a woman sits alone in a window and watches snow fall outside

Survivor’s Guilt: The Last One Standing

In a perfect world, our paths would not have crossed. Sarah was an X-ray technician, and Andrea was a nurse. I was a math teacher. Even though we lived in the same area and were around the same age, we were complete strangers. And if not for cancer, we probably would have stayed that way.

Cancer brought us together

We met at a support group for cancer survivors - a group arranged specifically for the three of us ladies. None of us had much interest in the regular cancer support group in our area. Most people in that group were at least two decades older, and nearly all were retired and married.

The three of us were single and had recently left our successful careers due to our diagnoses. We were figuring out how to navigate cancer and its chemical and financial side effects while running a household by ourselves. We each had a different disease, but we had all been deemed either incurable or terminal by doctors.

Every two weeks, we ate popcorn and drank tea while we talked, laughed, and cried. We discussed clinical trials, health insurance, and finances. We compared electrolyte drinks, wigs, and compression stockings. We dreamed about possible futures, cures, and miracles.

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Tissues in hand, we also talked about the things that scared us the most: health care directives, wills, and the children and beloved pets we would leave behind.

Cancer broke us apart

When the pandemic hit, we stopped meeting in person but kept in touch. Sarah and I texted back and forth on who we hoped would (and would not) win Peter’s heart on the Bachelor. But as her treatment options grew fewer, so did our texts. She passed away less than two months after our last meeting.

Andrea and I then tried to keep our tiny group of two going, but she quickly grew too tired and weak from her treatments. The last time I saw her was when she dropped by one afternoon to borrow my walker. She passed away while in hospice care right after Christmas.

Why am I the one still here?

I am so grateful to still be here, but why can't they be here too? Sarah should be watching this season of the Bachelor with her daughter, blowing up my phone with emojis about all the drama queens. And Andrea should be cooking, traveling, and snuggling with the cat she considered her true soul mate. Why am I the one with the time to do all of the things on their lists?

Sometimes I wonder why I agreed to join this support group in the first place. They had active cancer, and I was in remission. They were close to the end of their journeys, and I was just beginning mine. From the start, the odds were good that I would be the last one standing.

Feeling guilty for not feeling grateful

I do not feel guilty for surviving longer than they did. If the tables were reversed, I would not want that for them, and I am certain they do not want that for me. But I do feel guilty for not feeling more appreciative of my life at times.

I can still take for granted the simple things that are really everything. I can still get hung up on the should haves of the past and the what ifs of the future. I can still feel hatred for rude people, politicians, and the catty girls on the Bachelor.

How dare I feel lonely, hopeless, annoyed, depressed, and sorry for myself when they would give anything for just one more day to experience life just as it is. Just as it was.

I have a choice how to look at each day

But I can choose to look at each day as the gift they desperately wanted to unwrap. Both ladies taught me what courage truly means. They showed me how to share and hope and dream -- and even laugh -- while dying. And they showed me how to love and support a new friend with a better prognosis, even in their last few months on earth.

In loving memory of Sarah (7/11/78-4/22/20) & Andrea (11/9/77-12/29/20)

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