happiness and cancer

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 148: Life is too short to save things for best

This morning, a rather surprising reminder popped up on my Blackberry alongside the ‘Take Clonidine’ and ‘rub in Doublebase’ requests. All it said was: ‘life is too short to save anything for best’. Quite why I thought to write it down and deliver it myself on this particular day, I will never know. But, I’m really glad I did.

Engaging with my possessions is something I’ve been doing a lot more of this year. I, like a lot of people in the world, have a tendency to put certain things in a ‘best’ category. And, when they achieve this coveted position, they are pretty much never seen again.

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Why is it I have immaculate-looking pans, but always default back to my university pan with dodgy handle and food-encrusted bottom? (Quite what masterpiece I think I’ll be rustling up, I’ll never know.) Why is it that tops I buy after dreaming about them for weeks are carefully preserved in my wardrobe? (I’m not sure my wardrobe appreciates them quite as much as I do.) Why is it that special stationery is always too special for my ideas? Why is it that hand cream seems like an essential purchase at the time even when I feel like I need a special occasion to use it? And, why is it that when a meal is deemed good enough to repeat, it gets popped in the recipe tin and somehow forgotten about? (I always seem to focus on new meals rather than old favourites.)

Why indeed! This year I have come to realise that there’s no point saving things for a special occasion, because that special occasion may never come. And, the trouble with the word ‘best’ is, you can rarely spot a ‘best’ moment because it is almost impossible to define. Saying ‘best’ takes away the hope of there being something better in the future.

I have come to the conclusion, as explained by the recent reintroduction of my school-time favourite fountain pen to my life, if you want a good day to be great, why not start by filling it with your favourite things? When I discovered the pen the other day while rummaging through my bedside table, I remember thinking to myself how much I used to enjoy writing with it. And, then I thought, if I love it so much, why am I not writing with it every single day. Before I knew it, I was popping in a fresh cartridge (from about the year 2000) and giving my writing finger back its old inky smudge. Before I knew it, I was smiling while writing the word ‘bleach’ on the supermarket shopping list.

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A special occasion isn’t something you wait for, it’s something you have to create – not just once in a while, but everyday. (Just to clarify, writing the word bleach is not a stand out moment in my life – things aren’t that bad!)

I remember a friend once telling me that she always wears good (and matching) knickers and bras just in case something happens to her and she ends up in hospital unexpectedly. Now, this might seem slightly macabre, but I like her thinking. Of course, at the moment, hospital trips are not unexpected for me and, I think that If I do end up in one unexpectedly, I won’t particularly care about the colour of my knickers and whether they match my bra (when you are used to a nurse pulling up your magic pants, it would seem strange to suddenly adopt such a view). And, I really would have to invest to be so co-ordinated. What I like is the idea that matching underwear actually means something to her. And, by wearing it every day, she is celebrating that fact every day.

So whatever it is (pants, socks, pens, notebooks or even glasses), I challenge you to stop thinking that the best is yet to come, and start bringing a bit of your best into daily life. If you’re waiting for that moment, chances are you’ll never get it. And, if you aren’t, who knows what doors will open for you when you’ve injected a little more happiness into your day? Please do post and share your favourite things. I won’t be posting a pic of my favourite knickers, but I can tell you I have a ‘best’ mug, cup, pen, pan and notebook (for starters). I even have ‘best’ marigolds!

I’m off to drink tea out of a special mug, eat my special chutney before it goes off and write on the first page of a special notebook (that’s about six years old). All while wearing a special top. Daring I know!

As a quick aside, radiotherapy is still ongoing. Amusingly, while writing this post in the waiting room, I heard my name being mentioned by the radio team. All I could hear was fragments, but I got ‘she’s the young one’ and ‘why don’t you just ask her?’. At that point, I started imagining what they might be thinking. Would I have to demonstrate something? Would I have to take my top off for somebody else? Would I be bumped down the list?

About five minutes later, I was greeted by a friendly lady who asked whether I would mind changing one of my appointment times to 8.30am. She thought she was asking a lot, so she was delighted when I reacted like I’d just won the lottery. Being called ‘the’ young one, however, reminded me just how few of us ‘young ones’ there are (thank goodness). I am happy to be the odd one out, but I’d rather be known as the smiley one who always seems happy when she’s writing with her very nice fountain pen :-).

Breast cancer lesson 142: Why it’s time to eat (well), drink (water) and be merry

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With my tastebuds now in full working order and the end of active treatment in sight, I have started to think a little less about standing on cliffs with no hair and climbing mountains (I have my brighter life list for that – click here to view) and a little more about the small adjustments I can make from now on that will help me live a healthier life.

Read the headlines and you could be forgiven for thinking that that ‘life’ now needs to be one heavy on blueberries, packed with alkaline foods and without sugar. The more I read about cancer and diet, however, the more I realise what a complex subject it is and that oversimplification of certain ideas can do more harm than good. I certainly refuse to believe I got cancer because I am partial to a bit of buttercream now and again! 

Interestingly, diet it is not something that has been tackled by my oncologist (the only thing we discussed was the importance of eating what you can tolerate on chemo to keep the calories up and not making any major adjustments to diet while undergoing treatment). In fact, the only consistent advice I have received has come from three unrelated cancer and food seminars that all point to one thing: a healthy, balanced diet (as explained by this eatwell plate, which indicates the types of foods that should be making an appearance at every meal). It is not dissimilar to advice dished out in home economics lessons of old. And, while it does advocate things like blueberries, flax seeds, brussel sprouts and quinoa (all of which I like), bread, cake and cheese are still there, holding their own (yet in a small, concentrated way).

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I am no authority on diet, but I can navigate my way through the ‘superfood’ marketing spin and a bit of basic biology to recognise that healthy eating is more about moderation than it is banning foods completely and depriving yourself of the odd treat. Breast Cancer Care produces some useful information on the subject (click here for its Healthy Eating after treatment page, which is great starting point). And, Cancer Research UK, has written a piece a clear overview debunking certain cancer myths, which is worth a look (click here for more).

The truth is, for all my talk of victoria sponges, chemo cookies and cobb loaves, I think my diet is actually ok (I am already nearly back to my pre-treatment weight for starters, which is good sign). I keep a food diary, so I can build up a realistic picture of my food intake. I cook meals from fresh that are heavy on fish and vegetables. I also think of blueberries as a bit of a treat. And, while lunch is still a bit of an Achilles heel for me (if you have any great lunch recipes, please do share), eight portions of fruit and veg a day is sometimes a bit of a push, my breakfast is many shades of beige and I’m never one to refuse a decent biscuit, I think healthy eating for me means a bit of fine tuning rather than a revolution in the kitchen! I’m after a life of quality as well as quantity (still aiming on 92). And, quality means a few of my favourite things making the menu each week.

It is fair to say, I love food (I remember planning my school life around the menus I insisted mum write up on the fridge door). Meal planning has its own designated notepad in the Scully/Sloan household and I love nothing more than spending a few hours each week pouring over cookery books. There is, however, one area for which I get a huge black mark. While I am good at eating, I am not so good at drinking (by which I mean lack of water and not excess of wine).

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I reminded of this fact at my penultimate shiatsu appointment at the Haven on Thursday (click here to find out more about the Haven’s free complementary therapy programme for breast cancer patients). My therapist stopped me while I was merrily listing out my remaining post-chemo side effects and asked: ‘Jackie, do you drink much water?’ Rather than replying straight away, I first tried to recall the recommendations for water drinking to work out how dismal my water intake actually is. I couldn’t (the European Food Safety Authority says about 1.6 litres a day for women and 2 litres a day for men), so instead I said (rather sheepishly): ‘How much should I be drinking?’ I think that comment told the therapist all she needed to know.

Thankfully, what followed wasn’t a lecture on my copious tea drinking, but rather a piece of useful advice. The therapist didn’t talk in litres or numbers of cups (she argued that the main thing was to increase intake rather than set rigid rules). She did, however, suggest I make one cup of hot water to go alongside each cup of tea that I drink (I am at the kettle anyway). It’s a small and simple adjustment, which should make a big difference. I have already started. And, I already feel like I’ve earned a few brownie points. (As an aside, people do often count tea drinking in their daily fluid intake, but given it tends to dehydrate, it feels like cheating). If you have any water drinking strategies, do share them. 

The benefits of water are well documented (everything from facilitating chemical reactions in the body to removing toxins and weight and boosting the metabolism). When I couldn’t drink it on its own on chemo, I really missed it. I like it. I am just not so good at getting enough of it (except in the days after each chemo poisoning when my mum was sat there basically feeding it to me). So, from now on, I vow to fill up my glass (and my bottle), and give my body what I give the garden: a good watering!

Let’s raise a glass to water (hot, cold, with lemon or without). May it be the liquid of life that keeps our spirits and productivity levels high – and our need for senna low.

NB: Given my latest resolution, now might be a good time to pledge me that drink to celebrate the end of active treatment! To find out more about my pledge idea and how, by pledging, you will be generating cash for charity, head to lesson number 132 (click here to read).

Cheers!

Breast cancer lesson 139: Success belongs to those who enjoy the process

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It takes more than a bit of peripheral neuropathy and sleep deprivation to prevent me from making a dent in my ever-growing Brighter Life list (click here to read more).

Over the last month alone, I have applied to the Wimbledon ballot for the first time (it is pretty much all paper-based, involving SAEs and form filling, which makes me smile), made crumpets (and ate quite a few given you have to really make a batch at any one time to make it worthwhile), walked around the Olympic Park with my mum and dad (it is bigger than I’d imagined) and stood on a cliff with no hair. In short, I have made good progress.

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Buoyed by the increasing number of photos filling up my list page (I post one as evidence I have completed it – and as a nice reminder), I decided to spend the weekend tackling a biggie. And, by biggie, I mean baking for Test Match Special at The Oval.

Now, for those of you with no interest in – or knowledge of – the game of cricket, the above paragraph will mean very little. Basically Test Match Special is a radio show and, dare I say, a great British institution. It is famed not just for its commentary and analysis, but for the fact it attracts bakers from all across the country, keen to flex their muscles and sift a bit of flour. And, for the last few years, reminded of the fun I used to have as a child helping my mum prepare cricket teas for the local club, I was determined to be one of them.

Unable to find any baking rules online, I decided the best strategy would be to bake first (to show commitment) and then email/tweet across my bake to get some delivery instructions. I planned a cricket ball-themed cake (with 261 sugar balls), spent seven hours in the kitchen baking and borrowed even Duncan’s cricket ball to do a bit of sugar stitching. I spelled out TMS in cricket balls. As challenges go, it was a labour of love.

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So what happened to this red and green sugar-fuelled vanilla-soaked sponge? Well, the tweet worked and lovely Aggers (one of the main commentators) replied to say: ‘@Jackie8 Wow! Fantastic. See stewards entrance of OCS stand at Vauxhall stand – and demand to deliver personally.’ I had celebrity endorsement and a route to the media centre. Duncan was then packaged off with the heavy cake in a giant plastic container and a little notelet to make the drop.

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Sadly, the one thing I didn’t fully appreciate (wrapped up as I was in kgs of buttercream) was the fact that while the BBC were game, the security guards at the ground weren’t. Duncan tried three different stewards and they were either too stretched or too suspicious (apparently we could have baked anything into that cake) to let him (or the cake through). By the time I tweeted Aggers again to try and get some backing, India were all out before tea and it was all over. I should really admire the security teams for their diligence. But all I kept thinking was, how did the little five-year-old boy get through the day before? Obviously, Duncan doesn’t look like a hardcore baker!

The fact Duncan returned home with the heavy cake (I do feel so sorry for him that he carried it around all day) would normally have made me very sad indeed. And, yes, I had a little cry for all the effort. But, once I reflected on the whole experience, I quickly came back to my positive self. Firstly, I enjoyed the process. I now know how to make 261 sugar cricket balls (a skill not to be sniffed at) and I simply love being in the kitchen. And, secondly, while it may not have made it to its planned destination, you can’t take away the fact Aggers liked it (even if the security guards thought it was a sugary-disguised attempt to bring down TMS) and it certainly scooped up a few smiles along the way. I see it as a tick on the list, even though I may feel compelled to revisit the goal next year.

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The reason I am blogging about this is not because I am obsessed with cake or TMS (or feeling slightly guilty because I ate a slice that must have been about 600 calories in one hit). I am writing this because it reminded me that the key to happiness is not necessarily the outcome (although it is good to have goals), but rather enjoying the journey towards that outcome. If we live in the present and take what we can from each moment, then we can be happy regardless of what happens next. And, if we can find happiness in ourselves (without looking for it in others), we will enjoy a more contented life.

This, in many ways, is how I have approached active treatment. I don’t feel brave or strong. I just face each day and look for the opportunity to smile through it. A few days ago somebody asked me if I’d always been funny. I laughed and explained I didn’t think I was particularly funny, but that any attempt at humour was just my way of tackling the challenges I face. I would rather find humour in a hospital gown that doesn’t do up right or an appointment where I have to take my top off (again!) than reflect on the fact that the reason I am experiencing these things is because cancer tried to cut my life short. If I can ‘enjoy the process’ every day and ‘be present’, I never have to worry about how many days I have left (hopefully lots and lots).

I am glad to report that Duncan, the neighbours (well, I have heard them moving around) and I are all still standing so it obviously wasn’t poisoned (Duncan’s team should be polishing off the rest today). The notelet is in the recycling, but here is a copy of the letter I hoped TMS would receive (there was even a charity mention too).

Hi Aggers and the TMS team,

I hope you are having a lovely day.

At the beginning of the year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, I set up a ‘Brighter Life List’ on my blog (amusingly entitled ‘Small boobs, big smiles’) to help me smile through active treatment and encourage me to tick off the things I have always wanted to do, but have never found the time. Number 43 on this list (no order of priority) is to bake a cake for TMS and that’s why I am writing to you today.

Coming from a cricketing family, cricket has always played a part in my life. From serving up tea and cake to the players at our local club and cycling round the boundary as a child to following my brother across the country (a left hand opener) as he played for Wiltshire, a summer weekend without a few overs in it wasn’t really a weekend at all. Even Christmas in our household just wasn’t Christmas without my brother and dad pouring over a copy of Wisden. Interestingly, my dad (a wonderful, yet humble man) once bowled out Viv Richards when he was playing for Lansdown so he could qualify for Somerset!

My mum’s cricket teas were legendary and that is how I learned how to bake. So, wanting to bake for TMS is a natural next step for me.

To celebrate the end of chemotherapy, I have baked you a cake covered in cricket balls.

When I discovered my lump, I nearly didn’t go to the doctors because of my age. Now, I am determined to help charities, such as CoppaFeel, spread the message about early detection, so that more men and women can be treated successfully for breast cancer. I would be so grateful if you could mention the charity and ask that everyone check their boobs (men and women). Who knows? You might just save a life.

Thank you for satisfying my need for a bit of cricketing humour and keeping me smiling while I fight this challenging illness.

Let’s hope this is one delivery that’s not unplayable!

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,

Jackie Scully

I will try again. If, by any chance, you know anyone at the BBC or know how I might guarantee the drop next time, please do send me a message!

As for me, I am more determined than ever to continue with my list and live my dreams. And, I hope that, in so doing, I may encourage you to live some too!

Next up? Making a ferment.

Breast cancer lesson 138: The ten things no chemo patient should be without

When diagnosis day came along and put a spanner in my plans for the new year, I made an extra resolution. And, it’s one I’d like to think I’ve kept. As soon as I walked out of that consulting room (well, maybe a bit later after I’d had a good cry), I decided that if I was going to go through the pain of active treatment, I would use it as a way to help others. From the beginning, I haven’t been in search of pity or sympathy (although I have learned that if you hug for about six seconds first thing it can change the course of a day). I have been in search of tips to brighten my journey – and the journeys of those who face cancer treatment in the future.

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I love a good kit list (reminds me of preparing for camp as a child), so it has been a real joy to work on one over the last few months. I have poured over charity booklets (Breast Cancer Care and Macmillan being the most comprehensive), I have quizzed patients wearing lovely hats in hospital waiting rooms, I have Googled until my hands ache for products and solutions to help make life that little bit easier. I am a lot happier for it and I hope, by writing about it here, you (or someone you love) will be a lot happier too.

On the menu bar of my blog, you’ll find a new section called Cancer Kit List (click here to view). I have started with chemo and will be adding surgery as soon as I’ve typed up my notes. Of course, don’t have much radiotherapy wisdom yet, because it needs to happen first!

The emphasis here is on products rather than general tips (I am already working on those for later in the year). It’s personal and is in no way backed by companies or medical advisors. But, it’s my little way of shining a light on what can be a very dark time.

If I were to pick out just 10 things from the list (putting all medicines and prescription mouthwashes to one side) to create the ultimate chemo survivor’s guide, I’d select:

  1. Digital thermometer: This handbag essential will ensure you don’t have to camp out at A&E to find out the difference between a temperature and a hot flush!
  2. Dark nail varnish: Ok, so work colleagues and friends may think you have gone all goth on them (or arty in my case). But, by painting your nails, you can both strengthen them and disguise any discolouration and chemo lines! The choice of colours is endless. You could even use them to match your mood. Who said cancer treatment couldn’t be fun?!
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  3. Extra strong mints: These little mints can reach tastebuds you thought were gone forever. I am still finding packets all over the house after stocking up mid chemo!
  4. Smoothie ice lollies: Making ice lollies in a kit from my childhood was fun in a nostalgic sort of way, but eating frozen smoothie lollies was about as exciting for me as ham on Christmas morning (and that is about as exciting as food gets for me)!
  5. A yoga bamboo turban: Whether you’re wedded to your wig or fancy tying complicated knots in your headscarves, I am a firm believer that we all need one easy-to-put-on-and-actually-rather-lovely hat. The yoga bamboo turban (made by Christine headwear) comes in so many colours and is so versatile (sport, relaxing at home, parties, work etc), you’ll wonder how you ever lived without one!
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  6. Tissues: Ignore a lack of nose hair at your peril. And eyelashes for that matter. Also doubles up as toilet paper when you’re out and about, which is most useful!
  7. Children’s toothbrush: It’s a fact that children’s toothbrushes are far more exciting and colourful than adult equivalents. They are also, however, soft enough to look after your sensitive gums during chemo. Adult ones feel like you are brushing with a twig covered in spikes!
  8. Ribena: Ok, so you may not be a fan of the red stuff (especially after Epirubicin), but now is the time to discover just what water flavourings you do like! When the tastebuds disappear, water (which is essential for flushing the system) will be anything but appetising.
  9. LIMBO: Try showering without this waterproof arm protector when you’ve got a PICC line in and you’ll soon realise that attempting to keep one arm dry is neither fun nor practical.
  10. Lightweight scarf: With temperature changes, hot flushes and skin sensitivity on chemo, you could be forgiven for thinking you need a suitcase of clothes just to go for a walk. Big summer scarves (and there are some lovely ones out there) will be your jumper, your neck protector, your sunscreen, your windbreak and your style statement. And, they fold up to virtually nothing when you just want the comfort of knowing it’s in your bag if you need it.
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Of course, there are many others (hence why I have started the cancer kit list), but these are the ones that continue to raise a smile, even though the chemo days are already starting to fade.

Every day, someone is called into a hospital consulting room and told they have cancer. Every day, someone will face a side effect of treatment for the first time and find a way to cope with it. By sharing tips and advice, it is my hope that every day in a cancer patient’s journey is one they are prepared to face.

Breast cancer lesson 137: Why I am looking for happiness in the everyday

Fifty days ago, I challenged myself to take part in the #100happydays project (click here to read more) as a way of focusing on all that is good in the world before the end of active treatment (and, as it turns out, slightly beyond).

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Am I happier as a result of posting pictures of positive moments on Facebook for the last few months? If I think about the process of finding an internet connection when away from home and uploading pictures, I would say not. But, when I think of the way in which the project has forced me to live in the present, make things happen and take note of the parts of the day that make me smile, I would argue that, even though I am still only half way through, it has already been a resounding success. I wouldn’t say it has made me happier, but rather reminded me of just how happy I really am.

When I think back over the photos that have made the cut (click here for the first 20 and see below for the following 30), I am not faced with a montage of far-flung destinations and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Yes, there are a few moments that are unlikely to be repeated (my hair is growing back so bald cliff walking is out, and I doubt my name will ever feature in The Guardian again). But, what my photo reporting highlights is that happiness exists in the everyday. It’s on the doorstop, in a teacup, in friendship, at the park and in a homemade loaf. Simple pleasures lead to lasting smiles.

On day 41, for example, I talk about a play called The Blue Bird, which is mentioned a couple of times in Gretchin Rubin’s The Happiness Project. The play is about two children who spend a year searching the world for the Blue Bird of Happiness, only to find it waiting for them when they finally return home. I think this is something we could all quite easily apply to our own lives. How quick we are to attach happiness to life’s big events, when what we should be doing is making the most of the everyday, accepting that big events are a bonus.

I may have peripheral neuropathy, sore nails, sleep deprivation and chicken fluff for hair, but, right now as I write this blog, I can honestly say I am truly happy. Cancer has taken a lot, but given me so much in return. I have looked hard at myself in the mirror and have decided that life is too short to not smile back at the reflection.

It’s true that you can’t be happy all the time (and in many ways you wouldn’t want to be). But, if you can seek out and grab hold of little moments of happiness, it will make those moments of sadness so much easier to bear.

Good luck finding happiness in your day.

Here’s a quick overview (click here for the first 20 if you missed lesson 124) of the last 30 day happy days:

Day 21: Today is a mini milestone day! It marks the last day of my zoladex implant injections. Here’s hoping this giant needle, which has created a constellation of six dots on my left side, has helped in the fight against infertility caused by chemotherapy. I am happy to have been offered it, but as the cause of lots of my hot flushes (it is designed to send you into the menopause), I will be happy when the drug is officially out of my system in four weeks time! Thank you medicine for advancing in this way and thank you nurses for making the giant needle as painless as possible (even though this hole is still bleeding as if in protest). One more milestone down! Yippee!

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Day 22: Lunch, lollies and smiles with my mum. What better way is there to spend a Wednesday (if we ignore the hospital trip and blood test that is). Three cheers for mums! They make this world a happier place – and they help with the washing! I love my mum very much and wouldn’t be smiling through treatment without her.

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Day 23: Last chemo day tomorrow looms, so what better way to celebrate its arrival than with a cake made up of pills! It’s not made of ginger (vanilla syrup sponge with buttercream instead), but looking forward to cutting into it tomorrow before Tax steals my tastebuds for one last time. Feeling happy and very excited!

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Day 24: This is it! Four months of poisoning and am about start my last three-week chemo cycle! While there are dark days to come and then radiotherapy, today is about celebrating and chemo cake. Thanks for the sign Shelley Varley! This could just be the happiest Friday of 2014 so far!

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Day 25: Green things from the garden! If you’ve never tried growing your own veg, I would urge you to start. It is such a wonderful feeling to take something from the ground and walk it metres to your plate. Chilli peppers, broad beans, courgettes and dwarf beans for dinner it is. Excited! Hope you’re having a wonderful Saturday.

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Day 26: a beautiful afternoon catching up on 14 years with a beautiful friend. I look forward to writing in this wonderful notebook when the sparkle of inspiration hits me. Thank you for you. Must get a picture next time!

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Day 27: I nearly lost my great aunt at Christmas two years ago to illness, so it has been amazing to spend this sleepy post chemo day in her company. The gift of family is a great gift indeed. She is one of life’s fighters and is making the most of the moments life has gifted her. Tired, but very very happy.

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Day 28: Inspiration is never far away if you open your eyes to the world. It might come in the form of a message on a billboard, a note through the door, or even a clipping from the newspaper. Today, it’s a pitta recipe ripped out of the Metro (apologies to the next reader). Something I have never tried to bake and now I have the recipe and the time to make it happen. Hope you’ve found something to inspire you wherever you are today.

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Day 29: There are few things that excite me more than having a diary packed with special moments to enjoy. So thrilled that this morning’s post has brought with it the date of MY LAST DAY OF ACTIVE TREATMENT. 15 SEPTEMBER here we come! Ignoring the 10 years of drugs and potential post-radiotherapy side effects, this is one day that will be cherished for the rest of my life. 54 days to go! Just need to think of a way to celebrate!

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Day 30: Cut flowers from the garden are a gift from nature. What I love so much about them is the fact you have to keep picking them to get bigger, brighter and more beautiful flowers. So, pick them I will! Applied to life, I love the idea that by getting knocked down, we have to chance to come back stronger. Who knows? I might have a few more petals when this all ends! Here’s to beautiful flowers!

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Day 31: the great British sunshine. When it shines, I find it hard to think of anywhere I would rather be. Have a wonderful weekend one and all.

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Day 32: Play! We often do so little of it, yet it always has a way of making me smile. It has been so long since I played snooker, I couldn’t even remember how to set up the balls! More play in future methinks. Hope you are all finding ways to play today.

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Day 33: Sometimes, there are just no words to do justice to the kindness of others. I think this picture says it all. Thank you so much Hannah Guy and Anne Johnson. It means more than I can say. Enjoy the mud – and great tutus!

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Day 34: Number 17 on the brighter life list is officially ticked off. Standing on top of a cliff with no hair is as liberating as it sounds! When I set out on the treatment journey I vowed to do more of what makes me happy. The brighter life list (on my blog smallboobsbigsmiles.com) is an important part of this. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but somehow find a way to put it off, start planning it now. You can’t see round the corner, so you’ve got to make the most of the path you’re on. Enjoy!

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Day 35: it was only a matter of time before ‘tea’ made an appearance on the happy days list. For me, always best served large in a cup or a mug. Milk not optional. I gave it up for a year and remember the first time I tasted it again. It was amazing. I don’t think I will ever deprive myself if this simple pleasure again. Best drink ever!

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Day 36: arguably the best bread and butter pudding in the world. It is the third time I have eaten this particular dish (first being 2011 when I tried bread and butter pudding for the first time). With its own personal message from the chef about why he loves it, it is pretty special. Question is, will he ever divulge the recipe? Whatever indulgence you crave, seek it out. A great pudding is a little way to raise a big smile.

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Day 37: spending time with my beautiful godson. Children, with their curiosity, zest for life and innocence, are a joy to be around. I feel very blessed – even if I was quizzed on who lives down the toilet at story time!

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Day 38: the best days are the ones where you learn something new. This is a grotter on Whitstable beach. We came for the fireworks at the end of the oyster festival. We got not just fireworks, but lots of little lanterns on the beach crafted from oyster shells. It was a beautiful sight. Have a wonderful weekend one and all.

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Day 39: Time together with people you love is always time well spent. We all want more hours in the day, but what’s important is making the most of the hours we have. I know I am, and I hope you are too. Here’s to spending the day with the people who make you smile! Happy weekend one and all.

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Day 40: home and happy. I always love coming home after a trip away. I think I appreciate it just that little bit more. This time, we had some rather unexpected GIANT vegetables waiting for us. That’s base for the chutney sorted for this year. Just got to freeze them! Hope you’ve all had a lovely weekend.

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Day 41: How lovely it is to exercise in the sunshine in such a lovely part of London. I feel very lucky to have Greenwich Park on my doorstep and feel spoilt for choice with the many paths there are to discover. Beauty isn’t hard to find if you look around you with a thankful heart. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchin Rubin cites a play called The Blue Bird. The play is about two children who spend a year searching the world for the Blue Bird of Happiness, only to find it waiting for them when they finally return home. May you find happiness where you live.

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Day 42: Happiness is homemade bread, homemade granola and an email from one of my favourite restaurants with their bread and butter pudding recipe. I always think things taste better when made by hand with a healthy helping of love. I have decided to try and go a year without buying a sliced loaf. That means I’ll either be baking lots of bread or going without! Should be fun. Indulge your passions and you will be rewarded.

As a side note, thanks for all the pledges so far. If you haven’t already, please head to my blog to read about why pledging to buy me a drink can raise funds for a great charity (click here). Thanks.

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Day 43: Cleaning (and decluttering in general) is a great way to reengage with your possessions. This fountain pen, which was bought for me by my grandparents (they engraved it with my name, which makes it extra special), hasn’t seen the light of day in years. But today, having rediscovered it, it has a new cartridge in it and is ready to go. I think sometimes we are so busy looking for the next thing that we don’t often appreciate what we already have. I urge you to rummage through those drawers to see what treasures you can find and bring back to life! Happy hunting.

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Day 44: Today’s happy moment comes not from my first tattoo (more on that later), but from a little surprise. Duncan Sloan’s pink shorts have made it onto the homepage of the Guardian website. The Life and Style section (click here) picked up my Breast Cancer Care blog about running and we’ve made it onto the Running Blog. That means Emily Pinkerton, Fran Walker and Robert Pinkerton have made the nationals! Three cheers for Duncan’s pink shorts!

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Day 45: Utopia does exist. It’s in my TV and it is an amazing series oozing with vibrant colours that I have only just discovered. I love a great TV series addiction. Somehow, life doesn’t feel complete without one. Yes, I appreciate I am miles behind. But, at least I got there in the end.

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Day 46: not pretty I’ll admit, but happiness is feet out of heels after seven hours in them at a wedding is the best feeling in the world! I don’t think I was made to wear anything other than a ballet pump.

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Day 47: the first glass of post-chemo wine I can actually taste. Oh my, it tastes good. The only good thing about being deprived of something is the joy it brings when you get it back. My little bit of heaven on a Sunday night. Hope you’ve found yours! J xx

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Day 48: how wonderful it is to learn something new! Today it is a word: ‘Hygge’. This Danish word means ‘creating a nice, warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with the good people around you’. If we Brits had such a beautiful word in our vocabulary, maybe we too could be considered among the happiest people in the world. Here’s to a life with more ‘hygge’!

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Day 49: Number 9 on the brighter life list ticked off! Lovely walk round the Olympic park with mum and dad. Visited the velodrome and have worked out my route to the aquatics centre when I am once more allowed to swim! It feels great to be able to start ticking things off! The brighter life list has given me a focus. Hope you can find your focus too.

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Day 50: I love finding shops in London where skilled people can fix things without charging a fortune. My watch is ticking again and was actually fixed in front of me (instead of sent away to expensive battery sorting elves for weeks on end). I feel naked without my watch and I never get bored of people asking me why I am consulting my bracelet to tell the time . Time is so important. It slips by and, once spent, is lost forever. Here’s hoping ithis watch and I enjoy many new batteries!

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Breast cancer lesson 136: Say goodbye to the fake menopause – and hello to a good night’s sleep

Contrary to what my oncologist thinks (although I fear he was trying to lighten things), no woman needs a fake menopause to prepare themselves for the real thing. You may see it as an end to periods as you know them. In truth, the menopause disrupts so much more than that (sleep being top of the list) and, enduring it more than once is not something ever to be encouraged.

That is, unless you want to try and give your ovaries a chance of coming back to life after chemo!

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Four weeks ago today, I was waiting patiently in the oncology clinic for my very last Zoladex injection (click here for lesson 124 and a quick reminder). Zoladex (also known as Goserelin) is a hormone therapy sometimes offered to pre-menopausal women throughout chemo to send their ovaries to sleep. The idea is that chemo drugs tend not to attack things that aren’t actually doing anything (similar to the cold cap treatment to reduce the chances of hair loss). While its effectiveness is still yet to be proven, it is widely agreed that while taking the drug may not guarantee you retain your fertility after treatment, it certainly doesn’t do any harm (unless you see four months of sleep deprivation as harmful)!

With no Zoladex appointment scheduled, today marks the start of the waiting game. Up until now, I have not expected a period. Now, I live in hope that my body will return itself to normal and not actually send me into the official menopause (if feels strange to be wanting something like a period. I will probably regret saying that if it comes back with a vengeance). The odds, based on my age, are good. The reality? No one knows and no one dares predict. It’s saving me a fortune in sanitary products, but I would really rather just take the hit.

I haven’t written much about my feelings surrounding the prospect of infertility. I have always been a great believer that things are meant to be. I remain thankful that lots of my friends have been able to conceive and I feel lucky to have so many children in my life (if not under our roof). Whatever happens (even with seven embryos in the freezer), I just feel happy to be here. The future can take care of itself. The way I see it, childless and alive is still a good result! And, if children do feature in our future, I have Zoladex to thank for preparing me well for months of sleep deprivation.

Of course, it’s not just the periods I am willing to return. A night without a yo-yoing temperature is something about which I have been dreaming (when I get the rare chance) for a long time. I understand that Tamoxifen – my soon to be best friend for the next 10 years – is likely to cause at least some of the same symptoms (lucky me!), but given I don’t have to start taking this daily delight until radiotherapy is over, I am hoping for at least a little break (PLEASE!!!!!!). I am now pretty effective on about three hours (my usual pattern is to fall asleep straight away and then wriggle around in a few different outfits from 2am onwards) – but I really wish I didn’t need to be. When a lie-in is once again a treat, you will all know about it. The title of this post may seem a little premature, but I am hoping by expressing it publically, my body might just take the hint!

My fingers are well and truly crossed. Let the waiting game begin!

 

Breast cancer lesson 133: Embrace those tattoos! It’s radio planning time

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It’s official. I am a rebel. This morning I woke up a tattooless woman. Now, I have three!

Ok, so when I say tattoos, they are pretty unremarkable. Here’s one, and I must say it looks more like a misplaced biro mark or poppy seed. It certainly won’t be doing the rounds at parties, that’s for sure! But it is permanent and the hospital radiographer used the word ‘tattoos’ so I’m taking it. Surgery took my boob and tummy fat, chemo took the hair I spent 32 years learning how to style (it won’t come back exactly the same I doubt – let’s just hope it’s not grey) and will no doubt scar me in some other way, so I see this as radiotherapy’s way of getting in on the action and making its mark.

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As appointments go, the radiotherapy planning session is fascinating. Down in the windowless lower ground floor of the hospital I sat in a waiting room with just one other (a rare treat) ready for my biro dots. Here’s what happened:

  • It started with a quick pep talk from a radiographer. She talked me through the planning session, checked it was me who signed the consent form and took a photo (just to make sure they blast the right person in future).
  • Next, I was collected once more from the waiting room and ushered into a room with a CT scanner, a bed and a variety of plinths. The team of three (including a student) were really friendly and it was lovely to see them getting on so well. I was also amused by the party mix playing in the background, which was later revealed to be a playlist from someone’s younger days. Certainly livened up proceedings.
  • Once I’d taken my top off (again) and popped on a gown (best to wear a top and skirt or trousers rather than a dress so you don’t have to take everything off), I was asked to sit on the edge of the bed in a specific position. I then had to lift my legs up to rest against a metal plate at the end of the bed, before shuffling my bum to rest against something behind me. Bum in place, I was asked to lie down, clasp my hands together and raise them above my head, placing my arms into two arm rests. Finally, I was wiggled around (they ask you to let yourself go heavy in the bed so they do all the moving) to get my body in the correct position.
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  • Position sorted, the felt tip pen came out. Then started the art class all over my boobs! Here’s one of the marks (that thankfully I do get to wash off tonight). The marks were accompanied by little stickers and lots of shouting out of letters and numbers (apparently my arms are CYK). I believe this is to make sure they record accurate measurements so that I am positioned in exactly the same way for every dose.
  • Art class complete, the CT scanning began. It takes a matter of moments and is completely painless. I did start to get pins and needles up my arm at one point (I think this may have something to do with the ongoing peripheral neuropathy in my hands), but thankfully it did fade so I didn’t need to move.
  • After the scan came the fun part – the tattoos. A bit of ink, a few tiny pricks, some cotton wool to stem the slight bleeding (I bleed at the sight of a needle) and it was all done!
  • Dignity restored, I was handed a piece of material to bring with me to each session (I was lying on it so imagine it is to do with the alignment or protection – if you know please post here) and my times for the 15 blasts. I now know that 2pm on Monday 15 September is the end! 
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Lesson of the day? Don’t wear a white bra and shirt to a radio planning meeting. A bit of blood and felt tip do not clean clothes make! Also, maybe best not to wear sandals in hot weather that make your feet a little whiffy. 

I was also amused that the book I am currently reading started to allude to the children’s book We’re going on a bear hunt just before I was called in for my appointment. Regular readers may remember my connection with the book and the words inside. Click here for lesson 107 and a quick reminder! 

Biro dots in place, I am ready for my blasting!

NB: as a side note, my piece on running for Breast Cancer Care, has been picked up by The Guardian and is currently on the homepage and the Life and Style section. Duncan’s marvellous pink shorts have made it into the nationals! Click here to see them in all their glory.

Breast cancer lesson number 130: How to holiday with no hair

First, find a cliff (preferably a windy one that is not too far from home so you don’t need to contemplate travel insurance and so that your acute oncology hotline card is still useful).

Next, enjoy a bracing walk up to said cliff (avoiding the edge so as not to add cliff diving to the day’s itinerary).

When you reach the top, expose your beautifully bald head to the elements (having liberally applied factor 50+ sun cream before the climb due to increased skin sensitivity while on chemo). I am nothing if not a health-conscious blogger!

Then, enjoy! Feel the wind blast your head. Savour the fact you can see for miles without having to remove strands of hair from your face and line of sight.

While I would never wish anyone to shave their head as a way of sharing in this truly invigorating experience, it is a pretty fantastic way to make the most of a hairless situation! My mum’s good friend recommended I seek out the sensation, and that’s why it is stands proudly at number 17 on my Brighter life list. I must say, it is every bit as exhilarating as it sounds!

I enjoyed the dress rehearsal in April in Dorset with my parents when I was still sporting a number two. And, I have to say, I am delighted to have been able to tick it off at last. Made possible by the wonderful Briggs family, who planned this adventure, it is a cliff top I (my little bald head and fellow coast path walkers) will never forget.

Of course, we don’t have to climb cliffs (physically or metaphorically) to achieve our dreams. We just need to work out what they are and then carve out the path that makes them possible. Life is too short to stand in the sidelines wondering ‘what if?’ I set up my Brighter life list because I want to be reminded of that fact every day. It shouldn’t have taken a serious illness to bring everything into focus. But it did.

If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, then now is the time to start planning it. And, if you’ve already got a list of your own, but lack the motivation to start, now is the time to get ticking.

Today is not a rehearsal for tomorrow. Today is all we know we have.

Breast cancer lesson 129: Chemo may eat your eyebrows, but don’t let it steal your smile

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Chemo week one – by which I mean the first week in a three-weekly cycle usually reserved for grimacing, steroids and a general feeling of emptiness – has actually been unexpectedly lovely. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that it is my last ‘chemo week one’, meaning that every day I get one step further away from poison and one step closer to being able to taste something that doesn’t have the words ‘ice lolly’ in the description. But, I started out last Friday determined to enjoy even the darker days. And, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

I was told the last chemo would feel different. You’re not preparing your body for another round in the unit. The PICC line is out. There are no blood tests booked. The pill packets are emptying and don’t need replenishing. You’re doing things for the last time. Until you experience it, however, it’s hard to know whether that will be the case. After all, the dose is the same, the injections are still prickly and the medication still makes your cheeks puff up!

Seven days in and, touching all wood available, I am feeling good. Yes, I have pain. Yes, I have tingling hands and feet and cramps overnight. Yes, my tongue is a fluffy white colour, which makes me want to swig Difflam with every meal. Yes, the tastebuds have gone. Yes, the dizziness is here. And, yes, I still haven’t a clue what a good night sleep is. But, I feel good and that’s all that matters. I know low immunity week comes next and I also know things do have a habit of falling off (the final eyebrows and the nails being top of the list) when it’s all over. I am not out of the woods, but I can certainly see a clearing ahead!

Of course, I am putting a lot of this good feeling down to the fact the end is not just a distant dream, but a nice chunk of reality (8 August is the official chemo end date, which is now just two weeks away). But, I did also try a new tactic this time. I left London, and spent a few days at my family home. And, I have to say, it was truly magical.

Magical moments for me aren’t once-in-a-lifetime events. They are little moments that remind me just how lucky I am to be alive. It’s laughing with a friend after 14 years apart. It’s holding hands with a great aunt who nearly lost her life just two years ago. It’s sitting in the garden eating home-grown potatoes, carrots and beans. It’s lying on my parents’ bed watching TV. It’s a walk in the long grass on local parkland. This weekend taught me that I have my past to thank for the strength it has given me to move forward.

I have actually turned myself into a self-styled ‘student of happiness’ of late in an attempt to see whether there is a way I can ‘be happier’ when the business of life resumes. I was reading something only the other day about the importance of applying the airplane safety announcement ‘put your oxygen mask on first’ to daily life. Those who first look after themselves are best placed to look after others. While I hope never to see an oxygen mask again, I fully intend to make the most of the cancer’s thorough overhaul. Cancer hasn’t made me happy, but I know it has given me the time to reflect, focus on me and work out that I have been happy all along (I just didn’t always see it)!

If you have any reading recommendations to help me as I explore everything happiness has to offer, do shout.

Back in London now, I am still smiling (just a bit hotter). This has something to do with the sunshine and a lot to do with the ‘end-of-active-treatment’ date that is now penned in the diary. MONDAY 15 SEPTEMBER is less than two months away! I can almost touch it.

Whatever you are doing today, I hope you find time for a little happiness!