On Cancer

My mother has breast cancer.

I’ve written and deleted that sentence six or seven times by now. There’s no other way to begin this piece.

It was a bit of a shock for us, back in February when we found out. My mother is barely 51. She’s only just dipped into the age bracket where your doctor starts recommending regular mammograms. She works hard to be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. It didn’t make any sense.

Often when loved ones are facing an illness or experiencing a loss (and cancer is both, over and over and over again) we jump immediately to “What can I do?” “What can I do to make it better? What can I do to make you happy? What can I do to make things be okay? What?” It’s human nature, and it was the first thing I did. My mother, clearly prepared for this response had an answer: make playlists for when I’m bored during chemotherapy, come with me to appointments, hold my hand.

I did those things (except for the playlists, sorry Mum, but we both know that was busy work anyways…), and many more things. Being a knitter, if you say the words “chemotherapy” to me, my first thought is always going to be  “cap, you need a cap.”

That is a thing I can do. I’ll do that.

I poked around Ravelry until I found the pattern I wanted. Knitty had done a breast cancer awareness mini-issue,  in which there was a hat pattern designed specifically as a chemo cap: Shedir. I went to the yarn shop for hugs and reassurance and some Cascade Ultra Pima in a flattering colour. Blue, obviously. I cast on.

I didn’t know that this would become one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made.

On the surface, it shouldn’t have been. I’ve knit lots of hats for adults and children alike. There weren’t any new techniques for me. It took less than 200 yards of a cotton sport-weight yarn. It’s a well-written pattern that I didn’t plan on altering. Simple.

knit chemotherapy capI knit, frogged, and re-knit the brim three times, trying to get the perfect fit for a head that wasn’t bald yet, but would be. I tried to think instead about how pretty the cable pattern would be or how the colour would compliment her eyes. But all I could think every time I picked it up was: “Cancer. My mother has cancer. I’m making this because she has cancer. My Mum is going to lose her hair during chemotherapy. Which she needs because she has a rare and aggressive cancer. Fuck.”

I’m the kind of knitter who worries about knitting “bad vibes” into a gift, despite being a scientist who doesn’t actually believe in such nonsense. I wondered if maybe I could knit my worry into a hat. I started taking deep breaths whenever I’d start a row, letting my thoughts be whatever they naturally were, but not panicking about them. Honestly, it’s the only way I made it past the brim.

Whenever I worked on it, I thought about what the cap represented. What it meant. And instead of this being a negative thing, it turned out to be very important for me. It slowed me down enough to let me process what was happening on my own time and in my own way.hand knit chemotherapy cap

I ripped back even the smallest error and corrected it. I spent several weeks picking it up and putting it down. Acceptance of the situation – and I mean a true, deep acceptance – took time and more than a few false starts. That’s okay. It’s all a part of the process.*

*ack, I sound like my therapist.

By the time it was finished, I decided the hat was probably more a gift for me than for my Mum, who wears it to humour me, but prefers her collection of peaked hats. Or just going about bald (to be fair, she’s a very attractive bald lady. Seriously. She has, like, a perfect head). But making it let me process everything, as well as feel like I was helping out at a time when there wasn’t much to do.

After weeks and weeks chemotherapy, which she handled well, came surgery. Just a week post-surgery she agreed to model her hat for me.

Knit chemotherapy cap

(she’d probably like me to mention at this point that she’s not actually that large around the middle, but that she still has post-surgery tubing under her shirt. I tried to crop out most of it Mum, I swear!)

Adversity can bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best. It’s certainly brought out the best in her friends and family, all of whom have been incredibly loving and supportive. It brought out the best in my yarn friends who checked in on me, and in my bosses who graciously covered for me so that I could spend a few weeks at home with her. There is still a bit of a road ahead. However. If there ever was a person more capable of beating this than my mother, I’ve yet to meet them. I’m in awe and very proud of her.

“When you’re going through Hell, keep going!”

Good luck with the second half of your journey, Mum.

I love you.

Nicole

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