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

The Roller Coaster Ride

by Stephanie SteneLymphoplasmacytic LymphomaMay 2, 2024View more posts from Stephanie Stene

I remember sitting on my very first roller coaster ride in West Edmonton Mall back in 2008. I was 11 years old at the time and I was peer pressured to go on the ride. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it but I got on it anyway. Once the ride started, my hands started turning white from gripping the handlebars too tightly and I was screaming so loudly, as if my life was about to end. I learned from that experience that heights, unpredictability, and having no control of a situation are all things that I do not do well with.

My cancer journey has felt much like that scary, terrifying roller coaster ride that I took back when I was a kid, but instead of being able to get off, I have been stuck on the ride since my diagnosis. I laughed when I was told by my hematologist that I had cancer. I called my social worker on my phone after I was told the news and I said to her, “I can’t cry because if I cry that means I am going to fall apart, and I can’t fall apart right now.” I thought to myself that this is a life or death situation and I can’t let myself down now; I’ve been through too much for that to happen.

I don’t remember much of what happened after I was discharged from the oncology floor. I know I didn’t process how my life would never be the same for a very long time. I am not sure if my mind needed to cling to the positive to survive or if my brain didn’t know how to get itself out of the traumatic state that it was stuck in.

Before treatment, I had my good days where I felt like myself and then there were some days where I felt like a cancer patient that was about to start her treatment journey. I went from being able to explain my situation, story, or health to someone, to getting this crippling anxiety and frustration that overwhelmed me. I felt like I was treading water some days—I knew how to keep myself afloat, I just needed to remind myself to say the words, “Just keep swimming,” out loud.

Looking back, It makes me sad to think back to how depressed I was before I got sick. I hated my job, I had no social life, and I felt like I was just going through the motions of life instead of actually living it. I never felt good enough before my diagnosis. I felt like I was an outcast looking in, and I was the afterthought to many people in my life. It sucked that it took getting cancer for people to actually express how much they care about me and how much they appreciate me. I wish it didn’t take getting cancer for them to tell me, and to feel like I mattered, but I am glad people finally did.

Growing up, getting cancer was one of my biggest fears. My guess is it was because of the young boy at daycare who lost his dad at 22 to cancer back in 2003. I associated cancer with losing hair, so the fact that I lost lots growing up scared the crap out of me. And now I cringe thinking back about how I joked with my teacher friend after our morning swim before going to work. I said the exact words, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I got cancer with my luck,” and then four months later I called that friend and told her I was sitting on a bed on 3C Pasqua waiting to find out if I had Leukaemia.

Lots of things changed during treatment. I became anxious about not remembering what my old body used to feel like. I got scared of groups of people in public. I never was a big fan of large crowds, but now I don’t leave my house without a mask in my pocket. I never thought about death as much as I do now. It has been hard to plan for the future when you are scared you might not have one. I went from an independent, fit, adventurous person to a dependent person who does not recognize herself in the mirror and is scared to leave the house.

I hate that I enjoy sleeping as much as I do because it’s my way of escaping my new reality. I hit the stage of depression when I realized that my only childhood dream, to be a biological mother, would never happen. I quickly learned that just because you have cancer doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that you have to worry about. Treatment might save your life, but it also destroys your potential future dreams and aspirations.

There have been many phrases and moments during treatment I have dealt with over the last year that have caused frustration within. First are the looks of pity. They are hard to handle when you are sitting in the clinic waiting to get treatment because I didn’t cause the cancer—it just happened to me. Being told, “You’re so strong” is not a compliment to some. It is a reminder that you have no choice but to “fight” in a battle you didn’t sign up for. And as someone who hates asking for help, hearing the words, “I am proud of you,” “I will call and check in on you this week,” or a simple “I love you,” means a whole lot more than being told one’s strength. I hated hearing the words, “You’re so young” because it didn’t help. I know I am young. It made me want to say, “Aren’t you glad you got to live a healthy 20-year-old life?” I did seven years of university, lived by myself during the pandemic, life started to get normal, and then—bam—the diagnosis. I barely lived a “normal” adult life. The last phrase I heard a lot was, “You have a good cancer.” This phrase is invalidating. Cancer is cancer and they all suck; mine might not be terminal, but people don’t want to hear the words “good” associated with cancer. It makes them feel like they should be thankful it’s not worse.

It’s hard being around people who complain about things because cancer patients learn quickly that once you don’t have your health, you realize that it is the most important thing. Since being on my rollercoaster ride, I have learned that the little things that used to matter to me don’t anymore, and the things that people want no longer hold any worth. I see time as priceless, and a materialistic item holds no value.

Another hard part of cancer is missing out on life’s events because of treatment and seeing people you know get married and have kids; it’s hard. It’s like you’re stuck on the rollercoaster ride that you want to get off of while others move freely without any care in the world. You want people to understand how hard it is to be on the ride, but unless they have been on it themselves, no amount of explanation will make them truly get it.

Cancer is isolating. It can feel like your support system is cheering you on on the sidelines trying to help, but you are alone on the rollercoaster, free falling, trying to trust the ride and the professionals operating the machine.

Before treatment, I sat down and wrote my bucket list and The Happy Nun was the first place that crossed my mind when I was writing my list. If you are not from Southern Saskatchewan you may have not heard of The Happy Nun. The Happy Nun was a restaurant that opened in 2007 in the village of Forget, Saskatchewan.

It ended up being sold in 2015 to a young chef from Northern Alberta. It wasn’t just a restaurant for people—it was a gathering place to eat, socialize, and take in different musical talents from across the country. Sadly, Katie, the Northern Albertan chef, died in a car accident on the way to work, less than two years after she had taken possession of the restaurant. Not many people could say at 27 that they finished culinary school and bought a restaurant by themselves, but that is what Katie did. She chased her passion and died doing what she loved most. She left a legacy and The Happy Nun behind; however, she is someone that will never be forgotten by the town or the province. After her death, The Nun closed, as nobody knew what the future of the restaurant would look like, but everyone knew that Forget wouldn’t be the same without it.

Luckily, the building was bought in 2018 by a couple, and it was brought back to life. It survived the pandemic and once it was safe, it opened to the public for people to visit again. Sadly, tragedy struck the village yet again when The Nun was destroyed by a fire in December 2022. Everyone in Forget, the surrounding area, and the province had to accept and grieve the loss of something that did not have a price tag; to many The Nun was priceless. I didn’t realize it was destroyed until after I was home for the Christmas holidays. I was crushed.

Forget is not a quick drive from where I lived, so I always put off going. It was always a place on my bucket list as my mom talked about it growing up. She also told me the story about Katie. We always drove past the Forget sign on the way to visit my grandma, but we never stopped. The restaurant never made it off the bucket list because in life we assume everything lasts forever; that we have time to do things. This tragedy taught me that nothing is going to be around forever, no matter how well it is taken care of, whether it be a building or someone’s health.

After talking to a friend about the restaurant, he also brought up that he regretted not going, and I decided then that something needed to change. I didn’t want something else in my life or for another place to go under; I wanted to make sure there were no more Happy Nun Tragedies.

I told myself I was going to make it my mission for The Happy Nun, myself, and even Katie that I would no longer live in regret, take the backseat in life, or assume things will always be around. I would do things I wanted to do despite distance, time, or illness. My perspective on how I view time, health, and life has changed for the better. I am not living the life I thought I would be living, but I am doing my best to enjoy this rollercoaster ride that I was forced to ride on.

I might not have been able to go to The Happy Nun, but I went on many little road trips. Going on my bucket list adventures with friends filled my soul and put a smile on my face. The short trips made me forget at times that my life would soon consist of treatment and keeping myself alive in between treatment but it forced me to also be present.

Once I was doing treatment it was hard to be around people, so I had to seek different places to find joy again. A great resource I found was the Instagram account @cancerpatients. The account has dark humor, relatability, and the ability to make people feel seen when others don’t get it.

I think we all assume that when people find out they are sick, they get treatment and then they are all better and they can be themselves again. However, just because someone is done with treatment doesn’t mean their life can just “go back to normal.” I learned that the hard way. Ringing a bell doesn’t erase the medical trauma people go through; cancer patients appreciate being alive when many healthy people don’t have to think about it as much, as it is emotionally exhausting.

The best advice I received from anyone was from a former student’s mother. I wrote to her before treatment started stating that I would not be teaching anymore due to my diagnosis. She sent me back a message that I think was the most important advice that all cancer patients need to hear: accept all help, even if it’s hard to do, and never be afraid to ask for help because no one is meant to do hard things alone. We all need people cheering us on while we are on our rollercoaster ride; even if they don’t fully understand.

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