Cancer & "Assistance Guilt" - The Guilt That Comes With Being Helped

Guilt. It’s a feeling we all get from time to time. Maybe you forgot to feed the cats in the morning, or you slacked off instead of doing that work project or even told someone a white lie because you wanted to sound like a bigshot. Whatever it was, those things usually come with guilt, and we expect it. The guilt that comes with having cancer, though, that’s as unexpected as a band-aid in your Big Mac. And makes you feel just as disgusting. Well, more disgusting than how a Big Mac usually makes you feel. Man, I really want a Big Mac.

Guilt for having an illness that you didn’t ask for

Guilt! Guilt for having an illness that you didn’t ask for. It sounds like something that shouldn’t exist. I could understand if you had addiction issues and you felt guilty. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but I could understand the feeling in that situation. But feeling guilty for surviving cancer is like worrying that you killed too many plankton after a triathlon. It’s not an emotion you expect to feel but for some reason, it’s part of the panoply of emotions that come along with the cancer journey.

Why – I think that’s the question that we ask the most when it comes to guilt and cancer. Is it survivor’s guilt? Are we feeling guilty because we made it through our journey when so many others didn’t? It could be part of it, but I think there’s more to it. For me, the biggest component of my guilt was the burden I was placing on those friends and loved ones around me.

I never asked for help before cancer

You have to realize that before cancer, I lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 25 years, and I rarely asked for help. Unless I was literally missing a limb or actually on fire, I never asked for help, and even then, I’d probably just politely ask you to bring me a glass of water because the fire was giving me a slightly dry throat. Then apologize for asking. It’s just the way I am. I once spent thirty-five minutes standing halfway between upstairs and downstairs because I couldn’t figure out how to make my legs climb the next set of steps. I only made it because my mom finally stumbled upon me mid-ascent, talking to myself, trying to decide whether to try again or simply make the seventh step my new home.

That’s how stubborn I am when it comes to asking for help, so when cancer hit, and I had literally no choice but to ask for assistance, it always came with guilt. My mom and family had to turn their entire lives upside-down just to accommodate my lymphoma, and it weighed upon me heavily. I thought they’d rather have been doing anything at that moment – bass fishing, needlepoint, making pottery – whatever it was, I was sure their wish list of activities didn’t include running out to the store to buy eight different kinds of ice cream until I found one that didn’t taste like frozen cardboard to my chemo-addled tastebuds.

Assistance guilt

The culmination of what I now call “assistance guilt” was when a friend of my ex started a “food train,” which, if you don’t know, is basically where all your friends and family pick a night and send you a bunch of delivery food. Now, not only were people helping me, but they were spending their hard-earned money doing it. Ugh, I felt so gross, like someone dipped me into a vat of liquid guilt and then rolled me around in panko-style guilt crumbs. I couldn’t stand the fact that people had to stop their lives to do this thing which, if I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure I made clear to my ex’s friend that I didn’t want (but that could be the chemo brain remembering wrong). I felt so guilty that I kind of wished my tumor grew so big it swallowed me up whole and I became a blob monster with no eyes or ears. Still a mouth though because… ice cream.

That, I think, is where most of the guilt comes from when cancer comes calling. In fact, it can be so overwhelming that you actually start apologizing when asking for anything. I did it and I am fairly sure I’m not the only one. “I’m sorry, can you get me the plug for my phone, I’m sorry, thanks, sorry.” I literally said that sentence, and more than once because I felt so bad for asking a nurse in the hospital for something as trivial as a cell phone plug. I mean, she probably had patients literally dying in the next room and I took up her valuable time to use my stupid iPhone? What kind of iMonster was I? That’s guilt with cancer, and I think it affects all of us to some degree.

The only thing that helped

So, what do we do? It’s not like you can just un-feel emotions, and even if you could, guilt would probably be the last one on the list. Well, for me, I kept reminding myself of one thing above all else – the reason people were so eager to help is because I had been there for them for years. I didn’t do it in anticipation of reciprocity, mind you, I just did the best I could to be a good friend and part of the family. That’s why everyone was eager to help. Even the nurses and doctors I had only recently met in the hospital and elsewhere – I always try to be friendly and civil even if I’m feeling badly and that’s why people volunteered to help. Not out of a sense of obligation but because they knew I’d do it in a second myself if I was able. It didn’t completely erase all the guilt, but it helped – it’s actually the only thing that helped. Give it a try. Now, though, I really want that Big Mac so... talk soon.

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