Today marks six years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I’m not quite sure how to sum up everything that’s happened in the last 24 hours, let alone the last year or six years. So here’s a list, in no particular order, of random thoughts and people who have inspired me.

  1. Five-year all-clear

It took six attempts before I finally managed to have my annual MRI breast scan last Christmas. You’re supposed to have the scan at a certain point in your monthly cycle, but in 2017 my periods went quarterly (they’ve since returned), which made the whole thing quite difficult. And of course when I finally got a period, the MRI scanner broke and I only found out after I’d made the train trip from London to Manchester. But we got there in the end and after 26 phone calls I finally got the letter through the post in March to say that nothing sinister had been found. God love the NHS.

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  1. Saying goodbye to my surgeon

Due to the aforementioned difficulties in appointment scheduling with a hospital that is 200 miles away, I finally decided to move. This is easier said than done because of the emotional connection I have with Mr Sharif, the surgeon who saved my life. But I haven’t seen him once in the last two years – there was always a different doctor at every follow-up – so it was time to change. I have my first appointment with the Royal Marsden in Sutton next week and I’m hoping they’ll agree to continue with my yearly MRI scans. I never got to say goodbye to Mr Sharif and Dr Chittalia, but I love them both to bits.

  1. Tamoxifen, periods, brain fog and mental health

I’ve been on the hormone suppressant tamoxifen for five and a half years and although I haven’t suffered the horrible side effects that many of my friends have, I’ve still had plenty of unwelcome effects. One of these is what I can only refer to as a sort of brain fog or haze, where I feel spaced out, depressed and utterly exhausted, rather like a migraine without the headache. It is hard to explain to work that you are unwell when you don’t have obvious physical symptoms, and this in turn leads to feelings of guilt. But in a world that is increasingly paying attention to mental health, I’m doing my best to be kind to myself.

  1. New eyebrows

Of all the things to worry about when you have cancer, you’d think hair wouldn’t be one of them, but of course it affects the way you feel. So after five years of hating the way I looked without make-up and doing a terrible job of drawing my eyebrows in, I finally invested in the painful procedure that is microblading, or permanent eyebrow tattoos, at a brilliant place in South London called Beauty Clinic Simone. I am so pleased with the results and can’t tell you how nice it feels to wake up and feel vaguely confident with the way I look. Here’s a before and after – just bear in mind I’m wearing make-up in the after pic.

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  1. Serpentine Swim and Plymouth Half in memory of Laura Weatherall-Plane

When Laura died just over a year ago aged just 37, it affected way more people than she probably ever knew loved her. She was one of the most caring, selfless people I’d ever met and she dedicated the last few years of her life to raising money for CoppaFeel! to try and prevent young people from being diagnosed with breast cancer at the too-late stage. She ran half marathons right up until a couple of months before she died, and she never stopped. So last September, a bunch of us swam 2km in the Serpentine lake, enduring far-too-cold temperatures and mouthfuls of duck shit. Then in May this year, Laura’s husband Jon gathered a group of 150+ people to run the Plymouth Half in her honour, raising almost £20,000 for CoppaFeel’s livesaving work.

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  1. Running retirement

I’m pleased to say the Plymouth Half marked my official retirement from long-distance running, because my body has told me very firmly it’s not good for me. I’ll still do up to 10km runs and I will definitely get my nip on again because I’ve discovered open-water swimming is one of the best things ever – it’s great for mental health and, curiously, I’ve also found duck shit to be a natural face and hair mask. When I announced my official retirement on social media, I received a card in the post from Jackie Scully – quite possibly the biggest legend of the physical challenges world – saying that I had been the one to inspire her to take up running after cancer. From the woman who ran a marathon on her wedding day and has undertaken to run, cycle and swim 2018 miles in 2018, this really meant a lot.

  1. Writing a novel

Part of the reason I’ve been so busy and stressed for the last couple of years is that I’ve spent every weekend and holiday trying to write my debut novel, Single Bald Female. I am still a way off finishing it, but from September til March this year I did the Faber Academy’s (brilliant) Writing a Novel course, and yesterday the class of 2018 had our work printed in an anthology, which was sent to agents. I am incredibly excited to have already received some interest from agents and this has certainly provided added motivation to finish the book as soon as humanly possible, so watch this space.

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  1. Stylist piece

In October I wrote a piece for Stylist magazine for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They sent a photographer round my house and she did some wonderful portraits while my cats tried to sabotage her technical equipment. The article was republished online last month on National Cancer Survivors Day, which is a weird one because it makes people living with secondary cancer feel excluded – and they are the people we need to supporting the most.

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  1. Kris Hallenga and Emily Hayward

CoppaFeel!’s founder, Kris Hallenga, is the ultimate in human beings and she has inspired me so much over the last few years – just read this post on How to glitter a turd for a brief taste of how much she is smashing it. She has been living with cancer for almost 10 years – which also means that CoppaFeel! turns 10 this year. You can support her ongoing efforts by purchasing tickets for Festifeel, which I can verify is actually awesome. Anyway, through her last blog, Kris introduced me to Emily Hayward, another magnificent human who has been YouTubing her way through a two-months-to-live cancer diagnosis and being the ultimate example of how not to feel sorry for yourself. Her wife Aisha deserves a special shout out for just being awe-inspiringly incredible.

  1. Werk werk werk

I never achieved the goal of becoming a women’s magazine editor that I set out to do five years ago, because I got side-tracked along the way when I went to intern at Restaurant magazine and heard about a job at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants that seemed like it was made for me (food + travel + writing). Four years later, I have somehow become part of an incredible family of chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders and foodies from all over the world and with every event I feel more at home. It has been one of the hardest, most stressful jobs I’ve ever done and it very much contradicts my post-cancer aim of leading a calmer life, but somehow I have stuck around because I love it and I love my team.

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Just this last week, I had the opportunity to do a live interview on stage with one of the people I most admire in the gastronomy world and whose restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns is simply incredible – Dan Barber. I also fluffed my way through interviews on Spanish radio and produced a 56-page book in the space of two weeks. It is not what I imagined I’d be doing four years ago but it’s pretty cool.

Needless to say, it’s been one of the most intense weeks of my life and I’m exhausted, sleep deprived and an emotional wreck, but I am SO HAPPY. All the love to everyone who’s supported me through these last six years xx

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Today marks the day that, five years ago, I entered St. Vincent’s Hospital completely oblivious about the state of my health and left with the news that I had cancer. It was a day that would change my life in so many ways, not so much because of the horrors the illness would bring for me but because of the wonderful people I would meet because of it, and those I would lose along the way.

I am lucky, so very lucky, that I’m here today and alive and healthy, with the ability to do pretty much anything I want with my life. I’m eternally grateful for those five years ‘in remission’ and I hope to live 50 more. But it’s a bitter-sweet anniversary because just a few weeks ago we lost Laura Weatherall-Plane, one of the kindest, funniest people I’ve ever met and who serves as the biggest reminder of how short life is.

Laura and I met around four years ago through CoppaFeel!, the breast cancer charity she so faithfully supported until the very end, raising thousands of pounds, running half marathons after blood transfusions and while on chemo – her last long-distance run was as recent as this March. When I met her, she was, like me, recovering from primary breast cancer and believed she had a normal life ahead of her, so when we met again a few months later and she told me she’d had a secondary diagnosis, I couldn’t believe it.

IMG_0864.JPGMe (left) with Laura W-P (to my right) and our fellow trekkers

I didn’t know Laura well but I had the honour of sharing her company on the Iceland trek we did for CoppaFeel! last August. She and her husband Jon were the life and soul of the trip, entertaining us with their colourful stories and games and keeping us positive through the pain of the hike, even though Laura herself was walking on feet that were red raw from chemo. She even had the selflessness to tell me I wasn’t pathetic when I had tears in my eyes over having to cross an ice-cold river with our bare feet. She was really a special soul.

Laura made it her life’s work to support her friend Kris‘s efforts to make sure no one else is diagnosed with breast cancer at the terminal stage simply because they believe they’re too young for it. At her funeral, we heard an emotional letter from her cousin Jade, whose life Laura saved. So if you do anything else after reading this, please go check your boobs, or encourage someone else to – it’s exactly what she’d have wanted.

IMG_0894.JPGWith Laura Hughes, the moment we finished the 60km trek

Shortly after returning from Iceland, another Laura – Laura Hughes – was also diagnosed with secondary cancer. She’d had terrible pains in her shoulder throughout the trek but had put it down to a sporting injury, not suspecting it could have anything to do with her cancer spreading. Laura is 29 and is now working her way through her own version of a bucket list, called “Laura’s life is for living.”

So these last five years have been some of the hardest and scariest but also some of the best of my life, for so many different reasons, and I’m constantly reminded of how short life is. I definitely can’t claim to be someone who never spends a day feeling miserable, but I’m doing my best to do more of what makes me happy.

I remember sitting during the worst of my chemo days, writing a list of places I would visit when I was better. Happily, I’ve ticked a lot of those places off my list and had the good fortune to eat in some very special restaurants along the way, so I can’t complain.

Iphone Pics 029.JPGGraffiti snapped in Dublin right before I was diagnosed, in 2012

Most importantly, I’ve also had the all-clear from my latest MRI scan, which finally took place at Christmas after being cancelled about 16 times due to the unpredictability of my periods. I’ve heard it said that five years is the magic number in terms of survival rates, but I think it’s about plodding on and making the most of life, however it makes sense to do so.

As for next challenges, I’m taking inspiration from a fellow cancer survivor and Boobette, Jackie Scully. After running the London Marathon on her wedding day, she has decided to trash her wedding dress in Laura W-P’s honour by swimming six miles in the Serpentine. As anyone from the Iceland trek knows, I’m petrified of cold water (I keep saying it’s down to the trauma from the ice gloves and shoes I had to wear during chemo, but it’s probably just because I’m a wimp) but I love a good swim.

So it seems a fitting tribute to take the plunge and show Laura I can be strong like her too. I’m signing up for a shorter distance as six miles sounds nigh-on impossible, but I’m sure that will be challenge enough. You’re welcome to join us – the more, the merrier.

This one’s for the Lauras. xx

In August, I’m trekking 60km across Iceland (the country, not the supermarket) to raise money for a small but perfectly formed charity named CoppaFeel! Despite the daunting prospect of sore knees, blisters, sleep deprivation from the four hours of nightly darkness and the small matter of raising £2,695, I’m up for the challenge. 

Here’s why:

1. The story behind CoppaFeel! is inspiring

CoppaFeel! was set up by twin sisters Kris and Maren Hallenga. When Kris found out she had breast cancer at 23 years old, she also discovered the cancer had spread to other parts of her body and was incurable. Kris is now 30 years old and frequently refers to “living with cancer” – not dying from it. I can confirm this is 100% true – despite the fact the disease is all over her body and she spends much of her time in and out of hospitals, Kris Hallenga is without doubt the most alive person I know.

Aside from being a kick-ass CEO and lobbying the government on cancer education in schools with her #RethinkCancer campaign, she also throws festivals for charity, has a host of A-list celebrity backers (Dermot O’Leary, Fearne Cotton, Russell Howard, to name but a few), and somehow still finds time to make sexy bobble earrings for charity. She also just ran her first half-marathon, despite making no secret of the fact that she HATES running, so it goes without saying she’s a bit of a ledge.

2. Vicky Pattinson and Chloe Madeley are doing it

About those celebrity backers I mentioned… well, I was umming and ahhing over whether I could really raise almost £3,000 for charity, but when CoppaFeel! announced this lovely pair would be joining us on the trip, the deal was well and truly sealed.

I’ve never watched Geordie Shore (honest), but Vicky was an absolute legend on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! last year so I’ll be damned if I’m going to pass up an opportunity to become her new BFF. (Yes, I’ll do my best to get the goss on Spenny, and yes, I’ll happily do my Geordie accent/Cheryl Cole impression in exchange for sponsorship).

3. Exercise makes me feel alive

Almost exactly three years ago, I finished chemotherapy and went back to work while I started radiotherapy. People in the office assumed I was cured and congratulated me on reaching “the final straight”. But with cancer, there is no “final straight” – it’s something that affects you for the rest of your life, and the fear of re-diagnosis never goes away.

People expected me to be fine, but in fact the End Of Treatment was the hardest part for me. There were no more doctors looking over me, no more weekly checks, and suddenly I was expected to return to life as ‘normal’. But when I got home in the evening and took off my wig and drawn-on eyebrows, I looked more like a cancer patient than ever.

Around this time, I got a call from my old friend, Running. He placed my trainers on the ground in front of me and re-introduced me to his best mate, Endorphins. I put on some thermal tops, my chemo beanie and a woolly hat, and the three of us (Me, Running and Endorphins) headed out in -5ºC and pounded the pavements for a good 15 minutes. A few days later, we did it again, and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so much like a cancer patient.

It’s been three years now and that rush of endorphins has never lost its appeal, so I can’t wait for the challenge of Iceland. The thing is, cancer is a marathon. You have to be positive to get through it. You’ll probably start feeling a lot of pain around mile 20, but you know if you reach the finish line, you’ll feel so elated, so full of joy and pride and sense of achievement, that it’ll all be worth it. You’ll feel more alive than ever before. And then you may be asked to run it again. But you’ll do it, because you have to.

Quitting is not an option. So I guess I’ll just keep running.

Even if I look like this…

4. I’ve never been to Iceland

Going through chemo in the summer of 2012, I spent much of my time scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, green-eyed with envy over pictures of my friends sipping fresh coconut water, exposing their tanned hot dog legs and eating the finest food. I wrote a list of all the places I would visit when the doctor okayed me to fly, and fortunately I’ve already ticked off quite a few, but there’s so much of the world still to see.

Iceland is one of those magical places I’ve always hoped to visit, and what better way to see such a marvellous country than on a trek? I’ll be sure to send you a postcard.

5. I don’t want anyone to have to go through what Kris is going through

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 years old, I was misdiagnosed a number of times. I found a lump and had it tested straight away, but I was told by several different doctors that because of my age it was unlikely to be cancer. It was only because of my family and friends’ insistence that I went back and got that final test that diagnosed me, and fortunately I’m now almost four years in remission.

Some young women – like Kris – aren’t so lucky, which is why she set up a charity aiming to stamp out diagnosis of secondary cancer due to late detection. CoppaFeel!’s small army of Boobettes – myself included – go to schools, unis and festivals around the UK to teach young men and women to get to know their bodies. It does what it says on the tin – if you regularly cop a feel, you’ll recognise when something’s different, and you’ll get it checked out.

CoppaFeel! can’t cure cancer, but they believe if young men and women are educated to get to know their bodies and recognise when something is wrong, they might be able to prevent anyone else being diagnosed at the terminal stage. They have already saved many lives in this way, and they need money to continue their life-saving work.

What are you waiting for? Go CoppaFeel!

@fakeliampayne & @louist91 showing the guys how it's done #CheckEmTuesday

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Please sponsor me here: Pricey treks Iceland 2016

Three good things happened to me last month. Here they are (in order of occurrence, not importance):

  1. I had laser eye surgery
  2. I got discharged from my oncologist (forever, I hope)
  3. My three-year MRI scan came back clear

I’ll start with No.2.

After examining me, my doctor said, “It’s been three years, so it’s very unlikely the tumour will come back now.” Then he said “I’m sacking you! When your oncologist sacks you, it’s very good news!” Then he laughed, then I laughed, and then I cried.

If I hadn’t been crying constantly for the preceding 24 hours as a result of the laser surgery then everyone in the waiting room might have noticed my happy-emosh tears, but since I showed up dressed as a D-list celebrity in sunglasses and a visor (yes, A VISOR) to protect my puffy, red, light-sensitive eyes, I think I probably got away with it.

Now for those of you wondering about the laser surgery: well, I had LASEK, which is unfortunately not the one where you can go back to work the next day with perfect vision. I had the one where the laser works on the surface of the eye instead of cutting a layer below it, which means you can’t see properly until a couple of weeks later, when the surface has healed. It’s incredibly painful for the first couple of days and makes your eyes constantly stream with tears and your nose with snot, which is why I had to go to the hospital in celebrity disguise.

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Channeling Kym Marsh exiting the gym

The laser surgery itself was fine – just 47 seconds on each eye, and the green laser beams reminded me of radiotherapy, so I felt strangely at home. (No, really). Afterwards, you have to be skilled enough to administer 127 different kinds of eye drops without actually being able to read the label on the bottle (thanks, Mum), then you have to be cool enough to pull off regulation one-size-fits-all goggles sellotaped to your head, and it feels like having chlorine and grit rubbed into your eyes for two days. But apart from that, it’s fine.

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A strong look, I feel

Would I recommend it? Well, two and a half weeks later, I still can’t really see that well, so maybe ask me again in a month.

Finally, onto news No.3: the annual MRI scan. I hadn’t heard anything by early this week so I called my surgeon’s secretary. “We don’t have any record of your MRI scan,” she said. So nothing changes.

They now seem to have got hold of it though and everything’s fine, apparently. So that’s good.

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Third annual regulation hospital gown selfie

Being discharged from the oncologist is of course a big deal, but I will still see my surgeon once a year and have the annual MRI scans, and I’ll be looking out for anything sinister in the mean time. But it still feels like quite a significant milestone, so I’m happy.

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Facebook tells me it’s three years since the chemo chair ice-pack challenge

And so it was that almost three years to the day of my original surgery, I found myself going under the knife again. This time it was to remove a cyst that emerged after my original operation in June 2012 and recently got infected. So, no biggie. However, as with anything in the world of boobs, hospitals and health, it was not without its fair share of drama.

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It started a couple of months ago when I noticed that the cyst in my armpit, which had always been about the size of a sesame seed, had suddenly grown to marble size. It was also red, sore and painful, so naturally I thought “oh God, the cancer is back”. At the same time, I had been feeling exhausted and weepy, but had put this down to jet lag after returning from a trip to Asia, and certainly hadn’t related it to the lump.

My GP didn’t relate the two either. In fact, he put the tiredness down to a urinary tract infection and then took one look at the glowing lump in my armpit and gasped “gosh! Well you’re going to have to take that out! If anything, for aesthetic reasons. I mean, if this is what it’s like after three years, imagine after five!” Fortunately though, despite his barely concealed horror, he was fairly sure it didn’t look like cancer.

I managed to get an emergency appointment at my hospital a few days later, at which point the cyst had grown so red and sore and my exhaustion so pronounced that I realised it must be an infection. Even cancer doesn’t grow that fast, I reasoned.

Sure enough, the doctor agreed, and gave me two options: 1) we give you antibiotics, drain the cyst now and then wait a month or so until it’s gone down before removing it or 2) we put you into emergency surgery to remove the cyst now while it’s still infected, but be warned, the results will be “pretty ghastly”. Er, I’ll take option 1, thank you very much doc.

So they drained the cyst and I went around for a week or so with a large dressing under my arm, braless with unshaven armpits and no deodorant – a strong look for the start of summer. The cyst duly shrunk to its original size, the GP gave me a vitamin D prescription and I was my usual self just in time for my holiday.

When I was having chemo in the middle of summer three years ago and painfully watching all my friends’ holiday snaps appear in my Facebook feed, I used to write lists of all the places I would go to when I was better. Colombia was on that list and it definitely didn’t disappoint. I ate my weight in fresh fish and crispy fried patacón (see below), drank my way through the national coffee supply and partied like 2012 never happened.

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Fast forward to last Wednesday and I’m all set for my operation with the lovely surgeon who did my original op three years ago. However, just as I’m about to leave the house, I get a call from Stepping Hill hospital (if the name sounds familiar, it’s because you read about it in the recent poisoning scandal), telling me the surgeon has cancelled due to unexplained ‘personal circumstances’.

After much waiting, umming and ahhing, I eventually agree to have the surgery the following day with a different but similarly qualified surgeon, since I’ve already made the trip up north, planned the days off work and prepared myself emotionally.

The next day, I’m just about to leave for the hospital again when I get another call. This time they ask me if I can come in sooner. You may notice that I am having a bad hair day in the picture at the top of this screen. This is, firstly, because I washed and dried it the day before, in preparation for my weeks-in-the-planning operation with surgeon No.1, and secondly because on day two I rushed out of the house without brushing it when the hospital asked if I could come in earlier than planned.

It turns out I was lucky to get my operation at all, because the entire Stepping Hill computer system had gone down, and the hospital was in complete chaos, with surgeries being cancelled left, right and centre.

“Everything’s broken, nothing’s working, it’s an absolute nightmare” were the last words the nurse said to me before she took me in. Not exactly what you want to hear before you’re wheeled into the operating theatre.

Anyway, all went well and I was taken to a recovery ward and given a couple of slices of buttery toast with sugary tea. (One of the tiny joys in life is having a sugary tea after a hospital procedure – see photo below of me and Linders enjoying proper teapot tea in my luxurious private hospital after the 2012 op)

Tea and toast

Unfortunately, just as I took a bite into my buttery toast, the poor woman across the ward looked over at me with puppy dog eyes and started to make conversation. It turns out she had been nil-by-mouth since 6:45am, waiting for a general anaesthetic that kept getting put back due to the technical outage. And all around her were post-op people drooling over their buttered toast…

Anyway, the operation went smoothly and I have to go back for my results in two weeks, just in time for the three-year anniversary of the Big Scary ‘C’ Word. Life has thrown up rather a lot of other great material for me to write about lately, but you’ll have to wait a little longer for that. In the mean time, the major news is that my hair is finally long enough to go into a pony tail. Give it another year and I might be back to pre-cancer hair length.

Clove Club

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