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

The Hardest Part

by Janessa Ventura-AlvarengaSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaAugust 9, 2023View more posts from Janessa Ventura-Alvarenga

I would often get the question: “What was the hardest part about having cancer?” And I never really knew how to answer that. Not because I didn’t have an answer in mind, but because I didn’t think it was the answer people were expecting of me. Or wanted from me. See, receiving the diagnosis, processing the information, that went fairly smoothly. Taking the medication, going through the treatments, that was also fine. Those were all things I expected, anticipated. I’d seen the movies, heard the stories. I thought I could handle it. And I did, yes.

What I really struggled with was the loneliness.

Cancer came as a godsend. I don’t say that lightly. I say that as someone who, prior to receiving the official diagnosis, was slowly detaching herself from everyday life. It was mostly unconscious, to be fair. But it was in response to my body failing me. It was months of looking in the mirror, watching my health and well-being deteriorate before my eyes. I became a shell of the person I’d once been. I shared my reflection with a woman I didn’t recognize.

And for a long time, I was the only person who noticed.

Those months were the hardest. The loneliest for me. Because superficially, I was mostly the same. Maybe I looked more tired. A little leaner. Less social, perhaps. Moodier. But I knew. I knew something was wrong, felt it in my bones, and I didn’t have anyone around me to see it. To believe me. My concerns were brushed off or put aside. It was probably just university, right? I should just relax. Calm down. I’m fine. It’s okay. I’m young too, aren’t I? There couldn’t possibly be something wrong.

It was only late at night, when the rest of my family had gone to bed, and I’d be left alone with my thoughts, that I allowed myself to take an honest breath. To sit in my sickness. Admit to myself that it’s hard, it’s tiring, trying to find the energy within myself to not only prove to others that things are fine, but also to trick myself into believing it. Because it’s not enough, if others believe it. I also had to believe. So that I could comfort others. Make them comfortable with the fact that something was very, very wrong with me.

I felt a special kind of vindication, receiving my diagnosis. I wasn’t happy. Not thankful. Vindicated. It was finally proof. Look guys! Look. There really was something wrong with me. You didn’t believe me, none of you did, but I knew. I knew it was true. It’s not that I wanted cancer. Nobody wants to be sick. I just wanted answers. I wanted the truth.

I wanted people to believe me.

Things changed after that. I was taken more seriously. My family tried their best to accommodate me and my sickness. I love them for that. I understand, I really do, that urge to discount what you cannot see, or hear, or feel yourself. It’s instinctive. And though I admit that a part of me will always harbor a little bitterness that they didn’t initially trust me, I’m incredibly grateful for how they’ve stood by me since. How in my lowest moments, they didn’t leave me alone.

It is really my family who made all the difference in my cancer journey. It’s my friends. The doctors and nurses. The community that arose to support me when I couldn’t help myself. I marvel at their strength and compassion. Their sympathy. All the sacrifices they made for me. They weren’t a cure to the loneliness. That’s not something you can cure. It’s something you live with, a constant that you can sometimes forget about, but that lurks around the corner, waiting for when you’re at your lowest, your most insecure, to reveal itself. No, I lived with the loneliness. But I settled into it too.

Where my loved ones might not have been able to cure the ache, they did soothe it. Quieted my chaos. Helped calm my soul, bring me peace.

Cancer was hard, yes. The loneliness was harder though. I believe we’ve come out stronger because of it. Myself especially. I think back on those nights, sitting in my sickness, convincing myself to convince others that I’m okay, weary of what the next day would bring, and I want to hold that girl. I want to tell her that those moments of vulnerability and hurt would eventually pass. Would help her become the woman she is today. One that she can be proud of.

I’m proud of us, Janessa. We got through the hardest part.

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