The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Welcome to the Arena

by Jacki MjoenPatient, Brain Cancer Stage 2 GliomaMarch 27, 2024View more posts from Jacki Mjoen

Welcome to the arena. The cancer arena that feels like you are the only one on this battlefield. Especially since you are the young one with cancer. The arena stands are full of people you know and love. You can hear them cheering you on—they are your biggest cheerleaders and have been all your life. But now, their cheers sound faint and distant. You can’t really make out what they are shouting. It all sounds like noise. At this moment you feel alone, even though you are surrounded. Cancer has exiled you to the battlefield and you no longer sit in the stands. It is a terrifying feeling. Am I alone?

You look around the battlefield—there are others here. Young faces like yours. Faces that look as worried as you. You are not alone in the arena. The worry in their eyes is more than fear about surviving this new diagnosis but reflects a worry for their hopes and dreams. Just like you, they had their whole life planned out but now they don’t even know what tomorrow holds. You knew the person that you were becoming, but now you are being described in ways you don’t recognize. All the people in the stands have so many questions, concerns, and are using words you never thought would be used referring to you. You respond with uncertain answers like, “I don’t know,” rather than a reassuring solution. Is there one? You still have no idea what “oncology” means. You are overwhelmed by the weight of this diagnosis, the big ugly “C” word, and are having feelings you didn’t even know you could have.

I am in the arena too, with you. Battling the big ugly “C” word of my own. Mine looks different than yours, but our eyes meet and we don’t even have to say anything. We just know. We know our lives have been turned upside down, we know the weight of being “the one” with cancer, we know this is painful, unpredictable, and just really shitty.

So when there are no words, we see each other. All of us on the battlefield. We see the fear and connect to the knowing, and we don’t turn away. It’s how we get through this mess. Holding one another until the story is good. Even if good doesn’t look good to us. It’s all we can do in this arena. Some of us are newly diagnosed, some of us are battling, some of us are in remission. But that doesn’t matter, because we all share the same suffering. This is the arena where no one suffers alone.

In the pit of suffering comes wisdom. Whatever your treatment process looks like, my wisdom is to stay curious, create boundaries, and ride the waves. I have walked through brain surgery, radiation, egg retrieval, and chemotherapy. Each phase of my treatment taught me something new about myself. It has given me permission to rest, ask for help, and call time out. Suffering doesn’t have to have the final say, so stay curious towards your emotions. What surprises you? What tore you to pieces? You might be stronger than you think. Or need to give yourself permission to feel fragile. Write it all down. I have found freedom in this journey by writing. Maybe for you it’s drawing, music, being in nature, making plans to look forward to. Whatever you choose, continue to give yourself space to breathe, process, and allow yourself to stay soft. What our bodies are going through is hell on earth, so what brings you just an inch closer to heaven for a second, a minute, an hour, or a day? This is a hard journey, the outcomes and feelings are unpredictable, so little moments of good are good.

The people in the stands around you can also be good… sometimes. They want to help. Everyone wants to help when they hear the word cancer. What I have learned is this. Some help might actually be helpful. Some might not be. I have learned to accept the love people are willing to give. Our cheerleaders love to help and encourage in the way they think they should. So let them. As people help and offer their love, take note of what feels good for your heart. For me, it was GrubHub gift cards and notes in the mail. When I get asked, “Is there anything I can do?” I have some answers prepared. This is the time to let those people in the stands know your needs. Your needs matter. If you aren’t good at this, practice it. We have the ultimate trump card, so use it. This is our time to teach those who love us, how to love us in our battle. Name your needs. Draw your boundaries. I have to make it very clear to the people I love that if they are dropping off food, they can’t come in. Everyone in my cheering section wants to visit or bring food during chemo week. Let me tell you I am one-fifth a person during that week. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t need a hug. I am asleep most of the day just trying to get through. So please, leave your love at the door. I promise I will be ready to receive more after treatment week is over. Naming boundaries has helped me be what I need for myself as I battle. If we don’t name our boundaries we end up giving more than we had capacity for. We start being what other people need, and we are the ones in this fight. There are no wrong boundaries. If people are hurt by the boundaries you set, release them. This is not a performance act. This is cancer. You get to set the boundaries for your battle.

While boundaries are set and predictable, what is unpredictable are the waves cancer creates in your life. A surfer learns to ride waves eagerly. I wish I was talking about surfing. Unfortunately, the waves produced by cancer aren’t exciting. The waves of emotions will take you to deep lows and higher highs. Sometimes they will be short-lived. Sometimes they go on for years. I have experienced the waves of emotions before blood draws, doctor’s appointments, before and after chemo week, and all the days in between. These waves show up without warning. They can make hard days harder and good days feel fleeting. You might feel like you are on top of the world touching heaven after good news, and in the depths of hell not even 24 hours later. Wherever the waves take you, don’t fight it. There isn’t a rule book on how to do this, but it is a chapter in your story. You get to live it out how you need to. Look around, you are not alone. There is your cheering section of people who love you. There are also many young faces who are in the arena with you. I am here too. I see you. This is the arena where no one suffers alone.

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