life after cancer

Breast cancer lesson 184: When you have a big enough why, you can endure any how

The last decade has taught me much about determination. Whether it’s finding a way to make it up the stairs before my hip reconstruction surgery, walk that first mile after mastectomy and tummy tuck (to build new boob) surgery, get to the end of my first 10k during chemo or make it to the marathon start line, life has forced me to the ground and I have had to use every last bit of strength to pull myself up again.

It seems only fitting, therefore, that we should choose to inflict another huge test of endurance on ourselves for our wedding and honeymoon – one that I have already been told by the experts is going to hurt, a lot!

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I write this post after a gruelling 19-mile run/walk/stretch fest to try and manage an injury and keep training for our marathon wedding and honeymoon trek. With my dad for company, there were genuinely times when I felt I could not go on. But, with every painful step came the reminder of something my dad said to me on a run back in January. He said: ‘when you have a big enough why, you can endure any how.’

And how right he is.

With a marathon, pain is pretty much inevitable (especially if you start it with a hip full of metal and an ITB injury). But, the suffering doesn’t have to be.

My big why? The best way to describe it is to use the word I gave to the London Marathon when they asked me about my #ReasonToRun as part of their 2017 campaign.

I chose hope.

When you have a serious illness, hope is everything.

It keeps you going when you have little else. It lifts you up. It presents you with a future you would otherwise struggle to write for yourself.

It is hope that we choose to gift to all who are ready to receive it on our wedding day.

Yes, we are raising money for Willow and Breast Cancer Care so that they can give people with serious illness the strength to face another day. But, more than that, we run for all those who are finding it hard to get through the day. We run for all those facing physical challenges that mean even climbing the stairs is a uphill battle (that was me a decade ago). We run to inspire others to believe they can in a world that so often tells the, they can’t. We run to show that you can go further than you ever thought possible with the right people by their side.

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So, on April 23, help us raise a glass to hope.

In so doing, you will give me the strength I (and the rest of our running wedding party) need to face the pain and still come out smiling.

See you on the finish line!

Thank you to everyone who has sponsored us so far. If you’d like to help us get our £15k finish line, you can donate here.

Breast cancer lesson 183: Life after cancer is about making every day count

It’s not every day you call up the mother of the bride to tell her that you’re getting married in trainers – and that she needs some too!

After waiting 13 years for a proposal, I don’t think my parents ever expected my partner and I to get married.

So imagine their surprise when I announced that not only would there actually be a wedding, but that they’d have to get up at 6am to be there – on the Cutty Sark, dressed to watch a marathon, that we would be running.

Three years ago, when Duncan proposed, I had visions of a Cotswolds country garden wedding with edible centrepieces and vases of alliums.

I didn’t own trainers.

Having had my pelvis rebuilt in 2007 and pinned with metal, I ‘d never experienced the feeling of being alive (and completely shattered) at the end of a run.

But, being diagnosed with breast cancer, just three weeks after getting engaged (not to mention being told by your oncologist that you are likely to gain three stone during chemo) did a lot to change that picture.

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I chose to run during treatment because I wanted to show my body that it can take a lot of things – forcing me to learn to walk again in my 20s and stealing my boob in my 30s – but that it couldn’t define me. I chose running because I knew it would be hard. I chose running because I needed to find a reason to get out of bed and feel the sun on my face. I chose running because I wanted to feel alive at a time when my body had other ideas.

With my nurse mum as carer, Duncan could be my running partner (by which I mean running in the same races miles ahead of me). It kept us going when circumstances could have so easily ripped us apart. Running changed the course of my days and, in so doing, changed my life.

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This is a hard post to write at a time when I can put on my trainers but I can’t move forward. But, while I am injured right now and in the hands of surgeons and physios as they try to diagnose my pain, it is the dream of a cold day in April and the London Marathon that keeps me going.

When you’ve fought for your life, it’s hard to plan too far ahead and rest your happiness on one day in the future. So, when we started talking about our wedding earlier this year, I knew there was only one way to do it. There wouldn’t be an aisle. There wouldn’t be a first dance. There wouldn’t be a day in the Cotswolds.

Our wedding had to be a chance to give back, volunteer, thank those who have supported us and to remind the world that life may be hard but, by focusing on the little – and often beautiful – details of life, you can make every day count.

That’s why the ceremony is happening at 7.30am and the honeymoon will be spent on the Great Wall of China.

I know wedding planning is supposed to be stressful, but I thought that by cutting out the favours and the sit-down meal and focusing on charity it would be a little less involved.

Not so. With road closures, a running wedding dress being designed by the incredibly kind and brilliant Frankie Seaman (Professional Ice Skater from Dancing On Ice), a hen 10k run and a gel bouquet all part of proceedings, I know this will be an experience we will never forget.

I know a hip full of metal, superglued stomach and tummy-fat filled right breast (from mastectomy surgery), oh, and asthma, do not the best running companions make. I know that my next run could be my last (I haven’t ruled out walking it if I am not able to run again). I have been told – on more than one occasion – to find another hobby before I break myself completely (and I will if you let me run one more marathon).

But, when I’m running, I have everything to smile about and I certainly didn’t beat a life-threatening illness just to play it safe.

Our wedding isn’t just a celebration of love and life. It’s a chance for us to thank the people who helped us find our way back to happiness both during and after treatment.

We also want it to serve as a reminder to everyone going through difficult times – whether it be serious illness, or loss, financial difficulties or the daily problems of life – that there is a way to move forward.

If you’re reading this, you’re already on the journey with us. Welcome to the team!

If you’d like to support us please visit: bit.ly/2eSLaed

I will be also writing about the big day and beyond on my blog thisdayforward.org and via Twitter @Jackie8.

Breast cancer lesson 163: The rollercoaster of life continues even when you’re back on solid ground

Yesterday, I went on a ‘getting closure’ mission. Those of you who have followed my journey from the beginning may remember a certain moment of criminal activity that I will never allow myself to forget. Just after being diagnosed, I walked out of a coffee shop without paying. Yes, it was only a cup of tea (and when my friend called them to apologise they said the loss was only about 15p). But, for me, it was a sign the cancer diagnosis was starting to take hold.

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So yesterday, I went back to said coffee shop (hoping not to find my mug shot plastered in the window) to repay my debt and have lunch. The only hitch? The coffee shop looked like it was no longer in business. All I wanted was closure, but life decided I couldn’t have it (if you know what has happened to the Dandelion Cafe in Camden, please shout).

After joking about my behaviour sending the business under, I started to reflect on just how difficult this healing period really is. I feel strong. I feel happy. I feel motivated, and on the surface (if we ignore the odd hair-do), I look better than I have done in years. I am positive about the future and not currently fearful of what that future may contain. But, even with all the smiles and the genuine happiness, I am still acutely aware of the fact my cancer diagnosis is still bubbling beneath the surface. And, even when I take positive steps to try and put this chapter behind me, life find a way of mixing things up and reminding me that I am not in total control of what comes next.

A lot of people tackling ‘the end’ have found the writings of Dr Peter Harvey, a clinical psychologist, incredibly useful and I can see why. What I particularly like is the rollercoaster analogy he uses to describe the whole experience.

Rather than paraphrase, here is a passage from his paper:

Imagine a rollercoaster. Some of you will find this an exciting and thrilling image: others of you will find it terrifying and beyond belief that anyone in their right mind would willingly subject themselves to the torment of being transported at high speed and with great discomfort in this manner. Some people find this a helpful image to represent the process of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

On a rollercoaster, you are strapped in and sent of into the terror, knowing that there is nothing you can do about it until you emerge, wobbly and battered at the other end. You manage by getting you head down and dealing with it as best you can at the time. It is only afterwards, when you are back on solid ground again, that you can look back with amazement and view what you have experienced and marvel at your courage.

This seems to be an analogy for what happens after diagnosis of, and during treatment for, cancer. The end of the ride is equivalent to the end of treatment. And this is where we start after the treatment has finished and at the point where you can begin, bit-by-bit, to deal with all that you have been through and all that is to come.

You may have had to endure months of treatment by knife, chemicals or radiation until you are probably sick of the whole business, both literally and metaphorically. Now is the time to heal, both body and mind.
A lot of what he says rings true. For me, the most striking bit of the analogy is the idea that when you are going through treatment everything is almost a blur as you rush from one waiting room to another, obediently taking your top off or holding your arm out for treatment. It is only when you hit solid ground again that you can start to reflect on the ride – thrilling, frightening or otherwise. I can safely say, I think it’s a rollercoaster we’d never like to see – let alone ride – again!

Positive though I am, I feel there are two things right now that have changed for me. The first is my view of time. I have always been a tad bit impatient. Now, however, I feel that every moment I have is a gift and, therefore, have been trying to seize each and every one. Trouble is, now that I am back working full time as well as volunteering, cooking, baking, exercising and trying to relax, there really aren’t enough hours in the day. I listen to conversations wishing I could get up and move on. You could say it’s a great filter. The truth? It’s actually a bit exhausting and it’s just unsustainable. Hopefully I will find a happy medium soon.

The other change is a style one. Over the last six months, I have been reaching for zip-up tops and jeans, not dresses and skirts. I was excited about stepping back into my work wear, but, it seems my body shape isn’t the same anymore. The clothes fit, but they don’t quite look right, I have changed, my body has been reborn, and my clothes are a mark of my ‘past’ life.

This version of normal is so shiny and new, it going to take me a while to adjust. At least it is closer to normal though. And, every day, I am taking one step further away from cancer and one step closer to me. Today, I towel-dried my hair, upgraded to an adult toothbrush once more and used a razor (my legs got a shock). That’s what I call progress!

At least I know one thing that won’t be making am appearance any time soon – a rollercoaster!