort through journaling.

More Information

Managing Emotions

Talking with Family and Friends

Coping with Anger

Coping with Uncertainty