The 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the ﬁrst one to arrive. After a long time in the workforce making a meaningful professional contribution, it was hard to accept that I was now going to spend my days doing puzzles, making fairy wind chimes, mosaic pots, embroidering a cowboy, or colouring-in mindfully.
These were well meaning gifts from kind people, but for someone recently diagnosed with breast cancer and about to start a long course of treatment, these gifts were also very confronting.
I am 45 and since ﬁnishing university I have always worked. When both children (now aged eight and 10) were born it was my husband who stayed home with the children while I kept my role as the main breadwinner. My career and work outside of the house have been a huge part of my identity and my sense of self.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 was a huge shock, and the treatment plan (surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and more surgery) felt very overwhelming. I am now one third of the way through my year long treatment. As well as missing my hair, I have missed my work, and the gossip and social contact of the work environment.
Although I sleep and read a lot during this chemotherapy phase, without work I honestly struggle with what to do with myself on those days and moments when I feel ‘good’.
If I had a dollar for everyone who has suggested I take up a craft or hobby, I would be on my way to buying a beautiful wig. However, I am not crafty or artistic, or a fan of puzzles. I have always found meaning and purpose in my family, friends, job, the outdoors and exercise, and that has been enough. Anything involving needles, a glue gun or glitter has never been my cup-of-tea.
For anyone with a friend, colleague or relative going through chemotherapy who, like me, has no interest in crafting and doesn’t want to spend hours gluing tiles onto pots, colouring in a whale or making a dream catcher, as an anti-crafter these are the gifts and gestures that are helping me on my journey.
1. A friend oﬀering to come to a yoga class with me the ﬁrst few times.
I have never been a yoga person (didn’t think I was bendy enough and was too busy working) but the regular timetable, routine and practice of yoga have helped to get me out of the house on my good days and get some structure in my day.
2. A colleague from work regularly keeping me in the loop with work gossip and news.
Some colleges seem scared to ring and don’t know what to say, and it is easy to fall oﬀ the work radar and feel isolated. I feel energised and positive with these phone calls as it reminds me that this part of my life wont be forever and I will be back.
3. Being given lots of magazines.
I had thought that when this journey started I would start to explore the depths of life and death, mindfulness and spirituality. I would watch ‘deep’ Ted Talks, read books by the Dali Lama, and generally spend time ‘ﬁnding myself’.
Instead I spend an awful lot of time looking for more pictures of Katie Holmes and Jamie Foxx together, thinking about the reasons why Lorde wasn’t invited to sing at the Grammys, and getting excited about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s upcoming wedding. The cancer journey is very hard - sometimes it’s important to escape for a while.
4. Gifts of scarves, earrings and make up.
It is confronting to have a bald egg head with hardly any lashes and brows, dark circles under my eyes, and dry skin. Colourful scarves, big earrings and a gorgeous bright red lipstick have helped to lift my spirits.
5. Essential oils. who knew?
Well, apparently lots of people before me. There is something wonderfully positive about the house being ﬁlled with the aromas of citrus or lemongrass. I’m hooked!
6. Sharing a playlist of favourite relaxing music.
Sometimes on those crap days when it’s impossible to read or do anything much, music (and essential oils) can really help to keep a positive mindset.
Listen: Sally Obermeder on her cancer diagnosis. Post continues after audio.
7. Vouchers for massages and facials.
This needs no explanation, it is wonderful, blissful escapism.
But the best thing has been those friends who still get in touch even when I don’t respond for ages because I’m feeling crap, tired and so sorry for myself. Those friends willing to come around and drag me out for a walk when I’m feeling so self conscious about looking like a chemo patient in public, they have been gold.