Like many children of the early naughts, I grew up on a strict diet of Pokémon. I watched the anime every day and spent my free time playing the Game Boy games. The adorable monsters consumed my life starting at five years old.
Twenty years later I was diagnosed with cancer. I broke the news to my friends via Facebook, where I likened the battle ahead to the Pokémon battles I enjoyed in my youth.
I made that comparison based on the common use of the phrases “battling cancer” and “battling Pokémon,” but I had no idea the similarities would run deeper than that. Fighting cancer is like playing a video game. All the main elements are there: strategy, boss fights, and the satisfaction of leveling up. Pokémon prepared me for trouble…in the form of cancer.
CHOOSE A TEAM
In an RPG (role-playing game), building your team is essential. There are many combinations and names for specialized characters, but it all boils down to balancing offense and defense.
Your starter Pokémon is your oncologist, a great offense who designs your plan of attack against the cancer cells. Accompanying them on the offense is a nurse, who administers chemotherapy drugs and gives tips on how to handle the medicine.
My defense included a therapist and a social worker both specialized in helping cancer patients. They kept me mentally healthy and relatively stress-free while the chemicals did their thing. Everyone should have a strong defense like them on their side.
The key to winning a Pokémon battle is to know when to act on your offense or your defense. For me, that meant calling upon my defense when I needed it and not just trying to power through on my own. Don’t be afraid to send your defense into battle, trainers! And in the battle of life remember that mental health is your best defense!
POKEMON TRAINING, IN ACTION
Next in the Pokémon journey is the big goal: earn Gym Badges and defeat the Elite Four. Simple, right?
Well, they don’t call it Pokémon “training” for nothing. The majority of Pokémon gameplay is slowly and steadily leveling up your companions so you don’t get blown away by your competition. It’s a long process but that work is what makes beating the game so satisfying.
The time between chemotherapy sessions is much like level grinding. You don’t really have an option but to stick it out and let the damage you are dealt make you stronger. For me, this damage came in the form of bone pain, muscle cramps, severe neuropathy, and the classic chemo side-effect: a whoooole lot of nausea.
When it comes down to it, grinding in a Pokémon game is much about endurance and patience. If you don’t have the patience to train your ‘mons, you won’t be at the level you need to beat the next Gym Leader. In the cancer world, your endurance and patience are tested as you lay low and rest. Chemo takes a lot out of you and rushing to do anything while under its spell is a mistake – you’ll just make your side effects worse. You need the patience to let your body do its thing.
So much like in my Pokémon training days, I eventually realized the only way to advance was to sit back, put on a podcast, and mindlessly grind (by doing nothing).
So you’ve picked your team and you’ve leveled up. Now comes the big hurdle: the boss fights of the Pokémon world, Pokémon Gyms. At the Gym you face several trainers and a Gym Leader in order to collect a Gym Badge. When you have eight Badges, you’re granted access to the game’s final opponents: the Elite Four.
When you’re fighting cancer, each chemotherapy session feels like a gym battle. Each one is a challenge and each is a milestone. You have the First One, then the Second One, then at three you can say “I’m a fourth of the way there!” and so on. Chemo isn’t nearly as fun as getting to know the Gym Leaders and their Pokémon, but trust me – any milestone you can get counts.
THE FINAL BOSS
You’ve finished all of your treatments and collected all eight Gym Badges. Now it’s time to face the final challenge of the game: the Elite Four. In the case of chemo, that’s your post-chemo PET scan.
A PET scan is an ultimate decider of if you are clear (and thus beat cancer) or if there is still more treatment (training) to do. Much like the Elite Four’s Champion, the PET scan can make or break your journey.
It’s absolutely nerve-wracking to face the Elite Four. In cancerland, we call this “scanxiety.” The results can’t come soon enough.
Sometimes you lose the boss fight and have to train more. There honestly aren’t any words to describe the disappointment and stress caused by that scenario. That was the case for me on my first attempt.
Other times, you get to breathe a big sigh of relief as you’re told you’re in remission. When you win the last battle in the Pokémon games, your team is entered into the in-game Hall of Fame. You get to look back on that team fondly and remember all the tough times you shared together. I choose to relish the memories of this struggle because it ultimately made me stronger.
After the credits on the game roll, you’re brought back to the place you started. You’re given an opportunity to do all the things you didn’t before, like catch a super-rare legendary Pokémon or explore secret areas you passed earlier. It’s exciting but vast and intimidating and the possibilities are endless but also you’re tired and just want to rest.
Mom always said that staring at a video game for too long will strain your eyes anyway. Take a break. You deserve it.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.org/contact/submissions/.