Show Me The Way To Go Home

We arrived in Denver this afternoon, 2100 miles done and a temperature of over 100 degrees to welcome us into the mile high city.

With another two National Parks under our belt and having now travelled through eight states the end of our holiday approaches so we are now realising just how much we have crammed into these two weeks.

We arrived in Rapid City late on Saturday evening, the B&B was gorgeous and just outside the city. With just two nights booked we needed to plan our time well. We spent a full day in Badlands, although I still think I made the right decision not to do the hike Jeremy had planned – it was 1pm when we set off, the temperature was approaching 100 degrees with no clouds, we had no proper map, no clear trail, no compass, no recognisable landmarks, no food and only a small bottle of water each for a 7 mile hike across desert landscape. It broke every rule of hiking and less than a mile in, I insisted we turned around. Maybe I was being a wimp but we lived to tell the tale.

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That night we headed for Mount Rushmore to see the ceremonial lighting of the Presidential carvings on the rock face. To say it was raining would be an understatement – cheap plastic macs were purchased by everyone! – but it was interesting to learn more about how the monument came about.

We decided that the next day we would return to see the monument in daylight and then head down to Estes Park, which is in the Rocky Mountain National Park and a fair drive away. The car was packed up, we said goodbye to our hosts and off we went, driving for an hour to get to Mount Rushmore. We pulled over to take some photos but realised that we were still quite some distance away for a good shot, so Jeremy suggested I get my zoom lens out of the car. The conversation went like this…

Jeremy: Just get your lens out and then we can take some photos and head off.
Me: Where’s my purple suitcase?
Jeremy: What do you mean?
Me: My purple suitcase – the one with my camera bag in.
Jeremy: It’s in the boot with all the other suitcases! I packed them all this morning.
Me: Errrr…no it’s not.
Jeremy: Yes it is, look it’s…..errrr, oh shit.

So off we drove for an hour back to the B&B, picked up my suitcase and then headed off through Nebraska and on towards Colorado.

One of the things we love about staying in these small hotels is the chance to meet other people and pick up travel ideas, and that morning one of the other guests suggested that as we journeyed through Nebraska we should try to stop at a little town called Alliance to see a sculpture exhibition called Carhenge.

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It was created many years ago by an artist who has made an exact replica of Stonehenge but with old cars. It was absolutely brilliant and well worth stopping for, seeing dozens of people walking around a random field in the middle of nowhere, everyone with a huge smile on their face because the whole thing was so surreal.

The journey also allowed us to experience the terror of mid West rain storms. At one point the rain was so bad we literally couldn’t see more than a couple of yards in front of us and the road became a very scary place. Then we noticed that the other drivers were pulling over to the side of the road, so we did too and as if by magic, less than 10 minutes later it was as if someone had simply turned the rain off and the sky was clear and blue again.

That day we drove 500 miles and by the time we made it to a stunning B&B nestled at 7500ft up in the Rockies, we were ready for the fabulous steak dinner we enjoyed at a nearby restaurant before falling fast asleep and waking to the most beautiful views the next morning from our bedroom window.

After a quick walk into the local town to get our bearings we headed off into the mountains, a 100 mile round trip or Grand Lake, climbing to over 12,000ft at times with stunning views to stop and take in at every turn. Lunch was had in a great cowboy saloon, a walk along the lake shore eating ice cream and then back home.

The next morning we took a jeep tour along a different part of the mountains, as the guide explained the local wildlife we could see. In the afternoon I went back country horse riding again, which was the best fun – they gave you the horse and off you went – no such thing as helmets or even a nod towards health and safety out here. Just you in the saddle, holding on to the reins and a wrangler heading out for the hills!

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This morning we went did a glorious 4 mile walk (and 30 minutes on a paddleboat) around Estes Lake, even finding a bald headed American Eagle to add to our wildlife- spotting collection of grizzly bears, coyotes, elk, moose, Prairie Dogs, marmots, bison and chipmunks!

After a lunch stop in Boulder we arrived here in Denver and it’s strange to be back in a city when we’ve spent the last 10 days on Mountain Time.

Tomorrow we begin the long journey back home, flying to Chicago in the afternoon and then an overnight flight back to Manchester. The week ahead is for catching up with our kids, two of our daughters have been on their own adventurous holidays – one to Vietnam and the other to Australia and Thailand.

And of course we also get to pick up Molly and Jack from their kennel holiday.

There really is no place like home.

Coming to America

Guess it’s a sign of a great holiday when you don’t have time to update your blog!

So rather than write about 5000 words on what we’ve been up to since Tuesday, I’ll try to summarise along a few themes that have emerged so far.

  • Yellowstone National Park – simply fabulous. We got to spend two days here, hiking around so many geysers, photographing wildlife, horse riding through back country and just taking in the amazing views. We got to see coyote, more bison than I could count (including a couple that wandered up to the restaurant whilst we were having breakfast), and elk. The highlight has to be two grizzly bears, a mum teaching her young cub to scratch for bugs in the undergrowth. Simply amazing to see such powerful creatures just 30 feet away from you.

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  • The sheer size of the place. Yesterday we had planned our route from Cody to Rapid City, thinking it would maybe take about half a day. After three hours of driving we decided to just work out a few distances, to discover that if we altered our plans and now took the most direct route we still had seven more hours at least ahead of us, not including breaks. It’s a bloomin’ big country!
  • An English accent – they love it over here. Upon hearing it, we get asked two questions. The first is asking where we are from. The next is whether we think there will be a second referendum on the Brexit decision. Folk seem shocked that the Brits aren’t going for a “best out of three” approach to our role in Europe.
  • Badlands – before getting here I didn’t really know what to expect. Trust me, this is one place you have to visit as the landscape is breathtaking, think about all those old Western films you might have seen and it’s even better than that.

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  • A slight obsession with the number of States we can get through. So far we have been in New York, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Yesterday’s change of plan meant we got to add a fair bit of Montana to our list before arriving in South Dakota. And we know that we are a little bit sad because we are taking the longer route to Colorado on Monday so that we can also travel through Nebraska!
  • Cody – definitely one of the strangest places we have stopped at, en route between Yellowstone and Rapid City. The only probable bad choice of B&B on this trip – we had stuffed deer heads above the bed, a pair for worn leather chaps stuck to the wall and was reassured by the owner that they didn’t need to lock doors as he had several guns in the house to keep us safe. Seriously. The whole place was just a little bit too redneck for me.
  • The political climate here – from the African refugee taxi driver who declared that “they should send all Muslims back to their own country” to those we have met who are staying in America for holidays as they view it as the only safe country, it’s clear to see first hand how Trump is so popular by harnessing their unrest and uncertainty. Worrying times.
  • The driving – so, despite my earlier post, Jeremy and I have been sharing my the driving/chief navigator roles. So far, so good – we’re still married!

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  • Spiders – only one so far, in the restaurant at Yellowstone a rather large one dangled down from the ceiling and almost onto his back but I managed to get him out of the way just in time. I’m still on the lookout for them on a daily basis but happy to report no further sightings yet.
  • Petrol – around 60p per litre. Nuff said.

So there’s three nights in Estes Park now to look forward to before then heading to Denver where this amazing road trip will finish on Friday, before then flying back to the UK via Chicago.

We both said today that after we did California three years ago, we wondered whether this holiday might not live up to expectations. It’s actually exceeded them – we’ve loved every minute of it, including all the driving because we’ve had so much fun along the way. Whether stopping in small one-road towns for food and a rest or pulling off the road to take in a magnificent view, this has been just perfect.

imageJust don’t get me started on Jeremy’s choice of music to listen to….!

Big Skies and Open Roads

For those who have got used to my cancer-related blogs, I apologise as the stories I post for the next week or two will be old school and about this great holiday I’m on. Not that I don’t have anything to say about my treatment and efforts to live life after a breast cancer diagnosis – actually, we have LOADS to catch up on! – but I thought it would be fun to  keep another travelogue of Jeremy and Suzanne’s latest road trip through America.

We flew to New York last Friday morning, my 8th trip to the city and I still get a buzz when I see that famous Manhattan skyline from the taxi. The son of a close friend was getting married so we planned to start our holiday with a few days here, celebrating with their family and friends before heading off with the road trip.

Never been to New York in the summer and boy, was it as hot and sticky as everyone  says it can be. Temperature in the 90s and air conditioning appreciated like manna from heaven. We visited the 9/11 museum, walked the High Line and ate pancakes for breakfast whilst the “resting”  musical theatre waitresses belted out Broaday hits between coffee refills! If you’ve never been, Ellen’s Stardust Diner is a must.

The only issue I had was that our hotel room was on the 28th floor. Not that heights bother me, but lifts do. The ones serving our room were of the express type, so once you get in they will only stop at a couple of floors below before plummeting non-stop down to the lobby. Which in a way was good as it meant that the journey had to only be endured for a short period of time. However on my first evening we got into the lift, the doors closed and I felt the familiar drop begin and the steel chamber was filled with the whooshing noise of air as we began our descent. Try to image my horror then as I noticed the doors slowly starting to open….I screamed out in terror, only to be shocked to see a few men casually enter the lift. We sort of looked at each other in confusion and fear – me, because I couldn’t figure out how they could walk into a lift that was plummeting hundreds of feet per second; them because they couldn’t work out why there was a mad woman screaming in the lift when it has stopped at the 27th floor. Yep, we had only gone down one floor and the whooshing sounds I could hear were from the lift shaft next door. Ah well, Jeremy found it hysterical!

On Monday it was time to leave the Big Apple and head out for Salt Lake City – or Salta Laka Citee for those who have seen The Book of Mormon. A relatively smooth 5 hour flight and we were in America’s mid west.

It’s a very unusual place – immaculately clean, unbelievably polite and just that little bit too good to be true. Contrary to popular belief you can drink alcohol here, it’s just that nobody seems to do it. People are friendly and helpful yet quiet and unassuming. Maybe it’s how we all should aspire to be.

Our B&B was just a few minutes walk from Temple Square and lots of places to eat or shop. This morning we did an interesting bus tour, which was an ideal way to see so much more of the city. Then this afternoon it was time to pick up the hire car and head North towards Logan, just under two hours away, which would be our stopover in breaking up the journey to Yellowstone National Park.

We had agreed to reprise our roles from the California Road Trip three years ago – I would be the main driver whilst Jeremy would have the much more critical roles of Chief Navigator, Music Selector and Manager of All Other Important Car Things, such as changing the time on the clock, programming the key thing to automatically open the boot and working out the air conditioning. Which was all going well until I noticed a police car behind me with its blue lights flashing. I moved over so he could pass, for him to then flash his headlights too but pull in behind me. Oh dear.

Pulled over to the hard shoulder and waited for him to approach before asking what I had done wrong – apparently I had been reported further back as doing over 80mph in a  60mph limit. I apologised profously, imageexplained that I was still trying to remember to drive in the right hand side and hadn’t realised just how fast I was going – thankfully after a quick check of my license and a discussion about how undertaking isn’t allowed in the UK I was let off with a caution.

Arrived a short time later to another little gem of a B&B for the night, a fabulous steak dinner and an early night as we have a long but fun drive ahead of us tomorrow as we head through two National Parks.

The only cloud on the horizon is that this area is known for its wonderful wildlife, including the Marching Tarantula. TIme to get my big boots on I think!

 

 

 

One Moment In Time

When you’ve been on this planet for as long as I have, then it makes sense that with fewer than 400 days in each year there are bound to be a few dates that crop up again and again as being significant.

This blog post is my very own time machine for October 9th

A year ago – I was at the Christie Hospital being hooked up for my last chemotherapy session. It was such a strange day and I’ll happily admit I cried my way through a significant amount of the morning. Relieved that my 18 weeks of hell was coming to an end, sadness that I knew in 48 hours I would be feeling fatigued, aching in all my bones, unable to taste any food or drink because of the slime in my mouth and the upset that any food would cause to my already unpredictable digestive system. All mixed up with gratefulness towards the most amazing nursing staff and absolute terror that some little cell may have escaped annihilation by their toxic administrations.

Twenty years ago – I should have been giving birth to our fourth child, with a Caesarean section planned for this day in my 38th week of pregnancy. But a few weeks earlier I began to experience some worrying symptoms, that couldn’t be explained away despite the numerous tests and scans and examinations the hospital put me through. All I could explain it as was an inner feeling that something wasn’t right. Unbelievably, my doctor listened to me and put my instincts above all his clinical data and delivered our daughter a week earlier than planned. It was then we discovered that the placenta had actually become unattached towards the back (which wouldn’t show on the scan) and she had slowly been deprived of food and oxygen. If we had waited another week, the outcome would have been very different.

Thirty years ago – I had just moved to Manchester and knew very few people. Sharing a house with a friend, he decided to have a housewarming party and included on the guest list was a certain young dentist who had caught my eye. By the end of the evening we’d had a rather cheeky snog and I’d agreed to go out for dinner with him the following night. Just 10 weeks later we were engaged to be married and the rest – as they say – is history.

I think there’s rather a lot to celebrate this October 9th

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Better Things Are Coming Your Way

Confucius said, “We all have two lives. The second one begins when we realise we only have one.”

This week I celebrated the Jewish New Year with my family and friends. It does share similarities with the one usually celebrated at the end of December – getting together with people you care about, eating far too much, promising everyone that the diet starts next week! From a religious perspective, it’s a time for repentance – for making right any wrongs that you may have done in the previous year. It’s a time for resolving to live your life in a better way in the year ahead, for getting in touch with the real essence of what you are and how you live your life. Rather than a time for drunken debauchery, we Red Sea pedestrians use this time of year for reflection and consolidation.

I do believe that although we are responsible for the lives we lead, sometimes we are sent ‘signs’ to guide us along the way. In recent weeks there have been three such things that have influenced this blog post today.

  • A very frank conversation with a good friend about what it means to have everything that defines you stripped away. In the last year, my experience was due to my treatment but for him it was quite different – he was part of the team of men who took part in the original series of “The Island”, cast away for 4 weeks in the Pacific Ocean with no contact to the outside world and relying only on what nature provided for food, water and shelter. Both of us felt that our experience of being stripped back to basics was probably the most profound experience we had ever experienced in our lives.
  • Timehop – a fabulous App that reminds you of what was important enough in your lives in previous years to post on social media. Three years ago I made a pledge to focus on healthy eating and exercise for three months, which I did but forgot to include the third – and essential – bit of this approach. A healthy attitude to life and all the bumps that come along.
  • I read a blog written by a breast cancer survivor, which moved me to tears because it said exactly what I have been thinking since my own diagnosis last year.

So I’m going to use that as the basis for what I’m going to write about now, which is a reflection of my last 18 months because I was always determined that I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me and I wanted to be a survivor both physically and emotionally, right from the start. And these are the lessons I’m taking into my second life:

  1. Cancer changes how you look – chemotherapy took away my hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows – even my nose hair! What amazed me was how many people were more interested in asking, “Does it take away all your hair?” Really – I’m fighting for my life here and you want to know whether I still need a bikini wax? Surgery took away some of my left boob, radiotherapy changed the texture of the skin. The anti-oestrogen tablets leave me with more curves than I would like.

What I’ve learnt is that people who love you will do so no matter what you look like. And you should learn to love yourself through these changes too. It’s still you, just a different version.

  1. Chemotherapy is horrendous – yes, it does help save lives and yes, it does only last 18 weeks but I’m not going to lie about how hard those times are. The hardest part is getting well after each cycle, only to put yourself through it again and again.

What I’ve learnt is that you should never take your health for granted. To get up in a morning and be able to move around without bone pain or nausea, to be able to go for a good, long walk or even get out for a bike ride or run along a trail path – this is your normal and you should savour every moment.

  1. Our life is short – when I was first diagnosed I was terrified of dying soon. All I could think about was all the things I still hadn’t done, the relationships with my family and friends that I wasn’t ready to lose yet. For the first time in 52 years I had to face the fact that my days are numbered.

What I’ve learnt is that life is an incredible gift. It might be a cliché but you really do have to make the most of every day, say the things you want others to know, have the experiences that make you feel alive.

  1. I have never been so scared before. Even when I was reassured that I could be successfully treated, I was faced with my fears around needles, nausea and a host of other aspects of my treatment.

What I’ve learnt is that love helps you through these times. The love of friends and family who sit with you whilst you cry your eyes out because the steroids are leaving you feeling the lowest you have ever done. And with this I’ve learnt gratitude for what matters, for who matters.

  1. Things have to change – I once came across a saying that the problem with putting others first is that you’ve taught them you come second. When I look back at my diary in the year prior to my diagnosis and the amount of stuff I was trying to cram in, it’s no surprise that something had to give.

What I’ve learnt is that everything starts with me. I’ve made myself my priority. Starting with the relationship I have with myself – a new commitment for a healthier lifestyle but balanced with forgiveness when my body doesn’t change at the rate I want it to. From this comes a better relationship with my children, my husband, my friends as well as those I work with.

Confucius was right – and in a bizarre way I’m almost grateful for going through this experience and realising that I only have one life. Every new year is a blessing and every moment is fleeting.

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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…..!!!!!