Hopes for the New Year

berries

2016 has come and gone. There were a few health hiccups for me along the way but nothing compared to the amount of grief and suffering in the world at large.  Now 2017 is here and already people are committing atrocities, inhumane and yet so tragically human. My hopes for a peaceful new year will just have to lie dormant for another 364 days and see what 2018 brings. Something tells me it’ll be much longer before we all wake up to find our planet free from strife with every vestige of humanity behaving as truly civilised. I live in hope though, as I’m sure many others do.

Since world peace is well beyond my capabilities, my hopes for 2017 are considerably smaller and more intimate.  While many people have been enjoying the Christmas break, work, study and revision (a lot of revision) have been the order of the day for our family. So my first hope is that those of us who’ve been working get a break and those of us who’ve been revising pass our upcoming exams and settle in to our placements for the year ahead.

My next hope is that my friends and family stay happy and healthy in 2017.  Last year was something of a trial for most of us and in the end we weren’t unhappy to wish it goodbye.  None of us is equipped to deal with too much death, despair and difficulty in such a short period of time.  I know I’m still a bit worn down by it all so a less eventful year on the bad news front together with positive physical and mental wellbeing for all of you is my wish this year.

The last of my hopes for 2017 is a personal one because this year marks the 5 year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis.  If I sat down to write all the things that have happened since June 2012, the challenges, the bête noir, the unending uncertainty and the sheer weight of it all I fear I might lose touch with my sanity.  So instead it shall stay in the past where it rightly belongs and I shall hold hope that health-wise, 2017 is incredibly, remarkably and boringly uneventful for me.  Because uneventful means the likelihood of a reoccurrence, whilst never fully extinguished, is considerably diminished from June onwards.

Whatever you leave behind from 2016 and whatever you hope for from this new year, may health and happiness be your faithful companions in 2017 too.

Seven words on cancer

Family:

They say blood is thicker than water and it’s easy to see why. My family trudge every step of this path with me no matter how challenging. My Dad remains a rock despite the fact that he’s encountered the journey far too many times before and with no happy ending. My Mum would’ve done likewise if cancer hadn’t robbed her of her life at such an early age. M, J and S remain positive, future-focused and encouraging. They all believe I’ll still be here in 30 years and that’s a wonderful vision to hold on to.

Medics:

These people are amazing. The surgeons, oncologists, sonographers, anaesthetists and nurses are skillful, compassionate and dedicated. Behind the scenes there’s a whole community including  histopathologists, biomedical scientists, pharmacists and nutritionists to name but a few.  They’re the driving force behind cancer care and cancer research. Many of us would not be here without them.

Invincible: 

We like to think we are and then we find we’re not. Deep down I’ve always been acutely aware of the fragility and vulnerability of all life on our beautiful blue planet, including my own. I spent 35 years attempting to ignore this until cancer provided an uninvited reality-check. So now I know I’m not invincible but I also know I’m more robust – physically, mentally and spiritually – than imagined.

Friends: 

Whatever the weather some friends will weather the  storm with you. They’ll offer to do things for you (or do things anyway because they know you’re too proud to ask), they’ll help put you back together when you’re in pieces and remind you of all the reasons you need to hold on. Other friends will abandon ship. The wife of a friend explained this to me when I was first diagnosed and I thought her judgement somewhat harsh at the time. We stand by our friends when they’re sick or dying don’t we? I owe her an apology and at the same time I give thanks to the all-weather friends who opted to stay with me.

Health:

Must never be taken for granted. Fit and in the prime of life one day, nose-to-nose with death the next, the turnaround is quite a shock. When the shock subsides a subtle awareness of the uphill journey from illness to wellness begins to dawn and the distance seems so vast. It’s also full of boulders and sinkholes.  I never loved my body but I didn’t hate it, even though it was pre-destined to let me down. As a receptacle for my soul it continues to serve it’s purpose and I’m grateful for that. But it doesn’t feel like me anymore and for however long I’m here, I’ll never be able to trust it again.

Time:

Does not last an eternity. It passes in the blink of an eye and once its gone it can’t be revisited.  Time is too precious to waste so life-changing events shouldn’t be the catalyst for this vital life-lesson. If the art of valuing time was taught in high school,  future adults might stop deluding themselves that they have all the time in the world, plenty of years ahead and are guaranteed to reach a ripe old age. Write all the time related clichés you know on a piece of paper and safely set fire to it. See how quickly it burns?

Death:

We all die. From the day we’re born it’s a one-way ticket and a completely natural part of the circle of life. Developing cancer makes death impossible to overlook and also brings the very real possibility that it will arrive much sooner than anticipated. There’s no getting away from this, no amount of worrying or soul-searching can change the shape of things to come. All I could do was find a way to live with it and in doing so savour every second of every minute of life in this very moment.

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Time to smell the flowers

I saw a dear friend for lunch recently. We’ve known each other for approaching twenty years – almost half of my life and almost a third of his.  We first met at work, at the beginning of the dotcom boom when internet technologies and the World Wide Web were becoming commercially interesting. We have many shared experiences from our time spent working together: the excitement of launching a new business, the mental challenge of creating something innovative yet industrially and technically unproven, deep camaraderie from working ridiculously hard to meet seemingly impossible deadlines because the launch date had been announced, a core of shared values, ethics and humour.

Its ten years since we last worked together but meeting up is as enjoyable as working together and it doesn’t bring the constant need to deliver projects, manage incidents or sort out security issues. We’d both be rich if we had a £ for every one of those scenarios we’ve managed. Now we get to talk about IT things instead of doing them while grabbing (or missing) lunch. Now we get to talk about holidays, health, children and grandchildren as well as news of friends and family. There is, I suspect, more balance in our lives today than when we worked in a frenetic start-up.

Neither of us is a person who does things by halves and neither of us will go to our graves having lived only a sedate half-life. My friend is at a point where work gets in the way of all the things he wants to do outside work. He’ll retire soon but in no way will he be retired. At some stage I hope to join him in that active, days full of adventure kind of retirement.  There have been points in both our lives where life was edged out because our careers required significant energy and we aren’t the kind of people who shirk. Do all things well or die trying could be our motto.

To be in the present and live every day as if it were my last means achieving a healthier balance. I learned the hard way. We all need time to smell the flowers, to do more than simply plant them in a rush, throw on some water and hope they grow. Over lunch we talked about my recent surgery, the benefits and consequences and that I’ve now done all I can to limit the risk of another run-in with cancer. My friend said it must feel good to have this final surgery behind me, to be able to get on with life. It does. Not that cancer was going to call a halt to everything but it certainly got in the way for a while. No-one wants to dwell on it but once you’ve been down this road you can never be certain you and the big C are through. Taking time to smell the flowers, to savour their beauty and delicious scent, holds far more importance than one might otherwise think.

Hunter S. Thompson once said “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming Wow! What a Ride!”  I have no way to arrive at my grave pretty and well-preserved (cancer took care of that) and in any case skidding in broadside and totally wrecked sounds much more fun.

I guess I’ll never stop planting the flowers but these days I take a moment to smell them too 🙂

Chrestotes: the quality of kindness.

Someone once told me a cancer diagnosis is the fastest way to find out who your friends are.  True friends will shine day and night while fakes become increasingly conspicuous by their absence. When your world shakes over twenty on the Richter scale another earth shattering revelation – you’ll be abandoned by people you care about – is almost as shocking as the diagnosis itself.  I remained open-minded and hopefully optimistic while chemotherapy dissolved more than just the cancer.

Three years on I’d love to report that my optimism was well placed, the advice proved invalid and all my friendships remain intact but I can’t.  I’d like to share an explanation for the disappeared friends but I can’t do that either because they evaporated into the ether like the crew of the Mary Celeste. I guess cancer is still too much for some people to deal with.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Aviary Photo_130718654939381437The other part of the prophesy – true friends will shine day and night – is equally true.

They shone, they shine and they keep on shining 🙂

I feel very fortunate to have true friends who are hugely supportive, thoughtful and encouraging.  They demonstrate all of the qualities of chrestotes: compassion, consideration, sympathy, humanity and kindness.

They’ve sent messages for a speedy recovery, cards, flowers and gifts. I am touched and overwhelmed by their continued kindheartedness and support and I feel extremely lucky to know such genuine, compassionate and beautiful human beings.

I’ve also received cards and good wishes from family friends – people who know of my trials and tribulations via my father and decided to lend their support. My hopeful optimism wasn’t entirely misguided because family friends, friends of friends and complete strangers have all proven amazingly kind.

Of course a post about kindness would be incomplete if I failed to mention my father.  For as long as I can remember he has devoted his life to help others yet his own life has been far from easy. A lesser person might have become peevish and resentful – my father isn’t.  Throughout the process of diagnosis, surgery, treatment, recovery, first prophylactic surgery, recovery, the recent second prophylactic surgery and this new period of recovery my father has been an inspiration – encouraging, supportive, wise and humorous (he has an excellent sense of humour and sometimes laughter really is the best medicine…)

The kindness shown by my family and true friends will never be forgotten. It buoyed me through some very difficult experiences and continues to inspire me on a daily basis. WP_20150320_010I am so very grateful to you all.

Crossing the Bridge

There comes a point when the only option is to cross the bridge. No matter how rickety or poorly constructed it may seem and irrespective of the pace or iciness of the waters below, the only road to the rest of your life involves crossing the bridge. Time is on a route march and it doesn’t care much for sorrow, sentiment or sickness; it spares no thought for the down-hearted, despondent or disillusioned. Time goes on and like it or not, so must we.

Old packhorse bridge (c.1717), Carrbrig, Scotland

Old packhorse bridge (c.1717), Carrbrig, Scotland

In clinging to the past we slip out of time. Slowly but surely life passes us by yet we fail to realise  until sometime later, when we perhaps begin wondering where the days, months or years went and how and why we didn’t notice them. Offloading all that baggage and leaving it by the river’s edge isn’t easy. Disentangling the past and setting it down in its rightful place takes thoughtful deliberation, acceptance of what was and complete renunciation of what might, could or should have been. How many times have you heard yourself (and others) talk about the way things should or shouldn’t be? The truth is, there is only what was, what is and that which is yet to come – should, could and might are all irrelevant and leave us stuck in a rut.

To get out of the rut we have to cross the bridge and the only way to do so safely is by travelling unladen. We can’t live for today until  we forgo being cemented in the past.   Fortunately once we build sufficient fortitude to put one foot in front the other, take our chances and walk across the bridge, everything changes. We flow in time. Life is lived in the here and now, in this very moment. Living is very different because here and now is full of sound, colour, wonder and a smorgasbord of new choices; it’s the polar opposite of everything in the world of ‘back then.’  I don’t recall being taught how to manage the past, to leave it in it’s rightful place by the edge of the river and continue with my journey in time. Its a skill that could useful be taught to high school seniors because all too often I am surrounded by folks who are completely trapped in time, rooted by events that happened years or even decades ago. I always try to help, to share coping strategies or suggest appropriate sources of professional help because being empathic isn’t the same as being a psychologist. Empathy exists because I’ve had many of my own bridges to cross and I stopped to take note of each lesson along the way.

I don’t deny crossing life’s bridges unencumbered by the debris and detritus of countless events that cannot be changed is sometimes difficult, even when practiced continually on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s a daunting prospect, but that doesn’t make it impossible.  This year, especially today, I realise I’ve crossed and walked some way from another bridge – one I hesitated to traverse for a multitude of reasons.   It’s the bridge from active cancer patient to healthy human being, from constant companion to casual acquaintance, from broken to steadfast.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when the bridge was crossed, when the heavy baggage of cancer and so many shattered promises got dropped at the side of the riverbank. I don’t know when the waters rose up to wash it all away, I just know that its gone. It seems this happened slowly, almost subconsciously, throughout the course of the year and for the first time in two years there’s room in my head to properly relish each day as it comes. The time of fretting about what tomorrow might hold (all firmly rooted in an army of negative experiences from the past) is gone and this, I think, is what it means to be free.

We all have demons in the closet, painful events, disappointments, scars and injuries, but we don’t have to be ruled by them. We can chose to lock the door behind them and walk away or drop them at the edge of the river, cross the bridge and let the waters wash them far out to sea. For however long I have here I’ll take the opportunity to drop life’s baggage at the banks of each river and skip across the bridge to whatever happens next. Today, cancer, (and all the ills you wrought upon me), I am over you. Guess what, it feels good :-).

 

Tu Me Manques

Cancer is a horrible disease. Even “easy” cancers like breast cancer are horrible. I know this because I’ve had it, most of my family died from it, and a lot of my friends either have or had it.

I’m yet to find anyone who says, “You know what? I’m glad I had / have breast cancer.” No-one in their right mind wakes up one day thinking gee, I must add this to my ‘interesting things to do’ list and anyone who suggests it’s a great way to get a free boob job and some chemotherapeutic help with weight loss is terribly ill-informed. Sadly there are a few women in the world who think this way but the reality is that neither perfect breasts nor a svelte figure are positive outcomes from cancer or its treatment. Instead there’s more than an outside chance you end up impoverished, tormented and/or dead. Not much to smile about if any of those scenarios come to pass.

In spite of the harsh realities there’s a great deal to be thankful for when it comes to the breast cancer community. This vast and growing group of people all over the world understands the true significance of nodes, treatment regimes, clinical trials, funding, recurrence, metastasis, emotions and death. Everyones’ story is different and every one is inspirational, a source of encouragement and mutual support. The club none of us wanted to join is populated by people who are smart, loyal, determined, compassionate and empathic. Women (and men) who were going about their everyday lives like the rest of the human race until cancer sent them veering off course into a world of uncertainty, confusion and more medical procedures than most lab rats endure.

Being part of this community brings a sense of togetherness and understanding but it also calls for incredible levels of resilience. People we come to know as our friends often have stories that are far from rosy pink and perfect. Too many of our number have metastatic cancer for which there is no cure. While most humans deal with bereavement just a few times throughout their lives, members of the breast cancer community may find themselves bereaved on a regular basis. Joining this club means facing the fact that some of our friends will die before their time and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. It’s another of breast cancer’s ironies – friendships forged through one of life’s greatest adversaries have the potential to be life long yet the reality is they’re sometimes over in a matter of months.

Cancer is a horrible disease because it regularly steals away beautiful people, people who have so much to live for, who give so much, love so much and deserve to join the ranks of the old, grey and wrinkly just like so many other people do. Once upon a time I encountered death every 5 or 10 years. Now I encounter it every 5 or 6 months, so often that it’s become as familiar to me as the moon and stars. Familiarity doesn’t make it any easier to accept though; regular exposure doesn’t lead to systematic desensitisation.

Every time another friend dies of breast cancer another star disappears from my sky, the night gets a little darker and a little of that darkness lingers in my heart. In English when we talk about losing someone we say “I miss you.” Our French cousins have a different structure to their language and in French we’d say “Tu me manques.” This phrase seems to capture the overwhelming thoughts and feelings that come when the stars go out, when lovely people are taken from this life. Tu me manques translates as “You are missed by me” . . . To my friends and family who’ve died of breast cancer, you are and always will be missed by me.

Forget-me-not

Coming of Age

It’s my son’s twenty-first birthday next week and I can hardly believe the years have passed so swiftly. He arrived exactly on his due date and has quietly filled my heart with joy ever since. It’s natural for a mother to feel proud of her son but I’m especially proud of him because his life to date has been far from straightforward and the last few years have been particularly tough for us both.  Years that should’ve been fun and carefree for him were marred by my cancer treatment. He was then diagnosed with anxiety and depression but we both know it had been wrapping its arms around him for several years. I suspect my illness played a significant role in tipping that delicate balance and the thought rests heavy on my soul.

Slowly but surely we are both reconfiguring our lives, learning to live with heartache, uncertainty and confusion safe in the knowledge that whatever happens we’ll find a way through. We know we can’t make up for the carefree years that were stolen away so instead we’re aiming to make 21 extra special, starting from today.

A week of celebrations begins with cake, candles and presents in advance of his actual birthday. It’s the first year that he’s been able to open anything early and we decided to bring this part of the festivities forward because he and I are going away for a few days next week. Carrying everything to London and back would be logistically difficult. Although 21 isn’t technically the year of coming of age (voting and alcohol are both legal from 18) it’s still an important milestone.

When he was 18 I put together an A – Z photo album of words and pictures representing who he is and what he loves.  There were other presents that year but the photo album is the one he treasures most. This year I’ve been busy researching all the events of 1993 as well as occurrences that took place on the day of his birthday over the course of the last 21 years.  This task has been made much easier through the wonders of the interweb! Having found a host of 1993 events plus a notable occurrence on each of his birthday’s from 1993 to 2013, I’ve turned them into illustrations – cartoons with a snippet of information about the event – to make a unique present he can look back on in years to come.  There are other presents too but I’m hoping this one will join the photo album among his favourites.

Our trip to London is the first time we’ve been away together for far too long. He loves the hustle and bustle, travelling by tube, street performers in Covent Garden, the glazed ducks and bright orange squid hanging in the windows of China Town’s restaurants, the smell (and taste) of all that Chinese food. He also loves the theatre so this visit includes a couple of surprise West End shows which are sure to be a lot of fun. Both productions will have us singing like song larks for the rest of the week so by the time next weekend arrives we’ll be hoarse, in serious danger of annoying anyone in earshot, or both!

I’m glad we’ve been able to secure this time together, that nothing else has impinged on it, that we are both in reasonably good health and can go away for a few days to create some new, happier memories for his coming of age.

(These pictures were taken last weekend. He played for over 5 hours in a charity football tournament with all the proceeds going to St. Peter’s Hospice and raised over £1000. Another good reason for me to be proud of him 🙂 ).