Anna Donald: What makes me feel good?

Anna Donald This blog is in response to a fourth question from Richard Smith: “What makes you feel good?” The question stymied me a bit. Not because there aren’t oodles of things that make me feel good. But because I don’t have a coherent way of laying them all out. A list? In the end I’ve resorted to those that felt most important. Forgive me for a long and rather shambly blog.

What feels good: seeing friends and relatives. People you love. Showing love. Receiving love. Love beats everything. We all know that already. But it’s useful to remind oneself of just what a powerful force it is. Love never dies, it never diminishes even after you’re dead, and it unfolds inside you forever. It’s not a force like gravity, so what on earth is it? I’ll write about that another time.

Just being with people feels good. It doesn’t need to be exciting. The local library is good. I don’t have to talk to people and they don’t have to talk to me. But it’s comforting to know that there are people like me who like reading and sitting with fellow-readers (I spent a lot of my childhood in the corners of our local library). I’m a social animal. I don’t mind spending quite a bit of time on my own, but, like a big dog, get low in spirits if I’m completely on my own for too long and start whining and scuffing the skirting board.
It feels good to meet people who have survived 10 or more years from stage IV cancer. I’m realising that surviving for long periods is not nearly as rare as I’d imagined.

Food is good. Nothing fancy, just small, nice things that punctuate the day: coffee (decaf, soy cappuccino). Very small squares of dark, non-dairy chocolate. Tuna and corn salad. Japanese food of any description (cheap and widespread in Sydney). I even like a weird but yummy sort of ice-cream concoction of blended and therefore emulsified frozen raspberries, soy milk, pomegranate juice, banana and flax seed oil, which is the only way I can be persuaded to eat the recommended anti-cancer dose of 2 tablespoons of flaxseed (linseed) oil per day. (For me, linseed oil is for oiling cricket bats.) Conquering cancer doesn’t give you much leeway for exciting food. Occasionally I break the rules (fresh fruit and veg, no salt, no sugar, no meat, no dairy, no fried food). I had a meat pie the other day. It was the best thing I’d eaten in ages.

Breaking the rules. Not much, but enough to know you’ve not internally succumbed to being a ‘patient’ in the medical-and-complementary machine. I’m not talking about skipping medicines, not attending appointments and generally going awol, but I do mean not panicking when you realise you’ve missed a dose of medicine; eating the odd meat pie (with tomato sauce); being occasionally late for things. Not being available for everything. Praying to the wild and crazy God that s/he is and gleefully recognising your own wildness and craziness coming from that part of the Divine. Recognising the arbitrariness of the cut of history you’ve landed yourself in and that its particular and peculiar anxieties will pass. It’s a waste of cosmic time to get too het up about them.

Breaking the occasional rule doesn’t just feel good; it’s important as a survival strategy. Why? Because beyond the rules, regulations and exhortations from mainstream and complementary medicine you need a robust will of your own to live. It must come from within you, not from other people’s prescriptions for you, though of course you need to consider them carefully. It means honouring what makes you get up in the morning and what makes you you. Not what any external institution or idea would have you be. What put you on the earth in the first place.

It feels good to be reminded that you belong. Smells are primal and transporting. They remind me that I belong to the earth; specifically, to the foreshores of Sydney harbour. I was born in an old maternity hospital in King’s Cross, overlooking Rushcutter’s Bay. For my first few months I lived in Rose Bay, a gently sweeping bay that lies close to the wide ocean mouth of the harbour. The next few months were spent in Annandale, a decaying Victorian suburb with wide streets still filled with huge old houses with ornate railings and fireplaces. The smells from these places are very specific. And now we live just a few miles from both, in the middle, sort of. I still love the smells I’ve forgotten from 20 years living abroad: the eucalyptus dust carried along in the afternoon breeze; the morning dew through lavender and sage bushes and wild roses growing, often in a perfumed tangle, in the pretty front gardens of the old terraces that line the hillsides of Glebe and Annandale. The salt and diesel smells of the yachts, fishing boats, cargo supertankers; cruisers and tiny skiffs that crisscross the harbour. The salty-fishy smell of the beaches and the feeling of wet sand between your toes.

I love the bright, sometimes searing light from a sky which, in all my travels, I’ve never seen anywhere other than Australia. Sydney’s sky is higher even than Nairobi’s and Tsavo’s, which you’d expect to be higher, being right on the equator. The sky’s high arc; the heavens soaring above you farther than you can see, transmits a depth of space both within and without.

Massage and most kinds of bodywork feel wonderful. Again, I am like a big lolloping labrador in this regard. I would blissfully lie by the fireplace and have my back tickled for as long as my long-suffering husband and mother can endure doing it. I have a fantastic masseur (and friend) who patiently rubs my ribby chest and scraggly legs once a week for up to two hours. And a few days each week, my mother rubs my red hands and feet, inflamed by chemotherapy, with moisturiser and anti-inflammatory gel.

There are beautiful things that fill me with awe and gratitude that sometimes take me by the throat and makes me cry. Like manifestations of, as John O’Donohue puts it, the Divine Imagination: spectacular sunsets, ancient trees, great cliffs, amazing flowers that spring out from tiny cracks in concrete wastelands.
It feels wonderful to get feedback to this blog. It’s a miracle that I can sit more than 10,000 miles from Britain and Boston and receive this unexpected surge of love and thoughtfulness – much of it from people I’ve never met.

It feels good to read and read and read. Not since childhood have I had the time or peace of mind to read as much as I’d have liked. I love sitting in bookshops, drinking tea and riffling through the latest publications and reviews. I am a publisher’s junkie. As a student I spent most of my spare time browsing in bookshops. I only read the full text of a fraction, but I know the first chapter of a great many. I’m an eclectic reader, reflecting, I suppose, my rather eclectic education and background, which means I’m happy in most sections of most bookshops and libraries. I’m as happy reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X or Taussig’s Mimesis and Alterity (current bedside reads) as the latest hints from Trinny and Susannah and Nigel Slater (Jamie Oliver’s Italian cookbook is pretty good too).

It feels good to faff (how to you spell that?) around on my iPod and re-organise for the 50th time my 8,600 songs and audiobooks. It feels better to listen to them. On sleepy chemo-swept days I potter around in a dressing gown with my iPod in its deep pocket, listening to different tracks (and frighten my family because I don’t hear the phone and doorbell and they fear the worst). As with books, I have a large and eclectic music collection, because sometimes you need Bach, sometimes Vaughan Williams, sometimes Radiohead, and sometimes James Brown. Or Arvo Pärt. Outkast, Placebo, Fatboy Slim or Kosheen when people or circumstances are driving you crazy. Moby (trance ambient), Goldfrapp, Fischerspooner, Nick Drake, Beck, The Pogues, Clap Your Hands, Tom Waits, Billy Bragg, Keith Jarrett …the list goes on and on. And then there’s all the incredible and often underrated World Music: D’Gary, Ismael Lo, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, Yma Sumac, Salif Kaita, Maryam Mursal. I’m a music junkie just as I’m a book junkie and a massage junkie.

It feels good to meditate, though I still struggle to make enough time for it. It’s incredible how much resistance I’ve still got despite having such a compelling reason to do it. A thousand years ago when I was well, I remember thinking that if I got terminal cancer I’d just meditate non-stop, because it would probably heal the cancer. I still think that’s probably true. But I often go shopping instead. My excuse is that we’ve just moved house and seem to need an ever-growing list of things: carpet and floorboard quotes; a heating/cooling system; acres of bookcases; rugs; a mantelpiece above the fire; mirrors. But that’s not really the reason I go shopping. It’s to be out into the world rather than lurking with Stage IV cancer in the shadows, like something out of Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, without make up and a wig, I look a bit like something out of Lord of the Rings (or more truthfully, the bald and blotchy Darth Vader, with his helmet off, from the third episode of Star Wars). So it feels good to play around with wigs, make up and clothes to see what I can do with what’s left of my eyebrowless face. I’ve discovered how easy it is to change and disguise your appearance. If I wear a different wig, people who know me quite well don’t recognise me. It might be fun to extend my repertoire. If you see a skinny, female Darth Vader wandering about central London in the spring, you’ll know who it is.

This is not an edifying note to end on but it is an overdue one as this blog is far too long. Thanks again to everyone for such lovely feedback to previous blogs.

Anna Donald’s 17th blog

  • Sophia King

    Deasr Anna , it is wonderful as always to read your blog. I have been following it for a while and unfortunately since I started am again fighting my own battle with a second episode of primary breast cancer. I am now 7 weeks post surgery and just started chemo (again).
    After the initial rollercoaster of emotions ( shock, fear, anger, but mostly frustration) I am now quite calm and at peace with things.
    I have drawn a lot of solace from Conversations With God by Neal Donald Walsch and recently was referred to The Secret. The Secret almost seems to reiterate the former, but concentrates more on the specific aspect of how to achieve what you want rather than the whole spiritual aspect and ‘reason for being’ so to speak.
    I find the concept of belonging and being connected to the universe and a greater being as a whole with the power to direct and control the outcomes in my own life a very reassuring and comforting one. recognising how I feel in response to certain events and then deciding to choose how i will feel and how I will respond has been both liberating and calming. I have a lot more work to do, but I think I am closer to inner peace than before and I look forward to the journey.
    I wish you peace and hope that you too will find peace, happiness and above all love on your journey.


  • Karen

    Dear Anna

    What a great blog. Perhaps part of the secret to your energy and dynamism is your openness to such a range of things that make you feel good!

    I applaud the meat pie and tomato sauce!

    Love Karen A

  • kate

    anna i love you even though i’ve never met you – or more prosaically, i know i’d love you if ever i did. but i prefer the first version and it feels true to me! this blog is wonderful and as thought-provoking as usual. i feel like i’ve been wandering around sydney for the last 10 minutes, sniffing its ‘salty-fishy’ smells and putting my face up to its highest-of-all sky. i’ve been reading john o’donohue too (eternal echoes) – what a truly beautiful spirit that man was (is!) – and meditating too (but finding 100 things i ‘really’ need to do instead a lot of the time…like teaching my kids to headbang to aerosmith’s ‘walk this way’ earlier today…good to see i’ve got my priorities right eh?)and i pray that i would find the strength and wisdom to confront cancer in the way that you do (though i fear my resources are paltry compared to yours!)
    please keep writing anna. your writing is an inspiration to me. my thoughts are with you. love and cyber-hugs from across the world in rain-swept rural england…the hills are glowing green in a short interlude of sunlight here, and the trees in the orchards around me are heavy with apples. england misses you anna, but it sounds like you are in the right place for you and that’s wonderful.

  • john humphreys

    It has been a wonderful and humbling experience to read about your continuing journey- my strong emotional response to your honesty and willingness to describe for us all how it goes for you opens the part of me that most information never reaches.
    I think the only other medical writing to have this effect on me was the photo essay on Dr Sassall in John Berger’s “A fortunate man”- read as a medical student and returned to many times when I have doubted and despaired of my ability to practice. Love and blessings to you

  • Larnich Harije

    Hi Anna,
    I have been reading your blog and as a librarian am chuffed to find ‘Libraries’ up there with ‘what makes me feel good’. I have just sent a link to your blog to my friend Zana who is living with Motor Neurone disease and like you started to write about her experience. Zana ended up publishing a book ‘Legless in the Garden’:
    Anyway all courage to you – keep up the blog it is very enlightening.

  • Dear Anna, I have been following your blog for quite a while now and I just wanted to let you know that I love your postings. I am a Dutch pulic health physician and have lived with my family in Brisbane since March 2007. We visited Sydney last summer, so I can picture where you live a bit. I lost my parents at an early age to cancer, so can relate to your story somewhat… Anyway – I wish you all the best and hope I (and many others) will be able to enjoy your blog for a long long time to come!

  • justin


    Great descriptions of all the enjoyment of your senses. Keep painting the soul with the stunning achievements of nature. And enjoy the snowdrops as they appear in Australia while we flood into Autumn.

    Very best wishes

    Justin (J)

  • justin


    Looking forward to seeing Darth on the streets of London next Spring- you will be a fashion icon for 2009.

  • Liz Harding

    As ever Anna, your words are beautiful. I have now taken to looking out for your blogs, and my day is always brightened when I see a new entry from you. Thinking of you, and Michael.

    Liz Harding

  • Susy

    Nice music collection! Have you listened to Elbow? Great album, and great track called Grace Under Pressure.
    I am a blog novice – just discovered yours whilst wandering the e-corridors of the bmj. And already have to keep coming back! – you have a lot of important things to say but it is the way you say them that is so compelling. Your writing is thought-provoking, challenging, uplifting, moving, interesting…the list is long. Thanks for sharing yourself.

  • Tom

    Isn’t Darth Vader a fleshy robot? 😉

    Can I recommend Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager? (It makes me feel good.)

  • wigs bateman

    Anna, my heart stopped a bit reading that. just got back to Sydney after my mothers death and with that heightened awareness of the beautiful things in life that grief sometimes strangely brings with it. so that beautiful description of Sydney you gave really hit something. and yes love…its all its about really.
    much love to you

  • wigs

    oh yes – and also, the other day while reading “A grief observed” by CS Lewis i was thinking of what happens when an exeptional writer and thinker finds themselves in situations that may often happen to other people, and the gift that they are able to give in being able to explore and describe the experience in a way that helps so many when they face it themselves. it made me think of you and what you are doing with this blog.

  • micheelgeorge

    This past weekend I was in San Francisco for a meeting of moderators. The event was held at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, and I had a nice stay there. I’ll post photos of my Terrace Suite and a more complete review a bit later.

    buzz marketting

  • Balika

    Happy wanderings in Sydney Anna! Felt good to read your post. Yes, I can identify with the avid reading and music bit-as I’m sure most of us can-though your taste does seem eclectic. Have you tried your hand at photography? I think you’ll enjoy it since you appear to be a keen observer of people and nature. Waiting for your next post,

  • ab


    Great posting, and you’ve made me think now too.

    Feeling good is a bit about feeling happy and a bit about the innate pleasure of looking forward to things, rather than a state of mind of how things are right now.

    Feeling good comes from the pleasure of anticipation. It comes from looking forward to visiting friends, small moments shared over good, strong coffee. It comes from daydreaming of finding a spot on your favourite beach in the haze of the late afternoon when the sun glints off the water with the background hum of happy people dawdling to draw out the end of the day.

    It comes from salivating over the thought of biting into the perfect slice of lemon drizzle cake where there’s just enough sugar crunch to set off the sharpness of lemon juice-sodden cake underneath.

    Being more sentimental, it comes from touching the tiny tip of your baby’s nose, or the sensation of a child’s warm paw in your big adult hand. Which incidentally makes me feel horribly grown-up, but only fleetingly.

    Maybe it even comes from the curious satisfaction of sorting and categorising and making lists, then working your way down them and crossing things off. Think of lovely, long lists with lots of “ands” in, with the pleasure that comes from being purposeful and the happiness of getting things done. Watch a small child sorting coloured bricks in no particular way, but sorting and stacking and piling them nonetheless, as evidence of the basic human happiness that comes from thrill of ordering things. Endlessly recategorising songs on an iPod must be the nearest you can get to this joyful childhood sorting.

    Any information addict will tell you it comes from the greedy pleasure of hoovering up newspapers and magazines, overdosing on newsfeeds and blogs and getting back to reading a book as you did as a child by lying on the floor reading incessantly until you can feel your ribs burning from where they’ve been pressed into the floorboards for too long, with your elbows numb from the effort of propping yourself up.

    And, I agree with you, feeling good comes from breaking the rules with the thrill that comes from feeling that in some small, but significant way, you’ve beaten the system. What is it about breaking the rules that feels so good? There must be an inherent joy in being a seditionary and subverting the system. And revelling in the pleasure of going against the flow and not blending in with the crowd.

    Keep blogging Anna. I hope you can add people reading your blog to your feel-good list.

    best wishes

  • Natalia


    You dear hairless hamster – how do you manage to make me laugh when blogging on this subject??? I wish I had seen your blog before we last met, I realise now I should have spent that lovely afternoon advocating for the alphabetical shelving of Michael’s books…how dare you say the word Kindle???? Instead, we spent the day lounging around your lovely new house and touring Sydney with your gorgeous husband and father…so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

    This just to say I have finally seen your blog, and am loving it…also reading all the comments….my you have a lot of friends, cyber ones and real ones! Though a suspicious number of the women you grew up with seem to have taken their husband’s names…what’s with that???

    Much love baby! Natalia

  • Dr.Viveck Atheya

    Dear Anna,
    Lets summarise.
    Visiting is a big help-so people shud be allowed to visit you,even if you are in ICU.Books help.Feeling connected-thats what it is-be it blogging.visiting,reading.
    All these things shud be part of caring for the patient esp.of patients thinking that they have limited time in this avtar.At least the patient shud not be isolated-it will increase his misery.

  • alasdair honeyman

    Beautiful Woman. I barely know you, and yet your worlds are about life and loving and the joy of this world. They are beautiful precious words and I thank you for your courage and generosity in sharing them.



  • Debbie

    What an inspiration you are – and an eloquent one at that!
    Keep on blogging.

  • We have a lot in common. I just started blogging too. And I’m a seven year fallopian tube cancer survivor (Stage III-C, not quite Stage IV, but close).You posted this on my 54th birtday, two days after I received the news that I now have breast cancer. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes me happy, too. Thank you for writing about it and sharing it. I haven’t had anyone I don’t know read my blog. I’d be honored if you would.

  • SJV

    Dear Anna,

    …stumbled upon your blog and found myself swept up into a little of your world.Agree with the books ,friends chocolate thing (green and Blacks Maya Gold does it for me !)and the anticipation of it all does heighten the thrill

    I have a secret vice too which is very satisfying which is when I visit gardens somehow small seeds fall into my pocket which I then grow and give to my friends ‘spreading part of God’s nature’ as somebody once put it -naughty but

    I do love the world inside your head and hope maybe there is a book in there somewhere …


  • Dear Anna

    Great blog. You write beautifully. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Look after yourself. Much love, Urmila.

  • Amy

    Dear Anna,
    Stumbled across your blog for the first time tonight, when all i had the intention of doing was a BMJ learning module for my dreaded e-portfolio.
    Hooked – read them all – very funny, witty and moving, i`ve not smiled so much in weeks.

    Thankyou, I`ve learnt something far more important.

  • KSD

    Dear Anna,

    Thank you for such wonderful, enlightening, inspiring and humbling posts; and for your blog in general. You share your experiences and feelings into words in such a beautiful way.

    I’ve unfortunately found myself as doctor-as-patient in hospital for almost 10 months in total, out of the last year. I can relate so much to what you have generously chosen to share with us. I’m typing this from my hospital bed, having laughed out loud reading some aspects of your entries – making my fellow bay ‘buddies’ glance over (slightly nervously) in surprise. Hopefully I will be escaping home tomorrow – providing all the little things come together in time.

    Your points about ‘breaking the rules’ – how very true – it’s those ‘stolen’ moments, those when you already should have been back on the ward after that brief authorised trip to the hospital coffee shop, when you just decide to sneak outside with a friend for a few minutes, and get that breeze on your face and watch the sunset.. or lie on the grass, reading the Sunday paper, whilst listening to the cheesy local radio station …. it’s those moments that make you still feel alive, and like you still have a little bit of free spirit.

    I’m also a bit of a book junkie – having 3 books on the go in hospital, and 4 more at home. I’m certain you’d have loved one of my favourite hide-aways during my BSc year of medical school, in the Science Museum in London – certain areas have huge windows with massive sills… as students could get in for free (even before the London museums became free entry for all) so during our unoccupied sessions… I’d often go and curl up on the windowsills, reading-sometimes course reading, more often than not…works of fiction; whilst all the museum visitors would be strolling past, generally unaware of my presence -yet old wartime airplanes suspended from the ceiling observing me in my place of hiding, adding a sense of deep atmosphere to the afternoons activity!

    My hospital ‘survival kit’ proved essential during my sometimes long periods of captivity (up to 13 weeks) including: non-hospital tea bags, marmite, chewing gum, extra strong mints, notebook and pen, ear plugs, nice luxurious moisturiser, books, lip balm, and my laptop with mobile internet connection, and a decent selection of music and dvds…. Anna, any essentials you care to add?

    Anyway – Thank you for sharing your experiences – you are a true inspiration. Long may your happiness, and blogs continue.

    KSD 🙂

  • Remy Quinter

    Dear Anna,

    Thank you for your courage in sharing your experience.

    I was introduced to your story through the “Good Weekend” article of August 16, and have followed your blog ever since.

    20 years ago, I lost my own mother to cancer as a teenager (she was in her 40’s, and had just completed her master’s degree in exercise physiology for seniors). This experience affected much of my own life’s direction. I know that she would have been inspired by your challenges and triumphs.

    I was intrigued by the mention of Vipassana as part of your treatment options. I first came to Australia in order to meditate for 6 months in Vipassana Centers, and found the experience of both sitting in centers and serving other meditators rewarding and transformational.

    Currently, I work in Sydney as a yoga therapist, and am also studying molecular biology in order to determine how one might begin to examine a possible correlation between the long-term practice of yoga and/or meditation and gene expression. In my yoga therapy practice, I work often with patients who are at the far edge of what the medical community is able to offer. My fundamental approach is that physical crisis is most often a forced window of transformation — that attempting to return people back to their “old lives” can often be counterproductive to the process their bodies are trying to take them through.

    I imagine that you are an extraordinarily busy person, but I am inspired by your story, and would love to have a conversation to get your perspectives on crisis and transformation, and where one might study how the “alternative” therapies might affect cellular function.

    Finally, I hope the warm Sydney weather finds you enjoying the sunshine.
    Warmest regards,
    Remy Quinter

  • Dot

    Hello Anna
    Since I happened on your blog, I have both enjoyed reading it and also found that it often makes me think.
    In this case – reading is important, and life-enhancing and worth spending time on, and enjoyable. It sort of gets squeezed out by other things, and I shouldn’t wait for really big reason to give me lots of time to read – I should make some more appropriate choices….
    We met in Milton Keynes once, at a CASP thing, and Ihave often thought back to those times when critical appraisal was getting going round Oxford for healthcare staff.
    Please keep writing

  • Nicola F

    Hello Anna,

    Thank you for your wonderful blog postings. Your writing is inspirational and fills me with joy and sadness all in one go. When I say inspirational I don’t just mean this as an empty word – but that I am inspired to check out teachings, music and ideas that you have refered to here. Sending you much love and blessings from Cambridge, England. Nicola

  • Dear Anna,
    Your blog is beautiful and incredible. You are a true warrior woman.
    My Best friend is a cancer survivor. she had Hodgkins.
    Disbelieve all that they tell you statistics and such, doctors do not know everything, Check out He is an energy worker.. read about Vermont folk medicine mix a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with a little melted honey into a 8 ounce glass of water.Drink this elixir this daily. It will help maintain your bodies proper PH. Read Vermont folk Medicine. This is of primal importance, we are like fish tanks made mostly of water, you need to maintain the proper PH. A person of your strength and courage will be Ok..
    I admire you greatly and send hugs and healing…