Book review: ‘Ticking Off Breast Cancer’ by Sara Liyanage

When Sara posted a tweet asking if anyone would like an advance copy of her book to read and blog a review about, I didn’t hesitate to respond. I was attracted to and intrigued by the title. Having followed Sara on Twitter and read some of her blogs I felt I had got to know her a little. I had been impressed by her lists but I didn’t know much about her story. I had noticed her caring, considered, encouraging and honest approach and I anticipated a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. Ticking Off Breast Cancer is one of the best books I have read about breast cancer.

First things first, when the book arrived, I fell in love with the front cover. The colours, the fonts, the image … I wanted to open it and read it straight away but life had just thrown us another curveball so I didn’t have time to read and I put the book to one side.

I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive because I was worried that reading the book might trigger traumatic memories of my own breast cancer diagnosis and treatments. I chose to read the book on a day I had a hospital appointment at the breast clinic; my mind was already focussed on all things breast cancer on that day. Surprisingly, although it reminded me of some of the side effects of treatment I’d forgotten about, I also found it comforting because it reminded me I am not alone with these experiences, feelings and thoughts and validated them. I even read out a short excerpt to the consultant I saw to explain where I’m at

“Sometimes I feel like I’m on one of those long elasticated ropes at fairs that are tied around the waist and then you have to run as far and as fast as you can before the rope suddenly yanks you back to the starting point. I’m really trying to run away, against the resistance of cancer, but it has a hold on me and every now and again it yanks the rope and pulls me backwards”.

During my breast cancer treatments I lost the ability to concentrate enough to read, an activity I have enjoyed most of my life and have previously found easy. Even now, over two years since the end of active treatment it still takes me much longer to read than it did before so the fact that I read Ticking Off Breast Cancer in one day in between coffee and lunch dates and a hospital appointment speaks volumes.

I like the way the book is laid out, the pattern it follows, the structure with the quote at the beginning and the checklists at the end of each chapter. Sara shares her story using a chronological approach which is easy to follow. She skilfully draws on her story to provide helpful and practical lists and suggestions. There are lists covering almost everything from before diagnosis through to moving on at the end of treatments. When I was diagnosed I scoured the cancer forums on the internet for lists like these!

‘Everyone who goes through cancer has their own story to tell’ While Sara’s book is about her and her experiences of breast cancer when I read it I realised it is also, to some extent, about me and mine and possibly if you have had breast cancer treatments, you and yours. There are some similarities between Sara and my stories; we were both diagnosed in the same year, we were both in our 40s although Sarah is six years younger than me. We are both women who like so many women are used to keeping a lot of plates spinning and wearing many hats. There are also differences including being at different stages of parenting and in our work lives. As Sara points out at the beginning of the book

“Always remember that everyone is different. We have different diagnoses; different treatment plans and we react differently to treatment”.

Nevertheless, so many aspects of Sara’s story and the emotions and thought processes she describes so eloquently resonate with me. To name just a few, the dawning awareness and understanding that breast cancer is far more complex than we had previously thought; the loneliness and strangeness of living in a parallel world; the pain and subsequent soul searching over a friend who doesn’t get in touch during months and months of treatment.

Sara does not shy away from sharing about experiences during cancer treatments which may seem peripheral to outsiders but, if discussions with other people are anything to go by, are important to us who have lived experience. Our experiences change us and shape us. In the last chapter of the book Sara shares all she has learnt through her experiences of breast cancer. It was a list I could have written myself.

In the Appendix Sara helpfully lists reliable and trustworthy sources of information, so important as there are so many unreliable and untrustworthy sources out there. Last but not least, the book ends with a list of acknowledgments including a shout out to the wonderful online community of cancer patients.

As someone who has already gone through treatment for primary breast cancer it is the relatability of Sara’s words that stands out for me but I recommend this book to everyone, especially those who have had a cancer diagnosis, their families and friends as well as professionals and volunteers working with people affected by cancer. I would have found it useful when supporting others in the past and I know I will find useful in the future.

Thank you for writing this book Sara!

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