Ticking off Breast Cancer by Sara Liyanage

Thanks to Hashtag Press for the advance copy.
I was delighted to be asked to review this book. I met Sara on social media. We were diagnosed around the same time and discovered that we lived close to each other. We’ve now become friends in real life, enjoying lovely walks and chats with our dogs. Sara runs an amazing website called tickingoffbreastcancer.com. It provides practical advice for men and women standing at the edge of the breast cancer precipice not knowing which way to turn (and for their partners, families and friends who would like to know how to help). It is for anyone with any stage of breast cancer.

Sara has just been diagnosed with breast cancer which is definitely not on her to do list for the weekend. Sara is a forty-something mother, wife, lawyer and copious list compiler, and the diagnosis has come as a complete shock. When she hears those words – You Have Cancer – it felt to her as if “the air in the room was sucked out”.

Ticking Off Breast Cancer is a chronological narrative of Sara’s breast cancer experience. From the day of her diagnosis, through all of her treatments, trying to come to terms with the menopausal symptoms caused by her hormone drugs and finding a new way of living after her treatment has ended. It combines Sara’s account of how she dealt with her cancer, with helpful descriptions of all of the examinations, procedures and treatments that she went through, and wonderfully useful checklists at the end of each chapter.

The book succeeds in being both practical and comforting. In parts, it is a difficult read, but not a scary one, because Sara writes with humour, warmth and honesty. I found her account of the meeting with Mr Breast Consultant at which she received her diagnosis to be incredibly poignant. She clearly hadn’t expected to be told she had breast cancer as she hadn’t brought a notebook or pen with her… something that almost never happened in her pre cancer life.

This was rectified soon after when Sara buys her Project Cancer Notebook. This serves as somewhere to record her future consultations but also as her way of wrestling back some form of control. Interestingly, it’s not her who writes in this book during future appointments but instead her husband who takes notes… Sara finds that she can take nothing in during these stressful times.

We see how important lists and being in control are for Sara, right from the beginning of the book. The first list seems very ordinary  – one that any parent might compile for a family weekend at home – until we reach the last item “get head around breast cancer diagnosis” The lists continue throughout the book and are in response to whatever Sara is faced with in her cancer experience but also in relation to her family. Getting ready for Halloween, who to tell and when, surgery preparation, worries, chemotherapy shopping, everyday to do list – these are just some of the lists that are shared with us.

Another important feature of the book are the checklists which are at the end of each chapter. Some of these are written with patients in mind, whilst others are aimed at family members and friends. All are extremely useful and the result of Sara’s passion for organisation. They range from tips for attending your medical appointments to dealing with chemotherapy side effects and moving on from treatment – all that you’d want to know about from the time of your diagnosis to the end of treatment and pretty much everything in between!

As someone who’s been through breast cancer, I thought that the descriptions of all of the tests, procedures and treatments were fantastic. Everybody’s experience of these are different, but I think having some knowledge of what they may be like is really helpful. I was particularly taken by Sara’s description of her breast MRI. It took me right back to when I had the same procedure. I was so scared of the tunnel and vividly remember the “boob holes” but reading that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way made me smile and feel that I wasn’t alone.

The book isn’t all facts and lists. Sara is also creative in how she writes about cancer. I loved the way she personifies the disease. Here, having been diagnosed and signed off work,

So here I am, on my own and at a bit of a loose end. Well not quite on my own because I have my new sidekick, Breast Cancer, with me. Perched on my shoulder…she follows me everywhere, whispering scary things in my ear, clutching my heart… distracting me every minute of the day, and waking me up at night.”

Breast Cancer has a friend: dark, mean over-bearing Fear. Fear of dying. Fear of leaving my husband. Fear of leaving my children without a mother. Fear of leaving before I’m ready or have fulfilled my hopes and dreams.

And here, having told her family and friends, and having received loving messages and practical support,

Breast Cancer and Fear, you may have made yourselves comfortable on my shoulders, but let me tell you now, you have an awful lot of Love and Support to contend with.

As one might expect, the book ends with a list… what Sara learnt from breast cancer. Not just about the illness, but also about herself, people and life. It’s a fitting end to an informative, sympathetic and very entertaining book.

I count myself very fortunate to be one of Sara’s friends. We met through the online breast cancer community and have now met several times. We really enjoy walking our dogs together and chatting about nothing in particular and everything breast cancer. I had breast cancer at about the same time as Sara and I wish that this book had been in existence then. If you have breast cancer, then please read this book. If a family member, friend or loved one has breast cancer, please do buy it for them.

Ticking off Breast Cancer is available for pre-order now from Amazon and is released on 26th September.

September 2019