Full Circle

This blog began in 2012. At the time my son J was a few months into his first year of a Biomedical Sciences degree. Of all the things I despise about cancer, being diagnosed at that time is in the top five. No-one wants to learn their Mom has cancer when they’ve just committed to three years higher education and live in an unfamiliar environment far from home.  For much of the time J was at University, I was making regular trips to the Oncology centre. It was a surreal and difficult period for us all.

J knew from a young age that he wanted to go into medicine. Last week his wish came true when he took up his post as Physician Associate in Neurology, caring for people who’ve had strokes or other serious brain injuries.

In 2012, surviving cancer meant I could stay around to provide J with the love, support and encouragement we all need when we set out on our lives. Every day I hoped I’d still be here to see him take up the medical career he worked so hard for. I’m hugely grateful that in December 2018, my wish came true too. It is, quite simply, the best Christmas present I could ever imagine.

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MSc Physician Associate Studies with Distinction, 29th November 2018

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Stamina: the hare and the tortoise

Six days on from surgery and all is progressing as hoped. Stopped taking pain killers on Sunday and the ‘out’ drain was removed yesterday. One down, one to go. 

There’s a moment of anticipation before the drain is pulled – a split second between the Consultant’s “do we have a stich cutter” statement and the patient’s “is this going to hurt?” thought. Quite irrational given the scale of previous procedures and no, it didn’t hurt. Co-amoxiclav will continue, to guard against infections while the outside world is closely coupled with the inner world through a green plastic tube and the remaining drain bottle. 

A bit of welly (stamina) is called for when it comes to surgery and recovery. The dictionary defines stamina as: endurance, the ability of an organism to exert itself and remain active for a long period of time, as well as its ability to resist, withstand, recover from and have immunity to trauma, wounds or fatigue.

Remaining active while shaking off the effects of anaesthetic and synthetic opiates is a little difficult, especially when it’s impossible to see straight. Once all those drugs have worn off getting up and about is an important step along the pathway to healing. Sitting/lying still for too long leads to bed sores or thrombosis, neither of which is a welcome addition in an already complex situation.  A bit of walking and gentle use of the surgery-side arm helps but running a marathon or digging the vegetable patch is out of the question for at least a few weeks. Aesop’s fable of the Hare and the Tortoise may well have been written for such occasions. Slow and steady is the way to go.

The same holds true for the dressings, the wound, the scars and the newly created breast itself. Initially there are all kinds of things holding everything together – steri strips, superglue, waterproof dressings and the industrial strength sports bra worn day and night to ensure nothing moves around. Underneath that there’s the creeping/tingling/pins and needles sensation of nerve regeneration (which is odd to say the least) and the natural swelling, bruising and scarring to get used to. So the requirement for stamina isn’t just physical, a bit of emotional welly is important too. Even with an eye for the avant-garde it’s difficult to describe a swollen, bruised and slightly distorted breast as aesthetically pleasing. These things all resolve in time too, slow and steady.

I was never a good sprinter but the 10k? Well that’s another story 🙂



Days to Remember

Time has been rushing by of late and at home things have been extraordinarily busy. Over the last few months we’ve been through the stresses of revision and final exams, reflected on my son’s three years at university which seem to have passed by in the blink of an eye, received the results and classification is his degree and started planning his next steps. We’ve reviewed job adverts, prepared him for interviews and celebrated two very good offers which take him closer to his ultimate goal – four years further study (graduate entry medicine) in order to become a doctor.

I’m so very proud of J and what he’s achieved. University is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, a time when we’re unencumbered by thoughts of death and hardship. Unfortunately his university journey was marred from start to finish by more crises and calamities than some folks experience in 50 years.

At the start of 2012 it was uncertain whether I’d be here now because the extent of my malaise was yet to be determined. Our lives turned upside down in that instant and for J, a deep pervasive depression began to take hold. Every day was difficult. Some were just plain awful. Those events, the days, weeks and months of trauma, we choose to leave behind. I know that eventually they’ll gather so much dust that they’re obscured from thought, displaced by altogether happier and healthier periods of our lives.

After so much chaos and consternation things are finally looking better. Health, for both of us, is heading in the right direction and luck (if that’s what it is) has decided to make a long overdue appearance. We have some very special days to remember, free from the shadow of cancer and depression, free from people who’ve been unsupportive (and mean) and free from physical and emotional purgatory. In the last two months there have been some very, very good days. It feels as if we’re living a different life and in many ways we are. For that I am more thankful than words will convey.

Yesterday presented a particularly good and special day to remember bringing with it a new wave of optimism and positivity to hold in our hearts. After three years of effort and J’s tremendous determination in the face of much adversity, we celebrated his degree during a wonderful ceremony at Bristol Cathedral. His formal graduation could not have been more well-deserved, it’s a day that will stay with us for the rest of our lives forever bringing an overwhelming sense of happiness, pride and achievement. To have any prospect of entering medical school J had to achieve at least an upper second class honours degree in Biomedical Science and that’s exactly what he did. Well done J 🙂

These are the days to remember. They remind us that with love, tenacity and enduring faith we can achieve much more than our circumstances appear to support.

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Stiff, Sore, Sanguine and the Six Million Dollar Man

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Not so long ago the oncologist told me the issues with my knee and ankle joints (swelling, pain, unpredictable weakness, immobility) were most likely permanent. For many people joint problems during or after Herceptin treatment aren’t an issue. I was unlucky. Unknowingly susceptible to one of the infrequent side-effects and despite a ‘treatment holiday’ at infusion six, my joints never regained their pre-Herceptin condition.

Twelve months down the line there was very little improvement so it seemed painkillers would be a regular feature and thoughts of becoming an Olympic athlete would have to be abandoned… Truth be told I never planned on being an Olympian or any other kind of athlete but after enduring an aggressive suite of cancer treatments I hadn’t planned on being fettered by my own limbs either. The thought of indefinite consumption of heavy duty painkillers rested heavily in the place between conscious awareness and mind over matter. I’ve wrestled with this issue more often than I care to admit. The oncologist advised go easy on the joints because there are no real solutions. He’s incredibly well-researched and I can’t fault the care he provided during my time in treatment.

Reluctantly I accepted ‘recovery’ as a multifarious term extending well beyond the bounds of cancer itself and somewhere in the distant past I remembered watching the ‘Six Million Dollar Man.’ I recall very little about the TV show except the opening credits. The strangest things are lodged in my childhood memories and I hear the faceless male voice saying something along the lines of “we can rebuild him, better than before…. Better, stronger, faster…”. I think $6m man was some kind of cyborg and strictly speaking I’m not so far away from that myself. As a partially synthetic pig/silicon/human hybrid I’m a long way from better, stronger or faster but I refuse to relinquish the “we can rebuild” part.

Of course rebuilding takes time and effort and is not without pain. I mind over mattered my way much further along the Tarka Trail than I intended and as expected there are consequences for such stubborn behaviour. The Tarka Trail is a traffic-free footpath and cycle track running well over 100 miles through beautiful North Devon. My journey was very modest compared to the total length of the trail but it’s the longest cycle ride I’ve been able to entertain in the last few years and I’m incredibly stiff and sore! My legs still work in a fashion and I’ve burnt more calories than I’ve eaten – two welcome benefits of the day’s excursion. More importantly my “we can rebuild” or to be more accurate, “I will rebuild myself no matter what” philosophy will, I am sure, pay off. I have no illusions about being better, faster or stronger than before – as good as I was will do just fine. Tomorrow I might find I’m completely immobile as well as stiff and sore. Yet I’m also feeling rather sanguine. I put myself to the test and nothing really awful happened. The unintended consequences of cancer treatment cannot defeat me.

It may not seem like much but that one piece of knowledge is worth far more to me than a six million dollar rebuild 🙂

Something to Remember

There’s a saying that “It’s the moments, not the milestones, that matter.”

21 is a significant milestone and I think it’s still worthy of a whole bouquet of memorable moments, even if it’s no longer the age of coming of age. So when we set off for our trip to London me and my son had simple aims – generate many enjoyable and memorable moments, celebrate his 21st birthday before, during and after the day itself, and create something special we’d remember for the rest of our lives.

I said in my previous post that regaining the time stolen away from us by cancer, depression and a bunch of other adverse events over the last few years was impossible. In terms of linear time, the kind measured in seconds and hours, that’s true. We cannot go back and rewrite the past.  Non-linear time is a different story because it’s measured in friendship, conversations, smiles, laughter and small kindnesses. Those things evade the confines of seconds and hours, they’re unbounded and run through our lives like invisible seams of gold. Humanity’s obsession with longevity measured by defined units of time can lead us to forget that our dearest memories are woven from the gossamer strands of innumerable moments, each of which is infinite and everlasting.

This week the moments meant we both forgot the stresses and strains of the past, the things we couldn’t do, can’t change, gave up or had to cancel. We forgot death came calling, ignored the various absurdities of our lives and created a sparkling sea of moments unfettered by time, tasks or the uninvited terrors of sentience. We rode the tube, walked the embankment, wandered around Soho and dined in China Town. We went to a couple of bars, ate birthday cake, people-watched and admired the landmarks. We received an unexpected upgrade on our theatre tickets so had the best seats on J’s 21st birthday… Thanks Palace Theatre 🙂 We talked about previous birthdays, growing up, options to make this an annual mini-holiday just for the two of us,  the places we’d like to visit and things we’d like to do.

We set off for London with a few simple aims – celebrate, enjoy, make memories and we did that. Our mission was fully accomplished in one tiny, profound moment as we walked back to our hotel along the Charing Cross Road.  “You know Mom” he said, “I’m enjoying our time so much I don’t want it to end. I wish this could last forever…”  We smiled at each other both knowing that it will.

Find what you love

And let it kill you….

This is a Charles Bukowski quote. I like it because it makes sense. Why would any of us want to be killed by something we don’t like?

I tried cancer or rather it tried me, I didn’t welcome it into my life. To date a combination of trusting instincts, taking action quickly and an oncoplastic surgeon and oncologist who both adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ approach helped ensure it had limited chances to move elsewhere. Places where it might later take the opportunity to curtail my life.

Though the treatments have been best in class I am not complacent. Suspicion is an inevitable trait when you inhabit a body that’s let you down. Striking a balance between healthy concern and paranoia is key. Anomalies, functional changes and aches and pains make me suspicious even though I know some of them predate cancer. There’s no way of knowing when the first cell went haywire and research suggests it takes 5 years for a tumour to become palpable. 5 years is quite a long time for unchecked cellular chaos to prevail.

Many cancer patients live with ongoing suspicion and significant worries about what the future might hold. I’m happy with healthy suspicion because deep down none of us really knows what lies ahead. Whether we’ve been touched by cancer or not, life is unpredictable and we could just as easily be killed in traffic accidents or freak storms. Finding something we love and letting that kill us sounds an altogether better option and even if it happens to be cancer in the end, time spent on the things we love is the most beautiful, exhilarating and fulfilling time available to any of us.

Making space for the things we love is almost like starting life anew, with a few more wrinkles and white hairs than the first time around in my case! This year for the first time in far too many years I’ve given time to the things I love, not just the things I’m obliged to do. There’s a sketch book full of drawings and paintings that I have no doubt at all will outlive me. Maybe one day they’ll be treasured by some future grandchildren 🙂 Creating something from pencil or paint and paper offers an opportunity to escape from everyday tasks into somewhere tranquil and serene. Isn’t that the way heaven is meant to be? If so then death through art sounds much more appealing than cancer!

Idle doodlings :-)

Art is my recharge mechanism especially during the long winter months when it’s too wet, cold or dark to get into the garden. When the seasons change being outside with nature is another love that seems altogether more appealing than some of the things that eat up my time.

Although we’re barely into Spring, there’s an old fashioned cottage garden that’s worth every ounce of effort that’s gone into it, a townhouse garden that seems to have relished all the thought underpinning its creation and a new season of vegetables, herbs and fruit beginning to sprout – peas, beans, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, chives, garlic, parsley, strawberries, loganberries, apples, green gages, rhubarb and plums to name a few. Buying organic produce is expensive, growing it is a worthwhile labour of love even if it is responsible for some of the suspicious aches and pains.

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I have many other loves. The people who are dear to me, my darling cats who remained faithful even when I kept them away during chemo, music, travel, cooking, photography and walking.  From time to time I can even throw decorating, renovating and repairing things into the mix.

At least I know I’ll never die of boredom and I’m hopeful I won’t die of cancer though that one isn’t a given. With luck I’ll simply slip away under the cherry tree one sunny afternoon having completed my best sketch ever at an age where I can happily be called ancient and extraordinarily eccentric 🙂

Until then I’m going to do the things I love and encourage you all to do likewise.

Art and Soul

Pencil drawing, c.  T Willis

Pencil drawing, c. T Willis

Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one” – Stella Adler

Stately oaks and wizened apple trees lay deracinated all along my journey home, their roots exposed to the elements in a parody of their branches. Gales have battered the country on and off for several weeks now yet winter has barely started; I expect to see further casualties before the spring returns. Disturbed sleep is a facet of these regular overnight maelstroms. I’m a light sleeper and the merest rustle snaps me back to wakefulness even if it’s the middle of the night. I lay listening to the world outside, the howls and gusts, the creaking and clattering.  Eventually I snuggle into the duvet and drift back to sleep, the fidgety twist-and-turn kind of semi-slumber that’s marginally more refreshing than staying awake all night.

Then, when it’s time to get up, the strangest thing happens. A word hangs motionless in my mind. Run. It’s been there every morning for the past few weeks. There is nothing else, no lingering fragment of dream or nightmare, no imagery to suggest what I might run, why I might run, whether I’m running towards or away from something (or someone).  It’s as perplexing as it is unusual.

Conscience might be nudging me to get up, get going and get out there. I ran in the days before knees and flexibility stopped being part of the same sentence. Common sense tells me it isn’t a burning desire to haul myself along in thigh-deep mud while the heavens throw rain and hailstones at me though! A certain je ne sais quoi suggests there are no demons, zombies or fiends under the bed and the monster that entered my life and invaded my body without an invitation has, as far as everyone knows, been cast out. Nothing to run from there, outside or in. I very much hope it stays that way.

I sat with the thought. No speculating or postulating, no searching for meaning hidden or otherwise. Eventually it occurred to me that run is what I’ve been doing for months on end now, trying to deal with a whole host of events, situations and experiences that would weigh heavy on any soul. Last week offered the first opportunity in a long while to stop running, spend time with family (without doing three other things at once) and finally file some of the less enjoyable experiences under F for Finished. When my head isn’t cluttered by an unresolved to-do list with more decimal places than Pi, blithe spirit takes the opportunity to resurface. She’s a bit moth-eaten and at times unpredictable, but unlike the trees she hasn’t been completely uprooted by various storms.  Given the chance she’s resourceful and quite creative; the drawing in this post is one of her recent dallyings with pencil and paper. We’re fond of one another but circumstance has kept us apart. Today we agreed to help life refrain from crushing so we can once again be fully acquainted.