confidence and 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 number 46: When you’ve got nothing to lose (except your hair), go for it!

I have a challenge for you. If there’s anything in your life you’ve always wanted to do, then find the time and the space to do it – and soon. Put it off no longer. I’ve just been for the shortest haircut of my life and, I have to say, I feel totally liberated. I’ve always wondered what I’d look like with a pixie haircut, and now I know. And, you know what? I wish I’d done it years ago.

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Ok, so having a pixie cut fours days before chemo may not sound brave or overly outrageous. After all, it was always going to look better than bald. But, having had a rather chequered history with anything shorter than a graduated bob, taking it off before cancer gets its hands on it was still a big decision (people forgive the cancer, but I think they’re less forgiving about elective style changes). This is something I decided to do, not because I wanted to make a statement, but because I want to keep the strands falling into my sleep cap to a minimum.

The last time I had hair anywhere near this short I was eight. Let’s just say it was forgettable. The local newsagents kept referring to me as ‘boy’ and, on a school trip down a mine, the guide asked me – otherwise known as ‘the lad’ – to assist in a demonstration. Sadly, at the beginning of the 1990s taking (and developing) photographs of virtually anything was all the rage, so there is a little too much photographic evidence of my basin look. I thought I’d never go back. I am so glad I did.

As my last hair appointment for more than six months, it was pretty special. Delighted that I have at last let go of the trusty bob, my hairdresser was visibly excited at the prospect of taking even more off. Getting an ‘it really suits you’ from the guy who has been cutting your hair for years – not to mention a quick head massage and a cup of tea – and then watching as his colleague complemented him on his snipping skills, is not something that happens every day (or even once in a decade for me). It felt good.

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Hair, we’ve had a good 32 years. I did once think you were a bit rope-like in consistency, and longed for a plait that didn’t look like it could moor a boat. I’m not sure the obligatory perm in my teens was a good idea. Growing my hair to the point at which I could sit on it was a bit misguided. Thankfully, the basin fringe was just a phase. And, having a four-hour trim with a hairdressing apprentice while at university, only to discover I had just 2mm less hair and roots dyed-in (can’t blame the apprentice, it was free) was a low point. But now, I appreciate you more than ever. I like your strength. I like the fact you’re a little bit of me. And, I hope that whatever grows back will give me as much pleasure – or at worst amusement (it could be grey, it could be baby curls, it could be me all over again).

While I felt a slight sadness knowing that I couldn’t book another appointment, and that the next time I would be here would be to let my hairdresser shave it all off (once the clumps start falling), I also felt a real boost. I’d had the confidence to do something different. If you don’t change a thing, there’s nothing to see.

They say if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room. I am ready to step out of my comfort zone – as long as I can bring a cushion when the edge occasionally becomes the sharp end!

This is one hairstyle that won’t be growing out. This one’s going to fall out. Wish me luck!