Breast cancer lesson number 75: Don’t wait for the storm to pass. Learn to dance in the rain

This morning I made a mistake. Instead of comforting myself after a night of restless sleep (bald heads, sleep caps and hot flushes do not great bedfellows make) and a day without tastebuds, I stood on the scales. My first day back at work after chemo two decided to wreak havoc on my bloodstream and I started it by making myself feel bad – rather than by making myself the cup of tea I probably deserved. Don’t ask me why I did it. Let’s just say, I won’t be doing it again.

Having now experienced two rounds of the toxic stuff, I have decided that chemotherapy is the medical equivalent of a dementor (feel free to swot up on your Harry Potter knowledge here). Ok, so it’s not exactly a figment of my imagination or a creature of the night and, I appreciate its main target is cancer cells and not my soul, but I do think that if you let it take hold and define your life, chemo will drain you of the hope and happiness you need to keep going. After all, anything that steals away your ability to taste food, sleep well and think straight is not going to be high up there on the Christmas card list.

The trouble with chemo is that if you can only feel happy when you feel yourself, you might be in for a very very long wait. While I am not a big fan of the fact my eggs taste like cardboard, the skin is peeling off my mouth and I am now only at the right temperature when my leg is hanging out of the bed, I know that I need my positivity as much as I need the drugs. Chemo, with its systematic destruction of the body, does not care whether you smile when you wake up in the morning, so you have to.


While there is no magic Patronus charm (apologies to all non Harry Potter lovers out there) to snap you out of that bad start and banish the toxins from your bloodstream, here are five tiny top tips for taking control away from the chemo 

1) Get your kit on: I may be sporting a rather odd combination of suntops, a sweater and a fluffy poncho to keep warm, but I didn’t sleep in it, so that makes it clothing!Dress for the day and you’ll find it a lot less daunting.

2) Open those curtains: Clouds or no clouds, daylight is always more inviting when you can actually see it. Let it in and it might just lift your spirits.

3) Variety is the spice of life: There is more to life than the sofa, even if it is your current place of work. A day without structure and a change of pace will probably never be a day you wish to repeat.

4) If you have time for Facebook, you have time for exercise: It doesn’t have to involve lycra, and sweat is purely optional, but it’s amazing what even a bit of stretching can do for the mind, body and soul. I’m looking forward to pilates later.

5) Make the little things matter: from an unexpected piece of news and a kind message to a perfectly fried egg (even one you can’t taste), the little things often make the biggest impression.

Of course, sometimes it’s just not possible to change the course of a day. But even if chronic fatigue, mouth ulcers, temperatures and sickness stand in your way today, just remember there is always tomorrow.Chemo isn’t conquered in a day. Don’t aim for 110% if 75% is all that’s needed. And, don’t feel guilty if the day you thought you’d have is not the one you end up living. For all its nastiness, chemo is at least trying to make sure you have lots of tomorrows.


Chemo or no chemo, it’s a rare day that brings with it the right amount of sunshine. It’s up to you to find a break in the clouds or, better still, smile even when the rain falls.

Breast cancer lesson number 70: You can only play the opposition in front of you

I have always been one of life’s great worriers. Growing up, my favourite phrase (much to the frustration of my parents) was ‘what happens if…?’. If there’s an opportunity to obsess about something – from slugs and foxes to magazine deadlines – I’m there with my concerned face and (usually) my notebook!

That is, until now. Cancer, for all its flaws, has a way of putting life into sharp focus. It forces the mind to think about the only things that matter – namely life and death and how to enjoy one while avoiding the other. It certainly doesn’t eliminate worry, but it does have a way of helping you be a little more selective.

Cancer, and chemotherapy in particular, has given me a masterclass in a thing called ‘worthwhile worry’. This rather exciting strand of worry is related to concerns about events and side effects that are happening now and over which I have some control. There’s no ‘might’, ‘maybe’ or ‘what if’ in sight. Worthwhile worry, unlike 80% of the concerns that have filled up my diary over the years, is a good use of mental energy and it has a great way of pushing the unexpected phone engineer bills and missing parcels to the bottom of the pile.

Of course, I am not wishing life-threatening worries on anyone just so that they can let go of the empty washing-up liquid bottle and the overflowing laundry basket. But, I do think it is healthy to reflect on your existing list of concerns and challenge a few along the way. This year has already taught me that time is not for wasting. Time is not for throwing away thinking about things that might or could happen. Time is to be spent tackling the important obstacles that life has a habit of flinging in our direction. If it isn’t, you’ll look back and realise that you’ve got a few more unnecessary wrinkles and no time left to straighten them out!

As FEC chemotherapy cycle number two approaches, I am not worried about the side effects or just how pink my pee will be by 7pm this evening. I may not pass the pre-chemo blood test. I may react badly. But, the only thing I know will happen is that, whatever comes my way, I will get through it. I know about mouth ulcers and I have a stocked medicine cabinet to prove it. I have so little hair on my head, there’s not much more to take. I have a tub full of queasy drops and I’m not afraid to use them. By starting my anti-sickness meds at lunchtime, I am hoping I can stop the nausea in its tracks. I am prepared based on the experience of chemo cycle one. I will take it one day at a time. And, if other side effects wish to join the party, I will worry about them only when – and not if – they occur. Go into it relaxed and you’ll have far more energy to tackle those nasty little surprises.

Duncan was spot on when he said: ‘you can only play the opposition in front of you’. It’s something I plan to do today and for the rest of my life – and I hope you do too. Worry about tomorrow once you’ve got the real problems of today out the way. And, if tomorrow doesn’t look too demanding, don’t worry about it at all. That way, you’ll have more time to spend smiling and being productive and more strength for those worthwhile worries when they do come along. Because, rest assured, they will.