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!

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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 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!