15th December

Cancer is a strange old disease, that’s for sure. Its power to evoke the strongest of emotions, at the most inopportune times, even when it is technically no longer even within one’s body, is quite extraordinary.

Over the last few days I have felt an ever-increasing weight on my shoulders a tension in my chest and a heaviness in my heart; these were physical sensations but also abstract, metaphorical ones. I felt like a bottle of soda that had been not vigorously shaken, but gently tipped back and forth so the pressure slowly built up under the lid.

Today the lid popped. Tears flowed. I couldn’t stop them and I wouldn’t want to. I knew this had been brewing for days. As each wave of tears subsided, I thought ‘OK, that’s done. Now I can get on with my day’ but I couldn’t and, a few moment later, more tears came.

So I consciously decided not to attempt to do or achieve anything today. The food shopping could wait; the dog walk could wait (ah, thank goodness for our patient little hound); picking up my repeat prescription of letrozole from the doctors could wait; everything except this all-important emotional response could wait. I accepted the power of my feelings and went with them on the tide.

You could choose to describe this as a ‘bad day’. After all a day spent crying might not seem the most productive, but it wasn’t bad at all. It was just a day. A day in the life of a recovering cancer patient. Actually I think it was a ‘good day’ because tears are healing; they are our safety valve; our pressure release; they cleanse our minds and leave us ready for something fresh, something new or something that will make us feel cheerful or content, which is almost invariably around the corner.

Since my active treatment ended last week, many people have said ‘I expect you’re glad it’s over’. Of course I am quietly pleased that the treatments, the appointments, the sheer drudge of the cancer experience have finished for the time being. But ‘over’? No. In truth, it will never be over.

From now on, my life will forever be defined by cancer in some way. Not dominated by it, not ruled by it, not dictated to by it, but it will be a presence. Sometimes it will be centre stage, other times it will recede into the darkness, into the shadows, into the wings. It may always have the power to overwhelm me with emotion, perhaps when I least expect it, but I can learn to accept that.

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8th December

Tomorrow I will have my final radiotherapy treatment. Number 20 of 20. I am almost surprised by this. It has sneaked up and caught me unawares.

I knew the day was coming, of course, but radiotherapy is administered every weekday, unlike the three-weekly chemo cycle, so the four weeks of ‘rads’ as we cool cancerees like to call it, has whizzed by. Five months of chemo seemed like five years; four weeks of rads could have been four days, it was that quick.

This is a good thing. A very good thing. It means the end of my active treatment, after nearly nine months of what can only be described as… really not very nice at all. It is no exaggeration to say the diagnosis and much of my treatment took my mind, body and emotions to the very edge of what I felt I could bear. But bear it I did and now I am emerging out of the tunnel.

After tomorrow’s harsh but ultimately healing beams of radiation are fired at the site of my tumour, my life will no longer be ruled by appointments, more appointments, treatments, the after-effects of treatments, drugs, the side-effects of drugs, thermometers, dressings, lotions, potions and creams. (Actually there will be some drugs, as I have to take a hormone-suppressant called Letrozole for five years, which comes with its own jolly set of side effects. But more of that another time.)

One might think this was a cause for celebration, and in a way it is, but I am not feeling in the mood to party just yet. Truth be told, I am feeling a little low and very emotional. All the stress, fear and worry of the past few months is gradually bubbling to the surface and it feels good to start letting it go and seep out of me.

I am tired too. More tired than I ever imagined was possible. I remember several years ago listening to a doctor on the radio talk about the fatigue that comes after cancer treatments; she said it was like no other fatigue, and could go on for a long time. I was running my magazine publishing company at the time and, like most business owners, I was knackered. So I remember thinking ‘Oh yes, I know all about being tired.’

Wrong. I knew nothing! Post-cancer tiredness defies description. It is not relieved by sleep and you aren’t revived after a nap. Your cells have worked so damn hard for so many months, tackling the disease and recovering from the treatments, that it could take many months before something resembling normal energy levels are restored. But that’s OK. I have time. Life will gradually resume. I must – and will – take it organically, at a pace that feels right. If I have learnt just one thing from this cancer malarky, it is to listen to my body and my mind and act upon what they tell me.

This evening feels like a time for reflection; looking back, reminding myself what I have been through and how far I have come; accepting the changes in my body and my spirit; marvelling at how well I am healing, both inside and out, despite the battering I have taken. Humans are the most amazing creatures, aren’t they?

As well as looking back, I also have much to look forward to; there are some exciting plans afoot for next year and some wonderful opportunities have been presented to me just in the last few days. But I am going to put those thoughts aside. They are for another day.

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A Few Words about Penny Brohn Cancer Care

Over the past few months, surgeons, oncologists, nurses and radiographers have been taking excellent care of my body, trying to coax it away from its cancerous state. But we are so much more than our physical selves; cancer not only eats away at our body parts, organs and bones but can also damage our minds, spirits and souls.

Since my chemo ended a few weeks ago – and even during my treatment – I have been told numerous times ‘You look well!’ Maybe I do, and it is always heart-warming to receive a compliment, but what I look like tells only part of the story. Many times when I was ‘looking well’, I was frequently feeling physically unwell – to varying degrees – and my emotions and thoughts were in a very dark place.

Recently – and with beautiful serendipity – I heard about the charity Penny Brohn Cancer Care (formerly the Bristol Cancer Help Centre) which has been providing holistic, integrative care and guidance for people with cancer for over 30 years. A browse of their website, and I was immediately drawn to their ‘whole person approach’; a chat with them on the phone, and I knew this was a place I needed to go to begin sorting out the mess in my mind.

Partners, carers or supporters are welcome at Penny Brohn too, as the charity recognises that they are also affected by the cancer experience. So my husband and I booked their two-day course entitled ‘Living Well with the Impact of Cancer’, held at the charity’s headquarters, a Georgian house in a village just outside Bristol. The charity makes no charge for their courses, which is wonderful given the financial hardship that cancer brings to many. Donations are, of course, welcome from those who feel they are able to give.

From the moment we walked through the doors, the peaceful ambience and beautiful surroundings helped us start to relax. Pale wood floors, fresh flowers, a wide sweeping staircase… one could easily mistake it for a smart hotel. The welcoming staff, the delicious organic food, landscaped gardens and comfortable en-suite rooms all contributed to the restorative atmosphere.

Over the two days of the course we were introduced to the charity’s ‘whole person approach’. Workshops and discussion groups focused on the body, mind, spirit and emotions, to enable you feel the best and healthiest you can, whatever the stage of your cancer. The staff guiding and leading the sessions were warm, knowledgeable and inclusive. From nutrition to mindfulness, from gentle stretching exercises to spirituality, from self image to relationships, from meditation to mortality, the subjects covered were diverse and thought-provoking; the discussions were frank, honest and often raw, but ultimately empowering; there were tears, but fewer than you might imagine, and plenty of laughter.

Our course group consisted of twelve people, brought together in this supportive, accepting environment; twelve people from random backgrounds, at varying stages of cancer, some with a faith, a religion, a spiritual path and others with none; some had turned their back on conventional treatments, others were in the midst of chemo; some were several years clear of the disease, others had been diagnosed as terminal. All of us had been drawn to Penny Brohn Cancer Care for our own reasons, in search of something extra to help us through.

It is hard to convey the power and impact those few days had on me. It was not so much a ‘getting away from it all’ break as a ‘going towards it all’ one. I found it life changing, life enhancing, life affirming. When I left, my mind was at peace for the first time in months and my body, battered from treatment and scrunched and hunched from so much time in bed and on the sofa, had unfurled and felt refreshed.

If you would like to find out more about Penny Brohn Cancer Care, please pop along to their website here

The view from my room, showing some of the beautiful gardens…

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A Few Words about Useful Stuff for Chemo

Everyone who has to go through chemotherapy will have a different experience; it will be theirs, it will be personal and it will be unique.

Mine happened to be fairly awful, worse than some but not as bad as others. However it affects you, be it mild or major, there are things that can make it more bearable. Here are a few bits and bobs that helped ease me through my chemo:

Bendy straws – These flexible friends enable you to drink while lying down.  I found them invaluable for keeping up my fluid intake on the days when I was unable to get up, or even sit up in bed.

Fluids are essential for flushing the chemo through one’s system, as well as slaking the endless thirst that many experience while on chemo.

Teddy Bear Pillowcase – This was a great find and quickly became my new best friend. One side is made of the softest, comfiest furry fabric you can imagine. The other is micro-fibre which is cool to the touch.
After my hair fell out, lying down on a cotton pillowcase was a horrible cold shock to my bald head. However lying down on a teddy bear pillow was a comforting, warm sensation that helped me relax and get some sleep.
Conversely, like many chemo patients, I suffered from hot flushes during the night. So a quick flip of the pillow and I had a cool, refreshing sensation which brought instant relief.
Don’t worry – no teddy bears were harmed in the manufacturing of the pillow cases! I got mine from Dunelm. Find out more here

Hot water with lemon – Chemo can affect your mouth quite dramatically. Some people get mouth ulcers, but fortunately this was one side effect I escaped.
However I did wake up most days with a foul taste in my mouth and my tongue coated in… well, I don’t know what. This was far worse than the usual ‘morning mouth’ feeling.
One is advised not to brush teeth hard or use an electric toothbrush during chemo, as your gums and tooth enamel are very vulnerable to damage.
A small glass of boiled, filtered water with a couple of slices of lemon popped into it really cut through the oral gunk and funk and helped freshen my mouth. Just stick to one small glass though, as too much acid from the lemon could erode the tooth enamel.

‘In Transit No Traces’ cleansing pads by This Works – These little pads are wonderful for cleansing and refreshing chemo-tired skin. On days when I was too poorly to think about my usual face cleansing routine, one swipe with one of these was all I needed to cool, cleanse and soothe my skin.

These may be pricier than many facial wipes, but they are so deliciously lovely to use, I felt it was worth treating myself and my skin to them. We all need a little luxury during a testing time like chemo, don’t you think?
Find out more here

Rice cakes – One of the most persistent side effects for me was nausea. I was only physically sick once but the nausea, accompanied by agonising heartburn, seemed unending.

I found that grazing on food really helped keep the feeling at bay, when even the prescribed anti-sickness drugs failed. After some experimentation, rice cakes emerged as the best remedy, either unadorned or smeared with a little bit of…

Marmite – Love it or hate it? I love it and always have. During chemo my taste buds went on strike and all food and drink tasted of absolutely nothing. It was a very strange sensation. I resigned myself simply to appreciating the texture and temperature of food.

Marmite came to my rescue, and proved to be the only flavour my mouth could register. Thus a rice cake with a smear of the sticky brown elixir became my favourite treat.

Elastic waists – Forget style and fashion; your watchword during the chemo experience should be comfort. Chemo can play havoc with your digestive system (either way, if you know what I mean!), leading to much discomfort. The drugs themselves can also lead to severe bloating, for which someone coined the descriptive phrase ‘chemo swell’. My tummy was so puffy that I wasn’t able to wear my usual jeans or trousers at all during the whole of my chemo treatment, so elastic waists were the way to go.

I spent much of my time at home in pyjamas, of course, but on the days when I was able to go out, a pair of elastic waist, soft linen-mix trousers were my go-to item of clothing. Comfy, comfy, comfy.

Those are my chemo survival tips. Please feel free to share your in the comments below.

November 8th

I was recently alerted by email to a couple of messages on this blog and, upon checking in to read them, I was stunned to see how long it was since my last post.

Over the last few weeks I have composed many a post in my head but, for one reason or another (mainly the phenomenon known as chemo-brain, I suspect) I have not put them online. However, had you asked me if I was still blogging, I would have replied cheerfully in the affirmative. As I said, chemo-brain has a lot to answer for. It can be very distressing, of course, like the morning I stood in my kitchen, entirely unable to remember how to make a cup of tea. But it can also be a useful alibi for things we have simply forgotten to do, like upload one’s blog posts!

So where am I on my cancer timeline? The good news is that my five months or so of chemo hell has ended, my final dose being administered on 30th September. I would love to say that overall it wasn’t too bad, but I would be fibbing. The final two rounds were especially tough on my system, even though the dose was reduced first to 80% for Chemo No. 5 and then to 75% for the sixth.

Nearly six weeks on, I finally feel that the poisonous healer is exiting my system, hopefully having done its work – as well as its worst. Yes, it really can take that long for one’s body to process, utilise and expel these fascinating but fearsome drugs. The pain throughout my body is lessening by the day; the nausea has receded completely; my digestive system has returned to normal and my hair is starting to grow back, albeit slowly and fluffily! My energy levels and stamina are still pathetically low but I feel incrementally better each day.

Even for those who are only mildly affected by its side effects, chemo is never easy. Many great blog posts and useful web pages have been written about how to best deal with the experience, but it feels timely to add my own hints and tips, which I have done in a separate post here.

I have been ill and house-bound for the entire summer, so I feel the warm, sunny weather has somewhat passed me by. However autumn is my favourite season so I am looking forward to enjoying crisp frosts, chilly days, bright sunshine, refreshing rain and magical mists in the weeks to come.

On my patio, this beautiful rose is still just about in flower, long after other roses have bloomed their last for the year. It was given to me by our lovely next door neighbour Shirley and is called Macmillan Nurse, in honour of the wonderful people who work for the charity Macmillan Cancer Support.

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A Few Words about Dreams

Cancer takes many things away, but it gives too – and one of its gifts is sleep. Lots of sleep. Surgery-induced, chemo-induced, tired-of-trying-to-fight-this-induced sleep. It is not always the most restorative rest, and one wakes still weighed down with a fatigue beyond description, but sleep can bring its own gift: dreams.

Since being ill, I have dreamt vividly and often. My dreams are so beautiful that I dread waking from them. I dream of walking for miles beneath big skies, with warm sunshine on my face; I dream of riding a motorcycle on open roads; of riding horses on wild expanses of moorland; of running and playing with my dog on glassy, tide-swept beaches. These are all things that I’ve done with relish in real life, although some of them not for quite a while.This makes my dreamland an extra special place to be.

In my dreams, I am always travelling, moving, getting away; escaping. In my dreams, I am strong, energetic, healthy. My body isn’t scarred by surgery, punctured and bruised from chemo infusions, blood tests and daily injections or poisoned by chemicals. In my dreams, I don’t have cancer.

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28th July

Today is a day to treasure; a final day of freedom; the last few precious hours before my next chemo treatment tomorrow.

A chemotherapy regime is a relentless series of steep downs and not very big ups; a really rubbish rollercoaster ride in the Cancerland theme park. As soon as you are feeling better from one treatment, and the horror of it is fading in your memory, the next one rears its ugly head and knocks you flat again. It is enough to test the mettle of any canceree.

There is a temptation to pack as much as I can into the run-up to chemo, to make the most of my time before the next soul-sapping onslaught. Many of the nasty side effects have abated over the last week or so, and my energy level is about as high as it gets in my current cancerous state of health. However, I have learned the hard way that doing too much is far from wise. What would have been a perfectly normal day’s activities for my ‘old self’ has proven far too much for the new me, and renders me exhausted the following day.

I will need to call on my fuel reserves to cope with spending the day at the hospital tomorrow,  so I paced myself today. A little reading, a little writing, a short, slow walk with our dog over the fields surrounding us, and that was sufficient.

My husband and I are lucky enough to live in a lovely part of the country, on the Essex/Suffolk border. We have a tiny cottage, but it has big skies and beautiful views all around. Even when I am not well enough to get out and about, I can still relish the rural idyll from my bedroom balcony, in the company of a cup of coffee and a good book.

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