Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

…which roughly translated means “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

So going back 27 years ago this week, I was an anxious patient at Wythenshawe Hospital. Now 35 weeks into my pregnancy, the body that had so far nurtured and protected the growing baby inside me was starting to not cope too well. My kidneys weren’t doing their job properly which meant the protein levels in my blood were building and my blood pressure was too high, dangerous for both me and the little boy inside who was happily using my bladder as a trampoline most of the time.

Having already lost two babies early in pregnancy, this child was more precious than ever. An earlier scan had shown us that Jeremy would have a son to take to football and cricket matches; I just wanted to be a mum. Despite reassurance that this time there would be a happy ending, I just couldn’t believe the doctors. By now it was a case of balancing the need to give the baby a little more time to develop with making sure both our health wasn’t compromised. So I was admitted into hospital, where I could be monitored daily and wait until the decision to deliver him was made.

It was a long, hot summer and I remember so clearly spending the days resting and reading in the garden area at the back of the ward. Surrounded by women and their freshly-baked babies, I tried so hard to imagine myself holding my son. And even though I was clearly blooming I just couldn’t see myself with a child to hold, no matter how much I yearned for it. It was my greatest wish yet there was no clear image of how it would look or feel.

Three weeks later Josh made his way into this world, bringing an end to the heartache within my empty arms and filling my life with so much love and happiness.

A year ago this week, I was getting ready to start my chemotherapy. It was all about the hospital again, having a portacath inserted so the drugs could be given directly into my blood. I was as ready as I could be – house cleaned, freezer full of food, work completed, haircut short in anticipation of the beginning of my hair loss.

I didn’t sleep the night before my treatment started, because I just couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have poisons pumped inside you. Would I be sick immediately? How much might I succumb to infection? What would happen if it didn’t work?

Most of all, I couldn’t imagine what I would look like as a cancer patient. Yes, I tried scraping all my hair back, covering my eyebrows with my fingers, not wearing mascara – how much money had I wasted on laser hair removal and Veet over the years? No matter how much I tried to imagine it, I just couldn’t see myself with a pale, bloated face and no need for make-up.

At this point, Josh had already set the date for his wedding and so when the first cycle of chemo began, I knew that exactly 52 weeks later I would need to be looking good. And so I spent weeks researching hair growth – not just on my head but also eyelashes and eyebrows and all the bits that I wanted shaved, plucked or waxed away too! Having really liked the short haircut – and deciding that I would keep it cropped after treatment – I tried hard to imagine what I would look like when the big day arrived. OK, being blonde was never part of those plans!

So now we’re a year on and in a few days he becomes not just my son but also someone’s husband. His heart will be held by someone else, who I know loves him enormously and will cherish him totally. And I try to imagine how their life will unfold together in the years ahead.

I think back to 27 year ago when I tried to sense this baby as a grown man. I didn’t envisage that his grandmothers wouldn’t be there on his wedding day, but I also hadn’t imagined his three beautiful sisters stood there too, beaming with pride and love.

I think back to a year ago when I tried to visualise myself on his wedding day. I didn’t imagine that I would be happy and healthy, that my eyelashes would be long, that my dress would be in a size I was happy with!

Things do indeed change. And things also stay the same.

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Sometimes Waiting Makes It Better

Sometimes you just have to believe that you’ll end up where you’re meant to be, no matter what life throws at you.

Last year I was offered the chance to work for two weeks in June at a university in Singapore, which I grabbed with both hands. It would be a great opportunity to gain experience in teaching higher education abroad, but the island would also serve as a convenient base to travel to Vietnam for a few days too – which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit.

Of course life is what happens whilst you’re busy making other other plans and as you know, the summer of 2014 didn’t turn out quite how I’d thought it would. However early this year my eldest daughter Amy managed to secure a six month work placement (she’s a trainee solicitor) in Singapore and as soon as we’d booked her flight, mine was done too.

The last three months since she’s been out there we’ve all missed her a great deal, but with the wonders of FaceTime you sometimes don’t realise just how far away someone actually is. I’d been hearing all about her work, her colleagues, her flat and her lifestyle (which is essentially to work mad hours in the week and then fly to some gorgeous island at the weekend) but a week of catching up with her was something I really wanted to enjoy.

Ok, I’ll say it right here that I do know how incredibly fortunate I am that I could fly Business Class. And those who have followed this blog for a few years will know that back in 2012 I missed out on the chance to fly Business on the A380. So this time, with a great deal of help from a very nice man at Trailfinders I had a flight route that meant three out of the four flights would be on this much anticipated plane.

Friends of mine who work as cabin crew have said the most amount of in-flight problems come from the First and Business passengers and I can believe it. On the flight to Dubai one woman, travelling with her four young children, decided that as the plane trundled off the apron and onto the runway it was the perfect moment to get out of her seat to take her son to the toilet. Another insisted that his meals were served at a completely different time to the rest of the plane.

Family and friends know that for me, the most important part of the journey though is to help the pilot by keeping an eye on the wings in case there’s trouble and also to make sure that there are no other aircraft flying nearby. Imagine then my absolute joy at discovering that there are THREE cameras on the outside of the plane – on the tail, at the nose and underneath the body – so I could happily monitor all aspects of our position for the whole seven hours. The cabin crew did ask several times if I needed help selecting one of over 200 films available but I didn’t need to, along with the altitude details and a snazzy little map showing our geolocation I was a very happy bunny.

My only disappointment was that with less than 50 minutes of the flight left, I discovered that about five rows back there was a lounge area. Complete with a cocktail bar and a serious party happening! I plan on not making the same mistake on the flight back.

A quick stopover in Dubai and then another seven hours in the sky to arrive in Singapore mid afternoon the following day.

Humid doesn’t begin to describe what the city is like. I think I actually started to melt from the inside just by walking from the taxi to Amy’s front door. But it was lovely to see her and the lifestyle is clearly suiting her.

The next two days were spent being a real tourist, whilst she worked. Bus tours, river boat tours, museums, shopping – it’s an easy city to get around and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, especially meeting the good friends who have become such an essential part of her support network whilst she’s so far away from home.

We had also planned a holiday within a holiday, with four days in Ho Chi Min City. Having thoroughly researched for an airline company where I trusted the pilots (probably not a good idea as Google is full of horror stories about flying in South East Asia) we went for a two hour Jetstar hop up to Vietnam.

imageThe weather in the afternoon tends to be a bit stormy and as we boarded you could see the dark clouds above. The pilot welcomes us aboard and says that the flight will be fine but we are expecting turbulence during the journey. All I can say is that I spent 120 minutes absolutely terrified – and it was a very smooth flight. Where did he get his information from?

Ho Chi Min is an unbelievable place. Apparently there are five million moped users within the city, which equates to one moped for every 1.8 people. How any of them stay alive is nothing short of a miracle – there are no traffic rules, driving here requires more bluff than any game poker. Pavements are considered fair game of you need to take a short cut, and driving on the right hand side seems to be a Government recommendation rather than a rule.

The hotel was lovely and right in the heart of District 1, so very convenient for getting out and about. Amy had visited the city a couple of years ago but only for a short time so she was happy to be very “touristy” with me. We booked onto a guided trip for the next day, which advertised itself as a trip along the Saigon River, a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war and a bike ride through the countryside. And in a group that would be no more than eight people. Perfect.

The river journey was by speedboat and it was fascinating to see the wide range of lifestyles along the river banks. As we ploughed through the beautiful water chrysanthemums that adorn the surface we saw stylish houses with stunning gardens through to wooden shacks with their owners waist high in the water, catching fish to sell at the local market.

After 90 minutes we were at the meeting point for our guide for the day, to discover that Tang only had two customers that day – us. We saw our bikes, all ready with helmets, and we were then asked to sort out what personal belongings we wanted to keep in the little bike bags as “you won’t be seeing the support vehicle until after the first 17km”.

Errrr….what? There we both were, dressed in shorts, a pretty little summer top and sunglasses. And there was Tang in full cycling gear. Seems that it was actually a 30km event. From a copywriters perspective I think they need to improve their information leaflets.

We were hastily given some sun cream, water bottles were filled and off we went. In a heat that was well into the 30s and a humidity that made you leak more fluids than you could possibly take in.

I have to say that it was a stunning ride, through rubber tree plantations and rough tracks across farmland and local communities. We stopped at a very small market to sample local ways of cooking fruit and vegetables, spent time in a man’s garden to learn about cashew nut trees and also visited a very small business that made the rice paper that is used for spring rolls. Don’t ever worry about the hygiene in a UK production factory, where the rice paper is made there are cats roaming freely and workers dressed in dirty clothes and dripping sweat due to the hard work and humidity found within the corrugated tin building.

After a few other interesting breaks we stopped at a tiny, roadside shop where we ate Chinese mango (unbelievably great) and rice crackers whilst trying to rehydrate. I realised that I’d drunk two litres of water on the ride and yet still had no urge to use the loo, so it was time to add energy powder to the next litre. Amy had drunk even less than me and was really struggling with the heat, so after a good chat we decided that she would do the next 13km in the support vehicle and I’d do the remainder of the ride with the guide.

By now the sun was beating down on us, as we cycled past water buffalo immersing themselves in pools of muddy water to keep cool. We stopped at herb farms and flower-growing fields; Vietnamese people use marigolds at the shrines of their loved ones as a token of remembrance.

Finally we’d covered the 30km and reached the tunnels, and found a much refreshed Amy. As we set off with the guide into the start of the jungle Amy shouted at me to just keep walking – quickly. Seems that me and a huge spider had only been inches apart.

The tunnels were fascinating, clearly with a biased perspective of their history from the guide but it was hard to imagine how people would have lived down them for weeks at a time. The traps they created to injure or kill the American soldiers were macabre and clearly the source of inspiration for some horror films.

The journey back to the city was broken with a late lunch at a local restaurant with delicious Vietnamese food and plenty more water! I am still paying the price though for not being well prepared for the day with insect repellent- so far, nearly 60 itchy bites on my arms and legs.

We arrived back at the hotel late afternoon, ready for a very long shower. That night we ate at a venue run by a local charity that works with disenfranchised young people who live on the streets. The people they support run the kitchen or serve in the restaurant and it was a really great experience.

The next day was more relaxed – time spent by the hotel roof pool or in the spa having wonderful treatments for ridiculously cheap prices. Dinner was at the street market and equally good.

The final day saw us visiting the War Remanents Museum, which is Vietnam’s interpretation of their war in the 1960s and 1970s. We did get ripped off a little though – we had paid to go into the Museum and within the first area was an elderly Vietnamese man with both arms removed above his elbow. He stopped to speak to us, asking where we were from and telling us that he had lost his arms from a landmine during the war. He then asked if we would buy one of the books he was selling and I noticed that he had one called “The Girl in the Picture”. Now I had the honour of meeting Kim Phuc (whose photo became the iconic image of the Vietnam War) a couple of years ago so I said that I would buy this one. Bartering is a standard and expected activity in Vietnam so I got him down from 700,000 Dong to 400,000 Dong (which is about £12). Didn’t feel quite so good that I had supported a war injured veteran when I saw the same book an hour later in the gift shop for 100,000 Dong. It also occurred to me much later that if he’d lost both his arms, he was probably setting the landmine rather than accidentally stepping on to it.

Amy persuaded me to do something that I would normally shout at my daughters for doing – the local people will do virtually anything to make money from the tourists so we each got on the back of mopeds of two men who were offering us a taxi service back to the hotel. It was fun, but girls – do as I say, not as I do!

By early evening we were back in Singapore and time to pack before heading off for dinner by the Singapore River and the essential ending of the holiday with, a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel.

Now, I’m half way home with a quick stopover in Dubai before the last leg back to Manchester, upstairs on the A380. And I think that this time the pilot is going to have to take care of the wings himself, as soon as the seatbelt sign goes off you’ll find me at the cocktail bar. Celebrating that it might have been a year later than planned, but I got to Singapore.

And breathe.

I always said that this blog would tell it as it is, no hiding any unpalatable truths on my experience of being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. So I would like to apologise because for the last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling pretty crap and I know I should have shared it on here but to be honest I wanted to know what I might have been dealing with before baring my emotions.

Last Thursday was a year since my diagnosis and it was a very strange day. Most anniversaries are celebrated with flowers, alcohol, chocolates and gifts but how do you mark a year since you found out you might die? I tried hard to reframe the day as one in which I was lucky that this horrible disease growing inside me was discovered but you know what, even for a marketing guru like me there are some things that simply can’t be rebranded in a positive way.

The day just seemed to highlight how the diagnosis has totally changed my life. I’ve always said that I won’t let the cancer define who I am but I think the time has come to say it has changed how I see life. Yes, I’m still Suzanne and my personality hasn’t changed but my values have. Not that there was anything wrong with them before but now they are sharper, more focused. A friend recently said that in a small way, they were envious of the opportunity I had been given to take stock of everything and everyone in my life and to change things for the better. And I get that.

Looming on the horizen though was today, my first mammogram since my diagnosis and the chance to see for certain if all the treatments I’ve been through have worked so far. Over the weekend my thoughts became increasingly narrowed to the point where I could think if very little but what would happen if they found another tumour today. Not helped by the awfully sad news about Rio Ferdinand’s wife and the screening of “The C Word” on television, both highlighting that for some women, the cancer comes back.

The fear of dying returned; the bright future ahead of me that I’d been creating turned to shades of grey, just like when you’re trying to buy something online but the ‘purchase’ button just won’t let you click and commit. I found myself turning away from making plans for the future “just in case I’ll need treatment” – from a facial treatment next month to applying for a fabulous opportunity at work that will require a five year commitment and allow me to achieve a much-wanted dream.

This morning I went for my appointment with my breast surgeon, who seemed to totally understand why I burst into tears the moment I walked into his room. Half a box of tissues later I was sent upstairs for the mammogram which I have to say was agony on my left side due to the tenderness that still remains after the surgery. Apparently it helps to take painkillers first – hmmm, maybe that’s something they should have told me before squishing my boob into the flattest pancake ever?

And then it was the dreaded wait for the results, half an hour spent in the waiting area drinking coffee and trying to keep the tears at bay.

Before being called back into his room and being told that there were no abnormalities, no areas of concern, no cancer.

And then working my way through the remaining half box of his tissues.

Tears of relief as my future turned to colour again.

Tears of anger that this horrible disease is so frightening.

Tears of sadness that whilst he cut out the tumour, no doctor can rid me of the fear of the cancer returning.

Tears of pride that I am now officially a cancer survivor.

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When “No” Is The New “Yes”

My chemotherapy treatment lasted 18 long weeks; this Thursday will mark the 18-week anniversary since my last one. So that means I’ve been off the chemo for the same amount of time as I spent on it.

This blog documented those dark – although sometimes funny – weeks when I shared the changes going on in my mind and my body. From the first thinning patches of hair loss on my head to the point where my seven remaining eyelashes across both eyes were greeted by name when applying mascara, my words tried to explain what it’s like to be poisoned and taken to the point where the doctors are balancing just how many cells they can kill without doing a complete job on your body.

So I thought it only fitting to tell you what’s happened to me in the 18 weeks since I started to recover:

  • My hair is growing back at an alarming rate. Tweezers, Veet and waxing appointments all feature as part of personal grooming routine again.
  • I’ve had my hair cut – and gone blonde. Let’s see if I’ll have more fun now…!
  • My nails are back to their usual length (with a little help from acrylic sculpturing).
  • I’m back training again – three times a week minimum and finding that I can now run for just a little bit longer each time before I feel like I’m going to throw up.
  • Back on a healthy eating plan – have now lost half the weight I put on during chemo, skinny jeans are on the distant horizon again for later in the year.
  • Concentration is improving, finding that I remember spoken words more easily.
  • Energy levels are better, no needing for an afternoon ‘nanna nap’ as much.

All of these changes are helping me feel more like Suzanne again when I look in the mirror. But there have been some changes to the way I think that are new to me and I like them.

Like when I get stressed about the everyday things, I tend to question whether the issue really is that important and if not, I can begin to let go of the energy and focus on what I can do instead.

I’m enjoying booking an indecent amount of holidays this year, whilst accepting that planning doesn’t mean the world will end if circumstances change. Between now and the end of August I’m off to New York, Singapore and Turkey as well as a weekend away in the Yorkshire Dales and another one climbing in Snowdonia. Good times ahead!

But the biggest change has been the addition of a new word in my vocabulary. One that I’ve known about for years but was scared of using personally because I imagined it would either make me seem weak or upset people.

Just a little word but with huge power to change.

No.

No, I won’t cook dinner when you come round tonight – we’ll get a takeaway so I’m not tired and we can enjoy the evening together.

No, I won’t take on extra work because you need someone to sort out a problem for you. I’m happy to deliver the best I can for what we’ve already agreed and will reconsider additional work later in the year when I’m feeling better.

No, I’m not going to continue to do everything for everybody I love because I think it will make me indispensable. Instead I’m going to allow you the freedom to do it yourself so that afterwards I can feel very proud of you.

No, I’m not going to eat chocolate every time I’m pissed off with someone.

No, I understand that you have an opinion or desire for me to behave in a certain way but actually I quite like me right now – and so should you!

Most importantly, I’ve stopped waiting for everything to be perfect – I have everything I need right now.

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Life On The Ocean Wave

What an amazing way to start the year – waking up to find us docked at Antigua, after nearly three days at sea. And it was here that I learnt one of the first rules of cruising – it is absolutely acceptable to greet each morning by stepping out on your private balcony to greet the sunshine wearing nothing more than your suntanned skin, as long as it’s a sea day. However just because you do this at 7am on a port day to admire the views of the bay, it doesn’t mean that when you repeat it half an hour later there won’t be a HUGE ship now docked right outside your room…..I would again like to apologise to the starboard passengers on that ship for giving them a view they hadn’t anticipated. So with my bag packed, complete with passport just in case we missed the ship later, we set off to Coco Beach for the day. Lovely hotel in the middle of nowhere, a quiet beach and the first chance in ages to get some sand between my toes. All to soon it was mid afternoon and time to pack up and get back to our ‘home’. After another evening of too much food and alcohol, we arrived the next day in St Lucia. We had managed to get day passes for the wonderful Rendezvous Hotel and it really was just how you would imagine a 5 star Caribbean hotel to be. We had pre-booked some spa treatments and somehow Jeremy and I ended up with a “couples massage” – which essentially meant that they could get two treatments done at the same time. I had the Balinese massage (and for those who know my history of receiving full body massages, this one was quite respectable!) whilst Jeremy had a sports massage. Not sure what happened but at one point I heard him giggling away – still, as long as he enjoyed himself….! The day just stretched out beautifully – from the guys having a beach cricket match against some of the hotel workers to a long champagne lunch and the obligatory afternoon snooze on the beach, it was perfect relaxation. Need to start saving a return visit when we can stay for a few nights. And the days rolled into each other – we spent a day in Barbados on a private catamaran, sailing across crystal blue water to snorkel with sea turtles and explore sunken wrecks, or simply sunbathing on deck after the most wonderful lunch of flying fish and rum punch. One morning we approached the harbour at St Kitts only to discover that the wind was too strong to allow us to dock safely. There was no facility to disembark by tenders and the nearby island of St Maarten

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had no space for us so it was an additional day at sea. The stampede by 1000 passengers up to Deck 16 to frantically secure a sun bed was a sight to behold! Thankfully there were no issues with the wind as we arrived in St Thomas – quite sure the diamond merchants there would have personally pulled us in by rope had there been a problem. And thanks to the amazing negotiating skills of my brother – and the generosity of my husband! – by lunchtime I was several carats heavier with beautiful earrings and a new setting for my engagement ring. The afternoon was spent drinking and eating on yet another sandy beach. Life on board the ship has been wonderful and I’ve been fascinated by the other passengers. Mainly American, we are definitely in the younger age group! I managed to resist the lure of 24 hours a day eating for the first three days but then I had my first dessert and…well, let’s just say the hard work begins when I get back! Added to that the amount of alcohol that I’ve drunk each day – not quite sure the ‘going home’ jeans will fit on Thursday! The biggest problem is that you can order as much as you want for dinner – the others in our group are much more seasoned cruisers and so began the trip by each ordering two or three starters as well as two main courses each night, often a combination of steak and lobster or other shellfish. We had been quite good about this until one night we ate in the speciality restaurant and Jeremy (never one to do things by half) quite casually ordered a 22oz porterhouse steak – which is fillet and sirloin – together with a 14oz T Bone steak. The looks of admiration by the other men around the table were matched with the look of horror on my face at this beef overload and by the end of the meal there was still half a steak left, which was good as I may have killed him if the meat overload didn’t! Another day at sea and then our last stop was Princess Cays, which is a private beach in the Bahamas, owned by the cruise company. It didn’t take too long for the tenders to transfer over 2000 passengers to the white, sandy beaches where there were plenty of sun beds available, a great barbecue lunch and a couple of hours snoozing in the sun to the sound of the waves before travelling back to the mother ship. So our wonderful holiday is coming to a close and it’s been a really brilliant two weeks away. We’ve made fabulous new friends, seen some amazing beaches, eaten too much food and are coming home feeling relaxed and ready for all that this new year will bring. And I’m ready for my waxing appointment…..!!!!!

We Are Sailing

Sometimes you can look forward to something for so long that when it finally happens it can be hard to believe. When I was diagnosed in May and told that I would have to cancel my summer holidays (a week in a Spanish villa with eldest daughter and two weeks in the Turkish sunshine with my husband) it was important to know when my passport could be out to use again. And within a few weeks we had booked our first ever cruise 10 days around the Eastern Caribbean at the end of December. This holiday was my ‘spot on the horizon’ during the wilderness weeks of chemotherapy, the times when I wondered if I’d ever get back to something resembling a normal life. And I have to confess that unlike Maria Carey, all I wanted for Christmas this year was hair. Well, enough to look decent with a few nice dresses. Eyebrows and eyelashes would be a bonus.

So you can imagine how excited I was before we travelled to have enough hair on my head to warrant a colour and too much eyebrow regrowth to justify a wax! Body hair is regaining its previous stronghold at a rapid rate, never before have I been so excited to remove it!

Anyway, we decided to break up the journey to Heathrow on Boxing Day with an afternoon at my brother’s home in Nottingham. Unfortunately by the time we left the snow was falling fast and the first 30 miles were travelled at a snail’s pace as we tried to simply workout where the motorway lanes actually were. Overnight at a Terminal 5 hotel before driving to Terminal 3 for the flight (don’t ask, the consequences of trying to organise things whilst having chemo!). We were flying premium economy and about to check in when one of the Virgin reps offered us imagethe chance to upgrade to Upper Class at a very attractive price – got very giddy at the thought of several hours spent at the 38,000ft high free bar until she then told us that sadly she didn’t have four seats available – as we had been told just a few minutes earlier. Ah well, some things aren’t meant to be.

Realising that playing the ‘cancer card’ does have it’s advantages. Whilst away, I need an injection as part of my ongoing treatment, so have been given a 5ml vial of the drug, that has to be kept at 4 degrees. I’ve been transporting it in a little insulated bag, filled with frozen ice packs. Whilst going through security I had to explain why I had liquid not in the usual little poly bag. Started to look like I might have a problem when the guy said it would be ok if it was insulin I was taking through – err, well it’s not but I do have a letter from the pharmacy and my doctor explaining what it is for. Not looking hopeful, so I just said “Look, I need treatment for my cancer whilst away” and – abracadabra, it was whizzed through security. Boarding the plane, I asked the cabin crew if I could keep the vial in the galley fridge as the ice packs would defrost too much on a 10 hour flight plus immigration clearance plus transfer to hotel. His response – sorry, we can’t do that as we have food in the fridge and we don’t know what’s in your vial. Showed them how it was sealed, boxed and wrapped in a plastic bag. No joy. Said I had a doctor’s letter – no joy. Said I needed treatment for my cancer whilst away – not a problem at all, just make sure you come and collect it from the fridge before you leave.

Managed to keep my eyes open that night long enough to have a quick dinner before succumbing to the Floridian time difference. Best feeling ever when you wake up in the morning to bright sunlight streaming through the window. The hotel was right on the waterfront in Fort Lauderdale, it was frightening to try to work out just how much money was Invested in the houses and yachts that adorned the area. We spent the day having breakfast on the beach front, a couple of hours in the water taxis and finally the obligatory hour or so by the pool. In the evening we went out for dinner with the other couples who are making up our group of friends on this trip.

The following day we boarded the ship – very impressive, everything I hoped it would be. Remember that final scene in Titanic where Rose dies and then the young Kate Winslett goes back to the ship and enters the atrium? That! It was all sparkly and beautiful and I actually felt quite overwhelmed with the reality of finally being on the holiday I’d been waiting so long for.

Over the next two days we quickly got into the cruise routine. Which is essentially to wake up, eat, sunbathe, eat, sunbathe, have lunch, sunbathe, eat, sunbathe, have a shower and change for dinner, eat and then drink. Managed to find an adults only area of the ship, complete with its own pool and bar. Yep, we settled in very easily!

New Year’s Eve arrived and the ship was transformed. From early evening all the passengers were dressed up in dazzling dresses and smart suits, photos being taken at every opportunity. There was no such thing as too much bling! Dinner descended into the drunken antics and we hit the dance floor with great enthusiasm if not style!

And then just before midnight it hit me. As hundreds of people around me were dancing and cheering as the screen counted down the last few minutes of 2014, the enormity of what I’d been through hit me like a huge thunderbolt and I cried my eyes out.

Tears for the times when I’d wondered if I would see the end of the year.

Tears for what my family and friends had faced.

Tears for the treatments I had undertaken.

Tears for the relief that the worst was over.

Tears of gratitude that I was able to face 2015 with hope.

The Habit of Being Grateful

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Do I really want to see the back of 2014?

 

 

Many people might think it’s never going to go down in history as the year in which all my hopes and dreams came true, but you know what – it was.

Because I got rid of a disease that had been secretly growing inside me and I knew nothing about. I was told that I no longer had cancer and in fact they could give me drugs to make sure I had only a small chance of getting it again. I got to stay alive for longer. And isn’t that the only real hope or dream that we all have?

It’s been a year of being thankful, of counting my blessings. A year in which my son committed to spending the rest of his life with his own soul mate. A year when all four of my children made me so proud with their own careers and studies. A year when two of them experienced the joys of owning their first home (and mortgage!).

A year when I’ve been overwhelmed by the people who have been there for me.

  • Those who have called or messaged me on an almost daily basis
  • Those who knew when I was having a tough time and stepped up to the mark, yet relaxed when I was enjoying the better days
  • Those who kept in touch just to say hello and let me know they were thinking of me
  • Those who let me talk about what I was scared of.
  • Those who made me cry with laughter rather than tears of sadness
  • Those whose vocation is to heal – both physically and emotionally – but also showed genuine concern and interest
  • Those who used their skills and knowledge to help me feel better when I needed it
  • Those who had drifted away but got in touch and rekindled a friendship
  • Those who shared their own experiences with me
  • Those who made it clear that I was still part of a team, whether at work or fitness training

I never felt alone this year. Because I always had someone with me physically or as a wonderful message on my phone or a supportive comment online.

And on those few times when I had to be alone, my mum was there for me. Lying face down, strapped in for my MRI scan before surgery and terrified about whether the tumour had spread, I had a huge sense of her being there to calm me. And at my first radiotherapy treatment when I lay impossibly still so that the beams could be targeted correctly, the tears on my face were soon dried by her love that seemed to be in the room.

There have been other great things this year – getting my teaching qualification, losing two stone in weight and finally getting back into my skinny jeans (OK, it went back on during the treatment but so far I’ve lost 6lbs of it again!), booking a couple of wonderful holidays to look forward to – and not forgetting Jack joining our family too!

And you know, sometimes life doesn’t quite work out how you plan but somehow you still get there. I’ve returned part time to work now and enjoying the challenge of teaching a new group of students. My hair is growing and I have the chance to try new colours and styles that I might not have done before. I’m back running around muddy fields in the rain and cold weather, loving the feeling of aching muscles and numerous grazes. My children are focusing on their own hopes and dreams again, rather than worrying about me.

2014 is nearly done – and I’m still counting my blessings.

 

 

 

We’re Just Ordinary People

I’ve been thinking about an article I read this week, written by a breast cancer survivor. She questioned the idea that “ordinary living takes ordinary courage” and whether this applies to those of us who have come out of treatment and are expected to go back to our ‘normal’ lives again.

When people now ask how I’m doing, the answer is that I’m feeling much better. Not just better until my next treatment cycle, but every week I’m getting my energy back and my thoughts are clearer.

I don’t have to go to the hospital every morning, like I did during radiotherapy. Just once every three weeks for a quick injection in my thigh – easy stuff.

My portacath has been removed, so I now have just a small scar on my chest rather than a very strange lump under my skin and a constant reminder of my chemotherapy.

I’ve started on my hormone-blocking tablets, which I take each morning with a calcium and vitamin D supplement as well as my thyroxine (and yes, I have bought one of those plastic tablet boxes so I remember what to take and when!).

My hair is definitely growing back and this weekend I successfully coloured it all dark brown. So when I’m out and about, no small children ask “Mummy, why does that lady have no hair?” before being dragged very quickly away (honestly, happened too many times this year).

I’ve gone back to work – just two afternoons a week until January but it’s enough for me at the moment. I’ve gone back to exercise – just Pilates and swimming at the moment but those muddy fields and military fitness training classes beckon again in the not too distant future.

As I put my 2015 calendar up on the kitchen wall, I can begin to plan again. Weekends away, holidays, nights out, and mad sports challenge events – I’ve even signed up for a 20-mile trail run up Snowdon next September.

I’m starting to live an ordinary life again. One where I’m free to make choices that aren’t influenced by the regime or effects of horrible treatments. It feels raw, it feels scary, it feels unpredictable.

I can tell you that living an ordinary life again most definitely takes extraordinary courage.

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Objects On The Horizon May Be Closer Than You Think

When I was first diagnosed with cancer and frantically seeking answers, treatments and explanations, I was advised to take this journey at a slower place. I was told to take each step at a time and not look too far ahead – not because there wasn’t a future for me, but because there was so much to learn and understand that it would be better to take little steps along the way – focus on the surgery and recovery, then the chemo, then the radiotherapy, etc. It would be too much to see the whole picture, much better to focus on what was happening just at that moment.

It was good advice but there were a few goals on the horizon that I needed to also keep an eye on if I was to remember that the dark and difficult days were temporary. There is my son’s wedding next June, a wonderful holiday over New Year, getting my fitness back and returning to teaching.

Just a month after finishing my last chemo treatment I can honestly say that those 18 weeks of drug-induced hell are now definitely seen through the rear-view mirror. Even though I still have side-effects (the latest one being blocked tear ducts, so please don’t think I’m being emotionally unstable when we meet – I can’t help my eyes from watering all the time!) I can feel the horrendous ‘chemo fog’ lifting from my thoughts and I’m much more like the old me – which may not be a good thing but it makes me very happy!

At the moment I’m over half way through the radiotherapy, so the end of this is also in sight. So far, my skin is holding out and I’ve not experienced too much soreness, although the tiredness is something else. I’m fine if I keep busy but the moment I sit down, the sleep fairies take over and a quick ‘Nana Nap’ has become an integral part of my day. The only other side effect is the swelling that has happened to my affected boob (I was always going to tell this journey as it is!) – and last week I did mention to the hospital staff that I now have one boob that belongs to a 52 year old and another that feels as if it belongs to an 18 year old! Please insert your own joke here…..!

So as I emerge from these treatments I also want to look like ‘me’ again – experiments have included a rather disastrous run-in with some red hair dye (it only coloured the swathe of fluffy hair down the centre of my head!) , an afternoon of make-up lessons with other women affected by cancer treatments (not sure why they included mascara in the goodie bag when the group of us had about 17 eyelashes between us) and a couple of attempts at swimming and running, which made me realise that I need to leave it another week or two before pulling on my trainers again.

But Monday is a BIG day. It’s my first time back teaching again. Going back to work has been one of those goals on my horizon that I’ve focused on when everything around me has seemed unstable. Going back to work would mean I was through the horrible part of the treatments. Going back to work would mean that I was on the road to recovery. Going back to work would mean I was Suzanne again. Going back to work would mean getting on with my life.

Think it’s time to get my Big Girl Knickers on again.

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Radio Gaga(brain)

Two of my 15 radiotherapy sessions done and have to say that they are even more uneventful than the actual chemotherapy sessions. I arrive at 8.30am, change into this nifty little top that has Velcro on the shoulder (so they can expose just your affected boob!), get positioned correctly on the table and then left alone whilst this big X-ray type machine moves to one side, makes an alarm sound for about 20 seconds before moving to the other side and making the noise for another 20 seconds. Then the staff come back in, I get dressed and I’m back in the car for 8.45!

I’m being good and moisturising my skin at least three times a day as well as trying to drink two litres of water – together these will help reduce any skin soreness over the coming weeks and also help combat tiredness too. People tell me that this is so much easier than the chemo, so here’s hoping! Still, when you’re left alone in a room with one boob out and trying to stay very, very still you have a whole range of thoughts and ideas going through your head….

  • Where’s the camera so they can see me?
  • I’m glad I wore socks – it’s bloody freezing in here!
  • Oh no, if it’s cold then that means ….
  • Ah well, quite sure they’ve seen that reaction plenty of times before!
  • I wonder how old I’ll be when I die?
  • Have they lined this up with my little marker tattoo rather than a freckle?
  • What if the cancer comes back?
  • I’ve drunk too much water – I need the loo!
  • I miss my mum
  • I wonder how much it would hurt if this machine fell on you
  • In two weeks I’ll be teaching again
  • I hope my hair has grown at the front by then
  • I hope my chemo brain has gone by then
  • If I stare at the beam, would it make me go blind?
  • I’m bored

I have a review appointment with my oncologist tomorrow to discuss my treatment plan for the next 12 months – let’s hope that his thoughts are a little more focused!