22/04/2013 13:19 BST | Updated 22/06/2013 06:12 BST

Coping With Cancer's Ugly Sister: Guilt

Getty Images

I'm one of those people who feels guilty about everything.

Guilty for buying a new dress instead of giving money to the homeless guy; guilty for reading girlie glossy magazines instead of the newspaper; guilty about spending £2.40 on a coffee when I could make one at home for free. Guilty about having cancer.

Of all the feelings you expect to go through when you're diagnosed with this deadly disease, guilt is not top of the list. Yet almost all the fellow cancer survivors I've met since my diagnosis say they've felt guilt to some degree. Guilt because they feel the cancer was somehow their fault; guilt for taking time off work; guilt for letting others look after them; guilt for causing loved ones to worry; guilt for surviving when fellow cancer patients have died. You name it, we've probably felt guilty about it.


Then there's the guilt that consumes our families and friends: the guilt my mother suffers because the cancer skipped straight from her mother's generation to mine; the guilt she feels for not being to swap places and go through it instead of me; her guilt for having somehow unwittingly passed on a genetic fault.

Irrational? Certainly. Avoidable? Not so much.

Sadly, guilt and blame go hand in hand with cancer. Often we don't know what caused it, so we blame ourselves, according to Cancer Research UK. Was it my lifestyle? My eating habits? Did I cause myself too much stress? Am I going to bring back my cancer by eating this chocolate bar?

And where do these thoughts get us?

Guilt is, in many cases, a useless emotion. Cancer is a truly horrible, unfortunate disease caused by so many different factors we don't completely understand. Nobody is to blame. (Unless, of course, you believe the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's theory that the U.S. government developed technology to spread cancer - which, let's face it, seems slightly implausible.)


So how to cope with these unhelpful emotions?

Unfortunately, feelings of guilt and blame are apparent in all walks of life - bereavement, illness, friendships, relationships, families - and cannot simply be switched off.

What I find most useful is to put myself in a friend's shoes. If my best friend gave herself a hard time for taking time off work, for not being back full-time just two months after finishing cancer treatment, would I say she was insane? Of course I would.

So why be so harsh on myself for leaving work earlier than everyone else after the year I've had? A life-changing diagnosis, eight months of debilitating treatment, possible infertility and a huge loss of confidence? Hell, I owe myself a serious break.


So my advice to my fellow cancer-guilt sufferers is this:

Your cancer is not your fault. Cut yourself some slack. Take all the time you need. Nobody is judging you. Get some rest. Get some sleep. Indulge yourself. Do the things you love. Would you honestly blame a friend for getting cancer? I don't think you would. You'd tell them none of this was their fault.

We tell ourselves we're cancer warriors who won't be physically beaten by the disease, but what about psychologically? What about the mind games cancer uses to bring us down? Well, I'm taking a stand. Every time I find myself feeling guilty or bad for enjoying something or for taking more time off work, I put myself in a friend's shoes and tell me to go easy on myself.

Cancer, you were not my fault, and I will not spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about you.