Guilt Is My Frequent Companion, Hitchhiking Through My Life

Although I’ve not written for a while, my blog is frequently on my mind with ideas, experiences, and observations dancing through my head. Having become a silent but comforting confidante, I am unable to abandon my blog… As I drive through the countryside or lie awake in bed, I write in my head, creating descriptions and passages, explanations and scenarios. But for some reason, for the past few months, I’ve been unable to put it all together. It’s not at all a lack of desire. Rather it has been a lack of focus and perhaps even energy. I have to carefully choose where and when to use my focus and energy, knowing that each are limited, and that I have to prioritize. But today I recognized, with the help of an insightful friend, that writing and blogging are actually a great source of inspiration for me and that without it I’m feeling lost and disoriented within my own cancer journey… I feel as though I’ve gone astray. And to have lost my way just serves to compound this overwhelming and frightening experience. So today I’m back, intending to remain so, and ready to explore a subject that has been haunting me since I was diagnosed with cancer more than eight years ago… Guilt.

Guilt is my frequent companion, unexpected and uninvited. It pops up from time to time, hitchhiking through my life, an ugly visitor on an already difficult journey. I feel guilty for having cancer, for being terminally ill, for losing my ability to participate in life the way I once did. I feel guilty that people have to take care of me, clean up after me, and rearrange their own lives in order to accommodate my needs and my desires. I even feel guilty for the envy that I sometimes feel when I watch seemingly healthy people going about the daily activities of life–activities that are no longer a part of my repertoire—excitedly dashing up a flight of stairs to retrieve a forgotten item, energetically jogging down the road in pursuit of fitness, effortlessly maneuvering through the chores and tasks of the day. But most of all I feel guilty because I am a mother with cancer and the lives of my children are forever and irreversibly changed by that ugly six letter word.

My feelings of guilt have led me to apologize to my loved ones, my family and friends, on many occasions. I apologize when I have a particularly bad day, when my pain is out of control, and when I’m unable to participate in the simplest of activities–an evening meal, a short walk with the dogs, gathering eggs from the chicken coop. I apologize when my family has to carry me, doing the things I can no longer do because I’m too tired, too weak, or too slow. I apologize when I break down and become tearful, expressing my fears and anxieties, because I know that their love for me forces them along that ugly path of dread and angst right beside me. At the very least I am aware that it is painful to watch me suffer, and for that I am, of course, sorry. And I apologize to my children for missing their special events, for asking them to take on even more responsibilities, and for worrying them on the days that I am too sad or too sick to properly mother them.

Of course they all ask me why I apologize and tell me that I don’t need to do so. I try to explain, to put into words this burdened state of mind and the sense that I am somehow responsible, at least in part, for the emotional well-being of those that care for me. But these feelings of guilt are complicated—my need to apologize, to express my regret, to clear my conscious, and to protect my loved ones from the ugly truth and far reaching depth of this cancer—not fully understood even by me.

On a cognitive, conscious, and rational level I do know that I’ve done nothing wrong and that my feelings of guilt are unfounded. I didn’t earn this cancer. No one, absolutely no one, deserves this. Nevertheless, I’ve made tremendous personal and financial sacrifice to pursue the best of cancer care. I’ve pushed my body and my sanity in search of treatment options and opportunities. I’ve learned firsthand the details, the good and the bad, of chemo, radiation, and surgery, clinical trials, nutritional options, and even acupuncture. I take better care of myself than ever before, realizing the benefits of light exercise, soothing naps, and pampering massage for cancer patients. And even as I pray, sometimes begging God to allow me more time, to make the pain stop, to help me find the strength I need to fight, and to heal my body, I am aware that I don’t deserve this cancer or the myriad of burdens it has placed on my life. Neither do my loved ones. But for some reason, not completely appreciated by me, I do feel guilty.

Perhaps I sense that as these ugly little cellular mutations were taking place in my body, my own defense mechanisms were asleep at the wheel. When my body should have kicked into high gear to destroy the mutant cells, I might have been stressed or sleep deprived, causing my defenses to be otherwise occupied. Whatever the case, my body wasn’t paying attention and it let me down. It left me in the lurch, deserted me in my hour of need, and it smacks of failure. And although I’ve made some impressive mistakes in my life, serious errors in judgment, I’ve never seen myself as a failure. I’ve generally accomplished what I set out to do, learning from my mistakes and growing within my limitations. I’ve experienced success—as a mother, as a student, as a professional, as an athlete, as a woman. Until now. Now, as a mother with cancer, I feel as though I’m failing.

I once told a cancer psychiatrist about my feelings of guilt. I caught her off guard and she was surprised by that revelation. I don’t think she had considered that a victim of cancer might feel guilty. To her credit, she recovered well, and then gave me much to think about. Ultimately I have discovered that I’m not alone in these feelings of guilt. I’ve asked around. I’ve read up on it. Although none of us should, other cancer patients feel guilty, too.

Those of us in the cancer club find a multitude of reasons to blame ourselves for our predicament. We think we should have noticed our symptoms earlier, brought about an earlier diagnosis, and possibly more effective treatment. We are concerned that we are burdening our families and friends. And we worry about the welfare of those we might leave behind—especially the welfare of our children, their emotional health and physical comfort, a future for which we may not be present, and all of the life events that a mother can’t bear to miss. We worry that lifestyle choices may have caused the cancer. Maybe we ate too much red meat, chugged too much milk, and slept too little. Maybe we didn’t exercise enough, had one too many glasses of wine, or gave in to a sweet tooth too often. Maybe we lived in an exotic location where carcinogens traveled the water pipes, floated through the polluted air, or began as a parasitic virus. Maybe… If only… What if…

Bottom line, regardless of lifestyle, nutrition, sleeping habits, or living environment, no one deserves cancer. No one deserves the malignant mistakes made by our happy, little, normal cells as they copy DNA while they are growing and dividing. Heck, lots of people will live crazy, unhealthy, metamorphosis inviting lifestyles and never have so much as a hint of a mutation. And although I’ve learned that I’m not alone in the I’ve-Got-Cancer-So-I-Feel-Guilty-Club, I’ve also learned that it’s not healthy to dwell on guilt or on the past. Dwelling leads to anxiety and depression and we wrangle with that enough as it is. Cancer is not our fault.

So as I try to ditch my uninvited companion, I’m working hard to let go of the maybes, if onlys, and what ifs. I focus on now. I focus on pleasure—whatever that may be—music, art, writing, companionship of family and friends, time spent with my daughters, and, of course, quilting. I focus on communion with God through prayer and scripture, conversations with my pastor, and spiritual readings. I focus on shared feelings, support from loved ones, and on the many positive aspects of my life for which I am thankful. And if the guilt continues, amid the apologies and regret, I must, we must, forgive ourselves.



9 thoughts on “Guilt Is My Frequent Companion, Hitchhiking Through My Life

  1. Guilt can be such an unrelenting ghost, conjuring up memories, regrets, and what-ifs from long ago. The only cures are turning it over to God (“When God forgives, it’s time for us to forget.”–Daily Bread), forgiveness, and living in the present. Three things I’ve witnessed you do, making you a source of inspiration and strength to everyone who knows you. Thank you for your sharing your journey and eloquently articulating the struggles that so many people face!


  2. Kristie Renfro

    Wow Kelly Thank you for being Real! You once again amaze me with your thoughts & words . I pray that today is a good day, free from pain & guilt. Love & hugs, Kristie


  3. Beverly Aslett

    Guilt. Where does this “emotional hitchhiker” come from? We feel guilty because we are fortunate, we feel guilty when we don’t love enough, give enough, sacrifice enough. I feel guilty because I don’t have cancer (at least not yet that I know about) and Kelly does. In my mind, I feel like I deserve it more than someone like Kelly. I don’t eat correctly, I don’t exercise enough, I’m too selfish. All in all, guilt is such a nonproductive emotion. I say kick guilt out of the car, out of the room, out of our lives. I’m with Kelly, let’s ditch guilt and enjoy each and every moment we have been given.


  4. I love that you are so gracious to let us know and see your heart! Everything you post is a beautifully written and brings us all along on your journey. Thank you for being such an inspiration.


  5. Brenda Tate

    Beautifully said Kelly. Thank you for being so Brutafully honest and Vulnerable with us. You help so many people understand and feel understood.
    L&L, Brenda


  6. Terry Davis

    Sweet, sweet, amazing Kelly….
    I’m so saddened by your loss. You leave a beautiful – full of LOVE memory in all of hearts. 💗 My heart is weeping with sadness that you are gone and with happiness that you are no longer in pain and are free of any burdens life on earth gave you. We will all MISS you immensely and LOVE you always. 😘


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