When I realized that knitting had become a life preserver throughout this breast cancer experience, I wondered if anyone else had given this any thought. I am known to over think even the smallest things and that often makes me feel as if I’m the only person in the world that thinks a particular thing. So I did what that any knitter and social media addict does: I went straight to Ravelry.
For those of you who don’t embrace the fiber arts, Ravelry is the holy pilgrimage site for devoted knitters and crocheters. In a nutshell, Ravelry is part personal project organizational tool (you can keep track of everything from the needles you own to fiber to projects), part community (with forums that encompass everything from Star Trek to poodle lovers to NASCAR to beach combers and everything in between), and part yarn and pattern database. It’s an amazing place where people who are CDO can take photographs of their yarn stash and projects and put them up on line. (I admit it. The only reason I purchased a digital camera is so that I could take photographs of my stash.)
Last month I reached out to the folks on the Knitters with Breast Cancer forum. It didn’t take long at all for me to get acquainted with women across the globe, support them as they support me, and talk knitting. One night I asked the members if they ever gave any thought about any intersection of knitting with their diagnoses. The responses were at once heartwarming and thought provoking, not to mention downright poetic at times.
For the most part, responders feel that their craft serves as a kind of weathervane: if they aren’t knitting then they are depressed, if they are knitting then they are likely moving forward. Knitting allows many to deal with stress and provides a way to be productive on those days when you want to do nothing at all. One knitter likes to “feel the yarn going through your fingers balancing the biorhythms.” Another described the “gentle rhythmic clickity-clack of the needles” as they “dip in and out of the yarn” and the pattern begins to emerge. (Did I mention that knitters are crazy good wordsmiths?)
One knitter sees the craft as “something to take us out of ourselves for a little while.” So many doctor’s appointments, so many tests, so much worry, always the focus on the self. Some took it to the next level and made things for their caregivers both at home and at the hospital. Knitted objects serve as practical pieces of art that allow the crafter to show gratitude where sometimes words fail.
As chemotherapy and other treatments took their toll, many knitters noted that they lost the desire to knit for a time. Others wished they could have knitted, but chemotherapy induced neuropathy to the fingertips or hand, or infected fingernails, or rashes prohibited them from knitting—adding to the stress and worry in their lives. Those who were able to knit when infection subsided or listlessness persisted spoke to knitting as a way that they could create something of beauty while their bodies were being ravaged.
But, as one person observes, knitting never holds a grudge. And many women speak to feeling a renewed spark once they feel stronger or infections clear. For women whose treatments are behind them, they picked up knitting with renewed fervor. One knitter said that she is only able to knit socks right now; small projects that are familiar and easy to cart from one place to the next. Indeed, one woman said that as she was prepared and waiting for surgery she knitted until the moment that they took her to the OR. Another was in the middle of a project when she learned that she had breast cancer—she immediately ripped it out so that when she saw that object she wouldn’t be reminded of that moment.
Knitting also serves a practical function for women undergoing chemotherapy. The chemical warfare affects your ability to concentrate and slaughters your memory. But the skills akin to knitting—patience, focus, planning, and execution—all help to push back against these side effects. The determination and concentration needed to complete a project are also focused on the self. One row at a time is one day at a time. Knitting, as one person described it, lets you be who you are even as who you are profoundly changes.
Ah, the mistakes of knitting. Frogging or tinking is a matter of course with knitters; if you’re smart you learn early on how to undo the many mistakes that you will inevitably make as you nourish your skills. But one person put this all into rich perspective: mistakes in knitting offer a measure of sheer freedom in the do-over. Unlike the disease it’s not life threatening. So what if you make a mistake? Live in that moment: that mistake will not cost you your life. “Welcome to the ultimate hobby/medication/time saver/time passer,” she tells new knitters. “You can screw up and guess what? NOTHING BAD HAPPENS!”
Facing breast cancer isn’t easy. The reality of the illness is hard enough, and then so many women are subjected to mastectomies, reconstruction (or not), chemical warfare, or the knowledge that no matter what you do to run from the killing fields you will lose. But knitting soothes, forgives, pampers, and nurtures. It warms the body and it warms the soul. It won’t judge you when you cry and it will never hold a grudge. Unconditional love? Yes, I think so.
My sincere thanks to the strong, talented, and inspirational women of the Knitters with Breast Cancer Forum for writing this essay.