Thursday, January 10, 2008

Survivor guilt

This is going to sound crazy... sometimes I feel like a fraud, a cancer fraud!

Whenever I meet someone I haven’t seen in a long time, they comment on how good I look. I interpret that to mean I don’t look sick. As evidence, my skin tone is good, my weight is about what it was before my diagnosis, and I exhibit good energy. By all accounts, I look “normal.”

The truth, of course, is that I have a minimal and shrinking amount of cancer, and the drugs I’m taking don’t interfere too radically with my lifestyle. On top of that, since I’m self-employed, my lifestyle tolerates a good amount of flexibility.

That’s not to say this has been easy for me. The cancer ordeal is a rough one, a tremendous trial of body and spirit, a true nightmare of details, reordered priorities, and anxiety. Cancer robbed me of concentration and focus at a time when I couldn't afford an extended crisis in my life (Is there ever a good time?!), and even now, I'm clawing my way out of the trouble I managed to get myself into by having my attention diverted.

No, it hasn’t been easy, but I am alive. And I have prospects of living a long and healthy life from here on out. To be sure, I’m very happy about that. In addition, my life is enriched by the struggle, in some weird way. But I’m also dogged by guilt. Not everyone survives cancer. And cancer or not, many people are in much worse shape than I am.

For example, I’ve been following the progress of a man in his mid-forties who I used to know. He was young and smart and funny and competent when I knew him fifteen years ago. Now he’s recovering from a major stroke, brain cancer, seizures, meningitis, and the effects of countless drugs and treatments. According to his wife’s blog, his days revolve around many hours of physical therapy, speech training, acupuncture treatments, naps, and endless doctors’ appointments. He’s shown tremendous courage, and now, a year and a half into his ordeal, he measures accomplishment in the number of unaided steps he can take from his bed to his fish tank – about a dozen.

Another friend is suffering through his mother’s bout with lung cancer. She was recently diagnosed with advanced symptoms. Her treatment is so unpleasant it leaves her wondering how much of the “cure” she can endure. My friend and his family are reliving the pain they went through twenty-five years ago with his father in a similar situation.

Yes, everyone has their own particular form of torture to overcome; life keeps throwing tests our way. I've always thought of myself as a survivor and hope that's played a part in my struggle with cancer. Cancer is cancer is cancer. Still, it's wrenching and humbling to look around and see what other people are forced to deal with….


Dan Freeman said...

Do not, for one moment, allow yourself to wallow in survivor guilt.

My mother (who you talk about) is your biggest cheerleader right now. She's read the blog and just wants to yell "GO, CEIL, GO!"

You did everything right. You had regular medical attention so your cancer was caught early.

Mom freely admits her downfall was skipping the annual chest x-ray. (There's a lesson here, y'all! Have those tests done that we all tend to put off!)

Do not feel survivor guilt. Feel triumphant that your detection plan worked!

Ceil said...

Wow Dan. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

I do have a tendency to get down on myself. And when things are going too well, I look for reasons why I shouldn't believe my eyes and good fortune.

Thank you. And thank your mother. You know my thoughts are with her now....

Dan Freeman said...

Wallow in the good news, darlin' -- it's a better place to wallow. ;-)