Pink hearts

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 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 90: Life is short. There is no time to leave important words unsaid

I am grateful that last night was just a night of sweats, broken sleep and nasty nausea rather than a night wedded to the washing-up bowl (I must stress the bowl has been retired from active washing-up duty in case you were worried). And, looking at the faces of mum and Duncan in the morning, I think I wasn’t the only one who was grateful!

I made it through. But I had to dig deep. The nausea and night sweats were among the worst I have ever endured. The Aprepitant drug worked wonders on the sickness and the quick hat and sock changes helped with the hot flushes. But there is one other trick I’d like to share, which – in between the waves of nausea – made the whole experience memorable in a more positive way.

I have never been one for counting sheep or filling my mind with the colour blue in an attempt to drift off. So, last night I introduced a new technique. From the beginning, I listed out all the wonderful and kind messages and gestures people have sent through over the last four months. By this, I don’t just mean the obvious. By this, I mean the well-timed tips, the lucky pre-surgery safety pin, the comment from an old schoolfriend about what she thought of me back then and how I hadn’t changed, the thank you from a girl I once helped in a small way and never thought much of it. Just yesterday, a lady I had met a month ago and showered in cancer-related tips stopped me in reception to thank me for my kindness. Those words meant everything to me. Each one of these moments has made an indelible mark on my heart. And, yesterday, I used them to build a patchwork quilt of happiness to comfort me at my lowest ebb. The great thing is, when I got out of bed this morning I smiled knowing that I have just scratched the surface, with many more patches to add.

Being at the receiving end of a lifetime of kindness has got me thinking about just how much we really say to those that inspire us and make us smile. When was the last time you turned to a friend and thanked them for just being there? When was the last time you contacted an old acquaintance and told them just how big an impression they have made on your life? When was the last time you thanked someone and meant it from the bottom of your heart? People can’t guess you’re your thinking unless you tell them. When the business of life gets in the way, it is hard to step back, reflect and not take all those you love and admire for granted. But, I can tell you now, there is so much I want to say to people while they are still around to hear it! People come and go in life, tucked away in chapters. But, their kindness will live on through you. I’d love to think that if someone were to cut me open (in a nice, non-cancer-surgery kind of way), I would be made up all of the brilliant people who have touched my life.

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So, I have chosen today, laced as it might be with a cocktail of drugs and a vat load of liquid, as the day to hand out my first pink hearts. The first is for my astonishing and truly wonderful mum who is one of the most beautiful people you’ll ever meet. She may weigh less than me currently (although we are having words), and she may not be able to take the pain of a cancer diagnosis away, but she has made living with it as comfortable and relaxing as possible. She has put her life on hold, so that I have the chance to get mine back. As a daughter, I have not always thanked my mother quite as often as I should. But she means everything to me and I plan to spend the rest of my days reminding her of that. While I won’t share the contents of my letter with you, I will share one line: ‘Life is no easy street, but you have made walking down it, so much more enjoyable.’

And, the second heart? You’ll just have to wait and see! I will also be posting more details of my pink heart plan (first mentioned in lesson number 30 – click here) in the weeks to some to inspire others to send ripples of kindness all across the world.

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All I ask is that you take a moment of your day to thank someone who matters to you. What is it about them that makes you smile? What it is you should have told them years ago, but never thought to mention? How have they helped make you the person you are today? I guarantee you’ll feel good saying it – but not as good as the person hearing it (especially if it’s for the first time).

Make today the day you start following your heart. Trust me, there’s no time to lose.

NB: it will take years to deliver all these hearts, so do bear with me. The accompanying letters are all handwritten and contain a piece of my heart. Plus, I have to make sure I don’t get arm ache! 

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.

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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!