Challenge: Thinking positively through chemotherapy

This week I completed 16 rounds of chemotherapy infusions over a six month period. Struck by the phenomenon of well-meaning and shocked people telling me to “think positively“ during this time, I decided to look at what exactly anyone could possibly have to think positively about. To my surprise I came up with a list of eleven things!

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Since being diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of 2017 I have had the misfortune of telling people about my misfortune. The first response* of many well-meaning people is often: "think positive“.  That is all very well and good, but try “thinking positive“ when on most days your body, complete with emotions, feels like it has been thrown from a speeding train. Human beings in general** struggle with positive thinking because finding fault is much easier and moaning is a very socially acceptable habit. However, on receiving a diagnosis of cancer you are supposed to change these habits of a lifetime overnight and take personal responsibility for making your tumour disappear through the power of your newly, miraculously discovered, positive thinking. And all this comes at a time when you genuinely have something to be negative about, for example my list of chemo side-effects alone currently extends to 30 items. But don't, whatever you do, google any health issues at this time because so many things can be a sign of metastatic cancer. The fear of the cancer spreading is my Number One Worry but there is nothing I can do about this apart from wait and hope. And try to “stay positive”. So here goes.   

1) Guilt-free Netflix. I think I have broken world records here. Nearing the end of the seven seasons of The Good Wife (watched in under one month), I was in danger of becoming one of those people whose skin grows into the sofa. I have since vowed never to start a series with more than 5 seasons because as a result of this binge-watching I gained 12 kilos, but I don't despair because:

2) 100% of oncologists admitted in a recent survey*** that they are happy to hear of weight gain in their patients. Apparently oncologists are the only doctors to be happy about this, but this is still something to be extremely positive about! They also say that the optimal amount of exercise every week to avoid cancer is five sets of 30 mins - aerobic and muscle training. That feels impossible.... although, maybe I do have it covered after all: 

3) Every morning I get a work out just getting dressed. I get enough aerobic AND strength exercise by pulling on my leggings (jeans don’t fit anymore) because the combination of my extra weight together with my numb, weak and sore finger-tips makes it a real challenge. It must look hilarious too; I sometimes fall back on the bed laughing at myself! Whether due to my heart’s low „Ejection Fraction Rate“ or lack of oxygen carrying red blood cells, by the end of the legging exercise my heart is pounding and my muscles are burning as much as if I had run a marathon****   

4) Even if I have lost time struggling with leggings whilst getting ready, I gain time because suddenly I have the lowest ever maintenance hair-do. No more “Should I wash my hair before I go out?“ worries.  And certainly no more: drying/curling/straightening/styling. I am saving heaps of money by not going to the hair-dressers.

5) In fact I heartily recommend being #baldisbeautiful because in addition to the above advantages I am suddenly a big hit with babies. My theory is that they actually think I am a big baby and are fascinated by me! Adults usually try to look away in time but if they do stare, then I blast out a big hello and they usually smile back.  Meanwhile all my friends tell me what a perfect head shape I have and “how lucky I am“ because they could never pull it off. Ha!

6) On the subject of hair, or lack thereof, I have said goodbye to time and money spent on waxing leg and other hair too.  Having the thinnest of thin skin shows a few more veins, but the skin is so smooth. I just have to avoid bumping into things because of the pain and amazingly instant bruises.

7) Another unexpected beauty bonus is the unique yellowy/brown-spotty nail colour that appeared almost overnight. Yellow is in fashion right? So far my nails haven’t fallen off yet and I hope it stays that way...another positive.

8) All those things I didn’t used to do because I worried about getting cancer?  What was the point of that! So go dig out that fave 20 year-old scratched non-stick frying pan and start cooking, heat up microwave food in plastic tubs and above all enjoy every morsel of burned carbon on the BBQ beef burger (the more red meat the better, lol). Don’t forget to save a fortune and go back to the cheapest shampoos and face creams with PEGs and parabens. Yay!*****

9) If you get bitten by a poisonous spider then the chemo will kill the venom and you will be fine. Yes, this actually happened to me and my pharmacist assured me that was the case. AWESOME!

10) Having the choice to go through chemotherapy treatment is better than the alternative: no chemo. If at any time I am feeling down about chemo I  think about kids with cancer in Syria. The „lucky ones“ travel for hours on a crowded bus on bumpy bomb-holed roads in extreme heat through war zones and I can’t think of anything worse, especially after a round of chemo.  The not so lucky ones can’t get treatment at all. I have therefore been raising money for a cancer centre for Aleppo. This fundraising campaign has been a great distraction for me and continuous reminder that I am so lucky to have the chance of a cancer-free future because of the health system in my country offering chemotherapy.

11) Friends and family send tonnes of thoughtful presents and messages. The most beautiful and wondrous thing of all is that they tell me they love me. All the time. This is the best thing ever.

My challenge to everyone now, especially those going through hard times is to create your own list. Be creative. Be silly. But most of all remember that you can and will get through whatever life throws at you, one way or another because we humans are awesome. You just have to "think positive". :-) Good luck.


* 50% of us born after 1960 will get a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lives, I suggest the other 50% start thinking about alternative responses.

** Apart from my mother-in-law who is full of joy about everything and is ACTUALLY CALLED JOY.

*** A total of two doctors were surveyed: one in USA and one in Germany. Survey conducted by me.

****I have never run a marathon but I can only imagine it feels the same.

***** Sorry to be a kill-joy but I actually don't really recommend this. I am doing everything possible to avoid cancer coming back. It is just a funny thought that comes into my head when I automatically think - through habit - about making an anti-carcinogenic choice, and then I remember...

Katie Griggs

Manager, Home for Refugees in Berlin

Working life began aged 14 in a local pub kitchen on Saturdays followed by a position as waitress at Pizza Hut one year later. Part-time work (WHSmiths, Somerfield, HSBC) continued throughout A'levels and University before landing a full-time position at Richard Branson's newly launched Virgin Finance company in Norwich. A few years later London was calling: a job in marketing at Sky TV awaited. After another few years there, it was time to move away from corporate life so the Amex-card, the car, the phone and laptop were exchanged for a bicycle and second-hand computer. Ten years of self-employed work followed - in London and Berlin with a portfolio of clients in organisations with a social, cultural and environmental focus including Greenpeace, an electric car company and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Then in 2015, 100,000 refugees arrived in Berlin requiring all-hands-on-deck. That included working in several huge emergency camps, hosting refugees at home and setting up Cycling Lessons for Ladies: providing cycling tuition for women refugees in the milder months and in the Winter preparing food together for homeless people at an emergency shelter. So far over 14,000 meals have been prepared as a team. In 2017, a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 41 meant there was even more to learn about life (and also time to launch a fundraising initiative "Cancer Care for Aleppo"). Returned to work at Friends of the Earth, as a project manager of environmental projects designed by refugees to finish that project. October 2018 started working for Berlin government managing a home for refugees.


Go to the profile of Thebritishberliner
about 4 years ago

Great blog post Katie!

We're right behind you each and every way step of the way, positive thinking and all. More guilt-free Netflix for everyone!

'Sending you hugs and love xxx