#Survivorship: Grief and Survivor's Guilt

This week, we are fortunate to have guest blogger and friend, Nichole Becker Reefe, share her insight and experience with grief and survivor’s guilt as a young adult cancer survivor. After being treated for a rare cancer as a young college student, Nichole will be 16 years in remission this November (happily, the same month of her son’s birthday). Nichole was a founding member of the UC Davis Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Advisory Board, which focuses on developing and implementing innovative informational, educational, and support programs for adolescents and young adults with cancer and raises awareness of the special needs of this age group as well as survivorship issues.

Survivor's guilt…is it real?

As a young adult cancer survivor, I can confirm that it is. 

I'm one of the lucky ones, I survived. Sure, I have serious unintended consequences from the treatment that saved my life, but that's a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things, right? I'm in remission. I should be happy and thankful.

And I am…but it can be hard to carry the burden of being a survivor when others don't. 

Sometimes I feel ashamed and guilty. I ask myself regularly, why me? Why did I have to survive when so many others did not? Why did my peers, my friends lose their battle with cancer? They fought just as hard as I did. They deserved to survive too!

I have learned and learn again and again that life doesn't work that way. Disease does not work that way. Cancer does not work that way.

Whenever I hear of someone who passed away from cancer, I feel a wave of sadness and guilt wash over me. I ache for their loss and at times I feel a sense of guilt that I survived and others did not. 

At the age of 20 I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer - nasopharyngeal cancer. 

What the heck is that, right? Well, it's a rare form of cancer that is generally prevalent in Asian men who have a salty diet. Just to be clear, I am a female that is 1/8 Filipino. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 1 out of 100,000 in North America get this type of cancer. 

I had just finished my finals as a sophomore at the University of California, Davis and it was time for summer and relaxation! It was time to get a job or an internship and enjoy fun times with my friends before I headed back to school in the fall. Instead I found myself being poked, prodded, and examined by numerous doctors and medical residents. I was treated with 6 rounds of chemotherapy, countless doses of radiation, and participated in an experimental radiation study. It was a painful life-altering experience I do not wish upon anyone. Due to the support of my family, friends, doctors, countless nurses, and even strangers - I survived! I was unstoppable! I could conquer the world! I had a new found respect for life and death…or so I thought.

 About a year after returning to school, I received a call from a high school friend informing me of her recent diagnosis with Ewing's sarcoma - another rare cancer. 

Despite her news, I was optimistic for her and confident she too would reach remission like me. It may have been my new found exuberance and energy for life that veiled me with naivety, but I honestly believed she would survive. 

Sara and I had been soccer teammates for years and now we were going to be cancer survivors!

Or so I thought. 

Unfortunately, she lost her battle with cancer. I was devastated! How could this happen? Why her and not me? I remember telling her mother at the funeral that I wished I could share my remission with Sara.  I look back and could not believe how naïve I was, but that was how I truly felt and still do to this day (nearly 16 years later). 

Grieving for her while simultaneously coping with my survival was and still is an extremely painful life experience. I have learned that my remission is mine and mine alone. That survivorship is not a burden, but a way in which Sara can live on. I can share my memories of her as a kick-ass soccer player, a kind and friendly soul, and someone who would have made the world a better place if she was given the chance. 

While challenging, I have also learned that it is ok to be thankful for my good health while simultaneously grieving the loss of someone dear to me or to someone else. That as a cancer survivor, I have a unique perspective and when appropriate, I can share my insight with others and hopefully be a source of support.

P.S. Whenever I need a pick-me-up, I listen to one of these gems.

A Survivor's Playlist