Sunday 2 July 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Guilt 2

This week our discussion explored our guilt and the sense of responsibility we feel for the worry and pain our loved ones experience as a result of our diagnosis with primary, or secondary, breast cancer.
Guilt can be one of the strongest emotions we experience - we feel guilty for bringing this disease into the lives of our families and its impact on our husbands, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, our employers. We feel guilty for exposing our families and friends to worry, fear and uncertainty. Those of us who are mothers are haunted by our sense of having allowed an unspeakable horror into our children’s lives; those of us who want to be mothers feel guilty that we may be unable to give our partners a family.
Some of us described feeling as though we had failed our loved ones in some way. Rationally, we know we are not to ‘blame’ but we can’t help but wonder what it was we did, or did not do, that might have caused us to develop breast cancer. We find ourselves questioning our life-style choices, our experiences and asking whether they could have contributed to our diagnoses. The questions that follow us are: why me? why not me? where did I go wrong? did I bring this on myself? Is this a punishment? We find ourselves taking on responsibility for developing primary breast cancer, for facing side-effects and complications, and if our cancer returns, for developing secondary breast cancer.
Naz explained that we are not as well-equipped to cope with guilt as other emotions. This is because guilt carries with it a strong emotional and cognitive component that justifies this emotion. Usually, our cognitive brain systems regulate or down play emotions that run high, but with guilt, our cognitive systems often serve to re-affirm our guilty feelings. This is one of the main reasons that feelings of guilt can last for a long time - for years post trauma.
Unwittingly, the expectations and reactions of others can re-affirm our guilty feelings. We are advised to - ‘stay strong’, ‘be positive’, ‘your family needs you’, ‘you need to keep going because of them.’ But often we don’t feel positive or strong and these 'sympathetic' comments increase our guilty feelings, we feel we shouldn’t complain, we are supposed to feel ‘lucky’ - because we have a ‘good cancer’, because we didn’t need chemotherapy, or radiotherapy, or haven’t had a mastectomy.
The media, we decided, plays a role in exaggerating these unrealistic expectations: are you strong enough? Brave enough? Tough enough? to ‘battle cancer.’ Women with secondary breast cancer described their emotional anguish as a result of the unspoken, offensive subtext that accompanies these messages - that they were somehow not strong enough or brave enough to stop their cancer coming back. The reality is that our power in influencing cancer outcomes and recurrence is very limited. So we feel doomed to failure. Yet we suffer in silence, unable to talk openly about the realities of secondary breast cancer.
Those of who have finished active treatment described how we want to meet the high expectations that we and others hold of ourselves. But we are exhausted, thrown into an ocean of uncertainty, trying to find a safe harbour to shelter from the storm of cancer which can be a long and turbulent. We want others to understand, to empathise, but we find ourselves mute and numb, unable to communicate how we feel and what we are going through. Some of us described feeling ‘survivors’ guilt’ when we have lost friends as a result of breast cancer.
So can guilt ever be made to disappear?
We can try to prioritise our own needs. We can share our vulnerability so that others see our interior experience as well as the tough image that we project outwardly. We can remind ourselves that we have very little control in the development of this disease. We can forgive ourselves.
If you are a woman living in the UK with a diagnosis of breast cancer and you would like to join our private group, please contact is by facebook message


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