Breast cancer lesson number 30: Life is a gift worth unwrapping every day. Make sure you share it

At the end of last year, before cancer came along, took me by the heels and shook me hard, life had already taught me a really big lesson. Just before Christmas, I packaged up more than 50 individual present hampers for family and friends (please read the rest before you declare, where was mine?!). Looking down at my 200 handmade items – everything from chutneys and jams to bath bombs, soaps, candles, Christmas hearts and spiced festive biscuits for the tree – I remember thinking that all those late nights, packed weekends, paper cuts and missed film plotlines (usually lost while untangling thread) had been worth it, because I was going to make people smile.

I was wrong.

Firstly, I didn’t think that actually hand-delivering them (rather than leaving them secretly on desks or sending them via friends) and explaining what was in each one (apologies to my lovely colleague who mistook a bath creamer for a white chocolate treat) might have meant something to those on the receiving end. Secondly, by burying myself away for months on end I missed more than just film plotlines. I missed friends. I missed ice skating at Somerset House and a warming post-skate (or shuffle) hot chocolate (always like to dream that I am on the set of Love Actually). I was too busy to see the Christmas lights. I flew to Ireland for a wedding and was too ill to raise a toast to my beautiful friends. I woke up on Christmas Eve and wondered just where December had gone. In short, I was so busy doing, I wasn’t actually living. I was so busy making things, I wasn’t actually making memories with the people I love. I thought I was doing something kind. But, I missed the point. And then, as we all know, I discovered that lump!

I woke up on January 1 knowing this would be the year to start doing things differently. And, I think life, knowing how quickly I would fall back into the same routine, thought it would throw me a life-threatening illness just to make sure.

So here’s my conundrum. Over the past eight weeks, I have experienced a lifetime’s worth of kindness. I have tears running down my face as I think about the wonderful words, the pre-surgery chocolate and the thoughtfulness that has filled up my heart, my stomach and my living room shelves (to be honest, any surface at the moment). From the tea lady who snuck me extra biscuits to a well-timed email from an old friend, I feel truly blessed. It seems strange to think that cancer has brought me so much happiness, but it has. My task now, is to both thank all those who are helping me smile through this chapter and to learn to carry this feeling of happiness with me for the rest of my life.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking about thanking. I know now that life is a bit too short to bury yourself in toy stuffing all the time (even though I love my craft). That’s not to say I won’t be untangling thread any time soon (in fact, I have a new sewing machine to play with) but I think people might actually enjoy a little less stuffing and a little more time.

So, here’s my plan. Drawing on the wonderful skills of Kirsty Allsopp, I have made (and will continue to make until the world has no pink felt left) a series of pink hearts with a pink ribbon running through each one. They’re simple to make. They’re great for my arm rehab. They represent in colour and design the challenge I’m facing. They do include toy stuffing, but in limited quantities. And, yes, they’re a little bit cheesy, but anyone who knows me well will know that’s just my style.

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Together with handwritten messages and pale pink envelopes, I intend to hand deliver each one of these hearts to the people in my life who’ve made me smile. No secret gifting, no postage stamps required. Just me, giving my time so that I can give back to those who have selflessly spent time thinking about me. Yes, this may mean getting on a plane or trying to get the name of the nurse who made my stay in recovery so enjoyable. Back in lesson number nine, I said I am not sure I will ever be able to thank you all for the kindness you have shown me so far, but that I would spend the rest of my life trying. I won’t stop until I’ve delivered each and every one.

This is a heart I want you to hang (even if it’s in the airing cupboard or the downstairs loo). Every time you look at the heart, I don’t want you to think of me. I want you to think of all the people in your life that make you who you are and make you happy to be alive. I know that when the business of life gets in the way, it often feels hard to find the time to feel thankful. But, you only get one life. This is your moment and no one else is going to help you seize it. That’s how I feel right now, but all I have to worry about is my next hospital appointment and whether or not I have enough tea bags and milk in the fridge. I want to look at my heart and remember this moment – and the cancer that told me to see the beauty in others and every day.

But that’s not all.

This heart comes with a hidden extra. For every heart I give, I would like an address in return (not because I am a stalker). Yes, this will help me cleanse my address book. But, it will also mean that sometime in the future (should you not move of course), I will be able to send you a little reminder. It won’t come with a note. You’ll probably think it’s been delivered to the wrong house. But, I’d like to send you a little surprise, a little act of kindness that helps you smile through the battles in your life. After all, you’re only human. The heart will fade or get dusty in the attic. Life will get in the way. We all need something to look forward to.

I’m also going to start a brighter life list (watch out for new page coming soon). This is not a bucket list – as my consultant says, we’re aiming for the grand old age of 92! This is a public declaration of all the things I know I want to do, but have always found an excuse to push down the list. They’re not ground-breaking. They’re not all particularly special. But, they mean something to me. By posting them on my blog, I want you to help me tick them off. Please add to the list (if you know me better than I know myself), or join me on an adventure if you want to tick it off too.

Life’s a fight. But life can be kind too – and the people in it. Kindness is what I want to gift to this world, one fluffy pink heart at a time…

NB: it may take you years to receive your heart (I won’t just fling it to you at a party), but please know that if you have shown kindness, it’s on its way!

Breast cancer lesson number nine: Some tears are worth crying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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