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

Cancer Meets Console

by Eos EviteSurvivor, LeukemiaOctober 25, 2023View more posts from Eos Evite

In 2019, I picked up a Nintendo Switch as an early birthday present for myself. I got it in the summer, anticipating to mainly use it when a new Pokemon game comes out in the following Fall. I barely used it until December of that same year, when I actually got into Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the first time, years after the game’s actual release.

When COVID lockdown began in 2020, the Nintendo Switch console became an essential piece of my daily life. My sister and my then-boyfriend convinced me to get the new Animal Crossing game since they thought it would be up my alley—low stakes, adorable characters, and a simulation game of sorts. Sure enough, the island life agreed with me. It also allowed me to “hang out” with my sister while we were both locked down in two different cities.

It was also my stress reliever as I felt more pressure and more burnt out from work. As soon as 5 p.m. hit, I’d put my laptop to sleep and turn my Switch on.

As the lockdown continued, it became my way of staying connected and socializing with others. We’d jump on a phone call or on Discord while playing. I’d have some friends visit my island, or I’ll visit theirs. COVID created travel restrictions, but we could still fly with (the fictional) Dodo Airlines online. When we were forced to stay indoors, that summer was replaced with sunny days of flying to each others’ islands, sharing and exchanging flowers, fruits, and everything else we had in abundance. We’d hang out for a bit if someone’s got shooting stars. I’d shop at their tailors’ if they had something cute that day. Even if it was only for half an hour, it was still something to take me “out” of the government’s forced isolation.

Fast forward to my cancer diagnosis later that same year, and my Switch became my lifeline.

When COVID restrictions meant going to hospital appointments alone, my Switch has been my designated companion, since it was portable. It helped me pass the time when I had to sit for two or three hours in the hospital waiting room for an infusion that could last for 3-5 hours. It kept me occupied, entertained, and most of all, distracted. It offered a safe haven from the terrifying reality that I had to face.

It took my mind away from the sanitized smell of the hospital to a sunny island owned by a greedy tanuki. With my headphones on, I could imagine I was actually fishing by the sea, drowning out the noise of multiple IV pumps beeping at the same time. I could also chat with some villagers on my island, or exchange letters and gifts with them.

It offered the fantasy of moving to a place called Pelican Town, where I could leave the city and live in solitude, surrounded by fresh produce and farm animals. Being surrounded by nature and living in a small town was much simpler than having to exist in a small apartment in a densely populated city.

It made me feel like I was a legendary hero reborn to save the Kingdom of Hyrule. It was easier to imagine I was fighting for my life in a video game, instead of trying to survive in real life. After all, whenever I saw the red “Game Over” screen, I could just load up an old save file and pick it up from where I left off. Life doesn’t give you that many chances, and the idea of a reset button for life is not as simple and easy as it is in games.

Since the beginning of this detour called cancer, up to six or seven months post-treatment, I’ve played on my Switch almost every day. It was my way to escape… whether it was to an island, a small town, or other worlds with monsters, pocket-sized or otherwise. It freed me from the scary confines of clean white walls and disinfected floors. It allowed me to withdraw from my reality, especially when the days got more difficult. It was the release I needed when all I wanted to do was disappear into a world where cancer didn’t exist. And that was what the little black screen offered—places where, as a player, I didn’t have cancer or wasn’t even sick at all.

Perhaps if anyone were to see my player activity, with the amount of time I put into all these games, you’d think I was addicted to playing. No, I was just preoccupied with escapism.

I was in the middle of my second cycle of chemo, sitting in the waiting room to be called for another infusion, when I got to a cut scene with one of Stardew Valley’s villagers, Penny. She says:

“I guess the sooner we come to terms with our own mortality, the more time we can spend really living in the here-and-now.”

I had to pause and process it because, at the moment, it felt like the game somehow knew I’d been faced with my own mortality. This game probably gave me the best balance between escape and simulated realism. It was sobering.

I was faced with my own mortality, and I had to come to terms with how I may not survive if I’m not as lucky as I’d hoped. No god, no miracle cure, no prayer or litany could control or change my luck. The best I can do is enjoy every day of my life. However, doing that and “living in the here-and-now” isn’t as easy to do when my blood counts were still low and I was at risk for infection during a global pandemic.

This may not be the healthiest of coping mechanisms, but it was the most convenient—portable, light, and versatile (handheld on the go, docked to the TV at home). Most of all, it distracted me from a lot of cancer-related things… most of the time. It made me feel like I could go (out!) and do anything when I was enduring the chemo and its side effects.

When I bought the console some years ago, a part of me regretted the purchase because I didn’t use it often. It cost a lot of money that I had to pinch pennies for the rest of the month just to pay my rent. It was expensive for something that collected dust in my room for most of the week. Later on, I realized that I just didn’t have the games that I would enjoy, and as soon as I got those games, the Switch was turned on for most of my free time. A few years later, and it was an investment that saved my sanity during turbulent periods of my life.

Some people might think spending money on games or gaming consoles is a waste. The same goes for spending most of your free time playing video games. But isn’t it just another coping mechanism to escape the harsh realities of life? How is it any different from binging a series on Netflix? Drinking more than the “recommended amount” of booze, whether alone or with friends? It’s all relative. We all spend money and time on some sort of escape. The world is full of a multitude of coping mechanisms. If it gives you joy, and it isn’t hurting anyone, then keep doing it. Do you want to be the Travel Enthusiast, Zen Yogi, the Plant Hoarder, the Avid Baker, the Casual Musician, the Gifted Artist, or just Someone Else Entirely in general? Choose your player.

To this day, as I continue to rediscover my life and myself after cancer, I re-acquaint myself with my Switch. It remains as one of my favourite pathways to escaping and coping. Nonetheless, spending some time with real people in your life is good too. Sometimes they give you tips on how to play your games better.

Join the Conversation!

Leave a comment below. Remember to keep it positive!

One Comment