Breast Cancer: Dealing With Survivor Guilt

Let me tell you about my friend Kat and survivor guilt. We met at a Boarding for Breast Cancer Survivor Retreat  after I was suddenly diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

breast cancer survivor's guilt
Our boobies tried to kill us, so we cut them off and went surfing!  Kat is second to the left, on the bottom row.

The minute I saw her gorgeous face, and she made an off-color sex joke, I immediately knew we’d be friends. We laughed… cried… and shared stories of fighting this disease while taking care of young children.

breast cancer survivor's guilt

The harsh reality of breast cancer is not everyone survives the fight. Kat passed away leaving behind her husband and two beautiful young children. I saw her a couple of months earlier when she was in LA for yet another treatment for breast cancer related complications.

Which brings me to the point of this post. It’s so hard to accept that death is part of this disease. I’m paralyzed with the news and unbearable thoughts this is stirring up. Stuck in this scary place of disbelief, anger, sadness… and dare I say it, fear that it could be me next.

breast cancer survivor's guilt

When cancer enters your life you are diagnosed, your cancer is graded, and you are given a treatment plan (which typically involves a combination of surgery, chemo, radiation, medication… all four if you hit the cancer jackpot!)  Then you’re left with your ‘risk of recurrence’.  After you’ve exhausted all options for kicking this crap out of your body, you can never return to that clean slate. Doctor’s give you a magical ‘risk of recurrence’ percentage, based on an algorithm that includes factors such as age, medical history, stage of cancer, treatment plan etc.

Mine is 15%. Which means there’s a 15% chance a secondary cancer will occur in my body, but an 85% chance it won’t! It’s like Russian Roulette at this point for me now. The good news is I always bet big, and am not afraid of challenges, even where risks are involved. And frankly this one is out of my hands.

breast cancer survivor's guilt tests

Even after surgically removing body parts, radiation, taking a chemotherapy IV to the brink of death, and slowly nursing the body back to health again… there might be one stealth cancer cell remaining.  And that’s all it takes. That is my risk of recurrence. This is a secondary cancer. Secondary breast cancer occurs when breast cancer cells spread from the first (primary) cancer in the breast, to other parts of the body. This happens through lymph nodes or blood. And even better news (please note the sarcasm), secondary breast cancer can be treated, it can’t be cured. It grows in organs. We’re talking brain, lungs, liver etc… and it turns out your body needs these to survive. You can’t surgically remove cancer from these places. This is the problem. This was Kat’s problem.  Her cancer recurred.

Survivor Guilt

It’s been 5 years since I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I visit my team of doctors regularly. I diligently take the ‘wonder drug’ tamoxifen (even though it makes me bat-shit crazy), and try to live large every day. My 5 year mark without a recurrence is a positive sign; if I make it to 10 years even better. However I live each day on borrowed time. I know this. Kat knew this. Doctors cannot predict if/when cancer will recur. It feels like a coin toss. I feel as though I won the coin toss and Kat lost the coin toss. This is survivor guilt.

breast cancer survivor's guilt diagram
I love a good cancer diagram!

Cancer gave me a different perspective on life and death, and I faced harsh realities. I’ll never truly know why some survive and others don’t, it’s such a complex, sophisticated disease with far too many unknowns. And while I have several friends who have lost their fight with breast cancer, I have so many more friends living strong happy lives. Sometimes there is no answer to the “why”.

breast cancer survivor's guilt
Meet my beautiful friend Kat…

So beautiful Kat, cheers to you my sweet… this dreadful disease brought us together, and the news of your passing brought me to my knees. For me personally, the toughest part of survivor guilt is seeing a mom leave behind her precious family to pick up the pieces. I suppose at the back of my mind I’m thinking it could be me. It’s simply not fair. I continue to enjoy life, hug and kiss my boys extra hard, and cherish every moment I can. I think of you often. Rest in peace Kat. Your warmth, sparkling personality and zest for life is sorely missed on this earth. I hold dear our many precious, fun memories. You are missed but never forgotten!!

Boarding for Breast Cancer (B4BC) is a 501(c)3 non-profit foundation that advocates early detection and a healthy, active, and sustainable lifestyle as the best means for breast cancer prevention. Founded in 1996, B4BC empowers young people to make positive choices that promote lifelong wellness through outreach, prevention, sustainability, and support programs.

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About The Author

Samantha

I’m a travel and health writer, digital and brand consultant, breast cancer survivor, and supermom to two active boys! I keep it real and share stories of raising feral wolves teenage boys, family life after a cancer diagnosis, and family travels around the world! Each story is shared with my dry, and sometimes naughty sense of humor.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Zac | 14th Jan 18

    An interesting read, something I hadn’t considered so thank you for that

    • Samantha Kuhr | 14th Jan 18

      Thank you for reading! There are so many angles to breast cancer!

      • Zac | 14th Jan 18

        You’re welcome, thanks for writing ✍️😊

  2. sorryless | 14th Jan 18

    Prayers for your friend, blessings for what she gave to your life and all good wishes for the future.

    • Samantha Kuhr | 14th Jan 18

      Thank you so much. I appreciate your kind words.

  3. best cancer hospitals in india | 22nd Jan 18

    Hi thank you for sharing, it helps people to overcome misleadings regarding cancer
    I found List of cancer hospitals, This might be useful for the needed one
    https://www.besthospitals.in/best-cancer-hospital-in-india/

    • Samantha Kuhr | 25th Jan 18

      Hi, Glad you enjoyed the article, and thank you for sharing your link!

  4. Kristen Iness | 10th Jul 20

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for your friend!

    • Samantha | 17th Jul 20

      Thank you so much Kristen.

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