• Jenna Allen


Image: Audrey Lea

This is the story of what it’s like having cancer in my 20s:

“I refuse to let having cancer in my 20s affect my future.”

I repeat this to myself over and over again every morning when I wake up and before I fall asleep at night. This is of course a naïve statement to make, but one that I firmly stand behind.

I had just started all over again, the after-effects of being a student quickly having worn off. New job, new house, new set of goals. I was loving what my days consisted of, and the people I got to work with and befriend. My life was pretty much everything I wanted it to be at twenty-five, after a shaky start to the year and for the first time in a while, I was feeling truly fulfilled. Being able to get up everyday and do something that would hopefully one day make a small difference to someone’s world was (and still is) really amazing.

And then, one day, a big part of that changed. “Leukemia” is a far more terrifying word when you hear it in the context of your own well-being and nearly three months later, I still don’t properly understand it and often, cannot comprehend what it actually means to have it.

While it’s fair to say that a cancer diagnosis at any age seems unfair, to be diagnosed in your 20s goes against what’s expected. You’re supposed to be having the kind of experience I was going through. You’re meant to be healthy and be able to balance a life that consists of a job, go out on weekends, travel and generally enjoy your life.I’m situated in an in-between phase of life. I don’t have too much responsibility, but I have enough that an abrupt pause in life is out of the question. This is why I refuse to let having cancer in my 20s affect my future. Because I still have one.

Over the past few months, I’ve been surrounded by so much love, support and graciousness, I’ve been lucky. I’m a very private person generally speaking, so to be forced to open up the way I have to those close to me and those who aren’t, has been a challenging experience.

And for the most part, I can say that I’ve done okay. I’ve managed to keep it together, to stay calm and take it as each day comes, but that’s mostly because of two things: the people who care about me and the fact that life outside of this doesn’t ever stop, and nor should it.

The work I’m a part of usually has only a small impact (with a larger, more concrete one planned for the future), but I’ve always felt that small-scale change is important too. It’s what being part of a youth movement meant for me, what caring about student activism meant and what being part of the struggle for equality still means. And, once again, this is why I refuse to let being sick affect my future. I’ll be around to see change and I want to be a part of that change.

But some days, admittedly, I’m angry and resentful. I hate this, I hate what it’s doing to my body, my mind and my life. It’s threatening to interrupt everything that I’ve worked for and was working towards.

But, I got through it and managed to come out the other end relatively unscathed. This was what I’d call part one of the experience. This is the part where I refuse to let having cancer in my 20s affect my future.

Here’s a part two of sorts:

In this part, my resolution still exists, but some days, is not quite as strong.Just as my world had slowly begun to return to normal, I have to start doing this all over again. This being strong, being resolute in my attempts to be okay, remain calm and convince myself that all is well.

The conversation with my doctor was one I will (hopefully) never forget. It was relatively one-sided and I spent most of it convincing myself that I could deal.So firstly, I still have active cancer. Okay, I can deal with that. *Takes breath* Secondly, chemotherapy did nothing but poison my body. Okay, okay, well that isn’t great. What does that even mean? It means that three rounds of this stuff did nothing but make me nauseas and in pain all the time. It means that I lost my hair for absolutely no reason. It means that I’m still sick, doesn’t it? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. Okay, I can deal with that. *Takes another breath* What now? Well, I can’t have a bone marrow transplant with active cancer, so we try something else … right? Right, that isn’t the only option. A clinical trial is a viable option. So, I’ve heard about these. It’s a lot like being a guinea pig. It means lots of pills and needles and tests and blood transfusions and absolutely no guarantee. Well, yes. I’m not sure I can deal with that. *Takes a series of deeper, shorter breaths* Remain calm. My best option is more chemo, right? Yes. More of being sick and in pain all the time. More needles, more hospitals, more doctors, more poison. But, in the grander scheme of things, this doesn’t really matter.

It’s a mere few months, hopefully. And while my world may be unsteady, life carries on around me. Children still need textbooks and constitutionally-sound education, hospitals still need to be properly stocked and staffed, and corruption is still weighing down the country’s progess. And so so much more. This is why I can’t let this affect my future. Just to be clear, I’m by no means saying that I’m going to solve all of these problems or any of them at all, for that matter. I’m simply saying that I want to be around to see all of this change. I want to watch the world progress. I want to play a part in it all, even if it is just through writing, filming or as an eye-witness.

So tonight, when I fall asleep, I’ll say it over and over again. “I refuse to let having cancer in my 20s affect my future.”