Breast cancer lesson number 120: True friends are the rainbows that come with the rain

Last night, lying in bed waiting for sleep to find me (I started the drug Clonidine for hot flushes on Monday, so am hopeful it might find me soon), I tried to imagine living through cancer without friendship. I imagined waking up (starting to forget what that feels like) to a silent inbox, to a phone with no messages and a living room without wonderful words and cards to keep me company. I imagined a Saturday without laughter and a Sunday without ice cream, teas and smiles. I imagined a world without all the beautiful faces I have come to love over the years. I imagined surgery without handmade drain bags and a new boob without chocolate (probably would be the size of a pin). I imagined life – and found I didn’t really have a life at all.

Friendship is such a powerful thing. But, I am sad to admit that it is something I have often taken for granted. That is not because I don’t love each and every one of the wonderful people that continue to inspire me and shape my world. It’s just that, my life before cancer felt so hectic that I thought doing my hair was a bit of a luxury (now I have the time to straighten it, it’s all shiny and bald). I remembered birthdays. I baked cakes. I made bath creamers in cupcake cases that looked like white chocolate (and forgot to label them – oops). But I really wasn’t as ‘present’ as a friend should be. I also have as many friendship circles as I do interests. I move between them (often on the edge), when I should dwell a little longer.  And for that, I am very sorry.

Cancer has a way of not just reordering those priorities, but highlighting just how important friendship can be. True friends (which also includes my amazing family and the lovely Duncan) shine a light on dark days. True friends are those with whom you can share a story or a silence. True friends just know when smiles are covering up tears. True friends don’t have to be close to comfort. True friends understand – and open themselves up to being understood. True friends accept who you are and help you become who you should be. True friends are the real wonders of the world.

So, this is my little way of celebrating all that is beautiful about friends. Through my pink hearts campaign (click here to read more) I hope to thank each and every one of you for being there when I needed you the most. For now, you’ll just have to take this as a down payment! I vow to be there for all of my friends because I know how important just being there really is.

I hope, wherever you are, you are thinking about all the friends that fill your hearts and your inboxes. Is there someone you’ve been meaning to call? Is there someone with whom you’d love to reconnect? Is there someone who makes you smile, but who you’ve never had the opportunity to thank? Well, there’s no time like the present!

There’s a wonderful saying (yes, another of those quotes that makes me happy): ‘Good friends will bail you out of jail, but a great friend will be sitting next to you saying: “Damn, that was fun”.’ While I am not about to throw caution to the wind and end up in jail (I have already committed one crime since diagnosis (click here to read) and that is enough to last me a lifetime), I do believe that experiences are made for sharing, shoulders for supporting and sides for standing by.

Here’s to great friends and to a future packed with great adventures!

Breast cancer lesson number 119: Do more of what makes you happy

Thank you. Thank you for following, liking, commenting, clicking, finding me by typing ‘boobs cycle door’ and ‘boob bald’ (yes really!) into Google and joining me on my cancer journey now and again. Thank you, because by reading not just this post, but the thousands of words that have come before, you have given me the confidence to write again and a reason to smile.

When I set out on my travels through active treatment, I was determined to do more of what I love. And, by blogging about everything from leeches to dark nail polish, I have done just that. But, for me, this blog has been much more than a playground for positivity and a chance to reflect on my time in hospital. It has helped me rediscover all that is beautiful in the world and indulge my passion for creativity. Cancer tried to take my life away, but has (inadvertently) through inspiring me to blog and celebrate life, actually given it back. And things look even brighter than before.

Cancer has taught me to do the things that make me happy. And that is something I wish for you too (happiness, not cancer that is). I have a new to-do list packed with positive things and it is a real joy to tick off each one. Life has a habit of getting in the way and filling our days with its endless admin. But, take a step back, work out what it is that gives you a real boost (usually the thing you do to procrastinate) and I guarantee you’ll be able to find time to do a little more of it (or get started). Go on, I dare you! Life is too short to have a clean cooker and well-filed bills.

I am reading a book at the moment that says: ‘The real source of happiness can be stated in a word: achievement.’ This is something to which I can really relate. Sometimes the sheer thought of hard work or sitting down to complete a task can be enough to send me in the direction of another ‘boring-but-essential’ job (like laundry). But there is no greater feeling than the feeling of having really achieved something – especially when that achievement can actually help someone else. For me, writing is like that. It’s often hard to get started (I do have very clean clothes), but to finish brings me more pleasure than a long soak in the bath or perfectly-formed sponge (although that is admittedly a close second).

Throughout this process, I have wanted to use writing to help people (by which I mean not just other breast cancer patients, but also those seeking to reflect on and improve their lives). I hope I have achieved this in some small way through my blog. I am also delighted to say that Breast Cancer Care has just asked me to become a regular blogger for them, offering tips around a theme for others in my position. My first post on body image has just been published and I feel so thrilled to have the opportunity to try a make a difference. Here’s a link to the feature and I hope you will support me by having a read: http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/news/blog/vita-bloggers/jackie

I have also been asked to write a few articles about smiling through cancer, which I hope will encourage people to seek out the positives at what is a very challenging and distressing time. Amusingly, I have just spent the day on a shoot for one feature. Little did I think when the hair started to fall that I would actually be welcoming a photographer into my house just three months later to take a shot of my bald head! But today, in my little corner of Greenwich, that’s exactly what happened.

For someone with a history of ‘red eye’ and a face that is currently sporting dry lips, few eyelashes, fading eyebrows and a sun-grilled cheeks, I was pretty worried I wouldn’t quite scrub up. But, the make-up artist, editor and photographer were amazing and so supportive and that’s why I am currently writing this with stuck-on eyelashes and a painted on smile. It makes me laugh that I have managed to spend my entire working life to date in publishing behind the camera (if we overlook a rather strange mock-mugging shot I was in in my first job – oh and the one of me on a motorbike with an oversized jacket). And, it’s only now, with no hair, that I am brave enough to face the lens!

Here’s a sneak peek of the day. I felt so privileged and humbled by the whole experience to be honest. It was also liberating to spend the day with my bald head in full view. I am so grateful to the lovely ladies who took the time to make the whole experience really special.

There was only one downside. I was stroking my head at the end of the session only to discover two lumps sitting there that I hadn’t noticed before. I tried for about 45 minutes to photograph the top of my head to see them and could only make out a bit of redness. Lumps when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer are never a welcome sight. I spent a good few hours feeling them and googling horrendous things and it was amazing just how quickly my happy day filled up with fear. Cancer does that. It enters your life. You fight it. But, no matter how hard you fight, the fear of it returning will live with you forever. Cancer makes it difficult to know what is and isn’t worth paying attention to. And, for someone still going through active treatment and not yet thinking about it coming back, today’s lumps (which I am sure are just bites or spots) are a harsh reminder that as much as I like to think I’m in control, I’m not.

Now I have stopped googling and have convinced myself there is no link between the dizzy spells, the near-fainting episode of last week and today’s lumps, I am smiling once more. That’s because I am writing, because I am picking out the positive parts of each day and because I am choosing to the do the things that make me happy. If anything, the lumpy blip, was the reminder I needed to tell me I’ve got my priorities right.

I have made a promise to myself to keep writing and do more of what I love. And, I hope that you can find the strength, time, energy and determination to follow your dreams too. We, none of us, know what is round the corner, so we owe it to ourselves to get the most out of every day.

Breast cancer lesson number 118: Keep running to that finish line

I have in my possession a blue oncology appointment card on which the words: ‘PICC flush and dressing’ have been written for THE LAST TIME! While it doesn’t actually mean an end to the PICC line (that comes later), it does mean that this time next week there won’t be any more scheduled trips to the hospital just for a shot of saline and a nice clean piece of tubi-grip. I could go as far as to say, this could be my last PICC line flush appointment EVER! But I won’t (just in case).

Ok, so I appreciate this flimsy piece of paper is not much in the looks department. But this card (which the unit lost at my last visit and have only just posted back to me) means a lot to me. For those of you following my #100happydays project, I described it as a reminder of the fact that, whatever race you are running, there will always be a finish line (and if there isn’t, you should ask for a refund on the entry fee!). And, every finish line, however small, is worth celebrating.

Sometimes in life, we are too busy running to make sense of it all. A finish line gives us hope, focus and the reassurance we’ve been running in the right direction all along. I feel like I have been running for my life for the last six months. Reaching the end of a stage (albeit a small one) is a great feeling. It is life’s way of saying the end is in sight and there will come a time when all that is left is you, the memory of an epic struggle and an invisible medal of honour, awarded for just making it through each day.

So whatever it is you’re running for right now, don’t lose sight of the finish line. Enjoy the run if you can, but remember, even if you’re climbing a hill right now, that hill will end – along with the pain.

Who knows? I might have just enough energy in reserve to make the end of the big race a sprint finish!

Breast cancer lesson number 117: Turn your scars into stars

Having spent most of my 32 years trying to creatively hide my tummy from the world (I’ve worn bikinis on rare occasions and was once asked to ‘put it away’), I am finding it quite amusing that, now it has a nice long scar right across it, people are suddenly rather fascinated with my not-so-fleshy midriff. Only recently was I at an event where two ladies (interested in their surgery options) asked me to lift up my top. And, as soon as you mention relocating your belly button over drinks, you can tell people are trying to work out just what is going on around your knicker line.

So, for one post only, I have decided to put you all out of your misery and flash my still-flat-but-not-for-much-longer-thanks-to-chemo stomach. For those of you who have stumbled across this blog or would really rather not become acquainted with my tummy (I wouldn’t blame you, it’s still a bit angry), I am tactically posting a pictures of the baked goods that are currently in my stomach first, so that they show up on your feed. To distract myself from the dizzy spells and peripheral neuropathy, I have spent the morning baking (and, of course, licking the bowl, which for anyone not connected to me on Facebook, is today’s #100happydays moment). (Visit lesson 112 here to find out more about my #100happydays project.)

2014-07-02 11.31.33 2014-07-02 12.00.13

And, here it is ­– one big smiley face, which will fade over time (and after I have massaged a truck load of cream into it). You can also see the two drain marks just above my trousers, the angry little belly button and the mole (to the side of the belly button) that had been hiding under my boob until the surgery moved everything down. It’s flat, it’s happy (although admittedly it is a smiley face without eyes) and it’s all me. I am proud of my tummy and I am proud of this scar. It reminds me every day when I look in the mirror that I was stronger than the cancer that tried to take my life away.

2014-07-02 11.56.06

It seems I am not the only one happy with my new look. At my plastic surgery check-up on Monday, my breast reconstruction nurse and the doctor on duty were pleased with what I like to think of as my recent body enhancements! The doctor did confirm she thought the right one was larger than the left (I think they are quite fixated on making me even) and we did have a laugh about tops that exacerbate the situation. But, with radiotherapy planned, the nipple and tuck chat is now on hold until the autumn. By this time next year, I should be fully reconstructed!

Don’t worry, I won’t be making a habit of flashing the flesh. My tummy can’t be exposed to the sun for a good year at least, so it is now going back into hibernation. And, as for my new boob? No chance! And, for any ladies out there considering DIEP surgery, I would highly recommend it. While, at times, the recovery can be tough, the results are more than worth it.

Thank you surgeons for finding a practical use for my tummy fat, thank you cake and chocolate supplying friends for making the surgery possible and thank you tummy for healing so nicely. I will try not to feed you with too much cake in future, so you retain your shape just that little bit longer.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 116: How to do nothing – and not feel guilty about it

The worst kind of day on chemo is the kind that starts with you already wishing it was over. That’s the wish I expressed on the corner of my mum’s bed this morning when I was talking through my restless night, the peripheral neuropathy, the cramping of my hands and feet, the chronic fatigue, the feeling of heaviness (yet also emptiness) and the loss of taste I am currently experiencing. It’s a feeling the day is already wasted before it has even begun. If life were a pack of cards, you’d want to reshuffle and pick again. Trouble is, you can’t.

Strangely, it’s not the pain or the exhaustion I fear. It’s the guilt. Guilt for spending the day without the structure of a to-do list. Guilt for making ‘eating a banana’ an actual objective. Guilt for giving up on another precious day of life when my life itself was challenged just a few months ago. Guilt for seizing up rather than seizing the day. Trust me, that’s a lot of guilt. 

Of course, I have nothing to feel guilty about. Only yesterday, was I lying on the kitchen floor with my legs in the air after nearly collapsing. I have a fridge full of injections and a body full of pills. And, eating a banana when you have no tastebuds is actually something to be applauded. I just wish doing nothing was an art form I had mastered long ago.

Image

Taking time to do nothing has a way of bringing everything into perspective. Having sat here on the sofa for the last three hours – moving only to shed or add clothes and eat – I am starting to realise that you can get something from nothing. Because nothing is never really nothing. Nothing today is my body’s chance to recover. Nothing today is life’s little way of getting me to slow down so I can be strong again. Doing nothing today gives me a better chance of making something of tomorrow.

Google the definition of nothing and, under adjective, it says: ‘having no prospect of progress.’ In chemo terms, I would say a ‘nothing day’ is quite the opposite. It’s a necessary pause. And, if chemobrain is an issue, it’s probably the safest thing to do. 🙂

From this day forward, I, Jackie Scully, promise to do nothing if nothing is the right thing to do! And, I would urge you to do the same – unless you’re an extreme procrastinator and really should keep busy. 

How to start? I have been saving the Game of Thrones boxset for just such an occasion. I may be gone for some time…

Image