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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

A post shared by CoppaFeel! (@coppafeelpeople) on

 

Please sponsor me here: Pricey treks Iceland 2016

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So this photo popped up on my Facebook feed the other day.

There’s nothing like Facebook to give you that big surprise surge of emotions with a visual image – whether it’s a photo of your ex on his wedding day or a school photo of you with pudding-bowl hair circa 1990 that someone has recovered from their parents’ house. Or, in my case, a pic of you larking about in a photo booth mid-chemo with a completely bald head and some ill-informed eyebrow pencillage.

I hate these photos of me, but I do look at them and think I must have been brave because I can’t imagine doing that now. What a difference a couple of years makes, eh?

Speaking of bravery, it’s been so long since I’ve written this blog that I’d forgotten the password. When you’re going through cancer treatment every day and you’re off work and living it, it’s a lot easier to share everything online. You’re sort of suspended from the real world, so sharing some of the most private details about your health with the blogosphere seems kind of natural.

Back in the real world and back at work, it’s easier to pretend the whole cancer thing never happened, so there have been times over the last six months that I’ve sat down to type a few words but I’ve never pressed “Publish” because it all somehow felt too personal.

Just because I haven’t been blogging or going through active treatment, doesn’t mean I haven’t been dealing with the many ways cancer manages to continually affect my life – hot flushes, night sweats, MRI scans, aches and pains that constantly make me think the cancer has come back, and 400-mile round trips for hospital visits (yes, I know I could get an oncologist in London, where I live, but for some reason I cling to the surgeon in Manchester who I love so much he brings a tear to my eye every time I see him).

I still read some of the cancer blogs and every so often there is something that really affects me. The death of a ‘virtual’ friend diagnosed around the same time as me, or a magazine article about a newly diagnosed girl my age that brings back all the feelings and memories. But most of the time, I manage to be the same person I’ve always been. And that scares the hell out of me because in a way I kind of blame the person I am for getting cancer in the first place.

Does cancer change you? Well maybe, in some ways, but mostly, no. I am back to being the person I’ve always been. I get stressed out with work and I push myself too hard. And now I also seem to have incorporated mild panic attacks into the mix – which I think is more to do with age than having had cancer. Even though there is no medical proof, I am fairly convinced my cancer was down to stress, or maybe the way I deal with stress.

In the two years before diagnosis, I had various stress-related ailments: acne, shingles and migraines. I was working 12-18-hour days, surviving on 4-6 hours’ sleep, and training for a marathon. So it didn’t surprise me that my body got so run down that my immune system couldn’t cope with those few tiny cancerous cells that everybody gets but that most people’s bodies manage to ward off before they start to multiply.

Two and a half years later, am I managing to be that chilled out, zen, non-stressy person I vowed I’d be? Am I hell. I mean, I have made vast improvements – I always make sure I get 8 hours sleep, I average about 10 of my daily fruit and veg (no, really), and I occasionally do meditation (like, once a month, but I will start using that Headspace app more regularly). But I still allow work and other things to stress me out and any ‘down time’ seems to get eaten up by stupid but necessary tasks. Oh, and I seem to have signed up for another half marathon.

There’s a daily grapple with myself over what to do – should I just quit full-time work forever, move somewhere much cheaper and live a stress-free, no-commute life? Or should I stay where I am and keep doing what I’m doing? I figure there’s never any guarantee the cancer won’t come back regardless of what I’m doing or how stressed I am, and it’s not worth giving up my ambition and letting the Big C win. So, on I plod.

Anyway, onto the good news. I finally got the results back from my two-year MRI scan and apparently there’s still nothing sinister to report:

Further to my previous letter I have now received the MRI scan. This has revealed no sinister focal lesion. Features were consistent with previous surgery. I am happy with this and will continue to monitor progress as planned.

I remember one of you telling me right at the beginning that if I survived two years then I would be “all clear”. While I now know this is not technically the case, because you’re never really clear of cancer, I’m relieved to get those results. (Not least because the nurse kept calling me Emma during the procedure, and when I rung up three weeks later the hospital had no record of the scan.)

The MRI was a stressful affair. I was determined not to cry this time because I knew what to expect – there’d be a cannula that would remind me of the chemo but I’d be ok with it. But for some reason, I woke up that morning with a terrible headache, which, coupled with the drive over the winding roads en route to Manchester, made me feel as sick and unwell as if I’d just had a bout of chemo. That, and the anxiety, the feeling I never thought I’d have because I convince myself I’m not bothered, that the ever-so-slight pain under my left breast (the cancerous one) might be something to worry about.

So I arrived at the hospital all shaky and sickly from the car journey, and they called me straight in for my appointment. And of course, true to form, they couldn’t get the needle in, and had to call a second nurse to help out. I couldn’t help but have a little cry. And then there was the bit where they kept calling me Emma.

It was my Mum who received the results letter, because for some unfathomable reason at 32 years of age I still get a lot of my post delivered to my parents’ house. Her response, when I asked her to open it, even though I’d already had the results informally over the phone, was “I must admit I still felt nervous opening the letter. You never really know until you get the results from Mr S.”

Yep, that just about says it all really. You never stop worrying. But I’m here, two years later, and that’s all that matters.

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Thought I’d end on some selfie action to give you an update on the hair situation – see t-shirt for explanation. [The doc was slightly surprised when I turned up for my scan a few days later with red and blue paint bruises all over my arms]

Love, Emma x

Hair growth June 2014I haven’t written anything on this blog since February, which is due to a combination of having just completed a Masters degree in nine months and starting a new job immediately after, and – more importantly – having no cancer news to report.

But those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook will know that Sunday 22 June was the two-year anniversary of my diagnosis, so it was high time for an update, which you can read on the Huffington Post website.

Here’s a preview:

For the last year and a half, I have taken a photo of myself almost every day using an app to track my hair growth. I started three months after chemo finished, which is why I look like a baby chick in the initial pics. I also went make-up free in all the photos so that I could track my eyelash and eyebrow growth – a whole year of no make-up selfies, if you will.

In other very brief news, I did a talk at a school in north London the other week to teach young women about breast cancer awareness. I wrote a few words and stuck a few pictures up on the Boobette blog, which tracks the work of all the other lovely ambassadors for CoppaFeel!

I’ll be back with another post in a few months when I have my two-year MRI or mammogram, but until then please assume no news is good news.

Boobettes June 2014

I didn’t know it was World Cancer Day until I woke up this morning and saw my face splashed all over the Emirates Woman magazine website – quite a surprise. I wrote the article over Christmas but I didn’t realise it was coming out today.  I wouldn’t say the headline is exactly my own words, but the rest is all me. Anyway, it’s in this month’s print issue of Emirates Woman so if you’re in Dubai, go buy a copy!

Emirates WomanYou can read the rest of the article here.

In other news for this World Cancer Day, Cancer Research UK has just released a mobile game aimed at beating cancer sooner. Every time you play Genes in Space, you analyse real genetic data and help scientists identify certain cancer cells.

So next time you go to play Candy Crush, please think about downloading the Play to Cure game instead and actually do some good! Use these links to download it on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

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