I’m a Breast Cancer and MS Survivor. Why Do I Feel Guilty?

You’ve probably heard about cancer patients who experience survivor’s guilt. It’s a powerful wave of guilt that can hit when you least expect it. I’ve felt it several times since finishing up my cancer treatment four years ago. For me, it’s usually triggered when someone younger than me dies from cancer. Guilt doesn’t do much good, but it’s usually followed by a wave of appreciation for the precious gift of life.

Recently, I had what felt exactly like an attack of survivor’s guilt at a multiple sclerosis (MS) awareness event.

A little background

For me, MS came on like a monster in 2003. The monster stayed with me through spring of 2010, changing my life in just about every way imaginable. My MS is of the relapsing-remitting variety, so I lived a double life, alternating between crushing disability and feeling pretty darn good. My last major relapse occurred in the spring of 2010. Then, for reasons unknown to me, I got better. And stayed better. I made it through summer and into the fall feeling stronger and more energetic than I had in years.

Then I found an ominous lump that turned out to be triple-negative breast cancer. After ten months of treatment that included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, I found myself on the other side of cancer, my MS still in remission. Here we are in 2015, and I still haven’t had another major relapse. Sure, I have some minor symptoms, but they have only a small impact on my life. My MS is nothing like it was prior to 2010.

So, what’s this weird, new guilt?

When you’re diagnosed with MS, one thing you learn right away is that MS is different for everybody. There are progressive types and relapsing-remitting types and varying degrees of severity. Back at the MS Awareness event, the majority of attendees had MS, and those varying degrees were apparent. Many struggled with movement or used wheelchairs, walkers, or canes. I recognized the look of overwhelming fatigue on some faces.

Me? I looked as though I could have run a marathon. I don’t think any of them gave it much thought because people with MS are intimately acquainted with “you look so good” syndrome. You know, that thing where people with chronic illness look like the very picture of health even though they feel like crap and can barely move. But what they couldn’t know was that I didn’t just look healthy. I felt healthy and, despite having multiple diagnoses, am healthy. I haven’t used a cane in five years. I work out at the gym three times a week. I walk and drive and work and play. I can even dance (I have no rhythm, but I can hardly blame that on MS).

To look at me these days, you’d have no hint of my MS. I barely notice it myself. Hence the guilt attack. I guess I can’t really call it survivor’s guilt, because most people with MS live a near-normal lifespan. But it was definitely guilt. Big time. Why had I gotten better and they had not? Why was I walking around as if I didn’t have MS while they were struggling? I felt awful, like I’d won a big prize and didn’t share my winnings with the group. It was not a pleasant feeling.

Replacing guilt with gratitude

Exactly why my MS remains at bay is a mystery. I have no magic potion or secret dietary ingredient. Maybe cancer or cancer treatment changed something. Maybe it’s simply MS doing its remission thing. I don’t know and my doctors won’t speculate.

The thing is, I know that MS can reappear at any time. So can cancer or a million other things. Despite MS and cancer and a few other things that attacked my body along the way, I would describe myself as healthy. For that, I’m truly grateful. I have a keen understanding of just how fortunate I am. I may occasionally suffer from survivor’s guilt, but I’m thankful every day.

Related Reading
Lessons from Angelina Jolie’s Medical Decisions
7 Things I Learned from Being Sick
Books: No More Secs! | Catch That Look

Photo: Olga Aleksandrovna Lisitskaya | iStock | Thinkstock


Chiara D'agostino

I'ma recent survivor, I am so happy to be alive. I haven't felt guilt yet, but thank you for the article, I will look out for those feelings should they arise.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

The J.
Vikram S2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Marion Friedl
Marion Friedl2 years ago

No need to feel guilty, Anne, I´ve got systemical lupus erythematodes, another auto immunity disease, but I haven´t had a single attack since I adopted the 1st of my 3 cats, Gizzy, at the end of Oct. ´10, so I can even do some gyms every day, not at the moment because I´m sick with flu combined with bronchitis and/or sinusisits, so I have to take some time out at the moment, but normally I do some gyms really every day, and I have some other diseases like M. Raynaud, Sclerodermy Osteoporosis, too, I think we chronically sick people really shouldn´t let us bring down at all!!!

Arnold B.
arnold B2 years ago

thanks for sharing

Nimue Pendragon

Thank you for sharing, Ann, may your good health continue. Don't ever forget that you deserve it :)

Nimue Pendragon

Thank you for sharing, Ann, may your good health continue. Don't ever forget that you deserve it :)

Natalie S.
Natalie S2 years ago

Thanks for the sincerity with which this article is written. May your recovery be complete.

Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago