I remember at one point during my cancer treatment, one of my sisters said to me something along the lines of ‘I thought there was going to be a lot more watching movies and cuddling’. But I found the logistics of dealing with cancer with a baby in the house absolutely overwhelming. It didn’t feel like I had downtime. I was either so ill that all I could do was lie motionless in bed, or I was doing everything I could to protect and look after my family. There were some lovely glimpses of stillness, but for the most part, I was in survival mode.
It’s in these circumstances that the daily tasks we might normally take for granted (if we are lucky to have a certain level of financial stability) take incredible amounts of energy.
During chemo I had big eating problems. It can be hard to define what exactly this means, but for me, it felt a lot like the experience of being pregnant again. I had strange revulsions or desires, things didn’t taste the way they were supposed to. Sometimes I would sit and think for an hour to try to come up with something I thought I could eat and would just end up in tears because it all seemed so impossible and overwhelming.
With cancer, the issue is chronic. It’s not a day or a week of existential dread – it’s months or years of trying to manage this.
What does this mean for living during a pandemic?
I recognised feelings of stress that echoed the challenges I felt during cancer treatment. During the weeks of lockdown when the grocery store shelves were empty and supply chains were working overtime to catch up, I spent a LOT of time thinking about food. Did we have enough? Was it healthy? Could we afford it? Suddenly having to think about three meals a day for a family meant that considering what we would eat and when took a lot more work, and at times felt crushingly stressful.
Even for the folks lucky enough to have the level of financial security we have, there’s a kind of buzzing in the background, of the looming threat the pandemic represents.
I find myself flickering in and out of survival mode on a nearly daily basis.
But while I accept the necessity of putting survival first, I also think that staying in survival mode for these prolonged periods of time is dangerously stressful.
And one of the funny things I’ve discovered following treatment – even after the crisis is over, oftentimes the feelings of panic don’t go. It’s so easy to jump to the worst case scenario, as my mind tries to protect itself. Phantom problems become preoccupations. Legitimate concerns quickly spiral into something overwhelming.
And the problem is that in that mindset, I find myself losing the creativity, connection, and resourcefulness that will actually let me put together a better plan.
I’m trying to approach this back-and-forth with acceptance, recognising this cycling as a natural and necessary process of living in such strange times. This doesn’t come naturally.
But maybe happiness is just as essential for our wellbeing as all the things the fight or flight response is designed to protect. Without it, the road leads to obsession and despair.
I don’t have any answers for how we keep hold of joy during difficult times – but I’m certainly on the lookout.