BY HALEY POLLACK. Survivor, Colon Cancer. October 4, 2023 elephantsandtea.com
Last December, I finished knitting a sweater that I’ve been working on for close to four years. I started the sweater just before I began chemotherapy at age 37, diagnosed with Stage 3c colon cancer after my second child was born. During my cancer treatment, I was balancing the demands of parenting, working, and being a patient, and it often felt like too much to bear. But when I’d pull out my yarn, I’d find a sense of equilibrium, and I’d lose myself in the knit and purl.
The soft gray sweater that was born in the infusion chair at my cancer clinic, traveled with me to countless appointments and waiting rooms. Mostly, in that year of surgery, chemotherapy, and doctor’s appointments it gave me comfort. Something soft to run through my fingers, something to breathe with, in moments of stress, and something to meditate on as I navigated the medical crisis unraveling in front of me.
In that first year of cancer, knitting brought me comfort as I sat in the chemo chair or waited for a scan. There were days that I needed to feel like I could do something when I couldn’t get out of bed—I’d knit a row and then close my eyes. Just as often, I was unable to knit because I was too nauseous, too sad, or, even worse, physically couldn’t because of treatment-induced neuropathy in my hands. These moments served as bitter reminders of how sick I was—and made me feel like there was little I could do.
Still, my sweater and my knitting needles traveled with me, as a constant companion.
My mom taught me to knit in high school and I’ve taken it up at different points since then. In college I made leg warmers. When I met my husband, I knit him mittens before he visited me during a particularly cold winter in the Midwest. When my kids were born I made them the cutest sweaters you could imagine. The past few years have been full of baby sweaters for dear friends and recently, I find myself knitting soft hats for my cancer buddies to keep their bald heads warm.
Knitting grounds me but it also pulls me close to my mom who died from breast cancer when I was 25. I cherish the crocheted blanket she made me before I headed off to college, just after learning her cancer had come back. I saw her knit throughout her own years of treatment, taking her projects with her to appointments or keeping her hands busy in front of the TV. She knit my kids baby blankets and little booties, years before I knew that I wanted to be a mom myself. There are an infinite number of things that I wish I could do with my mom, but sometimes when the grief of all that cancer has taken from me hits hard, I want nothing more than to just sit in each other’s company and knit.
When my treatment ended, the sweater that had traveled with me throughout my cancer was still incomplete. And every time I’d pick it up to keep working, the smell and feel of the yarn—even the weight of the bag—transported me back to that difficult time. For
most people, this wouldn’t be a problem. They’d just set the project aside and forget it. But for me, it was torture. In my heart, I’m a completist. I love to finish things. I always finish the book. I watch the whole movie, even when it is boring. Having a half-done knitting project that I started in chemotherapy, no-less, staring back at me, was difficult at best.
Since my treatment ended, this half-knit sweater taunted me. I’d pick it up and put it down. It would look back at me. I’d feel tremendous guilt at working on other knitting projects that gave me joy: sweaters for my kids, a sweater for myself, hats, mittens, the occasional sock. But this sweater, so connected to my cancer, just looked back at me as a reminder of my illness.
To be fair, I’d grin and bear it and I would work on it in fits and starts. A few rows here and there, but nothing more. And then, last winter, with my fourth cancerversary on the horizon I realized that those rows here and there had finally added up to a full and complete thing: a sweater! To finish it felt like it would mean closing a loop. I had wanted to be done with the sweater for so long but in some ways, I didn’t really know if I was ready. It was never a “move on” but rather, a reminder that things can change. That things are constantly changing.
Honestly, I don’t really wear this sweater very often. Sometimes I force myself into it but the soft yarn feels itchy and it doesn’t sit on my body the way I want it to. I like to see the asphalt gray folded up in my closet; it feels comforting. Seeing the sweater among my other things is like: I did a thing. It was terrible. It was so hard. I’m still here.