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.
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.
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.
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….