• Jenna Allen

WHAT HAVING CANCER IN MY 20S TAUGHT ME ABOUT REGRET


Image: Liza Rusalskay


A few weeks ago, I started my second round of chemotherapy. For an entire week, I went from being stuck in bed to having chemo every single day. I was exhausted, my hair fell out (again), I felt degraded and fragile, and I spent most of it feeling incredibly bored. I also learnt a little bit about regret.


People spend a lot of their time regretting not saying X or doing Y. They relate a lack of success to regret, and spend a lot of their time ensuring that they have the security to be able to experience as much as possible. They often walk away from situations regretting things they did or didn’t say. They regret not taking risks. It’s scary to think how much I regret, and I would suspect a lot of people could say the same thing.


But, there are some things I’ll always regret and won’t ever be able to fix. For me, a lack of control is one of the most terrifying things imaginable. Having a vision, a set of goals and a plan has always been a top priority for me. And then, cancer happened and I lost a lot of control. Control over my body, my mind and my future. When I finished this round of chemo, I had a few tests done and while they were mainly to check up on my counts (white blood cell, platelets, etc), they were also meant to determine a few other things.


Before you start chemo, they warn you about a few things. Your risk of infection is high, the side-effects are generally quite bad (but manageable), your hair will more than likely fall out and it can make you infertile. When you’re in your 20s, infertility isn’t really something you consider (or at least I didn’t). “I’ll deal with it when the time comes,” is what I initially thought. “I’m really young, I don’t even know if I want kids, so what does it matter right now?” was my second thought. And finally, I placated myself by deciding that “my health is more important than having kids”.


I also didn’t expect that a full round of chemo wouldn’t work and that I would need more. I suppose I also tried to be as normal about it as possible, and didn’t really consider what would happen a few years down the line. That is, until my oncologist sat me down to have a very serious discussion about what more chemo would need. He recommended I see a fertility specialist, just in case.


Although I went through a phase of not wanting to have kids, over the past year, I’ve come across a few mothers who have made me change my mind. Women who have successful careers and are incredible mothers, despite how busy they are. Women whose eyes light up when they talk about their kids and whose faces fall when their kids are sad, sick or injured. Women who have given birth to intelligent, bright and brilliant children. I suppose part of it is wanting an extension of yourself, to leave something behind. To love someone so deeply and unconditionally looks like one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences a person can have, and even though I’m barely an adult, I want that. I’ve always loved kids, but over the past few months, that desire to be a mother has grown. I think that the prospect of never having that opportunity nudged my subconscious along, but I like to think that I’ve been inspired by others along the way (including my own wonderful mother, let me add).


So, when I found out that chemo has made me infertile, I was shocked and devastated. Disclaimer: This round of chemo was the end of a series of things that led to this happening, but still, difficult to process nonetheless.So, I promised myself that I wouldn’t have any other regrets. I wrote a list, a bucket list of regrets that I don’t want to have when I die, which was scary, but also quite exciting. I promised myself that I’ll travel the world, make a name for myself as a hardcore investigative journalist, change the world (even if it’s just one person’s world) and fall in love. I promised myself that I won’t let regret overshadow however much longer I have left. I won’t put the entire list here, but some of my favourites include the following.


If I die tomorrow…


I would regret not running a marathon.


I would regret not a meaningful conversation about the world every single day.


I would regret not starting a movement to change LGBTI hate-related violence policy and legislation in South Africa.


I would regret not getting closure on any past unhappiness.


I would regret not writing a book.


And although I haven’t yet done any of these things in the past few weeks, I’ve definitely changed the way I experience each day. I’m committing to Joburg for another year, moving into a beautiful house with two incredible young women, starting a Master’s degree in January and (hopefully) adopting a puppy. But it’s the little things that have changed the most. I smile and laugh more, I take myself less seriously (in a good way), I write most days and embrace every challenge that comes my way. I spend more time with the people I love, am more grateful for my amazing friends and have opened up to my family. So, no matter what happens next, at least there are things I won’t regret and am on a path to diminishing the experience of regret altogether.