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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for everything. You know who you are!

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

Breast cancer lesson number 120: True friends are the rainbows that come with the rain

Last night, lying in bed waiting for sleep to find me (I started the drug Clonidine for hot flushes on Monday, so am hopeful it might find me soon), I tried to imagine living through cancer without friendship. I imagined waking up (starting to forget what that feels like) to a silent inbox, to a phone with no messages and a living room without wonderful words and cards to keep me company. I imagined a Saturday without laughter and a Sunday without ice cream, teas and smiles. I imagined a world without all the beautiful faces I have come to love over the years. I imagined surgery without handmade drain bags and a new boob without chocolate (probably would be the size of a pin). I imagined life – and found I didn’t really have a life at all.

Friendship is such a powerful thing. But, I am sad to admit that it is something I have often taken for granted. That is not because I don’t love each and every one of the wonderful people that continue to inspire me and shape my world. It’s just that, my life before cancer felt so hectic that I thought doing my hair was a bit of a luxury (now I have the time to straighten it, it’s all shiny and bald). I remembered birthdays. I baked cakes. I made bath creamers in cupcake cases that looked like white chocolate (and forgot to label them – oops). But I really wasn’t as ‘present’ as a friend should be. I also have as many friendship circles as I do interests. I move between them (often on the edge), when I should dwell a little longer.  And for that, I am very sorry.

Cancer has a way of not just reordering those priorities, but highlighting just how important friendship can be. True friends (which also includes my amazing family and the lovely Duncan) shine a light on dark days. True friends are those with whom you can share a story or a silence. True friends just know when smiles are covering up tears. True friends don’t have to be close to comfort. True friends understand – and open themselves up to being understood. True friends accept who you are and help you become who you should be. True friends are the real wonders of the world.

So, this is my little way of celebrating all that is beautiful about friends. Through my pink hearts campaign (click here to read more) I hope to thank each and every one of you for being there when I needed you the most. For now, you’ll just have to take this as a down payment! I vow to be there for all of my friends because I know how important just being there really is.

I hope, wherever you are, you are thinking about all the friends that fill your hearts and your inboxes. Is there someone you’ve been meaning to call? Is there someone with whom you’d love to reconnect? Is there someone who makes you smile, but who you’ve never had the opportunity to thank? Well, there’s no time like the present!

There’s a wonderful saying (yes, another of those quotes that makes me happy): ‘Good friends will bail you out of jail, but a great friend will be sitting next to you saying: “Damn, that was fun”.’ While I am not about to throw caution to the wind and end up in jail (I have already committed one crime since diagnosis (click here to read) and that is enough to last me a lifetime), I do believe that experiences are made for sharing, shoulders for supporting and sides for standing by.

Here’s to great friends and to a future packed with great adventures!

Breast cancer lesson number 26: Make every day a milestone day

Today is a milestone day. Ok, so it’s not exactly on a par with diagnosis day or pathology results day (just a few of the compulsory days Breast Cancer likes to throw in to keep us entertained). But, that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. No, today is the day I come off Provera (my progesterone hormone). That means, in a few days time (if my body plays ball), the fertility side of my treatment will begin. Self injecting here I come!

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Moments in time don’t have to be monumental to make it as milestones. When you are strapped into a body corset, even getting to the end of the road can feel like a huge achievement! So here is a glimpse into my world of the major – and not so major milestones – that have made a mark in my diary these last few months. I hope this will help those facing the cancer challenge in the future to understand a bit more about timeframes and what to expect.

1) 24 December: Lump discovery day
Arguably the most important day (and most valuable shower) of my life. I took the discovery seriously, but am glad to report, it didn’t put me off the Christmas ham.

2) 25 December: Proposal day
Ok, so not fundamental to the story, but it’s a lot easier talking about losing a boob and making embryos when you have a man by your side (and a ring on your finger). I am a lucky lady.

3) 27 December: GP referral day
Not the most reassuring of visits I’ll admit, but the doctor acted really fast and referred me straight away. I know a lot of young women are told to come back at another point in their cycle to see whether the lump has changed size, but thankfully, due to it being Christmas, I got my referral. Just another reason to love Christmas!

4) 9 January: Hospital appointment day
Was planned in as the morning before, but due to work commitments, I moved it to the Thursday morning. I know how stupid that sounds, but I really didn’t believe it was anything other than a breast mouse. Let’s just say, I have learned my lesson (and missed a fabulous annual client lunch that day as punishment). What started as a quick ‘feel’ turned into an ultrasound, a few biopsies and a rather awkward conversation with two consultants (they didn’t say cancer, but they did ask about my family history A LOT).

5) 17 January: Diagnosis day
Not a day I’ll forget…ever! Crying, mammogram, more crying, truck load of leaflets and, you guessed it, more crying.

6) 18 January: The day that taught me the value of friendship
Afternoon tea at the Modern Pantry was made all the more sweet with a close friend at my side. Having hidden away for months, this day encouraged me to get out my phone and start planning (trips to Sketch, nights with Darius, relaxing walks and home visits). I love my friends and the colour they bring to my days.

7) 23 January: MRI day
Four needles, one arm full of contrast dye and a noisy test to determine whether or not I could have a lumpectomy.

8) 25 January: Feeling human day
I had a facial. No one mentioned cancer. I walked into a shop (ok, so I was buying track suit bottoms and zip up tops) and someone told me I looked and smelled great. I smiled. It felt good.

9) 27 January: Diagnosis day (part two)
More cancer, another biopsy, a trip on a secret staff bus, a plastic surgeon meeting, pre-op testing and a lot of tummy squeezing. The mastectomy is on, the tummy is borderline.

10) 31 January: Fat testing day
One CT scan and one feel-like-you-are-wetting-yourself moment to check whether I had a good blood vessel in my tummy to transfer to my boobie.

11) 1 February: The day I decided to start this blog
A major mental milestone, this blog helps me stay positive, while keeping my loved ones informed and helping others diagnosed with the big C!

12) 4 February: Carbo-loading day
Ok, so with the volume of chocolate coming through the letterbox on a daily basis, this was more like a two-week period. But, on this day, at a work away session, I ate a lot. I believe this was a major step forward for tummy and will always think about it when rubbing aqueous cream into new boobie.

13) 10 February: Decision day
Tummy confirmed as new boobie. Did a little dance (away from the surgeons of course)!

14) 14 February: Provera day one
The countdown to freezing embryos begins. Won’t mention what happened to Duncan that day. More of a fertility milestone for him than me. And on Valentine’s Day!

15) 15 February: Last supper with D day
Sounds a bit dramatic, but it was actually a beautiful meal at the Cutty Sark pub that reminded me of the importance of taking time out to savour special moments with loved ones.

16) 19 February: Pre-assessment and mobile off day
Memorable not because I found out about leeches, physio moves and arm measuring, but because I turned my work emails off on my Blackberry for the first time in a long time. The red button now only flashes to alert me of good wishes.

17) 20 February: the day I tried my first ever Nandos
Ok, don’t judge me. Not quite the last supper I had imagined. Couldn’t resist. First time ever – and with my parents.

18) 21 February: Surgery day
Wasn’t around much, but hear it went well. Got a new boobie. Got rid of cancer. Not a bad day.

19) 22 February: The day I survived
Owwwwwwwwwww! It hurt, but I got through it, and that is all that matters.

20) 23 February: The day I got up
Getting out of bed is only a big event if you thought you’d never get out again the day before.

21) 24 February: The day the drains started coming out
They don’t hurt if you breathe in and out three times and follow the nurse’s instructions. Go to your happy place and you’ll be fine.

22) 25 February: Big reveal day
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mirrors or the tears. I did manage to wash myself and pull my big knickers up though, so it wasn’t all bad. I also got rid of that moving mattress (certainly something worth celebrating).

23) 26 February: The day I got released
Hospital day 5 means home time. Felt good sinking down into our old mattress and getting settled with my home comforts.

24) 1 March: The day I did nothing
Having overworked my arm the day before, today was a day of reading and film watching. Never underestimate the restorative power of nothing. I have been too busy in life to notice.

25) 3 March: The day I finished my first post-surgery book
I love books, but could never get into them after my hip surgery. I take this as a good sign my brain is starting to fire again.

26) 5 March: The day I dressed myself
Wouldn’t have made this a milestone a few weeks ago. It’s amazing how much excitement can be gained from putting your socks on. I also passed wound care today, so one step forward.

27) 6 March: The day I walked in the park
Ok, so we had to drive there, but Greenwich Park had never looked so inviting with the early signs of spring. I even got to see the deer and admire the view.

28) 7 March: Pathology results day
The first day of the rest of my life. A big meeting that reinforced the importance of seeking out milestones and making a difference every day. Friday was also the day my wonderful nurse of a mum went back home to leave Duncan and I to fend for ourselves. I am happy to report that we are doing pretty well. Duncan is spending most of his time trying to stop me lifting things (I have resorted to painting my nails in the hope that the frustration of chipping the paint will stop me in my tracks) and we did have a rather interesting discussion about the merits of a scrubbing brush when doing the washing up (he is going to buy one this weekend).

29) 8 March: Duncan does the washing up day (and gets a quick look)
A monumental life event. Ok, so he struggled with the pan, but he did great (even without a scrubbing brush). His reaction to the ‘new’ me was thoughtful and kind. He even towel-dried my back when I couldn’t reach. I also got to remove the sticky mesh on my tummy and the final steri-strips on my boob, so am starting to look less like an accident victim.

30) 9 March: Bye bye Provera day
The window to help preserve my fertility is starting to open. Have also just had a lovely lunch outside for the first time this year.

They may not be big, but for me, each one of these milestones has made 2014 one of the busiest and most emotional yet – and it’s still only March. Each date has made such a lasting impression, I didn’t even need to consult a diary to write this post.

There will be many more cancer milestones (and more tenuous ones) to come (from chemo day one to radiotherapy planning day and the day I get my first tattoo) and I intend to embrace and smile in the face of each one. After all, a life without milestones, however small, is not really a life at all.

So, raise a glass to milestones. May you all have many happy ones this year.