Cancerversary – One Year On

Up until a few months ago, I never even realised a “cancerversary” was a thing. But that was before I found myself immersed in the cancer community. People mark different days for their cancerversary – the day they had surgery, the day they had the first biopsies and scans, the day they started chemo, the day they finished chemo, the day they finished treatment all together…

For me, my cancerversary seems to be the day I got diagnosed. And believe it or not, we’re coming up to a year since I sat patiently in Lewisham Hospital, watching the 10 year memorial service of the 7/7 bombings. One year since the kindly surgeon in the big bow tie sat in front of me and said “you have cancer”.  One year since I said “I have breast cancer” out loud for the first time. One year since I had to tell my family, three hundred miles away, that the lump I’d found was, in fact, something to be worried about.

One year since the course of my life changed. If not forever, then temporarily at least.

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to process the last year over recent weeks. I’ve found that, as I’m moving further and further away from my active treatment, I’m gradually coming to terms with what I’ve been through, even though I thought I was all over it before. I keep having weird flashbacks to things I’ve definitely repressed – like when my boob began leaking on the way into the office and I had to rush to the hospital to get it checked. Or when my hair fell out and I told myself it was ok. It actually, really wasn’t OK. The day I laid in the anaesthetics room waiting for my surgery, more scared than I had ever been about anything in my entire adult life but trying desperately not to cry. Trying desperately to keep my shit together.

I’ve had nightmares about cancer coming back, I still feel sick when I think of the chemo going into my veins, I have pain where my boob used to be. My body is still covered with reminders of the ravages of treatment.

Throughout treatment I was determined to make it to Glastonbury Festival 2016. I was diagnosed just a few days after we got back from Glasto last year and it quickly became my marker for recovery. I remember hearing a woman talking about her breast cancer treatment behind me in the queue for the toilet on the campsite. I wanted to turn around and hug her, tell her how incredible she was, tell her I was waiting for results and I didn’t think it was good news and I was terrified but trying to still have a good time.

Glasto this year was such hard work. Not only ‘cos of the mud (you probably heard about that though right?) but three months after finishing treatment and with the cloud of post-cancer fatigue lingering, schlepping, or rather sliding, across Worthy Farm was pretty tough. I saw barely any music this year and spent the majority of Saturday sick and sleeping in our tent. But I was so, so grateful to be there. I loved seeing all the gloriously happy and smiling faces of the other festival goers. Loved dancing into the early hours of the morning in the silent disco with three of my favourite people in the world. Loved singing along to Adele at the top of my lungs, despite the fact I’d felt horrendous for most of the day previous.

Cancer is a motherfucker. Treatment is a bloody bastard. But it’s doable. And on the days I wonder if it was all worth it, I think I’ll remember sitting on Worthy View, looking out over the festival site having dragged myself through cancer treatment and know that it was worth it.

On 7th July, I’ll be spending the day with the love of my life and eating dinner with some of the people who made my treatment so much more bearable. I’ve no idea how else I’m going to mark it. I might get a tattoo. I might go to the theatre. I might run a 10km. If it wasn’t so hot, I’d be tempted just to sit in the house in my onesie and take stock of everything. Suggestions on a postcard for how I mark it.

What a bloody year, eh?

Me, Myself and Cancer

Last week, for the first time in three months, I pulled on my running shoes and went out. Just after a fourth unscheduled bout of surgery and for the first time since my mastectomy, I was able to run*, and with that, I was able to temporarily forget the last three months.

I was slow – a mile took me two minutes longer than it had before surgery.  It was hard. I walked a lot and gave up after two miles. My legs aren’t as strong as they were, my chest tired easily, my boob ached and felt heavy and alien. But I did it. And I never thought I would enjoy running as much as I enjoyed that one. I’ve never appreciated my body’s ability to do it more. The feeling of doing something just for me, not for the medical team taking care of me, for the first time in three months, was the best kind of freedom. I used to hate running, but with swimming off the cards during my treatment (sob), it’s been the thing I’ve craved – for the moments of clarity that exercise offers you like nothing else.

They say that the relationship you have with yourself is the most important of all and I never feel that more than when I’m running. I’ve always had a tempestuous relationship with myself (and I know I’ve said this before) but cancer has taught me a lot of things. Even though I don’t recognise the person, bald headed, scarred, mismatched and bleary eyed, looking back at me in the mirror, I recognise a strength in myself I never knew before.

Cancer has forced me to examine the relationship I have with myself more keenly than I ever have before. Dealing with cancer isn’t just about dealing with the gruelling physical effects – the nausea, the sore mouth, the lack of appetite, the exhaustion. It’s about dealing with the bleak thoughts when there’s no-one around. It’s being blindsided by living with the fear of reoccurrences and secondaries for the rest of your life when you’re tucking into a delicious spaghetti bolognese. It’s not being overwhelmed by what the future holds, and what your treatment plan holds, and rolling with it when you’re bowled another surgical curve ball and end up spending five nights in hospital. It’s laughing when your surgeon shouts “SOMEONE GET THIS GIRL A SANDWICH” after you’ve been nil by mouth for six hours and your surgery has had to be cancelled because your white blood count is in the toilet. It’s ignoring the voice that says “is it really worth all this?”

It’s getting reacquainted with your body when it has betrayed you, and learning to trust it again. It’s about finding self confidence in the face of something utterly shit when you’ve struggled to be self confident before. It’s standing in front of the mirror and still being able to see yourself despite the unfamiliarity of the reflection you see before you. It’s watching your hair come out in clumps and crying in the shower. It’s getting used to feeling the wind on your head and having to think about putting on a cap cos your brain feels frosty.

It’s learning new limits and not being hard on yourself when being hard on yourself is all you’ve ever known. It’s knowing that you can’t push through the exhaustion this time and that’s OK. It’s telling yourself that a messy kitchen does not matter. It’s knowing that this is not forever. God – it’s talking about cancer and yourself all the bloody time and being tired, oh so tired, of it. It’s wishing cancer could be removed from your vocabulary just for 24 hours.

It’s dealing with the demons that are telling you you’re making a fuss – that you should have battened down the hatches and sat this out without talking about it. That you shouldn’t have posted the picture of your bald head, all insta’d up, cos people might think you’re just looking for attention. It’s reminding yourself that something good has to come from this. It’s not underestimating the restorative powers of 10 mins of Headspace, a few shoddy yoga poses and Beyonce.

It’s having the worst day of your life, feeling more ill than you ever have before. And waking up every day and still wanting to fight.

But it’s not bravery. Bravery takes a choice. This is just life. It’s not a case of asking myself why me, it’s “why not me?” and getting the bloody hell on with it.

*Important reminder – I’m actually a terrible runner. I kind of hate it 90% of the time and I very much doubt I’ll ever run much further than 10km. I only do it because it’s good for me. And it gives me a break from the constant wirretting in my brain. But I’d always choose to swim instead if I could.

NB – dealing with cancer is also not really caring as much as you should that the featured image of this post isn’t the right size but also not having the energy to fix it. Similarly, it’s knowing that this blog post is a real stream of consciousness that is probably really poorly written and difficult to understand but, six days post chemo, it’s just embracing it and sending a big SOZ to you guys for reading it.

Sorry If My Hormones Verbally Assualted You…(and other stories)

The last couple of weeks have been kind of testing. Some days I’ve woken with a heavy heart and a not so sunny disposition. Blame it on the two different lots of hormones I’ve injecting into myself before tea every night but I have awoken a few mornings with a list of things that were making me feel melancholic. I began to jot down my feelings as the start of a blog post but as much as I want my blog to be an honest account of dealing with breast cancer at 26, I don’t just want to sit here and whinge. So I put down my notes and walked away more than once.

But I do think there’s something in acknowledging the quieter days. The days when there aren’t many jokes to find. The days when actually, being treated for cancer is pretty shitty. When all you want to do is go for a bloody swim because that’s the place you find your clarity but you can’t because cancer has taken that away from you. When having to plan for the possibility of kids in your future feels like an alien concept because you don’t even know what you want for dinner, can’t even plan next week. When you’re three weeks post surgery and a couple of slow hours walking around Kew Gardens really knocks you out for the rest of the week. When your wound just isn’t healing quite as you’d like. When you’re scared about facing chemo and all the unknowns that entails. When you’re getting to know an implant that has replaced a huge part of the feminine identity you’ve had for 26 years (and been hard on for 26 years). When you’re trying to prepare yourself for losing your hair against your will. When you’re trying to be determined and upbeat but while you’re lacking a plan you just feel a bit lost and vulnerable. When you want to be your best – your most positive and healthy and happy self – for the people who love you and spend their time coming to visit you. Those days do happen. And they’re hard.

The hormone treatment I’ve been undergoing has been difficult. While I’m hugely grateful for the opportunity to do so, taking out an insurance policy for having a family when I’ve never felt like that is something I want has got my shackles up. (Future child, if I do make you and you read this, know that I probably love you very much – but I’ve never been the maternal type. I’m sure I’ll be open about that with you – it’s a big part of who I am – but sorry if this seems harsh). Blame it on my stubborn streak but being forced into planning for something, and having the ability to do something on my own terms taken away from me, really grinds my jeffing gears.

Anyways, I made the decision to take all the steps I could to preserve my fertility and in the last two weeks I’ve:
1) injected myself with hormones that have made me preeeeeetty miserable to be around approximately 20 times,
2) had far more internal scans and blood tests than I’d like to recall,
3) and on Monday whilst under some pretty bad man sedation (it made my face tingly) had 14 eggs harvested from my ovaries. Which now feeling slightly sorry for themselves.

I don’t know if this is too much information but there’s now a collection of eggs and embryos sitting in a freezer somewhere at Guy’s hospital, ready for me to pop in and parent should the mood ever take me. WEIRD, RIGHT?! That’s a total of 13 potential children. Consider me, the eternal commitment phobe, hugely freaked. I’ve also noted the irony in taking such extensive care and effort over preserving my eggs when I bloody hate eggs.

Anyway. That’s enough about the potential activities of my reproductive system. I’m sure my Father is tearing his hair out reading this. Now that the fertility stuff is all done, and my boob is on it’s way to being fully healed (apart from a couple of hiccups here and there) I should find out when I can start chemo really soon. There’s a small patch of dead skin around the scar which is taking a while to heal – and this needs to be completely sorted before they’ll start me on chemo. At this stage, they’re trying to decide whether to leave it to heal naturally and delay chemo, or get it stitched up so we can get chemo underway quick sharp.

If it were up to me, I’d say get the bugger sewn up and let’s get on with this shit. The unknown is the thing that I’m struggling with most at the moment. Give me a plan and a method of attack and I reckon I can take on pretty much anything. Tell me “you’ll have chemo on this day, you’ll feel like this on this day and it’ll last for this long but then you’ll feel better by this day” and I know that it’ll be alright. But the huge unknown of this thing chemo is scarier than I care to admit. I have my street cred to uphold after all (LOL).

I have a whole other host of things I want to write about but today’s the first day I’ve had the energy (or the time to be honest – last week I was at the hospital Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) to blog and I appear to be suffering from a severe case of word vomit, so I’ll leave those topics for another day. Contain yourselves folks, I know I’m tantilising you.

Mascara warning. I want you to watch this video from the fantastic people at Coppafeel before you disappear. It’s a cracking song with a bloody brilliant message. I’m the girl on the left, but it sends shivers up my spine to know that I could have left it and become the girl on the right. I know I’m turning into a bit of a boob-vangelist but soz. This is what you’re going to have to put up with for the future. My bad.

Oh – and one more thing. Big up the inimitable Bangs and Bun and the fabulous Hannah Gale for sharing the #CheckYourChebs message. Eternal gratitude flowing your way big stylez.

A Reminder – Check Your Chebs

Right. Settle in folks. I am about to PREACH some serious shizzle at you. Hold on to your ha’pennys (maybe boobies would be better), because we are going to have a good old chinwag about #CheckYourChebs.

Today marks nine days since I had my single mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, a little over a month after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My recovery has been going really smoothly. I’m dosed up to the nines with good quality painkillers which has enabled me to keep my discomfort under control and I’m down to carrying one drain around with me, rather than the two I left hospital with last week. My flowery little granny bag will soon be retired completely (hopefully tomorrow!).

On Monday, I popped along to the hospital to get my wound and new bosom checked out and I must admit, my incredible surgeon looked pretty pleased with his handiwork. I am actually so pleased with how it looks – there’s still some swelling and it’s obviously tender, but all in all, it looks just like my other boob. It’s official that my surgeon is a hero.

Not only that but he gave me quite a bit of good news while he was examining me (it’s strange how quickly you get used to having serious conversations with your knockers out). The cancer in my breast tissue (which measured 22mm, about the size of a £1 coin) has been entirely removed by the mastectomy and my lymph nodes are “technically clear” which means there are some cancerous cells in there, but they’re so few, chemo will blast the bejesus out of them. No radiotherapy or axillary node clearance required. Which is really brilliant news. But this brings me quite nicely on to my next point.

I know I’ve said this before, but I feel like the results I got after my mastectomy really hammer the point home. Part of the reason my cancer was so small and hadn’t spread into my lymph nodes properly was because of early detection. While I admit that I was very much in the habit of checking my boobs with sporadic regularity, I was incredibly relaxed about the fact that I found a lump in my boob, having convinced myself it was just another cyst. I was 100% planning to go to the doctors, but if it wasn’t for my Mother (ta Marge) banging on at me on the phone one day telling me to go to the doctors as soon as possible, I would have put it off. And I don’t know how long for. Work was busy, I was busy, there was lots of other stuff going on with me and I could easily have waited two weeks, a month, two months before I got checked out. And if I had waited that long, we could be looking at an entirely different narrative to this story.

I am not trying to say this to scare you – that is the last thing I want to do, but I want to encourage you to get familiar with what’s going on in your boobs. I was always taught “I want never gets” but I’ve got a card right now, and I’m playing it and putting all my chips on the table. I want you to know if anything seems weird with your boobs (we’ll talk about the things to look out for in a minute). I want you to make sure you’re going for your smear tests. I want you to get your partner to check your boobs, his pecs, his nether regions, her boobs. I want everyone to check themselves regularly. That is my dream. Creepy. But true. This needs to be something we get into the habit of doing as often as cutting our fingernails or tweezing our eyebrows (OK – I’m guilty of not doing this as often as I should. I’m going for a Cara look, OK?!)

Only one in every 2000 women who is diagnosed with breast cancer every year is under 30, and over 30 the number is still low so the odds really are in your favour while you’re a younger woman, but it’s still important to get into the habit.

I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you about my wonderful new friend Kate. Kate is a little older than me, but after one of our joint friends (the gorgeous Jane) shared my blog on her Facebook, Kate had a feel of her boobies and discovered a lump. Long story short, she’s also in the breast cancer club. It’s a shit club to be in, but she, like me, could have been facing a different story if she hadn’t checked her chebs.

Kate and I have been emailing pretty much constantly since she got in touch to tell me her story and she began her chemotherapy yesterday. Whilst I wish (really, really wish) she didn’t have cancer and feel so terrible about her getting the diagnosis, I’m so glad she found the lump when she did. But she found it BECAUSE SHE CHECKED.

So I can hear you going “that’s all well and good Alice, but how do you #CheckYourChebs?” (I bet you said the hashtag too, right?!). It’s easy. There is actually no correct way to check your chebs. True story. It’s just about being familiar with what your Mama gave you and having a good poke and prod around, while keeping your eye out for the following things:

  • Changes in skin texture (i.e puckering or dimpling)
  • Lumps you can feel
  • Nipple discharge
  • Nipple inversion or changes in direction
  • Swelling around your armpit or collar bone
  • Pain in your breast or armpit
  • Change in size or shape
  • Rash or crusting of the nipple area

If you spot any of these things, make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as you can. Don’t be shy. Don’t feel silly. You are taking control of your own body and that is awesome. You owe it to yourself.

What are you waiting for? Today’s the day to make #CheckYourChebs a regular part of your weekly routine. There’s literally no better time to start. Please share this with your friends and loved ones to get them checking too. It sounds cliched and dramatic, but doing it could save a life. On you go, my little cheb checking cherubs.

/End Sermon.

The boob checklist came from Coppafeel – their website has SO much information on checking your boobs, I really recommend you check it out and get involved in Check ‘Em Tuesday.

Life, Lately

I know, it has been a REALLY long time this time. I have been a bad blogger, but as ever, I’ve made a comeback. Call me Take That if you will. I don’t have an awful lot to say, but I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately. More than usual. Sometimes it’s good to focus on something creative and photography is a skill I’d really like to develop. These snaps aren’t all amazing, but they’re a bit of an insight into what’s been going on over the last few months. I’m no David Bailey, but I sure do love taking a camera and capturing a moment.

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Just after Christmas, I treated myself to a Crosley record player. Though I think there are a lot of purists out there who don’t rate it as a record player, I absolutely love it. Growing my record collection has become a bit of an obsession, and with some help from Pa who treated me to a handful of his favourites, it has become quite a collection. From Roxy Music to Aswad, Aretha Franklin, Kylie Minogue, Paul Simon, Louis Armstrong and everything in between, I’ve been going through the music I was raised on and adding to my collection often. Move over Chris, I’ve found a new love of my life.

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At the end of February, Chris and I went along to the incredible Cecil Sharp House in Camden for a celebration of all things Welsh at the Hwyl festival. Created by the folks who run Green Man Festival (which, incidentally looks pretty awesome too), this day long festival was filled with music, poetry, spoken word and set amongst an array of comfortable beanbags and friendly faces. My favourite act of the day was the incredible Sweet Baboo, who performed an acoustic set, just he and his guitar. Check out Motorhome and If I Died if gorgeous vocals and catchy little ditties are your kind of thing. I know they’re mine.

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I have lived in London for almost four years, but I’d never ventured up to the top of Primrose Hill. After wandering round Regent’s Park with my parents on probably one of the first convincingly sunny days of Spring, we decided to make our way up to the top. We weren’t the only people who’d had the same idea but the view was pretty special up there. It reminded me of how beautiful London really is and how lucky I am to live in such a vibrant place.

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After hearing about when it opened a couple of months ago, I was super keen to get up to the top of the Walkie Talkie to the Sky Garden. Though it was a bit like being in a tropical airport, the 360 degree view of the city was incredible. Like at the top of Primrose Hill, I was reminded just how brilliant this bloody city is. And while I love popping up to the top of The Shard (preferably for cocktails, rather than to the viewing platform), the view from the top of the Walkie Talkie was significantly better.

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I went to Bath for a hen party a couple of weeks ago (what an absolute riot that was!) and while I was on the train, I finally got my hands on a copy of Oh Comely magazine. It’s described as “a magazine that makes people smile, full of quiet moments and stories” and that’s definitely what it is. The tagline, “Keep Your Curiosity Sacred” is perfect to describe the content – full of wonder, intrigue, captivating words and beautiful pictures. Pick one up if you get the chance, I think I’ll be subscribing.

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I was so excited about the Solar Eclipse. I remember watching the one in ’99 with my Dad towards the end of the summer holidays. We were fully prepared with our glasses and we pulled over to the side of the road to watch. It’s probably one of the clearest memory of my childhood. This year, despite hunting for solar eclipse glasses and failing miserably, I made myself a pinhole camera as an alternative (wrapped in silver foil to look extra cool) but come the day, London was bleak and miserable. This was the view from the balcony at work, which, whilst optimally positioned, bore not a scrap of sunshine. Until about an hour after the eclipse had finished.

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When I was at the hen in Bath, we popped along to The Makery to create hen party sashes and I inevitably had to take a snap of this, if only to remind myself to take time out regularly to make, photograph, write amazing things.

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When I heard about Letters Live, the live event from the folks behind Letters of Note, I absolutely had to get tickets. It’s a website I’ve been reading for ages, and it’s so easy to lose an hour or so just trawling through notable letters from notable people. Held at the Freemasons Hall in Holborn, we were treated to letters written by the likes of Van Gough, Nick Cave, Matt Park, Cassandra Austen on the last hours of her sister’s life, and so many more. These letters were read by read by the likes of Juliet Stephenson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brearly, Russell Brand, Caitlin Moran. Letter writing is an art form which has faded away with the advent of technology and some of these letters were so deserving of a wider audience. It felt like such a privilege to hear the intimate thoughts of these people.

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Every year for the last however long, my family and I gather at a cottage in Essex for Easter, not far from my Grandparents and where my Dad grew up. This year was bittersweet for reasons that I won’t go into, but this part of the world is really stunning. I have a bit of an obsession with the sky, and it seemed so massive on this particular day. Just a reminder of how small we really are.

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Not much to say about this guy. He was on his last legs but he was still beautiful. This is one of the best photos I’ve taken with my new iPhone 6. The camera is banging.

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As much as I love London, it’s always nice to step away from the pace of city life and take a breath. For this, I find the perfect antidote is a dose of the beautiful countryside. I did quite a bit of running while I was away and while my usual route past the houses of Dulwich is nice, taking in the rolling hills of Essex and the fresh air as opposed to the tar filled smog of the city was a treat. While I didn’t run past this (I was actually sat on a miniature train, see featured image, when I took this) I think it’s the perfect representation of the glory of the English countryside.

What have you been up to lately? Hopefully I’ll be back here again soon!

The Return

It has been a very, very long time since I last blogged on alicemaypurkiss.wordpress.com. This is bad. But there’s been a lot going on.

Since I last posted, I finished my internship at Index on Censorship and began working, mainly as a blogger (amongst other things) at VoucherCodes.co.uk, working on their lifestyle magazine Most Wanted. I’ve been there for over a year and it has been a whirlwind of excitement and fun allowing me to regularly write about fashion and beauty on a platform which is widely read and enjoyed. I am finally doing what I love on a daily basis, but that sometimes means that other things slip by the wayside. So that’s my excuse for not getting my finger out and hitting this blog more regularly. (If you’re keen, you can see my content for MW here).

In the last few weeks though, a couple of other interesting things have happened. I’ve started a creative writing class to develop my writing skills more, and I’ve become a regular contributor to the amazing (and award winning!) London Beauty Queen. The combination of all of these things have inspired to bring this blog back to life. Watch this space. I’ll be back properly soon!