• Jenna Allen

WHAT HAVING CANCER IN MY 20S TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIVING DYINGLY


Image: Felix Iudusis


Everyone wants to be remembered, even long after we are gone. For some, that comes in the form of fame, fortune and celebrity status. For others, a legacy among their loved ones, or the field of work they dedicate their lives to. For me (and probably most of the people I’m surrounded by) it means having a lasting impact. But, and this is something I’ve recently been discussing at length, how does one even begin to measure impact?


It could be a conversation or some unsolicited advice that sets a journey on course. Or a piece of writing that uncovers previously hidden truths, or influences the way a country and its citizens comply with the law. Or maybe it’s playing a role in changing someone’s life. My peers and I often tell others that we want to “change the world”, but that’s quite a challenge and perhaps we are setting ourselves up for failure. Or perhaps we should be encouraging one another to keep dreaming and holding on to every inch of inspiration that we can possibly find in the world.


But, attempting to measure the impossible aside, how much does all of this really matter in the context of how short life really is?


What are the things we should spend our very limited time doing? Is there even a right answer to this question? My guess: probably not, but that it’s definitely worth the experiences of trying to figure it all out. It’s worth living a lot of your life as if you could die at any moment, which you quite obviously can. It’s worth ‘living dyingly’, a phrase coined by author Christopher Hitchens in his memoir, Mortality, about his own experience of dying from cancer.


But, is this not an unnecessary amount of pressure to deal with, regardless of whether or not you’re actively dying? Is it even possible to make the most of every single moment, of every single day? To be aware of every interaction, and to try and place meaning on everything you say, do, think and feel sounds exhausting.


So while the attempt and effort sounds fun and exciting, albeit challenging, it’s a lot easier said than done. If there’s from thing I’ve learnt from being sick so far, it’s that death is easy. One minute, you’re alive and breathing, occupying a space within the world, and the next, you’re just not. It’s a lot harder on the people you leave behind. But, the process of dying is a whole other story. Dying is what takes away our dignity and with that, our humanity.So, where does one find the will to live? Is it not easier to accept death with open arms and to end the process of dying without years of pain, suffering and a chipping away at one’s humanity?

Hitchens writes, “The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival.”

I don’t know if I’ll die from cancer, from old age or by freak accident, but I also can’t ignore the fact that right now, I’m living with cancer and that I shouldn’t take a moment of however much time I have left for granted.This is exactly why I write. For me, it displays a will to think, and in an age where society continuously tries to reduce thinking to soundbites, this is essential. Words create meaning through this process and give purpose. They say “fuck cancer” (or poverty, inequality, HIV, pain and suffering, etc) and through thinking, create a will to live, even in the face of death.


Writing, beyond encouraging thinking, sparks a renewed interest in life and strengthens the desire to try and measure that desired impact I initially mentioned.


And that doesn’t mean that I don’t experience a loss of my humanity every time I discover more about my cancer or miss out an opportunity because of said cancer. I do, almost every day. But – I hope this doesn’t sound as lame in print as it does in my head – there is so much about this life that makes living dyingly so important. And that’s exactly why I’ll keep on writing and in doing so, how I’ll find meaning in everything this experience has to offer.