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I Knit My Way Through Chemo (And To A Sense of Calm)

In November 2018, I was 37 years old and was just getting back to work after the birth of my second kid when I was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. The year following my diagnosis, I underwent two surgeries, nine rounds of chemotherapy, and countless pokes and prods. I also knitted three sweaters, eight hats, and at least a half dozen mittens. 

Knitting provided a needed escape and brought me a sense of equilibrium and comfort while waiting for a scan. On days that I needed to feel like I could “do something” but couldn’t get out of bed, I’d knit a row, then close my eyes. During that time, balancing the demands of parenting, working, and being a cancer patient often felt like too much, but when I’d pull out my yarn and find my rhythm, I’d quickly find myself breathing more deeply, and lose myself in the knit and purl.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was frankly overwhelmed.

I was worried about the diagnosis itself, and I was scared of surgery and the side effects of chemotherapy, but most of all, I was terrified for my family and my two very young kids. In those first few months, I spent a lot of time simply waiting. Waiting for doctors’ appointments, waiting to get my blood drawn, waiting in the chemo chair. But no matter where I went, no matter how nervous or tired I might be, my knitting was there with me, giving me something to do with my hands and a place to go when I couldn’t be with my cancer.

My mom taught me how to knit back when I was in high school, and I’d taken it up again at various points over the next 20 years: I’d finished a scarf that my mom started before she died, crafted a pair of warm mittens for my boyfriend (now husband), and made myself a hat to survive a Midwest winter. Each time, knitting provided a comforting place to tune out the noise, be with myself, and focus my energy. 

When I carve out time to knit, it always feels like more than a simple distraction—it’s a way that I have learned to be with myself.

Knitting might not be the first thing that people think about when they hear the term self-care. For me, though, running yarn through my fingers and picking a stitch is a way to find ease. When I was diagnosed and undergoing treatment, I knit mostly for my kids. It was a way I could feel close to them when I was scared, and it felt good to make things that I hoped would give them a small sense of how much I loved them. I wanted to pass something on to them that they could hold in their hands and feel the labor and the love that went into each stitch. Knitting was a way to show myself care, just as I was caring for those most vulnerable in my circle.

It also simply felt good to make things—which isn’t to say that it was always easy. Some days, I was able to surrender to the knit and purl. Other days, my hands felt like they barely worked. I suffered from painful neuropathy as well as an immobility that made it nearly impossible to tie my shoelaces and difficult to write anything by hand. I could only clumsily hold a knitting needle. Still, I found the act and process of knitting, albeit sometimes slow, was grounding when I wasn’t feeling well physically or mentally.

A little over a year has passed since I’ve completed my cancer treatment, and knitting has continued to be my go-to activity. My kids are bigger and my projects are a little bigger, too. I still feel like I am always waiting at the doctors’ office, getting blood drawn, or getting scanned, and my knitting continues to come along to each appointment. Sometimes my anxiety from scans is overwhelming, but the knitting provides a welcome meditative hum. I never expected knitting to be the important daily companion it has become in my life, but I’m grateful for its company.

Haley Pollack lives in Oakland, California with her husband, two kids (Mona, 6 and Amira, 3), and dog. Haley is the co-founder and Executive Director of Bright Spot Network, an organization dedicated to supporting families with young children, where a parent faces a cancer diagnosis.

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