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  • Writer's pictureLisa Caughman Payne

Survivors' guilt - by Lisa Caughman Payne

a storm, symbolizing a survivor's tale

Embracing Life After the Storm: A Survivor's Tale

Once upon a time, in the City of Asheville, NC lived Lisa – a courageous woman who had triumphed over the storm of stage IV colon cancer. However, amidst the joy of survival, Lisa found herself grappling with a shadow that lingered in the corners of her mind: survivor's guilt.

In the quiet moments of reflection, Lisa acknowledged the presence of this unwelcome companion. She understood that survivor's guilt was not a sign of ingratitude but a complex emotional aftermath of her journey. Determined to heal, she embarked on a quest to let go of this burden and embrace the life she fought so hard to preserve.

Lisa began by accepting her feelings with open arms. She realized that survivor's guilt was not a flaw in her character but a natural response to the unpredictable nature of life. With this understanding, a weight was lifted, allowing her to breathe more freely.

One day, while sitting in her “she shack”, Lisa decided to practice self-compassion. She spoke kind words to herself, acknowledging the strength within that had carried her through the storm. Self-compassion became a daily ritual, slowly transforming guilt into acceptance.  Lisa found great comfort in using Dr. Kristin Neff’s research to assist on this journey.  

As she looked back on her journey, Lisa reflected on the diverse realities of survivorship. She understood that each person's path was unique, shaped by a myriad of factors beyond her control. This realization helped her let go of the comparisons that fueled her guilt.

To reinforce her newfound perspective, Lisa integrated positive affirmations into her routine. Each morning, she affirmed her resilience, celebrated her achievements, and embraced the present moment. These affirmations, by Louise Hay, became the foundation upon which she built her self-esteem.  

Embracing a spirit of gratitude, Lisa developed a daily practice of acknowledging the positive aspects of her life. This intentional focus on the good helped shift her perspective, allowing her to appreciate the beauty in every moment.  

As Lisa continued her quest for healing, she explored various therapeutic outlets. Journaling, art, writing, and music became channels through which she could express the complexity of her emotions. Creative expression became a bridge to understanding and releasing the tangled threads of survivor's guilt.  

Supported by a loving network of friends, family, and fellow survivors, Lisa found comfort in setting realistic expectations for her continued recovery. Patience became her ally as she navigated the ups and downs, forgiving herself for any perceived role in the guilt that lingered.

In the end, Lisa's story became a testament to the power of letting go. Through self-compassion, gratitude, and the support of others, she transformed survivor's guilt into a stepping stone toward a life filled with purpose, joy, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.  

This is my story, and I trust it resonates with yours. We share the common thread of survivor’s guilt. Through sharing my journey, my hope is to assist you in letting go of your own survivor’s guilt. While there will inevitably be stories of loss that may trigger these feelings, with intention, I believe these moments of guilt pangs can become brief. 

Tips for letting go of survivor’s guilt

Letting go of survivor's guilt can be a challenging but crucial step in the healing process for cancer survivors. Here are some tips to help you release these feelings:

  1. Acknowledge and Acceptance:

  • Begin by acknowledging that survivor's guilt exists and accepting it as a natural part of the emotional recovery process. Read about Expectations and Reality.

  1. Self-Compassion:

  • Practice self-compassion. Understand that it's okay to feel a range of emotions, and you deserve kindness and understanding, just like anyone else. Dr. Kristin Neff - Self Compassion.

  1. Reflect on Realities:

  • Reflect on the realities of survivorship. Understand that cancer journeys are unique and influenced by a variety of factors beyond one's control. The Serenity Prayer

  1. Positive Affirmations:

  • Incorporate positive affirmations into your daily routine. Remind yourself of your strength, resilience, and the positive aspects of your journey. Affirmations - Louise Hay

  1. Focus on the Present:

  • Practice mindfulness to stay present and avoid dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness techniques can help you appreciate the current moment.  Read about Mindfulness After Cancer.

  1. Celebrate Your Achievements:

  • Celebrate your achievements and milestones, no matter how small. Recognize and acknowledge the progress you've made in your recovery. Read about Perspective and Celebration.

  1. Share Your Story:

  • Consider sharing your story with others. Sharing your experiences not only helps you process your emotions but also creates awareness and understanding among those around you.  

  1. Set Realistic Expectations:

  • Set realistic expectations for yourself. Understand that recovery is a journey, and it's okay to face challenges along the way. Be patient with yourself. Lower the Bar - Gretchen Rubin.

  1. Volunteer or Help Others:

  • Channel your survivorship into positive action by helping others. Volunteering or supporting fellow survivors can provide a sense of purpose and contribute to letting go of guilt. Health Benefits of Volunteering.

  1. Professional Support:

  • Seek professional support from therapists, navigators, coaches, and counselors experienced in survivorship issues. They can provide guidance and tools to navigate complex emotions. Check our Care Team at The After Cancer.

  1. Gratitude Practice:

  • Cultivate a gratitude practice. Regularly express gratitude for the positive aspects of your life. This can shift your focus from guilt to appreciation. Read about The Power of Gratitude.

  1. Forgiveness:

  • Consider forgiveness, both for yourself and for any perceived role you played in survivor's guilt. Understand that you deserve to live a fulfilling life without carrying unnecessary guilt.

  1. Create a Support System:

  • Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or fellow survivors who understand your journey and can encourage you. 

  1. Therapeutic Outlets:

  • Explore therapeutic outlets such as journaling, art, or music. Creative expression can help process and release complex emotions.  The Artist's Way

Remember, letting go of survivor's guilt is a gradual process. Be patient with yourself and celebrate the progress you make along the way. Reach out to Professionals as needed. Positive psychology can be a valuable approach for cancer survivors dealing with survivor's guilt, offering tools and perspectives to promote emotional well-being and post-traumatic growth.


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