Half a World Away

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky


It’s a beautiful morning. Since the beginning of December I can only recall one other day without rain and that seems like a very distant memory. At work on Thursday we joked that the Mayans may have correctly predicted the end of the world – it’s simply coming along a bit later than expected. They were ancient people without atomic clocks so what’s an extra year or two on top of a few centuries?

Looking at the clear blue sky today is not the day it all ends and I’m happy that’s the case.

This time last year it was snowing. Clumps of pristine white snowflakes were swirling around me like the stuffing from expensive duck down pillows. January and February both saw fairly significant snowfall, at least by UK standards. Out here in the countryside the drifts were over six feet high and I walked the lane crunching my way through the freezing blanket to take photographs in a completely silent landscape. When snow muffles everything the silence takes over – no road noise, no rustling trees – and with silence comes stillness. The fields and hedgerows slip into a moment of frozen tranquillity.

Silent stillness always draws me out into the chilling air. Wrapped in a thick winter coat, huge scarf, fingerless gloves (so I could operate the camera) and my woollen cable-knit baker-boy cap I trudged down then up the lane, a walk that normally takes 10 minutes but needs at least 20 in heavy snow. The horses at Holly Farm had taken their leave and retreated into the stable but every tree and shrub along the way was alive with small birds foraging for food. When the snow comes the need to eat overcomes the need to fear humans, the birds will take seed at your feet if you’re still enough. After walking the lane I was cold and tired but a cup of hot chocolate soon addressed both.

How do I recall this scene so readily when it was a year ago? I’d just received my final round of Taxotere. I was hairless, as pale and translucent as an undernourished vampire and completely strung out on steroids. There are few things I detest and dexamethosone is one of them so if I never have it again that’ll be just fine with me. Looking back the whole scene – the snow, the chemo unit, the regular blood draws, the side-effects – it feels half a world away. It almost seems unreal and if it weren’t for the tale-tell signs all over my body (and embedded in my psyche) I could almost convince myself it was a very bad dream.


Today there’s no snow. The tall trees opposite the window are gently rippling so there’s a breeze. The sky is the most beautiful cyan blue and bright yellow winter sunlight, the kind that is brilliant but holds no blazing heat, is streaming into the room. Small birds are chattering outside the window and the cats who were exiled to the conservatory last year, are happily curled up by the fire for an after-breakfast siesta. Today is a very beautiful day and it seems that all is well in my wonderfully bizarre, confusing and ever-changing world.

Half a World Away

Live Long… And Prosper?

A recent Huffington Post article highlights the pitfalls of too little sleep. Of course the dangers of insufficient rest ought to be obvious to us since sleep is the time when our bodies (and minds) repair themselves. Too little sleep = inadequate repairs. One of many sleep research findings is that failure to achieve sufficient rest correlates with aggressive breast cancer. Other research has established that women who work night shifts have a higher incidence of breast cancer than women who work more conventional hours.

For decades I was up at 5am to travel for 3 hours before working a ten or twelve hour day. I spent many years on-call, acting as the senior manager if something should go wrong – a systems or security incident. Gas leaks, data centre fires and floods, weekend and overnight disaster recovery tests, denial of service attacks, customer security incidents and an impossible workload have all had a part to play in a pattern of sleep that at times barely scraped five hours per night. One particularly difficult working environment saw me travelling regularly in the evenings and at weekends whilst also fielding numerous out of hours calls. Aside from the fact that I looked like a ghost most of the time no-one batted an eyelid – the environment was tough and those who worked there were expected to be tough enough to cope with it.

I will never know if insane working hours, lack of sleep and living on adrenaline for fifteen years acted as a catalyst for some inherited genetic anomalies. The force (of breast cancer) is strong in my female bloodline; my relatives were all exceptionally hard-working women before they were afflicted. Maybe long hours and too little rest triggered irreparable damage in their DNA too. I know that, like me, some of these women felt no choice but to go the extra mile if they wanted to succeed in their careers as well as having families and successfully running a home.

Fewer women are taking up computing and IT these days. Girls are stepping away from computer science degrees and many don’t see technology as an interesting or rewarding career option. Its a shame but I’m not surprised. Forging a career in this discipline still seems to call for antisocial hours, the ability to cope with a ridiculous workload and a need for women to prove themselves worthy every step of the way. I wonder if men going into careers nursing or social care feel the same way? Whilst there are always likely to be nursing and social care jobs in this country, the same cannot be said for IT, at least not the developer and operator jobs that act as a foundation for more senior positions. Why would a young woman considering her future opt for a UK career where women are still the minority, hours are excessive and there’s every chance the work will be outsourced to Bangalore, Shanghai, Morocco or Malaysia in the next 20 years?

For me and the other women in my family who are sadly no longer with us, the point of working hard was twofold. First, to do a good job, demonstrate commitment and prove our worth. Second, but not subordinate to point one, working hard was for and in behalf of our families – to put food on the table, clothes on our children and a fire in the hearth. Hard work equalled prosperity, or at least it helped to ensure that no-one went hungry! Yet it appears the old adage “everything in moderation” may well be true. Prosperity in the sense of helping to remove hardships, create financial stability and generate a reasonable standard of living does not seem to correlate with long lifespans for the women in my family. This seems especially the case when the route to an improved standard of living involves excessive hours, shift work or irregular working patterns. In trying to ensure bills were paid it’s quite possible I and my deceased Mother, Aunt and an array of Grandmothers – including great and great-great Grans who died long before their own children reached adulthood – sealed our own fate, or at least contributed to it in some way.

I am not naïve enough to think our high work ethic is the root of the problem. My own oncologist is 99.99% certain we come from a long line of women with faulty genes. Microscopic anomalies and DNA aberrations that might be understood in a decades time, the same way BRCA is understood today following years and years of analysis. That said, recent research into the effects of insufficient sleep, shift working and so on is impossible to ignore. Women like me with a long family history of breast cancer probably need more than regular screening and self surveillance. Advice about the potential impact of excessive working hours or night shifts might go some way to help us live long and prosper. It may also help remove the sense of guilt that comes with working sensibly but not excessively and offer a route to avoid the constant self analysis as to whether we are ‘tough enough’ for the job.


Lessons from the Feisty Blue Gecko – Amity, Moderation, Repose.

Recently the FBG (http://feistybluegeckofightsback.wordpress.com) travelled to Borneo. While doing so she shared a post about three words to shape her year, a practice she’s been undertaking for several years now. I pondered on this approach and wondered what three words might apply to my past and present years, and what those words might teach me about myself, my aims and hopes for the future.

I own a butterfly mind that resides in the middle a walrus colony. There are many interesting thoughts and ideas but insufficient space (or time) between them to give each the attention it deserves. Reflecting for a moment on why that is throws up my first three words – curiosity, overburdened and driven. Unsurprisingly there are patterns and links between all three.  I like being curious and reasonably driven because that’s the way I learn and keep growing (instead of slipping into a state of mental hibernation). I’m not so comfortable with overburdened as it eventually quashes the other two.

Better choices are curiosity, capacity and pace. Life is, after all, a marathon not a sprint. I’m a useless sprinter!

There are some stand out years in my life for good and not so good reasons. In 1993 the three words were overjoyed, nurturing and amazed. In 1996, overwrought, shocked and escape. 1998 warranted exciting, connected and faith whilst 2008 was ecstatic, proud and supportive.  On balance there’s more to be glad for than not over the past forty-odd years, until the most recently.

No matter which way I look at it, however much I try to stand it on its head, take a different perspective or weigh the pros and cons, I am not glad about HER2 positive breast cancer. I’m glad I acted quickly, took decisive and extensive action and am still here but I’m not at all glad about the thing itself. 2012 was the year of chaos, stark and pigheaded. Pigheadedness coupled with a good medical team and wonderful support from family, close friends and new friends from WordPress kept me in this world instead of contemplating the next.

2013 should and could have been an improvement and in many ways it was, but it was also tainted by the fall-out of cancer. 2013 was a tale of two cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” Its taken a while to find just three words for 2013 (without the use of expletives) however those that fit best are distraught, dissociation and determined. The year is over and although there were some positive elements, it is not one I am sorry to see the back of.

So what of 2014, this new year freshly begun and hopefully holding much goodness in store? It did not get off to the best of starts for reasons I shall not enter into here, suffice to say an early morning phone call creating havoc and requiring an immediate solution was not something I’d hoped for. The fact that I was 80 miles from the epicentre did not help. Fortunately resolution occurred and no lasting harm befell anyone, though the events themselves remain puzzling.  My capacity to deal with emergency situations involving those near to me is not as robust as it once was, especially if I’m some distance away. I can think of no good reason for this other than an increased sense of the fragility of life.  So the first of 2014’s words is amity – love, friendship and kindliness given freely to those who are dear to me because nothing else is as important. The second is moderation. I can no longer burn the candle at both ends, my time on earth already hit one big bump in the road and I don’t want to invite others. My third word for 2014 is repose. Now more than any time previously I feel the need for regeneration and respite, quiet contemplation and time for recreation.

There are no certainties in life (except death and taxes) but I sense these words will set me in good stead for the rest of 2014. Amity, moderation and repose with, of course, thanks to Feisty Blue Gecko for equipping me with such a helpful philosophy 🙂

Walrus colony - see how difficult it is to squeeze a thought between them? Image credit: Wikipedia

Walrus colony – see how difficult it is to squeeze a thought between them? Image credit: Wikipedia

Fresh pastures…

A recent comment by Maurice at Duck? Starfish? … but 23  gave me some food for thought as to where I go with FEC-THis. I’ve become attached to this blog over the course of the past year or so, and I am so very grateful for everyone who follows it, comments on it and generally offers friendship and support through the life-threatening events I’ve experienced. I can only describe these things as horror-movie-esque.  I haven’t watched the horror genre since I was a teenager; not because I am squeamish but because I quickly realised anything we conspire to place on film can so easily be or become real. (Think cannibalism, terrorism, torture, then stop. They don’t bare thinking about). As you might imagine, being thrown head-first into the middle of a horror story has been quite a challenge hence FEC-THis was forged in the fire-pits of adversity. Running through its core is the emperor of all maladies.

But my life is not a horror movie. No matter how harrowing things have been or might be in future  I refuse to have the emperor running through my core. I do not permit it to invade and desecrate all that I enjoy, and I work hard to ensure I’m a physically inhospitable environment for its atrocities. Cancer is just one small, stupid, selfish aspect of my life and it has taken too much already so small, stupid and selfish will be forcibly overthrown and exiled. I know it will take time and effort and I’m prepared for that task. I’m also prepared for fresh pastures.

I cannot abandon FEC-THis. Much good has come of it and to coin a phrase I can’t count my chickens. There’s a long way to go and the emperor is extremely wily. Nothing is guaranteed, but then again nothing ever is. FEC-THis is a fortress, a stronghold to help me stay strong and keep focused. However, The Asymmetry of Matter  is a new blog where I’ll post art, photography and musings free of the cancer cloud. Everything that lives there is unhindered by the emperor’s taints and trials. I have to thank my son for contributing to this fork in the road too. My illness was as hard on him as it was on me but he can see beyond it and in doing so actively encouraged me to create another blog for the non-human, non-cat loves of my life – drawing, painting, photography and poetry. The Asymmetry of Matter is a sanctuary for the tranquillity of creative past-times,  a symbol of the greater, better, unselfish aspects that make up this bizarre thing called my life.

I will support both blogs. FEC-THis to stay defiant for as long as I need to defy the spectre of cancer – that’s at least another 4 years – and The Asymmetry of Matter   as a place to create –  quietly, peacefully and light-heartedly. Over time I hope it will bring moments of quiescence and beauty into the lives of others.

Snowdrops in Fresh Pastures