Month: September 2014

Breast cancer lesson 159: Choose to thrive not just ‘survive’ after breast cancer

Before swallowing a textbook on all things breast cancer, I thought that if you were treated successfully, you could be cured. I thought that at the end of my active treatment journey, I, too, would be another woman in ‘remission’. Like a lot of things in the English language, however, nothing is quite as simple as it first appears.

Truth is, while the headlines will talk of ‘cures’ and people being ‘all clear’, you are not likely to hear these terms in an oncologist’s office. To be cured means there is no way breast cancer will come back. Unlike some other cancers, breast cancer can come back at any time in the future. Yes, the risk of it returning does diminish over time and yes, I may be cured, but as there is absolutely no guarantee, it is not a word you will ever hear me use.

Remission is also a word that won’t me making an appearance in my post-treatment life. While associated with lots of cancers, it isn’t often applied to breast cancer. Instead, people tend to use the term NED, which is short for ‘no evidence of disease’. As someone who loves a good bit of evidence-based thinking, if the evidence isn’t there, I plan to live my life without a cancerous backdrop. I will pop a pill every day (when they prescribe it to me) for the next ten years and will remember just how far I’ve come and how lucky I am, but I won’t let it control me (let’s hope the side effects are kind). I do not fear the future. I say, bring it on!

People ask me, do I think it will come back? In all honesty, I have no idea. (I didn’t think I’d get it in the first place.) All I know is, if it does come back, it doesn’t mean the end of the story.

Some people may get a local recurrence, which means the cancer has returned to the chest/breast area of the affected side. Local recurrence is treatable.

Some people may get a regional recurrence, which means the cancer has spread past the breast and the armpit lymph nodes into tissues and other lymph nodes. Regional recurrence is treatable.

Some people may get a new primary diagnosis in the opposite breast. This would be treated as a new cancer, and is treatable.

Some people may get secondary cancer, which is when the breast cancer cells spread beyond the breast to a distant part of the body (such as bones, liver and lungs). Secondaries can be controlled and treated, but will never go away.

And, some people shut the door on cancer forever. Let’s hope I fall into this rather exciting category.

My plan? Be breast aware (I have signed up to CoppaFeel’s free monthly texts), exercise more (the link between exercise and cancer is indisputable), never reschedule a hospital appointment again (I moved my biopsy because I had a meeting) and squeeze out every last little drop of happiness from every day for the rest of my life. Then, if I ever have to hear those words again, I will be ready.

As I write this today, I am not just NED, however. Cancer has changed me – and I don’t just mean my hairstyle. So much so that I have established my own set of life guidelines, or commandments. These are the things I want to remember as life returns to its new version of normal. This may sound a little odd, but by posting them here, I hope I will always be reminded of the things that matter, when first world problems creep back in. Here goes:

1) Be true to myself – and be myself: We often spend a lot of time trying to disguise the things that make us who we are. Yes, I like the X Factor and cake and yes, I will probably never enjoy an intensely political debate, but that’s because I’m me, not someone else. I vow to celebrate my own likes and dislikes – and the preferences of others.

2) Run my own race: I must set the pace in my own life and compete only with myself.

3) Worry when it matters – and let it go: If I can do something to eliminate a problem, I will. If I can’t, worrying about it won’t make a difference. This is going to be tough.

4) Be present and enjoy the process: No more wishing my life away. Today is all we know we have. I want to enjoy it – and reflect on it.

5) Be patient: Sometimes the best course (and often the hardest course) of action is to let things happen and not force an issue. I vow to walk before I try to run.

6) Just do it (no excuses): I have a mug that says: ‘don’t put off to tomorrow something you can put off for life’. I am a master procrastinator at times and I want to make every moment count. Start the day with the hardest job and it will get easier. And, good and done is better than perfect and not done.

7) Put your oxygen mask on first: You are not qualified to help others unless you first help yourself. I promise to look after myself properly. That includes putting on more face cream!

8) Use it – and enjoy it: How many of your possessions are reserved for best? No more. I intend to make the most of what I own. Otherwise, why own it?

9) Live to give: I promise to be kind and be grateful.

10) Find a place for everything: You can be tidier if your belongings have a home that isn’t the kitchen table!

11) Fix it – identify that problem: No more generalising for me. If the skin is burnt, it doesn’t mean the meal is ruined (metaphorically speaking).

12) Do the right thing: Apply this filter to every decision and I believe I will be a better person.

13) Exercise restraint: I want to be strong enough to buy a bar of chocolate and eat only a few squares (provided I am not hungry of course).

14) Be reliable: I will keep my promises – and make more promises.

15) Be prepared: I won’t cook without an apron and bake in my running kit again!

16) Remember what’s important: What would I want my gravestone to say?

17) Be aware: You won’t know whether you need to lose a few pounds unless you weigh yourself.

18) See the brighter side: Think positive and the world will fall in line.

19) Think it through: I vow to weigh up a task based on how important it is and give it the time and energy it deserves. Less is often more.

20) Dare to dream, prepare to learn: I will take risks, safe in the knowledge that all I may get to take from them is a learning.

If you were given the chance to start again (I still liken chemo to rather odd form of rebirth), what would you resolve to do – or do differently?

I want to grow back as a better version of me and thrive in this next chapter. Now you know the inner workings of my mind, you can hold me to it!

Breast cancer lesson 158: Why I will be making room for cancer in my house – if not my life

In January, I made a mistake. I donated the dressing gown I wore in hospital when I had my hip op in 2007 to charity. I hadn’t really worn it since and, as far as I was concerned, I would probably never need it again. Frustrating then, that I had to buy a new one, just a few weeks later.

I confess I am a little superstitious. I don’t buy sunglasses in the summer months for fear of rain. I hunt for a second magpie if I only see one to avoid the sorrow and, while I do step on cracks in the pavement (this is London after all) and am a bit of a magnet for ladders, you won’t find me leaving anything to chance – particularly where cancer is concerned.

This does present me with a slight challenge. What to do with the radioactive looking shower sleeve, the PICC line cover, my favourite hairloss hat (which incidentally hasn’t been on an outing since my hair has started growing back), the bed caps and, dare I say it, Suzie, my not-so-trusty wig? Do I gift them to other people waking up to face the reality of a cancer diagnosis, to help them feel supported? Or, do I tuck them away in a small corner of the house as a bit of an insurance policy? (The logic here is that, if I’m prepared, cancer won’t dare try its luck a second time). While I would like to say the former (and certainly will be posting out a few items that didn’t get too much of a look in in my cancer story, but could be useful to others) I have to say, for those frequently used items, I will be opting for the latter route. I did not go through belt and braces cancer treatment only to jinx myself by not packing away a cap or two. Sounds strange for a rational woman to admit (I appreciate some may question this), but while I have changed a lot over these last nine months, this is not a part of myself I have chosen to reprogramme just yet.

So, that’s why I have decided to create a cancer capsule (a bit like a time capsule). In my mind, it is currently a shoe box stuffed with practical items I would never want to rebuy. But, who knows, it could turn into a pink box file or a plastic box if my creativity takes hold. The most important thing is that it is a box I can seal, hide in the cellar and bury in the back of my mind in the hope that one day I will open it again just to relive the fact that I kicked cancer into touch.

People have asked whether I am worried about the possibility of it returning. And, my answer is, right now, I’m not. I am sure my body will give me a few things to wobble about in the future that will send all the memories flooding back. But, there is a reason I haven’t been playing the numbers game and talking hard stats with my oncologist. I was a statistical anomaly in the first place, so why should I obsess about numbers, when they haven’t been reliable before? I spent one evening months ago using online prognosis tools and, given, they are so outdated and based on patients decades ago, I scared myself silly and won’t be doing that again. All I know is, I have done everything I can to remove cancer from my body, so I am not going to let it dictate my life. If it comes back, I will face if once more (don’t get me wrong, I would be pretty unimpressed). But, I am going to make the most of this little life of mine and celebrate the signs of aging (all except the menopause). I am just happy to be here.

So what will be tucked inside my capsule? In addition to the hats, I plan to pack away the information booklets and the names of the tablets that got my through. But, I also want to add the amazing cards I received (I read them all last week and can’t explain how much they made me smile) and my running medals, so that, if one day, I have to open it again with tears in my eyes, I will be reminded of both the support I had and the strength I found. I will smile once more through the dark times.

So, take this as my insurance policy post. My declaration of readiness and my commitment to making the most of my life, safe in the knowledge, there is a little piece of me waiting to be this strong again, should I ever need to be. Let’s all just hope I don’t.

If only getting real insurance was as easy!

Breast cancer lesson 157: It takes time to heal

I have lost a nail. Now, if this had been as a result of an ill-timed run up the stairs or poor football move, it wouldn’t exactly be headline news. But, given this is the first chemo nail to fall (a toenail thankfully), it is a moment I feel I have to acknowledge.

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It’s five days on from the end of active treatment and I feel I having been making good ‘moving forward’ progress. The cards are down (although Duncan now thinks the living room is so bare it looks like we are moving out not just on)! The house is so clean you could eat a meal off the floor (not something I am going to test mind you). And, I feel fitter, healthier and a little bit hairier.

The nail incident, however small it may seem, is a sign though that cancer (or more specifically its treatment) isn’t quite done with me yet!

It does feel a little mean that you can often start looking a little worse for wear when you’re not actually being treated. I am currently on ‘boob watch’ to see whether the radiotherapy is going to do any real damage to my skin (it is just a bit red and angry at the moment). I still can’t sleep properly. The menopause is still in control of my body. My hands and feet still feel a little disconnected. And now, it seems, I am also on ‘nail watch’ (which currently involves tapping and fiddling with my nails every five minutes to see if anything else drops off). At least my hair has a thin covering of hair to keep me distracted.

The thing is, to a cancer patient, nothing about the above is particularly unusual. We understand the side effects will last for a while (and signed a form to let them). We know that underneath the smiles and the ‘back to normal’ activities we may have to cope with pains and twinges. We know it will take time for us to trust our bodies to know a cold is just a cold and a cough is just a cough. We know our lives, while brighter and enriched in many ways, will never quite be the same again.

Today, it was just a nail. Tomorrow, it may be something else.

One day, I will want to forget. For now, I need to remember, so I can give my body the attention, the tools and the time it needs to heal.

I hope you’ll give me time too.

Breast cancer lesson 156: You can face any bend in the road, if you have the right people holding your hand

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For the last nine months, our living room has resembled a rather niche card shop. Of course, it started with good wishes for our engagement – and what wonderful wishes they were. Then, mid-January, there was a sudden shift to post of the ‘get well’ kind. Throw in the odd teddy bear, a few Happy Easter cards in April and a steady trickle of notes and messages throughout active treatment and you’ll get the idea.

Starting each day surrounded by a wall of words has been a real boost for me. Never far from a message of encouragement, these notelets and cards have been a constant shoulder of support, a reminder of all that is good in the world and a sign that, wherever you are, you are never far from people who love you. These words have moved me deeply, made me smile, made me laugh out loud, made me cry, made me pick up the phone and get on a train (to make contact) and given me the chance to reflect on the happy memories I have already banked over the last three decades. That’s why I haven’t moved a single one (even to dust)! And, that’s why, it’s a massive step for me to even contemplate taking them down (might actually have to get out the polish).

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Apart from the genuine kindness shown by these handwritten gestures (I am a big fan of all things handwritten), the main thing that has struck me about this word-filled wall is that I have often under-estimated just how powerful a small gesture can be. For starters, I now fully appreciate the excitement of hearing the post land on the doormat. I now see how a well-written card has the power to change the course of a day. I also now realise that the cheery post-its I used to leave on colleagues’ desks, the handmade gifts I have posted, the acts of kindness I have delivered and the messages I have written over the years have really meant something to the recipients. People have written to me about events and gestures that at the time didn’t seem significant. I now know just how much those gestures meant and, having been at the receiving end of an awful lot of kindness myself, it’s not something I will ever forget.

What is so exciting about the fact I have kept the shelves stocked with well-wishers is that I now – as part of moving forward – get to take them down and re-read the lot. I imagine there will be more than a few tears as I relive all the hugs, positive vibes and amusing memories.

Of course, I won’t be recycling them. I will pack them away, so that I can one day be reminded of just how lucky I am to be alive and to have an amazing group of people with which to share my life. Until then, I know the memory of them will live on long after they have relinquished their spots on our dusty shelves. And, excitingly, I have just received a few amazing congratulations cards (like this one), which means the shelves won’t be completely bare!

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When you have one giant paper-based hug on tap, thoughts of giving back and ‘paying it forward’ are never far away. That’s why I started my pink hearts campaign and why I now have lots of reasons to seek out and spend time with the people that have shaped my life and made me who I am. So far, I have delivered more than 20 fluffy hearts and messages to special people across the country (in no order of priority) and I am excited about the packages I have left to deliver. It will a take years, but years packed with special moments sounds pretty good to me.

I have set up a pink hearts page here on my blog, because I hope that this little initiative inspires others to reach out to the people they love. The idea is simple. First, make a pink heart (I have adapted a Kirsty Allsopp design for the purpose). Next, tuck it inside an envelope with a message explaining what to do with said heart along with a personal and heartfelt note describing just what that person has done for you. Then, hand-deliver that heart to that person. The catch? Each recipient shares their address (except for hospital staff because I don’t want to appear stalkerish) so that I can a) update my address book and b) send them a little surprise gift sometime in the future to remind them of the importance of seizing the moment and looking for the beauty in each and every day. I know that the heart will fade, but I hope the message lives on forever.

It is a sad fact of life that it takes a serious illness for us to say what we mean to each other. And, this is something I want to change. I have been writing this blog because I want to use my experience to help others. If, through one illness, we all learn to say what we feel and tell those around us how important they really are, I feel I will have made a positive difference this year. If I’ve been put on this earth to spread the love, then spread the love I will.

Whether you sew a pink fluffy heart, or pick up the phone, now is the time to get in touch. Tell loved ones what it is about them that makes you smile. Tell friends how they have made a difference to your life. Tell them, because otherwise they may never know how much they mean to you.

I don’t want you to wake up one day and feel like you’ve missed the chance to make a difference. I want you to look for the good in others and celebrate it when you find it.

We, none of us, know what is around the corner. But, if cancer has taught me anything, it is that you can face any bend in the road if you have the right people holding your hand.

Thank you for everything. You know who you are!

NB: Given the volume of notes I have received, I do have a fairly good grip on the get well card market in general, so do get in touch if you’d like some recommendations.

Breast cancer lesson 155: Why the end of active treatment can be the start of something beautiful

If you’d asked me on January 1 to predict how 2014 would have played out, I probably would have focused on the wedding planning and guest list writing. Little did I know, however, that the lump I had found by chance in my right breast on Christmas Eve – and written off as nothing – would change not just my 2014, but the rest of my life.

I would be lying if I said the last nine months have been easy. Two biopsies, lots of tumours, one major operation, one new boob, one surgically-flattened stomach, one course of IVF, seven embryos, four and a half months of chemo, six Zoladex injections, 24 immunity boosting injections, three tattoos, 15 radio blastings and a pharmacy load of pills does not a honeymoon make (I won’t even count the needles and the hospital appointments)!

But, the truth is, when I think back over this period of active treatment, I don’t see pain, I just see happiness. I have been turned inside out and put back together again and I am still smiling. It is not something I would have ever wished upon myself, but I have looked for the positives and found them in abundance.

As I see it, 2013 was the year I got cancer – the year that tried to take my life away. 2014 is the year I got my life back. And what a life it is!

Cancer has taught me so much – some of which I am still processing. But, the three things I am thinking about right now as I leave the hospital for the last time (for a good three weeks, which is a big deal) are these:

1) A life without the people who make you smile is no life at all: this world is full of beautiful people. And If you don’t agree, you’re not spending time in the right company. Just look at the face of a charity runner with the name of the person they’re running for on their back. Come to my house and see the wall of cards and messages that greet me as I come down the stairs each day. Have a look at my inbox! I will be forever grateful for the support, kindness and generosity shown by all those around me – from thoughtful old school friends and supportive colleagues, to amazing uni friends and new friends united by this challenging disease. I have made so many beautiful memories with beautiful friends this year and I feel truly blessed to have you all in my life. Thanks also to the kind strangers. Whether it’s a wonderful lady making PICC line covers in America, a designer drawing bespoke boob logos on my bed beanies, a nurse making me last in recovery or a hospital caterer offering me extra biscuits, I will never forget the smiles brought about by every act of kindness I have received. Here’s to more memory making (and more photographic evidence) in the next chapter. And more pink hearts of course!

2) I am who I am because of my imperfections: I have never loved my body before, because society is designed to insist I shouldn’t. But, I have learned to love what cancer has chosen to leave behind and I couldn’t be happier with what I see staring back at me in the mirror. My scars are still angry, my boob is still covered in cling film to stop the skin peeling off, I can’t feel my hands and feet and I may never be able to give birth to a child. You could say my body is broken, but I think I am stronger than ever. The mirror doesn’t remind me of cancer, it reminds me of just how far I have come in my life. I’m here and I’m smiling – and that’s all that matters.

3) Happiness is about making the best of every day and enjoying the everyday: when Duncan proposed to me I was so happy. At last we would get to have our big day. Now, I realise that it is wrong to focus on the ‘big’ days years in the future. Why dream about one day, when you can seek happiness every day. I am nearly at the end of my #100happydays project, and when I look at the photos I have posted I don’t see many huge milestones (today being one giant exception). I see home-grown veg, freshly-baked cake, moments with friends, a new ink cartridge in an old pen and a sunny day. I love what I see when I wake up in the morning and I know that life’s details – not special occasions – are what help us bank happiness. And, we all need to bank happiness, because we don’t know what’s round the corner. I fully intend to seize each and every day – and I hope you will too.

A few weeks after my diagnosis, Duncan turned to me and said he was sad that he had proposed to me. This wasn’t because he no longer wanted to marry me, but because he was sad to think that one of life’s loveliest milestones (one I had been pestering him about for years) had been tinged with sadness.

It didn’t take him long, however, to change his view. In asking me to marry him, he gave me hope. He gave me hope for a future of happy days in his company. And that is one of the greatest gifts I will ever receive. I will treasure every moment sat on the sofa, every moment walking through the park and every moment waking up at home with his face smiling back at me.

Thank you. Thank you for every word, every message, every hug, every square of chocolate and every flower. Thank you for believing in me and encouraging me the see the positives. Thank you for getting up early on a Sunday morning to run for charity, for sponsoring me and for donating pledges. Thank you for going out of your way for me. Thank you for making me the person I am today. If you’re really looking for somebody inspirational, I urge you to take one long look in your own mirror! Thank you.

This is it. This is day I have dreamed out. I can’t believe it’s here, but I am off to make the most of it!

Cheers.

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Breast cancer lesson 154: Believe you can and you’re halfway there

What makes a great Sunday? Giant boob costumes, pink headbands, a cling-filmed rads-blasted boob, running shoes, a dose of determination and a celebratory pub lunch that’s what!

Yep, that’s right. We completed the 10k. And, with balloon-filled boobs on our backs, we did it in style.

Thinking back to yesterday’s aims, I am glad to report I finished in one piece with no missing body parts and we (by which I mean Fran, Sam and I as Duncan was up with the ‘running elite’) shaved off 12 minutes from the chemo run time. I think it’s fair to say when I pushed for the finish (I even had a bit left in the tank after three hills) imagining all of the amazing people fighting cancer on a daily basis – and all of those who have supported my fight – I couldn’t have been happier.

Thank you for believing in me, running with me and pledging drinks to help me raise money for such an amazing cause. I couldn’t have done it without you!

This is one finish line I won’t ever forget. Just one more active treatment finish line to go… tomorrow.

One sleep to go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here’s the photographic evidence:

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Breast cancer lesson 153: The race to the finish is on!

It really is hard to explain quite how excited I am right now. You might think this strange given it is the evening before my next 10k (that means an early night and no Saturday wine), my skin is starting to look very angry and I have just discovered that the loss of sensation and general tingling feeling in my hands and feet (otherwise known as peripheral neuropathy) might be here to stay for a good six months if yesterday’s review meeting is anything to go by. But, just knowing that I have two massive finish lines to cross over the next two days makes me very happy indeed.

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I confess, I had a slight blip yesterday at my review meeting. After joking with the team doing the treatment for the day, I was ushered into a room to talk through aftercare following my last blast. It started well due to the fact I was dressed in a complicated top that took me ages to get off while I was trying to hold a sensible conversation. (I just had to laugh in the end as the surreptitious tugging on the sleeves to try and get them over my hands just didn’t work.) Once out of my top, we talked creams (you need to keep the Doublebase going for as long as you have symptoms and for at least two weeks), swimming (seems I might be able to take my first swim in a month if the skin holds), peripheral neuropathy (it seems I still have no one to talk to about this currently and it might be here to stay), Tamoxifen (as I haven’t been consented for this yet, no one in the department can prescribe the drug for me, so I have a few weeks reprieve before the 10-year course begins) and the 10k (she has given me some medical cling film to attach to my boob and under my arm to prevent the friction from causing my skin to fall off).

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Then, she mentioned the future. For the first time, a medical professional was sat in front of me telling me this was the end. There would be no more frequent appointments to make me feel like I am fighting any rogue cancer gremlins in my body. There will be no one close by if I have a ‘what if’ wobble. From Monday, I will be just another hospital number on the system, already replaced with another patient starting their journey. I should have been jumping for joy. Instead, when someone is looking across at you with tears in their eyes telling you it’s ok to cry, I felt a little sad. It wasn’t a lasting sadness (I welled up a bit but recovered well), just a realisation that the protective bubble of surgeons, nurses and doctors is about to burst. And, it won’t be long before I will be left alone to face the future, with just a packet of pills for company.

The thing is, I know I’m ready for the future. I am excited about the future. I am strong enough to face the future. And, I know I will never be alone, thanks to the sheer volume of amazing people around me. I am also delighted to be giving waiting rooms a wide berth for a few weeks at least. I guess I just wish this appointment had been less about uncertainty and sadness and more about congratulating me on a job well done. I would have preferred an ‘I did it’ sticker, a pat on the back and a big smile rather than a reminder that the end is not really the end and that the road ahead could actually turn out to be a little bumpy.

The way I am choosing to say goodbye to active treatment and hello to a cancer-free life, however, doesn’t require a consulting room. Firstly, given there won’t be fireworks or even a lolly or star sticker from the hospital (and it is a Monday as well, which makes it feel even less special), I have taken it upon myself to mark the occasion with an end-of-active-treatment present to self. I have heard of people buying shoes, bags and cars to celebrate the fact they are being allowed to get off the cancer conveyor belt, but I have opted for something practical and meaningful to me: a decent pair of trainers.

I am not sure my old pair should have really been taken round the block, let alone the streets of London in July. So, I promised myself, if I made it across that finish line, I would get a pair that wouldn’t break my feet. I bought them a month or so ago to break them in before the big race tomorrow and I do feel I have been bouncing rather than jogging around the park of late. When I put them on, I feel like I am giving my feet a big hug – and that’s got to be a good thing.

The buying of running shoes is also quite significant for me. Running deserves its very own chapter in my cancer story. Anyone who has ever taken to the road (park, trail, path etc) will know that indescribable rush that comes with completing a run/jog/walk. It is that feeling that has helped me greet each day with a smile. And, it is that feeling I want to carry with me forever. I believe a run can change a day for the better. And, my future is all about having a better life. I never thought my hips and the toxic drugs in my body would ever let me be a runner. I am so grateful to my body for giving me that chance.

These shoes are also a reminder that whatever finish line it is you need to cross, you will get there. But, you should focus on making the journey as comfortable as possible, so you enjoy every step of the way.

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Tomorrow, the aim is to 1) finish in one piece with cling film in tact and skin and nails still on 2) Raise money for the amazing charity Coppafeel 3) celebrate the end of cancer and the beginning of a healthier life with friends 4) shave even one second off the chemo run time and 5) cross the finish line with a big smile on my face. If you’d still like to pledge to buy me a drink to celebrate the end of active treatment (for each pledge I get I will donate to charity) or sponsor me, please post here!

When I cross that finish line tomorrow I cross it for everyone who has joined me on this journey. This serious illness may have tested me to the limit, but I think I will always look back on this time as one incredible ride.

All I need now is an early night and then a bit of banana fuel in the morning!

Wherever you are in the world, I hope you’ll be cheering us (by which I mean, Duncan, Fran and Sam) on!

As an aside, I will leave you with a rather amusing exchange with the shop assistant at the local supermarket a moment ago (on my mission for bananas). It went a bit like this:

Assistant: ‘How are you doing?’

Me: ‘Really well thanks’

Assistant: ‘And, how is your day going?

Me: ‘I am having a good day. Thanks for asking’

Assistant: ‘Really?’

Me: ‘Really!’

Assistant: ‘But, you do have a disease right?’ [points to lack of hair]

Me: ‘Ah yes, that would be cancer treatment. Nearly over now.’

Assistant: ‘I knew it! You’re a star.’

Seems I can’t even buy my magic running-fuel bananas in peace!

Breast cancer lesson 152: Ten post-treatment ‘firsts’ guaranteed to raise a smile

When I experienced my first proper shower post PICC line removal (no radioactive-looking arm sleeve in sight) and actually tasted my first glass of red since chemo, I started to see just how amazing some of life’s simple pleasures can be when you’ve been deprived of them for a while.

Now I am not saying I will be jumping for the joy at the sight of a shower for the rest of my life – although I do really like a good shower. But, I know that first proper shower is just one of many ‘firsts’ I get to enjoy now that treatment is coming to an end. It may sound strange, but I feel blessed in many ways that have the opportunity to rediscover certain aspects of life that I just assumed I’d take for granted forever.

So here’s my post-cancer list of ten things I cannot wait to experience once more!

The first shampoo: None of this scalp massaging stuff with a bar of hard soap, I am talking a proper lather on proper hair, which needs a lot of washing out! Showers are just too short at the moment and I have nowhere to put my conditioner!

The first brush: When I had hair so long I could sit on it (admittedly only if I leaned my head back), I used to love having other people brush my hair (this was a long time ago). Apparently, 100 strokes make it lovely and glossy (and maybe a bit greasy from all that brushing). There is nothing quite like the feeling of a brush gliding through your hair (or not if your hair is in knots). I love it and I miss it. In fact, the only thing I don’t miss is having to carry one around. Rumour has it my hair may grow back thicker. I am certainly hoping not as it ressembled rope before it fell out.

The first haircut: Ok, bear with me, these aren’t all hair related. Oh, how wonderful it will be to sink into the hairdresser’s chair and ask for someone to actually style my fluff! I will take a lifetime of ‘bed hair’ moments just to be able to look in the mirror and have a say in what is going on up top! It seems my ‘bob’ cut of the last four years is out if your emails and messages are anything to go by!

The first swim: This won’t just be any swim. When I get the all clear from my radio treatment (they suggest about six weeks from the last blast to make sure your skin doesn’t have a reaction to the chemicals in the pool), I will be dipping a toe into the Olympic pool. I think my days in open water might be numbered, but I can’t wait to feel my arms move through the water. It will be another tick on the Brighter Life List too!

The first period: Not something I thought would ever make it onto a list of things I actually want to see, but when you haven’t had one since March and, having one means you are not condemned to an eternal menopause (trust me, you wouldn’t want that), it will actually be a great day ‘if’ or ‘when’ it arrives. Sadly, this is the only thing I know may never return. I’d like to think I’d be more prepared for this first period than the last (was very young and walking round Avebury with my family so not great timing). But, I guess it will be as unexpected.

The first appointment-free month: Having spent the best part of the last month in hospital, I must confess, I am a little over appointments. I have three check-ups scheduled for October (including a trip to the hip surgeon and a discussion about nipples, which should be interesting), so am thinking November could be my month. My diary will look empty for once!

The first day you no longer look like a cancer patient: While I do find the ‘leaving the house’ routine easy at the moment, it would be wonderful to sit on a train and not see pity/sympathy/empathy/sadness/[insert appropriate emotion here] in the eyes of fellow passengers. Even in London, I don’t feel I have as many opportunities to blend in to the background at will. I’m happy, but that isn’t something you can announce to passengers daily, so they smile along rather than assuming my life is falling apart. Also, cancer is cruel in that you often look worse when the treatment is over – just at the time everyone just wants things to get back to normal. I’d like to look in the mirror to apply cream, not have a reminder of the last nine months.

The first mascara-wearing day: Now, I am not a great wearer of make-up as readers of this blog will no doubt know. But, I love mascara. Midnight blue is my favourite and I do often feel a bit naked without it (of course, that was before I discovered how naked you feel without eyelashes). I don’t change it as often as they say, but I might just treat myself to a new one when the lashes start to come back. Here’s hoping that isn’t too long!

The first proper lie-in: those menopausal symptoms are persistent. So much so that the hot flushes (combined with peripheral neuropathy from Tax) still mean bed is not something to be treasured just yet. The more I sleep, the worse the neuropathy is. Providing Tamoxifen doesn’t keep those menopausal symptoms going for the next decade (and providing my nerve endings start to play ball once more) I’d like to think might get a lie-in sometime before Christmas!

The first drug-free day: Given I am still on Clonidine and will be by the time the Tamoxifen starts, this day is a long way off. I will be 42 (at the earliest if we take a baby break in five years or so), so that is a good ten years of pill popping to go. But, what a day that will be! I won’t be wishing my life away just yet, but I will be happy giving my body a break from all things toxic. Maybe though it will be like dying your hair. It will be so long since my body has experienced a life without pills, it won’t know what normal really is any more. Here’s hoping coming off it doesn’t mean I go straight into a natural menopause!

Yes, the future may be filled with uncertainty. Yes, it will take me a long time to trust my body again – although I still believe it wanted me to find that lump on Christmas Eve before it was too late. But, whatever big things await me, I can be certain of one thing – there are plenty of little things that will keep me from thinking about it.

Now, the question is, what ‘first’ will come first? I am betting on the shampoo!

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Breast cancer lesson 151: Smile and the world will smile with you

As I made my way to the Royal Albert Hall last night to tick off yet another challenge on my Brighter Life List, I started thinking not about just how lucky I am to be reaching the finish line, but about all the people that are about to get started.

It is a cruel fact of life that as one of us walks out of those hospital doors occupied with thoughts of a new normal, someone is walking in. I guess that’s why those doors are revolving!

I was reminded of this fact not because I was about to enjoy a rare evening out, but because I had been fiddling with my travelcard wallet. I appreciate it’s not usually an object to inspire such thinking, but this wallet is no ordinary wallet. Tucked inside are quotes and messages sent to me over the years by my amazing dad. He always knows how to make me smile even though he is miles away. Aside from the occasional loaded highlighter markings that accompanied my bank statements when he used to send them to me at university, I have treasured each one of my dad’s clippings and motivational post-it notes.

So, I’d like to share one with you today. It’s not profound. It’s not Booker Prize prose. It looks like a tatty scrap of paper because it has been travelling with me for years. But it makes me smile every time I read it.

This is for everyone facing up to challenges in their life – cancer or no cancer. Life is hard and, smiling when you’re faced with the biggest challenges it can throw at you makes it even harder. But, life can also be beautiful too.

‘Smiling is infectious, you catch it like the flu,
When someone smiled at me today, I started smiling too.
I passed around the corner and someone saw my grin,
When he smiled, I realised I’d passed it on to him.
I thought about that smile then I realised its worth –
A single smile just like mine could travel round the earth.
So, if you feel a smile begin, don’t leave it undetected,
Let’s start an epidemic quick, and get the world infected.’

Now that’s one epidemic of which I want to be a part!

I have been reading a bit of the Dalai Lama of late in my attempt to find out more about theories of happiness. I love what he says about suffering and the fact that, if we spend our lives trying to find ways to remove it, we will be hit harder when it finds its way in. Because guaranteed, it will always find its way in. He believes that if we accept the inevitability of human suffering, we will be happier. I do believe that, and I also believe that happiness and suffering do not sit at either end of life’s colourful and challenging spectrum.

Whatever you are facing, think not of the day the suffering will end, but of all the ways you can smile your way through it today. It often feels hard to find happiness, but trust me, there is more than enough of it to go around!

I’m smiling, and I have a date with a linear accelerator (only three left to go)!

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Breast cancer lesson 150: Ten things that will never taste the same again because of cancer

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Today I did a little dance after standing on the bathroom scales (a rare event I grant you). That’s because today, one month after the official end of chemo, I have returned to my pre-surgery weight. Thanks to jugs of water (with a squeeze of lemon), bran-based breakfasts, run/jog/walks around Greenwich Park and, yes, the odd comfort cake, I have space in my jeans once more and a great big smile on my face.

When I think back over my food choices over the last nine months, I can’t help but laugh. With my love of water, tea, fish, meat, cheese, bread, biscuits and cake, I have always been fairly predictable. Daring for me is throwing balsamic on the courgettes! Add in a fair few helpings of jelly babies, pints of lemonade and ginger biscuits thanks to chemo, however, and you could argue my diet had started to resemble that of faddy child. Not perfect timing when you consider our garden has been more productive than ever this year (although I am making up for it now by working my way through our tomatoes).

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With the chemo cravings a distant memory, I would like to be able to say order has been restored once more. But, that’s not quite true. For starters, my tastebuds are in overdrive. Everything feels like an explosion of flavour in my mouth.

Amazingly, I have even started savouring my food rather than racing the clear the plate. Whether this slow down will continue remains to be seen, but I will enjoy it (and its impact on my digestive system) as long as it lasts. It is a wonderful feeling to enjoy every mouthful and I’m convinced everything tastes better (although that might have something to do with the fact it couldn’t possibly taste worse).

Of course, when people talk about food and cancer, thoughts immediately turn to chemo – aka, the tastebud stealer. And yes, while it does make a pretty big impression on the dinner plate, it is not the only treatment and life-changing event to alter my view of certain foodstuffs.

So, here are ten things I know will never taste the same again (heightened tastebuds or not).

And, the good news is, it’s not all bad…

1) Chocolate: I have always had a weakness for chocolate and, dare I say it, the cheaper stuff usually (Dairy Milk and Twirl, with a bit of Green and Black’s vanilla chocolate thrown in). Now, every time I even look at a bit of chocolate, I am reminded of the chocolate hampers and treats that arrived in the mail to help me pile on a few pounds before surgery. That chocolate made my new boob possible and I will be forever grateful for it. I had never eaten a Hotel Chocolat chocolate before in my life. Now, I could probably describe the entire range! It was a bit dangerous creating a chocolate cupboard in the house, so while Duncan and I started to think of it as an essential nightly ritual, the new waistline wasn’t quite so sure. There is a little chocolate in the house now, but don’t tell Duncan, because he doesn’t know where it is :-).

2) Mashed potato: Oh, NHS, why is it that your mashed potato tastes so good? I never wish to eat your toast for breakfast again, but your smooth creamy mash is amazing. I appreciate the morphine may have had something to do with it!

3) Bananas: Ok, so they don’t have quite the same impact as they would on that comic book character Bananaman, but now I’ve taken up running (as an act of defiance against this dreaded disease), when I’ve eaten a banana, I feel like my legs could power on forever. Of course, I haven’t actually gone further than a 10k to test this theory, but I will always have a soft spot for this fruity fuel and its ability to get my round Greenwich Park.

4) Anything with ginger in:
I never used to understand why people got so excited about ginger. When you go in search of the ultimate ginger chemo cookie, however, this little ingredient does take on a whole new meaning! I think Delia’s ginger nut recipe is still a personal favourite, but I have enjoyed my journey through everything from gingerbread to ginger syrup cake. That doesn’t mean I’ll be stealing your ginger chocolate any time soon mum, so don’t worry.

5) Grapes: I love grapes, but I certainly won’t be freezing them again any time soon! The freezing idea was a way of eating fruit, while simultaneously trying to cool the mouth in the chemo chair to reduce that cycle’s side effects. I think it is fair to say it was as worthwhile as wearing sunglasses in a darkened room.

6) Ribena: Before cancer, I used to associate Ribena with my great aunt, who likes to drink it warm because she (shock horror) doesn’t do tea. Having been my ‘water’ for the entire chemo period, however, it is now sitting proudly in the fridge waiting to be diluted once more. It is incredibly sweet and it does remind me of the drug epirubicin, which isn’t ideal. But, if I drink it with my eyes shut, everything is ok.

7) Wine: I will never forget my first flavoursome sip of wine when my tastebuds reappeared for the last time on chemo cycle six. I was in a restaurant in Padstow and the lady serving us poured a small glass for me to try (no point buying it if I can’t taste it). It was magical. Acidic wine (the more acidic the better), was a friend on chemo. It isn’t a friend any more. I am also glad to say that red wine has been reintroduced once more. It had a bit part in my chemo story. I couldn’t taste it at all, but a glass before each blood test did help those levels (this is not a recommendation)!

8) Ice lollies: For me, ice lollies have always been a real sign of summer (my favourite being the Strawberry Mivvi, which I have avoided of late). Sadly, I think those days are gone. I did have a fruit pastille lolly in Cornwall, but it was for medicinal purposes. When you’ve craved them constantly for months as a way of shocking the tastebuds into action, they don’t quite have the same appeal. Oh well, best stick to farm ice cream and waffle cornets in future. It’s a hard life.

9) Bread: I never want to remember the peanut butter on toast chemo moment that felt like my mouth was being welded together with superglue and cardboard. Now the subtle flavours of bread are once again present in my life, however, I don’t think I will ever take them for granted again. Beautiful crusts, fluffy light rolls and floury baps, I love you all! I am thoroughly enjoying my ‘year without buying sliced bread’ challenge! 

10) Eggs: If all I had to eat for the rest of my life were eggs (with cheese of course), I would be a happy lady. That’s why I was excited when a friend recommended Nigella’s Eggs in purgatory meal. Trouble is, I love it so much, I think I ate it about 40 times during the chemo months. We are, as you can imagine, on a bit of a break right now.

In truth, nothing will ever taste the same again.

And, you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.