smiling through cancer

Breast cancer lesson number 112: Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.

Long before chemotherapy got hold of my veins (back in lesson number 19 to be precise – click here to read), I described happiness as a little moment in time that makes you smile. Happiness is a piece of cake on a cold and rainy day. Happiness is a flower in bloom (with an extra smile if you grow it yourself). Happiness is sitting with a good book in a comfy chair. Happiness is a cup of tea you can taste – and preferably one that doesn’t bring on a hot flush. Happiness can come from nothing and mean everything.

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I have calculated that, all being well, I have around 100 days left before I can declare active treatment officially over. And, if I’m honest, it’s getting hard to greet every day with a smile. That’s not because I’m not remaining positive when I can, but I think the sheer volume of appointments, needles and pills and the ever-increasing list of side effects is starting to catch up with me. I can’t look in the mirror without seeing cancer. I can’t look at my hands typing away without seeing cancer. I can’t even look at my diary without seeing cancer. Every night I go to bed hoping for sleep. And every night it eludes me. Every morning I get out of bed wanting to make a difference. And every morning I am reminded of the fact that now is not my time. And, you know what? It really hurts.

I knew there would come a time when I would have to dig deep. My oncologist warned me of this moment. But, before I get out my spade and hit the soil, I would like to try a new tactic. Many people have recommended the 100 happy days project to me (you can read more about it here). And I think, with around 100 days to go, now might be the perfect time to test it out. The idea is simple. By actively seeking out and photographing one thing every day that raises a smile, the project encourages us to enjoy the moment and cherish those little details.

When the next round of bone pain descends, I want to remember the Dahlia flowering in the garden not the next dose of painkillers (although I don’t want to forget them otherwise there would be trouble!). I want to remember the things and the people that transport me far away from the drugs in my bloodstream.

With my next round due on Friday, you might think now is not the time to take the challenge. But I think anything that distracts me from the prospect of injections, muscle aches, taste changes and sore throats can only be a good thing. I believe you can be happy and have bone pain! I don’t want to spend the next 100 days thinking about the life I want. I want to enjoy it now. The big picture is not for now. The small details are what matters. 

As a quick dress rehearsal, here is a beautiful cup of flowers that reminds me of a wonderful two hours spent with a friend this morning. For me, this is less a cup of purple flowers and more a representation of my friend. It’s beautiful, it’s thoughtful, it’s bursting with life and it makes me smile. 

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#100happydays starts tomorrow on chemo bloods day. I will be posting the photos on Facebook and providing updates on the blog. Question is, are you brave enough to join me (with the project not the blood test you’ll be relieved to hear)? Click here to sign up.

Breast cancer lesson number 99: You are so much more than the illness that tried to take your life away

As my official 100th post (before you think I’ve mislaid my abacus, the first one wasn’t actually a numbered lesson), I have felt under pressure to say something more meaningful than offering an extra strong mint or Ladycare magnet update. That’s why it’s taken me a good few days to sit down and start writing!

The inspiration for this post actually came from my neighbour. Sat next door in the kitchen sipping tea (naturally) on Sunday, she turned to me and said: ‘It’s so important we remember that you’re not just an illness.’ And, you know what, she’s so right.

I was a fairly-rounded person with hopes, dreams, ambitions and smiles long before I made friends with the hospital waiting room. And, I am still that person – albeit with a few cosmetic adjustments! I re-read my first ‘Dear cancer’ (click here if you missed it) post just yesterday and I am glad to report I still mean every word. The engagement Champagne is slowly being enjoyed – in a glass not the bath. (Quite frankly, when you’re tumour-free every day is a celebration!) And, I’m still smiling (most of the time when my cancer isn’t being upgraded and my body isn’t conjuring up another new chemo side effect to catch me off guard).

So, I thought, for my 100th message, it would be apt to talk not about cancer and lymph nodes and lobules, but to go back to the beginning and offer a glimpse of the person behind the shopping list sized prescriptions. The person I was, am and will be, but the person that sometimes gets lost (like my veins).

For those who don’t know me well, I would liken myself to the following table of food.

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Here’s why:

1) Home is where the heart is: With my love of nesting, cooking, crafting and cleaning (admittedly less love and more satisfaction), I often think I was born in the wrong era. For me, being at home is like waking up to a long and happy hug every morning. There’s no queuing, no travelling, you get to pick the menu and, most importantly, you get to fill every inch of your home with happy memories. There’s only downside I can see – the washing up!

2) Family means the world to me: the only dessert I ordered at grannie’s house for a good decade was her special lemon cheesecake. I loved it so much that when Kraft changed the packet sizes of their Philadelphia cheese many years back (the recipe always talked in packet sizes not weights) it caused such cheesy chaos, I contacted them for advise on my grannie’s behalf. Without a conventional oven, however, the recipe had always been beyond my reach. What a great gift it was when we moved into our house in 2012 (complete with correct oven) and I could start cooking it. My version doesn’t taste quite as good as grannie’s version, but every mouthful comes complete with a whole lifetime of happy family memories.

3) The more I share, the more I have: My bread was made to be broken with friends. Good friends make the good times better and the bad times easier and I feel so blessed to have some many to try out recipes on!

4) If at first I don’t succeed, I just keep trying: determination is cooking a quiche recipe for the second time when you know the first one was a complete disaster – so much so the pastry dripped its way to the bottom of the oven and we had to munch on cubes of cheese and bacon. The second one worked! Just have to find time to squeeze in those falafel scotch eggs I have promised at two parties now (I even got as far as boiling the eggs this time)!

5) I take life a bit too seriously: No lunchtime event is complete without a timing plan, recipe list, homemade bread, fresh pesto and at least 10 hours in the kitchen. Did I need to do it? Nope. Did I love every minute of it? Absolutely (if we overlook the scotch eggs)! I may always want to get things right, but it’s only because I care so much about everything I do. It’s part of who I am and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Happy faces and happy stomachs are a wonderful reward.

6) While I love baking, it’s savoury all the way: I surprised a friend a few weeks back by ordering a starter and a main rather than a pudding. When you love baking for the office, clients, parties and the chemo ward, it does seem strange to not be attached to some sort of sweet tooth. Give me a bit of homemade bread, quiche, cheese and some salad and I am a very (if slightly stuffed) happy woman. A table with 75% beige and 25% bake works for me (two of my favourites are on the pic, including these white chocolate and raspberry tarts). After all, even a savoury girl knows the stomach has its own dessert compartment.

So, that’s what I’d look like if I were a spread of food. I am not cancer. I am an imperfectly-formed pastry case with a soft and creamy centre and lots of cheese. I may not be much to look at most of the time, but there’s a lot of filling, it’s quite nice (when it makes it out of the oven) and there’s always time for extra helpings!

Let’s hope the hospital agrees tomorrow when I am back for my pre-chemo blood test…

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!