2019 – In a Fairly Large Nutshell

We are coming to the end of 2019. It has been a very long time since I sat down and wrote something for this blog. I have a bit of a problem at the moment with having too many ideas, getting overwhelmed, then not actually writing any of them. There are many part-written blog posts hanging out in the back end of this website. There are many part written pitches for feature ideas sat in my email outbox too, me not managing to send them because they aren’t perfect. But today, with some unexpected time on my hands, I’ve set myself a “writing day”, a day to do all of the things I’ve been meaning to (well, some of them, a day only has 24 hours, right?)

2019 has been a whirlwind for me. And that whirlwind has come with a lot of learning about who I am, now that I’ve finished my treatment for breast cancer and turned 30 and continued to survive.

I’ve learned again and again (because it never stays in my mind for long) that I am tougher than I think I am. That I am more resilient than I ever give myself credit for. I have been taught lessons that have made me convince myself I am a good person and a good friend. I have gone back to therapy, creating a safe place for myself once a month to talk about everything that lingers long after a cancer diagnosis, and to help me deal with the nasty voice in my head that tells me I am not enough. I have learned that I can trust myself. I can trust myself to keep going, even when I don’t feel like I can. I can trust myself to do what’s right for me, even if that means losing things in the process. And there are so many wonderful things that have happened this year, I want to run you through a few of them.

CoppaFeel! Himalayas Trek

Sometime around March, I missed a call from an unknown number. I was in the midst of teaching a Social Media Course (because I do that now) and when we got to lunch, I listened to the voicemail I’d been left. It was the one, the only, Giovanna Fletcher telling me I had been chosen to go on the CoppaFeel! 10th Anniversary Trek to the Himalayas. The truth is, as a trustee for the charity, it would have been pretty embarrassing for everyone if they hadn’t wanted me to go on the trek, but out of over 800 applications it was still pretty special to be chosen.

This led to a summer of trying to get my health up to a point where I felt I’d be able to face the massive challenge that lay ahead of me. We walked a lot. We visited some beautiful parts of Kent, saw some beautiful parts of the British Coast. I dragged my Dad out with us. We walked and walked and walked. And I fell in love with walking. I slept a lot after every walk too. Because my fatigue is still very real. But my little body and I did what we needed too and we kept walking. And sleeping. And walking. Then October rolled around.

In all honesty, I wasn’t ready for how transformational the trek was going to be. It was a total gamechanger. It gave me the realisation that I can do so much more than I tell myself I can. It showed me that I have strengths that I had forgotten about. It taught me that I am more than I tell myself I am. It taught me that I am more than enough. I am plenty. It gave me the gift of knowing that I can rely on myself, which after cancer, feels like a gargantuan-ly big deal.

The mountains were beautiful. The views were genuinely breathtaking (and not just because of the altitude). I cried, but less than I expected. I laughed, but more than I ever could have anticipated. We caught trains and planes and automobiles. We travelled for two days, trekked for four days. I had a mini nervous break down in front of the Taj Mahal out of sheer exhaustion.

My heart grew three sizes and I left a part of it in the mountains. We saw sunrise and sunset. We saw hail and heard thunder. We said namaste to the locals multiple times a day. We were snapped by people as we marched across paths at the end of their gardens. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and download everything I saw and did each day onto a hard-drive so that I never forget any of it. I will, of course, forget some bits. But there is so much I will hang onto forever. To have had one week like that in my life, well. I think I might just be the luckiest person in the world, you know. I felt like I experienced life so very richly those days I was in India. But I do love a British loo.

I could write a hundred thousand words about the trek. But I’ll stop here, for now.

Royal Parks Half

Sometimes, I do things and I wonder what the hell I was thinking. Signing up for the Royal Parks Half was one of those things where I literally have no idea what I was thinking. To paraphrase my dad, it seemed like a good idea at the time when I entered the Royal Parks ballot and “left it to the universe” to decide whether I should run a half marathon or not. Reader, the honest answer here is I should not have run a half marathon. But I did it. Well, I travelled the distance anyway. And with a massive boob on my back. But I would far rather trek for another four days than ever running 13.1 miles again.

I didn’t hate it. And I didn’t die. Which means I’m chalking it up as a win. But my chest has not been right since and the pain in my reconstructed breast in the immediate aftermath was nauseating. It gave me full on PTSD flashbacks to every surgery I had, complete with tears and stress and feeling totally and completely broken. It was not a pleasant place to be. And I do not want to go back there.

But the actual running of the half was quite something. Again, I was reminded how bloody minded and belligerent I can be when I want to be. I reminded myself that I am stubborn and determined. And I did it. Despite the fact that it took pretty much everything I had to do it. I did it. But I will not do it again. My legs carried me for 13.1 miles. My lungs breathed for me through every single step. My toenails stayed intact. My feet did not fall off. My heart grew a bit here too. And I did it all with a massive inflatable boob on my back. Cos I <3 CoppaFeel! Obviously.

AfterThoughts

I’ve found myself in a really privileged position over the last few months. There’s been a massive shift for me when it comes to my cancer story. And while I don’t know how long this shift will last (because I think a lot of it is mental and we all know how volatile our brains can be), it’s meant that I’ve moved positions a bit. I’m sort of no longer in the story. I’ve shifted to helping other people tell their stories. And I hugely want to empower those who have been floored by a cancer diagnosis in their 20’s and 30’s like I was.

So when Toby Peach (yes, that is his real name) asked me if I wanted to work on a podcast about cancer with him “because it turns out, you’re actually quite funny”, I jumped at the chance. And after lots of back and forth about what we wanted to do, we settled on AfterThoughts – a podcast not about us as presenters and our own cancer experiences but about the stories of others in their 20’s and 30’s.

We wanted to pass the mic and facilitate the telling of a number of stories about a number of themes. Toby works as a theatre maker and I’m a storyteller so it made sense for us to concentrate on stories, rather than interviews. We want the podcast to be about the humans who happen to get cancer. Not the cancer patients who happen to be humans. And we wanted to talk about what happens AFTER the diagnosis, because so often stories go back to the Doctor telling you the words “you have cancer” but for so many young people that’s only the beginning of something.

So, AfterThoughts. Coming 2020. I’m so excited for you to hear it.

Life, Lemons and Melons

HEY! Remember when I wrote a book? Yeah. It seems a bit like a distant memory but I was actually finishing off writing it this time last year and launched it in January 2019. I’ve sold about 500 copies which to be honest, I’m pretty surprised about.

I swing from being somewhat embarrassed about the book to being quite proud of the fact that I did it. I find comfort in the fact that Zadie Smith finds the idea of White Teeth almost embarrassing. If Zadie Smith can feel embarrassed, I’m allowed to too.

There’s something to be said for putting your heart into the pages of a book and then letting it out into the world that’s quite powerful and also completely terrifying. I put everything into that book. I was stripped back to the rawest version of myself. And I did it all without knowing if it was the right thing to do. Because I self-published, I didn’t have anyone telling me what made commercial sense. I had a brilliant team of people who helped me edit it and check it for spelling mistakes and grammar errors, but I didn’t have an editor to massage my ego and tell me I was doing the right thing. I was in total control and that was terrifying and liberating in equal measure.

After publication, I sent a copy to my brilliant agent and he once again tried to flog the idea to publishers. Once again, they loved the idea, they loved my writing, they loved my style. But. There was another But. The book had an ISBN which meant they wouldn’t republish it. So it stays as it is. An imperfect representation of my imperfect experience. But. There is always a but. I still wrote a book.

Mastectomy Tattoo

Within hours of being diagnosed in 2015, I knew that if I were to have a mastectomy, I wanted a mastectomy tattoo afterwards. Days after my surgery, I saved an image of a tattoo by David Allen (who I went on to meet earlier this year, he’s amazing and possibly one of the kindest men on the planet) on my phone.

But with all the surgeries I had, and the various states I saw my chest in, the idea of this tattoo became more and more important over time. My chest had been a battleground. I had looked at it and cried more times than I care to remember. I had seen it be ugly and broken and it had made me feel ugly and broken. When I think back to the iterations of my breast I saw between having my implant removed and having my reconstruction finished, when I think of the phases and the holes and the lack of healing, it breaks me a little bit.

But in April 2019, a few months shy of a year after finally being told I didn’t need any more surgeries, I found the brilliant Dom Holmes after reading an article about mastectomy tattoos on The Guardian and I instantly fell in love with her tattooing style. I met with her, she checked out my scar tissue, told me my surgeon had done a remarkable job and we booked in for a sitting. Three hours, plenty of chat and an abundance of brilliant music (as well as being all round ace, Dom has cracking music taste) later, I left her studio in East London with a piece of art where I used to look and see desolation.

I have seen so many ugly iterations of what was left behind and a tattoo is a way for me to deal with the many, many tears I shed over the breast that used to exist. The battle ground left behind by cancer has been turned into something beautiful. It sounds strange to mourn for a body part and to grieve for a body that let me down and a life that would be no better or worse than the life I have now, but grieve I did. Grieve I have. Grieve I do.
Getting this tattoo was a chance to take ownership of that experience and take some control back of my body. The feather represents my life as a writer which has only grown as a result of my cancer experience, and the process of moving forward, while the words underneath “to live would be an awfully big adventure” is a reminder to myself that even on the hard days, whatever life throws at us, there is adventure and joy to seek. And there is always hope. And if in doubt, there’s always Hook.

I finally feel like maybe, just maybe, I’m a step closer to healing. And this tattoo has been a massive part of this. How lucky I am to be alive and how grateful I am to keep trying to do the best I can every single day. Who knows how long the adventure will be. Who knows if cancer will make a comeback. But I’m going to keep trying my best forever.

I also decided that I am retiring from getting my norks out in the name of cancer. These last two campaigns I have been involved with have been so empowering. But I’m done with that now, I think. And it feels like there is power in drawing a line under that part of my life.

Work Life Balance

My work has taken a few interesting turns over the past few months. I still want to write more than I do it’s not easy to pay the bills just by writing. The way the industry is at the moment means there’s not an awful lot of money to be made. Some writers do it and do it incredibly well but it’s a tough time to be trying to make your name as a freelance writer (or that’s what I’ve found).

That’s not to say I’m not writing. I am. I recently landed myself a lovely monthly gig writing about mental health and cancer. I’m doing some copywriting for a really exciting project which aims to end violence against women and girls.

As I mentioned before, I’ve also started teaching too – training people in marketing, including everything from social media to content marketing and everything in between. I’ve found I really enjoy teaching and absolutely love the organisation I’m doing it for. Plus it’s nice to get out of the house pretty much every week. But I do miss writing as much as I was and I do intend to try and carve out more space for it in my life. I’ve been meaning to sit down and write something for such a long time. But I just haven’t had the headspace. So it’s nice that I have managed to do that today.

I’m also working on a piece of fiction too. I did a creative writing course through Curtis Brown Creative last year. While I haven’t given the piece, which is tentatively called The Final Act, as much time or energy as I perhaps should have in the months since finishing the course, it’s on my list of things to do. In fact, Toby, off of AfterThoughts fame has set me a deadline to write 1000 words of the story by 1st December. It feels nice to have a deadline to write to.

I have lots of plans for 2020, and I’m looking forward to putting these into action. I’m really keen to run more workshops and speak at more events, so I’m going to make a concerted effort to do more of both of these things. I’ve spoken at some brilliant events this year and have been on some excellent panels – hoping 2020 will bring more of this. Manifesting a spot at Stylist Live. We’ll see.

Swimming

Unsurprisingly, I’m still swimming in cold waters and am so looking forward to another winter of dwindling temperatures at Brockwell Lido. Not only that but Beckenham Place Park swimming lake opened in the summer and it has been glorious to swim there as the season progresses. On Saturday, I became their 100th winter member. Hooray!

When people ask me why I swim in cold water in the future, I’m just going to show them this by @JuliaMHawkins . Taken minutes after a 7.9 degree swim at Brockwell Lido on Wednesday last week when the water was warmer than the air temp. My favourite kind of lido day

So that’s 2019. I can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store….

4 Year Cancerversary

For once in my life, I don’t have much to say. But I wanted to share this picture from Sunday. I “celebrated” 4 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 26 by swimming 2.5km in the glorious River Cam. It was the best way to mark this weird and wonderful day.

I am, for the most part, incredibly happy to be alive. And moments like this make this world feel like such a magical and wonderful gift.

How LiveJournal Shaped my Life and Writing

The internet has revolutionised everything. The way we eat, the way we shop and the way we communicate have all changed with the advent of the internet. Completely changed too are the ways we socialise, the way we learn and the way we grow up. Gone are the days of kids needing to flick through an ancient, dusty encyclopedia to figure out what the difference is between arteries and veins. They can take a tiny computer out of their pocket and ask Google with but a few taps of a screen. The internet is the part of the human existence now from the day babies are born. But people like me, Millennials, if that’s what you want to call us, had a very different experience to the generations both before and after us.

I was born in 1988, the same year founding father Tim Berners Lee invented the world wide web. The two of us (that’s me and the internet, not me and TBL) have grown together and the internet was a huge part of my formative years. I got my first email address when I was about 11. I simulated AOL Live conversations on a word processor to persuade my mum I was ready to talk to strangers online. I put audio of me singing through a scratchy, low quality microphone on Myspace. I joined Facebook in my second year of sixth form and used it as a tool to share the mundane details of my life. Alice-May Purkiss is now seriously wondering why she felt the need to share what she had for dinner 12 years ago. Especially when it was just a bag of crisps.

But there was no other place that I felt more at home than on LiveJournal, where I hung out for many of my teenage years. Like most overly emotional pre-teens I was obsessed with the idea of a blogging platform. The fact that a space had been created through which I could share the unique and true depths of my complex and revolutionary feelings about the world in which I had found myself habiting, finally gave me a sense of purpose. It was like I had found my home. Yes. That was the style of every single post I ever wrote. Equally pretentious and preposterous, I positioned myself way, way above my station, like some modern day Sylvia Plath whose feelings were so over zealous they could not be contained in the vessel I called my body. But it was through those early ramblings that I found perhaps my most worthwhile skill, developed my writing and discovered what would eventually become a huge part of my life and career. But by god. There was an awful lot of honing involved.

I have always written but there’s no denying technology shaped the way I approached that. From my days of writing stories on my mother’s Fontwriter (somewhere in between a typewriter and a computer) not long after Tim Berners Lee had created the monster that would eventually become the internet, but before 4g, WiFi and Facebook was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, to deciding to pursue the written word as a branch of my career, words have made up a massive part of my existence. And LiveJournal was the seed from which the old twisted oak tree grew.

It started off fairly nondescript. My first blog was called – and I apologise in advance if this makes you sick in your mouth like it just did when I dredged it from the very depths of my memory –  Likkle Rainbow. God only knows why I thought “little” needed to be spelled with the saccharine sweet K’s rather than, you known, the usual t’s, but I did. This first blog was around the time our internet was charged at a penny a minute and only useable after 6pm. Unless Mum was on the phone to Grandma, obviously. So I squirreled away hours when I wasn’t playing on Neopets, pre-writing the “blogs” in notebooks or on the word processor of the very first iteration of iMac (you know, the green ones that were shaped like an actual eye) then relentlessly copied them from paper to screen when I could access the internet.

LiveJournal was social media for beginners. It was a lesson in curating content before anyone had even thought of the word “Instagram”. Even before MySpace, with its penchant for forcing you to shoehorn your friends into a hierarchy of “the top 8” then “the other peasants you didn’t care as much about”, there were some of us who were carefully curating our blog design aesthetic, choosing images that represented ourselves and writing words to accompany those elements.

In the mid-noughties, rather than selecting which filter looks best with which version of the selfie you took 736 times for Instagram, there was a band of “Journallers” who were choosing which Dollz icon represented them best. Do you remember Dollz? Small cartoon icons which, with some basic coding ability could be personalised to look exactly like you – but with enormous anime eyes, teeny tiny waists, and jeans slung sufficiently low that there’d definitely be a whisper of lady garden should a real person wear them. They were the online iteration of Barbie – so fatefully ill-proportioned, should they ever come to life, they’d be unable to stand or walk. Or, apparently, dress without revealing their pubic hair.

But, weird proportioning and wardrobe choices aside, my Dollz icon was my online personality and curating that online personality became something I did long before I knew it would become what it is today. I spent hours considering whether I wanted my Dollz icon to represent me accurately, or show off the person I wanted to be on my LiveJournal. The cool, sophisticated wordsmith I saw 13 year old me as, or the dorky, antisocial, slightly emo kid I was. You can guess which one I chose.

But beyond allowing me to show off my personality through my choice of cartoon icon, LiveJournal gave me a platform from which I could write all the things that were in my heart and in my mind. I don’t remember what I wrote on LikkleRainbow, but I believed that I had something important to say and LiveJournal allowed me to do that.

As my hormones went into overdrive as puberty hit, I decided I had outgrown LikkleRainbow. No longer was I a girl for whom K’s needed to replace T’s. At 14, I had matured. I was deeper now, I had loved and I had lost and I had experienced so much of the world I needed to change my online persona to represent it. And so OpenHeart was created. A place where I felt I could truly be the realest version of myself without fear of recrimination – where I could open my heart and let the world see in. To be honest, looking back, I think I find the memories of OpenHeart much more cringeworthy and distressing than the decision to spell little incorrectly, but at the time it was the sort of safe space I needed.

But it didn’t come without its issues. I’ve always found writing things down makes me understand them better. Even now, at the age of 30, if I can’t figure out what’s going on in my mind, writing it out makes it clearer. That’s why I decided to blog my way through my entire the 10 months of treatment when i was diagnosed with breast cancer at 26 in 2015. But I have more wherewithal now than I did when I was younger.

I wrote about bomb scares and fires in the toilets. I wrote about being called names for wearing the wrong type of jeans in early noughties Yorkshire, if you wore tight trousers you were a townie and that was, apparently, a bad thing). And I wrote about friendships. Or rather, the tempestuous relationships I had with the other girls in my year.

Before I get into this, I think it’s important that I specify I am a woman who is very not OK with conflict. I avoid it at every cost. I am far from violent, and it is very, very rare I get angry these days. But the same could not be said for 16 year old me who was dealing with a surge in hormones, an unexpected family loss that threw me for a loop and very confused feelings about boys who were paying attention to ugly me. I would never have acted on any of the things I wrote about in the anecdote I’m about to tell you, but I was sufficiently cross to write about them in a public space.

Like every teen girl, I struggled with friends. I was awkward and uncomfortable in myself and I often took it out on other people. When I was 16, circa 2004, I used my LiveJournal as an outlet to talk about my hurt feelings when the other girls at school talked about me. I remember telling someone about my very first tingly feelings for a boy, in confidence, and her betraying that confidence to some of the popular girls in school, who then teased me about it.

I turned to LiveJournal to rant about her betrayal and in the style of dramatics to which I was prone, I went all out. I pounded my feelings of treachery out through the keyboard, unthinking of the circumstances, unashamed of my uncontrolled emotions. I ranted about violence and fury, revenge and my despair. It was more than an overreaction. It was the online equivalent to flipping the dining table after dropping my fork on the floor. I wrote about punching her, about seeing her suffer, about watching her in the pain she had created for me. I went a bit Teen Hulk to be honest.

I never named names, but to anyone reading who knew the people in school, it was obvious who I was writing about. And I got pulled up on it. As far as I remember, there were no teachers involved, but I remember a friend emailing me to tell me she was worried about the things I had said. She’d had her own tempestuous relations with the girl who had “betrayed my trust” but, she told me, “she’d never even dreamed of doing the things I had written about”.

So I deleted the post.

And then, in the harsh light of day when I realised I had gone a little bit OTT and my angst had got out of control, I deleted LiveJournal. I put an end to the part of my life where I wrote about the trials and tribulations I experienced as a mid-teen school girl on the crux of adulthood. And I started writing in notebooks that I kept secret. My love affair with LiveJournal was over, but my love of writing was only just beginning.

So what did those few years of LiveJournalling teach me? Well, first up, reflecting on it for this essay has reminded me that curating our online lives isn’t a new thing. Actually, we were curating our lives long before the internet even existed. Think of any classic story – Mr Darcey was not what he seemed in Pride and Prejudice. The image Severus Snape showed the world was not who he really was. The stories we tell the outside world very rarely reflect what’s going on inside, but while it has it’s foibles, the internet has created a space where we CAN be authentic, if we choose to be. It’s become a place where people can talk openly about their mental health, their physical health. They can talk about things that are difficult. They can talk about grief and death and sickness and relationship woes. In fact, more people are doing this now than ever before. We don’t want to see perfect lives on Instagram anymore. We want to see realness. Authenticity. Honesty. Admittedly, we often want to see these along with perfectly curated imagery, but we’re getting there. Baby steps.

Secondly, my LiveJournal days taught me that having a place where you feel like you belong is a crucial part of growing up and is essential for helping to figure out the world we live in. It doesn’t have to be online – maybe the young people today belong in rowing clubs or book clubs or science clubs. But the reality is that these days, any communities that are being created for young people are probably going to have an element of being online. And d’you know what? That’s no bad thing. I made an internet friend on LiveJournal and, while we aren’t close, we still talk. We still follow each other on social media. I still like pictures of her son on Instagram. She still likes pictures of my tattoos. We share something pretty unique. She was the person I asked what Dollz were called when I couldn’t remember as I started researching this essay. Young people need to find their people and, as long as they’re safe and smart (and they’re often smarter than we give them credit for), it’s OK if that’s online.

This reminiscence has also reiterated to me what a tough place the internet can be. While I was LiveJournalling, I also experienced what would now be called cyber bullying. Hate-filled, name calling emails. Shitty texts to my Nokia 3310 that buzzed when I was playing Snake II. The internet was a difficult enough place to exist when I was a kid, so it must be even more difficult now with the 24/7 approach to communication that exists. So educating our young people on how to make the internet a safe and positive place to exist is essential. And the good thing is, those who are having kids now, grew up with the internet. They get it. It’s not as new to them as it was to my generation’s parents. But it’s important that we arm the future generations with the tools they need to make the internet work for them. To make it a good place to be. To only follow people who make you feel brave and strong and powerful. And to know when to turn it off and walk away if they need to.

As I sit writing this essay, I feel a bit sad that I deleted both of the LiveJournals I had in my youth. Because with their kitsch k’s and their excessive amount of oversharing, both shaped me a lot. They taught me a lot too and I’d love to spend an afternoon in my teenage brain, no matter how much it made me cringe. Because that girl, and how she was online, was a huge part of who I was and who I am now. And I suppose, whatever you think of the internet, the chance it has created for posterity is quite something. We’re going to be able to see so much that might have otherwise gone unremembered. Baby photos. Wedding moments. Thoughts from a moment in time.

I have a blog these days. Not a LiveJournal, though I checked recently and it still exists. I use WordPress now. But much like LiveJournal offered me a safe space to come to terms with the overwhelming emotions of being a teenager, this blog offered me a safe space to come to terms with what it was like to be diagnosed with breast cancer a decade later.

I’m still that same girl who needs to write things down to make sense of them. I’m still that same girl who probably has more feelings than she knows what to do with them. I’m still that same girl who probably shares too much online. But I’ve learned that I am in charge of my own narrative. I can share as much or as little of my story as I want. And I thank LiveJournal for teaching me that.

Things I’ve Learned Cold Water Swimming This Winter

I edge down the steps gingerly, taking my time to let the shock of the change in temperature ripple across my skin. The water folds over my feet, ankles, my shins, knees as I lower myself bit by bit, inch by inch, one step at a time. I pause for a moment when it reaches the mid-section of my thighs, to steady the ragged breath as it comes in and out. There’s an uncertainty to it, as if no matter how many times I do it, there will always be a moment of learning that comes with every visit. I walk slowly, submerging my body bit by bit, taking my time to notice the sensations as they change. There’s a pooling in my belly button under the neoprene of my swimming costume, the momentary shiver as the water rushes down my back and my hands rest on the surface, the cold edging under my neoprene gloves. I lower my chest, the sounds of the world around me distorting as I push my face through the pool’s icy surface, and I begin to swim.

And it is as if a switch has been flicked. As if the noise of the world around me and the noise inside my head has been dulled. There is a release. I escape. No longer am I wondering if I am enough. No longer do I question every movement, every thought. I am certain in myself. Certain of myself, certain of my ability to glide through the water, to propel myself for length after length, to control the breath as it enters my lungs, prickling with each expansion and contraction.

I have been swimming through the winter months at Brockwell Lido, one of London’s unheated, outdoor pools. If we’ve spoken over the last few months, I will have told you. If you follow me on social media, you will have seen every snap documenting the season. I have swum in the rain, I have swum while the wind has whipped around me, I have swum while the sun has glistened on the ends of my eyelashes. I have swum in water as cold as 4.8 degrees and as warm as 9.8 degrees (earlier today). The water has been different every time I have pulled on my swimming costume and made my way across to Herne Hill. I have been different every time I have pulled on my swimming costume and made my way across to Herne Hill. I have been sad and I have been desolate and I have been excited and I have been hopeful. I have been lost and I have been found and I have felt loved and I have felt lonely. But one thing has been constant. And that’s the awe I feel at my body’s ability to adapt and change to whatever is thrown at it and the appreciation I have for the quiet I feel in my chest when the cold water rushes across it.

It has been a strange few months. The book I have written now exists in the world and at the moment, I feel very little. I have no sense of pride in my achievement, and I am feeling little to no joy from completing this project. I have had flashes of delight and gratitude – when so many people gathered at the book launch, when I saw an advertisement for it on an enormous billboard that someone had offered me on a pro bono basis – but most of all, I have felt an overwhelming concern that it is not enough. That I am not enough. That I will never be enough. Enough for who, I have no idea. At the moment, I just feel nothing.

But in the pool, I’m forced to feel everything. Every milimeter of the skin that covers my organs and holds my blood inside fizzes with sensations. The feminine layers of subcutaneous fat that exist around my hips and on my bum become electrified. I’m brought right back to the very bones of what it means to be human – our bodies. I stop thinking about all the things I need to do, all the things I haven’t done, all the things I wish I could do. My tendency to berate myself harshly and unrelentingly does not exist in the pool. All that matters is my breath, the lengths, and knowing when I’ve had enough. When my body has reached it’s limits.

I have learned a lot about myself over the recent months and I have no doubt these learnings will continue. There’s something to be said for the resilience of our bodies, their ability to adapt and change regardless of what we put them through, whether it’s cancer treatment, or training for a half marathon, or having the wild idea to submerge your body in dwindling temperatures of water every week. Your body knows what you need. And it knows what to do in most situations. It’s the way we are designed. And that is marvellous and magnificent to me.

There’s a lot of chat about the idea that cold water swimming cures depression. I do not believe that it does. But I do believe that it can be a great tool to have in your arsenal should you and your brain regularly get into clashes with one another. If you already like to swim, you might find that the buzz you get from temperatures that drop and rise with the changing seasons helps you feel alive, reminds you what it is to be a human, which can be a useful thing to experience when the demons in your brain are telling you that you don’t deserve to exist. But to say that cold water swimming cures depression is, to me, about as helpful as telling someone to stop doing chemotherapy and just introduce broccoli to their diet. It minimises an enormous problem. Broccoli might be a great addition to your diet if you’re going through cancer treatment, but it is just that – an addition. It should never be used as a replacement for conventional treatments. The same goes for cold water swimming. It’s a tool that might give you some relief. It might keep the beasts at bay or it might not. I can’t tell you what it will do for you, all I can tell you is what it has done for me, and it has become as crucial for my mental welfare as my antidepressants, my CBT techniques and it’s become a key part of my mindfulness practice.

I love swimming. I love cold water swimming. It has kept me going through some really weird times this winter. But let’s not get carried away and start presenting it as a miracle cure. Let’s enjoy it for what it is and reap the benefits it rewards without asking it to do more than bring a bit of joy to the life of those who love it. A lifeline. A love affair. But not a cure.

The Cancer and Mental Health Equation

You might have noticed October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Perhaps you’re all too aware of the fact it’s breast cancer awareness month, because every month feels that way to you. You, like me, might have very mixed feelings about breast cancer awareness month. But before the calendar page flipped and turned from September to October, my pals at Breast Cancer Care launched an incredibly important campaign.

Because the thing is, they do this stuff all year round. They advocate for patients 365 days a year, like so many other amazing charities do. But this caught really caught my attention because it focused on the mental health impact a breast cancer diagnosis can have on a patient. It’s a report that explores the way people feel after going through 10 months, or more, of relentless treatment that strips you of your wellbeing, your fitness, your identity. Because that’s the thing. Breast cancer goes well beyond the tumour that grows in your breast. You know all this because of how much I talk about it – but this campaign from Breast Cancer Care, in partnership with Mind, goes to show just how far reaching these issues are and that I’m far from alone in this.

Over 8 in ten (84%) women with breast cancer in England are not told about the possibility of developing long-term anxiety and depression as a result of their diagnosis.

The research also reveals that 33% of the 3000 women surveyed experienced anxiety for the first time in their lives after their diagnosis and treatment, while almost half (45%) experience continuous fear that the cancer may return, which can severely impact day-to-day life. These figures aren’t really a surprise to me, but it’s pretty sobering to see them written down in black and white. That so many people live in fear or with heightened anxieties as a result of their cancer diagnosis probes that the support patients receive needs to continue long after being told they don’t need to come back to the hospital until their annual check up.

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 14.13.49.png

Samia al Qadhi, CEO of Breast Cancer Care explained “We know people expect to feel better when they finish treatment and can be utterly devastated and demoralised to find it the hardest part. And though the NHS is severely overstretched, it’s crucial people have a conversation about their mental health at the end of treatment so they can get the support they need, at the right time.”

The body- mind connection is undeniable. The two are inextricably linked, and when one is put under pressure, the other naturally struggles too. Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, says:

“It’s understandable that being diagnosed with or treated for something as serious as breast cancer will impact someone’s mental wellbeing, even if they have never experienced a mental health problem before”.

And it is totally understandable. I spoke to a CBT practitioner at a festival a few months ago and she compared cancer treatment to falling off a cliff edge. You have hit every single branch on the way down and found yourself at the bottom of the cliff, battered, bruised, broken and completely dazed having fallen several hundred feet. But then someone comes to you and says “yeah – but you’re alive, time to get on with it!” but life doesn’t work that way. Because you can’t fall that far, hit the ground that hard and not need some time to process it.

I think the call for support from these two charities is absolutely crucial – but more pertinent to me is the reminder that those who do find it difficult to restart life after cancer, aren’t alone. There are many more of us who struggle beyond treatment than the world would have us believe.

cold,smooth& tasty. (2).jpg

There’s another thing that I think we don’t really talk about enough – and that’s those people who have a history of mental health issues and are then diagnosed with cancer (and I talk about cancer here because this is what I know, but I feel the same about any illness). What about those people? How are they coping? I mean, I obviously ask this because I am one of these people, but while the conversation around mental health and cancer is unfolding, it’s important to ascertain this too. It’s important not to ignore this crucial part of the discussion. And that’s why I wanted to write my book.

We are getting so much better at talking about mental health but we’re still missing out huge chunks of the conversation – we don’t talk about the nuances of bipolar disease or about those who live with psychosis, even though we can talk openly about our experiences of depression. And we can talk until the cows come home about the impact cancer has on your mental health after the fact, but what about if you were already struggling to tread the tightrope before the diagnosis? Does that impact survival? Does that impact the severity of the mental damage that occurs afterwards?

The truth is, unsurprisingly, I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor how to direct the conversation around the less “fashionable”* side of mental health because I am only one person and only know the experiences of this one person well enough to examine. But I suspect there are different challenges faced by those who have already got health challenges to contend with.

1 in 2 people will get cancer in their life time. 1 in 4 people will suffer with mental health issues in their life time. There is almost certainly a cross section of these people who need to know they are supported. They need access to treatments that can help them put the pieces of their life back together after this, or any other serious illness bombards their lives. And this campaign from Breast Cancer Care is a start. A brilliant start to a conversation that could potentially change and save lives.

“With this book though, the thing you are actually holding in your hands, I wanted to let people know they are not alone. I wanted to offer Albus Dumbledore’s light in the dark. Not necessarily to insist things will get better, because I know that’s not necessarily what you want to hear – but to remind people that the human race knows a thing or two about both suffering and survival. I feel like with that in mind, it’s more difficult to feel totally isolated in your struggles – whether they’re related to mental health or cancer, or something completely different. Someone has been where you are right now. And while that doesn’t make your shitty situation (shituation, some may say) any less shitty, it suggests that survival is possible. Even if it’s just surviving one day at a time. One moment at a time. You’ve made it through every single one of your bad days until now – you can take whatever life throws at you. We are surviving even when we are just living through today and that is enough.”

Life, Lemons and Melons – Foreword

*this is a flippant use of this word. I hope you know I don’t think any mental health is “fashionable” but some is more socially acceptable to chat about than others

** If you’d like to pre-order Life, Lemons and Melons, you can do so right here. The first stage of edits is complete.

30 Lessons from 30 Years in 3000 words

On the 11th September 2018, I’m 30. There have been times over the last few years when I didn’t think I’d make it. But I did. I am here. And I have learned a lot along the way that I wanted to share with you. I know not everyone will agree with all of these, but these are my lessons. The things that I have learned and the ways in which I try to live my life. Maybe you recognise some. Maybe you think some of them are hokum. Maybe you think they’re all hokum. But these are my 30 lessons for 30 years and I wanted to offer them out to you.

  1. Life doesn’t always go as planned
    Sometimes there are more curveballs thrown our way than we know what to do with. Life likes to keep us on our toes. When it rains it pours. But there’s something to be learned from every single curveball that is tossed at us, even if the only thing we learn is how to be really good at juggling.
  2. You can’t go wrong with a sequin or glitter
    Does this really need any explanation? There’s no item of clothing that a sequin doesn’t improve. Sequin boots? Winner. Sequin jacket? Divine. Glittery trainers? Yes please. Sequin jeans? Yep, I’ll even give them a try.
  3. There’s more than one soul mate in the world
    We’re sold the idea that your soulmate is a romantic partner, and while I’m pretty sure I found my romantic soulmate at 17 (god knows how), I have found any number of other soulmates along the winding footpath of life. I genuinely believe a friend can be your soulmate. And they don’t have to stay for long. Maybe they’re there for a season or a reason, but soulmates come in all shapes and sizes and they should be embraced wholeheartedly.
  4. There’s always something to learn
    I pride myself on taking an interest in learning new things, so much so I’m currently talking myself out of doing a masters. But there’s something to be learned every single day if we are open to it. I learn from podcasts, from the radio, from reading books that have entirely different perspectives and explore experiences that I could never encounter. I learn from the news and from re-watching old episodes of Gilmore Girls. And learning is like magic.
  5. No matter how much you read, you’ll never want to stop reading
    If you’re a person who likes to read, it’s a compulsion that cannot be helped. No matter how many words I devour, how many books I manage to squeeze into the year, I want more. I want more books propping up my bedside table. I want more books overflowing from the shelves in our one bedroom flat. I want to read more words because when you read you live a thousand lives and I don’t believe I was put on this planet to live just the one life.
  6. Good eyebrows are essential for framing your face
    I knew a girl at school who’s brother shaved off her eyebrows when she was sleeping and I didn’t understand at the time why this made such an inordinate difference to the way she looked. Then when my eyebrows went MIA and never came back after chemo I learned that eyebrows are totally crucial for framing your face. Bonus: your eyebrows are sisters, not twins. And they should be respected. Because losing them forever is more weird and unnerving than you might think.
  7. Sometimes you’ll identify more with book characters than real life people and that’s OK
    I see myself more in Scout Finch, Eleanor Oliphant and Hermione Granger than I do in most people I know. And truth be told, sometimes I identify more with characters in books more than real people. Because characters in books are usually openly flawed and if they’re pretending to be something they’re not, we as the reader see it from a million miles off. No matter how complex a character is, readers see everything. And that feels so refreshing
  8. Maybe we’re constantly getting to know ourselves
    To quote Joan Didion, as I often do, “life changes in an instant” so of course we can’t fully know ourselves. We can’t know how we’ll react when we’re dealt the cancer card or when we meet a person who will mould us into the best versions of ourselves. How can we know these things? So I genuinely believe we are constantly getting to know ourselves, getting to know the person we need to be at any point in time.
  9. You’re stronger than you can ever imagine. You will bend so much before you come close to breaking
    I have come very close to breaking point more than once. I have reached the very lowest of the low ebbs. But it took a lot more to get me there than I thought it would. And as of yet, I haven’t broken. I have many cracks and I’ve been bent into all sorts of twisted shapes but the fibres of my being still remain intact. I am so much stronger than I think I am. I can take so much more than I think I can and in that I am not alone. I know so many people who have looked hellish adversity in the mirror and stared it down with their own unexpectedly strong will. Human beings can take a lot more than we give ourselves credit for.
  10. It’s never a bad thing to dress like a kid’s TV presenter
    Polka dots, primary colours and an excessive amount of floral patterns make up a glorious wardrobe and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with accepting that. Never apologise for it. Embrace it.
  11. Social media is not real life
    It’s edited images and “content” which shows the best of a highlights reel. It’s not even just the highlights reel – it’s the very best bits of the highlights reel. And the best way to protect yourself from any negative feelings that you might be susceptible to as a result of exposure to this kind of thing is to curate your feed in a way that it makes you feel good. Only follow people who make you feel good about yourself. Don’t follow those who make you question your worth or your body or your character. You are magnificent and you deserve to remember that.
  12. Your job is not who you are it is what you do
    It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the job you do. It’s the first question people ask you when they meet you for the first time so it’s no wonder you feel like it’s such a big part of the person you are, but it is just what you do. It is not who you are. Who you are comes down to the stories you tell and the character traits you possess and how you treat other people. It’s in the way you react to situations that are difficult and they way you look out for the people you love. It is not the way that you earn money. That might be a part of it – but it’s not all of it. You are a multifaceted human being with so much to who you are.
  13. People will let you down. But people will surprise you (in a good way) too
    Whether they’re with you for a reason or a season friends come and go. Some people stick around through the thick and the thin. They’re the ones you need to give your time to. Because some people will let you down. You’ll probably let some people down too because none of us are perfect. But there will be people who continually show up and who surprise you with how great they are. Cling onto these people (not in a weird way) because they are like daylight.
  14. There’s no ailment the sea doesn’t improve (even if just for a minute or so)
    Sometimes I think I was some kind of sea-dweller in a former life, because there is nothing that the sea doesn’t make better for the time I’m stood in front of it, staring it in the mouth, watching the ebb and flow of the tide, feeling the salty breeze on my face and reminding myself that I am a tiny part of a big and beautiful and wild world.
  15. Love comes in all shapes and sizes and hues
    When we’re younger, we’re sold the stories of true romantic love, but some of the greatest loves of my life haven’t been remotely romantic. Love is about so much more than choosing the person you’re going to live with for what may or may not be the rest of your life. It’s who you spend your time with, who you share your life with and who you turn to in those key moments that are the loves of you life. As well as the person you share your bed with.
  16. Having your shit together is overrated (probably)
    Often strikes me that having your shit together might create a bit of a boring life. Half the thrill of living is not knowing how I’m going to react to a situation or set of circumstances at any given moment. It’s living on the edge isn’t it?
  17. Health is key
    A healthy body is an absolute bloody gift. Looking after your body is the absolute best thing you can do for yourself. I’m not talking about going gluten free or cutting out sugar, I’m talking about nourishing yourself with good food and exercise, being kind to ya mind and keeping an eye on the general goings on of your body.  Move more. Find a way of moving that’s good for your body and your brain. Take care of yourself because your body is your home and without it, you’re a bit fucked. (Note: you can’t judge other people’s health by how they look so this isn’t an invite to judge people for not being “healthy” based on their appearance).
  18. It couldn’t have been any other way
    “Let go of the notion things could have turned out any differently”. Maybe you should have gone for that job. Maybe you could have done something differently to hold onto a relationship. Maybe you shouldn’t have eaten that second slice of cake but you did. You did. And that’s the way things are going to be. Not taking that job is probably going to result in something better coming along. Maybe that relationship failure is making way for the person of your dreams to roll on into your life on a noble steed. Maybe that second slice of cake stopped your blood pressure from plummeting and you fainting on the tube. You don’t know what might have been. So try not to overthink. Everything happens for a reason (or, sort of at any rate).
  19. The universe has your back
    I know not everyone believes in this but I genuinely think the universe has my back. There was even some kind of purpose for me getting cancer at 26. I have no clue what that purpose was but it was a message from the universe that I am still unpicking. But generally I trust in the bigger picture and believe that all of the little loose or sad ends will be tied up in a bow and presented to me as a gift. Even if I can’t see it and it takes a while to untie the knots.
  20. There’s nowhere you have to be
    You don’t have to have achieved certain things by a certain age. There’s no ideal age to get married, or to have kids, or to start a new job or to buy a house or to be earning a certain amount of money. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be. And the right age to do any of the aforementioned things is the age that you do it at. What’s right for you might not be right for other people and vice versa. Drive your own drive. Do what you need to do. Your gravestone isn’t going to say “didn’t get married at the right age” or “wasn’t as good at writing as JK Rowling”. So try not to sweat that stuff.
  21. “Busy” isn’t glamorous
    Seriously. Busy isn’t glamorous. Let’s stop glorifying it as the be all and end all of being a successful person. Sure you’re busy but are you busy living? Busy learning? Busy loving? Because those are the busy’s that matter – not the busy being busy that we’re taught is the definition of being good at life.
  22. No-one really knows what they’re doing, they’re just better at making it look like they are
    This is one I keep telling myself on the regular. I often feel like I should have a better idea of what I’m doing because I feel like I’m floundering. But isn’t it in the moments of floundering we find the golden threads of life? The interesting moments that turn things on their heads? Isn’t this where we learn and grow? And isn’t learning and growing the best thing to aim for in life? I think so.
  23. Happiness is made up of little things
    It’s lots of little things that make up a big picture of happiness, not huge romantic gestures or massive numbers on your online banking screen. These things are good but they’re not the key to curating a happy life. To me, happiness is made up of moments and memories. The squeeze of a hand at a difficult time. An offering of chocolate buttons when you’re struggling. A laugh shared with friends. Good food, good wine (Prosecco), good tv, a safe place to live, a good duvet to snuggle under, a good book to read. These are the things that help me create happiness.
  24. Breathing can make a huge difference in pretty much every scenario
    It’s estimated that we take about 23,000 breaths a day, but how many of them do we actually recognise? All too often we’re on autopilot and if we’re stressed or scared or sad or distracted this auto-pilot can become erratic, leading us to snatch our breaths rapidly, which can exacerbate any negative thought processes we’re experiencing and help us regain a bit of control on the situation. I am a true believer in the power of the breath. It’s one of the few constants in our lives, something we can always come back to, to remind us that we are right in the moment, not in the future and not in the past. No matter what’s going on around me, a few deep breaths can be exactly what I need to reset and take a moment. It has been my salvation a number of times.
  25. Change isn’t a bad thing
    Change is scary. Sometimes it’s unwanted. Sometimes it’s unwelcome. But it isn’t always a bad thing. It can be an opportunity for growth or a chance to embrace new challenges and keep learning. Without change things stagnate and stagnation is the gross green slime you see in water sometimes. Change is healthy. Everything changes. We must evolve to keep existing. So if anyone ever says to me “you’ve changed,” I think “good. So I bloody should have”. Change isn’t a bad thing. It might bring challenges with it, but those will often bring great things too.
  26. Passion is crucial
    Life is made up of moments of passion and these are key for living the best life you possibly can. I’ve made a conscious decision since becoming sick to pursue what I’m passionate about, to chase it down with the biggest net I can find so I can catch it and use it to drive me forward. It’s so incredibly difficult to make your passion into your career, but then it’s all the more important to pursue it beyond the 9-5. Passion is what makes me feel alive and reminds me why we do the things we do to keep on living.
  27. The things you tell yourself have long lasting effects – so be thoughtful about this
    Sometimes our brains can be our no1 enemy. I know mine is. Sometimes my brain is a really horrible bastard that tells me the absolute worst things about myself. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realised just how much damage those things I’d told myself were doing. So take care with the things you tell yourself. Don’t berate yourself too much. Try not to be too hard on yourself. Because we listen to that voice in our heads a lot more than we think we do. So be kind with the things you tell yourself.
  28. It’s not a race
    Life isn’t a race. You’re not competing with anyone. Go at your pace. Set your own milestones. Run your own journey. You don’t have to be anywhere other than where you are.
  29. Sometimes the only thing to do is to take your shoes off and stand in the grass
    We spend so much of our lives with our feet squeezed into shoes but there’s something really wonderful about taking throwing your trainers to one side and reconnecting with the ground beneath your feet. I know it sounds like nonsense but it’s something my friend Sophie told me about and I genuinely believe that it is a simple way ground yourself in the moment that has massive benefits. And if your feet are in the grass, it means your body is outside and in a bit of nature and that’s more healing than any of us give it credit for.
  30. There’s so much more to learn. So much more living to do.
    I will never stop trying to learn more or stop trying to live the best life I can. No matter how wise we think we are, there is still so much to get from this incredible, wild and wonderful world we live in. There’s still so much for us to do. So many things to experience. So much left for us to give.

Cancer Changed My Life – Does it Define Me?

Every time I meet someone new, I feel nervous. I’m a people person and I love getting to know people, but more often than not I find the first few minutes (possibly longer) of a new encounter excruciatingly awkward. I’m not like my Mother who embraces new people with ease. I have to work incredibly hard to forge conversations, often relying on a bank of stock questions that I pull out when faced with conversing with a stranger. To be honest, even thinking about one of those first time encounters makes me feel awkward.

“What do you do?” is one of the first things we’re asked when we meet someone new and I never know how to answer. I worry about the “what do you do” question for reasons beyond being unable to define my job. One of my key beliefs is that work is not who we are, it is just what we do and I have long since struggled with the fact that our work is usually the first thing we’re asked about. Is that really what defines us? Is there a moral value attached to our careers? When I was interning, I muttered about being an editorial assistant. In my last full-time job, I used to say I worked in marketing, often redirecting the attention to my husband and his infinitely more “grown up job” putting myself down for “messing around on the internet while he’s actually doing something that makes a difference”. Now, I often still defer to Chris’ grown up job but mainly because I don’t know how to define myself. I do so much more than just one thing Am I a writer? Am I a copywriter? Do I work in marketing? Do I tell people I’m writing a book? Because that leads to more questions and ones which are immediately very revealing and very personal. And it means I drop the breast cancer clanger pretty quickly.

Define Me

Since being sick, something I’ve really struggled with is whether I’m “letting” cancer “define” me. The inverted commas around both of these words is important – because I think they both carry a moral judgement. Both have agency attached to them. Both have negative connotations. Because in “letting” cancer “define” me, I’m passing the power from my hands into the “hands” (ha – that’s quite a funny image. A tumour with hands) of a few mutated cells and allowing them to control the narrative of my life. It is something we are told we must not do. “We must not let cancer define us because then it wins”. There are countless articles on the internet telling us just that. But my career is so intertwined with my life outside of working hours now. And a big part of that is my experience with cancer. It’s led to me writing my book, it’s all over my social media channels, it’s smattered across the internet on various websites (including this one, obviously).

To say I am “letting” cancer “define” me comes with a myriad of problems I think, similar to the idea that the way I choose to earn money defines me. Because it suggests that there’s nothing more to me than cancer and my job. It doesn’t allow for my beliefs or my personality traits to come through. There’s no space left for the other experiences I’ve had. And that word “letting” suggests a weakness in a way.

As part of the bigger picture though, would it be a bad thing to let cancer “define me”? It’s a thing that happened. It’s a big thing that happened. And it has dominated my life for the last three years. It changed my life. So, by definition, doesn’t that mean it has defined me in a way? Why does it have this negative connotation attached? I mean, other than the fact that it’s a thing that tried to kill me. Obviously that’s not so great.

Unavoidable

Cancer comes up for me again and again. It is pretty much unavoidable. I know this isn’t the case for every person who has experienced cancer, but it is the case for me. It is so intrinsically linked with pretty much everything I do that I really care about. It’s why I’m a Boobette for CoppaFeel! It is is why I am a trustee for the charity. It is why I am self employed. It is why I can’t commit to working more than three days a week. It is why, until recently, I was in the hospital every couple of months. It has changed my view on the world, it has changed my view of myself. It has changed my relationships and altered my heart in ways I never could have expected.

But, before I got sick, there was so much more to me than my job, and now there is so much more to me than cancer. That said, it has helped me to achieve things I never would have imagined.

I don’t know if cancer has defined me. Before I started writing this blog post I was determined that it shouldn’t be a thing that defines me. I had a work meeting this morning and had to explain why I couldn’t commit to working more than three days a week. Yes, I could have said that it was because of other work commitments, but that’s not the whole truth and if there’s one thing cancer has given me, it’s the courage to be honest.

I was furious this morning because I felt like I had been reduced to a person who can’t be a standard, paid up member of society because I can’t work full time. But the truth is, I know that right now, if I tried to work four days a week, I’d make myself sick. I spent three days at a festival this weekend and in the 48 hours since I got home, I’ve slept for about 28 of them. And I’d have no time for the stuff that is a part of me beyond my work. For my CoppaFeel! stuff. For cultivating the relationships I have and cherish. For looking after my body and my mind and treating them to the things they deserve.

Now, I’ve sat down and worked through it though, ironed out some of the kinks in my mind, I think I’m probably not defined by cancer. Because no person is ever defined by one thing, or one facet of their life for long. We are countless characteristics and experiences and relationships and thus I can never just be a person who has had cancer.

More Than One Thing

I am a person who has had cancer. And it has had a huge impact on my life. But I am also a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a writer, a copywriter, a social media manager, a journalist, a blogger, a lover of the sky. I am passionate and I am humble and I am grateful and I am a maker of great bread. I am a person who loves to read, who loves to write, who loves to cook, who loves thirty second dance parties and singing at the top of my voice. I am a person who has had cancer. I am a person who has survived cancer. I am a person who lives with cancer in their life, even though the cancerous cells have gone. But I cannot be reduced to just one thing. Humans, by their nature, are multifaceted. So even if cancer comes up in conversations with new people and even if it’s the thing they remember after meeting me for the first time, the more they get to know me, the more they’ll unravel the layers. Looks like cancer “survivors” (I use that word in inverted commas too) and ogres have layers in common.

No matter what narrative I choose for my cancer experience, no matter how much it impacts my life beyond my treatment, maybe I am defined by cancer, maybe I am not. Either way I am so much more than my experience of cancer. I am so much more.

Relax and Restore with Nuffield Health

Your brain does weird things when you’re diagnosed with cancer. In those early days, my mind was overflowing with all of the information I needed to retain, a stream of appointments I had to get to, along with coming to terms with the idea that my body was trying to kill me. But one of the things that really sticks with me from those early days is the incredible holistic care services I was immediately made aware of from Dimbleby Cancer Care.

Dimbleby are a charity which operate out of Guy’s Hospital, where I had all of my treatment, and basically provide all of the non-medical support that you need when you’re going through cancer treatment. They offer counselling, financial advice, employment support, complementary therapies and so much more.

We were fairly lucky with our finances so didn’t need a tonne of help there, but the counselling and the complementary therapies were invaluable to both Chris and I across the whole of my active treatment. I was offered six complementary therapies and six counselling sessions (which eventually became 12 counselling sessions because I am needy). The aromatherapy massage that I got at Dimbleby was such a salvation to me. This sounds pretty creepy I guess, but it was so nice to be touched in a way that wasn’t medical, at a time when my body had become some little more than a vessel that had a cancer inside it.

Finite resources

But Dimbleby is a charity. They only have a finite amount of resources and as I move further away from my active treatment, I feel less deserving of what they offer. There are people who need their care more. So I have begun to seek it out, and pay for it myself, elsewhere. My body feels less like a medical vessel these days, but with all the surgeries I’ve had over the last 18 months (five, if I haven’t mentioned it already, ten in the last three years) it still feels like I’m a science experiment a lot of the time. But massage and complementary therapies have really been key in reconnecting with my body, and taking time out to do something just for me.

So when Nuffield Health got in touch with me to ask if I would be interested in trialling a new offering for people living with and beyond cancer treatment, I did a little dance. Last month, they launched their Relax & Restore Cancer Care Treatments – a bespoke range of treatments that have been researched and approved for use on people living with or recovering from cancer.

Regulations prohibit therapists from providing traditional beauty techniques on people living with cancer without specialist training because therapists might need to take extra care or even avoid providing massage or reflexology to areas where surgery has taken place. As a result, all of the therapists at Nuffield Health offering these specialist treatments are  trained by the Made for Life Foundation, a skincare company providing holistic support for people diagnosed with and recovering from cancer.

relax and restore cancer treatments

I went along to the Nuffield Health in Tunbridge Wells to try their Hand on Heart treatment a few weeks ago and honestly, it was 85 minutes of pure joy. I’d had a nightmare journey getting to Tunbridge Wells, accidentally bought myself the wrong bloody train ticket, was running late and by the time I got to the centre I was all of a dither. But the therapist I met helped me move from frantic to zen in about 10 minutes. Sometimes, filling out forms about my treatment can be exhausting and overwhelming for me. I know it needs to be done to get the best possible care but going back over what’s happened in the last three years can be unpleasant to say the least. But my Nuffield Health therapist handled all of this stuff sensitively, listened to my experience and adapted my treatments accordingly.

Because of the nature of the offering, these treatments are less like traditional pound-your-muscles-into-submission massage, and much more of a gentle touch therapy that focuses on, funnily enough, relaxing and restoring both your body and mind. The Hand on Heart treatment offers a relaxing facial and upper body massage that helped me drift away from the stressful journey and into a nigh on meditative state of relaxation. Using slow Tui Na Chinese techniques, the experience aims to rebalance and calm the upper body, while the facial replenishes, nourishes and revives the skin.

crucial part of recovery

Taking this sort of time for myself can feel selfish sometime. And I know my most recent blog was about the nitty gritty bits of self-care that we’re often guilty of undervaluing, but making a point of seeking out tools for relaxation has become a big part of my routine too. Paying attention to your body in this way is a crucial part of recovery. Even if the feeling of not being a medical vessel only lasts as long as the treatment, that’s a valuable time out for your mind, and is, I believe, so incredibly worthwhile.

Prices for the Nuffield Health Relax and Restore Cancer Treatments start from £30 for a 45 minute treatment and therapies are available all over the UK. Find your nearest beauty suite here

**I was invited along to try this therapy by Nuffield Health and Good Relations. They also reimbursed me for my travel but all of my positive thoughts and feelings about this treatment are regardless of that.

breakfast as self care

Nitty Gritty Self Care

 

If there’s one thing I really, truly love in this world, it’s words. I am obsessed with words, with expanding my vocabulary, with using the right words to tell a story, to describe a situation, to ascertain a feeling. Words have been my solace for most of my life. They are my safe place, my shelter in the storm. So of course, I watch with interest when a particular word or turn of phrase ingratiates itself into the mainstream and becomes a widely used “buzzword”. Words like “privilege”, “intersectionality”, “humblebrag” and so many more seem to take up a position in the zeitgeist and represent a huge part of what life at a certain time was focused on. One of these buzzwords, or actually, a buzzphrase, if you will, which has occupied a lot of my brainspace over the last year or so is “self care”.

Because here’s the thing. The idea of self care, while pure in its original intentions, has become somewhat of a cliche. These days, it’s become very much bubble baths and scented candles (thanks in part, some critics argue, to Gwyneth Paltrow’s often criticised website Goop) but allegedly takes it’s origins from the Ancient Greeks. Allegedly Pythagoras was a big believer in taking some time each morning (a whole hour) to ground himself before engaging with other people, claiming it is essential for getting your soul in order,  while Plato’s self care was rooted in taking the time to find wonder in the world.

Depression

For those who live with depression, many of the self care suggestions we see online are a million miles away from firstly, what we need, and secondly, what we could ever feasibly warrant ourselves. I’d love to roll running a luxurious bath and filling it with Lush bath bombs into my routine, but more often than not, if I’m in The Dark Place™, self care is significantly more about brushing my teeth, hauling my monochrome-visioned ass out of bed, forcing myself into the shower and taking care not to listen to the negative thoughts using my brain as a trampoline.

One of my big self care rules is that I will eat breakfast every day, regardless of how I’m feeling. If I’m teetering on the edge of The Dark Place™ or I’m right there in the trenches, breakfast and lunch are one of the first things to go. I’m pretty sure this harks back to the days when I didn’t eat enough or look after myself very well. It’s not an easy habit to shake. But breakfast has become a key part in the battle with my brain and all of the drama that the aftermath of cancer treatment has brought my way.

The revolution begins at breakfast

Most days I just settle down at my desk with a warming bowl of porridge or my signature Breakfast Paste (an apple, sultanas, oats and a tablespoon of yoghurt – more delicious than it sounds, I promise) but other days – usually when there’s no milk in the house – I head out to my favourite cafe in South East London, Brown & Green’s in Crystal Palace for my favourite London breakfast, their Bircher muesli with cacao and sea salt. Breakfast has become a bit of a revolutionary act of self care for me. It’s so simple but it’s effects are widely felt – I’m less lethargic, my fatigue is less pervasive and I know that I’ve done a good thing for myself which can be momentous if I don’t feel like I deserve any of the good things.

Sometimes though, these things slip. Even with the best will in the world, there are days where I sleep in too long or I just “don’t get around” to making myself breakfast and boy can I feel it when I don’t.

But the thing about this breakfast routine for me is that it’s an easy one to stick to. I know that yoga can do wonders for me when I’m not feeling great. I know that exercise, while not a cure-all gives me time and space away from whatever negative self talk is burrowing its way through my skull and into my awareness. I’m aware that I should meditate and I know that I should make a gratitude list. Getting out of the house, or hell, even out of my pyjamas, is something that has the potential to make me feel better – but sometimes, they’re just not accessible.

Depression takes all of the things that you think you should be doing and uses them as a reason for religion free self-flagellation. When my blues are so pervasive I can’t see past the end of my nose, it benefits me to have a singular thing to focus on. A simple objective that helps me get up and start my day, even if it means I crawl straight back into bed afterwards.

the nitty-gritty

This is the nitty gritty of self care – not the “Goopified” (there’s another zeitgeisty buzzword for ya) version we see on websites that aim to make a buck or two from those who are struggling. For me, it is based around self compassion. Self compassion comes from the idea that we should give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend. Food is my first go-to when it comes to taking care of a person, whether a friend or a loved one, and thus it has become my first port of call when looking after myself too.

All this said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a self care ritual that involves a monthly massage, a hike in the woods or de-cluttering your room. These are all incredible tools – but I think there’s a risk that these suggestions aren’t inclusive of the people who need them most. Self care doesn’t have to be Jo Malone candles that cost a tonne and facemasks that purify, refresh and hydrate your skin (though they’re good too). It can be something as simple as putting a delicious, nutritious and heartwarming meal into your belly.

For me, the revolution against my brain and it’s negative tendencies starts at breakfast time.

What’s the nitty-gritty act of self care you turn to in times of need?

Life, Lemons and Melons – An Extract (3)

Over this week I have been sharing a chapter of my book Life, Lemons and Melons. Since October, I have been pouring my heart and my soul into a Scrivener document covering the last three years of my life. I’ve written about infertility, self confidence, chemotherapy, my exploding breast, notes from a mixed up mind and tonnes more. Earlier this week, I also saw the illustrations that my exceptionally talented friend Georgia is rustling up to be printed in the book and let me tell you, I cannot wait for you to see them. But without further ado – here’s a chapter of Life, Lemons and Melons. Pre-order your copy by dropping me an email here. Read Part One and Part Two here.

***

But my medication was a salvation to me throughout all of this. And it continues to be. It means that those thoughts don’t linger as long as perhaps they would have done had I not been medicated. They mean that I don’t follow through when my brain is telling me I am worthless and that I do not deserve to be alive. That tiny tablet means the voice that tells me I should have been the one to die, rather than all the others I know who have had secondary breast cancer diagnoses and who have died as a result of this dreadful disease, doesn’t shout as loud or is easier to shrug off than it would be without the medication.

And I know I am lucky. I spend my entire life qualifying everything I say about my cancer experience with “I am grateful to still be here,” but the truth is, I might be, but sometimes my brain isn’t. Sometimes the cruel thoughts in my head tell me that I deserved to get cancer, that I deserved to die from it. That I still deserve to die from it. And it is only a matter of time before I do. And it is a process. It’s something that I am constantly working on rectifying. As I sit here now, overlooking the stunning bay at Port de Soller, watching the birds swoop over the crystalline sea, hearing the bustle of the streets below, wrapped in a blanket and writing about my experience, I am grateful. But I also know that it won’t be long until the dogs start snapping at my heels with their messages of self-destruction. And I think this is something that doesn’t get spoken about often enough, both in the world at large, and in the world post-cancer.

Citalopram has been a saviour for me. It doesn’t come without side effects. I’m heavier than I feel like I should be. I get a dry, metallic taste in my mouth if I don’t drink regularly. Perhaps it exacerbates the fatigue that I experience post-cancer. But when the darkness seeps in at the edges of my life, like a blot of a watercolour paint on a piece of parchment, spreading slowly across the page, Citalopram slows the progress. It makes the black less dense as it makes its way across my life. It doesn’t make the hole I am teetering on the edge of less deep or consuming or terrifying, but it makes it easier to escape from. Citalopram offers a rope to climb. It’s still a difficult journey that takes every ounce of strength and leaves my body and mind exhausted from the intense effort, but it makes it doable. It makes getting out of The Dark Place possible.

And I know there are people that say the longer I stay on medication the more likely it is to stop working. I know others argue that it has a placebo effect, that it doesn’t actually make any difference. Some believe that I will never be able to come off my tablets, but after the last three years and knowing my own mind as I do, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable coming off them anyway. I have fought long and hard to get to some semblance of normality and I still have a long way to go – so why would I give up the thing that makes it easier? I go back to the diabetes reference – I wouldn’t give up Insulin just because the newspaper said my “dependence” on it was problematic. I wouldn’t turn down the chemotherapy that would save my life. So why are antidepressants any different?

Living through cancer is a nightmare, in so many ways. I’m not saying that every person who experiences a cancer diagnosis needs a prescription for antidepressants, but what I am saying is as simple as this: we need to give our brains the same amount of attention we give our bodies when we are going through cancer treatment. We need talking therapies to deal with what is happening to us. We need counsellors to guide us through the hellfire and treat the internal burns that we get as a result. There is no part of your life that is unaffected by a cancer diagnosis and there is no shame in asking for a hand to grab onto at the scariest time of your life. If you’re going through treatment and you are struggling, ask for help. Talk to your medical team about counselling. They know that there is a disconnect between the physical and the mental treatment of cancer and there are conscious efforts being made to bridge that gap. So ask for help. You are not weak, you are not overly emotional, you are not letting the side down by not being positive all the time. You are asking for what you need and that is something to be celebrated.

And remember, despite what the tabloids might say, if you and your doctor believe you should be on medication to deal with your mental health, cancer diagnosis or no, there is no shame. That’s a decision between you and your medical team. Ignore the people who don’t know what it’s like to live with a  gremlin in their heads. Ignore the splashy, attention-grabbing headlines. Ignore the people who bash others down on Twitter. You know your brain better than anyone else. So trust yourself. Even if the gremlin and the media are telling you differently.