How to be comfortable as you curse at cancer

In the wake of another person in the circle of delightful humans I know being issued a cancer citation, I wanted to share with you all some tips on how to preemptively make your environment rise up to meet you as you convalesce.

So '90s. So bald.

So '90s. So bald.

Let me start by saying that me and cancer have some unfinished business, it having stolen parts of my childhood as I tiptoed around my sick mom, who spent vast swaths of time huddled in a sleeping bag on the couch, drinking Hi-C because nothing else appealed post-chemo. It snuck back in to my family in my early twenties and AGAIN a few years ago (PSA TO LADY PEOPLE: BRCA GENETIC TESTING SAVES LIVES! TALK TO YOUR HCPs ABOUT IT IF BREAST CANCER IS IN YOUR GENE POOL!). So yeah, I got a beef witcha, cancer. (BTW, my mom is one tough survivor, you guys.)

In times of crisis, we all rack our brains to think how we can help, and during this last go-round with my mom, it occurred to me that I know how to arrange environments so that they support people. So I got to doing what I do best: Rearranging furniture. In so doing, I identified a general framework that you can set up for yourself, pre-treatment, to ensure that you will be as comfortable as possible.


1. Decide where in your home you will convalesce most regularly.

Your bedroom? The living room couch? Both? Choose the place(s) you feel most physically comfortable and stake your claim. Play the cancer card if you have to. You've earned it!


2. Set up your convalescence station(s) within a small radius.

When you feel like shit, the last thing you want to do is get up to get something. Your convalescence station is a place to lie around, where most everything you could possibly need or want is within arm's reach. (In other words, put the thing where you use the thing!) Practically speaking, that could mean clearing out a drawer or two in your bedside table to house your comfort items and/or putting a basket of them next to the couch.

So, what to put in your comfort sphere? Here are some ideas:

  • Pillows, blankets, throw blankets

  • Heating pad, electric blanket, and/or fan

  • Hats and scarves, post-hair loss

  • Warm socks

  • Creams/salves to soothe radiation burns (if applicable)

  • Lip balm

  • Kleenex and garbage can

  • Water bottle and jug for refills

  • Comfort-food snacks (depending on your cocktail of chemo, you may get weird food cravings)

  • Pain meds (as applicable) and meds that help your stools do the thing (or not), per your HCP

  • Thermometer

  • Barf bucket

  • Remote controls, devices for watching and/or listening, and chargers

Basically, spare no comfort. You're likely to be pretty uncomfortable as it is, so now's the time to go all out.

Image source:

Image source:

3. Make it entertaining.

Now's the time to think about your Netflix queue! And your podcast queue (fuck, that word is hard to spell...)! And your library, uh, list! (+ who will pick up books for you at the library...) And audiobooks! And and and—whatever will keep you entertained and amused. Chemo-brain makes it hard to process weighty materials, FYI.

Again, put all of your devices and remotes nearby. Identify where the wall plugs are so that you can easily charge your devices. Get extension cords if you need to. Find the extra charger so it can always live near your convalescence station. Never run out of electric juice!


4. Make it beautiful. Add plants for extra beauty.

Think long and hard—and truthfully—about what you would like to look at from your convalescent station whilst you gaze blankly at the wall for hours on end as you wade through post-chemo nausea. (The struggle is real, yo...)

Now's the time to swap out anything and everything in your line of vision that has been bugging the shit out of you for years. Because whether or not you realize it, it's draining your energy! And you don't need that right now (or, arguably, ever...). Like, have you been staring resentfully from your bed at your partner's favorite velvet painting of dogs playing poker? Or that family portrait on your living room wall that includes a relative with whom you have a toxic relationship? Or that nail that's been naked in the wall since forever? Hang something beautiful up that you DO want to look at, for cripes sake!

Beauty matters. It especially matters while you're trying to heal. It's why hospitals have arts programs nowadays. And while we're getting all science-y about it, looking at greenery helps with healing too. One study showed that,

My mom made frequent visits to MSU's greenhouse during winter chemo bouts. Image source:

My mom made frequent visits to MSU's greenhouse during winter chemo bouts. Image source:

"All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall." (Franklin 2012)

You could get some plants or put the ones you already have nearby your convalescence station. If houseplants are not your jam (I kind of hate them and always have—the one time I had one, it got aphids, and mind you, I was living on the 17th floor of a high rise apartment building...) you can still capitalize on the greenery effect by making sure your convalescence station is near a window where you can see outside—sky, trees, plants, all good. So good, in fact, that even just SCENES of nature hanging on your wall has a healing benefit! No real nature required!


5. Consider your talismans and keep them near you.

What else might help you feel better? A painting from your trip to Belize? A poem that your mom wrote? A picture your kid drew? A holy book or other item from your religious or spiritual tradition?

Avec owl--a gift from my daughter for her grandma during her time of chemo.

Avec owl--a gift from my daughter for her grandma during her time of chemo.

Also include something aspirational—something you want to do, post-chemo period, as a reward to yourself for going through this shitstorm. Could be a travel book or a course catalog so you can sign up for that art class you always meant to take. Whatever it is, give yourself something specific and tangible to look forward to.

I hope this framework is helpful to you and/or your loved ones. I'm sorry you are having to go through this trial. I believe in you and wish you all well.