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.
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.

Life, Lemons and Melons – An Extract (2)

Over the next week, I’m going to share 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 and read part one here.

***

That’s not to say that choosing to take medication has been a fix-all for me, or that it was an easy process to begin. I felt like hell on earth for the first two weeks on my “happy pills”. It was a while ago now and I’ve had chemotherapy since then so my memory is a bit mushy but I vividly remember feeling like the whole world was falling down around me in those early days. There was a day when Chris wouldn’t leave the house because I had woken up crying and couldn’t stop. At the time, I thought he just felt bad leaving me because I was in such a state, but I know now that he felt like he couldn’t leave because he wasn’t sure if I was a danger to myself. I have no idea if I was a danger to myself but I felt like I my chest had been ripped open and I didn’t know how to stem the intense emotion that was bleeding out of it. When I wasn’t crying, I was lethargic, confused and numb. Without a doubt, the antidepressants initially worsened my symptoms before they made them better. But I was lucky. I had a long-suffering partner who was able to support me as I found my feet and I was well cared for by a stretched but determined primary care system where I had appointments every two weeks in the early days, and every month thereafter until I had settled into the medication.

Not only that, but before I said yes to medication, I said yes to talking therapies. After a few weeks on a waiting list for CBT, I found myself at a session with an incredible specialist called Steve. Together, we began trying to unravel my thought patterns and determine what made my brain tick in the destructive way it did. I began to learn how to combat the voice that told me I was a failure, the one that convinced me I was useless and would never amount to anything. I began to question whether my brain was serving me a thought or a fact. When I told myself that I was worthless, I began to weigh up whether there was any evidence to back up that accusation. Could I, in fact, prove that I was worthless? Or was that just the bully in my brain talking smack? Unless I could provide evidentiary proof, that would stand up in a court of law, I was able to tell myself these weren’t hard facts and I started to pay less attention to them, when I could.

Much like medication, CBT doesn’t work for everyone, but I was so lucky that I was able to go and see a practitioner in the flesh so we could not just talk about strategies for keeping depression and anxiety at bay, but to discuss the things that were on my mind. The human interaction of my CBT was hugely beneficial to me. My therapist never made me feel like I was an inconvenience or a fraud or I was wasting his time – all things I had convinced myself he would. And as I moved through the process and learned more techniques and got used to the medication I was on, I slowly started to feel more human. I was finally figuring out who I was with depression and how I could deal with it so it didn’t impact my life too much. I had begun to recognise the signals, my triggers, the little notes I left myself to suggest that a dark wave was on its way. But then, to quote Joan Didion, life changes in an instant.

It was just as I was finishing my CBT that I found out I had breast cancer. In fact, I went along to my final CBT session two days after I’d been told. At the start of every session, I’d sit down with my therapist and he’d ask me that open-ended question “How are you?”. And his asking of this question was not the perfunctory greeting we so often offer up to those we meet. It was more loaded, a “how are you – really? How is your brain? How is your mood? Have you thought about killing yourself this week? Have you thought about hurting yourself this week? Have you felt at risk at all this week?”

And for the first time, I didn’t answer him with a breakdown of what had affected my mood or exacerbated my depression that week. We didn’t break down, day by day, things that may have triggered a feeling of lowness. I told him what had happened two days previously.

“Well, Steve, I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer”.

That was not what he was expecting to hear, but then again, neither was it what I was expecting I was going to need to say.

From there, it became a whole other ball game. I dread to think what kind of position I would have found myself in after hearing the words “you have” and “cancer” in the same sentence and relating to me. If I hadn’t had that CBT and if I hadn’t already been on those antidepressants, I genuinely believe that my depression at that moment would have been a bigger threat to my existence than the cancerous tumour growing within my breast.

What was going on in my brain quickly began playing second fiddle to the things I needed to do to prevent the cancer from getting any worse. I quickly slipped into cancer mode and everything I learned about maintaining my own mental health fell into a massive ditch at the side of the treatment road I was hurtling down at alarming speed. I no longer had time to think about the shitty things my brain was telling me, because it was full up with cancer-related thoughts. Was I going to die? Was the cancer going to spread? Should I have a mastectomy? Can they take both my breasts off? Am I a carrier of the BRCA gene? What will that mean for my family if I am? Am I going to die and leave Chris on his own? How will chemotherapy make me feel? What is going to happen?

Before I really knew what was happening, everything I’d learned in CBT evaporated. It was no longer a priority. My focus swiftly shifted to surviving. The self-care of checking my thoughts and their patterns felt superfluous when I had something actively trying to kill me growing in my body. For a while there I didn’t give my brain anywhere near enough of the attention it needed, when it probably needed it most. I went from combining talking therapies with medication to relying solely on my medication to keep my brain in check. About half way through treatment I found myself really struggling. Christmas 2015 saw me undergo my fourth chemotherapy session. I was exhausted in a way I can’t even begin to explain to you. My spirit was broken and I felt like I was losing myself. It was during this period that I hit below rock bottom. I hit sub-zero. I got so low, I could practically feel the heat of the earth’s core licking at my feet. I had, as I think most cancer patients do, been questioning whether the treatment I was undergoing was worth it. I wondered if it was worth losing my breast and losing my hair and feeling like hell and being poisoned. But for me, there was something else too. I’d gradually gained a grip on my depression as I worked through my CBT and cancer had made me forget what I had to do to stay alive. What I had to do to make sure my negative thoughts didn’t consume me, didn’t take over my life and begin to dominate my waking thoughts. It’s something that I hate thinking about now, but at the time I remember wondering, not only was it all worth it, but did I really want to live in a world after cancer? On more than one occasion I have thought to myself, “If only I had left that lump for longer. If only I hadn’t been in the habit of checking myself, then perhaps it would have spread, and perhaps I wouldn’t be forced to deal with the complex aftermath of surviving this disease”. I hate that I thought that. I hate that there are still times when I think about it.

Because I have wanted to die in the past, and now, post-cancer there is a reason why I might. Sometimes now, I don’t think about killing myself, I think about cancer coming back and doing the job for me.

 

Next part of the chapter coming later this week!

Life, Lemons and Melons – An Extract

Over the next week, I’m going to share 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.

*****

When I was a kid, I struggled a bit with asthma. It seems that if there’s a weak spot in my the historic health of my family, it’s our ability to breathe well under duress. Any one of us in the Purkiss clan who gets a cold ends up with a hacking cough – you know, the sort that people move away from on the bus. The sort that makes people glare at you on the tube. Or one that once upon a time earned me the filthiest looks I have ever received when I had the audacity to have a chest infection whilst attending an event at the Royal Albert Hall. But when I was a kid, I was given inhalers to deal with my problem. I dutifully took my brown inhaler every day to prevent the symptoms. I took the blue inhaler when I needed instant relief, or when I wanted to look like I needed to stop running in cross country, which, truth be told, was often.

At age 13, I had horrible problems with my periods. They were heavy, full of clots, and often left me completely washed out, a weird white-grey colour and regularly unable to hold my head upright. I went to the doctors. I was given tablets. I tried these tablets. They didn’t work. I tried other tablets. They didn’t work. Eventually I was put on the pill. Every day, I took this little tablet to try to control my periods. I stayed on the pill for about ten years and the problematic periods faded to being pretty manageable. Well, as manageable as periods can be, given that a large portion of the population finds them utterly hellish. But the medication helped.

There was a time when I regularly got migraines so severe that the right hand side of my face would droop. I actually looked a bit like I’d had a stroke. It took a while for these migraines to bugger off, with my symptoms often lasting for four or five days. I saw a neurologist who put me on a preventative tablet. I took this every day to “break the cycle” of the migraines, which were clearly linked to my menstrual cycle (sorry for mentioning periods twice in two paragraphs, but women bleed out of their uteruses around once every twenty eight days and I’m a woman, soooo, buck up Bronco). I was on these tablets for over a year, no questions asked.

So why is it then, when a doctor suggested to me that I went on medication to combat the crippling depression I was experiencing, I resisted? Why did I think that my brain not working quite as I would have liked it to, was any different to my lungs not working quite as I’d like them to? Whilst not quite as useful an excuse to skive out of PE (perhaps that’s a discussion for another time?), it was still a problem for me. By this point my depression had begun pervading my life in a noticeable way. If it had once been a cloud lingering over my shoulder, it was now a surrounding fog that refused to budge. I was struggling to make even the simplest of decisions on a daily basis. If I managed to drag myself out of bed, get dressed and leave the house, the question of which shoes to wear for a day in the office often left me crippled on the doorstep. Deciding what to have for lunch became such an ordeal it was all too easy to skip lunches. I had begun to feel completely numb and consistently felt as though something awful were about to happen. I lived in a state of anticipating impending doom, a disgusting and suffocating case of “low mood” and a paralysing anxiety. But still, I felt that taking a tablet to help was a foolish step. I think part of me saw it as an admission of weakness, of defeat. I felt like I should be able to handle everything the rest of the world was handling. When a GP pointed out to me that if I was a diabetic, I wouldn’t turn down insulin, I realised that perhaps I had been affected by external perspectives on what taking antidepressants means.

It’s interesting isn’t it? Because more and more people are talking about their mental health on the regular these days. Thanks to the internet, the conversation has opened up and continues to do so exponentially. As a result, the stigma surrounding discussions of a sensitive nature seems to be fading. But from where I’m sitting, this stigma has relocated. Most people no longer judge others quite so harshly for having issues with their mental health (I’m not arguing that this has completely gone – we’ve a long way to go on that score) but society is distinctly less forgiving of those who take antidepressants, God forbid they should need to do so over a long period of time.

I’m writing this in 2018, but sensationalist headlines like “A Nation Hooked on Happy Pills” are still splashed across the front page of one of the biggest selling newspapers in the country, while previously disgraced journalist Johann Hari has just released a book which begins by throwing doubt on the efficacy of antidepressants. While I’ve no doubt that Hari genuinely believes the claims in his book it’s my firm belief that claims such as these are seriously damaging to huge numbers of people. I wish my antidepressants were happy pills that made me as perpetually jolly as the characteristically named Green Giant but they aren’t. They help me to be functional some of the time rather than just a shell of a person all of the time. They don’t stop me from arriving at The Dark Place, but they do usually mean my stays there aren’t as long-lasting or as terrifying. They mean I can usually find my way out of that shit hole. They’re the map that means I still have to find my own way, but they are also a light in the dark that helps me figure out what I need to do to escape.

I know that medication doesn’t work for everyone, but I also know what a massive difference a small dose of a tablet makes to my life – and the lives of people I love and care about – on a daily basis. As a result, I’m able to recognise the impact of the kind of blasé statement that lambasts people for taking potentially lifesaving drugs. There will be people who read things like this and think they’re doing something wrong when they take their little tablet every night after they’ve brushed their teeth. Even though I absolutely believe that taking drugs like this is right for me, there are times when reading a scathing headline or a review of a book which suggests “everything I know about depression is wrong” will make my resolution falter. If I am in a bad way, I can doubt my decision to take 30mg of Citalopram every single day. I wonder if I’m making a terrible mistake and come dangerously close to convincing myself to come off them. And I am resolute in my belief that this medication makes my life better. So what about those people for whom medication feels like accepting failure? Or those whose lives are being saved by medication but they feel shamed because they need support from a tablet. This rhetoric puts people like this at genuine risk.

There’s a reason the National Union of Journalists bans this kind of colloquialism in reporting – because it is dangerous. Would you ever see a headline that says “A Nation Hooked on Chemotherapy”? No, you would not. Come to think of it, ever seen a colloquialism for chemotherapy used in the press? No. Because people who have chemotherapy are not demonised by the rags who run these types of headlines about mental health problems.

Next part of the chapter coming later this week! If you’ve already pledged to the book via Kickstarter and you don’t like this chapter…well…it’s kinda tough I guess. NO REFUNDS.

Perfection Paralysis

My Dad has always told me that “procrastination is the thief of time”. It’s something he told me a lot when I was growing up, and something I think about often in my working life. I’ve always been guilty of procrastinating. I often put things off for as long as possible, waiting until the absolute key moment to get things done. I’m the typical journalistic type in that I work best when I have a deadline, because then there’s no dallying. And it’s best if that deadline is set by someone else, rather than me. Because if it’s set by me, I’m much more likely to put it off. This sounds like a terrible quality for someone who works for themselves and is expected to figure out and control their own workload, but I actually think that’s part of the reason being self employed works for me.

But I’ve had a revelation recently. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because I’m more self aware or a combination of the two, but it seems that I have quite a lot of these revelations these days. You see, as well as being a procrastinator, I’m also a perfectionist. You might not think it if you were to see the way I bake or the presentation of food on my plate, or the disarray of books next to my bed, but when it comes to my work, my writing in particular, there’s a strong part of me which feels that if it’s not perfect, it’s not worth doing at all. So often I find myself with something to write or an idea that I need to pitch and I stop. I end up paralysed by the idea that I’ll never be able to make anything as perfect as I’d like it to be, so why would I bother even beginning? Obviously, I’m able to give myself a kick up the backside more often than not (ALWAYS if there’s a client or a work project involved) – but there are definitely things, primarily ideas I have, that linger by the wayside as I procrastinate them off my agenda.

This is something I have really found with Life, Lemons and Melons over the months since the Kickstarter finished. This is one of the easiest things to procrastinate off my agenda that I’ve ever worked on. It’s a balance for me, at the moment, between doing work that I’m making a living from and work that is essentially going towards a passion project, not to mention the fact that putting a massive piece of my heart and my soul on the line feels like a gargantuan step. How on earth am I not going to screw this up? I suppose it’s no surprise that I hold incredibly high standards for myself. I have done for a very long time in pretty much every aspect of my life. I must be the best daughter, sister, wife, employee, writer, cancer patient, survivor, mental health patient I can be – not being those things, and the pressure I put on myself to do them, is a big part of what sends me into a tailspin that results in my prolonged periods of low mood.

Procrastination, perfection and paralysis are three words that sit together very well, and not just because they are alliteratively pleasant – but because one often leads to the other. When a hearty dose of self doubt is thrown into the mix (and everyone has at least a dollop of this thrown into their genetic makeup), it’s easy to see why people find themselves in a vicious cycle of trying to get things done, freaking out that they won’t be exactly how they want them to be, aborting the thing they’re working on and then repeating the whole cycle when they try to confront the task at hand again. It is exhausting. For such a long time I thought I was just lazy, but it is SO not true. I mean, I obviously am lazy sometimes (what would Sunday mornings be without a lovely long lie in?), but I’m not lazy when it comes to my working life – just sometimes I am incapacitated by my urge for everything I put out into the world to be perfect. Do you know how many half written blog posts I have saved on the back end of this website? Too many. Do you know how many half-written pitches I have for features I’ve been considering and then suddenly decided they’re definitely not worthy of sending? Countless. I have a whole spreadsheet. I have semi-written stories, opening paragraphs of stories and a notebook full of wild and wonderful ideas that may never actually see the light of day unless I break this habit. And I’d bet my bottom dolla that I am not alone.

So what can we do when Perfection Paralysis strikes? That’s a bloody good question my friends, and something I think Liz Gilbert touches on perfectly in her book Big Magic (if you’re at all creative and haven’t read it, beg, borrow or steal to read it).

I keep coming back to Big Magic in times of creative distress . She describes her creative journey as a “road trip”. Those present in the car are Gilbert, her creativity and of course, the unavoidable Fear, who’s main purpose appears to be to tell us that what we are doing is not enough. She goes on to describe the welcoming speech she gives to The Fear before the trip gets underway. She accepts that fear is coming along for the ride – but she sets out definitive rules for it if it insists on coming. She says:

There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way“.

Gilbert goes on with the analogy which perfectly nails what it is to be a creative person who is trying to combat The Fear. Her closing words to The Fear?

You’re not allowed to touch the road maps, you’re not allowed to suggest detours. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive“.

I’ve learned a lot about acceptance over the last few years – I’ve had to accept my body as it is now, I’ve had to accept my experience of cancer and I’ve had to accept my brain for the gifts it gives me. I suppose combatting this Perfection Paralysis is just another part of that – accepting my brain for the gifts it gives me, but not letting it run the show.

And here’s the thing. What is perfect? Who decides what’s perfect? And why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve that unrealistic standard? As with most things, it’s time we gave ourselves a break. So I’m creating a new mantra for myself: “imperfectly finished is better than perfectly unfinished”.

AND HOORAY! I’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT WRITING THIS BLOG POST FOR ABOUT 6 MONTHS AND I’VE FINALLY DONE IT. It’s not perfect, but it’s DONE!

Here’s a song by Fairground Attraction. When it comes to love, perfect is pretty nice

Life, Lemons and Melons

Hello friends. So today, I have some pretty big news. This has been in the works for quite some time. There have been setbacks and restarts but I think, I’m finally there with the preparation, and so I’m turning to you guys to help.

About a year ago, I had an idea, formed as the best of them are, just as I was nodding off one night. I’ve always wanted to write a book, and suddenly the basis for one presented itself to me. I decided I wanted to write a book about what it’s like to get breast cancer when you’re 26, and you’ve just started getting help for the long lasting problems your brain has given you over the course of your adult life. I am, of course, talking about my old pal depression.

It had reached a point where my dark days were getting deeper and lasting for longer periods. I knew what it was like to reach rock bottom and I didn’t like it there. I wanted help. I didn’t want to hang out in the dark orifices of my brain. They were not nice places to be. I finally made the decision to go to the doctors. I started CBT. I went on medication. And two days before my final session of CBT, I was told that I had breast cancer.

Shit. I’d just spent a few months figuring out who I was and how I could deal with the darkness when it came along, and I was thrown another curve ball in the shape of a tumour growing in my right breast. Oh great, thanks.

Life, Lemons and Melons is the story of figuring out life when it hands you a whole heap of lemons and you don’t have the energy to make lemonade or even reach for the gin. It’s a funny story about things that aren’t that funny and a coming of age story that came a few years later (or earlier) than expected. It’s about mortality, health, the pressures of the modern world, trying to be positive when your heart feels like it’s being repeatedly trodden on by an elephant and finding humour in getting diagnosed with breast cancer aged 26 when you carry a black dog around with you every day.

It’s essentially about the life of every twenty something – but with some added mental anguish and the mild inconvenience which is cancer thrown into the mix. A recipe for disaster? Maybe. A good story? Hopefully.

So why am I telling you about this? Am I about to tell you the book has been snapped up by a publisher in a heated battle between two of the big wigs? Well, no. Not quite. Despite a lot of interest from publishers thanks to my wonderful agent, Robert, it turns out I don’t have a big enough social media following for publishers to be interested in me. They loved the story, they loved the proposal, they loved my writing. But the social media following (or lack thereof) was too big a sticking point for them.

But this is something I have to do. It’s something I have to do for me. I have this book inside me and it is burning to get out. Practically clawing at my insides to make it’s way from my brain to my keyboard. So, I’m going to do it myself. I’ve decided to self publish. But I need your help. And it turns out, the way you can help me is by giving me your hard earned dollar. I’m crowdfunding for the project. I have a heap of options for whatever your budget is, and for every budget you get a copy of the book (whether hard or digital) including my words and images created by my insanely talented and perpetually brilliant pal Georgia Wilmot. And 10% of any profits made will go to my friends at CoppaFeel! so you’ll be helping them help more people get into the healthy boob-checking habit of a lifetime too. I also hope that this book will help anyone who’s ever heard the words “it’s breast cancer” and who’s ever had a fight with their brain.

So how can you support for Life, Lemons and Melons? Head on over to Kickstarter and choose a pledge then share the campaign with your friends, family, colleagues, dog walker etc. If we hit my target of £3k within 30 days, the book will happen. I’ll have to sit down and write it, but as the outline is all there and ready to go, I’m hopeful I’ll just be able to “write the shit out of it” as my friend said. If we don’t hit the target, you won’t lose a penny and I’ll crawl into a hole and pretend this never happened drop the idea, knowing I tried everything I could.

THANK YOU in advance for your help, whether it’s a pledge or a share. I can almost feel the dream of holding this book in my hands becoming a reality.

 

When I get that feeling, I want holistic healing

A couple of months ago now, someone reached out to me on social media after I admitted that I’d been struggling a lot with life after cancer. Her name was Sophie and she had been diagnosed with blood cancer – Hodgkins Lymphoma to be exact – when she was 23. She thanked me for being so open about the fact this shit is hard. Sophie and I met for a couple of hours, before she headed off to meetings and I headed back to work, feeling a little like I might have met a kindred soul. She’d treated me to a glass of elderflower cordial, we’d hunted out some of Denmark Hill’s prettiest flowers and she’d admitted to me that she too found life after cancer tricky.

Fast forward to last weekend, when Sophie created something truly wonderful for those living with and after cancer – Trew Fields.  A holistic wellness festival that focused on looking after your body and cancer awareness. There were an abundance of fascinating speakers, incredible workshops, great music and comedy that led to a day of open conversation about life beyond a cancer diagnosis.

For me, it was a real shift in my thinking about cancer and the impact it has had on my life. I have been scared and depressed (in the truest sense of the word) and angry and sad and exhausted a lot over the last few months. As I approached two years since my diagnosis, I had hoped that I would be so far away from cancer that I would barely have noticed the day, but the 7th July hung over me like a sickening black cloud. A reminder of the terrible things that had happened to me, but one that was not without it’s silver linings. I felt furious that I’m still so tired all the damn time. That even after seven surgeries in the last two years, I’m facing my eighth in the next couple of months and I’m still living with some kind of deformed attempt at a breast (nb – this is a work in progress and by NO MEANS a reflection of the work my surgical team are doing. I love them and they can do no wrong, so please don’t ever take my criticisms of the multiple surgeries I’ve had and the process of reconstruction as a criticism of them. I couldn’t be more grateful for my team). I find new lumps in my breast on a regular basis that I have to get checked and every time I do my stomach lurches up to the back of my throat, leaving me breathless and exhausted once again by the fact cancer has had this long term impact on my life.

display_Trew_Fields.jpg

But at Trew Fields, something really changed for me. I got some real holistic healing for my heart and my soul and my body – every part of me that needed some love and care. I listened to Boob Queen Kris (founder of CoppaFeel!) talk about her experience of secondary breast cancer IRL for the first time with candour and humour and realism and I witnessed one of the most powerful stories of cancer I’ve heard as the inimitable Sophie Sabbage took to the stage to talk about how you can win, even if you lose when it comes to cancer. About finding the gifts it offers you (and there are many) and realising what it’s trying to tell you. I know that sounds a bit bonkers but listening to Sophie, who is living with a terminal cancer diagnosis, I realised that there is a lot cancer was trying to tell me. I haven’t figured out exactly what yet. I don’t know if I will figure it out any time soon. But figuring out that it was trying to tell me something was a start.

And jeez. Can we talk about Sophie Trew too? She created something incredible – special and unique that can be rolled out and grow with ease. She opened up a conversation about some of the more holistic approaches to cancer care that don’t necessarily get the attention they deserve, but for me the most important thing was the advocation of the fact that cancer care should be a partnership between patient and medical team. I’ve been so lucky that throughout my treatment I played a key part in making decisions. I decided I wanted a mastectomy. I decided I wanted my mastectomy before I had chemotherapy so I only had to undergo six sessions instead of eight. I decided that I wanted to preserve my fertility. I decided that I wanted to have radiotherapy. Everything was presented to me as a choice – a choice with a recommended option (maybe there’s some kind of psychology in here somewhere) but a choice nevertheless. Every time I see my surgeon it is a conversation. I ask questions. Sometimes they’re hard questions that make him take pause. But this has led to a mutual respect between us that means we both feel confident I am getting absolutely the best care possible.

I’ve opened my life up to a lot of things since cancer and while some of the more alternative approaches aren’t for me (but I can see their merits for others) – I really do believe in a holistic approach to healing. And after cancer we need time to heal not only our bodies but our hearts and souls and brains as well. And we need to figure out a better way of doing that than stumbling around through life angry and sad and scared after the cancer bomb has been dropped. Sophie Trew has begun to create a place for that healing. And I’m so grateful that she has done so.

It’s Not That Easy, Being Human

HI. This is a long read. It’s a bit bleak at times. So maybe don’t read it if you’re feeling close to an edge. If you are, reach out and get help. Mind, The Samaritans, your GP. They all want to hear from you if you’re struggling. And I am sending you so, so much love, and telling you that you are worth it. You are worth fighting for, and it doesn’t matter if your blues are as big as Goliath, you are David and you are stronger than you think. OK? Cool.

It has been a pretty rough couple of weeks, if I’m being brutally honest. And I will be honest and say that when it comes to talking about my feelings explicitly, I’m rarely honest. With myself. With my friends, my family, even my (amazing, god love the NHS, AGAIN) therapist. I joke and laugh and pretend everything is OK when really, I’m actually struggling. A lot. My brain takes me to some very dark places sometimes. It also takes me to some really fricking awesome places sometimes too, to give it it’s due. Yesterday I imagined what it would be like if my train reached a certain velocity and took off, like an aeroplane – but that’s a blog for another time. I have the most vivid imagination and it’s often useful. It’s a huge part of who I am. I read a quote that said “the best use of imagination is creativity, the worst is anxiety.” Too true yo. I’ve been under a bit of a cloud over the last 10 days. Truth be told, I went about 700 rounds in the ring with The Blues and it KICKED.MY.ASS. I am just about stepping out into the sunlight now, blinking, recoiling a bit and trying to figure out how to cope when (and I know it’s a when, not an if) I slip back there again. The sunshine feels nice on my face, as it flickers across my skin and reflects off the tips of my eyelashes but I feel very aware that it is temporary.

The last couple of weeks have been some of the hardest I’ve had for a while. This time though, these tough weeks haven’t come  because my body is fighting against me, but because my brain and I have been in a constant and unrelenting battle of the wills. A battle that, more often than not, my mind has won.

The thing is, I don’t even know where it began. Can’t put my finger on what has caused me to plummet into the darkest orifices of my brain and linger there for longer than I should. I’ve been back in CBT for a while now and feel like I’ve been making solid progress. I’ve been learning about ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) and have felt like I was really moving forward. I’ve been working so very hard on being as compassionate to myself as I am to others. My incredible counsellor and I had a massive breakthrough, which left us both sat, staring at each other, wondering how we had missed this. We figured out the formula for who I am, who my depression is and how that impacts my every day. I left my last session almost two weeks ago feeling lighter than I had for a long time – with some kind of an explanation for why I feel how I feel in every segment of my life. If you cut me down the middle, you’d see the person I am and this written right through my insides. But not long after this revelation, the fog began creeping in. I could feel it coming, sensed the air change and felt the hairs on the back of my neck begin tingling. My spider senses were letting me know something was on the way to me.

Then it hit, like a tidal wave of negative thoughts, unreasonable self talk, inexplicable expectations and crippling doubt. Thoughts that I can’t write, that I’m a fool for even thinking that I can make a career out of this, that I’m slipping, constantly slipping, never moving forward from cancer, incapable of living a life worthy of being a survivor, that I’m not worthy of being happy, that I am useless because I am not making a difference in my life, that I will never get a grip on the darkness that pervades all of my life, even when it’s sitting on the peripheries.

I’ve come to learn that my depression is not a phase. It is not a season of my life. While the clouds will roll in, the sun will peek out from the darkness. Hell, I will even experience the most beautiful summer days sometimes, for long, long, long periods of time, but the clouds will always return at some point, and part of my journey to figure this shit out is that I’ve gotta accept that. Both my counsellor and I have acknowledged that these feelings will not be permanent, but they are not short term. I will learn, am learning that this is part of my makeup, part of what makes me who I am.

I had a realisation though, when my depression meant I felt nothing – nothing at all – at a bout of amazing news that even though this is part of who I am, it doesn’t have to rule my life. It doesn’t have to dominate. I am striving to do more to protect my mental health. I’m working on putting in place soothing strategies that I can use to protect myself when my mind turns against me. Because even though this is who I am, it does not define me. And I will not let it take joy from me. It might borrow (more like TWOC) my joy. But I will always get it back.

SO THERE DEPRESSION, TAKE THAT YOU POO BRAIN. I’ll be ready for the next round when you come a knockin’.

Today I’m feeling much better. Today my mind and I are friends again. Today I carry lightness and brightness, not emptiness and the dark.

Quick note: Can’t recommend Mind Over Marathon on the BBC enough, especially if you want to learn more about the way other people’s brains work if it’s not something you’ve experienced. I also wholeheartedly recommend listening to Through The Roses by Future Islands, responsible for the title of this blog, and a reminder that we, that’s you, me and everyone, can pull through together. Talking is key. Conversation is essential.