Guilt & Cancer

As you can imagine, there are lots of feelings associated with a cancer diagnosis from anger, to sadness to pain to worry and the social media friendly #scanxiety, a diagnosis can really mess with you mentally and take you on an emotional rollercoaster.  But one of the emotions that I have found most difficult to deal with since my mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer has been guilt.  Surprisingly, guilt penetrates my life in a variety of places and rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times. 

When my mum was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I was juggling both a full-time job and part time caring responsibilities.  At the time, I did not know that I was a carer and performing carer responsibilities.  I was a daughter, who insisted on attending every one of my mother’s appointments with her, taking care of her and our home and helping her manage her treatment.  Doing both these things did not work.  It was not possible to do both things which required my full attention to the level of detail that it needed and I struggled both physically and emotionally.  I felt guilty when I was at work that I was distracted and not able to focus, allowing my mind to drift to questions to ask at my mum’s next oncology appointment.  I remember being sat in A&E while my mum was drowsy frantically trying to get a WIFI connection on my laptop and do some work.  Looking back, I can see how wrong that picture was for my mum, for my work and most importantly, for myself.  Guilt weighed down on me and I felt like I was failing on all aspects, I knew that changes had to be made if I were going to be able to get through this.  Chemotherapy and surgery was a treatment option for my mum’s cancer diagnosis.  Selfcare was my treatment option and would allow me to help my mum to recover.  For me to be able to care for my mum, I had to care for myself. 

Generally, on the first working day of my week, which is a Tuesday I struggle to get motivated.  Much like everyone else on a Monday morning, I get the Monday morning blues but on a Tuesday morning, the beginning of my working week when everyone else has gotten into the swing of the working week, I’m still a day behind.  My lack of motivation generally comes from the fact that I have spent four consecutive days caring for my mother at home, making sure she’s comfortable and ensuring she has a good quality of life.  These responsibilities don’t stop once I walk into the office, I don’t disrobe my caring responsibilities once I boot up my laptop or stop worrying about her as I walk into a meeting.  I continue to think about what she’s doing during that time at home and keep an eye on my mobile as I chair a meeting and at times, I feel guilty for doing so.  I worry about my reputation as I answer my mobile in a meeting when I see her pendant alarm has been activated and dash outside to make frantic calls to make sure she’s ok.  Ironically, when I am sat at my desk in an empty office after everyone else has left and it is way past the time I should have left work, I feel guilty once again, for I should be at home, cooking dinner, instead of making my mum wait.
Guilt has also muscled in on some happiness we have felt when my mum’s oncologist confirmed from her scan at the end of her chemotherapy that there was no more evidence of disease in her body.  I whisper this good news and ask my mum’s permission before I tell anyone of this great news because guilt tells me that if just as cancer took away our happiness last time, it can do so again, just as suddenly.  I’m vaguely superstitious but I know that I fear if I sing this information out loud, something bad will happen and the price for doing so is far too great. 
Guilt is a strong emotion that is a catalyst of a lot of deep unwanted emotions and surprisingly comes from a variety of places which we would not expect it to be and can very quickly spiral out of control:
  • You’ve been diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and I feel guilty because it happened to you
  • I feel guilty because two months’ before your diagnosis, I was encouraging you to exercise to the point that we would walk 2 miles every day
  • I feel guilt that I made us miss the bus when you clearly had tumours inside you, making you sick
  • These feelings of guilt make me sad and anxious when I look at how you struggle with simple chores
  • I feel guilt that you are the one will the illness and I’m feeling all these emotions
I read a social media post the other day from a daughter in a similar situation, who felt guilty for posting her troubles and worries for her mother in an ovarian cancer group, it made me think, why should she feel sorry and guilt for caring for a loved one?  Why should these feelings of guilt consume us?  How can these feelings of guilt be processed into something good?

When I first became a carer, I was told by people close to me that I need to take a rest, take a break in case I burnt out because I looked exhausted.  Some feelings associated with being a carer are obvious, stress, exhaustion and worry but very rarely is guilt discussed, a feeling that should not be placed on a carer because why should a person who has devoted their life to an altruistic act, feel guilt?  I think for me, one of my strengths as a carer is also one of my downfalls.  I am an empathetic person and I can fully understand doctors and nurses that do not want to invest their emotions into a patient and keep a safe distance apart for fear of being hurt.  But for me, I can’t do that.  As a relative, I am invested heavily already and I care deeply for my mother but that’s also what gives me the strength to carry on and support her through this journey.  Guilt gives me strength to wake up every morning and make sure she is comfortable and has all that she needs.  Guilt makes me attend every one of her appointments to ensure consistency and make her feel like she has someone in her corner, getting the treatment she needs.  Guilt made me buy a whole new wardrobe for her to make sure she has clothes that fit after her dramatic weight loss and shoes that are comfortable.  Guilt can be channelled into a strength. 

I also see a lot of posts on social media from people apologising when they feel sad, angry or frustrated, venting their feelings from their recent appointment.  They feel guilt for feeling as they have let cancer rule their emotions and let it get them down.  Think about this.  A person is living with a condition that has to all intents and purposes taken over their life and those closest to them.  They may have received bad news.  They have been forced to adapt to a new lifestyle for which they did not choose.  They are angry and frustrated.  Well why the hell shouldn't they be!  We are not the smiling, happy poster examples that we see in the commercials and leaflets with the headscarves on and raising money.  We are angry, we feel guilt, we feel hurt and that's ok.  

Take care


p.s. Of course, it’s important to remember that guilt can also be quite debilitating and that we should not feel sorry for wanting to post on social media how guilty we feel.  There is reassurance that you are not alone and that there are others who have been in the same situation and feel the same way.  If you do feel like this, it’s important to remember that there are organisations out there such as Macmillan's; Maggie’s and Mind who would be willing to discuss such feelings with you further.


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