Breast cancer lesson 88: Happiness is knowing the halfway point is in sight

Ok, so I may be pushing it slightly by suggesting tomorrow marks the halfway point in my chemo treatment. But, even though I have another 12 weeks (out of 18) to go (making it just a third in terms of timings) tomorrow is the third poisoning out of six. That makes it pretty special.

Being the third chemo, it also means an end to FEC and, in particular Epirubicin. No longer will I have to watch the blood red liquid being syringed slowly into my veins. No longer with I have pink pee to remind me of the poison every time I go to the loo. After tomorrow’s session, I will say goodbye to the three-drug cocktail and hello to a new challenge (Docetaxel) for round 4. While it does require me getting used to a whole new set of side effects, I like the idea of a change.

How am I feeling about going back on the steroids, the anti-sickness medication and the chemo drugs? If I’m honest, a few days ago, I was a little worried.

Cycle one had a go at my hair and showed me just how nasty mouth ulcers can be. Apart from that, however, it left me alone and reassured me that I have the strength and the positivity to get through this. I went into cycle two with a smile on my face, confident the drugs were on my side. Little did I know as I sat in the chemo chair, just how much it would test me.

Don’t get me wrong. I am one of the lucky ones. But, with its tongue and mouth ulcers, vomit, nausea, headaches, tiredness, coughing, runny nose, hot flushes and sleepless nights, chemo is no walk in the park. I am going into tomorrow with an ulcerated tongue, the end of a cough and on the back of few too many nights of broken sleep. Physically, I have been challenged and, while my body is fighting back, it is not quite as fit as I’d like it to be.

Ask me how I am feeling now, however, and I would say, I am ready (if we ignore the false start I had this morning where I misplaced my travelcard and threw my iPod in the recycling bin by mistake on the way to today’s appointments). I know, whatever goodies it has up its sleeve (or in its syringe), I can and will get through them all. I am stronger than the drugs – and I know that while they have destruction on their minds currently, they will end up making me even more so.

Plus, I have a few new tricks. The evening poisoning for cycle two caught me off guard. I met my mum at the hospital. I hurried my lunch following a rather soggy encounter with a washing machine that decided not to spin my clothes, but instead wash my floor. I wasn’t on my game and I wasn’t focused on the right opposition (my floor needed a wash anyway). Now I am.

My mum is here the night before to help me avoid any unnecessary hurrying. I have grapes in the freezer (apparently sucking on them while having chemo can help the mouth). I am ready to drink my body weight in water. I will be making my first batch of chemo cookies tonight to ward off sickness and nausea. And, I will be requesting more anti-sickness medication at tomorrow’s session with the nurse. For every side effect I know of, I have a solution. And, for every one I don’t, I have my supportive and kind mum. Quite frankly, if I were the chemo drugs, I’d be scared!

Let’s just hope I pass the blood test first thing. Wish me luck!

Breast cancer lesson number 87: The answers to those burning questions are closer than you think

How often have you walked out of a consulting room partly reassured by all the questions answered and also partly plagued by the one or two things you just forgot to ask? By this, I don’t mean (if you’re anything like me) the questions you’ve diligently noted down in order to quiz any unsuspecting consultant? No, by this I mean the bigger picture questions that keep you awake at night or creep up on you when you least expect. In cancer land, that is a question like: ‘How long do you think the cancer was in my body before I found the lump?’ Questions that have no real bearing on the treatment plan in front of you, but questions that are no less important or interesting.

Since diagnosis day, I have been making a note of ‘random questions I wish I’d asked’ for a blog post at the end of active treatment. Currently on the list (in addition to the above) is ‘what do you actually do with the cancer you extract?’ Is there a cancer bin? Is it incinerated? Or, can they store it and retest it should there be developments in science? I know it sounds strange and I would guess the answer is incineration otherwise they’d have to take out extra storage space. But, it’s just one of those questions that for someone only recently inducted in to the world of cancer and unacquainted with the inner workings of hospitals actually finds rather interesting.

There is one question, however, that I have wanted to know the answer to ever since I came round from general anaesthetic number two after my egg harvesting.

And, on Saturday at Younger Women Together I got my answer. Younger Women Together is a fabulous and free two-day event held by Breast Cancer Care for women aged between 20 and 45 who have been diagnosed with primary breast cancer. Not only is it a great opportunity to meet and share experiences with other women in a similar position (none of which I have managed to spot in my own hospital), but it is also – with its expert speakers and workshops – the perfect environment within which to ask a few of those burning questions. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough to young women who are grappling with a diagnosis, undergoing treatment or trying to find their ‘new normal’ in the years that follow. I left inspired, moved and supported. And with my answer!

Starting with ‘the question’ here are a few things I am glad (and thankful) I now know (apologies in advance if I get any of the detail wrong, just passing on what I scribbled down):

Fertility question: If I am rendered infertile as a result of treatment, am I still able to carry the embryos frozen as part of my fertility preservation before chemo?
Answer: Yes! It may involve a few drugs, but just because your body has stopped producing eggs, it doesn’t mean you can’t carry one you’ve already harvested. Great news.

Fertility question: Can you test your fertility status before going onto Tamoxifen?
Answer: With difficulty if you are recovering from chemo and on Zoladex. It is possible to test for fertility using blood samples (for your hormonal profile) or scanning, but drugs can interfere with the results until your body is back to normal. Testing on Tamoxifen is also not advised due to the fact it stimulates oestrogen receptors in the uterus, while reducing oestrogen levels elsewhere and can cause temporary loss of or irregular periods, so may also give misleading results.

Fertility question: Can you predict the chances of someone losing their fertility during chemo?
Answer: The chances depend very much of the drugs used in the chemo regime. Alkylating agents (such as the C in FEC) are considered more problematic. Having said that, the C when used in the CMF regime seems to cause more problems than when it is used in the FEC regime. The Tax regime is less concerning. Statistics suggest women under 30 have a 5% risk of losing their fertility compared with a 50% for those between 36 and 40. I am somewhere in the middle! Age, drugs, dosage and a woman’s ovarian reserve (before treatment) help doctors predict an individual’s chances.

Fertility question: If you get pregnant after a cancer diagnosis, should you expect to be treated differently?
Answer: The short answer is yes. Chemotherapy can cause possible cardiac issues, which may not present themselves until pregnancy when the heart is working harder. This means echocardiography and closer monitoring is probably advised. There is a small increased risk of complications at delivery and a 30% increase in the C-section rate (although it is not known whether women are choosing this option as a way of taking more control). Where breasts have been reconstructed, pregnant women may wish to wear a prosthesis if the unaffected breast grows and leaves the woman feeling lopsided!

And a few ‘Did you knows?’:

1)    According to the latest statistics, 537 women between the age of 30 and 34 get breast cancer in the UK every year. That is compared with 2,899 women between the ages of 40 and 44.

2)    Even with a mastectomy, there is usually some breast tissue left behind in the affected breast.

3)    A new report just out has suggested that Phytoestrogens (basically oestrogen-like chemicals found in plant foods such as seeds, beans and grains) can reduce the risk of cancer.

4)    Omega 3 can help with joint inflammation and chemo brain (or memory issues)!

5)    Valerian can help with sleep problems while on chemo.

6)    Figs contain calcium

7)    And, wise words from speaker and fellow cancer survivor Kelly Short: ‘Don’t think about yesterday, you were a different person then.’

8)    www.insurancewith.com is a useful insurance provider for those looking to travel with a cancer diagnosis.

There was also plenty of exercise-related material I will save for another day. As you can probably tell these two days have enhanced my life – and my understanding of the illness I now face. If you’re a young women with a breast cancer diagnosis, I would urge you to book on today for a strong dose of inspiration, motivation and practical advice. Click here to find out more.

And, if you have a burning question that you really want answering, why not post it here (as long as it is not ‘what is the meaning of life?’). Someone out there might know the answer, or, if it’s cancer related, I might just be able to add it to my list once I have summoned up the courage to find out which bin my cancer landed in!

NB: There is a whole other side to the event that I feel it would be wrong to touch on in a blog and that’s the amazing and wonderful women who sat alongside me over those two days. How amazing it was to sit among women who didn’t know the me with hair, who understood what it was like to spend a night awake with nothing but a hot flush for company, knew how to navigate the terminology and side effects that come with the words breast cancer and understood the importance of a smile. Less a support group and more a practical and lively forum for sharing experiences. I feel privileged to have met these amazing women.

Breast cancer lesson number 82: Why it’s time to get out of the right side of bed… if you can find it!

There is such a thing as the wrong side of the bed. For me, it’s the right side and I’ve been on it for 68 nights. Cancer kicked me over there when it decided to attack my right breast and lymph nodes. The PICC line on my left tried to get me reinstated, but cancer won through. Last night, however, I moved back.

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Apart from the fact I can’t really sleep on it, new boobie no longer needs the level of protection granted to it by being close to the edge of the bed. That means, the clip attached to my PICC line (that if unclipped by mistake could cause blood to flow freely out of mind arm) is now out of harm’s reach and I am back to where I belong – near the door, near the wardrobe and close to all my notebooks and belongings. I was never really far away, but by just moving a metre to the left, I feel at home once more. It’s another small milestone that has brought a big smile to my face.

Interestingly, the question as to whether or not the left side is, in fact, the official ‘right’ side of the bed on which to sleep, has led to a surprising number of column inches over the years. I believe the idiom ‘to get out on the wrong side of the bed’ dates back to Roman times, when it was considered bad luck to get out from the left (maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong!).

That said, in recent years, a bit of probably-not-very-robust-but-I-like-it research from hotel chain Premier Inn, has tried to give the left side a stay of execution. The group’s study (dating back to 2012) found that two-thirds of people who sleep on the left side of the bed believe themselves to be calmer and more confident than their sleeping partner. Of its findings, Premier Inn went on to say: “The research clearly indicates a pattern between which side of the bed you sleep on and the mood you wake up in. Left sleepers are more cheerful, appear to enjoy life slightly more and have a more positive attitude to the day ahead than right sleepers.”

This is further supported by an entertaining earlier study combining psychology and Feng Shui. Because the left side of the brain uses logic and rational thought (and the right, emotion and imagination), Feng Shui associates the left side of the bed with family, health, money and power. The idea is that by getting out on the left from a lying down position you focus your energies towards logic and away from stress. Does this mean that as a ‘leftie’ I am more likely to remember to read the gas meter, but I might not get the colour scheme for the hallway right? Not sure I like that logic!

The only trouble is – and something I find highly amusing – there seems to be no real agreement as to which side of the bed is left and which side right. The Premier Inn research states that the survey is based on someone standing at the foot of the bed. Why would they be standing at the foot of the bed I ask? And in what direction are they looking? As far as I am concerned, if my right side is closest to the edge, it’s the right side of the bed. And, if no one can decide, it just means the ‘right’ side is the one you choose to sleep on!

While I like to think that my preference adds a positive start to my day, the key thing is, it’s my preference (and probably that of millions of others in the world). And, thankfully, it’s not Duncan’s. After all, if there were a universal ‘right’ side that affected our psychological well-being, no one would want to share a bed.

Regardless of which bit of your brain falls out of bed first, it seems that choosing (and sleeping on) ‘your right side’ (and not that of the research scientists) does help you get a good night’s sleep. It’s probably all in the mind (and not the Feng Shui), but given sleep is supposed to support everything from weight management and mood to memory and your body’s ability to heal, it’s not something I’ll be moving away from again in a hurry! Take note cancer.

Sleep tight tonight and I hope you aren’t one of the 10%* of couples (*again according to Premier Inn, so please apply a pinch of salt) that likes to argue about the taking of sides. If so, I may have just fuelled the fight!

NB: I’d like to say you need to know your left from your right to be able to unpick this blog post. But now, I’m not even sure that matters!

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.

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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 57: How to keep your hair when all about you are losing theirs

Cancer opens doors to rooms within hospitals that you would never know existed. Tucked away in the Orthopaedic Centre, with a corridor for a waiting room, the Orthotist’s office is one such place.

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Such was the secretive way in which this appointment was booked in the first place – the man who left a message on my phone requested I come to ‘patient appliances’ for a chat – I wasn’t even sure it existed myself. Why should an NHS wig referral appointment be surrounded by such mystery? And should a wig really be categorised as an ‘appliance’? Most appliances I know come with a plug, not shampooing instructions.

Sat next to a man with a walking stick, I started to imagine what might happen behind the appointment room door. And, I am rather amused to report that I will actually never know. This is not because I missed the appointment, but because my session happened with a wig fitter in the end, not the elusive ‘Orthotist’, in what I can only describe as ‘the wig cupboard’ next door.

The wig cupboard was like a hairy version on Narnia. Packed away in this little room were piles and piles of acrylic beauties waiting for their turn on my head. Having parked myself in the hairdresser-like chair, it hit me that I hadn’t really considered what style I might like to replace the little pixie to which I am now rather attached. Of course, Duncan requested a long, brunette style. (Not sure now is the time to request an upgrade that is not even close to my original colour or length, but you’ve got to admire him for trying!).

I needn’t have worried. A quick flick through the catalogue (NHS wigs may be free, but they are actually provided by a private company, so are great quality), was drawn to a pixie-equivalent cut in a spring honey colour. Her name is Suzie and I think I like her! She only needs washing once a month (with Johnson’s baby shampoo) and, apart from the fact she is very hot when combined with my full head of hair and a wig cap, I think we might just get along nicely.

I love the fact all wigs come with a personality. My head was turned by Faith, and I thought Sylvia would be worth a go, but Hayley, Kirsty and Linda didn’t get a look in. Maybe Suzie should become my new alter ego, not just my bald-headed disguise?

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Just for Duncan, I did try Brunette Scully for size (I am a bit shallow though as I dumped her without even asking her name). I am not sure the dark-haired look is for me, but am happy to experiment over the coming months. If you have any suggestions (pink, blue or otherwise) please do post here. I am only planning on going through this hair loss chemo thing once, so I may as well make the most of it.

So here is Suzie. Blink and you might not think she is anything other than a slightly longer version of my current cut. I need to play with the styling, but she’s pretty convincing for a bit of acrylic.

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I’m not worried about losing my hair (although I think I would be slightly alarmed if it starting coming off in the middle of town). I’m planning on embracing my baldness and making every day a mini-makeover day, with scarves and hats to match. But, for that one day when I might just want to look in the mirror and escape the thought of the chemotherapy drugs running through my body, there’s Suzie. And just knowing I have an alter ego to rely on makes me smile.

The big question is, will Duncan know the difference when he returns home from work this evening?

Breast cancer lesson number 55: Celebrate your independence day!

Naughty right boob wasn’t the first thing on cancer’s hit list after diagnosis day. Cancer started with my keys. Three sets to be precise (on one giant keyring).

The first, my work keys, were handed over when I realised I probably wouldn’t be opening up across town at 8am any time soon. The second, my car keys, were wrestled off me when it became clear tummy tucks and emergency stops were not particularly compatible. And the third, my house keys, were surrendered when, on 21 February, I travelled to hospital knowing I wouldn’t be coming home that night.

I have always felt comforted by a heavy set of keys (even though Duncan thinks they make me sound like a prison warden). With keys, comes independence. And, with independence, comes happiness. Of course, it didn’t take long to regain control of my own front door. But, my keys have been pretty light of late as cancer has tried its best to ground me.

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Yesterday, at my six-week post-surgery check-up, I took one giant leap away from cancer and towards independence. Impressed with the way in which my body had risen to the healing challenge, the surgeon declared that – providing I could do an emergency stop – I was fit to drive. I also got permission to have a bath, have a massage (to help the scarring) and explore non-wired (but not post-surgical) bras. As appointments go, this was pretty exciting.

Expecting to see one of his team, rather than the surgeon himself, I was delighted to find him in the consulting room waiting for me. After quizzing me on just how ‘tight’ the tuck was (the answer being ‘very’), he smiled and explained that, had he not worked for a while in Taiwan and seen lots of really slim women recover well from the surgery, he probably wouldn’t have attempted it. All I can say is, thank you Taiwan!

I had to laugh when he congratulated me on my healing abilities (he said he just had to do the mechanical bit). I am not sure I will ever believe him that watching box sets, reading books, writing blogs, taking walks and doing stretches is as amazing as microsurgery, but when you’re topless on yet another hospital couch covered in angry-looking scars, any compliment is nice to hear.

It was a great feeling being able to thank my surgeon for helping save me that day back in February. It was also a great feeling knowing that with every appointment and every day that passes, cancer is continuing to lose its grip. It took my house keys. I took them back. It took my car keys. As soon as I get home to my car at Easter, they’ll be coming back too. And, one day this year, I will be back in the office opening up at 8am… or maybe 8.30am :-).

Breast cancer lesson number 48: Short-term pain, long-term gain

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Meet PICC. He’s my new best friend for the next four months (sorry body corset, but you’re history as tummy is pretty much sorted). Otherwise known as a peripherally inserted central catheter, he’s my ticket to the pain-free (and finding-a-vein free) administration of chemo drugs and collection of bloods. He’s not much to look at, but he’s better than a needle (or eight) and that’s all that matters.

There’s nothing like getting 42cm of flexible tubing inserted into your arm to make you feel like a real patient. One more consent form and another plastic wristband down and I was lying on a bed staring at an ultrasound machine, a syringe full of local anaesthetic and a lot of wipes and tubes. The good news? I didn’t have to wear a gown!

It started well. The nurse found a vein with the ultrasound while I was quizzing the nearby student nurse about all the operations she’d observed. (She was quite forthcoming about the details, including the time she watched a surgeon connect blood vessels from a tummy to a chest as part of DIEP surgery. It was fascinating and certainly a strange distraction from the procedure). The local anaesthetic went in well and then the tubing started to enter my arm. I heard the word ‘kink’, then a pause, then a ‘could you bleep the other nurse?’ and a ‘I’m sorry it’s got to come out’. She had done so well and got so far, but when the pressure turned to pain (it’s not supposed to hurt) we both knew it was time to abort. Another vein thrown on the vein scrapheap!

Round two was a complete success. Vein located, anaesthetic in, and 45cm of tubing later and I was off for a chest x-ray. I say 45cm, because the x-ray (an interesting experience in its own right and another x-ray first ticked off the list) highlighted that the tubing was in about 3cm too far. So, I was back to the Cancer Day Unit to get it pulled out a little bit. The tip of the PICC line sits in the big vein just outside the heart, while at the other end, there is about 4cm sticking out of my arm. Don’t worry, for those of you concerned about whether it will come out, the line is held in place by something called a ‘statlock’ and a transparent breathable dressing. Golf and tennis are now on the ‘temporarily banned’ list (along with swimming due to chemo), but I should be able to use it as normal once the initial tenderness has subsided. For those of you who’ve been unlucky enough to see my golf swing, you’ll know this is no great loss. The Olympic Park swimming trip on my Brighter Life list, will just have to wait.

Tucked away neatly under a piece of tubing, it wasn’t until I reached for my cardigan that I stumbled across challenge number one. At the moment, bad arm is right arm, so bad arm goes in to the sleeve first. But what happens when you have two sensitive arms? Let’s just say, it was a pretty good comedy sketch and, after a quick wrestle, I managed the cardie. The coat is a challenge for another day!

One other thing I didn’t consider in this battle against bad veins was that, like all good cannula-like devices, it needs looking after. That means weekly dressing changes and line flushing. More nurses, but thankfully no more needles! That’s a price worth paying. 

Today I have learned a good few things. One, the Cancer Day Unit is lovely (more on that tomorrow). Two, my right arm is now straight enough to pass arm testing for the clinical trial. (It took six attempts and the nurse and I were laughing by the end, but we got there.) Three, PICC line insertion is an interesting procedure (as is a chest x-ray) and really isn’t that uncomfortable if you’re considering getting one. Four, details of the acute oncology assessment unit must now travel with me everywhere. And, five, my blog URL is (amusingly) blocked by the hospital WIFI (probably deemed as dubious, but given the amount of boobs currently on show in most hospitals, I find it so funny. Mine just includes the word). The hospital does do a good egg sandwich though, so I’ll let them off.

I’ve seen the unit. I’ve seen the chemo chair (looks quite comfy). I’ve seen the suite and I’ve got the line. There’s only one thing missing. Those cell-destroying drugs. Just two sleeps left.

First, I have to work out how to have a shower without getting the PICC wet and then I need to look at just how many more clothes are now off limits due to my new arm accessory. Just when I thought I was getting my wardrobe back.

Breast cancer lesson number 47: The importance of being normal

For those of you currently splitting your days between the waiting room and the living room, I am delighted to report that there is life beyond these walls. I have seen it. I know it’s hard to imagine. But, it’s still there, being interesting, just like you left it.

The truth is, daily walks, daily planned-in box set viewing and almost-daily hospital visits – although vital for post-surgery recovery ­–­ do not a life make. In recent weeks, I have felt more like an observer on my own life, rather than a participant in it. If health allows, however, and you are brave enough to open the door to the other side of you (the pre-cancer normal), I would encourage you to do so – right now.

By normal, I don’t mean dull. By normal, I mean the bits of life you enjoyed before cancer swept in and took them away. Yes, be selective (you may wish to live without the ritual of Friday night pizza). Yes, make adjustments (I am seeing more friends and having more laughs than ever before). But make normal your base and, you’ll find it’s the hospital appointments that start getting in the way – not the other way round.

Since the day I was diagnosed I have made a conscious effort to not be a cancer patient (she says writing a blog on the subject!). I don’t want to hide away with only my thoughts for company. I don’t want to be defined by the clinic and chemo dates in the diary, because I know that when the dates stop coming, life can go from being very busy to very lonely overnight. I want to use the time cancer has inadvertently gifted me to cherry pick the bits of life I love and shut the door on everything else. There’s a lot of truth in the phrase, ‘you are what you do’. Give yourself over to cancer and you’ll forget the life you’re fighting for.

The great thing about rediscovering your ‘normal’ is that something you’ve taken for granted for years suddenly becomes more exciting and beautiful. Take Thursday night. I had a theatre date in the diary and I was determined to keep it. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that my taste in theatre is acquired. While I do love my musicals, a bit of Shakespeare and the odd sedate play, I also like to explore the world of immersive and promenade theatre. Those of you who know me well will know I’ve been kidnapped by vampires in Barbican car park, sent on a mission underneath Waterloo station and electrocuted (mildly) in the name of art. If it’s rather strange and often devoid of a coherent plotline, I’m there.

While I was making my way to Shoreditch Town Hall basement to watch Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, I was trying to remember why it was I’d booked it in the first place. As I approached the theatre it hit me – or should I say the wording on the poster did. It was immersive. That meant involvement. Instead of my usual nervous excitement, I suddenly felt completely vulnerable. I didn’t look even remotely ill, so how would I be able to keep my arm, boob and tummy protected when surrounded by focused actors and curious theatre-goers. I didn’t feel ready.

The great news is, that rather running for the exit – or back stage to find someone who could furnish me with a big ‘don’t touch me’ sticker – I grabbed a glass of wine and had a wonderful evening with a friend. While I would have loved to have found a seat in each of the rooms and, while I slept well that night, I found being at an event where only one other person knew what was going on beneath my clothes really exhilarating. Cancer wasn’t centre stage and, you know what, I loved it.

Of course, there is a small note of caution. It is worth remembering, you’re still not normal, even though you’re playing the part. I was reminded of this on Friday night when having a takeaway with friends at home. I ate my usual healthy (or not so) Jackie-sized portions (at my usual fast Jackie pace) and enjoyed some of our engagement Champagne and wine. It was only later that I realised the body corset/curry combo was not a particularly good one. I didn’t enough have space for water and was still reliving the experience 24 hours later. A few less mouthfuls and a lot less speed, and I would have been fine.

People talk about discovering their ‘new normal’ after finishing active treatment. I have around six months to go and think it is important I use this time to go back to my version of normal so that I can work out what I want my ‘new normal’ to be. I know it will include a hair cut every eight weeks (once there is something to style. I am already craving the smell of product knowing I won’t be there as a client for a while). I know it will include immersive theatre. But I know it will be different. It has to be. There are already 40 things on my Brighter Life list for starters and I am determined to complete each and every one.

I know it will be busy, but I know it will be better. And, there won’t be a single cannula, oxygen mask or blood pressure cuff in sight.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 45: If it helps, pass it on

Throughout my life, whether it be guide camp, bikram yoga, school, work or swimming, I have always been the one to look the part. If it comes with a kit list, I am in my element. And, if it doesn’t, I will feel duty bound to create one. I buy the t-shirt and, eight times out of ten, I do detach the price tag! (One notable exception is a yoga top that I know would be guaranteed to put people off their postures. I like to look the part, not get arrested!)

The same goes for cancer. Our house is packed with every factsheet and leaflet going. Given the seriousness of the illness, I didn’t think my old tracksuit bottoms and loungewear wardrobe were quite up to scratch. So, two weeks after being diagnosed I made a trip into central London to buy some new pairs (along with zip-up tops and button down nightshirts). I bought a White Company toweling robe because it was ‘essential’ and even found matching slippers to go with my hospital dressing gown. For the next stage, I already have the hats on order, ginger tea in the cupboard and udder cream on the bathroom shelf. I have booked my ‘wig referral’ and my PICC cover research is also well underway. That chemo chair is coming, and I want to be ready!

Something wonderful happened to me yesterday while trying to compile the ultimate chemo kit list. First, I posted my chemo queries on a secret Facebook group (it’s called the Younger Breast Cancer Network (UK) and it’s open to any young women with a breast cancer diagnosis). Within minutes, there were so many great recommendations posted (from ice pops to boiled sweets). Then two women sent me private messages offering to pass on both unused and rarely worn items (that probably seemed like essential purchases at the time). When I received these messages I was so touched by their thoughtfulness. I was also reminded of the fact that I am not alone in my desire to stock up and take the ‘Be prepared’ Scouting motto to extremes!

A lot of the time, what we’re buying is specific to the treatment we’re having. In truth, I probably won’t need a sleep cap again and there is such a thing as too many headscarves. I will try and be inventive in redeploying the more fabric-based items, but I was inspired by these women (my latest kind strangers) to think about how I might ‘pass it on’ too. In lesson 37, I talk about the concept of ‘passing it forward’ and starting a chain of kindness. I would like to think when my caps have done their time, they could be warming someone else’s head. I would love to imagine someone getting joy and a self-confidence boost out of one of my summer caps (that have admittedly not made it onto my own head yet). I would also like to think that I could share more than words with others facing up to a breast cancer diagnosis.

In both cases, I have accepted their kind offers. In return, I have asked each one to nominate a breast cancer charity so I can make a donation. I plan to pass on the items that have made me smile (or brought me relief) when cancer has had enough of me and I would encourage anyone reading this to find a way to do the same. While I am not geared up to be the cancer equivalent of freecycle (or a cancer swap shop), I would like to think I could help you find a new and loving home for your cancer cast-offs (there’s a swap shop in the secret group for starters on which I could post items). If you have something to share and no one with which to share it (or are a hospital or charity looking for donations of drain bags or other treatment-related items) please post here or contact me directly (see Get in touch for more details). Together we can share the love – and the expense!

Second-hand comes with a story attached and that thought makes me smile.

Breast cancer lesson number 44: Living with cancer doesn’t just mean being treated for it

It’s official. I am being stalked by cancer. It is not enough for me to be diagnosed with the illness. Everywhere I go, I am bombarded with adverts, campaigns and television plot storylines. I can’t even go on Facebook without seeing the latest no make-up selfie. I keep asking myself has it always been this prevalent? The answer is probably yes. I just wasn’t looking.

Have you ever found that when you learn about something new, you suddenly find yourself seeing it everywhere? For me, it started with a train journey after biopsy day. Suddenly, it seemed every carriage brought with it a message about cancer. After I was diagnosed, I felt like every advert break on TV was talking to me in some way. Is it strange that the first film I watch on returning home from hospital ends up with a bit of cancer at the end? Is it stranger that the book my mum was reading at the time took a turn towards breast cancer halfway through? Even the TV soap Eastenders decided to get in on the action – just as Hayley was saying her goodbyes on Coronation Street.

Interestingly, I am not alone. Apparently I am experiencing what is known as ‘frequency illusion’ or the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. What this means is that while you think you are seeing things more often, it is likely that whatever it is you’re seeing has been there all along. A lot of discussion on this subject surrounds the discovery of things that you’ve never heard of before (a town name or a song title for example).Ok, I appreciate cancer isn’t new to me. But, until 17 January, it was a generic term to describe a serious illness in different parts of the body. I have known loved ones who have been affected by it, but I wasn’t being reminded of it every day. My cancer radar is now in overdrive. Trust me, if there is a cancer story out there, I am probably going to be drawn to it.

With cancer constantly beating a drum in my head, I have been truly touched by the stories of those undergoing treatment and the way in which people have chosen to raise awareness. Only last night was I watching an inspirational BBC3 programme Kris: Dying to live about Coppafeel founder Kris Hallenga. Diagnosed at 23 with stage IV breast cancer, she has had to learn to live each day with cancer as her boss. Now 28, I think she’s doing a pretty amazing job. Then you have Lisa Lynch. Soon to be made famous in a TV programme with Sheridan Smith playing Lisa, the dark humour in her book The C Word really moved me. While she may have lost her battle (after being originally diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer), her story lives on through her words. She will continue to inspire those going through treatment and becoming all-too-familiar with hospital corridors!

The truth is, cancer is everywhere. It affects us all. One in three people will get it in their lifetime. Cancer stories move us because they’re real. They’re being played out in your next door neighbour’s house, in your extended family, at work or, even worse, at home. We are all living with cancer and the more stories that can be told, the more awareness we can raise and the more comfort we can bring to those facing the illness.

As an aside, you may be wondering why I haven’t done a no make-up selfie yet. Initially troubled by the whole concept (my blog is positive not political hence the radio silence), I was delighted to see how much money it raised. I have donated about three times already and am storing up my selfie for when my hair falls out (I don’t really wear make-up, so it would just be a picture of me currently, and nobody needs to see that). That is the true face of cancer and I’m afraid no amount of make-up will ever really conceal its effects (a good wig, yes, but more on that after wig shopping)!

Cancer, I’d like to think one day you will just be another zodiac sign. But until then, I say bring it on (not more disease, just stories)! I would like to be stalked. I want everyone to know just how mean you are. I also want everyone to know that while you do so much harm to this world, destroying lives and ripping families apart, you have inadvertently created millions of strong, beautiful and inspiring people. You should be recognised for your contribution to the arts, the amount of amazing words and films for which you are responsible.

Yes, it would be great to think we could live in a world without cancer plotlines. But, while there is cancer, I want to be moved and touched by each and every one.