Archives for category: Cancer

One of the phrases most commonly associated with cancer is ‘life’s too short’. Then there’s ‘live every day as if it’s your last,’ ‘appreciate the little things’ and ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ While I absolutely agree with all of the above, I think that anyone who is living with, or has had, cancer will tell you that in practice they aren’t always possible.

When I had cancer, I wrote a list of all the places I’d visit and the goals I wanted to achieve after my treatment. Seven years on, I am fortunate enough to have ticked many things off that list. I took a ‘year out’ after my treatment and went back to university to get the Masters degree I’d always wanted. I went travelling, got 12 hours sleep a night and started to write a book. But if I’d stopped working the day I got cancer to live a stress-free life, I wouldn’t have been able to support myself.

So I went back to work. And, as much as I tried to avoid the levels of job-related stress that I believe contributed to my cancer in the first place, it wasn’t always possible. Like many people, I worked long hours and took on an increasingly extensive schedule involving late nights, long-haul travel and jetlag. If I’d hated my job, I would have quit without question, but I loved it. It’s just that I had other ambitions: to go freelance, to manage my own time, to finish writing my book*.

#50BestTalks_Single_Thread-103

Actually at work, September 2018 in Sonoma County, California (Portrait by Sara Beth Turner)

At the back of my mind there was one recurring niggle: if I am diagnosed with secondary cancer (which has happened to far too many of my friends) then will I wish I had gone freelance sooner? The answer, every single time, was yes. And yet holding me back were concerns that by quitting my job I might stunt my reputation and damage my career. I would miss out on trips and opportunities that were dangling like a carrot – the journalist’s equivalent of the banker’s bonus. So I stuck it out, just for one more year, then one more year, then one more year after that.

One thing I’ve learned is that fear often comes from other people. ‘How will you make money?’ ‘Won’t you get lonely?’ ‘Why don’t you stay just a little longer while you decide?’ It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and be put off doing what you know is right for you. But when I silenced the other voices and just listened to my own, I realised it was time to quit. So I left my *amazing* job after five years and, from the very first day, I knew it was the best decision I ever made.

I created the office space I’d always dreamed of – it’s a five-second commute from my bed and my kitchen, the dress code is pretty lax and I don’t have to argue with anyone over the air conditioning. Oh, and my new colleagues are pretty chill.

JLYG1097

Office bants

I got off relatively scot-free from the side effects of tamoxifen but I do suffer from fatigue. I sleep 10 hours a night and there are days of the month when I simply can’t get out of bed. For years I forced myself to get up and do a long commute when my body said no, and it was one of the reasons for quitting.

I no longer have to get up at the crack of dawn, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost discipline. Working for myself, I’m as motivated as I’ve ever been, because I have to be. It’s just that I can hustle from 11am to 9pm if I like – no one is tying me to strict hours. I can go to the gym or the post office or my hospital appointments in the middle of the day. I hope we get to the point where all employers trust their staff to work wherever they want to work (within reason) as long as they get the job done.

I’m not saying everyone should quit their job – they shouldn’t. And I’m not saying treat every day like it’s your last – I, for one, would be lying under a pile of cats, comatose from eating the biggest ever Sunday roast, and that just wouldn’t do. But do listen to the voice in your head, and if it’s telling you time after time there’s something you really want to do, then don’t put off it for tomorrow. Tomorrow might never come.

Curtis Brown June 2019

The reception area at C&W / Curtis Brown

*A little update on the book:

Well, I finished writing it – it took me three and a half years to get to that stage and was undoubtedly the hardest thing I have ever done. Buuuuuuut… I am incredibly excited to reveal that I just signed with an amazing literary agent at C&W in London. It’s just another step in a long process, but fingers crossed it works out. I can’t wait for the day my novel is on the shelf alongside these amazing authors!

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.

IMG_8489.jpg

  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.

img_3140.png

  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.

IMG_3675

  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.

IMG_3053

  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.

stylist-cancer-650x850

  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.

BestTalks003.jpg

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

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!

 

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.

Kym Marsh

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.

Goggles

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.

IMG_4274

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.

FB

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

%d bloggers like this: