diagnosis

Breast cancer lesson number thirteen: Time is a great healer… and morphine helps too

So, Friday was an interesting day. It started in the darkness of the early hours with a short train ride and a relaxing stroll along the Thames. It finished in the darkness of the night with a bucket load of morphine, a dedicated nurse, a giant monitoring chart and a view of the river (along with the London Eye). It started out with the cancer trying to take charge. It finished up with an army of amazing doctors and nurses (ten in theatre alone) all determined to make sure the cancer didn’t stand as chance.

I am happy to report, there is life after surgery. When it comes to life in hospital, however, the day asleep on the slab was the easy part. I won’t sugar coat it. The last few days have been hard (very hard). I woke up in recovery and was in pain (and shivering uncontrollably). We knew the tummy tuck would be tight. It actually felt like my stomach would rip open if I moved. I lay in bed clutching it tightly and crying through the morphine. No one could help me. Not even Mr morphine and his magic cocktails.

As with everything, however, the writhing agony has subsided and I am now left with a rather trendy abdo binder corset holding it all in (not forgetting my friend the big knickers). My right arm is limp and swollen from the lymph node clearance, my four drains are down to two and still draining into sports type bottles (all held up in the most beautiful handmade drain bags in the hospital) and my body looks at bit like it has been savaged! (Tip for those about to go through this, there are very few dressings used in plastics, so you see pretty much everything, including the glue). But, you know what, the boob is alive (complete with a bit of stomach skin), the tummy tuck was worth it, and I am still me (just a more well-thought through version).

Time can do wonders to heal and erase the memories, but if you think hospital is the chance for a decent rest, then think again – even the bed is timed to move around, so when you think you’re comfy, it sets you off guard again.

Three days is a long time in body recovery terms – although you know you’ve already been here too long when they are struggling to find a vein (the good arm is now out of bounds for life). I won’t talk you through the tests, the hourly checks, the pain, the pills the detail of the flap that is now my breast (being referred to as the flap in bed 11 is a bit weird). What I want to talk about is the positive side and, most importantly, progress.

Here are the highlights and the I-cannot-believe-this-is-really-happening lights:

1) NHS mashed potato is still pretty special: not sure I should be ordering it for lunch and dinner, but when something is that good, it is rude not to. Not sure I’ll be going in for seconds of the milk jelly though.
2) The beds are alive: nobody warns you of this and it was the cause for some amusement when I got a bit worried and explained I thought the bed was eating me. I think the guy looking after me in recovery thought I was hallucinating. At least I have been burning a few calories from the mashed potato while sleeping. It’s a special mattress for preventing pressure sores. Just wish I could have a proper ‘still’ mattress now.
3) Some drugs, when flushed through a cannula, feel like they are flooding your hand. Again in recovery too, I screamed out that I thought I was leaking. The nurses looked alarmed until it happened an hour later and they realised what I meant.
4) The recovery room was like the stuff of dreams: this feeling had little to do with the drugs or the general anaesthetic and a lot to do with the fairy tale castle and doodles on the walls. If you’re wondering why, it used to be a children’s ward. I just thought they’d consulted the wrong decorators and were attempting to transport us far from our bodies.
5) Blanket-warming machines are a revelation: they look like glass fridges and they produce the most wonderful warm blankets for theatre. If only they were available on the high street. I would buy shares.
6) I think my flap might be pregnant: flap testing involves running an ultrasound probe over the breast to check for a pulse. It’s often disconcertingly loud and the heartbeat sound it produces makes you feel like there is more than just fat up there.
7) It is possible to eat a roast dinner with one hand: a lymph node clearance makes the arm feel a bit useless (and tingly), so being faced with a lump of meat in gravy for lunch yesterday was a bit challenging. Undefeated, I worked away with one hand and managed to complete the challenge in about 40 minutes. Those who know how much of a fast eater I am will find this amusing.
8) I have a new belly button: apparently it would be too far down south if my old one hadn’t been relocated. This should go some way to explaining just what they took out.
9) Showering in a chair is so relaxing: while my new body will take some getting used to, this new way of cleaning is completely therapeutic and comforting.
10) Expect the unexpected in the consulting room: when my surgeon arrived to talk me through the operation, he did some drawing to explain – on me. To say I was a human doodle by the end of it, is an understatement. Think my parents got a bit more than they bargained for.

The strangest thing about this whole experience is the fact I am under plastics. I didn’t meet my cancer surgeon at all on the day, the surgeons I do meet are focused on new boobie, the ward is all plastics (skin grafts and skin flaps) and no one has mentioned the ‘C’ word. I think people might actually think I am a little bit vain with my boob and tummy tuck. My surgeon joked today that people elect to have tummy tucks. I grimaced and replied: ‘I guess they usually have something to remove in the first place.’ Should have had just a few more cakes, although it is nice to think my boob is part Hotel Chocolat treats and part apple and banana cake!

The one thing I miss the most? Being able to make a cup of tea. Three cups a day just doesn’t touch the sides.

The road to recovery may be a bit bumpy, but it’s the right road and I am happy to be on it at last.

I’ll be out once I am down to just one drain. Watch this space and thanks for the messages of support.

Breast cancer lesson number twelve: The day before surgery does arrive… eventually!

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Five weeks, eleven appointments, five scans, thirteen needles, two biopsies, one arm measurement, one flu jab, seven hormone pills, one ‘dry’ January, two emotional freedom therapy sessions, one NLP masterclass, 11 blog posts, one trip to see Darius (sing in a musical not in a concert) and a lot of chocolate later, and it’s here at last! I am not sure I believe it.

So, what does the day before surgery really feel like? It feels real. As anyone who has seen me over the last two months will know, I look well, I sound well, I eat well – a bit too well. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt quite this well. That’s why trying to convince myself there’s a serious illness lurking inside me, is no easy task. Usually someone anaesthetises you to get rid of the pain – not knocks you out to bring it on!

In my mind, I am going into hospital well to come out unwell. In truth, I am going in with a life-threatening disease and coming out with my life. I should be celebrating. After all, I get a tummy tuck thrown in, a brand new body part and permission to wear big knickers and sleep for a whole day (inducing sleep will be much-needed after all those sleepless nights). I’ve had worse Fridays!  

My inbox is empty for the first time in years, my blackberry is no longer flashing constantly and my to-do list is on hold. If it weren’t for this little thing called surgery, life would be pretty special. 

Ask me what I am worried about and you won’t hear the words pain, needles, tubes, drains or PCA machines (quite looking forward to being reunited with that temporarily). The fact I can visualise everything from the drip to the catheter makes it all feel a little less menacing. What haunts my nights and occupies my days, however, is the fact that when I wake up tomorrow, I will never be the same again. I can’t prepare for how I am going to feel and, for someone who prides herself in being prepared (I would even love to make a spreadsheet for my weekly food shop if I had the time), that’s a bitter pill to swallow. I am sure bionic booby and I will get on – I am rather fond of my seven-inch scar and 44 holes from my hip surgery. But, ask me what I fear and I’ll tell you: it’s the moment I wake up tomorrow and look down.

Up until now, the cancer diagnosis (strange as it may sound) has been life-enhancing. I have taken what positives I can from the situation and it has put my life (and my constant need to always be on the go) into sharp focus. I have seen more friends and family. I have laughed more than I ever thought possible. I have taken time for myself. I have read a book on a Saturday (although really need to finish Bridget now as the book is so big to carry around). I have cut my hair short. I have experienced criminal behaviour. I have restarted old conversations. I have cried tears of joy. I have seen the beauty behind life’s clouds. I have opened the door to bad weather and danced in the rain. It may be the day before surgery but I am smiling at the fact I am here on a Thursday in February eating chocolates with my parents (can’t remember the last time I saw them in February). I can honestly say that there is very little (if any) genuine sadness behind my smiles. For that, I feel like the luckiest unlucky person in the world. I have been selected for a life and body overhaul – and I am determined to embrace it with open arms.

All I hope is that when I look down at those scars (which will fade with time, massage and a bit of love), I am reminded not of the surgery nor the cancer that was once eating away at me, but of the fact every day can be bright, brilliant and beautiful and make you happy to feel alive. It takes work. It takes strength to escape the daily routine of life when there is no life-threatening reason to do so. But, if ever there was a time to channel that inner workaholic for myself, it is now – and for the rest of my life. Up until now, I have been convinced this disease will change me for the better. Only tomorrow, will I start to find out.

On a more important note, I hope the NHS mash potato is as delicious as it was (under the influence of morphine) six years ago. If it is, I really have nothing to worry about.

I am ready to start out on the road to recovery. First stop, kick this cancer right out of my body. Let battle commence!

Breast cancer lesson number eleven: There may be leeches!

Ok, so what’s the word I was least expecting to hear today at my pre-assessment clinic? Yep, you’ve got it: leeches (followed swiftly by ‘glue’, ‘girdles’ and, that old favourite, the ‘catheter’!

You could be forgiven for thinking that the introduction of leeches into the breast surgery mix is a bit random. I certainly did. The good news is, the chances of meeting them are slim. The bad news is, they tend to come in pairs (or worse threes) if they do make an appearance.

A fascinating tissue reconstruction fact for you. New bionic boobie (sounds better than tummy fat shoved up top) gets checked every 15 minutes or so for around a day after surgery to make sure it’s still alive. If it’s looking a bit sick, in come Mr and Mrs (and possibly auntie) leech to have a play and help things along. This is a party to which only the boob gets invited, but I have been reliably informed that they will be monitored closely in case they fancy going travelling.

Today was fascinating in many ways. Here are some fun facts of the day:

1)    My lovely breast care nurse mentioned that, because the tummy is tight, it is likely I will be fitted with a band or girdle to keep it all in and make sure the ‘glue’ sticks. That and big knickers! Oh, cancer you are spoiling me.

2)    I am now a research guinea pig. I am participating in a clinical trial with the exciting title of: Multifrequency Bioimpedance in the Early Detection of Lymphoedema. This basically means they will measure the volume of liquid in my arm at certain intervals over the next five years to see whether or not they can spot changes that may lead to a rather nasty arm swelling

3)    I currently have 2.5 litres of fluid in my right arm. This means nothing (yet), but I thought it sounded like a lot of liquid for a little arm.

4)    They use a giant old-fashioned called a perometer to measure your arm. You even get to hold a plastic tool that looks like a cake polisher while you are holding it up in the air (oh the glamour). Note to self: when they say sleeveless top they mean a sleeveless top. The other test lasts about a minute and involves three stickers (one on each wrist and one on the right ankle) and a few electric wires. I was intrigued, as was the nurse getting a lesson in taking the test.

5)    Today’s blood test was completely painless. I didn’t even know when the needle had gone in. Amazed, I applauded her on her incredible skill. Her tip: she used to practise by sewing socks. A skilled phlebotomist, a seamstress and a thifty lady (who also had a similar bag to me) = my kind of lady!

Aside from the leeches and the well-sewn socks, I have established that there are many positives to being on the surgeon’s slab for about a day (beyond the induced sleep):

  • I will have a flat tummy by Saturday
  • I get breakfast, lunch and dinner in bed
  • I get a compulsory week of no exercise
  • Having the lymph nodes out on the dominant arm is actually better because you are more inclined to start moving it more quickly. Less fear of ‘robot arm’
  • There is a good month before I can do any heavy lifting (I would put kettles, groceries and hoovers on that list. The physio did suggest this could be a ‘flexible’ deadline if that helped me avoid tasks for a little longer. Lovely physio, nice tip!
  • I can wash my own hair
  • I probably won’t need to use a bedpan (quiet whoop)!
  • Some pilates moves are already part of the post-op exercise plan (albeit lighter than my normal Wednesday early morning reformer class.

Only real shame is the op part. Let’s not dwell on the seromas, nausea, wound infection or, best yet, dead boob!

Tune in for the post-surgery hospital ‘I-wish-I’d-known-that-before-I-went-in’ checklist!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breast cancer lesson number nine: Some tears are worth crying

I’m one of life’s criers. I shed tears at a screening of Cool Runnings. I well up on hearing the heartfelt stories on Surprise Surprise and X Factor (yes, I do realise I have admitted this publically!). Even reading sentimental verses on birthday cards in shops is enough to set me off. In short, leaving the house without a packet of tissues is a daring act.

For a sensitive soul who wears her heart very much on her sleeve, I thought a cancer diagnosis would be my undoing (and shares in Kleenex, my pension pot). But, I must confess, beyond the odd epic wailing sessions (the boardroom at work being a particular highlight on day 4), I have shed very few tears about the unfair situation I now find myself in.  

In fact, most of my tears are due to the fact I have been truly touched and inspired by random acts of kindness, thoughtful gestures and supportive messages. These are tears worth crying in my book.

Read the news headlines, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is a pretty dark place, scarred by death, disaster and destruction. Scratch the surface, however, and you will discover that behind every sad story lies real beauty and tales of love that will move even the strongest person to tears. The truth is, the world is full of wonderful people – you just need to know where to look.

These wonderful people may not stop the presses, but there are so many reasons (too many for an entire blog, let alone one post) why they should. In my life right now, they are my front page and my headlines. They are the soundtrack to each day, filling up my heart and my Blackberry with the most humbling words and gestures.

Kindness takes many forms. It’s a cup of tea from a busy nurse. It’s a knowing smile from a stranger across a waiting room. It’s a thoughtful note left on my desk. It’s a touching email from someone I once helped. It’s reconnecting with an old friend. It’s a tip about wigs from a client. It’s a colleague who prints out a diagram demonstrating how a plane stays in the air (see lesson number four to see what I mean). It’s a plant with kind wishes from New Zealand. It’s a sleep CD. It’s a complete cancer care kit from teams at work – everything from an inflatable bath pillow to an overnight bag. It’s an offer of help. It’s a chemo care box from my kind soul, complete with words of encouragement. It’s cake and tea in plastic cups at Sketch (plus a pretty exciting excursion to the toilets). It’s a four and a half hour bus ride for a hospital appointment. It’s ice cream sundaes and smiles. It’s a coaster, roses, books and cookie cutters. It’s a ‘like’ and a ‘follow’ on social media. It’s an impromptu blood test (sorry Duncan). It’s a knitted teddy. It’s a knock on the door on a Saturday morning. It’s curry, cuticle cream and good chat. It’s research completed by a friend. It’s handmade bags for carrying my drains. It’s wine at lunch time. It’s chocolate and homemade treats to fatten me up. It’s a charity run – or two. It’s a never-ending list of kind acts that makes me feel happy to be alive – and ready to fight.

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Sorry cancer, in the face of such kindness and generosity, you don’t stand a chance. There are many memories from this phase that I hope will fade. There are others I will want to cling to forever – and take forward with me.

I am not sure I will ever be able to thank you all for the kindness you have shown me so far – and I haven’t even been anaesthetised yet! But, I am determined to focus on getting better, so I can spend the rest of my life trying.

So, this is my shout out to all the nice people in the world. If you’re reading this, that includes you. Thank you for being part of this chapter and for making me smile (when I am not crying about how amazing you are). You know who you are…

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Breast cancer lesson number six: If Dr Google really had the answers, we’d all be camping out at A&E on a regular basis

Dr Google should be struck off! Far from reassuring us with his wit and his wisdom, one session on the computer is enough to make us run a mile – preferably in the direction of a general anaesthetic! (Please note, I have nothing against Google the colourful brand and the usefulness of its search functionality, just the medical company it keeps.)

In the fight against cancer, however, it doesn’t take long to learn that knowledge is power. And I’m a big fan of power. I walked into the hospital on diagnosis day thinking about my latest publishing deadlines and whether or not I had enough chorizo left to make a risotto for dinner. I came out armed with a small forest worth of paperwork and the determination to read and understand every word.

As far as I am concerned, cancer is just another client – albeit a rather impatient and demanding one that doesn’t seem to like my scheduling! It has its very own notebook, to-do list and meetings calendar. It also has its own agenda – which currently doesn’t quite match mine!

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So, having discharged myself from Dr Google’s rather unsteady hands, I took it upon myself to plough through more than 400 pages on the subject in just one day (it was a particularly fun day!) I am at last learning the language of breast cancer – and fertility for that matter. From lobules to lymph nodes and stages to systemic treatments, my brain is now a giant glossary of specialist terms that sound like they belong in a science fiction movie. I am also comfortable talking openly about boobs (hence the name of this blog), which has been a little alarming for the men in my life. 

Knowing that you feel well, but also knowing that there is something inside you trying to take your life away, is a hard thing to process. For the first few days after my diagnosis, I found it so hard to sleep. As irrational as it may sound, I thought that if I shut my eyes and let my body take charge, the cancer would take me. That’s why I quickly realised, it is so important to stick to what you know and what makes you feel like you are in control. For me, that’s hard work – and lots of it.

If you’re as interested as me about the little battle going on inside my angry right breast, here are the facts (as I currently know them). I must add here that two weeks does not a cancer surgeon make. I have a degree in English, not medicine, and this is my take on the information provided to me.

The Scully guide to Stage 2, invasive lobular carcinoma

1)   It wants to make friends: invasive (rather than ‘in situ’ or non-invasive cancer) means it has the ability to spread. It has already teamed up with the lymph nodes under my arm, so they’ve all got to come out on surgery day. I can assure you this is one invasion that won’t make the history books.

2)   It all started in the dairy: the lobular bit in the name means that cells started to divide and grow abnormally in my milk-producing glands or lobules (rather than my ducts – tubes that carry milk to the nipple). 

3)   It knows the score: whether you like it or not, your cancer gets a grade (and trust me, this is not the time to be top of the class!). The scoring system used grades the cancer (from 1 to 4) by looking at the size of the tumour, whether the lymph nodes are affected and whether there is any spread to other body parts. I have a tumour that is around 40mm (there are two other suspicious areas and I get the biopsy results tomorrow) and there is evidence of cancer in my lymph nodes. That puts me at stage 2. I’ll take that thanks.

4)   Oestrogen is keeping the cancer well fed: this is actually one of the hardest parts of the diagnosis to take in many ways. It feels like my own femininity is leading the charge. The only good thing is that there are more hormone drugs available to join my side of the battle.

There will always be more to learn but, for now, I think I know my enemy. Cancer, it’s time for you to be afraid, not me! 

Breast cancer lesson number five: If it’s all coming off, it’s time to start experimenting

Today was supposed to be a good hair day. Having booked a colour appointment for the first time in about seven years, I had planned to return to my blonder days (I confess to being one of those people who still writes ‘blonde’ to describe myself, when I am as mousy as they come) and discuss bridal hair styles.

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Let’s just say today didn’t quite go according to that plan! For those who know me well, I know what I like and I like what I know. I’m the girl who orders chicken tikka masala, special fried rice and a garlic naan because I fear the disappointment of trying something new. That includes my bob, which has been a friend to me these last six years.

Imagine my hairdresser’s surprise (lovely Jon, who is the amazing manager of Sean Hanna in Canary Wharf and has been cutting my hair for years), when I sat down this afternoon. He said: ‘same as usual?’ I said: ‘Not this time’.

Ok, so I haven’t gone pixie (that’s for the post-surgery, pre-chemo days in about six weeks time, so watch this space). What I have done is try a Michelle Williams look (as recommended by my lovely colleague Rachel) with the wind on my neck and my ears on show. For me, it’s bold. For those with short hair already, it’s not exactly radical. I appreciate I look nothing like Michelle Williams, but you get the picture. I think Duncan is going through an adjustment phase, but we both agree, it’s a good step towards the no-hair days!

Today wasn’t a good hair day. It was a great hair day. It was a day that taught me if you’ve got confidence and a smile, you have nothing to fear. Whatever the chemo days are going to throw at me, I’m ready.

You may take my hair (preferably starting with my leg hair), but you won’t take my spirit!

Dear breast cancer cells, you’ve picked the wrong person if you want an easy fight

I’m Jackie and I’m a statistical anomaly. Even if I were an extra in the Hunger Games films, I have no doubt I’d somehow make it into the arena! In 2007, I had pelvic surgery to help me walk again because my hip socket couldn’t support my leg. I was 25.  Fast forward six years, and I am back in hospital with stage 2, invasive lobular breast cancer. It affects just 10 to 15 per cent of all women with breast cancer and is commonly found in those aged between 45 and 55. I am just 32. And, if we are to believe e-Harmony.com, it takes around 2.8 years for a couple to go from first date to engagement. I got engaged on Christmas Day, just over a month ago. We’ve been together 13 years!

Sat surrounded by tissues in front of my breast care nurse on 17 January 2014, I found myself steering the conversation towards numbers and probability. And it was then that I realised, I am not a statistic. I am a person – albeit with a wonky leg and unhappy right breast. It’s not scientific probability that’s going to get me through this challenge. It’s a positive attitude and a desire to get better – whatever it takes.

Diagnosis day over and I’ve read the fact sheets, made my question lists and signed up to everything I can think of to keep me positive and focused on the challenge ahead. And, you know what? I do feel positive. I know there will be dark days to come, but, as anyone who has read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin will know (it’s an inspiring book for anyone looking to find happiness in daily life), the time for storing up memories, positive thoughts and ‘banking’ happiness is right now. I’ve made my 2014 resolutions and I am not going to let some over-excited cancer cells get in the way.

What keeps me going? Firstly, it’s the knowledge that the champagne that’s still arriving – to celebrate that long-awaited engagement – will one day get used (although there is now so much I might just have a bath in it). Secondly, it’s the knowledge that the bikini I bought for the first time in a decade in the January sales will be worn (my friend believes the only issue is finding good weather). And finally, it’s the knowledge that one day soon, I will walk down the aisle with a full head of hair and a healthy body. I didn’t wait 13 years to fall at the final hurdle!

I have decided to write this blog for a number of reasons:

1)   I was only diagnosed two weeks ago and I have already had so many hilarious (if you, like me, have a rather dark sense of humour), life-enhancing and inspiring (I defy anyone to spend an hour at Guy’s hospital and not feel humbled) moments that I want to capture, share and remember forever.

2)   I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of those around me. My breast cancer notebook (yes, I have a dedicated bright pink moleskin and a to-do list) is already filling up with great bits of practical advice that I am keen to share. My house is also filling up with kind gifts from friends (everything from dark nail varnish for chemo and pampering treats to my very own pink post-surgery boob pillow). I’m not the only one trying to stay positive and arm myself with every tip in the book. I want to share these practical tips to both inspire those diagnosed in the future and thank those kind enough to join me on this journey.

3)   As an open person, I find it difficult to hide my emotions and details of my experiences. I don’t think people mind discussing my latest baking experiment or magazine schedule. Breast cancer, however, is a bit different. It was the point at which I was discussing breast sizes with a client that I realised it might be better to write it down and let people seek it out – rather than fill their heads with talk of tumours and tummy tucks.

4)   I love writing and I am determined to do more of what I love this year! It’s about time.

Why ‘small boobs, big smiles’? When you’ve spent the best part of two weeks with your top off in front of surgeons and nurses, it doesn’t take long to work out that having ‘not much there’ is not an advantage. But, even when they were sizing up my tummy fat and cupping my less-than-ample breasts, I still managed a smile. That’s what this blog is about – finding happiness in unusual places.

The one positive thing about having had major surgery once before is that I know what I need to do to get through this. Last time, I feared the surgery, the hospitals and the pain. What I should have feared was my mind and the way the experience would make me feel. This time I am focused on keeping my mind positive – and letting the experts get on with fighting the cancer.

I know cancer is a frightening and debilitating illness, but I am determined to take what life-enhancing and enriching moments I can from it, while I can. I am already starting to ressemble a human pin cushion, but, you know what, I am still smiling. And I hope, that through this blog, I can help you find the smile that will help you keep fighting too.