7 Ways to Ease “Cancer Guilt”

By Diana Bierman
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

If you’re going through chemo, you’ve got enough on your plate—from logistics and finances to family and professional matters—so the last thing you need is to pile on the guilt. Yet at one point or another, many cancer patients find themselves thinking things like, “I brought this on myself,” or “I hate being such a burden on my loved ones.”

“People have a natural drive to make sense of events, particularly stressful or threatening ones. They also want to believe the world has order, is predictable and is fair, and so it’s natural for patients to wonder if they played a role in causing their cancer—to think about what would make this cancer diagnosis ‘make sense’ and feel ‘fair,’” says Wendy Lichtenthal, PhD, clinical psychologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, NY.

But blaming yourself can actually make it harder for you to manage your cancer and treatment. A study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine showed that women who blamed themselves for their breast cancer had more mood disturbances and a poorer quality of life than those who didn’t feel responsible. “Generally speaking, blaming oneself for things or being self-critical is not helpful for one’s mental well-being,” explains Dr. Lichtenthal.

If “cancer guilt” is a problem for you, try these strategies:

Show compassion to the person you were. Dr. Lichtenthal explains that because of our drive to make sense of things, we have a tendency to look back at a situation “knowing what we know now,” and feel we should have behaved differently. But she encourages people to fully consider what they knew and what their values were at the time: “Be compassionate to that person you were then—you couldn’t have possibly known how things would turn out.”

Count your blessings. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants who wrote five things they were thankful for every day for a week felt better about their lives as a whole. Think of cancer as an enemy that doesn’t deserve an ego boost or your attention—remind yourself what’s special about your life and watch that guilty burden slip away.

Get cancer-smart. Learn as much as you can about chemotherapy and cancer. Brush up on the facts online or ask your oncologist questions. The more you know about your condition, the more you’ll be reminded that you’re not to blame for your diagnosis. Dr. Lichtenthal recommends the following websites: National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov), OncoLink (www.oncolink.org), the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), CancerCare (www.cancercare.org) and the Cancer Support Community (www.cancersupportcommunity.org).

Find a support group. Who can better lift your sprits than people in the same situation? Join a local support group of people undergoing chemo or search for one online. Expressing your thoughts to those who “get it” can help ease those pesky feelings of self-blame, especially if you were recently diagnosed: Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found these groups helped women greatly adjust to a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer.

Pat yourself on the back. “Self-compassion is key to reducing self-blame,” says Dr. Lichtenthal. One way to do this: Celebrate your successes. Did you get enough calories today? Did you walk for 15 minutes? Embrace your accomplishments, no matter how small. A victory is a victory, isn’t it?

Put a new spin on your situation. Feel you’re a burden to your loved ones because you need a hand while going through chemo? Dr. Lichtenthal recommends looking at it this way: “Sometimes it’s helpful to think about how good it feels to help others in need,” she explains. “By allowing your loves ones to assist you, you’re giving them the opportunity to experience those same feelings.”

Talk to a counselor. “Individuals who are depressed often experience self-blame as one of the symptoms, and so, because it’s sometimes hard to distinguish which came first, patients should be mindful about whether they’re actually experiencing depression,” says Dr. Lichtenthal. Seeing a mental health professional can help further evaluate what you’re going through. Note: This is especially important if low mood is impacting decisions about your health, like keeping doctor’s appointments or taking medication.

Still feeling guilty? Dr. Lichtenthal offers these words of wisdom: “It’s true that a number of health behaviors have been linked to the risk of developing cancer. But we can’t know which might have played a contributing role. Go easy on yourself, nurture yourself and think about what you can do to move forward—and take good care of yourself in the here and now.”

Published March 2014

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