Brighter Life List

Breast cancer lesson 183: Life after cancer is about making every day count

It’s not every day you call up the mother of the bride to tell her that you’re getting married in trainers – and that she needs some too!

After waiting 13 years for a proposal, I don’t think my parents ever expected my partner and I to get married.

So imagine their surprise when I announced that not only would there actually be a wedding, but that they’d have to get up at 6am to be there – on the Cutty Sark, dressed to watch a marathon, that we would be running.

Three years ago, when Duncan proposed, I had visions of a Cotswolds country garden wedding with edible centrepieces and vases of alliums.

I didn’t own trainers.

Having had my pelvis rebuilt in 2007 and pinned with metal, I ‘d never experienced the feeling of being alive (and completely shattered) at the end of a run.

But, being diagnosed with breast cancer, just three weeks after getting engaged (not to mention being told by your oncologist that you are likely to gain three stone during chemo) did a lot to change that picture.

2015-10-11 08.50.18 copy.jpg

I chose to run during treatment because I wanted to show my body that it can take a lot of things – forcing me to learn to walk again in my 20s and stealing my boob in my 30s – but that it couldn’t define me. I chose running because I knew it would be hard. I chose running because I needed to find a reason to get out of bed and feel the sun on my face. I chose running because I wanted to feel alive at a time when my body had other ideas.

With my nurse mum as carer, Duncan could be my running partner (by which I mean running in the same races miles ahead of me). It kept us going when circumstances could have so easily ripped us apart. Running changed the course of my days and, in so doing, changed my life.

marathonday2016.jpg

This is a hard post to write at a time when I can put on my trainers but I can’t move forward. But, while I am injured right now and in the hands of surgeons and physios as they try to diagnose my pain, it is the dream of a cold day in April and the London Marathon that keeps me going.

When you’ve fought for your life, it’s hard to plan too far ahead and rest your happiness on one day in the future. So, when we started talking about our wedding earlier this year, I knew there was only one way to do it. There wouldn’t be an aisle. There wouldn’t be a first dance. There wouldn’t be a day in the Cotswolds.

Our wedding had to be a chance to give back, volunteer, thank those who have supported us and to remind the world that life may be hard but, by focusing on the little – and often beautiful – details of life, you can make every day count.

That’s why the ceremony is happening at 7.30am and the honeymoon will be spent on the Great Wall of China.

I know wedding planning is supposed to be stressful, but I thought that by cutting out the favours and the sit-down meal and focusing on charity it would be a little less involved.

Not so. With road closures, a running wedding dress being designed by the incredibly kind and brilliant Frankie Seaman (Professional Ice Skater from Dancing On Ice), a hen 10k run and a gel bouquet all part of proceedings, I know this will be an experience we will never forget.

I know a hip full of metal, superglued stomach and tummy-fat filled right breast (from mastectomy surgery), oh, and asthma, do not the best running companions make. I know that my next run could be my last (I haven’t ruled out walking it if I am not able to run again). I have been told – on more than one occasion – to find another hobby before I break myself completely (and I will if you let me run one more marathon).

But, when I’m running, I have everything to smile about and I certainly didn’t beat a life-threatening illness just to play it safe.

Our wedding isn’t just a celebration of love and life. It’s a chance for us to thank the people who helped us find our way back to happiness both during and after treatment.

We also want it to serve as a reminder to everyone going through difficult times – whether it be serious illness, or loss, financial difficulties or the daily problems of life – that there is a way to move forward.

If you’re reading this, you’re already on the journey with us. Welcome to the team!

If you’d like to support us please visit: bit.ly/2eSLaed

I will be also writing about the big day and beyond on my blog thisdayforward.org and via Twitter @Jackie8.

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)!

IMG_0098-0.JPG

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

images-1

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.

2014-08-15 17.15.18

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.

2014-08-16 16.36.56

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.

2014-08-18 12.25.18

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.

2014-08-17 17.42.53

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 number 130: How to holiday with no hair

First, find a cliff (preferably a windy one that is not too far from home so you don’t need to contemplate travel insurance and so that your acute oncology hotline card is still useful).

Next, enjoy a bracing walk up to said cliff (avoiding the edge so as not to add cliff diving to the day’s itinerary).

When you reach the top, expose your beautifully bald head to the elements (having liberally applied factor 50+ sun cream before the climb due to increased skin sensitivity while on chemo). I am nothing if not a health-conscious blogger!

Then, enjoy! Feel the wind blast your head. Savour the fact you can see for miles without having to remove strands of hair from your face and line of sight.

While I would never wish anyone to shave their head as a way of sharing in this truly invigorating experience, it is a pretty fantastic way to make the most of a hairless situation! My mum’s good friend recommended I seek out the sensation, and that’s why it is stands proudly at number 17 on my Brighter life list. I must say, it is every bit as exhilarating as it sounds!

I enjoyed the dress rehearsal in April in Dorset with my parents when I was still sporting a number two. And, I have to say, I am delighted to have been able to tick it off at last. Made possible by the wonderful Briggs family, who planned this adventure, it is a cliff top I (my little bald head and fellow coast path walkers) will never forget.

Of course, we don’t have to climb cliffs (physically or metaphorically) to achieve our dreams. We just need to work out what they are and then carve out the path that makes them possible. Life is too short to stand in the sidelines wondering ‘what if?’ I set up my Brighter life list because I want to be reminded of that fact every day. It shouldn’t have taken a serious illness to bring everything into focus. But it did.

If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, then now is the time to start planning it. And, if you’ve already got a list of your own, but lack the motivation to start, now is the time to get ticking.

Today is not a rehearsal for tomorrow. Today is all we know we have.

Breast cancer lesson number 101: Nothing takes the past away like the future

Change is afoot in the Sloan/Scully household. Now by this, you might think I’m referring to the fact I’m about to start chemo drug Docetaxel. But, there is actually something far more newsworthy happening that I feel I really must mention. The three-piece suite that has been comforting my bottom for the last 21 years – and that I vowed would never make it through our front door in Greenwich – is now outside our house waiting to be taken away.

Image

Now we are actually parting with my parents’ old grey sofa (complete with embroidered leaves) I do feel a twinge of sadness. We’ve had some good times (curries, TV dinners and movie nights) and some bad times (it’s not good for sleeping on and it has swallowed up a few too many coins). But, overall, it’s been a pretty good sofa. Until Saturday, we are now sofa-less and all I hope is that the new one fits through the door. I’m not sure I fancy recovering from chemo cycle four on the floor!

That brings me neatly to the real subject of today’s blog. Tomorrow marks the official halfway point (not the unofficial one I claimed in lesson 88) in my chemo treatment. Out go red syringes and pink pee and back comes the fear of the unknown I thought I’d left behind in lesson number 49. How am I going to feel by Friday evening? Chances are, it won’t be as well as I feel right now (and by well I mean not in pain). 

Chemo cycle four does sound a lot closer to the end than chemo cycle one, but as the first cycle of my new drug, it feels as though I am right back at the beginning. There are, however, two key differences. Firstly, I’m not as healthy as I was when I started the first course. Will that have an impact? I’ll let you know. And secondly, while I don’t know what side effects will pop up to taunt me, I do know that it’s often the ones you least fear that are the ones that get you the most. I feared the vomiting on FEC. I should have feared the mouth ulcers and the loss of taste! 

I have heard that swapping FEC for Tax (as it is often known) is like swapping a stomach bug for a flu bug. It is likely I won’t vomit, but the muscle and bone pain don’t sound particularly pleasant. Apparently, the muscle pain is caused by the chemo drug itself and comes on in the first week. The bone pain is added in by the injections I have to administer from day 3 to help boost the number of white blood cells in my body (oh yes, this one wreaks even more havoc with the immune system). At least when I was self-injecting for fertility treatment I got eggs at the end of it. Sounds like all I get is pain this time (not sure I will be able to feel my boosted immune system). The list of side effects is long, so let’s just hope the drug is kind. I even get more steroids, which will either help me with the spring cleaning or the piling on of pounds!

The day before my first chemo, I wrote down ten chemo tips I was keen to test. Here’s a quick glimpse into how I’ve got on so far…

1)  Dark nail polish: I’ve painted it on and so far my nails have not fallen off, so I will claim a victory. My big toe is a little on the dark side (under the polish), so let’s hope they last the course. I also have interesting nails for the first time, so even without the
benefits, dark colours work for me.

2)  Sleep caps: They certainly catch stray strands of hair, but they do make it a little tricky to manage those hot flushes. I love wearing them when I am really cold though, even if I look a bit like a gnome!

3)  Senna (or your favourite poo-charming substance): Who needs Senna when there’s All Bran in the house! Ok, so I used it once when I couldn’t remember if I had ‘been’ and then regretted it. It is a handy item to have on standby, but you can’t beat a few mouthfuls of bran with your brekkie!

4)  Flavoured water and ice lollies: It’s nearly summer, so I now have two reasons to eat ice lollies. While I wouldn’t recommend frozen grapes (tried them on chemo 3 to keep my mouth in check and they tasted a bit too weird), I think there is a lot to be said for sucking on something cold while the chemo drugs are going in. It’s a lovely sugary distraction!

5)  Inflatable bath pillow: I think I need to stay in the bath a bit longer. I am still a bit of a speed washer.

6)  Toweling robe: Love it! Not sure I love it because of chemo, but I love it all the same. Who couldn’t love a soft, fluffy robe?!

7)  Queasy drops: Tick! They taste nice, they distract me from thinking about nausea and I don’t get bored eating them.

8)  Pineapple chunks: I would go as far as to say that they taste even better on chemo. Same goes for blueberries and strawberries – and extra strong mints of course!

9)  Ginger tea and ginger nuts: I am finding it hard to tolerate the smell of any herbal teas (so much so I wonder whether I will ever be able to enjoy one again). Ginger nuts are great for baking (as we all know from lesson number 79). But, whether or not they help with nausea, I just haven’t a clue. It would help if I actually ate one when I felt nauseous rather than just when I felt hungry. 

10)  Brow Zings: I’ll tell you when my eyebrows fall out!

The cancer kit list of tips and suggestions is coming, but there is one tip I want to add in for now. Plan in something that makes chemo day a day to look forward to rather than fear. For me, that means baking for the cancer unit so I feel excited about giving something back. I’m also so busy thinking about what ginger chemo cookie (or gingerbread) to bake next, I momentarily forget about the drugs making a beeline for my veins. It certainly works for me, and I hope it will work for you too.

This week it’s out with the old and in with the new. Let’s hope both the drugs and the new sofa are a welcome addition to our little London life.

Breast cancer lesson number 96: Happiness is a journey, not a destination

The title of this blog post is actually one of my favourite quotations. Last year I organised for it to be printed onto a sign for the living room to remind me of that fact every day. The reason? I think we often spend too much time wishing our lives away and not enough time enjoying the moment. A lot of the time, the destination doesn’t quite live up to expectations or the excitement experienced on the journey. I believe that if you enjoy the journey, you’re less likely to demand as much of the destination – and are therefore more likely to enjoy it. That’s my logic and I’m sticking to it!

I can honestly say I enjoyed every moment of Friday (which included four separate journeys and a destination that was also a journey if you can get your head around that!). I enjoyed the leisurely lie-in, the tea in bed, laughing on the tube with Duncan, the band playing as we arrived at the Orient Express check-in in the Victoria and the best cup of tea in a paper cup I have ever had as we waited for our train. I enjoyed the Audrey carriage with its colourful past (it used to be part of the Brighton Belle train, was once damaged in a bombing raid and has stunning landscape scenes on its wooden panels). I loved the five-course meal (including enough cheese to feed a small nation), the banter with the team on board and actually being in photos. I even enjoyed the drive on the M25 to the Cotswolds for the weekend after it was all over. I enjoyed the details and nothing else mattered.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

One of my favourite moments, however, is perhaps not what you’d expect. I will never forget the faces of the commuters on every platform we passed. The train, with its beauty and elegance was an unexpected element in their day. With wide-eyed children pointing, commuters staring in wonder and workmen stopping to wave, the train brought with it as many unexpected smiles as it did happy and well-fed passengers. I was happy to be on board, but happier seeing the mark it left on every platform.

In lesson 95, I challenged myself to get in front of the camera and take part in the memories as they are being frozen in time. I am delighted to report that I rose to the challenge, and dragged Duncan along for the ride too. I look back at each and every one of these and smile. It really was an amazing experience.

Image

 

Image

If you’re interested in the Orient Express, you’ll be interested to know that we went on the British Pullman on a four-hour round trip from London Victoria. Each of its 10 carriages, described as ‘palaces on wheels’ has a different personality. Audrey is one of the smaller carriages, meaning we were virtually guaranteed an intimate table for two and a big picture window. I can also confirm that the gooseberry trifle was delicious and Duncan did sample one of every cheese on the cheeseboard (and earned the respect of the waiter in doing so).

This memory wouldn’t have been possible without the kindness of the wonderful Willow Foundation and my lovely breast cancer nurse. The Willow Foundation was set up by former Arsenalgoalkeeper and TV presenter, Bob Wilson and his wife Megs, as a lasting memorial to their daughter, Anna, who died of cancer aged 31.They wanted to give 16- to 40-year-olds the chance to escape a serious illness by enjoying a special day out. And, since 1999, they’ve been doing just that. I, along with the many young women diagnosed with breast cancer every year, will be forever grateful.

My nurse recommended them to me and helped me with the application form and I couldn’t recommend them highly enough to you. If you are based in the UK and are eligible, I would encourage you to apply today! Click here for more details and to find out how you can support this amazing organisation. 

Thank you Willow and thank you Orient Express for gifting me a day when I enjoyed both the journey and the destination. It is a day I will never forget.

PS: A lovely lady called Tric reblogged one of my earlier posts: ‘what you lose I dignity, you gain in confidence’ at the weekend on her own blog My thoughts on a page. It remains one of my favourite posts, so click here if you want a second look. Thanks Tric.

Breast cancer lesson number 85: Bank happiness. You never know when you’ll need to make a withdrawal

I have experienced so many moments of happiness over the last few days at Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women Together event – so much so I need a while to digest it all – I feel compelled to write about one of them (for now).

Kelly Short, a breast cancer survivor and someone who has moved forward from her diagnosis and treatment in a way that is truly inspirational, took the last session of the day. At one point she used the phrase: ‘Life is what happens while you’re planning something else.’ For someone diagnosed while planning a wedding to her long-term partner, it seems an appropriate phrase to use. And, as someone diagnosed soon after getting engaged, I couldn’t agree more.

Having talked through her experiences – not least a turn on UK TV in makeover show How to Look Good Naked – she touched on two things that are very close to my heart. The first? The fact that life doesn’t start after active treatment, it is going on every day and is there is be seized when you’re well enough to enjoy it. The second? She reinforced the importance of living a life based around gratitude. You can’t change the past, so why spend energy wishing you could. If you’re grateful for what you have, you won’t miss what you don’t.

What am I grateful for today (apart from the opportunity to meet so many women of a similar age tackling similar challenges)? I am grateful for the photo that was sitting on my phone as I was leaving the event. My wonderful fiancée Duncan had sent me a picture of the alliums flowering in our garden and it brought with it the biggest smile. Why, you ask? Alliums are my favourite flowers – and growing them and watching them bloom is number 27 on my brighter life list (click here to view). While it may not be a full garden of flowers, I believe it gives me my first tick on the list. And what a beautiful tick it is! Let’s hope we can add to them in the years to come. That’s nine alliums this year (10 if you count the one that got its head trampled on). Double figures next year!

Image

I have been thinking a lot about happiness over the last few days (having had it restored once my Wednesday chemo was reinstated once more). This is in no small part down to a 92-year-old lady I read about on a blog about kindness. This lady, on moving into a nursing home, took the decision to love her new room based on a description alone. She explained:

“Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn’t depend on how the furniture is arranged, it’s how I arrange my mind. I already decided to love it. It’s a decision I make every morning when I wake up. I have a choice; I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with the parts of my body that no longer work, or get out of bed and be thankful for the ones that do. Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away, just for this time in my life.”

She added:

“Old age is like a bank account, you withdraw from what you’ve put in. So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories. Thank you for your part in filling my memory bank. I am still depositing.”

What an amazing lady (you can read the whole blog here) – and certainly not the only one I have encountered this week. I am certainly depositing happiness and hope that by the time I reach my old age I’ll be rich in memories. I also think I might make a few tactical withdrawals on the way. Invested wisely, I hope these moments of happiness will enrich not just my old age, but my every day.

To you, my allium is just one of making spring flowers trying to make its mark. For me, it’s a living reminder of all that is good in the world. It grew because I planted it. It flowered because I nurtured it. It makes me smile, because it went into the ground on a cold, dark day at the end of 2013 when I had cancer developing in my breast. It pushed through the earth, and it now stands tall. I am pushing as hard as I can through chemo, and I remain strong. Its colour will fade, but the memory of it will stay with me forever (in fact I hope to dry it and use it as a Christmas decoration).

Whether it’s a flower in the garden, a tasty meal or a thoughtful card through the door (I got a couple of really special ones this week) put it in the happiness bank. Be grateful for every deposit. Save up those smiles because one day, you might just need to make a very large withdrawal!

Breast cancer lesson number 66: Always look on the ‘brighter’ side of life

What better way is there to spend an Easter Saturday than up a cliff on the Dorset Coast path? When the sun went in it was quite bracing, but with the wind on my face and running through my tiny strands of hair, it was a wonderful reminder of all that is beautiful and wonderful in the world.

20140419-173358.jpg

Standing on a cliff with no hair is number 17 on my ‘brighter life list’. I still have hair around the bald patches (although a lot less after my latest shower), so it doesn’t quite score me my first tick on the list, but as a dress rehearsal, it was pretty exhilarating. If you are ever presented with the opportunity in your life (and I hope it has nothing to do with illness), I would encourage you to get yourself to a coast path – and fast!

If today didn’t remind you of how happy you are to be alive, then make sure tomorrow does. My brighter life list is about seizing the day and not waiting for happiness to find me. I’ve spent too much of my time wishing my life away. Now I want to cherish every moment.

It’s time to stop dreaming and start planning.

Breast cancer lesson number 30: Life is a gift worth unwrapping every day. Make sure you share it

At the end of last year, before cancer came along, took me by the heels and shook me hard, life had already taught me a really big lesson. Just before Christmas, I packaged up more than 50 individual present hampers for family and friends (please read the rest before you declare, where was mine?!). Looking down at my 200 handmade items – everything from chutneys and jams to bath bombs, soaps, candles, Christmas hearts and spiced festive biscuits for the tree – I remember thinking that all those late nights, packed weekends, paper cuts and missed film plotlines (usually lost while untangling thread) had been worth it, because I was going to make people smile.

I was wrong.

Firstly, I didn’t think that actually hand-delivering them (rather than leaving them secretly on desks or sending them via friends) and explaining what was in each one (apologies to my lovely colleague who mistook a bath creamer for a white chocolate treat) might have meant something to those on the receiving end. Secondly, by burying myself away for months on end I missed more than just film plotlines. I missed friends. I missed ice skating at Somerset House and a warming post-skate (or shuffle) hot chocolate (always like to dream that I am on the set of Love Actually). I was too busy to see the Christmas lights. I flew to Ireland for a wedding and was too ill to raise a toast to my beautiful friends. I woke up on Christmas Eve and wondered just where December had gone. In short, I was so busy doing, I wasn’t actually living. I was so busy making things, I wasn’t actually making memories with the people I love. I thought I was doing something kind. But, I missed the point. And then, as we all know, I discovered that lump!

I woke up on January 1 knowing this would be the year to start doing things differently. And, I think life, knowing how quickly I would fall back into the same routine, thought it would throw me a life-threatening illness just to make sure.

So here’s my conundrum. Over the past eight weeks, I have experienced a lifetime’s worth of kindness. I have tears running down my face as I think about the wonderful words, the pre-surgery chocolate and the thoughtfulness that has filled up my heart, my stomach and my living room shelves (to be honest, any surface at the moment). From the tea lady who snuck me extra biscuits to a well-timed email from an old friend, I feel truly blessed. It seems strange to think that cancer has brought me so much happiness, but it has. My task now, is to both thank all those who are helping me smile through this chapter and to learn to carry this feeling of happiness with me for the rest of my life.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking about thanking. I know now that life is a bit too short to bury yourself in toy stuffing all the time (even though I love my craft). That’s not to say I won’t be untangling thread any time soon (in fact, I have a new sewing machine to play with) but I think people might actually enjoy a little less stuffing and a little more time.

So, here’s my plan. Drawing on the wonderful skills of Kirsty Allsopp, I have made (and will continue to make until the world has no pink felt left) a series of pink hearts with a pink ribbon running through each one. They’re simple to make. They’re great for my arm rehab. They represent in colour and design the challenge I’m facing. They do include toy stuffing, but in limited quantities. And, yes, they’re a little bit cheesy, but anyone who knows me well will know that’s just my style.

Image

Together with handwritten messages and pale pink envelopes, I intend to hand deliver each one of these hearts to the people in my life who’ve made me smile. No secret gifting, no postage stamps required. Just me, giving my time so that I can give back to those who have selflessly spent time thinking about me. Yes, this may mean getting on a plane or trying to get the name of the nurse who made my stay in recovery so enjoyable. Back in lesson number nine, I said I am not sure I will ever be able to thank you all for the kindness you have shown me so far, but that I would spend the rest of my life trying. I won’t stop until I’ve delivered each and every one.

This is a heart I want you to hang (even if it’s in the airing cupboard or the downstairs loo). Every time you look at the heart, I don’t want you to think of me. I want you to think of all the people in your life that make you who you are and make you happy to be alive. I know that when the business of life gets in the way, it often feels hard to find the time to feel thankful. But, you only get one life. This is your moment and no one else is going to help you seize it. That’s how I feel right now, but all I have to worry about is my next hospital appointment and whether or not I have enough tea bags and milk in the fridge. I want to look at my heart and remember this moment – and the cancer that told me to see the beauty in others and every day.

But that’s not all.

This heart comes with a hidden extra. For every heart I give, I would like an address in return (not because I am a stalker). Yes, this will help me cleanse my address book. But, it will also mean that sometime in the future (should you not move of course), I will be able to send you a little reminder. It won’t come with a note. You’ll probably think it’s been delivered to the wrong house. But, I’d like to send you a little surprise, a little act of kindness that helps you smile through the battles in your life. After all, you’re only human. The heart will fade or get dusty in the attic. Life will get in the way. We all need something to look forward to.

I’m also going to start a brighter life list (watch out for new page coming soon). This is not a bucket list – as my consultant says, we’re aiming for the grand old age of 92! This is a public declaration of all the things I know I want to do, but have always found an excuse to push down the list. They’re not ground-breaking. They’re not all particularly special. But, they mean something to me. By posting them on my blog, I want you to help me tick them off. Please add to the list (if you know me better than I know myself), or join me on an adventure if you want to tick it off too.

Life’s a fight. But life can be kind too – and the people in it. Kindness is what I want to gift to this world, one fluffy pink heart at a time…

NB: it may take you years to receive your heart (I won’t just fling it to you at a party), but please know that if you have shown kindness, it’s on its way!

Breast cancer lesson number eight: Fashion has its place, just not in the hospital

Dress with confidence and you will feel good. It’s a lesson I learned with my hip surgery, having spent months in black joggers and oversized jumpers. I didn’t want to look in the mirror, not because I didn’t like myself, but because the picture never changed. Not this time!

When I started this process, I promised myself I would do everything in my power to stay true to myself. That means bright pink tops, navy dresses, pink belts and matching ballet pumps. For those of you who know me well, you’ll know I am not the least bit vain – I painted my toes for the first time ever last year and it took me years to realise that green cords and a long brown jumper are not going to get you anywhere in publishing! I only decided to match my shoes with my clothes in 2009 (maybe I have said too much)!

When it comes to fashion – by which I mean dressing up not being on trend – however, it seems cancer has other ideas. Take this morning, for example. I selected a pretty navy lace top (a birthday present from my parents) for a fertility clinic appointment, so convinced was I that I would remain fully clothed throughout. Twenty minutes in and I was wrestling to remove my top so that the nurse could take more blood. Trust me, bending over while trying to get a top over your head when you can’t reach the button at the back, is not a good look. I resembled a magician trying to escape from a straightjacket – a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the nurse who thought my determination to get it off unaided was hilarious. I am glad to say the top survived – but it was a close call.

The sad thing is, it seems one wardrobe malfunction is but the tip of the iceberg. Then there are the knickers. Recommended post-op knickers for those who are having the rather glamorous tummy tuck (or DIEP flap to be scientific) are big. And, by big, I mean HUGE! Bridget Jones would be proud. I was hoping my artificially flat stomach would stay in on its own, without the extra support!

Only piece of good news is that I can’t wear them when the two drains sticking out my stomach are still in place.

Let’s not forget the bras! As I am opting for immediate reconstruction, I must confess, I didn’t think I’d need a special bra. How wrong was I! While I admire the care and science that goes into creating post-surgery bras for women, I have to say, my heart sank when I went to a department store on Oxford Street yesterday to pick up a couple. For starters, you need to go up a back size because of the swelling – and no woman wants to go up a size in anything other than cup size. Visiting a lingerie department for a post-surgery bra is like going to a sweet shop and coming out with an empty paper bag. You feel special for all the wrong reasons and you generally don’t get lace or ribbon or silky bits. They also don’t come in navy or pink, which, as explained above, is just not part of the Scully colour palette.

The lesson here is, don’t go to the high street – shop online. From the sofa, it is easier to admire the craft and healing fibres without feeling like you’re missing out.  You are even exempt from paying VAT, which is a bonus (just make sure you call customer services to claim back if the option to remove VAT is not available).  I also have brand recommendations if you’d like them, courtesy of my lovely breast reconstruction nurse.

One interesting discovery in this rather unfashionable episode, was that around 80% of women are wearing the wrong bra size. Having discovered this fact, I promptly dug out the tape measure (useful bra fitting guide link should you wish to follow suit). I have been a 34B for as long as I can remember (even though my dress and top sizes have altered). Thankfully, I passed the test and have saved myself from the shame of having to admit to hospital staff that I had over inflated my assets.

Image

I am pleased to report, however, it’s not all small boobs and big knickers. Determined as I am to feel myself in hospital (after the morphine has subsided), I have splashed out on lovely nightshirts (not my first choice in nightwear, but if you ever need a button down shirt for easy access, I have some good tips), a soft dressing gown and fluffy slippers. I now also have a rather stylish selection of zip-up sweatshirts, which I think will be getting a bit too much wear post-surgery.

Cancer, you can have my right breast, but you won’t take my style – what little I have of it. I plan to dress to impress, even if it’s only for the lovely ward staff!