ticking off breast cancer

When Cancer Appeared On My To-Do List

I’m a naturally organised person. Some people (maybe my sister and my husband) might say that I’m a tad over-the-top organised. It regularly gets mentioned at work. In a good way – I think (hope). Friends often comment ‘thank goodness for Sara organising us, otherwise we’d have never got together.’ But I’ve never been sure whether it’s a positive or negative trait. I often think it makes me boring and perhaps I’m perceived as lacking in spontaneity. Recently, however, my organisational skills have certainly been put to the test.

Sara Liyanage

In October 2016 my life was turned upside down when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was forty-two-years-old and to say that I was shocked by this turn of events would be an understatement. Before the diagnosis, my life was carefully balanced. I ran the family home: I was the one who paid the bills, did the food shopping, booked the holidays, replied to the school emails, ensured we didn’t run out of loo roll/Sellotape/batteries/bin bags and generally ensured that everyone in the family was where they needed to be, when they needed to be there, with everything they needed to take. I commuted into London four days a week, leaving the office in time to pick up the children from their after-school club so I could be as much of a full-time mother to them as possible. It was exhaustingly busy, but thanks to my organised nature and with the help of my never-ending to-do lists, everything ran (for the most part) fairly smoothly.

There was absolutely no room for change in this finely balanced existence. But cancer brings an enormous amount of change to day to day life. Not only changes on a personal level but also in terms of the impact that going through treatment has on the rest of the family. From the day of my diagnosis I was immediately thrown into the unchartered waters of hospital appointments, cancer treatment and side effects. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. My mind went blank, I was distracted, I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t remember if one of the children needed to take something to school, I couldn’t remember if I’d paid the credit card bill, I couldn’t concentrate on doing a food shop and, quite frankly, I didn’t care less if we ran out of batteries.

Chemo hair

But, despite cancer and everything that it brought with it – medical appointments, scans, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biotherapy – I realised that family life had to carry on as normal. The children still needed to do school projects, meals still needed to be made and emails still had to be replied to. For the sake of my children, it was more important than ever to try to ensure that family life continued in as normal a way as possible. So, once the shock of the diagnosis had sunk in (well, sunk in a bit) I turned to my trusty to-do lists. And it soon became apparent that writing and using lists during breast cancer treatment was even more important to me than it had been before: during cancer treatment there is often a distinct feeling that you are not in control.

To start with, you have no control over the cancer growing inside you, no control over the diagnostic tests, limited control over your medical team and your treatment plan, and significantly, no control over whether the treatment will work. Writing lists was a way for me to maintain an element of control over what was happening to me. I may not, for example, have had any control about how my body would react to chemotherapy, but I could control what I took to the hospital for each chemotherapy session by writing a list of things to take each time I went. I couldn’t control what side-effects I would suffer, but I could do some research and prepare a shopping list of items to stock up with in order to help with any side effects that might appear. I couldn’t control how I would feel from day to day, but I could control the family calendar with helpful columns for each of us. And when I was feeling particularly poorly, I couldn’t control the full laundry basket or ironing pile, but I could write weekly manageable to-do lists that wouldn’t overwhelm me but would help me regain some control over our home life.

And lists were not just about maintaining an element of control over my life. They were, quite frankly, essential thanks to “chemo brain”.  Chemo brain is something that happens when you go through chemo. It basically means that your brain becomes rather foggy and it’s difficult to remember things and focus. Patients are known to forget things, misplace items, have difficulty in recalling names, lack concentration, find it hard to remember dates and struggle with finding the right words. I therefore came to rely heavily on my lists – if something wasn’t on a list you could guarantee that I would forget about it.

So maybe all that organisational instinct in me is a good thing after all. I may have lost my dignity, my mind and my hair, but I did retain the ability to organise myself throughout treatment. And that, I would say, went a long way in helping me – and my family – through eighteen months of breast cancer treatment.


Sara Liyanage is the author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, a new book dedicated to helping people through their breast cancer treatment from diagnosis to living life to the full once treatment ends. Aged 42 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Sara decided to set up the website of the same name to help support those who do not know which way to turn for help after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis; those who are overwhelmed by the online support for breast cancer; and those who may be scared to go online for fear of what they might find.

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