Survivor Guilt and Relays

A few weeks ago Pete and I attended the annual CANSA Relay for Life event in our area for the very first time.

It’s really rather an awesome fund raiser supported by schools, businesses and individuals alike. What sets it apart from other cancer fundraisers is that it takes place overnight in a rather festive atmosphere. Teams consist of between 10 -15 individuals and at least 1 team member has to be on the track over the course of 24 hours. The significance ……….. Cancer never sleeps.

The first lap of the relay is walked by cancer survivors, and this is how we came to be invited. V and I had finished treatments at similar times and she asked me if I would walk the first lap with her.

I must say it was a strange feeling being there standing alongside other survivors. The first thing that struck me was how consistent this disease was only in its inconsistencies: its neither racist nor ageist – It makes no distinction with regards to religion or class – and it certainly holds no interest if you are rich or poor. If it wasn’t for the VERY negative side to cancer, like possible death, it would be the ideal candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize, it’s THAT unprejudiced!

Before the relay began we had a talk by a local man who at 28 years of age, had just gone into remission for the 2nd time. And at 28, having fought and conquered this disease twice, you would expect and completely understand a bitter edge to his words. However the first thing he said to an audience all affected in some way by this disease, was how grateful he was to cancer. Yip, you heard right, GRATEFUL. He went on to say that he would never have been the man he was without it. He knew he was a better person because of his (life-long) struggle with Cancer. He was kinder, more tolerant, and more appreciative of life, his family and friends. He told us how recently he had spent months in a hospital room undergoing treatment and his one rule was that no-one was allowed to cry in that room – anyone was welcome as long as they came and made him laugh. His spoke about how amazing and brave his brother was, having donated bone marrow so that he was able to be there and stand in front of us and tell his story. You would have expected a war weary spirit, but quite the contrary – there stood a man energised, accepting and fearless with a wicked sense of humour!

Walking around the track with other survivors was rather… I’m still not quite sure how to explain it… in fact it’s probably the reason I haven’t written about it until now…

The entire track was lit by luminaria bags dedicated to those who had lost their battles, were fighting or had survived cancer. Pete and I had spent some time when we arrived, walking around reading the tributes – and you can imagine, some were just heart breaking. And even more significant for me because my name had been on one of those bags for the last 2 years (thank you Sarah and Rachel).

So the best word I can even think of to describe the entire experience was: humbling. But the accompanying survivor guilt was something quite unexpected.  I looked around at all those candle lit bags with their heart wrenching messages to mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers…children and I felt rather conspicuous in my purple survivor T-shirt. I felt hundreds of eyes on me wondering “why her” why not my child, mother, sister….

Ok, before I sound totally paranoid – my brain fully computed that people were not staring at ME, most in fact were milling about looking for friends and their particular set up spot and had no interest in me whatsoever. But the suddenness of those thoughts and the emotional spin off was staggering. I debated whether I wanted to actually walk the survivor lap, the guilt felt tangible like a physical pressure weighing me down. And then another dollop of fear hit: were all of us standing there with our purple survivor t-shirts, tempting fate???????

I walked the lap, feeling decidedly uncomfortable despite the fact that it was intended as a celebratory walk. Some were smiling broadly and waving to the crowds, some were in tears; and all I could think was how hard this must be to watch if you had recently lost someone you loved or were seeing them struggle on a daily basis with this disease. Just what was so unique about us?

The next lap was a little easier; it was walked in honour of our care givers. Because quite literally, this road is mostly never walked alone. So Pete’s hand was clutched rather tightly all the way around the track!

We both walked the third lap pretty much in silence – traditionally a commemorative lap to think about those who were the ultimate victims of this disease. My thoughts automatically went to Ken and Joan and Bronwyn and my Mom. And to those who I knew were still fighting each and every day: Fynn and his family, Lauren and Meena.

It was an incredible experience, rather emotionally uncomfortable which I guess means I still have a lot to work on, but one that I will not forget soon any time soon.

And while the other teams continued to walk their laps, we along with the other survivors, were treated to a delicious dinner! More guilt ….. for my waistline!

“The problem with surviving was that you ended up with the ghosts of everyone you’d ever left behind riding on your shoulders.”
― Paolo Bacigalupi

“Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.” ― Audre Lorde

“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change”. Gretchen Rubin


Marion and I in front of her school's tent.

Marion and I in front of her school’s tent.


V and I

V and I



One thought on “Survivor Guilt and Relays

  1. Didn’t expect the impact this event had on me… Was totally overwhelming seeing so many people turn out to support the fight against cancer (and plan on being there all night). Was a humbling experience seeing all the teamwork as teams set up and prepared for their night – all of them them there, in memory of someone, to support someone or just to show support to this cause. Made me realise yet again, that life is about the small things… Showing up, supporting something/someone and sometimes just being there…

    There were tears in my eyes as you and V did your survivors lap – a whirlwind of emotions as it cumulated memories of the events over the past 2 years. Walking the lap holding your hand reminded me how grateful yet again I am that you chose to fight and won. The lap in memory of those who fought hard and those still fighting reminded me of what an impact this dreadful disease has had on so many people close to us…

    So next year… We will have a team there, and here is a challenge to those who are close enough to join in and support this worthy cause…

    Scars may heal, blood counts may normalize, years may pass.
    But never again will the simple fact of waking up to a normal, boring day as a healthy individual be taken for granted nor go unappreciated.
    – Allison A –

    At times our own light goes out
    and is rekindled by a spark from another person.
    Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude
    of those who have lighted the flame within us.
    – Albert Schweitzer –

    Being human, we are imperfect.
    That’s why we need each other.
    To catch each other when we falter.
    To encourage each other when we lose heart.
    Some may lead; others may follow;
    but none of us can go it alone.
    – Hilary Clinton


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