Alison Tucker’s sanity-saving tips on navigating breast cancer


When Alison Tucker was diagnosed with breast cancer, she made the conscious decision to handle the ensuing uncertainty with as much positive thought and action as possible. Here she shares the key practices that reinforced her sanity throughout her cancer treatment.

Early on in her breast cancer experience, Alison decided to be as open and public about her illness as possible. Alison calls her year of treatment her “best, worst year” and these words inspired the title of her new book – "My Best Worst Year – A Breast Cancer Story” that was published in August 2020. The book includes content relevant to people who support those with cancer with detail on what to say and not to say, how best to support them and more.

  • Missed Alison’s full story? Read it here.

In her book, Alison shares her ideas for coping with cancer. Here are some of her sanity-saving tips, taken or adapted from her book.

Find your sense of normal

If I could only give one piece of advice, it would be to ‘find your sense of normal’. Life cannot continue 100% as before, but finding a new sense of normal that is respectful of your old normal is a great start. If you’re used to working, try to continue working, even if to a lesser extent. If you’re used to exercising, continue exercising, even if it is in a different way. If you love socialising, don’t give it up. You may have to moderate or recalibrate your life, but continuing to do the things that make you ‘tick’ or that you love can make the difference between feeling well and feeling like a sick person.

Keeping active was a huge part of Alison’s successful coping

“I’ve run a few Comrades marathons,” says Alison. “I have always been active and when I was first diagnosed I was worried I wouldn’t be able to exercise and worried I wouldn’t keep up my Vitality points, but I made my weekly goals from treatment start to end with one exception – the week of my surgery. I joined the North Beach parkrun on a Saturday morning and also ran and cycled with friends at the Durban beachfront in our “Bike and Bean” group. I adjusted my pace according to how I felt. I remember cycling on the beachfront and listening to Bob Marley’s “Three little birds” – “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright” with hot tears burning my cheeks as they ran down my face. That was my release.”

“Remember, exercise is about continuing to move to the extent you can during your illness. It doesn’t have to be frantic. For some, it can be as simple as taking a gentle walk around the block. For others, it’ll be doing a parkrun. You may do more at times and less at other times. Just keep moving, no matter how little or much.”

Gratitude is key

“In dire times it’s very easy to curl up and feel sorry for oneself. I recognised this risk and made a conscious decision to develop a daily practice of gratitude. It kept me positive and had all kinds of positive spin-off benefits,” she says. Alison’s Facebook Gratitude Diary saw her post daily about something she was grateful for, and this effort resulted in her connecting with many other women who needed support on their breast cancer experiences. “Honouring something or someone I was grateful for each day helped me focus on what was good and how blessed I was, despite my predicament of having breast cancer. It encouraged me to have a positive mindset and to constantly be looking out for the people or moments, big and small, that uplifted me.”

Take pleasure in ordinary things

Alison says, “Finding joy in the ordinary comes rather easy during cancer treatment. This may seem like an odd statement to make, but the ordinary gives a sense of the old ‘normal’ and this feels good and is a pleasant change from being preoccupied with health, treatment, needles, drugs and the like. Ordinary routines, no matter how simple, during cancer treatment can feel much more pleasant than they do in ‘normal’ life. For example, simply spending a day at my desk working as I had before felt like a very pleasant gift over this time. I also noticed small, seemingly ordinary things, like insects and flowers (and sometimes even weeds), more than ever before and these brought unexpected joy.

Staying well-informed helps to bring a sense of control

Alison found information on Google (she also cautions against the risk of finding information online that is not credible) and elsewhere and shared it with her oncologist. “She was ever so patient hearing me out and had a wonderful way of adding perspective and realism to whatever was on my mind from the information I had accessed. I had always considered myself a control freak of sorts, but my cancer experience taught me you cannot control everything; you need to go with the flow, lean in and let things unfold. Feeling well-informed gave me a dash of my much-needed sense of control while I was learning this lesson.

Keep your sense of humour

“Cancer is no laughing matter,” says Alison. “To survive it from an emotional point of view though, you certainly need a sense of humour. Finding lightness amongst all the dark in whatever way I could helped me get through it intact. All the medicine, treatments, prodding and poking, feeling sick, making the significant change from hair to wigs and more, could be a recipe for daily, deep, dark despair. But, all these present opportunities for a giggle and a laugh that make you feel better and those around you feel a bit more comfortable with what you’re going through too. Chemotherapy days were always light-hearted, fun days, contrary to what one might think. We laughed and joked, both patients and their supporters, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a comedy show if you were a fly on the wall.”

Celebrate milestones

Alison explains, “Boy, oh boy, did I celebrate every milestone of the experience, no matter how big or small. Giving yourself something to look forward to helps you face the daily challenges. Whether it’s something small, like champagne to celebrate having slayed a dragon (like going public with your new wig), or a trip to a special place, near or far, they all make the experience just that much more bearable. Completing my 50th parkrun whilst on chemotherapy was also a cause to celebrate and I was lucky to have a bunch of friends with me, making it feel more special. Celebrations can be with family and friends and they most often are. They can, however, also be your own little, individual celebration, treat or reward – a favourite food or experience, or even a short lie-in in the morning, before starting your day.

Ensure you have plenty of happy distractions

She explains, “If your mind is left to focus purely on your illness, you’ll be in for a rough ride. It’ll play tricks on you. It’ll gnarl and twist your every thought. It’ll swipe your confidence and constantly rob you of the opportunity to live each day to its fullest potential. Find your distractions so your mind can preoccupy itself with other stuff. For some, it may be their family responsibilities; for others it may be something noble, like involvement in some charitable pursuit to the extent they are able to.”

Patience, dear patient!

“For type A personalities like me, the cancer rollercoaster ride can sure test your patience,” confides Alison. “In the early stages, my friend Sheila taught me the expression “patience, dear patient” and that became a common mantra for me. I had to frequently remind myself of this. You feel like you’re doing the tango. You take two steps forward and then … you take four steps back. You get a snippet of information about your condition only to find it raises more questions than it answered. You think you’ll get closure at a scheduled appointment, only to find out that the box has been reopened and you’re nowhere near closure. You think you’re done with tests only to find out you need more. You wait for results. And you wait some more. The uncertainty is a killer. But you learn to deal with it and to keep yourself busy with daily life instead of agonising about what may or may not be. You get enough practice in learning patience and you’ll certainly come out the other end with a newfound skill if you didn’t have it before!

Keep meticulous records of your bills

Alison advises cancer patients to create a handwritten or digital table and record every single medical intervention and cost, which makes it easier to reconcile or query medical bills as they come in.

Think about your location relative to your treatment venue

“If possible, choose an oncologist and radiologist who are located close to where you live,” says Alison. “When you’re going for radiation therapy every day, a quick drive makes the world of difference, and I was able to drive myself.”

Alison’s approach in a nutshell?

“The expression ‘inhale love, exhale gratitude’ is a precious one and one that I think we all need to remind ourselves of from time to time. If there was a rallying cry from my cancer experience, it would no doubt be exactly this,” she concludes.

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