The Twelve Gifts of Chemo

The Twelve Gifts of Chemo

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

The Twelve Gifts of Chemo

I always feel that the great high privilege, relief and comfort of friendship was that one had to explain nothing.

Katherine Mansfield

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was flooded with love and support from a wide circle of friends. Cards, flowers, phone messages, e-mails and meals all were dearly appreciated and helped me have some bright spots during those most unsettling of times. But the efforts of one special friend really stood out.

When I was told I should undergo twelve weeks of chemo resulting in “100 percent hair loss,” I never dreamed I would actually look forward to my “chemo days.” Of course, I knew I would look forward to them in the sense that having chemo would reduce my chances of a recurrence, but actually looking forward to the days with anticipation and excitement never occurred to me . . . until my dear friend Chris worked her magic. She had already begun to do all the dear and loving things an extraordinary friend would do, such as acting as my “communications director” and gatekeeper, organizing a weekly delivery of meals, filling my bedroom with ten vases of flowers to welcome me home from my first surgery, doing research and helping to care for my three young children so my husband could be with me.

And then the day of my first chemo treatment arrived. Chris showed up at my doorstep, as she would every week for twelve weeks, with the first of her gifts for “The Twelve Weeks of Chemo,” delivered to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The first week was “A Travelogue and Some Tea” (a very funny travel book by Bill Bryson titled Tales from a Small Island), accompanied by a card Chris had designed herself, which clearly took an enormous amount of time. Even though the card said “On the First Week of Chemo, My Girlfriend Gave to Me . . . A Travelogue and Some Tea,” I didn’t catch on that this was to be an every-week deal. However, after week two, when Chris again showed up with a card saying “On the Second Week of Chemo, My Girlfriend Gave to Me . . . Two Turtle Doves” (two Turtle candies and two Dove Bar candies), I started to get it, and so did my husband and children. When week three rolled around, I was excited to receive my surprise, and the first thing the children asked when they got home from school was, “What did Mrs. Helmholz bring?” By week four, it was one of the first questions my chemo nurses asked, and I started bringing in my treasures to show them. Chris had managed to find loving ways for our family look to forward to each week. My chemo nurses even looked up and printed the words to the song because none of us could quite remember what weeks seven and beyond were, and we were trying to guess what would come next. (It turns out that Chris had used this same technique, but the Web site she consulted had the wrong order of things, which caused her great consternation, but made me giggle all the more.) Here is the complete list of her weekly gifts:

First Week: “A Travelogue and Some Tea.”

Second Week: “Two Turtle Doves.”

Third Week: “Three French Hens”—a box découpaged with three chickens and filled with Snickers bars.

Fourth Week: “Four Caring Words”—a homemade pillow with the words “Strength,” “Friends,” “Love” and “Family.”

Fifth Week: “Five Gold Rings”—five gold wine charms.

Sixth Week: “Six Things Worth Saying”—a beautiful framed copper and metal art piece with the words “Go for it,” “Enjoy life,” “Expect miracles,” “Why not,” “Simplify everything” and “Dream big” engraved on metal touch stones/coins.

Seventh Week: “Seven Swans A-Swimming”—a stitched art piece with seven matronly women in swim suits (which Chris promised did not resemble us!).

Eighth Week: “Eight Malts a Milking”—a lovely basket filled with eight packages of malt balls.

Ninth Week: “Nine Crumbcakes Crumbling”—nine homemade, delicious crumbcakes.

Tenth Week: “Ten Pipers Piping”—a small bowl with ten copper pipes artfully attached to a water pump to create an original water fountain.

Eleventh Week: “Eleven Flames a Dancing”—an elegant votive stand with eleven candles arranged vertically.

Twelfth Week: “Twelve Tins A-Keeping”—a magnetic board with twelve magnetic tins with lids attached. The lids were decorated with pictures of my children.

For the twelfth and final chemo treatment, in addition to “Twelve Tins A-Keeping,” Chris made me a “courage doll” using wire and fibers from a piece of Tibetan prayer cloth she had long treasured. Her note said,

This doll represents courage and strength. It represents you. The fibers are strong and beautiful. They protectively wrap the form, yet leave room for growth. The wire gives it shape, yet it is flexible when needed. The doll is wrapped in a piece of the prayer cloth to remind you that you are not alone and will always be in my prayers.

As if all this weren’t enough to let me know I was loved and supported, when I had to have a mastectomy following chemo, Chris made me my own personal voodoo doll complete with pins.

Wandering around my house, nearly a year since my diagnosis and six months since my last treatment, everywhere I see signs of Chris’s support. How much love and time must she have spent thinking, creating, designing and delivering—all to make me feel her friendship.

Many say you learn a lot about your true friends when you go through an experience like this, but I think it’s slightly different. I don’t believe it’s a “test” of friendship— I believe that all my friends are true friends who happen to show their support in different ways. What I learned is really two-fold: first, the capacity for love in this world is immense; second, there are some extraordinary souls who, like Chris, have an amazing gift to give and are so generous of nature, but so shy of praise, that they are only truly appreciated in times of trouble. I don’t think I have yet been able to convey to Chris how truly healing all her thoughtful gifts were, how they touched my heart to the core and gave me strength. One of our mutual friends had worried that her humorous approach might not be appropriate, but Chris knew how important laughter and love are to healing and coping, and she found just the right mix to help me feel cared for, but not smothered; honored but not pitied; lifted up but not carried.

Sally Fouché

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