B4Peace Monthly Peace Challenge: I have a dream…

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It’s hard to believe that these steps were once the haunt of privateers, pirates who preyed on French and Spanish vessels stealing their cargo and murdering their crews. That was almost 700 years ago and times have changed though not as much as we might think. Almost 70 years ago in June 1944, four hundred and eighty ships sailed from this port to the Normandy beaches. Operation Overlord saw 160,000 soldiers land at five points across a 50 mile stretch of the French coastline. They were supported and aided by over 195,000 allies and merchant navy seamen.

It is estimated that 60 million people, nearly two-thirds of whom were civilians, died in World War II.  The equivalent of the entire populations of the Bahamas plus Iceland plus French Guiana plus Qatar  plus Lithuania all lost their lives over a seven-year period. If every person in these five countries was to suddenly lose his or her life the rest of the world would proclaim it a disaster and rightly so. Fighting for peace by killing ‘the enemy’ is victory by disaster, death and destruction.  Life is sacred yet in times of war we forget that all and any loss of life, ‘them’ or ‘us,’ is a tragedy.

I have walked the WWII cemeteries many times, seen row upon row upon row of brilliant white crosses standing silently amongst the lush green grass. This war was before my time and I did not know these men yet my sense of loss is palpable. I try to remain detached, a quiet observer paying respect to those who lost their lives so that I could live in freedom today.  I try and every time I fail. I cannot walk among these graves devoid of emotion. I cannot detach myself from the pain and fear and suffering even though I was not here, not even born, when disaster came to call.   A deep and mournful sorrow constricts my heart squeezing so hard that I think it might break. Tears stain my face as the silence seeps into my soul. These are soldiers graves. I do not know where the many millions of civilians lay in the dark, dank earth. No doubt their bodies are strewn in graveyards across three continents, or lost along with some of the soldiers whose remains were never found.


Ardennes American Cemetery





Massicault War Cemetery

Massicault War Cemetery (Photo credit: stevie.gill)







And so I have a dream…


I dream that my child, his children (if and when he has them) and his children’s children’s children never bare witness to loss of life, whether one life or millions, simply because humanity is insufficiently evolved to settle its differences through peaceable means. My child, of course, has already borne witness – to Iraq, 9/11, 7/7, Burundi, Nepal, Kosovo, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Congo, Chechnya, Gaza, Afghanistan, Syria and countless others. I wish it were not so and I hope that by the time he is my age this feuding will have ceased.  I dream that our children and their children’s children’s children live in a world where differences are accepted and valued, prejudice is long since forgotten, wealth is not hoarded by the rich, food is not withheld from the poor and where religion serves only to forge a common bond, preserving our faith in the sanctity of all life on Earth.



The Butterfly Effect aka The Unspoken Impact of Life-Threatening Illness

I’ve been pondering this post for a while. It involves potentially difficult topics, significant others and the impact of my diagnosis on their lives. Shedding light on these often unspoken situations involves crossing boundaries into what happened/is happening to those people as a result of me developing cancer. There are questions of respect and privacy to consider.

Here in the UK there is minimal talk of how difficult it can be for those close to a cancer patient to deal with the words ‘cancer patient.’ The need for support is alluded to but support for exactly what is rarely verbalised. I’m not sure there is full disclosure of the extent of challenges  the people near a cancer patient may find themselves facing. Having been a person nearby on more than one occasion as well as being the patient and witnessing first-hand what happens to others I’m aware very aware of the potential repercussions. The cancer butterfly effect can be extensive and it includes life-threatening / life-inhibiting illness for family and friends who suddenly find themselves thrown into a world of chaos, uncertainty and fear.

The butterfly effect is part of chaos theory so linking it to the chaos of cancer doesn’t stretch the imagination too much. The theory suggests there are sensitive dependencies on initial conditions hence a small change to those initial conditions can have a huge effect somewhere else. In theory a butterfly flapping its wings outside my window might result in a hurricane off the coast of America in a few weeks time. Cancer is no small change hence its butterfly effect can and often does have devastating impacts elsewhere.

For teenagers and young adults the reality of a close relative or friend with cancer can be extremely difficult. At a point when life ought to be fun, carefree and exciting they are suddenly forced to confront  the fear associated with illness, surgery and treatment. They are also forced to consider the spectre of death. This is no way to spend such a formative part of our lives. I know because I was a teenager/young adult when my Aunt and my Mother developed cancer. I watched both go through many different, disabling and sometimes dehumanising treatments. I saw them both lose their lives and I came face to face with the violence of death when my Mother developed a pulmonary embolism. It was not peaceful. Seventeen years later the sights, sounds and smells are all still etched in my mind.  It was ten years before I could set foot in the hospital where my Mother spent her final day and even now I hate going back there.

My son has had to face similar trauma following my diagnosis. Fortunately I am not dead. Hopefully I am dying at the same rate as most other people – little by little over a period of at least another 30 years. Despite my son’s positivity, despite his seemingly mature approach and our well-reasoned suggestions that I would be fine, the cancer butterfly effect has taken a huge toll on him. He finds it difficult to come to terms with what he sees as the unfairness of it all. He asks “why you Mom?” He struggles to reconcile that “terrible things happen to kind people who don’t deserve it.” For over a year he has been plagued with nightmares, relentless images of suffering, mutilation and death.  He tells me he couldn’t cope with what happened to me but didn’t want to add to my worries. He tried pretending everything was normal when life for both of us was completely surreal.  After seeing him become desperately unhappy and withdrawn, referring him for counselling, witnessing his panic and hearing his concern that no-one would believe he is unwell, we finally found a Dr who understood what he’s been faced with. She diagnosed depression. My son won’t be able to reclaim the past two years of his life, or however long it takes to improve his mental health now his condition has been recognised.

Family members have little choice about their engagement with the cancer patient, particularly if they live in the same household. Even when they don’t it is almost impossible to avoid the trauma unless they rule the patient out of their lives entirely.  Friends have more freedom. Fortunately most friends don’t go AWOL, sadly some do.

One of my very best friends abandoned me completely. Despite knowing each other for two decades, sharing a whole range of experiences including having children, riding out good and bad times together in the past, this experience brought our friendship to an abrupt end. There was no discussion. There was no explanation. Seemingly there was no thought about the impact this desertion would have on me at a time when my whole life hung in the balance. Seemingly a long term relationship built on trust, respect, mutual support and loyalty only mattered while I was not a cancer patient. When I became a cancer patient it was OK to throw our friendship away.

I haven’t had chance to talk to this absent friend so I can only guess as to the reasons for walking away from what I thought of as a friendship that would last a lifetime. My guesses include a fear of my condition, being uncomfortable/repulsed/disturbed by the changes in my physical appearance (I was too but had no choice!), being unable to cope with a very able, independent friend who had become very sick and much less able for a period of time.  Other guesses include triggering unpleasant memories from the past, thinking I might become a burden or feeling inadequate/ill-equipped to deal with the prospect of serious illness and death.  I’ve spent the past year wondering what I did to deserve such treatment. Had our positions been reversed I wouldn’t have walked out on our friendship, even if I knew that being present meant entering a world of uncertainty, facing the prospect of death and the heartache that inevitably goes along with it. Perhaps I place more value on relationships than this friend did. Perhaps my absence friend can only commit while the weather is fine but when it’s monsoon season shipping out is the only option. Perhaps my friend is also suffering from depression. I don’t know because in spite of trying I haven’t been able to establish any meaningful dialogue and now, many months on, I have to conclude for my own sanity and future well being that this friend was just a long-term acquaintance, not the friend for life I thought I could trust and rely on.

This is just a snapshot of the butterfly effect that accompanies life-threatening illness. I suspect cancer is particularly difficult because in spite of various awareness campaigns the disease still strikes fear in most of us. Most of us know someone who didn’t make it. There is very little tangible support for people like my son. Fortunately he and I are close, we can talk about it and we are doing our best to work through all of it together. It will take time and we know there are no miracle solutions. As for my absent friend, I guess I’ll never know exactly what happened or have the opportunity to help work It through. I wish you happiness anyway.


A confusion of pinkness, awareness and wellness.

This month is breast cancer awareness month or Pinktober.

Awareness is the only reason I’m still alive today. If I’d trusted to screening alone there’s every possibility I’d be terminally ill by now. Or dead. Thankfully I am neither of those things because I trusted my instincts more than I trusted an ‘all ok’ letter. Awareness didn’t stop cancer developing but it did make me realise something was wrong, even when the medical evidence initially suggested no cause for concern. Always trust your instincts.

This month causes me a good deal of confusion.

Pink does not equal awareness. In my mind pink equals Miss Piggy, marshmallows and candyfloss. Pink is a colour, it conjures images of trivial fluffy sweetness. It doesn’t summon visions of mutilated torsos, lymphoedema or death. Pink does not equal that kind of awareness. Always remember pink is just a colour.

Pink goods don’t equal awareness either. In my mind questions of financial awareness arise. I’m cynical. I have doubts about bandwagons and profits made from the various pink merchandise that floods the market in October. Just how much of that money reaches the researchers, support groups and charity funded nurses who make a difference to those of us fearing, faced with or hoping to stay free of cancer? Less than 20% I suspect. This lack of transparency is another source of confusion. Always read the small print.

Awareness does not equal wellness. I have always been very aware but awareness doesn’t prevent cancer. Now I am constantly aware. I am reminded every day and every day I’m on watch for any further changes, signs or symptoms that the blight that marred my life for far too long is attempting to make a return. I am constantly aware but I don’t want to obsess over it. I want to forget about it yet I cannot. I’d like to spend at least part of my time in the fuzzy soft focus of trivial fluffy sweetness. Marshmallows and candyfloss. Being aware means I am on parole and I will stay on parole for the rest of my life. One cell out of line and the gateway to hell is reopened. Nothing in that hell is any shade of pink. That place is a long way from wellness.

I sometimes struggle to overcome the conundrum that is pinkness, awareness and wellness. I can strike out pinkness but the complex relationship between awareness and wellness is something else. Awareness might equal discovering I’m physically unwell again. Lack of awareness might equal being physically unwell again. Overdoing awareness might equal becoming psychologically unwell. Under doing awareness might equal being psychologically remote from reality. Confusion reigns. Always appreciate life’s uncomplicated moments.



Riding the Currents

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I took this photograph back in the summer. I was on a boat and the gull had been following us for some time.  I watched it ride the thermals, perfectly adjusting its speed and direction in line with the vessel, gradually edging closer until it made the kind of elegant, graceful touch-down that land animals (like me) can only dream about.  I might be able to talk, write, create art and music but I’m still in awe of this gull and its ability to ride the currents. Life is, after all, an experiment in riding the currents.

For a number of reasons the summer seems a long way away now. Three weeks ago I started my new job. That, a partial relocation and attending to family matters has kept me from the blog (and reading everyone else’s blogs)  for longer than I’d hoped. At the moment there are many conflicting currents to ride and I’m nowhere near as proficient as the gull when it comes to gliding in and out of the thermals.

The new job deserves some posts in its own right. In truth it probably deserves a blog of its own. Despite the challenges, and there are many, working in an organisation that makes a positive contribution to society by offering people educational experiences that equip them to follow their dreams is much more aligned with my values than working somewhere focused solely on profitability.  Or selling people things they don’t need and might never get benefit from. Or encouraging them to get into debt that they’ll never be able to repay. So although there is a lot to do, to shape up and sort out, the underlying purpose of the organisation is an honourable one. The people I’m working with are good, smart, diligent and human. That counts for a lot.

The partial relocation has been a little disorienting and it involves a lot of extra curricular activity; cleaning, decorating and generally making the place a warm and comfortable environment.  The fact that we took possession two days before I started the new job meant condensed timescales. The first week was more like an adventure in indoor camping.

Now I work at IT things, people things and process things during the week and put on my best Bob the Builder impression all weekend, every weekend. Fortunately I like repairing plaster work, filling gaps around sockets, window sills and places where other people’s pictures used to be. I also like painting. I can happily paint from 8am to 8pm without a break and that is just as well because every wall in the house needs painting. I do begin to get bored on the third coat though… and I still can’t work out why the previous occupants had so much Sellotape stuck to every ceiling. It’s as if someone was attempting to be Spider-Man!

Maybe one day my life will be simple. Get up, go to work, go home, go to sleep.  Or hopefully in the distant future get up, do whatever I want all day, go to sleep. Until then I have to practice riding the currents because it seems I’ll be multi-tasking, time-shifting and putting plans B, C and D into operation on a fairly regular basis. Then again, I’d probably get bored if everything was simple and plan A was the only plan I needed 🙂