Coping with Guilt

Aprobado por la Junta Editorial de Cancer.Net, 01/2019

Many people living with cancer experience guilt. Guilt is a feeling of blame and regret that is usually hard to accept 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.

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.

  • You survived cancer while others did not. This is also called “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

Feelings of guilt are common, but it is not healthy to keep thinking about them. Feeling very guilty about events outside of your control and not being able 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. Consider the following tips 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.

  • 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 help you relax and feel good. 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 showing how you feel through creative activities you enjoy, such as music or art. Or write down your thoughts and feelings.

Related Resources

How Cancer Affects Family Life

Coping with Anger

Coping with Uncertainty

Don't Blame Yourself For Your Cancer Diagnosis 

How Receiving My Own Cancer Diagnosis Changed My Perspective on Caring for Someone With Cancer