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The Time Bubble

by JoAnna BarkerSurvivorAugust 27, 2020View more posts from JoAnna Barker

It’s crazy being in the time bubble.  While it happens to the patients, it also happens to the families.  It is wild to see it happen, and almost everyone goes through it.

I’ve recently heard of the term “time bubble” and I couldn’t think of a more accurate description for my experience as a young adult cancer patient. I was 24 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had just started my first year as a teacher, fresh out of college. My friends were starting to get married and move forward with their lives. I thought I would be one of them. I thought I’d be starting a normal career, moving out of my parents’ home, and finding the right guy to settle down with. Life was going to be ordinary, perfect, and everything I always thought I wanted.

Enter the “time bubble.” Instead of being stressed out by my new job, I was stressed out by my new diagnosis. Instead of dating, I had a once a month one night stand with Rituxan. My friends were supportive and sweet, but I was forced to watch them move forward and I felt stuck in an infinite time freeze that I never thought I’d be in.

I thought maybe I could do it all. I went on working and only took off two days off a month for chemo. The guy I had gone on a few dates with told me he didn’t want to continue dating a girl with cancer, so we parted ways. I felt like my life had been put on pause and there was nothing I could do about it. I had been frozen in time and when I finally escaped my chemo fog I was bald, two years older, and wondering how the heck I got to the year 2016.

I’m 30 years old now and it’s been 5 years since my last chemo treatment. Although I have lived a lot of life in between with writing a book, moving to San Diego, and starting a new life in a whole new world; I still feel the effects of the “time bubble”. I look in the mirror and I will admit (not to brag) I still look like I’m in my early 20’s. Maybe it was that chemo cocktail that did it, but I’m not complaining! I still feel like I’m that 24 year old girl, excited for the next chapter of life and ready for anything. It’s weird to say that cancer kept me young, but in a way it did.

I didn’t realize this had happened until I was talking about this frozen part of my life with my Aunt Ginger. At the time, we didn’t have a name for it but she explained to me that in a lot of ways I am still that 24 year old girl. Trauma can cause a lot of strange things to happen to you and for many of us cancer patients and survivors, a “time bubble” is an accurate description of what we’re experiencing.

There are pros and cons to the bubble. I’ve had my share of depression, tear-filled nights and missing out on experiences I longed for along the way. As I mentioned previously, my friends moved forward, began their own lives and families, and I felt left behind. The pressure I put on myself to hurry up and get on with things was almost unbearable. It caused me to make compromises I wish I hadn’t. In a rush to find someone and get married, I gave my heart to people who weren’t to be trusted. In a rush to advance my career I never gave myself a moment’s peace after completing treatments. I felt my internal clock ticking away and I fought against it tooth and nail. These attempts only left me empty and heartbroken.

It wasn’t until I made the decision to do what is best for me that I finally felt freedom from the pressures of keeping up with the “30 year olds.” I started talking to friends and family members who were in specific places in life that I longed to be in, and I found a majority of them were not as happy as they seem [on social media]. Infact, many of them told me they wished they could trade places with me. I had been spending much of my time traveling, writing, and going to Disneyland and they all envied me.

Sometimes hindsight is 20/20. I decided to take my life back and to stop living in possibilities and what-if’s and instead to focus on what-is. I took the plunge and moved out of my parents house to an apartment on the beach. I surrounded myself with friends who were in the same place of life, enjoying the same things, and didn’t judge me by my cancerous past or my age. Everyday I woke up and I decided to live for today.

I got rid of false hopes that were never meant for me. I looked at situations that had happened, people who had hurt me, and the way a few people affected me negatively. This reflection made me realize my own foolishness. These people and ideas were never what I truly needed, they were a placeholder, things I thought I should have “by now,” but they weren’t the real thing. I had been trying to put a cheap counterfeit in place of the real truths that were waiting for me. I only needed to be patient but I couldn’t see the forest through the trees.

Now that I’m out of the woods, I see how things were being pieced together to create the life I now live. I see how the time bubble saved me from rushing in with people, doing things, and going places that were never meant for me. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. Although I’m coming from a place outside the bubble, five years later, I still remember the painful sting of the bubble and I’m here to tell you it doesn’t last. In fact, it will only last as long as you let it.

Look at the people around you and think about all the things that they are doing that you wish you were. Now look at those same people and think about all the things they’re doing that you’re thankful you aren’t. You may be surprised by how much it opens up your perspective.

Turns out during these last 5 years I just wasn’t as ready as I thought I was. I’ve had so many experiences and adventures than I ever imagined I could. Looking back, I’m so thankful for my “time bubble” because it made me wait. It made me do a lot of waiting that I NEVER would have chosen to do on my own. I’m exactly where I was always meant to be and time is no longer an issue. Life never turns out the way you think it will. As long as you embrace that fact, I promise you it will turn out better.

The “time bubble” is an essential part of your life and your story. The years caught in the time bubble can feel like a blur, a burden, and a prison all at once. Every person will react differently to their time in the bubble, but we must all do our time if that is the path that has been laid in front of us. We grow and are molded differently from our experiences. For me, I feel like the bubble is what kept me young at heart. I went to sleep as a 24 year old and woke up as that same 24 year old a few years later. I’ve learned to live with it and to be thankful for it.

Embrace the bubble…

This article was our March 2020 Cover Story – Click Here to view that issue!

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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