Cancer. It’s Funny Isn’t it? Thoughts, A Year On.

Right, back to the blog. I started this blog post ages ago, around the time of my ‘cancerversary in February 2020’. Then ‘The Megladon’ happened (when my besty from Oz, Megan, landed, literally landed, in my house one Sunday afternoon), and then, well, Coronavirus for shit’s sake. Oh and then I accidentally deleted the website and it had to be restored. And all manner of other excuses not to blog. But I DO want to blog, and losing the site reminded me of that. So, I’m back. With a post about cancer roughly a year on and precious little to do with what’s on everyone’s minds at the moment, but hey. There we go. This one’s all about cancer contradictions.

1. Breast Cancer – it’s somewhere between doable and utterly harrowing… There are days when the fear and enourmity of it all feels like it’s enough to sink you there and then. And many others, mostly in fact, where you just get on with it.  Because you have to. The ‘you’ve got this’ instagram meme can grate, but like any other platitude often rings true. Somehow, from somewhere, you muster what’s required to get through it. That counts for every single human I’ve encountered going through the shit-show, breast cancer or otherwise, no matter how awful. Having a full hysterectomy, vagina reconstruction, and shitting out of your stomach for the foreseeable? #youvegotthis

2. Cancer is officially ‘common’ and yet society seems wholly ill-equipped to deal with it.  Half the population will get cancer over the course of a life time and one in 7 women will develop Breast Cancer.  Now, the maths is a bit dicey here but we’re nearly as likely to get cancer as the Coronavirus (maybe a 10% difference?).  And yet, when diagnosed, it comes as a complete shock as if it’s the last thing in the world you’re expecting. Not even remotely on the radar. WHAT?! CANCER?!! As for the rest, most people haven’t a clue how to deal with someone with a diagnosis. It’s still ‘the c word’ and difficult to talk about for many. Mad, isn’t it?

3. A year on, I’m a ‘cancer expert’ yet still none the wiser. When you’re diagnosed, you realise how little you actually know. I’ve spent the best part of a year re-educating myself and undoing my own misconceptions around cancer, only to arrive at a place where I have no more answers than I did at the beginning. Random cellular mutation and oestrogen is the long at the short of it for me. One day, they’ll be able to map the footprint of cancer and truly understand how and why it originated in each individual, and it will be a complex combination of factors. In the meantime, you’re left trying not to fill in the gaps.

4.  The life-style disease with fuck-all to do with life-style. Chat around reducing the risk of cancer pitching up or coming back is all life-style based (diet, booze, fags, exercise), and yet you’re categorically told there’s nothing you can do, outside of ‘balance’ to stop it returning. A combination of positivity, downward dogs and turmeric tea might help you feel in control, but it’ll do fuck all to stop aggressive cancer cells from multiplying undetected. Lots of us get stuck in the disconnect between medicine and functional nutrition. In the absence of more joined-up science, all you can do is live life as best you can without getting too caught up in what you should or shouldn’t be doing.  

5. I’ve been happiest through the worst, and sunk to the depths for the best. Your emotions regularly play opposites on you. I was my most upbeat during treatment, practically skipping to and from radiotherapy every day, and then crashing later for the post-treatment lows. Whilst we’re all different, actually, so many react in similar, near-predictable ways. Effectively what we’re doing is emotionally ‘battening down the hatches’ to ride the biggest waves, then in calmer seas, getting a grip on what we’ve dealt with. It’s in-built trauma management that happens without you thinking about it.  The hard bit is making sure you don’t keep those hatches jammed shut for too long.

6. You can be surrounded by people, love and support and still feel isolated and alone. Cancer just is, by its nature, isolating. Someone I was introduced to early on in my diagnosis said over whatsapp; “It’s very lonely. At the end of the day, it’s between you and your body”. And it’s true. Layer onto that the fact that so many really struggle to know how to respond to your diagnosis, from the great empathy-bypass to cancer-ghosting and pity-eyes, it’s little wonder so many end up finding solace in the cancer community online. 

7. Hospitals can be grim places but there’s so much light. It’s the people. I think anyone in the UK would struggle to emerge from treatment under the NHS without a sense of deep love and gratitude for the people who held you through it.  Sure the NHS admin can be a bit iffy at times (they’re basically swamped), and I’m sure the bed side manner of some Consultants isn’t perfect either and, oh, gosh, I could get myself into a real hole here so I won’t keep adding exceptions (I’m really sorry if you’ve had a rough time on the NHS), BUT when all’s said and done, when you look back and remember the times when you’ve been most vulnerable, alone in a hospital bed, having had some dreadful op or procedure, it’s Shirley and Rodrigo and Carol that you remember, people that were  unbelievably kind, warm, smiley even when helping you get your functions functioning again. Especially then, in fact.

8. Boring old normal is the new amazing. I really like Dee’s words for this. Dee was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer in her early thirties and said, about a year after her own diagnosis, “when your own life has been out of your control for so long, the idea of normality takes on an alluring glow that others don’t see.. Normality is not having your life consumed by your health. It’s being able to focus on something other than how long you have left to live”. It’s essentially a reminder that all that matters is the here and now. Breathing in. And out. Stars. Naps. Grass. Kids. Cook it then eat it. Him. 

9. Cancer was so scary, it’s made me braver about life. There was a moment, a week-long moment when I was waiting for my liver scan results to find out whether the cancer had metastasised, that I felt like was living from breath to breath (and holding my children WAY to tight and staring at Tom WAAY too much). Where it all made sense. I’m trying to hang on to that feeling. The current struggle, as it were, is  finding the balance between moving forward, but not letting myself forget what I’ve learned. Most importantly, that I don’t need to be scared about life anymore. Try the thing. Say yes. Say no. Do it. Or don’t. None of it really matters anyway.

10. It’s really annoying ending on a 9 isn’t it?

How To Not Drink For 90 Days.

I’ve given up the drink for 90 days. “And well you SHOULD”, you might say, “given you’ve just had something close to the all clear from CANCER”. To which I might splutter, “yes, I know.. but… you see.. well… actually… eek, it’s strangely not that easy” (all the while thinking, “alright judgy-pants”). Having cancer is stressful, babes. And nothing but nothing takes the edge off a day living in mortal terror than a triple G&T with loads of ice and not much tonic. I know! The irony! Isn’t it ridic?! I am but a fallible human with an inner twennyfouryearold that needs to be tamed (among other things). BUT I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. And for those thinking of doing it too (you know who you are, wink) here are a few thoughts, tips n’ tricks to get you through, the first bit at least.

1. Self Luurve baby. You can totally do this but it takes a bit of a brain re-wire to sever the attachment. It’s nothing to do with willpower (or we’d all be doomed). It’s everything to do with re-thinking the role of alcohol and getting perspective. And the only way to do that is to step back from it for a while. When I’m wavering, I like to think of it as the biggest, warmest, huggiest act of self love I can give myself >kisses own arm aaaaall the way to the top and aaaaalll the way back down again. Now the other one<.

2. Get. In. The. Zone. Perspective also comes from stepping outside of your own head (and the bullshit you tell yourself). Read your arse off for booze-free empowerment. So many people have blazed this trail and written great things, and you will get far more from them than I. My faves are The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray and The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley. Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Control Drinking is worth reading for his brilliant take-down of the AA, and the Hip Sobriety space is great for positioning sobriety as ‘a proud choice, not a sad consequence’ – all the stuff you need to hear even if you just want a mini break.

Reading books written by people who have given up drinking forever, doesn’t mean you will catch giving up drinking forever (unless you want to obvs), but by crikey they’ll make you think. And laugh. And maybe even cry. Their stories might also make you feel a bit better about your own habits. Or not. What they will do is give you a cautious ‘respect’ for alcohol and help you re-wire your brain on all things booze. And this is what you need to do to get through it. A re-wire. Permission to be reverse brain-washed to de-glam the palest of pink Provence Rose, take its power away, and ultimately allow you to be kind to yourself. Alcohol is a sneaky bitch disguised as fun drenched in Pinot Noir.

3. Fill The Fridge with Non-Alcs. Substitutes in the fridge, always. I’ve caved before by not having arsenal. The non-alc alternatives out there are ace. You can spend a small fortune on non-alc beers at Dry Drinker and it will STILL be less than what you spend on the alchy versions (which means dosh to treat yourself for all that self luurve – this is one of Catherine Gray’s tips (I bought that red one-shouldered dress with the proceeds of a dry spell in 2018). I also always have bottles of sparkling San Pellegrino in the fridge (I know, sorry Greta but at least they’re recyclable?) to be paired with whatever takes your fancy. Buy up big on lemons and limes and make really tasty, sharp and sweet sparkling zesty muddles to sip at those key moments when you might normally reach for a glass of. It works. Beyond having something else to sip, there’s also something to do with sugars.

4. Partner Up or Get In with the Sober Peeps. Tom, my significant other, and I are both doing it which makes it easier. Also a friend contacted me following my instagram stories and said she was interested in taking a break too. We’ve connected on whatsapp and egg each other on. Sometimes that looks as simple as this; “I fancy a glass of wine tonight”. “Me too”. “Non alc beer?” “Yeh”.

There are umpteen ‘sober curious’ communities to get in with (Catherine has a great list in her book). I know a few people who swear by the One Year No Beer (OYNB) community (these guys say, ‘sure, start with 30 days off, but the magic happens after 60’). Also, SoberDave on instagram. Just because he’s a total sweet heart.

5. Schedule Life-Affirming Sunday Endorphin Blasts. Sunday exercise. I know. But look, here’s the thing. If you do something really ace on a Sunday morning – be it a long hike, swim, run, cycle – something that will be SHIT with even a micro-hangover, you remind yourself that not drinking on a Saturday night is not deprivation, but something you want for that wonderful body and mind of yours. I haven’t quite worked out what I’m in training for yet, but I schedule my long runs for Sunday mornings. After a lie in. And breakfast. And coffee. And watering the plants. And tickling the dog. And an insta-poo.

6. Drink In Real Life. Real life is at its most raw and real when there’s no alcohol to blur the edges. It’s easy to feel alive and connected and grateful when you’re outside running with the dog and sucking the air into your lungs so hard your nostrils clamp shut. But real life also happens when the sun goes down and you’re standing in your kitchen on a Friday night, possibly after a full-on week, music on, about to cook up a storm and thinking, “hhhmm, perhaps a little glass of whatnot…”. For me, at times like this, there’s something in the need to elevate normality. To make the ordinary less ordinary. Wanting to extract more. Removing alcohol from the occasion, for an extended period, helps you see how much even just weekend drinking pixilates real life. When you’re standing there, internally clawing at more, stop and drink this instead. This being life right now. You learn to love the every day ordinary and doing it often is all part of the re-wire.

7. Listen In. Of course, every day Real Life can be fucking hard. It’s full of pain, fear, fires, arguments, traffic jams, plastic, Brexit, unfulfilled dreams and things not done. There will come a time in these 90 days where you WILL, beyond all reason, WANT a glass of wine NOW in spite of all those brilliant early Jan intentions. Create an outer body experience for yourself by stepping out of your own head, and tuning in with curiousity to understand what’s really gone on – it’s here that you really start to understand your relationship with alcohol, and uncovering it is as uncomfortable as it is rewarding.

8. It’s All About Back Up, Baby. When the shit hits the fan, which it probably will, you need something else to turn to other than lime and San Pellegrino because quite frankly it ‘aint gonna CUT THE FUCKING MUSTARD IS IT and what am I trying to prove anyway, forty days is quite enough and alcohol is culturally ingrained FOR A REASON, and if it was good enough for ancient civilisations on the banks of the Euphrates to imbibe then it’s good enough for me, and for god’s sake I AM HUMAN and fallible and I DESERVE this and and AND. Now. I won’t pretend to have all the answers for this moment but it’s about breaking the thought pattern, getting the hella outta there, and doing something different to get you down from the metaphorical ledge. Run a bath. Candles. Podcast. Read. Write. Play cards. Downward Dog-it, meditate, dance, BREATH.

9. Know This; It.Will. Pass. Once you get through that little wobble up there – you’ve unlocked yourself from that little cupboard and stopped rocking and breathing dramatically – It’s fine again. You got through it. Honestly, it’s surprisingly fine after that first bit. Now kiss those arms.

Whatever you do, doing it over and over over, not just for four consecutive weekends but more, and then some more after that, means that you teach yourself how to not drink, AND you will learn a whole bunch of other stuff in the process. Like how to deal with the external world, and critically, the internal one, without dousing it with numbing agents. YES feeling all the feels is GNARLY as fuck but by Christ it’s rewarding.

10. Be gentle on yourself. Compassion all the way.

Good luck Soberistas. Respect Emoji. 

“It’s the Best Cancer to Have”. MY ARSE.

This happens a lot when you get diagnosed with breast cancer. You get told “it’s the best cancer to have”. Family say it. Friends say it. Just people. Even oncologists say it. They say it because they want to make you feel better about that horrendous diagnosis. We even said it to our daughters when we told them about my diagnosis. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, and I understand the intentions are good, but now that I’m on the other side of active treatment, and staring down the barrel of long term hormone treatment, still feeling right there ‘in it’, I’m not sure how helpful it was, as I stand here now. 

Let’s just unpack it for a moment. Breast Cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with 1 in 7 developing it in their life-time (once more, just to drive that home, ONE IN SEVEN.). During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the UK alone, 5,000 people will be diagnosed.

What this means, is that Breast Cancer is a loud, hungry beast that attracts loads of dosh for research and support services that ultimately benefits the patients.  Critically, the survival rates are good – nearly 9 out of 10 women will survive for five years or more. There’s a lot to be glad about, statistically speaking.

But here’s the thing, there are humans at the end of those statistics and, when people refer to the survival rates, even the Oncologists, they’re not telling you how they achieve those stats.

What you very quickly realise when you’re down there in the trenches is that the treatments are still surprisingly, almost comically, blunt. Caught early enough, the approach is still very much to cut the cancer out, and/or chop the cancery bits off the healthy bits, nuke the bits, and/or deliver a whole-body contaminant to poison the cancery bits, and then hope for the best.

80% of breast cancers diagnosed have a hormone receptor which means the cancer grows with oestrogen. This is what I have. Or had? Difficult to say. Now on the other side of active treatment, there’s no way of telling if there’s any more cancer floating about and this is why the treatments are so brutal. The solution in my case, following phase one active treatment, is to create an environment in the human body where the cancer can’t grow back. Ergo, strip out all the oestrogen. Let’s take aaaall the oestrogen out of that woman, starve the bastard cancer, job’s a goodun’.

The result is an extreme, medically-induced menopause more akin to chemical castration that throws the surviving human into a bit of a living shit-show. Honestly, writing it, it sounds like the ‘in theory only’ solution you’d come up with on a work away-day shortly after building the raft with 3 planks to get you across the metaphorical river. I mean, you wouldn’t would you…?

The current ‘survival strategy’ after the last batch of trials is to keep women on hormone treatment for ten years instead of five because data shows it cuts the incidence of recurrence by a third. It does not, however, impact on overall survival rate according to this report. Call me naive, but that just sounds like a really expensive delaying tactic, not a scientifically brilliant line of treatment.

Now, I am going to say this with caution because I am sensitive to the ‘triple neggers’ out there who don’t have hormone treatment to fall back on once they’ve gone through the un-holy trinity of surgery/chemo/radio, which is another point in itself really, but surviving ‘the best cancer to have’ comes at great cost to quality of life, physically and mentally. The triple-neggers live in mortal fear of breast cancer’s incurable return, and the hormone-pozzies are a shell of their former-selves, moody as fuck, dry foof, rattling around with crumbling bones, knowing full well that IF they can endure this bollocks for 10 years, there are no actual guarantees of staying cancer free after it. Don’t get me started on the incurables.

I am still in the very early days of my hormone treatment and at the moment it’s really tough going particularly from a mood perspective; CAN YA’ TELL?!!!!. The big question is, I suppose, could I have handled a bit more realism back then about what the future held? In truth yes, or a least not an untruth delivered to ease the pain then to make the future harder.  ‘The best cancer to have’ made it sound like it was the easy one. ‘The best cancer to have’ made me think it was something I could just just do for a bit and walk away from.  The reality is, I am in treatment now for the next ten years even with an early-stage diagnosis (it was in half a lymph node. HALF). If I choose to forgo that treatment (there’s a 1 in 4 drop out rate, according to my oncologist), I risk incurable cancer spread.

But Can I tell you something else ‘the best cancer to have’ does? It engenders future guilt in the breasties for struggling with their treatment. Seven months on, it makes me feel like I should put up and shut up because I’m ‘lucky’ to have this cancer. Suck it up sister, you’re alive!  ‘The best cancer to have’ leaves a bitter taste in my mouth

All cancer is shit. Whether you’re walloped by chemo, cut to pieces, having an organ re-shuffle, shitting through your stomach, radiation on your unmentionables, losing limbs, or drained of your womanly hormones, all the treatment is horrendous and society needs to quit with the ranking business. So what should people say instead?

When in doubt, go full empathy. Maybe something like, “what a bucket of absolute shite mate. I’m not gonna lie, you’ve got tough times ahead but one way or another you’ll get through it, mark my words, and I will be with you 100% of the way, even when you’re a moody cow. Fancy a foot massage?”.

This blog was written on the 1st Day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2019. I’ve only recently had my ovaries switched off and started on aromatase inhibitors so there was a bit of angry-typing going on here – I don’t want to diminish the sterling work done by everyone in the NHS and anyone who works in cancer research. Although, please do hurry up with the cure ‘yo? And as for the rest of you… for the love of god, know your normal. Now go check your boobs.