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  • Writer's pictureSabarna Manoharan

A Cancer Survivor’s Take on the “Strawberry Generation”

Growing up, I had always loved watching apocalyptic fiction. Let it be zombies, monsters, natural disasters, or viruses (the list goes on), nothing enthrals me like a story of vulnerable humans fighting against all odds.

Now, I do have to clarify that I do not particularly enjoy watching people suffer. What hooks me in is an excellent story of an underdog, usually the protagonist, fighting for their survival. It is thrilling; it is fun — plus, I have the freedom of tuning out if it gets too disturbing and move on with my comfortable life.

Nothing like that can ever happen in real life. Right?

Plot twist:

5 years ago, I was diagnosed with lymphoma — cancer of the white blood cells. Obviously, no one saw that coming. One day I was dragging my feet to school, complaining about why school has to start so early. The next day I was dragging my feet to the hospital, dreading to hear my scan results.

Suddenly, it felt like the start of an apocalypse — one that had begun from within instead; inside my body.

Now I may sound dramatic (although I will only allow myself to hear that from a fellow cancer survivor), but long story short: I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, I went through the most difficult two years of my life, and I survived. And now I am watching even more apocalyptic shows.

What drove me to write this piece, however, is something I heard recently — that young people these days, are spoiled. They are also better known as the “strawberry generation”. While I have heard that term before and did not think much of it, hearing that now made me snort.

Even though it generally refers to millennials, I feel the “strawberry generation” has come to represent all the young people, at least from the perspective of the older generations.

The strawberry generation

As a cancer survivor, I am not sure if I am offended by this. I guess most of us are pampered growing up in Singapore and we do bruise easily (amid the pressures of social media, pandemics, and in my case, anxiety about the future). But I do think that my generation — the Gen Zs — are faced with a unique set of problems like no other generation. We might be very well approaching the start of the next pandemic, the next financial crisis, the next war and the list goes on.

I must confess that I have had my ‘strawberry’ moments. Once, I was getting ready to leave my house to go for my CCA when I realised I was 5 minutes late. I then proceeded to have a breakdown on my bed for 15 minutes and then left my house 25 minutes later than I was supposed to.

Needless to say, when you have cancer it is very easy to get bruised physically (needles, urgh) and mentally (anxiety, judgemental people, unsolicited pity, self-loathing, perpetual fear and the list goes on again). But cancer also taught me to get myself back up. Cancer taught me that at the end of the day, I can have the whole world rooting for me but they will always only be at the sidelines — no one can run my race for me, except me.

My two years of treatment and following (and ongoing) years of recovery have changed me in every way. I started wearing new clothes and hairstyles (I went through an unhinged journey of rocking the no-hair, short-hair, and long-hair looks). I started doing healthy meal preps. I became more careful with choosing my friends. I partied harder. I spent more time with my family. I started earning my own money. I started giving back. All in all, I think I started to make more conscious choices in my life.

Now, my priorities have changed: peace of mind, genuine relationships, alone time, health (about time), and most of all — finding meaning.

(No, I am not going to become a monk or a TEDxTalk speaker and write a book or something — okay maybe I will write a book but I am not sure if I will have the audience for it.)

When to suffer? When to enjoy?

Ultimately, I do not want to let time fly by. I wish to know what I want to do and work towards that. The 9am-6pm adulthood hustle is not for me. I do not believe in “suffer now, enjoy later”. What if you suffer now then suffer even more later once you get cancer??? What happens then?

While I would love to prance about without a care in the world and have everything provided to me, I know we need to earn the money. We need to work. We need to build something. We need to be building our lives.

But not at the expense of our mental health and individuality.

The solution?

Perhaps our parents and the generations before that learnt to suppress their feelings, grit their teeth and keep moving forward even if they were not entirely sure of the direction they were heading towards. For most of them, that must have worked — the sheltered life that most of us live is the fruit of their labour. If this approach worked then, it should obviously work now right?

But we are not the same. We live in unprecedented times. Pandemic or cancer, anything can happen and will happen. What we need is a new form of resilience and self-faith.

What we should be doing is putting ourselves out there. Our generation has the most choices out there laid out in front of us. While that is a complete privilege, too many choices can cripple us too. We need to be more conscious of the opportunities we have (dating, career, passion, etc) and make deliberate and firm choices to work towards them. And if it does not work out? Well, failure is the catalyst for redirection. Start again and do better.

But of course, that is easy to say. The truth is, it can be quite challenging to even come to a consensus — with yourself — about what you desire in the first place. Sometimes we know what we want but we are told that it is unattainable.

Speaking of desires…

Generally, we are known to be too “demanding”. In the workplace, we ask for more flexible working arrangements, higher pay and greater progression. When dating, we look for red flags, green flags, pink flags, etc.

Now the bright side is that we desire balance and stability in our lives — which is a great thing. Some days I want to work from home so that I can get more sleep, eat a heartier breakfast and spend more time with my loved ones. Truth be told, sometimes I also analyse guys based on how they talk to others and that could be actual dealbreaker at times.

What is so wrong about knowing what you want and searching for that?

But just to play the devil’s advocate here, if I were to reconsider the “strawberry” label — we do complain a LOT, we compare a LOT, we get disappointed easily and some of us may give up easily too.

Perhaps we are not that resilient after all.

Personally, resilience is a new life skill I have been picking up in the last few years. Recovery was never a linear path for me and I have had various ups and downs. I would have probably given up a few times too. While I could envision my ideal life, I could neither achieve it instantly nor have the discipline and energy to achieve it gradually.

Maybe that is the problem.

It is not that we are demanding. It is not that we get disappointed and leave when our demands are not met. The problem could simply be, we are expecting instant results and we want to be on the fast-track. We complain that the older generation wants us to be in a rat race but perhaps we have also created our own race — to graduate fast, earn fast and build fast.

We have created our own version of the rat race and we have not freed ourselves from the cage of the hustle. But is that even possible?

What would it look like to be ‘free’ of the rat race?

As unbelievable as this may sound, I have had some of my happiest moments when I had cancer. I had the best conversations with my friends. I felt extremely motivated to go back to school. I started having new dreams. While I also had my worst moments in life, they made me hold onto the happier moments even more strongly. And I hoped to enjoy the moment and live my life to the fullest in the present moment.

Perhaps I had found freedom in those moments.

Life is a continuous process of ups and downs. While I cannot predict what will happen in my life in the future, I am learning to do and be my best in the present moment.

If I make every moment worth it, then one day I can look back and think it was all worth it right?

The power of small incremental actions is underrated. It is what helped me recover from a terrible illness that completely changed the trajectory of my life. And it is what will help our generation truly attain the magnificent asks we have of life.

Life will always happen to us, regardless of whether we are ready or not. Surely, it is admirable to know what we want amidst all the unpredictability. But what is truly badass is having the grit to achieve our goals, as lofty they may be.

Even if life is an entire apocalypse, we have the power to survive — and thrive.

We can all be badass strawberries.

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