TNBC and Me: Why Me? Thoughts on Survivor's Guilt

August 13, 2018

Why me?  That’s a question often asked by those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.  While it wasn’t the first question I asked, it eventually came to the forefront of my mind. 

Why me?  I mean, if the world ran according to karma, by every right I wouldn’t have been diagnosed with TNBC.  After all, I had certainly walked my share of 5K’s wearing pink boas and I actually (eventually) did mail in all of those fundraising yogurt lids that cluttered the junk drawer.  So, why me? 

Early on in my battle, as I met survivors and we swapped stories of our diagnoses and treatments – as naturally as some might chronicle their career paths – I swear I could see distress and poorly hidden pity in their wide-eyed faces when they heard the words “triple-negative.”  Ugh!  I know, right!? Why me?

That question faded as I started down my path of survivorship and focused on getting well and living as normally as possible. With each new exam or scan or biopsy (yes, there were more biopsies; seriously, why me?), I was incredibly relieved when I received a clean bill of health.  I celebrated each milestone with gusto!  Two years, three years, five years! 

While I was living large, sadly, others around me were not.  My young neighbor with a child did not survive TNBC.  As her father explained to me what TNBC is, I just nodded in understanding. I did not have the heart to tell him I am intimately familiar with TNBC because I survived it. 

Then my friend and colleague, who was well on the road to recovery, had an unexpected recurrence. This time it’s stage IV TNBC.  I love her, support her and pray for her continuously. My heart aches for her and I know she is happy for me, but I can’t help but wonder if my survivorship is now a source of envy when it was once a source of inspiration.

Worst of all, I had to say goodbye to my best friend of 30 years.  Unbelievably, we’d been diagnosed within months of each other and were on parallel tracks. Her type was not TNBC and she supposedly had a higher chance of survival but, inexplicably, the cancer in her body metastasized while the cancer in mine disappeared.  She died.  I was cured.  Ironically, the question that came to my mind then was, “Why me?”  As in, why am I a survivor?

Some call this “survivor’s guilt.”  While I have not questioned the wonderful gift of life I’ve been given, I have questioned what it means for me personally.  I don’t completely have the answers.  I do know this: my faith is my source of strength. A scripture that I stand on discusses being put through troubles so that we can provide compassion to others during their troubles. Is this “why me?”  I live as if it is pure truth.

In a sense, for me, survivorship has come to mean responsibility.  That responsibility can be significant, as in serving those diagnosed with breast cancer by listening, encouraging and raising awareness.  It can also be simple, as in treating a friend to lunch, sharing a joke, or appreciating a song with a good beat.

I also have learned that I have an obligation to myself.  I remind myself to take chances and live with purpose.  Over time, I have learned to let go of the guilt: Mostly through the encouragement of my daughters, who make me feel worthy; deep discussions with my counselor, who helped me feel normal; and the blessing of my best friend’s sons, who make me feel blameless.

I have discovered pure joy in pursuing my passions – and discovering some that I didn’t even know I had.  And as a result, when I see an opportunity to take the drum lessons I’ve always wanted, travel to a foreign country, or pursue dreams that I thought were available only in someone else’s reality, I can finally ask myself, “Why not me?”


About 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers are triple-negative. To learn more about this subtype, its treatments and how it impacts lifestyle, attend our conference, Sharing Wisdom, Sharing Strength September 28 – 30. To read more personal stories, visit TNBC and Me

The TNBC and Me blog series is supported by: 

 

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