Many cancer treatments include chemotherapy. Some include chemotherapy concurrent with radiation therapy. I know I was willing to undergo all treatments recommended by my oncologist to eradicate my stage 4 tonsil cancer, so my treatment included chemotherapy followed by chemo/radiation therapy.
Before my treatment was finished I was experiencing effects of “chemo brain.” My oncologist assured me there was no such thing, that I was stressed, nervous about processing a diagnosis of cancer, overwhelmed with the rigors of treatment, and that once treatment was over I would regain my faulty cognitive skills. In this regard she was not correct.
Treatment ended, and recovery became my number one priority. One of the main effects of treatment I wanted to tackle quickly was getting my brain working again.
My ability to focus had dwindled to the point of not being able to hang on to the thread of a commercial. Visiting with another person was impossible. Not only did I not have an audible voice, I couldn’t follow a sentence, let alone a conversation. Trying to write what I wanted to say words would fail me. I couldn’t think of the names of everyday objects. I couldn’t spell words. I used to know the name of everyone I had come into contact with, a skill I had honed for years in medical imaging systems sales. No more. My frustration level was at an all-time high.
I sought guidance from my physicians and was advised to just relax, give it time and all would be restored. I wasn’t convinced.
I turned to a skill my mother taught me when I was 4 to keep me occupied and quiet – knitting. When I was 8 I met my grandmother for the first time. She was a tremendous knitter and helped expand my knitting skills. Before long I was knitting doll clothes and stuffed animals to sell for Brownie fund raisers. When I became a Girl Guide one of the first badges I earned was my knitting badge. I taught Brownies how to make pot holders as gifts for family. It was fun and gave a great sense of accomplishment.
In my quest to recover my brain function , at first I just got a pair of needles and a ball of yarn, cast on 20 stitches and began knitting, row by row. I quickly learned synthetic yarns cut up my fingers and so only worked with natural fibers. Once I was able to complete a square I expanded into small garments I had happily made in the past. Hats, cowls, mittens. I used to design sweaters when my son was young and sell them to the highest bidder to make extra money to buy my son the toys he wanted. I thought, why not try my hand at designing again?
At first I struggled with the basic algebraic equations. You know the ones, what you do to one side you do to the other. Trial and error, and keeping meticulous notes helped me not only create simple garments, it gave me confidence to find new ways to train my brain. My ability to focus for longer periods of time increased. I was able to calm my frustration which allowed me to concentrate on problem solving. And, I accepted that not being able to trust my memory and so had to write everything down was not such a bad solution.
There are many articles attesting to the benefits of knitting.
-Zen-like relaxation similar to that of yoga and meditation. The rhythmic movements of knitting stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which produces a calming effect and a non-pharmaceutical method to manage strong emotions.
-Promotion of neural pathways in the brain, which help maintain cognitive health, or help restore cognitive impairment
-Reduction of chronic pain and helps keep fingers, especially arthritic ones, supple.
-Sense of accomplishment
-A personalized way to show appreciation or thanks. I have been fortunate to receive help from many people to help me make the most of my quality of life. Hand knitted gifts help convey how much I appreciate their help and their expertise.
I designed and knit this cardigan for my surgeon, after he reconstructed my airway and esophagus to restore my ability to successfully get my food down, and to have it go to my stomach and not into my lungs! Yes, I was most grateful for his skill! And he loves his thank you cardigan. Win/win!!
-Socialization. After a significant cancer fight it is often challenging to re-engage other people socially without the topic of your cancer fight being your main topic of discussion. Yes, each of us fought our fight in our way, and came out bigger and stronger on the other side of the fight. But, speaking for myself, I would rather be known for much more than my cancer fight. Getting together with other knitters, or discussing knitting projects with other people, is a great way to interact socially without cancer being present. This can be especially welcome for folk who have had significant physical changes due to treatment as it can help ease the discomfort others may feel about not knowing what to say.
I would recommend knitting to anyone who would like to experience the benefits I’ve enjoyed. There are plenty of YouTube videos to get you started and to learn how to create all kinds of items.
Ravelry.com is a wonderful online community that offers patterns, information and online knitting groups you can join and interact with.
I highly recommend visiting your local yarn shop. Get to know the owner. Talk to the people who visit the shop on a regular basis. You will find a number of people, from all walks of life, who have realized all the benefits of knitting you want and are friendly and encouraging. Join some of the knitting classes or just bring your work and sit and knit! And over time you will find you have knit so much more than items or garments. You will have knit new pathways in your brain, a wonderful sense of accomplishment and a productive refuge from the stresses of life.