Baking

Breast cancer lesson 176: a cancer diagnosis brings clouds, but it doesn’t have to block out the sun

There is something quite sobering about reading back over my diary from last year (I only write a line a day but, in some cases, that’s enough to conjure up some pretty strong images) and reflecting on the entry for 21 February 2014.

Sitting down to write last night’s entry (I cooked for friends, so it was more about wine and a cake that accidentally resembled a boob than it was morphine and NHS mash) I knew it would be a world away from this: ‘Short in terms of length, but long in terms of getting the cancer cut out of me. Boob off, tummy out, boob on. Humour can get you through a lot.’ (Ok, slightly more than a line, but you get the picture.)

You could say it was the most memorable day of 2014. But, with the quantities of general anaesthetic involved, it was also among the most forgettable. One year on, I think of it as the day I lost a boob and found myself, the day that reminded me of just how fragile we humans are and a day that taught me that life is too short to spend it among the clouds, when there is blue sky all around.

The cloud metaphor for me is a strong one and one that I saw neatly captured on a mindfulness animation the other day (I am doing a mindfulness course currently, but that’s a whole other story). Imagine a bright, clear blue sky, a sky that is calm and uplifting (sounds like a good sky to me). Then imagine that sky filling with clouds (of the light and fluffy and grey and stormy kind). These clouds represent our thoughts, helping to block out the blue sky with imaginings that are often far worse than the reality that follows. The secret in life is to remember that thoughts are just clouds. They drift in and out, they don’t last forever and, while you may look at them and see them as colouring your day, your mind can (just like a plane climbing through the sky) break through that blanket of grey and find the blue sky again (it’s always there, but our thoughts often make it harder to find). A cancer diagnosis will always bring with clouds, but it doesn’t gave to spell a change in the weather.

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It’s hard not to see the blue sky when you’re celebrating a year being cancer-free! How to mark such a significant first anniversary? With another first of course. This time in the form of my first haircut since the pre-chemo pixie. Goodbye natural but Frodo-like locks and hello beginnings of something I might one day refer to as a style.

This is where is was before the chop:

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And this is the ultimate aim:

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Bit more hair, bit less forehead required!

The experience itself was lovely. Conditioner (my hair rarely needs washing let alone conditioning now), a hair brush being passed through my short little locks and the feeling of someone else taking charge of my wild look was a real treat.

But that’s not all. Friday was dinner and laughs with a great friend (something I am doing more of now after reconnecting with lots of people last year). And, Saturday was a day in the kitchen surrounded by proving bread, homemade pesto and a white chocolate bombe.

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These last few days have been a celebration of the things I love to do, my way of thanking my body for surviving eight hours on the slab and coming out smiling – and thanking some of those around me for coming along for the ride. And the great thing is, my stomach is flat enough to not feel guilty about having a second slice of cake for dessert.

So, whatever you’re doing today, I invite you to look for the blue sky (difficult in the UK, I know). Acknowledge those clouds, but acknowledge that they don’t have to define a day, but can actually make the blue sky even more vibrant.

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.

Breast cancer lesson 141: Why cancer has inspired me to spend a year baking – rather than buying – bread

It will come as no surprise to those of you who know we well, that my latest blog for Breast Cancer Care (click here to read) is all about food (it was only a matter of time before I moved on to the subject!).

What is more surprising, however, is the fact that when confronted with the long list of side effects associated with chemotherapy treatment, the prospect of losing my tastebuds (and what impact that might have on my life) never really crossed my mind. Focused as I was on neutropenic sepsis, peripheral neuropathy and the more visible side effects of these toxic drugs, I didn’t even spare a thought for the day that a slice of bread might resemble a brillo pad (admittedly I have not dined on a brillo pad, but you get the picture).

Funnily enough, it’s not the day I first turned my nose up at toast (I never did think there would ever be such a day in my life) that sticks with me. It’s the evening I was sat in a little restaurant with a friend and discovered I could once again enjoy the subtle flavours that a good chunk of bread has to offer. Needless to say, there wasn’t even a crumb left in the bread basket and, had I not gobbled up my friend’s share too (with her approval I hasten to add), I would have probably ordered seconds before the starter!

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I can trace my fascination with bread all the way back to a little Italian cookery school in central London where I discovered how to make focaccia years ago. Having been slightly under-confident in previous evening classes, the action of kneading bread was such a revelation. I even remember the chef saying I had hands (and the right amount of aggression) for breadmaking. Not sure that was a compliment, but, while I have never made focaccia again, the experience did inspire me to buy a cheap dough scraper and get mixing. I still have my trusty blue dough scraper and I still have a real passion for all things beige and yeasty!

Over the years, I have tried everything from bread bowls (Duncan was eating casserole out of them for weeks on end) and stilton and bacon rolls (tasty with ham on Christmas morning) to bread shots (good party fodder) and olive buns. But, up until about three weeks ago, I had never made a proper loaf. Now, I’ve already made four (along with some crumpets)! I have also just discovered that you should never wash a loaf tin or make a ferment when you have scrubbed down the surfaces (cooking without cleaning up is my idea of heaven)!

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With my tastebuds firmly back in my body (and heightened I feel – although this is probably to do with the fact I have been settling for bland for four months now), my love of bread has never been so strong. So much so, that I find even the thought of a seed-filled sliced loaf from the supermarket deeply underwhelming.

That’s why I have decided to spend the next year avoiding the supermarket’s slices and baking my own. Why do I need to buy bread packed with preservatives, when it doesn’t last long enough to go off? Cancer has taught me that I no longer wish to fill my body with pre-packaged foods that favour convenience over taste. My body may not be everyone’s idea of a temple, but it’s my temple. And, temples all deserve nice bread.

With just my peripheral neuropathy-affected hands and my dough scraper for company, I am under no illusions that this will probably be a bit challenging at times (even though I have discovered you can leave a dough to prove on the counter or in the fridge all day before knocking back). But, there really is nothing better than watching a heap of flour, oil and water turn into a freshly baked loaf that is just crying out for a scraping of butter. And, it is that thought that will keep me going if I find myself veering towards the bakery aisle once more.

If you’re tempted, why not join me? Perhaps we could start a virtual bread baking appreciation society! I would also love to hear about any bread triumphs you’ve had – or top tips!

Happy kneading!

Breast cancer lesson 139: Success belongs to those who enjoy the process

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It takes more than a bit of peripheral neuropathy and sleep deprivation to prevent me from making a dent in my ever-growing Brighter Life list (click here to read more).

Over the last month alone, I have applied to the Wimbledon ballot for the first time (it is pretty much all paper-based, involving SAEs and form filling, which makes me smile), made crumpets (and ate quite a few given you have to really make a batch at any one time to make it worthwhile), walked around the Olympic Park with my mum and dad (it is bigger than I’d imagined) and stood on a cliff with no hair. In short, I have made good progress.

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Buoyed by the increasing number of photos filling up my list page (I post one as evidence I have completed it – and as a nice reminder), I decided to spend the weekend tackling a biggie. And, by biggie, I mean baking for Test Match Special at The Oval.

Now, for those of you with no interest in – or knowledge of – the game of cricket, the above paragraph will mean very little. Basically Test Match Special is a radio show and, dare I say, a great British institution. It is famed not just for its commentary and analysis, but for the fact it attracts bakers from all across the country, keen to flex their muscles and sift a bit of flour. And, for the last few years, reminded of the fun I used to have as a child helping my mum prepare cricket teas for the local club, I was determined to be one of them.

Unable to find any baking rules online, I decided the best strategy would be to bake first (to show commitment) and then email/tweet across my bake to get some delivery instructions. I planned a cricket ball-themed cake (with 261 sugar balls), spent seven hours in the kitchen baking and borrowed even Duncan’s cricket ball to do a bit of sugar stitching. I spelled out TMS in cricket balls. As challenges go, it was a labour of love.

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So what happened to this red and green sugar-fuelled vanilla-soaked sponge? Well, the tweet worked and lovely Aggers (one of the main commentators) replied to say: ‘@Jackie8 Wow! Fantastic. See stewards entrance of OCS stand at Vauxhall stand – and demand to deliver personally.’ I had celebrity endorsement and a route to the media centre. Duncan was then packaged off with the heavy cake in a giant plastic container and a little notelet to make the drop.

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Sadly, the one thing I didn’t fully appreciate (wrapped up as I was in kgs of buttercream) was the fact that while the BBC were game, the security guards at the ground weren’t. Duncan tried three different stewards and they were either too stretched or too suspicious (apparently we could have baked anything into that cake) to let him (or the cake through). By the time I tweeted Aggers again to try and get some backing, India were all out before tea and it was all over. I should really admire the security teams for their diligence. But all I kept thinking was, how did the little five-year-old boy get through the day before? Obviously, Duncan doesn’t look like a hardcore baker!

The fact Duncan returned home with the heavy cake (I do feel so sorry for him that he carried it around all day) would normally have made me very sad indeed. And, yes, I had a little cry for all the effort. But, once I reflected on the whole experience, I quickly came back to my positive self. Firstly, I enjoyed the process. I now know how to make 261 sugar cricket balls (a skill not to be sniffed at) and I simply love being in the kitchen. And, secondly, while it may not have made it to its planned destination, you can’t take away the fact Aggers liked it (even if the security guards thought it was a sugary-disguised attempt to bring down TMS) and it certainly scooped up a few smiles along the way. I see it as a tick on the list, even though I may feel compelled to revisit the goal next year.

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The reason I am blogging about this is not because I am obsessed with cake or TMS (or feeling slightly guilty because I ate a slice that must have been about 600 calories in one hit). I am writing this because it reminded me that the key to happiness is not necessarily the outcome (although it is good to have goals), but rather enjoying the journey towards that outcome. If we live in the present and take what we can from each moment, then we can be happy regardless of what happens next. And, if we can find happiness in ourselves (without looking for it in others), we will enjoy a more contented life.

This, in many ways, is how I have approached active treatment. I don’t feel brave or strong. I just face each day and look for the opportunity to smile through it. A few days ago somebody asked me if I’d always been funny. I laughed and explained I didn’t think I was particularly funny, but that any attempt at humour was just my way of tackling the challenges I face. I would rather find humour in a hospital gown that doesn’t do up right or an appointment where I have to take my top off (again!) than reflect on the fact that the reason I am experiencing these things is because cancer tried to cut my life short. If I can ‘enjoy the process’ every day and ‘be present’, I never have to worry about how many days I have left (hopefully lots and lots).

I am glad to report that Duncan, the neighbours (well, I have heard them moving around) and I are all still standing so it obviously wasn’t poisoned (Duncan’s team should be polishing off the rest today). The notelet is in the recycling, but here is a copy of the letter I hoped TMS would receive (there was even a charity mention too).

Hi Aggers and the TMS team,

I hope you are having a lovely day.

At the beginning of the year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, I set up a ‘Brighter Life List’ on my blog (amusingly entitled ‘Small boobs, big smiles’) to help me smile through active treatment and encourage me to tick off the things I have always wanted to do, but have never found the time. Number 43 on this list (no order of priority) is to bake a cake for TMS and that’s why I am writing to you today.

Coming from a cricketing family, cricket has always played a part in my life. From serving up tea and cake to the players at our local club and cycling round the boundary as a child to following my brother across the country (a left hand opener) as he played for Wiltshire, a summer weekend without a few overs in it wasn’t really a weekend at all. Even Christmas in our household just wasn’t Christmas without my brother and dad pouring over a copy of Wisden. Interestingly, my dad (a wonderful, yet humble man) once bowled out Viv Richards when he was playing for Lansdown so he could qualify for Somerset!

My mum’s cricket teas were legendary and that is how I learned how to bake. So, wanting to bake for TMS is a natural next step for me.

To celebrate the end of chemotherapy, I have baked you a cake covered in cricket balls.

When I discovered my lump, I nearly didn’t go to the doctors because of my age. Now, I am determined to help charities, such as CoppaFeel, spread the message about early detection, so that more men and women can be treated successfully for breast cancer. I would be so grateful if you could mention the charity and ask that everyone check their boobs (men and women). Who knows? You might just save a life.

Thank you for satisfying my need for a bit of cricketing humour and keeping me smiling while I fight this challenging illness.

Let’s hope this is one delivery that’s not unplayable!

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,

Jackie Scully

I will try again. If, by any chance, you know anyone at the BBC or know how I might guarantee the drop next time, please do send me a message!

As for me, I am more determined than ever to continue with my list and live my dreams. And, I hope that, in so doing, I may encourage you to live some too!

Next up? Making a ferment.

Breast cancer lesson 127: If you can take on chemo, you can take on life. Take that chemo and take that cancer!

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I did it! By which I mean, successfully carried a really heavy sugar pill-covered cake through the city crowds to the cancer day unit, presented it to the team before presenting high blood pressure (due to the fact the cuff was on my leg), took one last dose of Docetaxel, ate a lolly, drank some tea and, most importantly, had my PICC line out and was disconnected from the saline flush for the last time.

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In many ways, although brilliant, it is a strange sort of day. I am celebrating because the poisoning is over, but I still have a good three weeks of side effects (probably even longer) to go before I can start reclaiming my body. I can’t really drink alcohol and am pretty exhausted from a sleepless night due to heat, hot flushes, thunder and lightning and general excitement. I am happy, but I’m not exactly ready to paint the town red. 

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The cake and the ‘last chemo’ sign brought with it a celebratory atmosphere. The nurse started showing all the staff (including the chief nurse), my PICC flush lady popped in for a visit, and I even got to see my complementary therapist for a good chat. Everyone wanted a picture of the 450 pills – and I just wanted them to enjoy it before the buttercream seeped through the fondant icing. It had already started to resemble a boob in shape rather than a straight-sided cake! Apt you might say.

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The highlight for me wasn’t hearing the chemo pump beep for the last time, however, but watching the PICC line wiggle its way out of my arm leaving me with nothing but a hole and a lot of dry skin. Here’s the PICC removal in action (just to show you how long it actually is). I was surprised it was a) so quick and painless and b) didn’t involve me lying down on some sort of couch. It was just whipped out in front of everyone in the bay!

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How do you celebrate the unofficial, please-don’t-drink yet, end of the chemo you ask? Well, with a walk along the river and a lovely lunch at my favourite pub, The Cutty Sark. Fishcakes and lemon posset later, and we’re now hiding from the searing heat drinking tea in the living room. I may even treat myself to a little rest.

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There is just one last three-week cycle, eight more immunity-boosting injections, 12 more steroids, two more Emend tablets, 20 Domperidone pills, 21 Fluconazole tablets, 32 Co-codamol pills and ad hoc Omeprazole to go before radiotherapy. I just hope the side effects are kind – especially now I don’t have easy access to my veins.

Chemo, you have taken a pretty huge chunk out of 2014. It’s time for me to take control.

Might just have a little sleep first…

Breast cancer lesson 126: The most memorable moments in life are the ones you never planned

Ok, so I have slightly gone off-piste with the last cycle and veered away from ginger-related baked goods. But, given tomorrow is the last day I will have to watch chemotherapy drugs being pumped into my veins, I think it calls for something a little bit special.

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Little did my wonderful mum know when she met me at the hospital yesterday, that she’d be spending the best part of Thursday rolling fondant icing to help me make sugar pills! Each one of what must be more than 450 drug-shaped pieces is representative of the pill-fuelled journey that is chemo. From Steroids and Omeprazole to Domperidone, Emend, Fluconazole, Ondansetron, Clonidine, and Co-codamol (no to mention the obvious liquid drugs being pumped in), I think my body has no idea what normal is. If, in fact, there is to be a normal once more.

All I can say is, these pills had better taste nicer than Domperidone!

I have always liked to think of cake as having a rather medicinal quality. I think this is certainly the closest I’ll get to making it look that way and putting fuel into that argument!

After four months of poisoning, the last day of chemo is a big day (both physically and psychologically). Of course, it is not the official last day of chemo (which is Friday 8 August), but rather the last poisoning. Knowing that every day after tomorrow will be one day closer to a life without heart palpitations, bone pain, nail pain, muscle pain, a lack of taste, hair loss, dizziness, headaches, sickness, nausea, fatigue, injections, pills and, of course, toxic liquid infusions, is a wonderful feeling. So exciting, in fact, I have barely slept in days!

I have learned a lot over these last few months about surviving a chemo cycle. I have Ribena at the ready for when water tastes horrendous. I have frozen smoothie ice lollies and extra strong mints for a low-calorie sugar kick when the taste buds disappear altogether. I am armed with packets of Emend and Fluconazole to avoid the sickness from cycle two and the throat infection from cycle four. I have Difflam for mouth ulcers. I have a bran-based breakfast planned to avoid the Senna. I have a rainbow of nail varnish for those blackening nails. I have my mum to help me through the ‘emptiness’ days. And, I have a huge smile, which is probably my biggest weapon! Whatever this round is prepared to throw at me, I am ready.

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I never thought I would be celebrating the end of chemo. I never thought I’d get cancer. I never thought I would cover a cake in hundreds of fondant tablets and capsules. But, I have. And I am a lot stronger – and stickier – for it.

The 18 July 2014 is not a day I will ever forget. And, I fully intend to enjoy it! Let’s hope the cake doesn’t melt before I get there!

Breast cancer lesson 121: Check those boobies and help stamp out late detection of breast cancer

When I think back to the early days of my diagnosis, there is one thing that makes me shudder. It’s the fact that, even though I could quite clearly feel a lump, I nearly didn’t go to the doctors. I convinced myself the lump was all in my mind. I’m 32. I’m too young to get screened, so how could I possibly get the disease you screen for? Given the lump appeared to double in size between diagnosis and surgery, I know now that this blog might have read a little differently if I hadn’t.

Stage three breast cancer is curable. Stage four breast cancer is treatable, but will never be cured. I don’t know how close I was, but all I know is I will be checking myself from now on and for the rest of my life.

Ask yourself the question. How often do you check yourself (and men, with 400 diagnosed in the UK every year, that means you too)? If the answer is never, read on. If the answer is monthly, then congratulations, but please read on too because you could be quite useful. And, if the answer is somewhere in between, then that’s good, but there is still some work to do.

For those who have been reading this blog and who know me personally, you’ll know that I am trying to make every day count, rather than counting down the days until the end of active treatment. It’s hard, because I don’t know how I am going to feel from one day to the next. But, it is so amazingly rewarding and it gives me a reason to smile every day.

That’s why I won’t be sheltering from the rain this evening, but will be heading out to meet Barnes WI to discuss breast cancer awareness for the charity CoppaFeel. You’ll have heard me talk about CoppaFeel (www.coppafeel.org) and its inspiring founder Kris before, but basically, the aim of the charity is to get people checking their boobs, recognising the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and going to the doctor if they spot anything unusual. It’s a simple message, delivered in a fun way through presentations and giant boob costumes. But it’s a life-saving one too.

Because it’s the WI and because I love baking, I have cooked up a cake in the shape of a CoppaFeel badge. I love this picture, because it reminds me of my own little and large boobies (and is of something edible). Of course, the difference isn’t quite so marked, but you get the picture! I have put buttercream in the victoria sponge, which I know is a sin in some parts. Let’s hope I am forgiven for going off piste with a Mary Berry special.

If you’re keen to ‘cop a feel’, but are not sure how, then here’s a handy guide: http://coppafeel.org/boob-check/. The key thing to remember though is that there is no right or wrong way to check. You just have to get to know your boobs, know what to look for, and check anything that doesn’t feel quite right to you. You’ll know your body better than anyone else, so you’re the best judge when things change.

And, if you think you don’t have time or will easily forget, then why not sign up to the charity’s free text reminder service (after the first text which is charged at standard network rate in the UK). Just text ‘Boobettes’ to 70300 to get started.

If you’re inspired, then check out the latest ‘What normal feels like’ boob campaign (http://coppafeel.org/whatnormalfeelslike/). The idea is to extend the range of words people use to describe their boobs (when asked most people, say ‘big’, ‘little’, ‘medium’ or ‘flat’) and help people get closer to this rather wibbly part of the anatomy. So, have a good feel and then tweet your findings to #WhatNormalFeelsLike. I think of mine as ‘jelly’ and ‘belly’ for obvious reasons.

I’ll never know whether or not checking earlier would have saved my boob from surgery, my veins from chemo and my skin from radiotherapy. But, what I do know is that checking when I did on Christmas Eve saved my life.

So, please, do one thing for me today. Grab your boob and encourage the person next to you to do the same. You might just save a life.

I’m off to encourage a room full of women to do the same. Wish me luck!

Breast cancer lesson number 115: Think positive and positive things will happen

Strange as it may sound, I am starting to enjoy chemo day. This has nothing to do with being hooked up to toxic drugs and a saline solution (oh yes, the beautiful saline) or visiting the hospital (third day in a row) and everything to do with the positive routine I have established for myself.

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It starts – after a steroid-fuelled restless night – with the baking. Today, we tried out a chemo cookie recipe from one of mum’s beautiful friends alongside an experimental lemon and ginger muffin recipe (complete with ginger and rhubarb jam tucked away inside). Both were topped off with a drizzle of melted lemon chocolate. It always feels good to do something for other people and the thanks I got at the unit today meant the world to me. I know some of the cookies ended up as one nurse’s lunch (she was too busy for a break). I also got a wonderful phone call earlier thanking me for my latest pink heart, so I have pretty much smiled all day long.

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Next up is a good walk. By Sunday, I will probably find it increasingly hard to get round Greenwich Park due to the bone and muscle pain, so today is a good day to make the most of my legs while they are still working! In the absence of tastebuds, exercise has been my comfort eating. I do it to feel better and it is certainly does wonders for the waistline and the soul.

People often worry about what to eat before chemo. For me, I like to keep things simple. A bran-based brekkie keeps the constipation at bay and a simple lunch (with an afternoon appointment) means you go well fed, but without having eaten anything you’d avoid for life if you saw it again. My time at the chemo unit is always packed with planned-in treats!

By the time I reach the hospital, I am ready for action.

For those who have never been to a cancer day unit (and I hope if you haven’t, you never will), here is a quick glimpse behind the scenes:

1)     First you arrive, book in, hand over your appointment card and receive a hospital wristband in return (printed out of special wristband paper).

2)     Next, you wait in the lounge (this time in front of Wimbledon) until the drugs have been delivered and the chair is ready.

3)     Once in the chair, the nurse allocated to your zone takes your blood pressure and checks the oxygen levels in your blood.

4)     Providing all is well, the anti-sickness meds (Emend and Domperidone in my case) are administered.

5)     Once they’ve settled in the stomach, the PICC line is flushed and the drugs are hooked up to both a pump (so they can be released over time) and the PICC tube.

6)     Then (with Docetaxel), you get a good hour to eat (lollies and muffins), drink (tea, water and hot water) and chat.

7)     Summoned by incessant beeping from the pump, the nurse comes back to do a final saline flush.

8)     After everything has been disconnected, the rucksack-sized pharmacy bag arrives, complete with eight injections, and enough pills to make your stomach rattle.

9)     Before being released, the last job is to pick up the appointment card. We think mine may have gone home with another Jackie, so I had a nice new one to take home today.

And that’s it. Providing you don’t have an allergic reaction to the drugs, it is a fairly pleasant experience.

Back home, I am happy in the knowledge I have five behind me and just one poison to go. I have started planning my last chemo day (let’s ignore the fact I have radio and 10 years of hormone therapy for the moment) and I am pretty excited. This is the last cycle that ends with another poisoning. And that means the end of chemo (albeit six weeks away) is finally in sight.

It’s been a happy Friday for me. And, I hope it has been a happy Friday for you too!

Breast cancer lesson number 102: It’s better to give than receive, particularly on chemo day!

Having been awake pretty much all night on a steroid-induced high (thanks to the dosage being doubled), I wasn’t expecting today to be as productive or as enjoyable as it has been. Especially with the words: ‘Docetaxel cycle one’ ringing in my ears.

The good thing about steroids, however, is they don’t stop working when you wake up. With four more at breakfast, I was answering emails, sweeping the floor, clearing papers and popping my next batch of chemo cookies in the oven (this time using a recipe all the way from Germany) all before 9am. I could have run (well, maybe jog a bit) all the way to the hospital, but instead decided it might be wiser to conserve my energy and just take a leisurely walk to the train in the sunshine through Greenwich Park.

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For me, today was as much about giving as it was receiving, and that fact makes me smile. I handed over a tin of sugary ginger cookie treats to the cancer day unit and wore my Breast Cancer Care T-shirt to raise awareness of this superb charity (click here to find out what they’re up to or visit my Justgiving page to help me raise funds to support their great work). In return, I got a slow-release infusion of T (the drug is administered over a longer period, with no red syringes in sight), some anti-sickness meds (including miracle worker Emend), eight pre-filled syringes to start self-injecting on Sunday (to boost my immune system) and what I can only describe as the world’s largest sharps box! It needed its own bag to carry it home.

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How do I feel now? A bit tired, a bit anxious about how the next week will pan out, but otherwise fine. The calm before the storm is a strange place, and I just hope the storm doesn’t involve nausea, chronic fatigue, bone pain, muscle pain, mouth problems and peripheral neuropathy. I have survived the first part by not having an immediate allergic reaction to the new drug. And, I have done what I can to lessen the side effects. I have had some exercise, taken my pills, sucked on a rather strange mango and passionfruit (or at least that’s what it said it was on the packet) ice lolly while the drugs went in (it’s a bit like the cold cap for the mouth, but more bearable if you actually suck on something flavoursome) and am now relaxing in the garden with a scarf over my head and shoulders so I don’t get exposed to the beautiful sunshine.

The good news? The cookies went down well (so much so I couldn’t locate the tin), the cancer day unit makes me feel like I am returning to see old friends and, at last, I got the free lunch I have heard so much about. There wasn’t a lump of mash in sight sadly, but they didn’t scrimp on the ham. I even returned home to a wonderful parcel of hats from a new friend I met at Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women Together event back in May.

I am strong, so let’s just hope I am stronger than the drugs currently working their way around my body.

Only time will tell.

Wish me luck!  

Breast cancer lesson number 99: You are so much more than the illness that tried to take your life away

As my official 100th post (before you think I’ve mislaid my abacus, the first one wasn’t actually a numbered lesson), I have felt under pressure to say something more meaningful than offering an extra strong mint or Ladycare magnet update. That’s why it’s taken me a good few days to sit down and start writing!

The inspiration for this post actually came from my neighbour. Sat next door in the kitchen sipping tea (naturally) on Sunday, she turned to me and said: ‘It’s so important we remember that you’re not just an illness.’ And, you know what, she’s so right.

I was a fairly-rounded person with hopes, dreams, ambitions and smiles long before I made friends with the hospital waiting room. And, I am still that person – albeit with a few cosmetic adjustments! I re-read my first ‘Dear cancer’ (click here if you missed it) post just yesterday and I am glad to report I still mean every word. The engagement Champagne is slowly being enjoyed – in a glass not the bath. (Quite frankly, when you’re tumour-free every day is a celebration!) And, I’m still smiling (most of the time when my cancer isn’t being upgraded and my body isn’t conjuring up another new chemo side effect to catch me off guard).

So, I thought, for my 100th message, it would be apt to talk not about cancer and lymph nodes and lobules, but to go back to the beginning and offer a glimpse of the person behind the shopping list sized prescriptions. The person I was, am and will be, but the person that sometimes gets lost (like my veins).

For those who don’t know me well, I would liken myself to the following table of food.

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Here’s why:

1) Home is where the heart is: With my love of nesting, cooking, crafting and cleaning (admittedly less love and more satisfaction), I often think I was born in the wrong era. For me, being at home is like waking up to a long and happy hug every morning. There’s no queuing, no travelling, you get to pick the menu and, most importantly, you get to fill every inch of your home with happy memories. There’s only downside I can see – the washing up!

2) Family means the world to me: the only dessert I ordered at grannie’s house for a good decade was her special lemon cheesecake. I loved it so much that when Kraft changed the packet sizes of their Philadelphia cheese many years back (the recipe always talked in packet sizes not weights) it caused such cheesy chaos, I contacted them for advise on my grannie’s behalf. Without a conventional oven, however, the recipe had always been beyond my reach. What a great gift it was when we moved into our house in 2012 (complete with correct oven) and I could start cooking it. My version doesn’t taste quite as good as grannie’s version, but every mouthful comes complete with a whole lifetime of happy family memories.

3) The more I share, the more I have: My bread was made to be broken with friends. Good friends make the good times better and the bad times easier and I feel so blessed to have some many to try out recipes on!

4) If at first I don’t succeed, I just keep trying: determination is cooking a quiche recipe for the second time when you know the first one was a complete disaster – so much so the pastry dripped its way to the bottom of the oven and we had to munch on cubes of cheese and bacon. The second one worked! Just have to find time to squeeze in those falafel scotch eggs I have promised at two parties now (I even got as far as boiling the eggs this time)!

5) I take life a bit too seriously: No lunchtime event is complete without a timing plan, recipe list, homemade bread, fresh pesto and at least 10 hours in the kitchen. Did I need to do it? Nope. Did I love every minute of it? Absolutely (if we overlook the scotch eggs)! I may always want to get things right, but it’s only because I care so much about everything I do. It’s part of who I am and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Happy faces and happy stomachs are a wonderful reward.

6) While I love baking, it’s savoury all the way: I surprised a friend a few weeks back by ordering a starter and a main rather than a pudding. When you love baking for the office, clients, parties and the chemo ward, it does seem strange to not be attached to some sort of sweet tooth. Give me a bit of homemade bread, quiche, cheese and some salad and I am a very (if slightly stuffed) happy woman. A table with 75% beige and 25% bake works for me (two of my favourites are on the pic, including these white chocolate and raspberry tarts). After all, even a savoury girl knows the stomach has its own dessert compartment.

So, that’s what I’d look like if I were a spread of food. I am not cancer. I am an imperfectly-formed pastry case with a soft and creamy centre and lots of cheese. I may not be much to look at most of the time, but there’s a lot of filling, it’s quite nice (when it makes it out of the oven) and there’s always time for extra helpings!

Let’s hope the hospital agrees tomorrow when I am back for my pre-chemo blood test…