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

Into the Woods

by Hailey QuackenbushAnaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma ALK+July 26, 2023View more posts from Hailey Quackenbush

Cancer is one of those things in life that everyone understands is a tragic occurrence, but no one *really* understands what it’s like unless they’ve been through it, or are close to someone who has—which is one of the reasons, of course, why it can feel especially isolating to be an AYA cancer patient. While our peers are out there launching themselves into the world, pursuing careers, pursuing passions, having adventures or just enjoying being young and full of life, we’re over here simply trying to *stay* alive.

Sometimes cancer is literally isolating, like when I have to lock myself in the bathroom for an hour to deal with my exploding GI tract; but sometimes it almost feels more isolating and lonely when I’m around other people. I’m currently on an outpatient oral chemotherapy, and despite numerous side-effects that leave me feeling much like a disheveled, confused sewer rat a lot of the time, my oncology team has been encouraging me to still do everything I can to continue going about “normal life and activities.” In some ways this has been good for me (and I know I’m fortunate, as there are others on different types of treatments that slam their health and physical abilities much more severely), but sometimes it’s also really hard.

I was recently in a musical theatre production, and although theatre is something I love and brings me great joy, I also found the experience to be incredibly taxing, and despite constantly being surrounded by lots of other people (and lots of energy!), in many ways it also felt extremely lonely. Most of my cast mates were aware that I’m dealing with cancer treatment, and they were very kind and supportive about it, but none of them really got or understood everything it entails (how could they?) I was always the odd one out who wore a mask to every rehearsal; and my health and energy levels also often prevented me from being as social as everyone else, which I constantly worried made me seem unfriendly. My cast mates sometimes went out for drinks after rehearsals, and I couldn’t join them; and even during rehearsals, it was all I could do to muster up enough energy to focus on my part and my music and get through the long days, and I usually didn’t have much energy left over for anything else. So while everyone else was busy talking or joking around during breaks, I was usually resting and just trying to breathe, contain nausea, or stop the room from spinning. Much of the time, it felt like I had to work twice as hard as my peers just to stay afloat, and still I felt washed out and invisible against the stormy waves crashing over me in my silent struggle.

After the run of our show came to a close, I received a text from one of my cast mates, in which they said they wished we’d gotten to know each other better. (I wish so, too.) They also mentioned they had been trying to give me space, since they were aware of my health circumstances—which was very sweet and thoughtful, but also made me kind of sad, and made me feel bad that perhaps I’d come off as unapproachable. Because although I do tend to be a quieter person in larger groups, I still do my best to be friendly to everyone, and now I find myself coming away from this recent experience feeling both proud that I was able to successfully handle taking on something as demanding as a musical even during cancer treatment; but also mourning the fact that I couldn’t be as connected or as integrated into the group as I would’ve normally liked to have been.

The first time I had cancer, I was treated inpatient and spent most of my time in the hospital, and though that was more physically isolating, ironically in some ways it was also less isolating, because every day I was surrounded by other people who “got it”. Everything about what I was going through was much more normalized on a daily basis. But now, on this different outpatient treatment plan for my recurrence, I feel like I’ve sort of just been sent off to fend for myself, set loose to wander around in the world of the healthy, but in a body and mind that can’t always keep up with the expectations of that world.

What helps sometimes, though, is going out into the woods—just walking slowly, listening, looking, taking everything in. Listening to nature’s orchestra of birdsong and wind, instead of a piano or cello and trying to count myself in on the right beat with the music. Out here, my heart is free to simply beat, unburdened from worrying as much about things like time. Out here, with no other people around, I feel less alone—less isolated, and more a part of things; more a part of nature, of the grander web of life. Like the forest and all its creatures and life forms surrounding me, I am also a marvelous product of biology—the culmination of an evolution of cells over millennia. Sometimes weird things randomly happen to those cells—sometimes it’s something amazing, like a mutation that ends up being the starting point for the eventual formation of a completely new species; and sometimes it’s something awful, like cancer. It’s all fascinating and beautiful and tragic at the same time, and thinking about that almost makes me feel more beautiful, too; more “right”. Out here, I feel like I belong; like I’m insignificant in nature’s vastness but also exactly as I’m supposed to be, a cracked but wondrous tile in this overall mosaic of life. Out here in these woods, I do not have to worry about fitting in, about being social, about trying to be good enough or talented enough or any kind of “enough”; out here, I can simply just *be*. And that, on its own, is enough.

Join the Conversation!

Leave a comment below. Remember to keep it positive!