• Jenna Allen

WHAT HAVING CANCER IN MY 20S TAUGHT ME ABOUT MEASURING VICTORIES


Image: Bruno Mannso


A few days ago, I made a series of lists. What treatments have I had? How much has all of this cost? What are all the things I’ve learnt from being sick? How has my life changed these past few months? What are my priorities for the next while? List after list after list of numbers and so many repeated thoughts and ideas, along with an unsettling sense of familiarity with it all.

Three and a half rounds of unsuccessful chemotherapy, one failed attempt at a clinical trial, a small fortune of medical expenses and an intangible amount of trauma.  It’s been just over five months since I got sick, but it feels more like five years with all that I’ve gained and lost.


On one hand, I’m used to the feeling that comes with being sick, but on the other, it’s debilitating. It’s the little things, most of all. Waking up most mornings feeling battered and bruised. Not being able to take on too much substantial work, because I – more than likely – won’t be able to follow through. Shelving the dream of studying overseas, temporarily. Being too tired to go out at night. Being too tired to take the stairs, or walk more than a few metres at the park. So much for marathons, right?


For most of these past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time in denial. I’m naturally very impatient, so when the first round of chemo didn’t work, that part of me automatically kicked in. When the second round didn’t work either, I started to get angry and managed to shut out the part of my brain that would have allowed me to properly process what was happening. I just wanted to be better again. And when the third round didn’t work, I felt like I’d had the ground pulled out from under me and any traces of anger and denial very quickly dissipated and were replaced by apathy. Even the thought of impatience was exhausting.


But I’ve had some time to think and process what turned out to be undeniable rage, devastation and anguish. Of course, I still have a long way to go with coming to terms with cancer as part of my everyday life. A change in attitude hasn’t come naturally to me, but I’ve managed to grasp it with the tips of my fingers and attempt to hold on for dear life. Because right now, it’s one of the biggest and most important factors motivating me to recover. Giving up would almost certainly be easier, but, as I’ve said before, I want to be alive to see the change I believe has already begun to happen.


Although the cancer hasn’t spread for a few weeks, the possibility that it will is still there, so our next first step is to stop that from happening ever again. For the time being, it seems, leukemia and I will continue to inhabit the same space, begrudgingly, of course. But, for now, that’s okay, because I still get to live a pretty incredible life.

And I’ve changed my goals, started thinking in the short term and accepting the smaller victories. Being able to drive myself around when I’m feeling up to it, waking up with a spring in my step, being able to take the stairs (marathon, I’ll conquer you yet!) and having experiences that make me forget, just for a little bit, that I’m sick. That remind me of who I really am and that my story won’t be all about having cancer.


I don’t expect to do everything on my bucket list in one day, or even in ten years. I don’t even expect that I’ll be able to cross much off of it in the next few months, but I am going to continue to love every second of my life. So here’s to having endless political debates, dreaming about saving the world and then trying to anyway, expanding an already questionable taste in music, trying to understand the meaning of love, having puppies instead of kids, reading, writing, being surrounded by some of the best people on earth and living a life of pure joy and love.


Have a drink for me, wherever you are.