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Some of you know me as a teacher & researcher, others as a tour leader or as a blogger and now pod-caster, but I am also a cancer survivor and while I don't feel that it is something which defines me in any way, it is something which has shaped me and had a profound effect on my life and as today is international cancer survivor’s day I wanted to do a short episode that I have had in the back of my mind for a couple of years…
So now that I am a whole 32cm from my chemo coiffure, I thought it was time to have a chat. About the hats.
Over the last few years a number of people have asked me if there is some sort of gift that would be of comfort to friends or family members going through cancer treatment and most of them have been surprised when I have answered “anything but a hat or bandanna!”. So I thought it might be useful to explain this based on my own experience and what I learned chatting with other patients in the chemo ward.
Now, to be clear, I get it, a hat seems like the most obvious thing to make…I mean there is an obvious vulnerability that we see in chemo patients, when they lose their hair it is a natural impulse to want to wrap them up and protect them and that is generally in the form of a hat.
But it is a little more complicated than that. It is absolutely terrifying when all of your hair falls out because you are sick. There is a sense of loss of control over you own life which can be exacerbated by others trying to dress you. The thing about hair-loss is that it is a very visible, public sign of the illness the patient is experiencing and how they choose to deal with that is extremely personal.
Some patients are happy to channel their inner Yul Brunner or Sinead O’Connor while others have special wigs fitted so no one need know what they are going through…then in-between there are many types of hats, scarves and bandannas which patients can choose from depending on their personal style.
The problem with gifting hats is that it takes that control out of the patients hands at a time that they need to hang on to any small choices that they can – hats also sit differently when you don’t have any hair and it is tricky to find the right one, I personally got through with my husband’s collection of plain black beanies which were discreet and perfect...and they helped me to be invisible, which is exactly what I wanted.
The other tricky thing is that sometimes in an attempt to cheer the patient up people get a bit carried away with their hat creations or choices using bright colours, quirky patterns or giant flowers which just draw more attention to the fact that they have lost their hair and can leave them feeling that they are somewhere between being in fancy dress or maybe even a bit like a teapot.
Before I give you some alternative gift ideas I wanted to share a few Facts about Chemo that you may not know:
1. Not all kinds of cancer are treated with chemotherapy. Just as there are many types of cancer there are many types of cancer treatment, if someone close to you has received a cancer diagnosis it is a good idea to inform yourself about their treatment plan so you can find out how best to support them.
2. Not all types of chemotherapy cause hair loss – it depends on the combination of chemo drugs and the individual.
3. It isn’t just the hair on one’s head which falls out. Depending on the person, combination of drugs and number of cycles people can lose almost ALL their hair including eyebrows, eyelashes and down below. This can be really confronting, especially as the media have this fixation for representing aliens as bald creatures with neither eyebrows nor eyelashes…and it can accompany a feeling of alienation from one's own body.
So in the interests of sparing everyone an embarrassing experience I thought it might be useful to make some suggestions of alternative handmade gifts which can show your loved one that you are there for them at this difficult time:
1. Make them a Tea Cosy! And maybe accompany it with some lovely teas… while on chemo it is very important to stay hydrated and herbal teas can be a great way to do that. You could try ginger tea which helps calm nausea and has anti-cancer properties or you could try a soothing tea like chamomile to help them sleep – another fact which many don’t know about chemotherapy is that some of the anti-nausea drugs which are used are actually steroids which can leave the patient feeling really wired for a couple of days after a treatment - it used to take me a couple of days to be able to sleep well again and I drank a lot of chamomile tea to help with that. The great thing about a tea cosy is that you can go as crazy as you like and really have a lot of fun! This fantastic tea cosy was made by the wonderful Cherie Hingee and makes me smile every time I see it.
2. A Poncho, Blanket or Quilt; many types of cancer and cancer treatment cause patients to be anemic and because of this it is not uncommon to feel cold all the time; so you could pick out some yarn or fabric together and make something warm and comforting. Linus isn’t the only one to love his security blanket.
3. A Pillow or Cushion – there are different types of pillows which can be great gifts. They are commonly made for breast cancer patents after surgery to help protect them from car seat-belts or to prop up their arm to make them more comfortable – a quick shout out to Janet and Dianne who made mine! Thanks ladies!! – but you could also make a lovely heat pillow which would help combat the cold and the aches which patients commonly feel while on chemo.
4. Knit them some love! Or perhaps a little mascot of some sort. The aim is to let them know that you are there for them and put a smile on their face. The Japanese art of amigurumi, that is, knitted and crocheted creatures, is a really fun way to do this and there are thousands of tutorials online to help you find the right crochet companion for your loved one.
5. My 5th suggestion isn’t really a handmade gift so much as an arm made one…A Hug! Sometimes we forget the most obvious things…cancer treatment can be really scary and isolating and the love and reassurance that a simple hug can give is the most precious thing you can give. Because in the end, a little bit of love and support can go a long way to helping a cancer patient become a cancer survivor.
Tea Cosy: By the amazing Reze (Cherie) Hingee
Music: Survivor by Destiny's Child
Many thanks to: My Husband and superhero Ignacio, Dr Ali Tafreshi, Dr Kathryn Stewart, Dr James Chen, Dr Lis Lane, Dr Surindah Singh, everyone at Illawarra Cancer Care, Sue, Sarah, Isa and Emelia.