breast cancer

Breast cancer lesson 180: Say yes unless you really should say no!

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Two years ago, I thought a weekend at home with time to do the laundry, make bread and run the hoover round was winning.

A good weekend was one that enabled me to prepare for the week ahead – the working week that is! (Quite what I thought I needed a whole weekend to prepare for is beyond me.)

While I was busy ‘preparing’ for life, everyone else was busy living it. 

And then, cancer tried to take that life away ­– something no amount of hoovering or lawn mowing can prepare you for.

So that’s why I started the year with a new mantra: say yes unless you really should say no. I should qualify this by adding that it’s yes to boundary-pushing, comfort-zone stealing adventures – not extra hours in the office.

You could have reviewed my 2013 by looking at the bags under my eyes and my furrowed brow. I had little else to show for it.

Not any more. Roll the clock forward to 2015 and it’s a completely different story. I pack my days with meaning and adventures and I spend my nights really sleeping (when the hot flushes don’t take hold). 

Admittedly, this may have something to do with the fact that chemo seems to have destroyed the part of my brain that used to obsess about (and remember) everything all the time. 

But, I like to think it has a lot more to do with the fact that my view of the world – and what’s important – has changed. 

This year, I have run political hustings (to push breast cancer up the agenda), delivered speeches in front of thousands of people, run a half marathon, spoken to Eamonn Holmes on Sky News at 7am in the morning, experienced a mindfulness course, featured in a video, eaten banana jam, left Europe for the first time, signed up to a marathon, run to work (well most of the way), reread my favourite books, commuted to work from a ferry, revealed 11 publishing secrets at a conference, featured in a fashion show, gone swimming before work, written thousands of words for charity and walked 20 miles through the night (for starters). 

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And it’s only August. 

In short, I have changed my life. I exercise. I volunteer. I travel. I see friends. I take risks.

I work hard. I always will (and life is too short to just drift). But I have come to realise that life needs work too. 

We can’t live a life without laundry, without routine, without leaking roof tiles and broken drains. But, we can choose how much we let life’s challenges colour our days. 

We can light a candle in the darkness. We can just get on that plane. We can say yes, even when to do so is a little bit scary.

Of course, I am not saying we should all throw out the hoover. But I think we should all remember that people aren’t looking at your carpet! 

Why am I writing this now? Yesterday, I spent two hours in the hairdresser (fourth cut since chemo) not looking in the mirror at the person I was, but looking at the person I’ve become. 

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I don’t see the woman who played it safe with the same bob for six years – the woman so busy rushing through life she’d forgotten to live. 

I see someone stronger, happier, more confident and more adventurous – and I see the bold pixie cut that backs that up. I see a woman too busy to even use a hairbrush!

So whatever it is you want to see, to do, to visit, to say, make today the day you start saying yes and making plans. Don’t wait for a brighter tomorrow, don’t turn over in bed.

Just say yes, light that candle, before life comes along (as it inevitably will) to blow it out.

I’m off for a swim!

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 174: Why hitting that ‘cancerversary’ is something to celebrate

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A year ago today, I was taken into a room and told I had cancer.

As days go, I think it is safe to say it is one I would never wish to repeat (I keep a line a day diary where I rate each day and this is the first time I contemplated minus numbers).

But what I could never have imagined or predicted – as I sobbed into any tissue I could get my hands on and rushed round the corridors to find a mobile signal so I could break the news – is the year that followed and just how much that year did to change my life.

One year on and I am sad to say I haven’t baked a boob-shaped cake or popped open the Champagne (dry January will be completed). In fact, with a morning sorting clothes into wardrobes and a trip to see a friend for lunch, you could describe it as any other day. That said, it’s not every day you get a congrats card (cancerversary cards aren’t that popular) just for being alive.

If you’ve followed my story, you’ll know that this is, in fact, the perfect way for me to celebrate (although admittedly, a themed cake would have worked too). Cancer, when it took over my boob and stole my tummy fat (which has yet to make an appearance once more) it also took away my constant desire to rush through life and brought the small details of the everyday into sharp focus. They are the details that I reflect on at night. They are the details I write about in my diary. And, they are the details of which I never want to lose sight. I don’t dream of big parties and lots of cheers. I dream about hugs from friends, nights on the sofa planning new meals to cook and the sunshine on my face in Greenwich park. Little things never let you down.

Keeping up with tradition, a big milestone in the cancer calendar just wouldn’t be properly marked without a run of some sorts (never thought I’d ever say that)! Tomorrow, I am doing my first ever run for fun (a 10k race to boost my half marathon training) and I have also just signed up for the 20-mile overnight Breast Cancer Care walk with my mum in July and the Royal Parks Half Marathon in October. Last year, life decided to throw me my biggest challenge. This year, I’ve decided to set my own.

Being able to call myself a runner (albeit the loosest sense of the word) is not the only thing that’s changed in the last year. I am 7KGs lighter. I wear hats for fun. I look at the leaking in the roof in the bathroom and I don’t panic. I know how to grow vegetables (although Duncan may dispute this). I can make crumpets. I have watched a play at The Globe and sung carols in London. None of these things may sound ground-breaking, but to me, they are a sign I am living the life I had buried away in a handwritten to-do list. I am putting actions before words at last (although I still love lists)

Of course, I will always be ambitious, but I have learned that true happiness is not always about succeeding in the purest sense of the word, but about making the best of the day you have and living in the present. That’s why I’m doing a mindfulness course at the moment. That’s why I am packing my already busy days with swimming, running, meeting friends and, shock horror, relaxing. And, that’s why I am happier than I have been in years.

So, if you are not on dry January today (or having a cheeky break), then I invite you to raise a glass to the little things. May they make you happy. May they fill your days with pockets of calm. And, may they be there to draw on when the big things come along, which they will at a really inconvenient time.

I now realise life isn’t a given, it’s a gift. And, if you know where to look, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Breast cancer lesson 171: Here’s to the Christmas that changed my life

Christmas Eve is one of my favourite days of the year. If I’m hosting, it’s a day in the kitchen cooking ham, whizzing up brandy butter and enjoying a Christmas movie marathon. And, if I’m not, it’s a long walk in the park, it’s chain tea drinking, and a couple of slices of chocolate log. It’s a day that is, in many ways, so simple. A day that doesn’t have to be anything in particular. It’s a day that never lets me down.

For those of you who have followed my journey from the beginning, you’ll know that’s it’s also the day I discovered a lump in my right breast in the shower (making this Christmas Eve my one-year lumpiversary). You could argue it was the day that ruined Christmas, poured cold water on the engagement that happened just a day later (after 13 years together) and cast a heavy shadow over 2014. But, you know what, that’s not how I remember it. Christmas Eve 2013 saved my life.

When I was sat in front on a fire with my parents just a few days before, I talked about the future, I talked about the fact that I had come to accept that I may never get married and may never have a child to call my own. I had been so focused on the next of life’s big landmarks that I had forgotten to enjoy and cherish the life I woke up to every day. That day, I decided I may not lead a conventional life – and that was fine. It didn’t, however, stop me popping open the champagne on Christmas Day and toasting a 2014 I thought would be filled with table planning, venue hunting and dress shopping.

When I look back, I know I thought Christmas Day was the day that had changed the course of my life. Truth is, however, it doesn’t even come close. While we have decided to recreate the whole event this Christmas (we still have the champagne so it would be a crime not to), I know I won’t be toasting a day one day in the future (2017 if Duncan wins the debate). No, I will be toasting Duncan for being the partner I want to wake up to and laugh with every day. I will be toasting my mum and dad and all they have done – and continue to do – for me. I will be toasting the friends that have made room for me in their lives and their thoughts. I will be toasting the charities – Willow, Breast Cancer Care, Younger Breast Cancer Network, CoppaFeel, Macmillan and the Haven – that supported me and that now fill me with such joy as I work to support them. I will be toasting my body, for being strong and letting the memories fade. I will be toasting the life I have now – a life that Cancer forced me to see – not the life I thought I wanted.

Tomorrow, I won’t be sad, I will be thankful. Thankful that I am here to cook another ham. Thankful that I have the chance to pull another cracker. And thankful that the future Duncan gifted to me 14 years ago when he decided to take a chance on me (not the future he promised me last year) is the future I am around to enjoy. The greatest gift of all is life and it is a gift I will never take for granted again.

Merry Christmas to you all. As you turn to a diet of mince pies and crisps and reflect on the year you’ve had, I don’t want you to think about all the things that didn’t work out this year or all the times life didn’t go your way. I want you to think about the fantastic memories and the moments (however little) that no challenge, serious illness or crisis in the future will ever be able to take away from you.

Raise a glass to health, happiness and the people that make you smile.

Because that’s all you’ll ever really need.

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Breast cancer lesson 168: Why I am about to run for my life – and for charity

One thing you may not know if you haven’t had the pleasure of being prescribed an oestrogen blocking anti-cancer drug is that Tamoxifen, my new friend for the next decade, has a nickname. It’s a bit too ‘rude’ for me to mention it here (you’ll just have to trust me that it isn’t nice), but let’s just say, it’s a nickname that only now I fully understand.

While I will be forever grateful that there exists a drug that can reduce the chance of my cancer coming back (and I really am grateful), I do just wish it could do its stuff without raising my anxiety levels (trust me, this pill can make the washing up seem like an uphill struggle), stealing my sleep and generally ageing me by about forty years. When I heard about people’s experiences of the drug I honestly thought that, after chemo, it couldn’t be that hard. But, faced with taking a potentially mood altering drug for ten years, part of me would rather endure another short-term course of the toxic stuff than have to ‘check in’ with my body every five minutes to make sure it’s in one piece.

Don’t get me wrong. I am still really happy and thankful I have my life. And, if this is what I have to do to prolong it, I will do it. But, I guess Tamoxifen (the effects of which I think are starting to kick in now my body is leaving the effects of chemo and Zoladex behind) is my daily reminder that, far from finishing the fight for my life, I am still very much at the beginning.

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Which brings me to the title of this blog post. When I knew things were about to get tough before chemo, I hit the road with my, then, tatty trainers for the first time in a decade. I hit the road, not because I was a runner, but because I wanted to stay sane and counteract the weight gain. I did it for me (as well as raising money for charity) and I think it is one of the biggest reasons why I started and finished treatment with a smile on my face. Running (or more accurately, jog/walking) saved me this year. And, you know what? I think I need it to save me again.

I confess, I hate the thought of running. I even hate the getting dressed for running part. But, the feeling I get when I arrive back home after a jog through Greenwich Park is a feeling I wouldn’t give up for the world. It was that feeling that got me round the streets of London when I had chemo drugs running through my veins. It was that feeling that made me choose a run over a party at the end of active treatment. And, it is that feeling that I hope will help me over the finish line of my next, and biggest, running challenge to date. On March 1, I will be back on home soil running the Bath Half Marathon.

Whether my legs will go the distance is still a subject hotly contested at my family home in Wiltshire. But, while I can’t predict the future and second guess whether the hip problems that plagued my twenties will return, I know that I will give it my best shot. This time, it’s not about weight management (although I do get to eat more cake). This time it’s all about the mind and showing my body that, however hard it tries to bring me down with its cocktail of drugs, it will never take my spirit and my determination to succeed. However I do it (and it won’t be graceful), I will be crossing the line in March for every person who needs Tamoxifen to keep them alive. It seems a cruel joke that after nine months of active treatment, just when we all want a break, we should be faced with yet another drug-induced challenge. This is one challenge, however, I will overcome.

Of course, I am not just running for me. I am running for amazing charity CoppaFeel. Those of you who have been following the blog will know just how important CoppaFeel is to me. You just need to spend a few moments with twin sisters Kris and Maren (who founded the charity) to know just how special they are. They work so hard, with very few resources, in their fight to wipe out the late detection of breast cancer. Kris is dying. Maren has to watch her sister fight the disease every day. And yet, both are dedicated to making sure other people they don’t even know – or will ever meet – have the chance to enjoy a long and happy future. It seems to me the ultimate selfless act to give your life to helping others when you don’t know how much of it you have left. If that’s not worth a few quid, then I don’t know what is.

As with the last two races, I won’t be heading to the starting line alone. Back in July my wonderful friend Fran stuck by me (when I knew she could run faster) as I completed first the British 10k. She turned out again in September and has been persuaded to join me on this, no doubt, cold wintery day. She believed in me when I thought I had nothing left and, for that, I will be forever grateful. Duncan will be heading out too (we may even get him in a giant boob this time), although we probably won’t see him after the warm up. And, it means the world to me that my amazing school friend Alex will be returning to the course (after tackling it last year of CoppaFeel) to help me round. With that kind of back-up, I just have to hope and pray my legs don’t let the side down.

Running as a non-runner has been an emotional and amazing journey. This time, with winter training, double the distance to run and the same dodgy hips, we need all the support we can get. If you can spare just a few pounds to make that training (followed by mince pie eating) worthwhile, then please head to our Virgin fundraising page. Then all I ask is that you return to this page to post (as a comment) the song you think will motivate me, make me smile and remind me of you. I want to create a playlist of requests that remind me of the people who believe we can get there. I know that will give me the motivation I need to step out over the coming dark months even when the lure of Christmas lights and cooked ham is more appealing.

Together, we can help Kris and Maren make secondary cancer a thing of the past – and show Tamoxifen who’s really the boss of this body!

Thank you.

Together, we can help Kris and Maren make secondary cancer a thing of the past – and show Tamoxifen who’s really the boss of this body!

Thank you.

Breast cancer lesson 165: Why loving the stars has made me less fearful of the night

On 16 January, before the cloud of cancer cast its shadow on my life, I didn’t know a single person who was dying. Now, I could give you a list.

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Over the last ten months, while being chemically transformed into a cancer-repelling machine, I have lost new friends, new inspirations, acquaintances and amazing people with which I have shared a bit of Facebook banter. I got my life back, but, in so doing, I have seen just how easily it can be taken away.

For someone with a primary diagnosis, I haven’t really spent much time thinking about the prospect of this disease bringing my own life to an abrupt end (although I did have an amusing – if morbid – hypothetical chat with Duncan about the rigorous screening process I would implement if the end was in sight and finding another lady was on the agenda).

But, what I didn’t consider after being diagnosed was just how much time I would now spend thinking about other people who have lost their lives. Every time I hear that cancer has systematically destroyed another family’s world, I think about just how cruel and unforgiving this disease really is and just how many people are affected by it. At the moment it feels like my heart is being stamped on about once a fortnight, which is stark reminder of how fragile our lives really are.

Breast cancer is a killer. And, for young women, a pretty ruthless one at that. According to Cancer Research UK, 32% of all cancer deaths in women between 25-49 are due to breast cancer. I have heard people on more than one occasion say that breast cancer is: ‘the best cancer to get’. Truth is, the only good thing about cancer, is not getting it in the first place. Get it young and the chances of it being aggressive are high.

This post blog, however, is not meant to be sad. While I wish with all my heart the scientists could find a cure for cancer, some astonishing people have filled my thoughts, my house and my inbox this year. It’s awful that it was cancer that brought us together, but I couldn’t now imagine my life without the imprint they’ve made on it. There are some truly amazing people in this world. You may not always see them as you rush from day to day, trying to complete that to-do list. But they’re there and, I guarantee they’re fighting hard every day.

These women have taught me that if I’m not having fun, I’m doing something wrong. They have inspired me to greet each day with a smile. They have inspired me to race through my brighter life list (last week’s sausage roll making fest being my last achievement). They have inspired me to say what I mean to the people I love and admire, while they are still around to hear it. They have inspired me to be a better person in all that I say and do. And, for that, I will be forever grateful.

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So tonight, as you tuck into some wine or mug of cocoa, I want you to raise a glass to all those beautiful people who have touched your life and made you who you are even though they may no longer be a part of it. Life is so short and so precious too.

We owe it to all those whose lives have been taken, to make the very best of every day.

NB: If you are reading this and have not checked your boobs in the last month, they please ‘Cop a feel’. If not for me, then for this stunning woman Kris (Boob chief at CoppaFeel), who I feel humbled and privileged to have met

Breast cancer lesson 163: The rollercoaster of life continues even when you’re back on solid ground

Yesterday, I went on a ‘getting closure’ mission. Those of you who have followed my journey from the beginning may remember a certain moment of criminal activity that I will never allow myself to forget. Just after being diagnosed, I walked out of a coffee shop without paying. Yes, it was only a cup of tea (and when my friend called them to apologise they said the loss was only about 15p). But, for me, it was a sign the cancer diagnosis was starting to take hold.

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So yesterday, I went back to said coffee shop (hoping not to find my mug shot plastered in the window) to repay my debt and have lunch. The only hitch? The coffee shop looked like it was no longer in business. All I wanted was closure, but life decided I couldn’t have it (if you know what has happened to the Dandelion Cafe in Camden, please shout).

After joking about my behaviour sending the business under, I started to reflect on just how difficult this healing period really is. I feel strong. I feel happy. I feel motivated, and on the surface (if we ignore the odd hair-do), I look better than I have done in years. I am positive about the future and not currently fearful of what that future may contain. But, even with all the smiles and the genuine happiness, I am still acutely aware of the fact my cancer diagnosis is still bubbling beneath the surface. And, even when I take positive steps to try and put this chapter behind me, life find a way of mixing things up and reminding me that I am not in total control of what comes next.

A lot of people tackling ‘the end’ have found the writings of Dr Peter Harvey, a clinical psychologist, incredibly useful and I can see why. What I particularly like is the rollercoaster analogy he uses to describe the whole experience.

Rather than paraphrase, here is a passage from his paper:

Imagine a rollercoaster. Some of you will find this an exciting and thrilling image: others of you will find it terrifying and beyond belief that anyone in their right mind would willingly subject themselves to the torment of being transported at high speed and with great discomfort in this manner. Some people find this a helpful image to represent the process of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

On a rollercoaster, you are strapped in and sent of into the terror, knowing that there is nothing you can do about it until you emerge, wobbly and battered at the other end. You manage by getting you head down and dealing with it as best you can at the time. It is only afterwards, when you are back on solid ground again, that you can look back with amazement and view what you have experienced and marvel at your courage.

This seems to be an analogy for what happens after diagnosis of, and during treatment for, cancer. The end of the ride is equivalent to the end of treatment. And this is where we start after the treatment has finished and at the point where you can begin, bit-by-bit, to deal with all that you have been through and all that is to come.

You may have had to endure months of treatment by knife, chemicals or radiation until you are probably sick of the whole business, both literally and metaphorically. Now is the time to heal, both body and mind.
A lot of what he says rings true. For me, the most striking bit of the analogy is the idea that when you are going through treatment everything is almost a blur as you rush from one waiting room to another, obediently taking your top off or holding your arm out for treatment. It is only when you hit solid ground again that you can start to reflect on the ride – thrilling, frightening or otherwise. I can safely say, I think it’s a rollercoaster we’d never like to see – let alone ride – again!

Positive though I am, I feel there are two things right now that have changed for me. The first is my view of time. I have always been a tad bit impatient. Now, however, I feel that every moment I have is a gift and, therefore, have been trying to seize each and every one. Trouble is, now that I am back working full time as well as volunteering, cooking, baking, exercising and trying to relax, there really aren’t enough hours in the day. I listen to conversations wishing I could get up and move on. You could say it’s a great filter. The truth? It’s actually a bit exhausting and it’s just unsustainable. Hopefully I will find a happy medium soon.

The other change is a style one. Over the last six months, I have been reaching for zip-up tops and jeans, not dresses and skirts. I was excited about stepping back into my work wear, but, it seems my body shape isn’t the same anymore. The clothes fit, but they don’t quite look right, I have changed, my body has been reborn, and my clothes are a mark of my ‘past’ life.

This version of normal is so shiny and new, it going to take me a while to adjust. At least it is closer to normal though. And, every day, I am taking one step further away from cancer and one step closer to me. Today, I towel-dried my hair, upgraded to an adult toothbrush once more and used a razor (my legs got a shock). That’s what I call progress!

At least I know one thing that won’t be making am appearance any time soon – a rollercoaster!

Breast cancer lesson 161: Ten things that will make you shout: ‘cancer made her do it’

I have a confession. About two months ago, I went to a studio in North London, met a photographer, and took my top off for Cosmopolitan magazine. It was for the amazing charity CoppaFeel – a feature designed to encourage people to extend their boob vocabulary to something more than ‘big’ and ‘small’ and say #whatnormalfeelslike. There were 30 other pairs of boobs involved (so I was in good company) and it was anonymous. So why, you might ask, have I chosen today to tell you all about it? Well, one because it’s a great campaign that is close to my heart (if you know what normal is for you, you are more likely to pick up any changes to your breasts). Two, it hit the shelves yesterday. And, three, it is completely out of character and has already been the source of much amusement among those I have told.

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Just knowing that pre-cancer Jackie was so not the kind of woman to ever taking part in a topless shoot makes me smile. This is coming from a person who thinks being in her pyjamas at 7pm on a Friday night is daring and wearing a tankini is out there! I have been known for my love of reading, my workaholic tendencies and my extreme love of Christmas time. But, I can safely say, I didn’t think I’d ever make a statement with anything north of my waistline (or south for that matter). Up until January, I was just another tired-looking commuter racing to work. Now, I am still a commuter, but one with a rather amusing secret (which I admit is no longer a secret to all regular readers here).

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I did it not because I have been transformed into an exhibitionist, but because I really want to make a difference to the lives of men and women everywhere. The campaign is bold and will probably divide opinion. But, if a spread full of boobs isn’t going to get people peering down through their shirts (their own shirts mind), then nothing will. It is also tied to a wider campaign, which includes Rankin-shot pictures on billboards across the country (although not on main road positions for obvious reasons). If it even saves one life, it will have been a worthwhile venture.

As experiences go, it was pretty liberating. Before this year, I had never had a make-up artist work on my face, let alone add foundation and glitter to my breasts. I liked the idea of the anonymity, so imagine my amusement when I turned up to discover I knew the photographer (professional hazard). Thankfully, a friendly catch-up was the perfect way to distract myself from the reality of the situation (and at least I had a bathrobe on for most of it).

Smiling at the magazine feature yesterday, I started to think about the things I have achieved this year that I would have never even considered just a year ago. I am a changed woman (I am even finding it hard to wear my old work clothes at the moment) and, you know what, I am absolutely delighted.

Here are a few highlights. I, Jackie Scully, have:

1) Got my top off for a national magazine – and the play the boob equivalent of Where’s Wally with colleagues! If you are wondering, yes, you can guess. Just don’t expect me to publically confirm (it is obvious to me, but then I do look at them every day).

2) Openly discussed the words ‘boobs’ and ‘breasts’ in a client meeting: it is amazing what can seem commonplace after spending your life talking boobs at the hospital. Good news is, no one is talking to my chest. Amusingly, one friend did say: ‘wow, but you look like you still have breasts’. That would be the reconstruction then!

3) Travelled across London bald (and wore a wig): first time was a little nerve-wracking, but now I don’t even think about it. Trouble is, when your hair is growing back the ‘is it cancer, is it alopecia’ debate is over. The better I feel, the more pitying stares I get! I should also add the fact I stood on a cliff with no hair. That was cold and liberating, however, and not quite as brave as baring all to commuters.

4) Worn magic pants: I was nicknamed Bridget Jones at university by a few friends, but that had nothing to do with the quality (or size) of my knickers. Now, however, I have worn pants that come up to my waist and hold everything in (including my super-glued stomach). I must say, I won’t be channelling my inner Bridget again any time soon, but I know she would have approved of my post-surgery image.

5) Appeared in an exercise video: ok, so it wasn’t the most active of videos (designed to help people reduce the risk of lymphodema), but there were cameras and I was in exercise gear. It was produced for The Haven and it should be available soon. Watch this space.

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6) Run a 10k: Dodgy hips and toxic drugs do not a runner make. But, I am delighted to have crossed the finish line of not just one, but two, 10k races. I am now back in training for the next one (which may just be a bit longer)!

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7) Have a photo shoot – and appear in a magazine as me (plus The Guardian homepage): because of my career, publishing will always be part of my life. I just never thought I’d end up in front of the camera. I also never thought I’d ever by anything more than a byline in a feature. I feel very privileged that I have been able to share the positive side of treatment with so many readers.

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8) Make a boob cake: as the creator of digger cakes and Thomas the Tank Engine cakes, you might think a boob cake would be a natural next step for me. I am not sure the WI group I made it for will ever get over the bright pink icing and the boobie references though!

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9) Play the cancer card: admittedly it has only really worked on a courier and a restaurant (desperate as I was for their bread and butter pudding recipe). When it works, it really does work. But, my word of caution to others contemplating calling it in is, it isn’t always as powerful as you might think. Handle with care I say.

10) Become an official blogger and even received a tweet from a celebrity: while these things are unrelated (the tweet was for baking rather than blogging), I believe I have now truly embraced the digital age. I never thought I would have the confidence to write about my story (but I have, both here and for Breast Cancer Care). In fact, my blog has been read in 108 different countries. And, I never thought I’d have the confidence to bake a cake for a radio programme (but I did).

So what have I learned by undertaking all this abnormal activity? I have learned how to have fun, not take myself too seriously, be playful and be bold. When life is short, there are some things you just have to get on and try. I have also learned that life’s comfort zone is a bit too comfortable and, by being open and giving time for others, you can make the best of almost any experience.

Most importantly, however, I have learned that there are many ways to make a difference in this world. And making a difference is all I really want to do.

Watch this space and may you find your own novel ways to leave your mark!

Breast cancer lesson 157: It takes time to heal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll give me time too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for everything. You know who you are!

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