No Cure for Heartbreak

I have been watching a lot of Grey’s Anatomy recently. I discovered it was on Amazon Prime and I started watching it from the beginning. Some people say it’s depressing but in those early days, the dialogue was quick witted, sharp, moving and funny, while the storylines pushed the boundaries of medicine and beyond. You’d think given the amount of time I’ve spent in a hospital over the last three years, and given the fact that my own hospital gives me palpitations every time I visit, that I’d want nothing to do with a medical drama. Sometimes I don’t. But as with most things I find comfort in the familiar and the old storylines and well-worn characters offer me some kind of safe space. A space in which I can exist without my mind for a while. It’s chewing gum for the brain with a heart.

Obviously watching Greys, you see a lot of surgical scenes. You see amputated limbs and gore and loss and the medical terminology washes over you like a second language you’re almost fluent in. You hear talk of scalpels and defibrillators and “apis” and sutures. Sutures. That’s the one I have become fixated on of late.

When I had the tiny cyst removed from my left breast when I was 19, I remember asking them how many stitches they had used. There were eight of them, I think. I’d never had so much as a cut really, before then. Nothing more than a papercut. So I was fascinated by the idea that these little stitches had been put in my body to tie up the loose ends of my skin and help them knit back together. Now, obviously, I have had my fair share of sutures. I have been cut open and sewn back up eight times in the last three years. I have had little stitches over little holes and lots of bigger stitches over bigger holes. I have had the soluble type and the ones my surgeon has had to pull out and discard. I no longer know how many stitches they have put into me. I stopped asking that question once cancer was part of the equation.

But these sutures have helped my scars heal cleanly and tidily. The scar across my breast is hair thin at points – an absolute credit to the man behind the cutting and the teams behind the stitching. My chest is a battleground and the sutures were key in helping to rebuild the damage that cancer had left behind.

But there are a lot of other places I could do with some sutures. Some little stitches to help do-up the other scars that cancer has left behind. And the wounds that I leave behind on myself as a result of harsh words or criticisms or unreasonable expectations that I apply to my life. The places where I feel I am ripped open again and again – where the fear slips in and the heartache begins or where the old wounds are failing to scab over, but continue to come unstuck. There are so many parts of life that can be fixed with carefully applied medicine – sutures, or chemotherapy or radiotherapy or a hysterectomy or an appendectomy or a dose of antibiotics – but there are so many parts of life where you can’t apply a sterile dressing and walk away. Where the sutures will not hold. Where a surgery cannot remove the thing that is trying to kill you.

So what can we turn to when medicine isn’t enough? Today, I baked bread. I left the house. I had a shower and tried to wash all the negativity and bad feeling and tears and emptiness away. I tried to find my own sutures for the cuts and scrapes that life throws at us. It’s funny because the emotional turmoil of cancer doesn’t go away, long after the tumour has gone. If you’re lucky enough for the tumour to go. The emotional turmoil of cancer lingers longer than most people realise. Than I realise myself a lot of days. Sometimes I feel like I am moving forwards, sometimes I feel like I am no further ahead than I was the day my treatment finished. I am still in need of sutures, because the emotional and mental wounds that cancer left behind keep on reopening. They reopen with every surgery, every hospital appointment, every lump or bump or cough or ache. Every dose of bad news. Every loss.

The wounds are healing but they never get the chance to recover completely. Because life and death and everything in between happens and we are expected to buck up and carry on and keep getting up and keep going and be the best that we can be in this world so that our lives are not wasted. So that this chance we are given, this one life we have, can be the absolute best we can possibly make it.

No amount of sutures can heal the cuts that run much deeper than the skin and the tissue and go beyond the body. But we do the best we can.

We will get up every day and keep doing the best we can and hope that it is enough.

We do the best we can and hope that it is enough, because as of yet, there is no cure for heartbreak.

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

Future Islands – Brixton Academy, Review

While the lead singer of Future Islands, Samuel T. Herring, looks distinctly like a GP with his sleeves rolled up in preparation to perform a prostate exam, the sound that spreads through Brixton Academy from his voicebox and the collective sounds of the band are quite different.

Future Islands do not look how they sound. Quite the opposite in fact – the cool demeanour in their sound is not represented by their image. Had you only heard these guys on the radio, you’d be surprised to see the four men standing on the stage in front of you. They look more like they’re about to teach a geography lesson than rustle up a heady collection of songs that set Brixton Academy alight with a thrumming atmosphere and make feet tap to the rhythmic beat of the heavy drums and synthy keyboard sounds. And this is something which only seems to add to the magic of their live shows.

The intensely feeling lyrics, such as “People change, You know but some people never do, You know when people change, They gain a peace but they lose one too” from the hit song Waiting on You, enable Future Islands to balance dreamy, futuristic riffs, guitar sounds and the haunting language of the songs with meaning that lingers long after the song has finished. There’s something about their lyrics which speak to the millennial audience gathered. The crowd is hooked on both the sounds and words of each song as if it is an addictive drug, but rather than seeking nothingness from its clutches they are seeking guidance from the wisdom of the song lyrics and escape from the real world with the harmonious melodies. Every song can be related to the real lives of the audiences – we all hear a part of ourselves as Herring performs, throwing himself dramatically around the stage and giving attention to every word he sings.

Herring is a showman like no other, eliciting the full spectrum of emotions from the audience looking on to his performance. From the guttural roars of his low-end vocals to his theatrical, crowd-pleasing dance moves, dazzling high kicks, Cossak moves (yes, really) and overwrought chest thumping feeling of the lyrics, it’s as if every moment of the show is an exercise in exorcising his internal demons. Were it not for his regular interaction with the audience – singing directly to those crammed in at the front of the stage to expletive laden messages about how awesome the rowdy crowd are – it would almost feel voyeuristic to watch the man in front of you come undone and piece himself back together in every song, especially as the band’s latest offerings have become somewhat bleaker, exploring themes of depression, death and loss with in amongst their pithy electrobeats. His energy levels are similar to that of an over exerted toddler on a frenzied high before they crash out into a deep sleep or an exhausted tantrum. Just how much he exerts himself is evidenced in the way his characteristically cleanly pressed black shirt becomes a sweat-sodden memory of a shirt within the first 25 minutes of the show.

Future Islands sound like no other band of the present or from history and the album of this tour The Far Field (released in April 2017) is a rip-roaring success amongst those who require their music to have as much theatre as it does feeling. And boy do these guys know how to put on a show as they edge their way towards the curfew with no hint of winding down anytime soon. When the gig finishes, Future Islands leave behind a feeling reminiscent of the moments just after a storm – an electric atmosphere still hanging in the air and the sense that you’ve just witnessed some of the realest, purest magic the world has to offer.

food

A Love Letter to…Food

When asked what my favourite food is, it’s practically impossible for me to choose just one thing. I can’t even pick one meal, let alone one ingredient. I love the flavours of my go-to recipe, a delicious pork and bacon lasagne while the scents of a Sri Lankan chicken curry can drive me to distraction as it simmers away on the cooker. When I was in treatment for breast cancer, sometimes plain pasta and peas with a knob of butter and a grind of black pepper was the only thing worth crawling out of bed for. A light, fresh and vibrant stirfry is my favourite thing to tuck into when I’ve been a bit overindulgent and there’s really nothing better than a Sunday roast and all the trimmings, whatever day of the week it is. Put a block of cheese in front of me and I’ll happily nibble away at it, whether it’s cheddar, Wensleydale, Applewood smoked or, even, if the mood strikes me, a Babybel. Food, to me, is life. And I find solace in pretty much everything I eat – not just the classic comforts of Shepherd’s Pies and chocolate bars. In a perfect world, I think comfort can, and should, be found, whenever you transfer something from fork to tongue.

Cooking too, is somewhat of a salvation for me. Our little kitchen doesn’t have room for fancy gadgets, nor does it have room for more than one person to be in there at any one time, but the process of taking ingredients in their constituent parts and creating something that makes my mouth water has always appealed to me. When making meals, I so often seek new recipes for inspiration and then find myself thinking that I know better than the chef who wrote the recipe and end up freestyling. I’m an absolute tornado in the kitchen – often throwing not only food but pots, pans and bottles on the floor in my haste to whip up a taste sensation. Surfaces represent food war zones and the cooker top is splattered like a Jackson Pollock work of art but where his colours are varied and vibrant hues of paint, my works of art are made up of slices of leek, splatterings of tomato puree and sprinklings of herbs and spices decorating the cooker top as they miss the pan. If I’m baking, you can expect to find floury footprints on the carpet as I’ve spilled on the kitchen lino and proceeded to absent-mindedly trample it through the house. I once managed to get soy sauce on the ceiling, something I consider to be an accolade. I am never clumsier, nor more sweary than I am when I am in the kitchen, but the experience still has some kind of meditative quality about it. My camera roll is filled with poorly captured photos of dishes that I created that tasted incredible but which I could not translate to film.

At the start of my Boobettes talk, in an effort to introduce myself to the audiences and position myself as a real person, I share a few facts about myself. The line that always gets a laugh, or a slight smile of agreement is one of the most honest statements I can possibly say about myself. I tell them “I love food. If I’m not hungry, I’m thinking about being hungry. And if I’m not eating, I’m thinking about what I’m going to be eating soon.” And I really do love food. I love everything about it. From deciding what to eat (though admittedly, sometimes this flummoxes me more than it should), to carefully selecting the ingredients from the supermarket, to chopping and slicing and cutting and grinding and adding and stirring and tasting, to the slop of a saucy dinner as it is transferred from spoon to plate and the sitting down, knife and fork in hand, taking a moment or two to admire whatever I’ve created. Then I adore the way I can dismantle each mouthful to pick it apart with my tastebuds and identify the tastes and flavours of the ingredients I took in their raw, individual form and made into a meal. The way food brings people together is one of my favourite things about the human race. Family meals on mundane Mondays, everyone crammed around a too small table on Christmas Day, trying a new restaurant with old friends, meeting new friends at an old favourite. These are the details that make up the tapestry of my love of food. There’s nothing I like more than inviting a friend around for dinner and feeding them a home-cooked meal. It is, in fact, probably my only maternal inclination (I have come to realise that I may well be lacking in every other department, genetic or societal, for what it takes to want and to be a Mum – but that’s a story for another time).

But so often women are castigated for an open love of food. A passion for pastries can lead to a squishy stomach. An often fulfilled craving for a casserole can result in rounded edges. A big appetite can lead to a loss of abs. And we are told that these things are not good things. We are told that women should be slender and perfect and not gluttons who eat too much food and need to learn some damn restraint. Far too many times I hear or see women withholding food they want, the food they deserve, from themselves because they don’t want to put on an extra few pounds here and there. They restrict their access to, what I believe is one of the purest pleasures in life – the taste of an indulgent pudding on the tongue; the warm fulfilment and comfort offered by a bowl of pasta, that no other food can offer in quite the same way; the satisfaction of giving into a craving every now and again, because it’s your body’s way of telling you what it needs right now. And it is that want that is important. They are choosing not to eat what they want because society is telling them that they shouldn’t.

There is so much darkness in the world and it feels to me like food is a light that we shouldn’t hold back from ourselves, for fear of us growing spindly and yellow like a plant growing in a dark box. We need to seek out light and joy wherever we can find it, and I genuinely think one of the first places we can find a bit of that light and joy is in the kitchen, at the bottom of a tin of soup, or even under the chicken breast on an empty plate at Nando’s. And we should, if we can, allow ourselves that joy, despite what society tells us we should be doing.

This piece came about as a result of a conversation on Twitter about the incredible food writing of former Bakeoff star and all round food hero Ruby Tandoh and other female food writers. Check out Ruby’s latest piece in the Guardian here and the conversation it led to here.

Trust Your Touch with CoppaFeel!

Pretty much within the hour of being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, I decided I wanted to do something with what I was anticipating was going to be the most negative experience of my life. Not long before I finished treatment, I got in touch with CoppaFeel! – a breast cancer awareness charity set up by the inimitable Kris Hallenga. Kris had been diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 23. A late diagnosis meant that by the time she was diagnosed, her breast cancer was already Stage 4. There is no stage 5. Kris’ cancer had become what was known as secondary, or incurable, breast cancer.

Kris was determined that she wanted to do everything she could to stop more young women ending up in the situation that she was in. She realised that early detection of breast cancer saves lives and, along with her twin sister Maren, embarked on a campaign to educate the nation to that tune. CoppaFeel! was born.

I first encountered Kris when I saw her documentary “Dying to Live” during my time at university. I was blown away by the woman I saw before me, and I knew as soon as I was diagnosed that I wanted to join in the mission to stamp out late detection of breast cancer that Kris had started. Little did I know that CoppaFeel! would worm its way into my heart and life in ways I could never have imagined back in the summer of 2015.

I became a Boobette for the charity – one of around 100 women under 35 who have all been affected by breast cancer in one way or another, whether through a personal diagnosis, a scare or a hereditary connection with the disease – about 18 months ago. This group of women is beyond phenomenal. The army of the boob world, the Boobettes go into schools, colleges,  workplaces, universities, community centres, WI’s – basically anywhere that will have them – to bang on about bangers and to stress how important it is to know your own body. I am proud every single day to be surrounded by such a tour de force for breast awareness – and essentially self care. These women have been to hell and back and have chosen to tell the story. I have the utmost admiration for every single one of them.

Then a few months back, I was approached about becoming a trustee for the charity. Much like Liam Neeson in Taken, I had a very select set of skills. Skills I had acquired over a very long short career, that meant I would be a good fit for the board. Social media skills – check; marketing skills – check; previous breast cancer – check; down with the kids – TBC. But of course, I couldn’t say no. I was incredibly honoured to be asked to come into a role which meant I was able to work with the insanely talented team they have in the office and help drive this remarkable charity forward.

And on Friday, these guys made history. History that I was lucky enough to be a part of and that made my feminist side really bloody thrilled. They created an ad campaign which led to the first female nipple being aired on TV. Vogue wrote an article about the campaign. It was featured in the top spot on the BBC news app. Huffington Post, Refinery29 and The Independent all got in on the action too. And I’m so honoured that I got to be part of this. Once again, I got my boob (and where my boob used to be) out in the name of breast cancer awareness.

So isn’t it about time you trust your touch? Give you norks a feel today because knowing your boobs could save your life. Check out CoppaFeel! to see what you should be looking and feeling for.

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.

 

Things I Wish People Knew About Surviving Breast Cancer

More and more people every year are being diagnosed with cancer, in one form or another. Whether it’s lifestyle, environment, diet or any other factors that is causing the increase is very much up for debate, and not a debate I have enough authority to cast my opinion on. But with every new cancer diagnosis, research and treatments are vastly improving too. Now, if you’re diagnosed with primary breast cancer, you have an 80% chance of surviving 10 years after your diagnosis. Fewer people (though still too many) are dying of cancer but we still don’t know  what to do with survivors. The NHS is often too stretched to support people with the mental, physical and emotional turmoil that cancer leaves behind and not equipped to provide the kind of spiritual support people need after going through a life changing experience. So more and more people are surviving cancer, but their needs are often not understood – even by those closest to them.

In the 17 months since I finished treatment, there’s so much I have learned about “surviving” cancer and I thought it might be good to share these with you – so if you’re undergoing treatment, or know someone who is, you might get a better idea of what it’s like when you’re released back into the world. If you’ve been through treatment, some of these might seem pretty negative – but I think it’s important to normalise what life’s like after cancer so that if you feel any of these things (and you might think they’re all WRONG), you won’t feel alone and scared and worried and all the other emotions you experience in The Aftermath of this Life Changing Big Deal thing that happened to you. Buckle up campers,  this is a long read.

1. When I say “I’m tired” I don’t just mean I didn’t get enough sleep last night. It’s not because of the antidepressants I take. It’s not because I need to eat more veg, or get more exercise (but I should probs get a bit more, shouldn’t we all?). It’s because these days, post treatment, I reach a point where I splutter to a grinding stop like a car that’s been running on fumes for the last 20 miles. I crunch to a standstill with zero ability to continue, no matter how hard I try. Nausea. Headaches. Dizziness. Feeling faint. The works. There’s tiredness – which I was very familiar with before cancer – and then there’s fatigue and comparing tiredness to fatigue is like comparing cricket to walking on the moon.

I know lots of people who’ve had cancer treatment don’t find that their fatigue lasts as long as mine has and I am a) jealous and b) want to know all their secrets, but for many people who’ve been through cancer treatment fatigue lingers for various reasons.  The day my friend Izzy came round and did all the dishes I’d let build up because I was knackered was one of the best gifts she could have provided. She told me she found it therapeutic but I know she was doing it because she knew what a difference  it would make to me. These things make a difference, no matter how long it is since you’ve finished treatment.

2. Survivors guilt is real. Real and pervasive. Every time I hear about another person, whether I’ve met them, kind of half know them or have never heard of them at all, who has been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer or have died from it, I get a little crack in my heart. These cracks deepen the more of this news I hear. I wonder why I was, for now at least, more lucky than them. I wonder why I deserved to survive. I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to them to be better, to do more, to make the most of the life that I’ve been given. I feel guilty for still talking about my experience because at least the active part of treatment is over for me. What about the thousands of other people for whom treatment will never end? They don’t want to hear me wanging on about this when I’m lucky enough to have wrapped up my treatment.

There are people literally fighting for their lives and sometimes I feel like I should sit down and shut up because my opinion of cancer isn’t relevant because it’s not trying to kill me. I remember when my article was in Red I got shouted down by a handful of people who thought my experience wasn’t valid and that they should have been telling the stories of people with secondaries instead of me. So often I don’t understand why I am still here and so many of my amazing Boobette sisters are not. It’s a bloody minefield – especially if you’re prone to excessive rumination like I am. Survivors guilt is real and will bring up a range of unruly emotions in you. Accept them and remember that you’re doing the best you can.

3. Cancer never really leaves you. Long after you’ve finished treatment, cancer has a way of rearing its ugly head and infiltrating on the life you’re trying to rebuild. Whether that’s annual checkups at the hospital that give you palpitations, nightmares about it coming back, scares about recurrences and the feelings of fear, sadness, heartbreak and everything else you feel are constant reminders of what happened to you. Sometimes I have flashbacks to things, traumatic moments of when I was in treatment, that I’ve blacked out. Sometimes these thoughts hit me like a punch to the temple and other times they just wash over me. I can never judge which way I’m going to react or how I’m going to feel when this happens. But they tell me this is normal.

Don’t forget about what happened to us. We don’t need sympathetic head tilts but don’t panic if we tell you we’re still thinking about cancer 5 years after diagnosis. Ask how we are – and not in a perfunctory greeting way. Really ask. If we’re ok, we’ll tell you. But if we need to talk, that question will feel like a life ring being thrown out to us in the middle of a black and stormy ocean, where we’ve been floundering miles from the shore.

4. I have strong opinions about the language around cancer. I HATE THE FIGHT ANALOGY. I hate the idea that if you die from cancer you “lose”. How can you lose when you’re giving everything you have? How can you say people have “lost their battle” when they were never armed with the right infantries to battle with. Cancer is like Danerys on Drogon, leaving devastation in its path but cancer is never the victor. And it doesn’t matter how hard you fight. Even the best will in the world, the strongest positive mental attitude doesn’t stop cancer cells from multiplying – it’s medicine that does that. And we are not in control of how our bodies react to medicine (whether traditional or alternative, whatever your choice). People die. Don’t use euphemisms. It does them a disservice.

5. I think about death. I think about my death. I make jokes about dying. And that’s ok. I don’t need you to tell me not to talk like that or to “stop thinking that way”. Talking this way is one of my self defence mechanisms and it’s one I really, really need. It might seem negative or pessimistic but it’s the way I’m dealing with this. I know it might be hard for you to think about my cancer coming back. I know it might make you uncomfortable when I crack jokes about not making it to 40 years old, but if I’m laughing, you can laugh too. Laughter is the thing that has saved my life. The reality is that cancer might not just make the one stop in my life and I’m coming to terms with that. I know it’s hard for you too but it’s how I’m going to survive the uncertainty.

6. It doesn’t end after radiotherapy finishes. Having had triple negative breast cancer means I don’t have any further lines of defence against breast cancer but for so many, taking daily Tamoxifen, a hormone suppressant for five or ten years after finishing active treatment is a reality, meaning their treatment continues long after that last blast of radiotherapy. Other breast cancer’s need to be treated with a drug called Herceptin which is usually injected in the months following active treatment. Then there’s the fear, checkups, post-traumatic-stress, depression, anxiety that comes with life after treatment. There’s so much more to cancer than just the treatment part of things.

7. I don’t give a hoot where you keep your damn handbag. And putting a heart on your wall to create breast cancer “awareness” is a sure fire way to make me give you a lecture on how to actually check your tits. Memes about how much you hate cancer are useless and to be honest, kind of offensive sometimes, unless they’re saying that you hate cancer and we all need to do our own bit to make sure we’re doing what we can to make sure we get treatment asap if we do get cancer. That was a long sentence but what I mean is, I’m only interested in memes that tell us what we should be looking out for when it comes to signs and symptoms of cancer, rather than just an “I hate cancer” meme. Dude, I’m pretty sure no-one likes it much.

8. Finding yourself might not be as easy as you hope, but you’ll get there a little at a time. And you’ll surprise yourself frequently by your ability to pick yourself up and get on with shit even when you feel you cannot any more. I still have no idea who I am after cancer, so much so that when I am asked for an interesting fact about myself, it’s all I have to do to stop myself from blurting out “I HAD CANCER” because I feel like it’s a huge part of who I am/was/will be in the future, but also, that’s not ideal when meeting new people. They’d think I was bonkers. They can wait to find that out.

Feel Good 100 with Feel Good Drinks

A lot of pretty cool things have happened to me since I got diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015. I mean, chemotherapy was a riot and having a mastectomy and the followup surgeries was my favourite thing, obviously, but those things aside, I’ve been lucky enough to get some awesome opportunities. From having my name featured on a Formula 1 Car, to walking in the Breast Cancer Care fashion show,  joining an army of incredible women and regularly strapping on an enormous boob as one of CoppaFeel!’s Boobettes, to taking the jump and going freelance, pursuing my dreams of writing something that matters (though this may be temporarily on hold), I’ve been so very, very lucky. I’m grateful for all of these opportunities. The last two years haven’t been easy, but they’ve been pretty entertaining on the whole.

And I’ve started saying yes to things I never would have said yes to before. I think I’ve talked about this before, but I just don’t see the point in letting my nerves or fear or apprehension or anxiety stopping me from doing things. I’m pretty lucky to still be here, so why should I neglect opportunities that come my way? There’s a lot of things I can’t do right now (like surf) so why wouldn’t I say yes to things I can do? Even if they rip me out of my comfort zone and plonk me down next a beautiful lake in Malaga, completely naked and surrounded by 99 other naked women, all about to skinny dip in the aforementioned lake, I feel like I have a duty to do them. A duty to say yes. To myself as much as anyone.

Oh yeah. That lake thing actually happened. That wasn’t just some wild stream of whimsy consciousness I went off on there. A few weeks ago, along with some of my other awesome Boobette Babes and a bunch of other women from all over the UK, Feel Good Drinks escorted us out to Spain for their Feel Good 100 project. Their idea? To promote their 100% natural drinks they wanted to get 100 women in a 100% natural environment in 100% their natural state.

So here we were. Women of all shapes and sizes. A handful of breast cancer survivors. Models. Bloggers. Mothers. Every single person with a story that had led them to say yes to this opportunity.

So there I was. In beautiful sunshine in a stunning location with an incredible group of women wandering around with my The Artist Formerly Known as Breast out for everyone to see. Bizarrely, I felt more self conscious of the boob I still have than the war wound that marks my experience of breast cancer, but mostly I felt liberated. With all my wobbly bits and all my scars on show, there was something really honest about baring everything. Probably more honest than I had been with or about my body in a very long time.

Today marks two years since I had my mastectomy. Since the start of my treatment, I suppose. The start of my “triathalon”. In terms of surgery, it’s kind of turned into the Marathon des Sables, with 7 surgeries down and (hopefully) only two more to go. But at the end of this month I’ll go back to having two boobs as my (hopefully) penultimate surgery sees me have an expander implant put under the fat they’ve gathered from my legs and stomach in the past couple of surgeries. It looks like this is gonna be a big ‘un. Another scar. Drains. More liposuction. More bruising. More exhaustion. But I’m here, eh? I’m alive and kicking. Who cares if it works out that on average, I’ve had a surgery every three months for the last two years (I do a little bit. But only a touch).

The timing was really right for me with this campaign. I’m constantly searching for ways to feel alive at the moment and I really did feel alive and grateful for this opportunity. It kind of marked a transition in my treatment as I come to the end of living flat, 22 months after I had my implant removed. It’s the start of the end of my cycle of surgeries (hopefully) and I loved being able to celebrate my body honestly – for what it was before cancer, what it is now and what it will become. I still have so much growing and healing and learning to do.

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You can see the video created by Feel Good Drinks here – and I’d also recommend getting your hands on their infusions range. Genuinely delicious.

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.

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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.

In Search of a Bikini Body

I have never been one to strive for a bikini body. I’m very much from the school of thought that if you have a bikini and a body, you’ve got a bikini body as soon as you put the swimwear on. All of the rhetoric around dieting for summer so that you look your best has become outdated and passe, a mediocre and lazy attempt to target women through advertising and taking advantage of their insecurities. Every time a company tries to pull a new campaign out along these lines, society flocks to social media to call bullshit. I absolutely love it.  I love that we’re living in a world where we’re calling out beauty standards for what they often are – edited, airbrushed, unattainable and just not real life.

But I’ve been thinking about bikinis and bodies a lot lately. As most millennials are (because Whatsapp has revolutionised our lives), I’m in a group chat with a couple of friends, girls I used to work with. Earlier this week one of them dropped the interesting fact that bikinis were in fact named after the atomic bomb test site Bikini Atoll because, like the atomic bomb, it was ‘small and devastating’.⁠⁠⁠⁠ During my trip to Lanzarote in May, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how my relationship with a bikini has changed a lot since I lost my boob in 2015. Weirdly, I think being in Sri Lanka and the Maldives with my uniboob and not a prosthetic in sight, made me more comfortable than I’d ever been in a bikini before. And a brief spell in Lanzarote with my folks recently reaffirmed that feeling.

I never anticipated that I’d be having liposuction this year, so that’s given me a whole different perspective on the bikini body too. To those of you who don’t know, I didn’t suddenly decide that I needed to invest in lipo to get super-fly thighs for the summer months, but my surgeon floated lipografting to me as an idea after I said I wasn’t sure if I could face the gruelling process of having a DIEP flap surgery. It’s a snazzy new technique which involves liposuctioning fat from other places on the body and then injecting it into the chest and gradually moulding it into a breast. I KNOW. INSANE RIGHT? Anyway, I’ve now had two rounds of this procedure and find myself moving slowly towards the world of having two boobs again. That’s a weird world. I’ve been this way for about 20 months now. Going back to wearing pretty bras and not worrying about whether I need to throw on a prosthetic is going to be…quite something I think.

I’m getting off topic. Despite the liposuction and occasionally feeling more comfortable in my own body than I used to, I’ve not been getting on well with my body recently. It’s not really all that new. I’ve talked before about my body confidence and about how cancer has impacted that. But the negative feelings have been more heightened than ever, probably as a result of the fashion disasters I’ve been having recently trying to find something to wear for a wedding. And it (combined with other things) has left me feeling pretty low. I’ve been cross that I have gained weight recently. Been frustrated that my legs are still bruised, still sore after surgery. I’ve had a lot of shitty conversations with myself about the size of my arms, about the fat on my belly, about the pains in my chest. I’ve been really shitty to myself. Really shitty. But one thing I’ve been working on is doing yoga pretty much every day. (I pushed myself too hard the other day & have been getting cramps in my chest as a result so there’s a thing to learn about balance too).

One particular day, the yoga mantra I was working on was “I love”. And while saying “I love myself” does NOT sit well with me, I did it anyways. And (unrelated to the mantra, but quite remarkably) for the first time in my life, I was able to do side plank. And hold it. That’s a pretty big deal for me. Not something I could do BC and certainly not something I expected I could do after cancer. During all this time I’ve been beating my body up, it’s been getting stronger. All this time I’ve been berating myself for being out of shape it’s been getting stronger. And I suppose what I’m trying to say is that my body let me down quite dramatically. But I let it down pretty regularly too. I let it down by not giving it the credit it deserves. I let it down by starving it of the things it needs and wants because of some crazy idea of perfection that has been perpetuated by the patriarchy and the media.

My body doesn’t deserve to be berated. It deserves to be celebrated. And so does yours. For whatever victories it has given you. So find a victory that your body has given you recently. Today. Yesterday. This month. Last. And celebrate it. Really celebrate it. We can’t keep negative thoughts at bay forever, but we can kick ’em in the goolies once in a while. Do that today. I’m celebrating my side plank in yoga. I’m celebrating my body, wobbly bits and all for swimming through the Durdle Door (BUCKET LIST – CHECK). I’m celebrating my body for getting me through cancer treatment and for healing from every. single. surgery I’ve had over the last two years.

And if you’re looking for a bikini body, stop looking. If you’ve been eyeing up that bikini on ASOS but haven’t bought it because you’re worried about your size or your thighs, or your tummy. Stop procrastinating. Buy it. Put it on. Feel fabulous. Because you already are. The world knows it. You just need to tell yourself.