Meet the army of ‘chemo sitters’ who kept a mum-of-two battling breast cancer entertained during her 80 hours of treatment – with a ‘life-size’ boob cake, pampering sessions and wacky games that kept even the nurses smiling.
Emma Davies, 41, was devastated when she was told she had triple negative breast cancer in June 2019 – just after her 40th birthday.
She had to undergo 16 rounds of chemotherapy – or ‘poisoning’ as she referred to it – with each session lasting five hours.
In a bid to find people to keep her company, Emma decided to put together a fun job ad for ‘chemo sitters’ – friends and family to sit with her during her treatment over the course of five months.
14 mates and relatives accompanied Emma at Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Devon, from July to December 2019 – each trying to out-do the previous ‘sitter’ whilst she sat attached to a drip.
Emma, a lawyer from Exeter, Devon, said: “I had just turned 40 and was probably the happiest I had been in my entire life – I was on top of the world.
“When I got the cancer diagnosis, it was a shock, but I decided I couldn’t let it chip away at everything I had worked so hard for.
“I thought life was supposed to begin at 40 – so I carried on and took the cancer in my stride.
“I wrote a bit of a joke blog asking for people to apply to be my ‘chemo sitter’.
“I managed to fill 12 weeks in minutes – it was crazy.”
Emma’s chemo sessions lasted around five hours each, and she enjoyed the precious time spent with each of her friends or family members without distraction or interruption.
The ‘chemo sitters’ began to bring activities to keep them occupied during the time and Emma found the following sitter would try to out-do the previous one.
“It was hilarious, each week it would get more and more extravagant,” she said.
“One friend did gel nails, my mum bought bags and bags of crafting to do.
“Everyone bought amazing snacks, and a friend even made me a massive boob cake to enjoy – which the nurses thought was hilarious.
“One friend even made a ‘getting to know you’ game where we asked each other questions we would otherwise never have the time to talk about.
“My husband and I even celebrated our wedding anniversary – I made sure he was the sitter that week!
“It was a bizarrely special time – which is an odd thing to say about chemotherapy.”
Overwhelmed by the constant messages from friends and family who weren’t quite sure what to say, Emma started to write weekly mini-blogs – which she dubbed ‘cancer comms’ – to keep everyone in the loop about her treatment.
She decided the disease could ‘take her hair, but not her humour’ and set about a cancer battle like no other – including a Halloween dressed as Uncle Fester from the Addams Family and describing the cancer to her young kids as the ‘boobie bug’.
Incredibly, just over a year later, Emma is in remission and cancer free – and although she doesn’t deny the cancer journey was ‘hellish’, wants to encourage others to ‘make the best of a bad situation.’
After maternity leave with her youngest Chloe, now two, Emma, who is also mum to Toby, six, returned to her work as a lawyer in January 2019.
She and husband Darren, 39, an overhead linesman, were happy with the life they had made for their family and loving every minute of being parents.
But soon after Emma turned 40, she lay on her bed one morning and stretched out – before feeling a lump underneath her right breast.
“It felt like the bobble bit on your wrist,” Emma said.
“I knew I should get it checked out, but didn’t let me mind run away with me – it could have been anything.”
Unfortunately for the family, Emma was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer on June 28th 2019.
After breaking the news to her closest friends and family, Emma found that they would all message her separately to check in on her – and realised there was an easy solution to her problem.
“Although the arse end had just fallen out of my world I was adamant that I didn’t want friends and family to mind their P’s & Q’s and worry about finding the right words,” Emma said.
“Lets face it, it’s a s**t situation and really there aren’t any words to do it justice, but having your ‘people’ around you is priceless – so I wanted them to know that I was OK.”
Every Tuesday she began writing a mini-blog detailing what had happened that week, and copy and pasted it to all of her friends and family.
The day quickly became dubbed ‘happy chemo Tuesday’ – and her friends loved receiving the updates, filled with anecdotes and Emma’s ‘dark and ridiculous’ humour.
“My phone would go crazy once I’d sent the blog,” Emma said.
“It trained people to wait for the update so I could try to relax during the week without my phone going off constantly with well wishes – which were lovely but incredibly tiring with chemo as well.
“People loved it – they didn’t have to ask, I would just tell them. And I never beat around the bush.”
Although Emma tried to take the whole process in her stride, she admits the hardest part was losing her hair.
“It knocked me sideways when my hair started to fall out,” she said.
“But I picked myself up, shaved my head, and dressed as Uncle Fester for Halloween!”
After chemotherapy was complete, Emma underwent a lumpectomy in January 2020.
She was fortunate enough that the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes so a mastectomy wasn’t necessary – and incredibly the biopsy came back clear to show the chemotherapy had done its job.
She underwent five intense rounds of radiotherapy from April of this year, following which she was declared to be in remission and cancer free.
“To this day I still can’t quite believe it,” Emma said.
“But I finally feel like I’m back – and I’m so glad I tackled it the way I did.”
A vital part of Emma’s positivity came from the support she received from Reframe – a company who look after individuals with cancer through employee benefit schemes.
She was allocated an ex-oncology nurse, Suzanne, who was at the end of the phone to answer any questions and help with anxieties.
“Suzanne made a huge difference to my cancer journey and allowed me to stay positive in front of my friends and family – that was hugely important to me,” Emma said.
Emma has now written a book titled ‘Take my hair (but not my humour): One mum’s journey seeing off breast cancer’ – written in the same style as her ‘Bridget Jones’ style blogs, and ‘not for the easily offended’.
It is scheduled to be published in October to coincide with Breast Cancer awareness month, and she hopes it will help others ‘find the positives on the darkest of days’.
“I did cancer my own way, on my terms, and would encourage everyone who finds themself in that terrible situation to do the same,” Emma said.
“I am so grateful to be out the other side – thanks mostly to my wonderful husband Darren and two amazing kids Toby and Chloe and of course, all of my incredible chemo sitters – I can’t thank them enough for seeing me through my treatment.
“Trying to stay optimistic is the best advice you can give for any situation – I feel lucky to have had such a positive cancer experience.”
Emma’s book ‘Take my hair (but not my humour)’ is out now and available from https://www.lightboxblogger.co.uk/ – with £2 from every paperback sold donated to FORCE cancer charity, who were ‘amazingly supportive’ throughout Emma’s cancer journey.
You can also find Emma on Facebook and Instagram @lightboxblogger