Breast cancer lesson 127: If you can take on chemo, you can take on life. Take that chemo and take that cancer!

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I did it! By which I mean, successfully carried a really heavy sugar pill-covered cake through the city crowds to the cancer day unit, presented it to the team before presenting high blood pressure (due to the fact the cuff was on my leg), took one last dose of Docetaxel, ate a lolly, drank some tea and, most importantly, had my PICC line out and was disconnected from the saline flush for the last time.

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In many ways, although brilliant, it is a strange sort of day. I am celebrating because the poisoning is over, but I still have a good three weeks of side effects (probably even longer) to go before I can start reclaiming my body. I can’t really drink alcohol and am pretty exhausted from a sleepless night due to heat, hot flushes, thunder and lightning and general excitement. I am happy, but I’m not exactly ready to paint the town red. 

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The cake and the ‘last chemo’ sign brought with it a celebratory atmosphere. The nurse started showing all the staff (including the chief nurse), my PICC flush lady popped in for a visit, and I even got to see my complementary therapist for a good chat. Everyone wanted a picture of the 450 pills – and I just wanted them to enjoy it before the buttercream seeped through the fondant icing. It had already started to resemble a boob in shape rather than a straight-sided cake! Apt you might say.

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The highlight for me wasn’t hearing the chemo pump beep for the last time, however, but watching the PICC line wiggle its way out of my arm leaving me with nothing but a hole and a lot of dry skin. Here’s the PICC removal in action (just to show you how long it actually is). I was surprised it was a) so quick and painless and b) didn’t involve me lying down on some sort of couch. It was just whipped out in front of everyone in the bay!

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How do you celebrate the unofficial, please-don’t-drink yet, end of the chemo you ask? Well, with a walk along the river and a lovely lunch at my favourite pub, The Cutty Sark. Fishcakes and lemon posset later, and we’re now hiding from the searing heat drinking tea in the living room. I may even treat myself to a little rest.

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There is just one last three-week cycle, eight more immunity-boosting injections, 12 more steroids, two more Emend tablets, 20 Domperidone pills, 21 Fluconazole tablets, 32 Co-codamol pills and ad hoc Omeprazole to go before radiotherapy. I just hope the side effects are kind – especially now I don’t have easy access to my veins.

Chemo, you have taken a pretty huge chunk out of 2014. It’s time for me to take control.

Might just have a little sleep first…

Breast cancer lesson 126: The most memorable moments in life are the ones you never planned

Ok, so I have slightly gone off-piste with the last cycle and veered away from ginger-related baked goods. But, given tomorrow is the last day I will have to watch chemotherapy drugs being pumped into my veins, I think it calls for something a little bit special.

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Little did my wonderful mum know when she met me at the hospital yesterday, that she’d be spending the best part of Thursday rolling fondant icing to help me make sugar pills! Each one of what must be more than 450 drug-shaped pieces is representative of the pill-fuelled journey that is chemo. From Steroids and Omeprazole to Domperidone, Emend, Fluconazole, Ondansetron, Clonidine, and Co-codamol (no to mention the obvious liquid drugs being pumped in), I think my body has no idea what normal is. If, in fact, there is to be a normal once more.

All I can say is, these pills had better taste nicer than Domperidone!

I have always liked to think of cake as having a rather medicinal quality. I think this is certainly the closest I’ll get to making it look that way and putting fuel into that argument!

After four months of poisoning, the last day of chemo is a big day (both physically and psychologically). Of course, it is not the official last day of chemo (which is Friday 8 August), but rather the last poisoning. Knowing that every day after tomorrow will be one day closer to a life without heart palpitations, bone pain, nail pain, muscle pain, a lack of taste, hair loss, dizziness, headaches, sickness, nausea, fatigue, injections, pills and, of course, toxic liquid infusions, is a wonderful feeling. So exciting, in fact, I have barely slept in days!

I have learned a lot over these last few months about surviving a chemo cycle. I have Ribena at the ready for when water tastes horrendous. I have frozen smoothie ice lollies and extra strong mints for a low-calorie sugar kick when the taste buds disappear altogether. I am armed with packets of Emend and Fluconazole to avoid the sickness from cycle two and the throat infection from cycle four. I have Difflam for mouth ulcers. I have a bran-based breakfast planned to avoid the Senna. I have a rainbow of nail varnish for those blackening nails. I have my mum to help me through the ‘emptiness’ days. And, I have a huge smile, which is probably my biggest weapon! Whatever this round is prepared to throw at me, I am ready.

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I never thought I would be celebrating the end of chemo. I never thought I’d get cancer. I never thought I would cover a cake in hundreds of fondant tablets and capsules. But, I have. And I am a lot stronger – and stickier – for it.

The 18 July 2014 is not a day I will ever forget. And, I fully intend to enjoy it! Let’s hope the cake doesn’t melt before I get there!

Breast cancer lesson 125: Active treatment is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes

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Today was a big day. One last weigh-in. One last meeting with the oncology nurse (who loved her pink heart). One last chemo blood test. One last trip to the hospital pharmacy. And, one whistle-stop tour through the world of radiotherapy with an oncologist, my mum and two work experience students.

For me, the word radiotherapy means end. Yes, I will have to take hormone therapy drug Tamoxifen for ten years. But, when I walk out of the hospital on the last day of radio, active treatment will be officially over. And, just knowing that that day is no longer a day buried far in the future, is a fantastic feeling.

Radiotherapy is radiation treatment, designed to damage the body’s cells in a specific area. In my case, there are two specific areas. One is the chest wall and the other is the area above the collarbone where more of my lymph nodes are currently hiding. The two treatments are going to be run side by side, which means only 15 days of blasting! WOOHOO!

It does feel in many ways that they are saving the best treatment for last. For starters, the PICC line is coming out on Friday, so there won’t be any drugs involved. Secondly, the list of side effects is contained to one sheet (I think the seven-page chemo consent form will be imprinted on my memory for life). The main side effects are skin reactions and tiredness, both of which I would take tomorrow if it meant I could taste, sleep and not have to watch toxic drugs travel through a tube into my veins.

There are, of course, a number of other less common side effects that can present themselves even years afterwards. These include breast swelling, chest tenderness, the creation of scar tissue, rib fracture, breathlessness and, yes, more cancer (extremely rare as you can imagine). But, the benefits (risk of recurrence reduced by two thirds) make the risks more than worthwhile.

The appointment was an interesting one, with everything explained in full for the benefit of the two work experience students (and me of course). We started by talking through the treatment, the fact I have to have a planning session with a CT scan and some tattoos (the rebel I am!), followed by a ten-day wait before treatment can start. We then tested out the radiotherapy position (basically arms in the air) and had a good look at the area. The oncologist was very complimentary about my new boob (thankfully this part of the appointment wasn’t open to the 16-year-olds!). She even thought I was looking pretty symmetrical! I’ll take that!

No course of cancer treatment would be complete without the obligatory ‘banned’ list. And, unsurprisingly, there are a few comforts on there that are about to be taken away (should be used to it by now). Here’s a quick run down:

1)     No hot water when washing and no long soaks in the bath (that’s a shame now I have learned how to blow up my inflatable bath pillow)
2)     No shower gel, bath oils or bubble bath in treatment area (lovely!)
3)     No rubbing with a towel (ok, patting it is)
4)     No talcum powder (no real loss)
5)     No shaving under the arm (there’s no hair there anyway at the moment!)
6)     No perfumed moisturiser on the area (Doublebase or E45 is recommended)
7)     No tight-fitting clothing (what will I do with all those boob tubes J)
8)     No under-wired, lacy or tight bras (surgery sorted that out long ago)
9)     No swimming (the opening of the Olympic pool so close to my house still hurts me)
10)  No sun exposure for a YEAR (probably a good thing given my tendency to go red just looking at the sun)
11)  No hot water bottles (I think I should be ok in August!)

One radiotherapy planning appointment, one CT scan, three tattoos and 15 blasts of radiotherapy stand between me and the end of active treatment (please note the distinct lack of needles or scary tubes). That is, once I have navigated a little thing called THE LAST CHEMO on Friday! Wish me luck!

Breast cancer lesson number 124: Happiness is ticking off those appointments!

Today, I looked down the end of the giant Zoladex needle for the last time. That means no more hospital trips, no more holes in my left side (it’s like my very own constellation down there) and, in just four weeks, NO MORE MENOPAUSAL SYMPTOMS (unless Tamoxifen decides life is just too boring without them).

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I remember the oncologist joking about it being a useful dress rehearsal for the real menopause. You can tell my oncologist is a man :-). Trust me, there is no reason why any woman would wish to experience a hot flush before being forced into having one. Before active treatment started, I had not even given the menopause a second of my attention. Now, the very thought of going through this again for an extended period makes me want to run for the hills!

As I mentioned in lesson number 78, it does seem apt that the drug designed to shut down my ovaries to protect my fertility causes sleepless nights. I already have a huge amount of sympathy for new parents – just without the dirty nappies! All I hope is that the implant has done its job (the effectiveness of the drug for use in this way is still being examined) and that the giant needles will be replaced with not-so-giant periods in due course.

As you would probably expect, this momentous occasion was the subject of today’s ‘100 happy days project’ post on Facebook (I’m already up to day 21). For those of you not on Facebook, here’s a quick rundown of the first 20. You can also read more about the project by clicking here. It really is a great way to pick out a smile from every day and I do encourage you all to have a go if you haven’t already.

Day 1
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These beautiful flowers, given to me over a cup of peppermint tea this morning, remind me of a lovely few lone-overdue hours spent with a friend. My friend said to me: ‘life is not about waiting for something big to happen. Life is all around, waiting to be lived.’ Thought it was a beautiful and apt message for the project. If I am allowed two, I have also just been sent a lovely e-card with the following quote in it: ‘You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself: “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”’ I think it would be fair to say, I do enjoy a good quote! Hope you are finding happiness in your days!

Day 2
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I decided to go off piste at the hospital and try and vanilla yoghurt shake instead of a breakfast tea. It was so delicious and certainly something to look forward to on a trip there. I also handed out two more of my pink hearts today (one to my physio and one to the lady who gives me massages at the cancer unit). I love writing out the accompanying cards and thinking of all the different ways in which that person has touched my life. NB: I have only handed out seven so far, and have many many more to go, so don’t worry if I have seen you and not given you one. They take a while to write. If you want to read more about my pink hearts campaign, visit: http://bit.ly/1nHsc4w

Day 3
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Chemo day can be a happy day! Just two rounds to go. Ginger cookies baked for the cancer unit, experimental lemon and ginger muffins ready for sampling too and some jelly babies and lollies for mum and me! Smiling. Hope you find a small pleasure to raise a smile today! J xx

Day 4
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Back at my family home for a wedding (on chemo day 2 no less)! Have just dug out my GCSE art book to remind me why I have always wanted to work in the creative industries. It sits in my bedside table at home and I get it out every time I stay. It always raises a smile! Possessions such as this are priceless. Packed with memories. Hope you are having a happy day. J x

Day 5

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Today, the beautiful Hanne (pictured here) would have turned 33. Sadly, however, she lost her life in the Oslo bombings and I only found out about it last year while making a long overdue visit to her Facebook page. I am celebrating her birthday today because she was a real free spirit and a beautiful person who brought sunshine into the lives of the people she met. She loved life and I only wish she had lived to see more of it. The way in which I found out about her death showed me just how important it is to touch base with people outside the wonders of social media and remember the people who mean the world to me. Thank you Hanne for teaching me the importance of friendship. I hope you are still smiling, wherever you are. Much love, Jackie x

Day 6

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I have always been a bit of a winter person (scarves, hats, gloves, Christmas, mulled wine etc). But since getting a garden and discovering the joys of growing, I have really started to see the beauty in all seasons. Fresh garlic is the latest bit of produce to find its way out of the soil and into our kitchen. I can’t wait to use it.

Day 7

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What does every cancer patient fighting fatigue need? A copy of Games of Thrones, that’s what. I have been saving it up for the right moment and now (thanks Claire Sargent for the loan) that moment is here. It is so important to have something to look forward to in life – even if that something is a little on the gory side. I may be gone for some time! Hope you are having a happy day. J x

Day 8

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For me, the joy of baking lies not in eating cake fresh from the oven but in licking the bowl! Have just made a light ginger cake to try and distract myself from dizzy spells and this syrupy goodness (or not so goodness) was a real treat. J x

Day 9

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It may not look like much, but this little but of paper, which now contains the date of my last PICC line flush, has a very special place in my heart. For me, it reinforces the fact that, whatever race you are running, there will always be a finish line. And, every finish line, however small, is worth celebrating. It may be a small stage in a longer race, but it is a sign the end is in sight. When you see the finish line you know you’ve been running in the right direction all along. So, there is just one thing left to do. Keep running.

Day 10
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This is our Agapanthus, which until very recently was without a single bud (it had three last year). We discussed repotting it or planting it in a bed to make it flower, but ended up just moving it across the decking. As you can see, it now has 16 buds and they have started to come out today. When I look at this plant I think about just how important it is to give things time and be patient. Some things just take time. There’s a lot to be said for the phrase: ‘good things come to those who wait’. We won’t have to wait much longer! Have a happy day. J x

Day 11
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Thanks to a wonderful friend, I am now the proud owner of the word ‘happy’ for one whole year. This kind gesture not only makes me smile the widest of smiles, it also supports the wonderful charity I CAN, which helps children communicate. Thoughtful friends are one of life’s most precious gifts and I feel truly blessed to have so many by my side. Thank you. J x

Day 12
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Old friends, tea and ice cream. Perfect Sundays are made of this. Catching up on seven years! Great friends are like stars. You don’t always have to see them, to know they are there. Here’s to many more Sundays just like this. Hope you are having a great day. X

Day 13
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This little garden scene at Eltham Palace is a short drive from my house and it has taken two years of living in the area for me to drive out and see it. Often when we live somewhere we don’t appreciate the beauty and the little details that exist right on our doorsteps. We are never tourists in our own back yard. But why travel when you can find your own slice of happiness a few steps (or miles) away! Happy exploring! J x

Day 14
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Since being diagnosed with Breast Cancer, I have tried to make every day count and smile through this life-changing disease. Writing to help others (and myself) has been a massive part of that, so I was delighted when Breast Cancer Care asked me to become a regular blogger. Here’s my first post (just published)

http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/news/blog/vita-bloggers/jackie
I have also spent the day being photographed for a magazine feature about smiling through cancer. Here’s me with new eyelashes, proper make-up and some cookies I baked earlier . I have never been in front of a camera in this way before, so am a bit scared about seeing the feature.
I hope, through my writing, I will be able to help more people smile through cancer. J x

Day 15

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This little car and I have been together for 15 years. She got me to my A-level exams and she is still transporting me all round the country. She may be old and undesirable but that makes her really desirable in my book (especially on London roads). I am happy today because I have managed to get a really good deal on my car insurance renewal. Another reason to love this little blue bundle of unleaded-fuelled joy. Thank you little car. J x

Day 16
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While I have embraced the wonders of the digital age (a bit), for me there is nothing quite as exciting as receiving a bit of post through the door. I have just opened this beautiful card with alliums on the front (selected because they are my favourite flower). It has brought a huge smile to my face. The words also, are beautiful. I won’t share it all, but the amazing sender writes that she (through illness) has: ‘learnt the value of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ as well as appreciating so many little things in life.’ She adds: ‘you are being given the opportunity to learn things that so many people miss as lives are so full of busyness.’ She is so right. Happiness isn’t about getting what you want. It’s about making the best of what you have and being grateful for it.

Day 17
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Strangely Justgiving has stopped sending me emails when people donate, so imagine my surprise when I logged on just now to find I had received even more support. I am so humbled by all the kindness I have experienced over the last six months and can’t thank you enough. With your message, likes, cards, hugs, donations, flowers, chocolate, paperclips and love, you have given me so much strength. The 10k is on Sunday and, for me, it is a massive milestone. When I signed up, I thought it would take every last little bit of strength to get to the start line. My medical team think I am bit bonkers wanting to run a race with dodgy hips and chemo drugs in my bloodstream, but I want to do this for everyone who has every had to hear the words ‘cancer’ and get up day after day to face the rollercoaster that is active treatment. I wanted it to be hard and I know it will be. And I want every step to matter. I will cross that finish line on Sunday thinking of you all. Kindness is the best currency there is. Thank you for making me feel like the luckiest person alive. J x As a side note, I have also just had a wonderful day with a friend and her beautiful baby. I didn’t take a piccie although it made me very happy indeed!

Day 18
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There are two things making me particularly happy today. The first is the fact that I have just put out two window boxes full of marigolds Duncan grew from seed. Last year, somebody stole one of our window boxes. At the time, it upset me, but by moving them up to the first floor, we are fighting back. This is my small way of saying to the world, sometimes you try to take things away, but I will always find a route through to happiness. The second is the fact we have just spotted a tomato growing out of the drain at the back of our garden. I think we could all learn a lot from nature. Nature doesn’t give up. It just finds a way. It’s like a weed growing through a crack in the pavement. If obstacles are put in its path, it just creates a new one. Here’s to nature! J x

Day 19

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I am delighted to report team small boobs, big smiles have all crossed the finish line. 9k jog/running an 1k walking not bad for a lady with no hair, dodgy hips and chemo in the system. Thanks so much to all those who sponsored us. Feeling so humbled due to all the support and a little bit proud. One massive finish line crossed, just a few more to go!

Day 20
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This may look like an ordinary glass of water, but it is, in fact, very special indeed. That’s not because it comes from a special spring or bottle. It is straight out of the fridge and it is the first glass of water in about four months that I can actually TASTE! The simple pleasures in life are the best! Brief respite before I lose my taste buds all over again.

May your days be as happy as they are long!

Breast cancer lesson number 123: Take the first step and see just how far you can go

If you want a reminder of all that is good in the world, then you just need to visit London on a day when the streets are packed with charity runners, not commuters and cars. Yesterday, I, along with Duncan and three friends, took to the city streets to do our bit for Breast Cancer Care. I had convinced myself we’d be touring the landmarks and stretching our legs. In truth, it was a whole lot harder than that.

Having only done the 5k Race for Life many many years ago, I had forgotten just how inspiring and amazing a crowd of runners and spectators can be. Running with my close friend Fran, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of those around us. I thought the spectators would give us a lift (which they did), but I had no idea the runners would be quite so encouraging. We were tapped, squeezed, blessed, thanked, congratulated and applauded. At one point, I was even kissed by a fellow runner, which was slightly disconcerting and astonishing. I thought I was going to trip with the shock of it all and I did well up on more than one occasion.

I am delighted to say that we jog/ran about 9km of the route and walked the other 1km. At times it was exhausting (at 3km I thought I’d never make 7km let alone the full 10km), at times my hips were hurting (thankfully, my body is back to normal today so no harm done) and, at times I felt like the tank was pretty much empty (even though I had had breakfast and a trusty banana). But, just thinking about all the amazing support, friends, and those waking up to face cancer every day, kept me focused and got me over the finish line.

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The moment we crossed the finish line is a moment I will never forget. It wasn’t graceful and I can’t say I had a massive spurt at the end. It was special, however, because it marked the end of a journey that, at times during chemo, I thought I would never complete. It was my mountain and I’d climbed it. It feels amazing to have raised money for a worthwhile cause (between us we’re up to about £3,000 in sponsorship) and achieved something for myself at such a difficult time.

I am glad to report the legs, PICC line and heart are still in tact and the head feels refreshed after all that rain. It was hard. But would I do it again? Absolutely. Just maybe not tomorrow!

To top it off, I got home to find a wonderful friend had sent me a book all about running to inspire me to keep going. It was perfectly timed and is something I will both enjoy reading and treasure forever.

So thank you for your messages of encouragement, your tips, your sponsorship money, your Facebook likes and your unwavering support. Thanks to the amazing small boobs, big smiles team for running a great race and joining me on the course. Thanks to all the kind strangers who gave us a boost with their words of encouragement (and kisses). Thanks to Breast Cancer Care for being a superb motivator. Thanks to my trainers for not giving up even though they’ve seen better days. And thanks to my body for going the distance. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it (I had my acute oncology card in by back pocket just in case). But, I am so happy I did!

If you’re hesitating over filling out an entry form or worried about whether or not your trainers will make it round a course in one piece, I would urge you to apply for something soon. It was such an amazing discipline and gave me a reason to get out of bed every single day (even when the pain was willing me to stay under the duvet). It has been great for the mind – and the weight management. And, it is the reason I have been smiling for the last 24 hours.

You don’t have to be fast to call yourself a runner. You just have to try and take that first step. Yesterday I was runner among a field of amazing runners. And, all I can think about now is when can I do it all over again?

If you have any suggestions for my next challenge, please let me know. And, if you fancy joining me, you know where I am!

Breast cancer lesson number 122: It’s not the finish that matters. It’s the fact you had the courage to start

I have just been safety-pinning my race number to my running top and arranging meeting times with friends and, I have to confess, I am so excited about tomorrow’s 10k.

Funnily enough, this feeling has little to do with the race itself. Reaching the start line alone will mean more to me than registering a time. That’s because, when I signed up for the race months ago, I never thought I’d make it.

Up until I started training, I had never run more than a 5k. I did the Race for Life many years ago and it was enough to give me the groin strain that eventually landed me on the operating table having major hip surgery in 2007. I think it is fair to say I don’t have runner’s legs (or runner’s anything for that matter). And, I think from the looks given to me by my medical team, trying to develop them when your body is being systematically destroyed and rebuilt with chemo drugs, is a pretty odd thing to do.

For a runner, 10k is a bit of lunchtime exercise. For me, it’s a marathon uphill on cobbles with no trainers. Just training for it, however, has given me strength, confidence, a reason to get out of bed and, most importantly of course, slightly better thighs :-). Running (by which I mean jog/walking, but running sounds better) has been my lifeline and my motivator. It has given me space to think, dedicated me time, the justification to eat a few treats and the energy and strength to kick cancer out of the park. Put simply, running has made me happy.

When I submitted my entry, I remember thinking this run (if I get there) will be a fantastic way to celebrate the end of chemo. I cannot believe this run is tomorrow. Every step will be on step closer to the end of active treatment (which I am hoping will be the end of September). Tomorrow’s finish line isn’t the real aim. It’s the finish line at the end of radiotherapy that I am aiming for. I know running will get me there.

When I stand on the start line tomorrow I won’t just be thinking about how far I have come (both physically and emotionally). Tomorrow, I will be running for my life and for the lives of all those who have been affected by cancer.

Knowing that I will have close friends by my side, who have gone out of their way not just to train, but to raise money too, means everything. And knowing that I have received so much amazing support from friends and family will give me the motivation to put one foot in front of the other, when it gets tough. (For anyone worried about this from a medical perspective, I promise to run my own race and take it steady!) Thank you from the bottom of my heart for believing in me, giving me a reason to battle the bone pain, and helping me raise money for such a superb cause.

They say happiness in life comes from achievement with purpose. I think that’s pretty accurate. I would urge anyone trying to get fit – or just get out of bed every day – to set themselves a challenge that means something to them. It could just be a really small thing, but it might be that that small thing makes the biggest difference in your life. Trust me, if I can run around the streets of London with chemo drugs in my body, you can face your fears.

So, whatever it is you are doing at 9.35am tomorrow, spare a thought for Duncan and Rob (who are running through injuries to support the cause), Emily and Fran (who are mothers challenging themselves and helping a friend) and me (the girl with no hair who decided to make every day count not so long ago). I must also mention my physio who is running the race too. I hope we all get to the finish line in one piece, but I am just so happy that we will be standing on the start line together.

Whatever challenge you set, may it be rewarding and life-enhancing. I wish you every success.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 95: It’s time to put yourself in the picture

You may find this hard to believe if you’ve not met me before, but I have never liked having my picture taken. I was the child plagued with ‘red eye’. Not tilting my head in a weird way every time I see a camera takes a huge amount of effort. And, a selfie was, up until I started this blog, something everyone else did. They say the cameras never lie. In my case, I’m not sure they’ve ever told the truth!

Lying in bed after having spent the evening running round the Chelsea Flower Show last night, however, I started to realise that maybe a life always behind the camera isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I will never be a fan of the sea of phones that seem to accompany every single event nowadays. (I still wish people would spend more time enjoying the moment and the experience of being at an event and less time plotting their locations for Facebook and telling everyone else how much fun they’re having. They’d certainly have more fun if they put their phones down for a second.) But, I do believe a great photo is a powerful thing. It doesn’t just capture a moment, it captures the happiness and joy felt in that moment.

Looking back through my catalogue of show garden pictures this morning, there was something missing. I had photos of my favourite flowers, the wonderful potting shed artisan garden with its beautiful back story and some of the stunning details I spotted along the way. But there was no sign of Duncan and I enjoying ourselves. I will always remember that we did, but I don’t have a face smiling back at me confirming that fact.

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Not any more!

With a weekend of Bank Holiday adventures in front of me, starting with a day on the Orient Express, I am determined to change my perspective – and I encourage you to do the same!

Stand out from behind the camera and be part of the memory making. Time is precious and photos are the perfect way to remind us of that fact every day (especially when we’re in them). Some of us may be afraid of life in front of the lens. However, I think we should be more afraid of not having it pointed in our direction, even just once in while.

May you all enjoy your lovely long weekends – if you’re lucky enough to live in the right country to have one!

PS: I had my first photo bombing experience on Wednesday night at the wonderful ZSL safari gala dinner! Here’s me and my lovely colleague. I won’t forget that 🙂 

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Breast cancer lesson number 94: How to get more from active treatment

Cancer treatment is like being signed up to run a marathon race with no training. In short, it hurts. But, just sometimes, days like today are sent along to remind us that there are plenty of pit stops along the way that are actually rather enjoyable. As long as you know how to find them that is – and make the most of them when you do!

On annual leave, you’ll usually find me tucked up in front of a log fire with a glass of wine or strolling along the Dorset Coast path. The UK is our oyster and we do our best to enjoy it. Today, however, I spent the day with my arms in the air for a really good cause.

While most of you were commuting to your desks, I was on my way to the wonderful Haven charity in Fulham to take part in an exercise video. By exercise video, I don’t mean raising a sweat (although I did have a few too many hot flushes). By exercise video, I mean a series of exercises designed to help those who have had lymph node surgery manage the risk of developing lymphoedema (or arm swelling). Ok, so it might be the world’s most sedentary exercise class and I am not about to give Nell McAndrew a run for her money. But that didn’t make it any less important.

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Although I don’t think I am destined for life in front of the camera (I dread to think what my exercise face looks like and I waffled a bit on my vox pop at the end), it was a really wonderful day. I met a fantastic team dedicated to getting the medical side just right and also informing people about the latest thinking surrounding lymphoedema. No longer are we supposed to rest our affected arms and wear preventative compression sleeves. Exercise (within your limits) is the answer to ensuring we all have a really good base from which to get on with daily life. Managing the risk of lymphoedema isn’t about focusing on what you shouldn’t do, it’s about making a few adjustments to life so that you can keep doing everything you love. Saunas may not be top of the list, but everything else is pretty much up for grabs.

I also met some pretty special ladies, all at different stages of their treatment. With their positive spirits and colourful characters they were great film buddies. It will certainly be interesting to see the final cut, that’s for sure. Don’t expect a screening!

Never did I think that three rounds into chemo, I would be described as the fit one. It’s also strange to think that my hairless self (albeit in a hat) will now be immortalised, a DVD reminder of the fact that even when chemo piles on the side effects, you can still come out smiling.

Amusingly, I got a few odd looks on the tube. It seems a cancer patient with a hair loss cap, jeans and a t-shirt presents no challenge to onlookers. Dress her in leggings, trainers and yoga tops and suddenly she becomes an enigma. An active sick person. Does she deserve a seat or a round of applause? After what feels like about a thousand arm raises, I think I’ll take the seat thanks.

The great thing about today is it doesn’t end there. I am just doing a quick dress change before making my way to ZSL London Zoo for a safari gala dinner.

Take that cancer!

Breast cancer lesson number 25: Now is the time to stop waiting and start living

Ask me what one of the hardest things about living with breast cancer is and I won’t mention the pain, the frustration, the sadness or the fact I can’t wear pretty much anything from my wardrobe (if it’s not button up, zip down or very stretchy, it just won’t work). For me, an impatient, ambitious, run-before-you-can-walk type person, one of the hardest things is the waiting. Because, when you’ve got lots of tests and a dedicated team all rallying round to save you, there’s lots of it!

Now, by waiting, I don’t mean waiting rooms (with a good book and my mum at my side, I could wait all day). I still have mixed emotions about the fact there is rarely anyone even close to my age in any waiting room (I nearly pounced on a young woman on pre-op day because she looked like she was in her 30s). No, by waiting, I mean waiting for the next hospital appointment, waiting for the biopsy results, waiting for the surgery, waiting for the pathology results, waiting to start fertility, waiting for chemo and waiting for the letters summoning me to all these things to come through the door. It’s not the waiting so much as it is the fear and the sleepless nights that descend when certainty is replaced with those wonderful words: ‘what if?’

Waiting in cancer land is like queuing for a new ride at a theme park. You have a rough idea of how long it will take, but that gives you no comfort. You think, when you join the end of the queue, your turn will just never come. And then, when it’s your time to sit down waiting for the action to start, you wonder why you even wasted a moment worrying. That is, until you join another queue for the next ride and the pattern starts all over again. I’m a Brit, I’m polite when queuing, I’m a patient patient, and I should really relish the opportunity to stand in line and wait my turn. Trouble is, when your life is on the line, even the smallest of waits seems like an eternity.

There is one comment from yesterday’s pathology meeting that has been playing on my mind. When I asked about the future and the probability (the higher the stage, the higher the risk) of the cancer returning, I was faced with a lifetime of uncertainty. Every individual and every cancer diagnosis is different. My surgeon explained that if I can get through the next 10 years, I can get through the next 60 (92, maybe I’ll be the fittest grannie going). That’s one whole decade of standing in line. Even I, queue queen (I have a tendency to gravitate to lines longer than about five people), think that’s a pretty long queue. Yesterday, I walked into the hospital thinking I just had chemo left. I came out with a course of radiotherapy thrown in too. Cancer doesn’t play by the rules and stand in line, so why should I?

So today is the day I stop waiting and start living. The appointments will come and go, the treatment will come and go. The cancer was here and now it is gone. Life is a colourful tapestry of memories and magical moments – and most of these aren’t made while waiting for something to happen. I will go to the Amalfi coast (after years of hoping), I will get married (once Duncan agrees to there being more than four guests), I will achieve my dream of looking good in a pair of shorts (maybe not this summer while on chemo) and I will try and seek out something in every day that reminds me that you only get out what you put in. Your challenge, should you wish to accept it, is to help me keep smiling, keep positive and keep adding to that tapestry so that this next decade can be the best one ever!

Diary, you’re about to get busy! 

Breast cancer lesson number nineteen: Cherish the small victories; there’s a team of people helping you achieve the big ones

When I think about happiness, I don’t think about two-week breaks in the sun, new cars (I still have my blue Nissan Micra from 1999), material items or grand romantic gestures (that’s lucky given I’ve only ever had one box of Valentine’s chocs in my life). Happiness to me is a little moment in time that makes me smile. It might be the smell of honey-roasted ham on Christmas Eve. It might be the warmth of the fire on a Sunday afternoon. It might be the sound of a funny TFL announcer on the way to work – or even, just a hot cup of tea and a mouthful of NHS mash. Happiness isn’t hard to find; you just need to a) know where to look and b) want to look!

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This sign above on a ledge by my stairs, reminds me to seek out the small pleasures on a daily basis. When I apply this to life right now, I know there’s no point me thinking about the cancer, the chemo and the possibility of never being able to have a child (just a selection of the big things). There are far more qualified people focusing on those aspects. No, my focus has to be on filling each day with a selection of small victories and fun memories, so that each day, I get that bit stronger and that bit happier. Then, when the big things come along, I can smile even when the lights are out.

Interestingly, a great film I watched the other day reinforced this life view: About Time. I should have read the plot synopsis beforehand (front-fastening bras and cancer make the storyline – oops), but once it had finished, I didn’t think about sadness or death. I don’t want to ruin the film for those who love a good rom com, but, let’s just say, the main character learned to look for the beauty in every moment and celebrate the people and the colour that define his life. He bathed in the detail and made the most of each moment. That made him a hero in my book.

I’d be the first to admit that when times are not so hard, it is difficult to savour each moment, however small – it’s often hard to find time to do the washing up let alone enjoy the bubbles why you’re doing it. But, given it’s a Sunday and you should be taking it easy, now is as good a time as any to give it a go.

So, here are a selection of small victories and happy moments from the last few days to help you think about the little luxuries that have the power the lift you.

1) Celebrating the details: when life forces you to walk slowly, every journey is a voyage of discovery. Yesterday, on a walk up a familiar road I saw things I’d never seen before – from interesting pot plants and funny signs to funky curtain fabrics and quirky door knockers. There is a slight downside to this. I also seem to see or hear about cancer everywhere I go. When I was waiting for the biopsy results, every train carriage had a cancer advert. My mum was reading a book yesterday that suddenly became all about breast cancer. Even Eastenders is having a go. I think I may need to filter out a few of the details!

2) Conquering those socks: ok, so unless you’ve had major surgery recently or are heavily pregnant, I doubt this will be enough to raise a smile. But, for me, it is today’s small victory. Next stop is getting my trainers out and tying the laces properly (daring I know!).

3) Smiling when the post arrives: sift out the bills and the unsolicited clothing catalogues and there is usually something smiling back at me from the doormat each day. I love sending cards and letters and I vow to do even more of this now.

4) Watching a film on a Friday afternoon: now, I am not advocating a duvet day, but doing things that are out of routine, are pretty liberating. I have been subjecting mum to my back catalogue of soppy films to save Duncan and we are laughing and crying through the day. It’s perfect – and it doesn’t cost a thing.

5) Welcoming the knock at the door: salesmen, religious champions and workmen have been replaced with delivery men, florists and postmen with parcels. I almost jumped for joy when my new post-surgery bra arrived the other day. These little punctuations in the day are welcome and wonderful.

6) Cherishing the power of words: each day I am moved by a beautiful text (until my phone decides to automatically delete it), a wonderful post or even a little ‘like’ on social media. Whether it’s a close friend, someone from my past or a friendly face sharing a moving moment from their life, each one touches me more than I will ever be able to say. Messages can be a powerful thing. The best thing is to reach out to someone when they least expect it. Try it with someone you haven’t contacted for a while, it will make you smile too. 

7) Enjoying the comfort of cosy things: if there aren’t enough fluffy things in your life (by which I mean comfy cushions, slankets, fluffy slippers or fleece-lined clothes), it’s time to reevaluate. I many not be able to wear my onesie currently, but I am loving the feel of soft things against my swollen and scarred skin.

8) Smiling down at my engagement ring: getting engaged on Christmas Day will always be one of the happiest moments of my life. The Champagne may be on ice, but the cards are still up and every day I look down at my finger I look forward to day I get to walk down the aisle and thank all the friends and relatives who have helped make Duncan and I the people are today. It may not be a ring or a trinket, but having something close to you that reminds you what you’re fighting for in life and gives you hope, is something to be treasured.

9) Opening the chocolate cupboard: even with a love of chocolate, I was still unable to chomp through all the amazing treats offered to me when I was trying to fatten up for surgery. While I now need to keep the calories at bay, I am enjoying the ritual of choosing two things from the chocolate cupboard each day (may have to increase this slightly, however, given the rate Duncan is munching through J).

10) Emptying the dishwasher: not something you might wish to shout about on the average day, but when you’re stuck in a corset with a hip-to-hip scar, just picking out a pan and a mug is a revelation and a sign that a normal life is within reach.

Happiness is an ordinary day that makes you feel extraordinary. Try it, feel it, and even spotting sunshine through the clouds will make you feel happy to be alive.