My Jenga Theory : Primary and secondary suffering and that ‘thing’ called cancer

If you look a life as a game of jenga, but this time the opponent you are playing is yourself.

The first move, the primary.

The first block you lay is your primary suffering. Primary suffering is any unpleasant physical sensations you may experience as a consequence of illness, injury, fatigue etc. You may not be able to do anything about this level of suffering and the task is to accept it and make peace with it as best you can. For me, it’s cancer and of course the joys (sarcasm OBVS) that comes with having cancer.

The second move (secondary suffering)

After you lay you’ve placed your  block ’primary suffering’ quickly on the table like it’s on fire because you want it out of your hands ASAP, the next moves are your choice. You choose to where you make the next move, the next blocks represent ‘secondary suffering,’ Secondary suffering is the human anguish we all experience as a reaction to primary suffering: feelings like anger, fear, depression, anxiety and despair that we pile on top of any unpleasant sensation or event reactively. These are the blocks that ultimately we have control over, but we must have the tools to manage them.

So for me, Fear the cancer won’t go, fear cancer will come back, Sadness for the situation, fear of infertility, Guilt that I can’t keep up with work, friends, social life, exercise, and anxiety from the worry and fatigue…….that’s all I can think in this moment, I’m pretty sure there are plenty more!

What happens when you load them all up?

Hello ‘doing mode,’ you build and build without a thought to the primary suffering. You try to strategically place the bricks so they are steady but there are wobbles and shakes along the way. The more you lay, the harder it gets, and the more ‘secondary suffering blocks’ go up, the more chance there is of them of crumbling down when you least expect, but you carry on regardless because like the game Jenga you are working towards something, the end goa,l the finish line,  whatever that actually is, that’s doing mode for you.  The further to the top you get, the further you are from the primary suffering, the block that really needed the most attention, care, love and support, but that little brick is just sat at the bottom under all of these pressures and heaviness from the other blocks (secondary suffering)

We all know what happens in a game of jenga right? One push too far, the entire game comes tumbling down into a heap on the table. No structure, no sense, no organisation, just a heap of secondary suffering all over the place in a mess, but one thing stays the same…. Our little primary suffering block, just sat there saying ‘oh hi there, you see me again, I’d quite like you to help me now please.’

But first we must clear up the other bricks, those pesky secondary sufferings. They are screaming so loudly for you attention too,  in a more jumbled way because there are so blooming many of them, shouting over one another ‘ME FIRST’ picture a classroom of children who have decided to run riot. Still the primary suffering is still there, still sat exhausted saying ‘yep, I ain’t going anywhere, please come sit with me.’


Well I’m guessing you all know to where this is going. We resist primary suffering, but why? Well…. it’s painful, it’s painful to sit with, it’s painful to face, and we think it is easier to avoid. Here is where the problem you have gets a hole lot worse in a short space of time, the more we push the primary suffering away the more ‘other’ suffering we receive, but to add insult to injury these ‘sufferings’ are the ones we ultimately chose to allow in! Primary suffering, we had no choice over that, for me, I had unfortunately had zero choice over cancer, I couldn’t say, ‘nahhhh I don’t like it take it away, haven’t got time for it’

Sound easy? Well we all know the answer to that too, it’s not. It takes practice, realisation, understanding and a hole lot of heartache too.

I have faced my fears, but life still can creep in slowly and take over like my jenga theory. Hey I’ve been building a game all by myself this week, it has collapsed on me when I least expected it. Why? I know exactly why, I avoided the primary suffering for too long, maybe too much trying to be strong, or maybe simply I didn’t want to go there. With the few things that have happened over the past couple weeks, being so close to the finish line of chemo but actually feeling so far away, everything just got a tad WOBBLY! And like the game of jenga I felt it going, I could see it swaying slowly from side to side, it was only a matter of time until the bricks fell down, leaving them laying there right next to my primary suffering which adds, ‘OH HI THERE WE MEET AGAIN.’

The good thing

I recognise this and that my friends is half the battle. I recognise that resistance to the pain is the problem. My meltdown took SO SO much energy from me, so much so I have been left finding it hard to reply to even my Mates messages because I just feel so exhausted. One minute I am ok, the next not ok ….and WOW that  alone is so tiring! Slip chemo into the mix, well I have had 13 rounds now in total, I’m feeling wiped out so of course the physical fatigue doesn’t leave you feeling so alert to handle all the secondary little worries in the best of ways which you would usually.

Yes I practice mindfulness, but I still have wobbles, and you know what I’m actually proud to admit it! It’s all about recognising this, to recognise you can move forward, but unfortunately to keep resisting it you will be stuck there for longer and it will only be a matter of time until everything comes tumbling down. When this happens, understand that you are not alone and believe that it can get better. As painful as it can be sit in a clear space with that primary suffering, hold it, feel it, talk to it, there’s nothing to be ashamed of here, or scared of. Give it some loving kindness, in turn giving YOU the loving kindness you deserve,

Those pesky secondary suffering little swines, ultimately are your choice, but that doesn’t mean you have to beat yourself up when you feel one moving swiftly on  to create the next and make that one into a huge problem instead. This is LIFE, wonderful ‘life’ and this jenga game will happen so many times even moving forward. But this time start to play it differently:

Playing it differently

Lay the first block, sit with it feel it, understand it be a peace with it. The next blocks you lay, remember these are you choices. You are allowed to feel these negative emotions but it is how you address them which makes all of the difference. Lay each block carefully, calmly, subjectively almost, modify the way you placed the blocks before, be kind to them and remember to be kind to yourself.

What will you notice?

Well with practice, the structure won’t get so tall, it won’t become out of control. It will be at a height which is manageable for you. This in turn reduces the amount of secondary suffering and can greatly improve our quality of life, even if the primary suffering remains unchanged, or even worsens. Ok so your Jenga isn’t the tallest but you know that s**t is as solid as you can get it. And you learn that IF in the event of a ‘wobble,’ which we all have, it falls, it’s ok, this is manageable. It wasn’t so tall it left us with heaps of secondaries to plough through, you are left with a few, a few that you can work through with far more manageability.

Eventually, we get to a place of comfort, the pain is still there BUT we return to it occasionally to make peace, we are no longer blocking or becoming overwhelmed with primary suffering because we have connected with the most important person out there, ourself.

I hope you find this of some help, it has certainly helped me writing it down and thinking of it in this way #jengatheory


Love Sarah xxxx


2 thoughts on “My Jenga Theory : Primary and secondary suffering and that ‘thing’ called cancer

  1. I love your words! Well written and spot on! Thank you so much. It was such an encouragement to me! I have enjoyed following you on instagram! I, too, was diagnosed with breast cancer…HR negative, HER2 positive. I had a lumpectomy and began chemo. My regimen included 16 rounds and I have only 5 more to go!! Anyway, you are such a blessing to me and I pray you continue to do well and stay uplifted!

    1. Hey Tracey …thank you for finding my blog and me ❤️ it’s certainly a rollercoaster ride but helps so much connecting with others. It seems a long road but I keep thinking a small price to pay for a longer road the other side stay strong my friend xxxxx

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