How A Cancer-Free Diagnosis Can Trigger Survivors' Guilt

It's the start of a new life, but it's also a time to remember the people who didn't make it.

26/07/2016 2:39 PM AEST | Updated 27/07/2016 10:25 AM AEST

Cancer And Survivors Guilt

Interview by Cayla Dengate, shot & edited by Emily Verdouw

At 28, Ben Bravery was living in China, dating the love of his life and running his own business when a cancer diagnosis changed everything.

"I'd gone back to Melbourne to sort out my Chinese visa and I didn't realise at the time but it turns out I never went back to China," Bravery told The Huffington Post Australia.

"I had a whole life there, but when I found out I had colorectal cancer, the treatment had to start right away."

Ben and his girlfriend during treatment.

It took 18 months of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, at which time he'd moved back in with his mum, when, one day, he was told that he was free to go.


If the oncology team had done their job, they hoped never to see him again.

He found being given a clean bill of health was not easy.

"You meet people with cancer and some of them don't make it, and that's when I first started to feel survivors' guilt. When you get cancer you think 'why me? Why is this happening?'

I came out of treatment with a completely different world view.

"Then you meet people with the same cancer who aren't as lucky as you, who don't live and you start to ask 'why not me?' Why them? Why am I still alive and why aren't they?'."

He's not alone. Cancer Council NSW said survivors' guilt was surprisingly common and they're working with Bravery to create a webcast to help people accept these emotions.

For Bravery, he began to accept his place in the world with a new-found perspective on life.

"It's like starting an entirely new life," Bravery said.

"I came out of treatment with a completely different world view. Sometimes I joke with my partner now that I live like an 85 year old. I've seen the end. I know what's possible and that changes everything. It makes you weigh up every decision."

Ben Bravery and his fiance, who he'd met five months before diagnosis.

For Bravery, this perspective change came with a momentous career decision, to leave his profession of science communication and go back to university to study medicine.

"One of the reasons I went into medicine is to help people exactly like me but also to better understand my disease," Bravery said.

I feel like medicine will be the window into showing me why I'm still here.

"Because of the weirdness of survivor guilt and not knowing why I survived and why a particular treatment worked on me, I felt like medicine was one of the best ways to better understand that.

"My primary goal is to become a doctor and help people but there is this other goal where I feel like medicine will be the window into showing me why I'm still here."

Register to take part in Cancer Council NSW's webinar with Bravery on Thursday from 7pm AEST.

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