Breast cancer lesson number ten: There is such a thing as a cancer survival kit

Aristotle was a clever chap. In one of his works On The Heavens, he said: ‘it is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world’. Basically, if you think you’re being original, think again.

Every day, someone is taken into a room and told they have cancer. Every day, someone starts out on a journey, looking for their own ways to find strength and keep fighting. Every day, someone learns a practical tip that is new to them, but that has been discovered thousands of times before by other inspiring people determined to tackle this frightening disease head on. So, today, I want to share a few of the tips that have already made an appearance in my cancer story, so that you – or someone close to you – can get a bit of a headstart.

If every cancer sufferer were able to pass on just one tip to those newly diagnosed, there would be a few more smiles in those hospital waiting rooms. That’s my aim. I am a great believer of strength in numbers. Together, we may not be able to stop cancer affecting our loved ones (I think the experts are doing an amazing job of that). But, by sharing our knowledge, we can make the journey a much more comfortable and bearable one. Happiness is infectious, so help me start a pandemic!

The day after diagnosis day, I made a decision. I didn’t want pity. I didn’t want sympathy (although hugs are lovely). I wanted tips – and lots of them. Since then, I have been inundated with thoughtful messages. In just a few weeks, I have been inducted in the benefits of acupuncture, emotional freedom therapy, life coaching, mindfulness and massage. I have accepted every offer of help (NLP next week) and I feel great – in fact better than ever.

So, here’s the first installment of my cancer survival kit. One small caveat. This is not a substitute for a patient checklist and you may disagree with some of the below. This is me, just trying to be helpful and pass on the kindness of others. Don’t worry, I’m not on commission!

Work out what sends you to sleep now: ok, so this isn’t rocket science, but after having had an irrational fear of dying for the first five days after being diagnosed, I realised quite quickly that, without sleep, I was pretty useless. So here’s a quick tip for you. There are loads of apps and CDs out there to help you sleep, so start experimenting. I have already tried Patrick Browning’s apps as well as a great disk from a psychotherapist friend. I love lying in bed, focusing on different parts of my body, tensing them and releasing them (it feels like they are sinking into the mattress when you let go). Even if you can sleep now, it pays to be prepared.

Talking pillows are great: so listening in bed with headphones on is not great. I went to bed the other day, drifted off and was then jolted awake by a loud piece of music. That’s where a Sound Asleep pillow comes in. It’s a speaker, it’s a pillow, it’s a revelation. In short, it means I can drift off to sound of peaceful chants without Duncan hearing a word. A thoughtful gift from a thoughtful friend.

Protect that boob: I was amazed when a friend at work presented me with what looked like an oversized jelly bean. It was, in fact, a Tender Cush pillow to help me feel comfortable at night and sleep on my side post surgery. Of course, I haven’t put it to work yet, but it is so soft and should be pretty handy.


Post-surgery bras aren’t just for those with a breast prosthesis: best get a specific recommendation from your breast care nurse, but I wouldn’t have known to ask if some kind soul hadn’t pointed it out. I went to Royce (shop online as the experience of shopping for post-surgery bras on the high street is quite disheartening) for mine and was quite taken with one that says it has healing fibres. I have heard that underwires may be out forever for those who have had reconstruction. Is that true? Can anyone confirm or deny? And remember no VAT to be paid on these beauties!

Buy big knickers: a DIEP surgery recommendation (as discussed in lesson x). They’re really big, they hold it all in. Let’s move on… No photographic evidence required.

Don’t forget to accessorise: I must confess, a bag for carrying around one of my four drains didn’t even feature in my initial hospital kit list. It was only when a friend asked me about them – and I then saw a lady in the hospital carrying one – that it got a look in. Imagine my delight when two handmade bags arrived through the post yesterday from a wonderful friend. The only trouble is, they are far too beautiful to waste on a drain!


Lip balm and wet wipes are an in-patient’s best friend‏: standard stuff, worth remembering. Bit like preparing for a camping trip – just a lot less fun. No scent, no sting!

Power up: one worry I have is keeping my mobile phone charged when going in hospital. With my right arm compromised due to the lymph node clearance, I think turning around to plug in a charger might be a bit too energetic. Fear not, there are some pretty great external power packs on the market that will charge your phone many times over from the comfort of your bed. Mine has so many different phone and device connectors I reckon I could power the ward!

Reevaluate your wardrobe: apart from my coat and the odd shirt, most of my clothes involve some sort of body contortion when dressing. That’s why I’ve spent the last few weeks stocking up on new navy and pink items to help me feel nice – and not naked. If it zips up or buttons down, it’s in. I have also replenished my stocks of tracksuit bottoms, given most of mine are covered in paint from decorating last year. Not sure the nurses would approve of those.

Don’t be afraid to ask: whether it’s from a breast nurse, amazing charities, such as Breast Cancer Care and Macmillan or fellow patients, ask away! There are superb booklets on offer covering everything from fertility and chemotherapy to specific types of drugs. Macmillan also produce a great Feel More Like You booklet. You can order them online, so keep donating, so they can keep producing and posting them!

Ok, so this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start (there are plenty more, but don’t want to blow your mind too early on). Plus, I didn’t think it would be right to talk about health foods, when I am currently feeding my new boob (AKA the tummy) a lot of unhealthy things. Read it, share it and please add tips here if you want to pass on your great advice.

This my little way of giving back, before I get started. Thank you to all those who have contributed to the cancer survival kit so far. Let’s hope it keeps on growing.

Every cancer journey is different. But, chances are, someone out there has a tip to help reassure you it’s all going to be ok.

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.


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!