Survivor Guilt


My dear friend George died on July 15, 2014, from brain cancer. His death left me tongue-tied for several months. Here’s the back story.

George was a energetic renaissance man in his early 60s. He was fit, trim, and lived a healthy lifestyle.

He lost consciousness briefly on a bike ride in August, 2013. He fell, but was not seriously injured. Probing for a cause, an MRI revealed primary brain tumors. These were surgically removed by a highly skilled surgeon in Portland. Shortly thereafter, George wrote his reaction to the experience that accompanied this unexpected life-change: In the Heron’s Belly.

George and I corresponded with new-found kinship following my diagnosis of cancer in late November, 2013. We shared research results for alternative treatments. We compared notes on medical marijuana, mushrooms, and so forth.

Our medical diagnostic tests overlapped (CT, PET, MRI, etc.) but our treatments diverged.

George’s treatment for Brain Cancer was conventional: Surgery, targeted radiation, and chemotherapy. These are the best that medical science can presently offer. They were administered by highly trained and skilled physicians and caring staff. Ultimately his treatment was unsuccessful at eliminating the resurgence of brain tumors and he died 11 months following diagnosis.

George’s death was not punishment for moral wrong-doing, nor the result of some problem with his care. His body acquired a degenerative disease that science and medicine do not know how to treat effectively. With the support of his friends and family and a great health-care team he lived and died well.

My treatment for metastatic melanoma was also conventional: Six week-long sessions of high-dose Interleukin-2 in a hospital setting. This treatment was first approved for metastatic melanoma in 1992. I am fortunate that my tumors are shrinking in response to that treatment.

My favorable response to treatment is not a reward for moral right-doing. I have a degenerative disease that is being forestalled by my own immune system, aided by medical science and a great health-care team.

It’s hard when good friends die — I am tempted to feel guilty because I’m still responding to treatment and my friend George is dead.

I’m left with this: It’s OK to feel guilty for awhile, because feeling guilt is part of grieving. George would not want me to go on feeling guilty because that would inhibit my life-affirming activities. Such would be un-George.

3 thoughts on “Survivor Guilt”

  1. Lynn – I had forgotten that you knew George some years ago. Keeping in touch with him was not always easy — even for his closest friends. George would sometimes disappear for awhile, when family needs or the desire for spiritual and physical renewal came over him. He was, and is a free spirit. Thanks for reaching out with your post.

    1. And thank you for posting the picture Marty. I never had one and it bowled me over.

  2. Last night I dreamed of George. I’ve been trying to find him again fot many years – you don’t let someone like him just disappear from your life. In my dream he was happy but beyond my reach. How I wish I had been able to let him know just how much he meant to me.

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