Saturday 27 December 2014

My Cancerversary

Today is my one year cancerversary: twelve months to the day I learned I had cancer.

What do you think I'm going to tell you today? the consultant surgeon asked at 2.30pm a year ago, a nurse by his side. My heart slipped a little closer to my stomach.

During the mammogram and ultra sound tests a week earlier, a couple of comments about the lump (which I'd satisfactorily convinced myself prior to the appointment was the innocuous result of hormones) made me nervous. I asked the radiographer what he was looking for. The mammogram suggests pre-cancer, he said. Pre-cancer, I considered, I like the sound of 'pre'. Yes, he said 'pre' is good.

I left the tests to enjoy Christmas, knowing I'd be returning on the 27th December for the results. Then they'd tell me whether I had no cancer or pre-cancer. Or so I thought.

I'd learnt about pre-cancer over the festive period. I didn't go near the internet - am way to cautious to trust my sanity to Mr Google - but instead consulted with my wonderful friend who, rather fortuitously for me, happens to be an oncologist in breast cancer. Pre-cancer wasn’t to be taken lightly, I was told. Dependent on the extent of these cells at the first abnormal stage, a mastectomy might be necessary, together with hormone therapy, perhaps, even a dose or two of radiotherapy. But no chemo and, crucially, no risk of death at this pre-cancerous stage. If there's a sentence containing 'cancer' as well as, 'no risk of death', it's hard to feel anything but relief.

I looked at the surgeon and the nurse and I think I smiled. It was OK, I'd prepared for this and the way he'd phrased the question made me certain. You're going to tell me I have pre-cancer, I finally answered. The surgeon and the nurse continued their gaze, not even a twitch from either of them until the surgeon said, I'm afraid it's much worse than that.

February: 8 inches cut off my hair
And thus I trot towards 2015 with three operations, chemotherapy and radiotherapy behind me and with much more optimism about the future than I had last New Year's Eve. Nonetheless, I'm celebrating my cancerversary small; just poking a superstitious toe into the festivities. No parties this year, just gratitude for the brilliance of modern medicine and for the love which has helped me step over the pebbles. Some people have to deal with cancer and other crises on their own and I can't begin to imagine how hard that must be. Being with my family around the gold star-bedecked table, clutching a tiddly wink cracker, brought me to tears this Christmas and not just because I burnt the pigs in blankets. I'm lucky to be here and my cancerversary is a time to give thanks for that.

September: first re-growth
Next year I hope to celebrate two years clear, then three and four and onto five. Five years is a milestone I pray to reach and a significant goal in the life of Grade 3 breast cancer. That's when we can really believe it's finished: every last stray cell gone, no new little blighters gaining strength and preparing to strike. December 27th 2018 is going to be one heck of a party.

Meanwhile, I shall keep thanking my lucky stars for no signs of recurrence or secondaries. I shall keep checking - you must too, because early detection is your biggest weapon against cancer. Do it on the same day every month and then you won't forget. Boys! Enough sniggering at the back, you know you have to check yourself too, right?

2014: not all bad by any means...
And most of all I shall keep having fun because none of us know where our life is headed. In the inimitable words of the Cold Feet opening credits: Life's a journey, travel it well.

Please raise your glass with me for my cancerversary and here's to a happy and healthy 2015 for all of us!

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Change the Record

Thank goodness, a frost at last! The fire's stoked, Harrogate smells of mulled wine and cinnamon and I've had my first mince pie – or two. I love the change of season, love Christmas and never more so than this year.

I was just thinking that it was time to change the record, that I wanted to talk of something different to the thing-I'm-not-going-to-mention today. Then late one Friday night when I really shouldn't have been messing about on the pc but felt the urge to do yet more research into an all singing and, err, spinning, spinning bike to replace the tired one in my not very Homes and Gardens kitchen, an email plopped into my lap. It was from Black Pear Press and it hoped I would be pleased to know that my short story, Fly Joe, had been shortlisted in its annual short story competition. Pleased? I'd have screamed if the rest of the house hadn't been sleeping – as much out of relief as delight as I'd done my usual of convincing myself that the story was ridiculous and I'd been a fool to enter the competition. 

And then I learn that the story is to be published in their anthology, hopefully before Christmas. Who needs Christmas presents?  

Next I hear from the talented and oh so studious, Judith Arnopp, writer of intricately researched historical fiction, that she's awarded me the One Lovely Blog Award in recognition of bloggers who share their story or thoughts in a 'lovely' manner. Thank you, Judith, I'm honoured to have been chosen. Judith writes her own lovely blog packed with book reviews and news of her own seven titles which can be found here.

Something I must do when accepting the award is declare seven cool facts about me. However, in the absence of anything cool - embarrassing moments, on the other hand, give me a minute and I'll fill you a page -  I found myself rambling about my life, all 46 years of it. My seven points currently read more like a memoir. I shall spare you the read, as it's Christmas, and return with a pruned and smoothed version just as soon as I've written some Christmas cards, iced the cake – oh, baked the cake – finished present buying, made the Stollen (no, I'm buying the Stollen), and made more mince pies than I eat.

This is Jon Bon Jovi, not my husband...
One more piece of news before I go. I have had my first haircut. I sat for an hour, read my book, chatted and drank their tea. It was a most pleasurable step back into a more normal reality. It's funny the things you miss. The style is not one I'd have chosen but to use a writing analogy, I see it as a Work In Progress, an advanced enough draft to expose it to an audience, and a cue for me to wash and pack away my wigs. They've served me well but I'm oh, so tired of them now.  Even better, my husband has also had his hair cut and so for the first time in ten months, my hair is longer than his. He's not exactly Jon Bon Jovi himself, but it's a step in the right direction.

Have a great week! I'm off to prune my words. 

Thursday 30 October 2014

What do you do?

In my last post I talked about those well-meaning throwaway comments made to people with cancer which might have less than the desired effect. I found it a tricky post to write as uppermost in my mind was the fact that nobody wishes to offend and everybody means to say the right thing. With one man's compliment being another women's slap in the face, it's a minefield for those without privileged entry into a cancer sufferer's chaotic mind. Nonetheless, I hope the post was useful. Your responses were, as ever, thoughtful and touching.

I'm happy to say that I'm back in my comfort zone with this post. It was inspired by the lovely Chriss Green, prolific sharer of my blog for which I'm supremely grateful, who suggested I list things people have said which hit a good spot.

I started scribbling immediately but quickly realised that it was the things people had DONE rather than those they'd said, which stuck more in my mind. So, instead of words, I've listed some of the bountiful gifts and good-deeds people have bestowed upon me over the past ten months. This isn't a definitive list of how to empty your money box or eat up your already hard-pressed time when you find out someone close to you is suffering, and it won't be for everyone, but I hope my experience might offer a few nuggets of usefulness.

And at least I get the chance to say thank you :)

Meals on Wheels
People would ask me to let them know what help I needed. They truly wanted to help - but it feels wrong to ask somebody with a job, various children, a dog, family taxi service and clean toilets to provide, to run around for me when I'm confined to the sofa.

This doesn't mean that help wasn’t gratefully received - even getting dressed was a bit of an effort on my worst treatment days - and so to open my door on several mornings to find a meal for four requiring only a re-heat and transportation to the table, was wonderful. My Meals on Wheels deliveries made me smile and I'd just like to say a public thank you here, as well as an apology for not always returning the Tupperware in a timely fashion.

Picking my children up from clubs and feeding them
Thank you.

Picking me up from home and taking me for a coffee
(and appointments) Thank you.

Supermarket delights
With special thanks to the Marks and Spencer Dine-in initiative.

Bags of healthy food, home-made chocolate brownies, cakes and bought cakes (I'm not choosy)
Thank you.

Loans of DVDs and books
Again, thank you.

Personally, I'm not a great fan of speaking on the phone. I blame my poor hearing which makes the process excruciatingly painful for all parties involved. But I had some sleepless nights and painful days through chemo and receiving texts out of the blue saying simply that I was in people's thoughts, was a great tonic. With my treatment induced lethargy however, responding could take chunks out of my day so I hope you'll accept my apology for the tardy replies.

As above. I have kept them all :)

This may sound terribly materialistic but to know that someone is thinking of you when they go shopping (and I know that often presents came after much research and probing of shop staff's knowledge) touched my heart.

Most practical gift? There were so many! Warm items of clothing went down well – I wore my fluffy pink angora wool socks constantly as well as my Bamboo Chic Lite cardigan. It isn't particularly that treatments make you cold, it's just that our house is Baltic if you aren't running up and down the stairs every second minute.

Most used item? Probably my Anastasia Beverly Hills eyebrow kit. People expressed their delight that I'd held onto my eyebrows – I hadn't ;) Luxury hand and body creams were also a great buy as cancer treatments really dry out the skin. I was lucky enough to be given lots of luscious products I wouldn't normally afford which I'm still using now.

Most tear-inducing? My four-leaf clover bracelet, four-leaf clover necklace (there's a theme here), message and pocket sized hearts. And don't get me started on the hand-made ring given to me shortly after the wedding of one of my closest friends, which I couldn't attend due to an incredibly poorly timed third operation.

Home visits?
I learnt something about myself during chemo: I don't like to see people when I'm ill. I prefer to lick my wounds on my own, cushioned by my home, cancelled appointments and my texting fingers for when things are improving. And then when I'm recovered, that's when I like to see people. Of course, one person's nightmare is another's delight so it's probably worth asking the question.

Showing you know
Everybody wants the cancer to be treated and consigned to the past post haste. Having treatments behind you is wonderful but the fear that the cancer will return is massive. I've needed my friends and family more mentally post treatment than during it. While you're to-ing and fro-ing to hospital for the potpourri of chemicals and radiation assigned to you, you're invincible. The brilliance of modern science and your medical team are all over this little cancer blighter. Pah! Those piffling little cancer cells wouldn't have a chance against drugs which make your hair fall out and turn your bones to putty. 

But when treatment ends and it's you, your body and a measly little tablet fighting the good fight, staying mentally strong enough to banish the fear to the back of your mind can be tough -particularly when every drug-induced side-effect or contact with bugs with a weakened immune system feels incontrovertibly like the return of cancer. Those of us who have beaten cancer or who are in remission are the lucky ones and I never forget that but sometimes the dark thoughts can be over-powering and it's easy to feel a little alone at this post-treatment time.

We're all so busy and I personally find that as soon as one person I know edges out of a crisis situation, another moves in. But showing you know doesn't have to be time-consuming. A word or a hug to remind your friend that you know the shadow of cancer is still pretty overwhelming, or that the side-effects of drugs can be depressing, might be all your friend needs to help them get on with the business of living.

Anyone who's had a baby will know that when your new-born is tiny and cute and sleeping a lot, everybody comes to visit. Then the visits stop and you're left with the magnitude of looking after this new little person who is sleeping less, feeding more and making more washing. Right now is when you could really do with someone holding the baby while you put the tea on.

Cancer is a little bit like that. Lots of people visit at the beginning and it's a very human, touching reaction. But if you're well before treatment starts, this period can be very busy. The same pending-birth-nesting need kicks in and suddenly having clean bed linen, every item of school uniform washed and neatly pressed, full cupboards, full freezer and a sparkling toilet in place before your operation, becomes monumentally important. And then there's the children's schedule to organise for the three weeks post op when you won't be driving - the cancer will not make them miss out on any of their activities mantra beating inside your head - supper to arrange because you won't be entertaining for a while and work to finish for previously made deadlines set smack in the middle of a dose of morphine.

So, I'd like to suggest you take the pressure off yourself. Visits are lovely but don’t feel guilty if you can't rush around the moment you find out – sending a message and arranging to meet once your friend is out of hospital might actually be more relaxing and helpful for both. 

So, that's my list. Can you add any top tips? I love to read your comments.

By the way, did I say thank you enough?? This wouldn't have been a year I'd have chosen but nonetheless, I look back upon it with a smile. I've seen lots more of my friends and family than I normally would and who could possibly complain about that? 

Tuesday 7 October 2014

What do you say?

What do you say to someone diagnosed with cancer?

I've hesitated about writing this blog. Of course, everyone reacts and deals with their diagnosis differently so there can be no rights and wrongs – after all, one man's compliment is another woman's smack in the teeth.

But in my own experience, and in listening to other people who have cancer, there are some common statements issued in good faith by caring souls who believe them to be soothing and consoling, which prove to be the opposite. And as it's frequently said that people don't know what to say when they find out their friend, relative or colleague has cancer, I thought I'd pick out a few classic comments where I suggest you proceed with caution.

Please don’t have nightmares. Much more than the clangers, we talk about the wonderful love and support which gets us through the tricky times. And I can honestly say that nobody has said anything that's made me cross or any more upset than I currently was – apart from the person who insisted on telling me a statistic about prognosis she'd read, but even that was said in good faith.

Compassion, whatever the wording, should never be criticised.

Besides, I'm sure I'm guilty of some of these myself…

We could all be run over by a bus.
Yes, we could, and I appreciate the sentiment. But crossing the road is a risk we take; having cancer is somewhat forced upon us and when we have it, the reality of a premature end is so much more blatant than the potential to find ourselves under the wheels of a bus. I would also say that if we were particularly worried about being run over by a bus, we could take precautions to prevent this unfortunate incident such as never crossing a road. I, and everyone I know who's been touched by cancer, would like to be told the one thing we must do to prevent cancer coming back. And we'd all do it. Unlike not crossing a road, this hasn't been discovered yet.

My friend's brother's sister's cousin had breast cancer twice and is fine.
I understand this one entirely. We all love a success story. Surely when someone has cancer, they also want to hear success stories, right?

Sort of.

But it's a certain kind of success story. Having cancer is about having your mortality thrust in front of your face; however aware you were of it before, it's just so much more immediate now. On diagnosis, I'd suggest there are two questions that people need answered – hopefully in the affirmative: Can I be cured? and, Can I stop it coming back? With cancer, one of the hardest things to believe is that if you're lucky enough to survive the first time, that your body won't get it wrong the next time. When those rogue cancer cells called, your body was found wanting. What logic says your defences will perform better next time? Much logic, actually. There's plenty of research and a wealth of stats to show that your body won't get caught out again and drugs such as Tamoxifen and Herceptin also help your body change its attitude. But whatever the scientists tell us, it takes time to trust your body again after cancer. If you have breast cancer and have had one breast removed, it's really hard to rationalise that you're not going to get cancer in the other one. And next time it might be harder to detect. It might have spread further. It might be more difficult to cure. And even if all the answers were positive, who would relish the idea of another round of treatments?

So, I suggest proceeding with caution in the choice of success stories. Those where people have survived multiple incidences of cancer are another resounding endorsement that recurrence happens. And that isn't something that somebody who's currently dealing with their first bout, wants to think about.

I've just read an article that if you snort three pieces of seaweed (freshly picked that morning from anywhere along the beach between Seahouses and Alnwick on the north coast) on the hour, every hour, they said it could reduce the risk of cancer.
I'm all for well-researched information which has scientific backing. Trust me, I'm as keen as anyone to discover a food source which will give me that piece of mind. But one person's chance hearing can be another person's 24 hours of research and if you magnify that up by all the good folk who've heard a rumour, all of a sudden you're wading through a confusion of unsubstantiated research where much better for your health might have been to relax and read a book. The most helpful suggestions are from those who hear something, carry out the research and only pass on the findings when they've done the work for you. Some people have done this for me and I really appreciate it.

We’re all going to die anyway.
Yes, we are. However, most of us hope that if we do our best to treat our body with respect, we'll live beyond retirement. It isn't something I take for granted but it is a hope. So yes, we will all die one day but when you've just been diagnosed with cancer at 45, your biggest fear is that the day could be forty years earlier than it might have been.

What's the prognosis?
No. Just no. Nobody has asked me this but I was staggered to hear that it was quite a common question and generally from relative strangers. Eeek! I don't think you need me to point out that if somebody hasn't discussed their prognosis, they probably don't want to talk about it. It isn't something you'd forget to mention.

Re chemo aches and groans: at least it means it's working.
It doesn't mean it's working; it doesn't mean anything significant and the inaccuracy of this upsets some people.

Re pending chemo: does it make it easier now you know what to expect?
I think this might be acute paranoia on my part but it feels like the awfulness of chemo is belittled with this question. It's as if, had you'd been stronger or braver rather than fearful for previous doses, the experience wouldn't have been as bad. In truth, knowing what's coming is more likely to make it worse.

You look great.
- when you don't and /or you feel terrible. This offends some people but not me, you can tell me as many times as you like ;)

Wednesday 17 September 2014

A Little Less Squished

I have mentioned the inimitable A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson here before; such is the impact this favourite rhyming book of my then toddler has had on my life. I'm not sure how much of the moral my youngest took in at the time – that everything in life is relative and happiness lies in appreciating what you have –but she certainly went to sleep with a smile after numerous renditions of, 'Glory me! It was tiny for two and it's titchy for three'.

Little did I know that I'd still be quoting, A Squash and a Squeeze long after the screams of, 'Take in my hen? What a curious plan,' had turned to the killing fields of the Hunger Games.

Roll over Dickens and Tolstoy.

In A Squash and a Squeeze, the wise old man asks the farmer's wife to trust in his philosophy. Her poky house is getting her down and she doesn't have room to 'swing a cat', let alone her farm animals of assorted sizes, which the wise man asks her to add one by one into her already straining abode. It's only when he directs her to remove them, that she realises quite what she had before.

2014 has been a bit of a squash and a squeeze for me and none more so than the summer holidays, rammed with radiotherapy appointments at the expense of work and being with (and transporting) my teenage children. Where the old lady filled her house one by one with extra animals varying in size from a hen to a cow, my 2014 was filled with treatments for cancer. But as in the book, it's all relative; I am one of the lucky ones.

That doesn't mean I haven't lamented the lack of time.

Throw in chemo! the oncologist said.
I can't I cried. I teach, I edit, I write
I work for my husband (badly), have a small business
(which suddenly seems humongously large)
and short stories and a novel I'm trying to type.
And I want to ride my bike.
I can't take on chemo, my life is a squash and a squeeze.

But in the chemo went.

Take out a week every three to recuperate
And add in Herceptin every three weeks for a year
And radiotherapy.
Oh! don't shed a tear, after 15 sessions you'll be out of here.
And then add in Tamoxifen for the next four years and one
It's only a pill, with any luck, it won't make you ill.

And then I blinked and it was September. The big cow had stopped dancing on the dining room table. I locked the door soundly behind it. Goodbye chemo, farewell, I hope. Radiotherapy has been winched out of the top window. In the kitchen there are still a few hens pecking at my feet; a reminder that this cancer journey still rolls on but you know, I can manage perfectly well even with a constant tickle at my toes.

So sympathetic, professional and advanced has been my treatment that although I breathe in the less cluttered air with relish, there is a part of me which hasn’t disliked the squash and a squeeze of the last nine months. I've found it interesting, supportive, friendly and hopeful. I'd have gladly done without it but without the brilliance of the medical profession and the incredible love and support of those around me, the path life has forced me down would have been much less bearable.

And let's face it, I might not have been walking it at all.

My cancer journey isn't over. I can't imagine it ever really coming to an end, although an all–clear after five years is a milestone I wish on every wishbone to meet. Nine months after diagnosis, however, emotionally and practically, I'm feeling a little less squished. 

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Story-telling Charades

Asking me for a book recommendation is a commitment to a game of story-telling charades. I can give you un-abridged plot, swear my undying love for the characters and unbridled respect for the author but rarely can I give you their name or the title of the novel, without a little mental gymnastics first.

You just have to read, I say. Ok, it's a summer theme, same author as the one everyone's read with the blue cover, a desolate beach scene, silhouette of lovers holding hands. Don't recognise it? Oh, then put that on your list too. You'll cry, I warn, but it's uplifting as well.

The author? You'll know her, she's written loads! She must have been there, I add, sagely, must have had a close encounter with death because it was the little things she mentioned; the not washing the pillow cases. Edinburgh, you know?

After You'd Gone! You call. Yes! You've read it, I say, brilliant isn't it? I'll never forget it. So, what's the author's name? I can picture it on the cover in block white print. Same surname as a funny male writer. No, they're not married, not even related, shame. But she is married to a writer, another funny bloke, he's not O'Farrell though. He's William Sut…

O'Farrell! We scream in unison. Maggie O'Farrell. Phew! Instructions For A Heatwave, I say. Read that on the beach.

So, even though I'm never knowingly without a novel by my bed and another in my bag, putting together my list of recommended reading can be quite an undertaking. After much jumping up and down to my book shelves, family tree-esque diagrams and a convoluted path around Google, I've come up with my list of ten recommended stories old and new for the summer edition of Chase Magazine* – see page 54/55 - to spare you the charades. 

A new edition to Chase Magazine is Kids Corner on page 56 where a young writer has the chance to see their piece of short fiction in print. This issue's contributor is Georgia Buxton, age 13, (and no relation to me :D) with her quirky insight into Planet Zarg. If you know any keen writers under the age of 16, living in Sheffield, Rotherham or elsewhere in South Yorkshire, who'd like to see their writing in print, please encourage them to give it a go. 

All submissions should be emailed directly to the editor: 
as a Word attachment. Short stories, poetry and flash fiction up to 500 words in length all welcome and successful entrants will receive up to five free copies of the edition of Chase in which their article is printed. Good luck!

So, what have you been reading lately? Please share. Charades-type descriptions always acceptable...

*You may have to register with Chase the first time you click on the online edition but it's plain sailing after that.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Why Not Me?

I quite expected to get cancer. Even though I prefer my glass most definitely half full, I've always been a, 'Why not me?', rather than a, 'Why me?' kind of girl. I think accepting the unsavoury situations which jump out at us unbidden, is the first step to giving them a great big slap in the chops.

And 1 in 3 people will contract cancer at some point in their life so why wouldn't one of those people be me? I guess I just hoped that I'd be 109 when it knocked and so short on faculties that I wouldn't really notice. But no matter, I'm here, having treatment for cancer and this is how I intend to move forward.

I thank my lucky stars that I developed cancer in 2014 rather than 1974 because the treatment available these days means that chances of survival for most - alas not all - cancers are so much better than when I was growing up, and rising all the time. But treatment is brutal, expensive and not fool-proof and thus prevention would be infinitely preferable.

Whilst the experts know how cancers are formed, they don't always know why one person contracts cancer and another doesn't. Once the well-publicised triggers such as smoking, excessive alcohol, obesity, sun exposure and genetics have been discounted, medicine puts it down to bad luck. In this case we're grateful for the brilliance of modern treatment and hope that we're not unlucky again.

However, this is the one area of science which doesn't work for me. I get twitchy putting my life in the care of luck. The body is clever but cancer cells are evil little blighters. We're back to my, 'Why not me?' scenario. Something about the mix of my body, my diet, my environment, my genetics, even my character meant that I developed cancer. And I cannot see any logic that says that if I change nothing, this won't happen again. I needed an action plan.

But to be able to hatch my plan, I had to understand how cancer was formed.

I shall endeavour to explain it how I understand it, in my – spent longer revising to scrape through, I reckon it's the easiest science so I'll choose that one, Biology o-level than all my other subjects put together – kind of way. I apologise in advance to those who know their stamen from their stigma or what the periodic table was actually for.

It's all about cells. I imagine our body like a small town inhabited by cells; a little like an ant colony. There are hospitals equipping white blood cells with the tools to fight infection. There's the train collecting and depositing oxygen around the body so that it functions efficiently and productively. Constant building work is going on to make new bones or repair over-stressed muscles and joints. Then of course there are the big organs made up of lots of cells and commanding great respect. If the body gets over-taxed, the lesser organs are ordered to go into standby to ensure the brain and the heart stay in control and manage the body out of the crisis.

It's a very harmonious town. Yes, things go wrong. The control centre for each cell - its DNA - can become damaged and feed it the wrong instructions so that it becomes a faulty cell and be no use to the body. This happens fairly regularly, it would seem, but these Bad Cells are generally expelled; a very necessary and common process in the body's continual pursuit of good health.

However, the body's defences don't always work as effectively as they should do and sometimes a Bad Cell isn't ejected but instead reproduces uncontrollably. Left unchecked (and the body has many checking systems; we are talking a perfect storm here) Bad Cells will eventually grow too powerful for the body's defences. Eventually, our town faces more than a cluster of Bad Cells but instead, a cancerous lump. Now, the most effective tool open to the body is to call in the heavies, the medical profession, who come with a big spade to uproot the lump and cast it from the body forever.

That can be the end of it but if the cancer has been around a while or is a particularly fast growing cancer – like mine, many thanks for that, body – it might have got cocky and started throwing out baby cancer cells which could be hiding somewhere in the body. Or the lump could have taken root in a very built up, hard to reach area and the spade couldn’t get near it. Any chance at all of this and the super powers come in, launching chemo, a bomb which reverberates right around the body. It  kills off all fast growing cells (we hope) such as our hair and disease fighting cells and within this group of fast growing cells are, you betcha, the most fast growing of them all: cancer cells. See you bad boys. In the super power's army are other fighters such as radiotherapy which attack locally and the peace keeping forces such as Herceptin and Tamoxifen (protein and hormone inhibitors without which some types of breast cancer struggle to divide and conquer) which are there to maintain the status quo.

So, back to my action plan. What was it that I did that created an environment in which the Bad Cell thrived? Why didn't my defence system work quite as well as it should have done? And the, 'Why not me?' question: why wouldn't this happen again?

I'm quite a healthy soul. I've always loved sport and spend hours every week doing it. Much to the constant consternation of my sisters and friends (I'll whisper it) I don't much care for cake, am happier munching my way through a bowl of salad. So, she says, glossing over the daughter's warm banana cake devoured last night, my diet is naturally fairly healthy. Breast cancer doesn't run in my family. I've never smoked and when it comes to alcohol, I'm generally considered a, 'bit of a lightweight'. But more about that later.

I'm very wary of scare stories and don’t tend to trust information unless it's endorsed by recognised cancer charities and bodies. My favourites are Cancer Research UK  and Macmillan Cancer Support not least because I know that on their sites, I would have to actively search for statistics, none of which I have any interest in knowing, the very idea of them terrifies me. I've read up on diet, environment and the validity and otherwise of well-documented cancer triggers we hear of in the news and this is what I've come up with. I'm not saying it's a check list of what every person needs to do to prevent cancer or to stop it coming back, nor indeed is it a catch-all list. After all, if it was, I'd be very rich and decorated with various honours, not least the Nobel Prize for Science - and did I mention my lack of aptitude for science? But, in addition to some small diet tweaks, broccoli and walnuts to name but two, here are two changes I've chosen to make based on my own research and lifestyle.

There has been much in the press about shift workers living less long than day time workers and there is some evidence that not allowing the body enough time to regenerate can increase the risk of some serious ailments including stroke, obesity, diabetes and, interestingly, the recurrence of aggressive breast cancers.Click for more info. This is early research but to see any link at all when I am someone who's rarely slept more than five hours a night since my teens, was enough for me to make a definite change to my sleeping habits. Before midnight is when I now got to bed, seven hours later is when I wake. Much as I lament that with the new regime has come a loss of ten hours of my old writing time every week, I can't write a book from the next life can I? 

Well, I don't think I can, anyway.

And, an unexpected bi-product was that after only a few nights of better sleep, people noticed. I recognise that people may have expected me to have grown three noses after my diagnosis but nonetheless, I had many comments on how well I looked including one friend who'd said she'd spotted I'd been looking tired (oh the shame) but she'd put it down to us all getting older. Pah! Forget anti-wrinkle cream, my advice for serious, and not so serious reasons, is that if you're skimping on the zzz, get thee to bed!

Remember when I said that I was a bit of a lightweight when it came to alcohol? Unfortunately, women drinking any more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day put themselves at a slightly higher risk of developing breast and other cancers. For men the safe limit is 3-4 units. Click for more info. That's fine, I thought, no need to make any changes there. But then I looked into what a unit really is and realised that 2-3 units per day is actually more like one standard drink a day. I didn't drink every night of the week, nor did I binge drink before, but I did regularly drink more than one glass of alcohol in one sitting. Now I don't drink more than seven units a week and it's been surprisingly easy to make the shift.

No longer do my husband and I crack open a bottle of wine during the week - it would last us a couple of nights, like I say, we're not talking your classic high risk here - unless we have someone round to supper. If we go out at the weekend, I'll have a glass of wine. It's all I need. I just like that first taste, like the first chocolate; always the best and downhill from there. I like the fact that I can join in a toast for someone's birthday, have a splash of wine in the sun, a glass of red with a Sunday roast, but I also like the fact that I don't wake up next morning with the horrendous sinking feeling that I might have increased my risk of breast cancer.

That said, all the advice I've read and been given in hospital is that these are lifetime choices. Break the rules now and again and the result will not be automatic cancer. Nor will all heavy and even light drinkers get breast cancer. Remember, cancerous cells are the result of a perfect storm; a multitude of ongoing factors, only some of which we can influence.

Please don’t have nightmares! And, as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday 12 June 2014

A Plotting Pantser's Writing Process

I'm very happy to have been tagged in a blog hop, haven't done one of these for a while, and this one is called my Writing Process. 

Thankfully it isn't focusing on how I get the words on the page which amounts to little more than managing to sit down in front of the pc or one of my notebooks (you know how I love my notebooks) with the intention of writing or editing a story. Of course there are a few obstacles on route to my desk. I have a need to see the bottom of the ironing basket and to have hung out the washing because I-did-say-I-needed-my-netball-kit-tonight. And I can't really settle until I've cleaned the kitchen because it doesn't clean itself, I said, it doesn't… oh never mind. Once through my study door, I then have to negotiate the tricky writing buffer which is THE emails, in their belief that I need to hire a car every day since my holiday three years ago and have the time, inclination and finances to create three personalised photo albums and a bonus calendar on a daily basis. Then they kindly alert me to the revelation that I may have had an accident at work ten years ago which could pay me £6,000 - unlikely as I haven't worked in an office for over fifteen years and don't see a great deal of mileage in suing myself. I suppose I could have had a dreadfully debilitating accident whilst teaching but suspect that if such an event had come to pass, the mortification of humiliating myself in front of a class full of writers who would then weave the indignity into a prize-winning story would have stayed with me and thankfully, save for the odd tongue twister moment, I have no recollection of that.

The blog hop batten was passed to me by the lovely, gracious, witty and generally uber talented Lesley Richardson, copywriter extraordinaire, who is so close to getting her novel published I can almost hear the champagne fizzing from her hometown in Ireland. You can see some of Lesley's writing here. We swap 'near miss' publishing stories on a regular basis as well as tales of hair woes (the eternal frizz combat) and hair highs (life-changing frizz-taming products) which only fellow curly haired people will really understand. Yes, I know I can't really count myself in the curly haired camp at the moment, jumped, as I have, to the 'other side', but in my head, I'll always be a curly haired girl, I just haven't got the panache to be anything else.

So, now I need to answer four questions and then I get to pass the baton on myself.

What are you working on?
I was writing a third novel, The Deadline, which is a story of a girl born to a Nazi officer and growing up in Britain but instead, find myself involved with two previously written novels at the moment.  

The first is, Misguidance, a story I wrote fifteen years ago and was embarrassed to allow back into my consciousness, such was the utter drivel I remembered the 100,000 words to be. However, happening upon it whilst dusting off the rusting filing cabinet in the inner bowels of my pc to make room for my teenagers' photography habit, what I found surprised me. As expected the style was awful – contrived, first person narration for a story which quite clearly needed some third person distance. But I did, and here's the surprising bit, enjoy the story. More than enjoy it, I couldn't stop reading.

So, after submitting my second novel, Glass Houses, following one of its re-writes, I marched off into Misguidance, moving it from first to third person and bringing it up to date – my twenty year old had to stop using the land line - oh and I ditched three characters and created another three and made it a dual narrative and well, I may as well have started again.

I was 30,000 words in when I had some great feedback from an agent on Glass Houses. It was feedback on which I knew I had to act or I would never forgive myself. And so Misguidance went back into the drawer – a little happier than when it had first come out.

And so the cycle continues; at the moment I'm back on Glass Houses following suggestions from two agents who've both seen the full manuscript and given very similar feedback – both the good stuff and the could do better, Jackie Buxton…

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Both novels are works of general fiction with strong female characters leading the plot. Where I hope they differ from books in their genre is in the choice of hero – I like to choose unlikely ones. In Glass Houses, Tori, the main character, has committed what people consider to be a heinous crime. Her 'mistake' allegedly caused an accident which killed three people and killed many more. It would be easy to despise Tori, indeed, she doesn't always help herself, but I'd like the reader to think that there for the grace of god go you or I.

Similarly in Misguidance, its main character, Evelyn, appears to have caused misery and destruction where ever she's lived, so much so that there is one solitary well-wisher at her funeral. But when her guilt-ridden neighbour looks further into Evelyn's past she sees a pattern and manages to persuade the motley crew which make up Evelyn's past to view Evelyn, and themselves, a little differently.

I suppose I want you to like the bad guy.

Why do you write what you do?
I wish I knew! I seem to feel compelled to write about personal disasters and yet I am quite a happy little soul really. I revel in hearing stories where people triumph out of adversity and personally plump for books where characters achieve happiness against the odds. Perhaps my writing is fuelled by that.

I'm also constantly amused and bemused by the eccentricity of the human species. We all say that people make mistakes, for example, that none of us is perfect and yet, friends, family members, colleagues, neighbours, you name it, can fall out for years, forever even, as the result of an impetuous comment, a single irrational action or some badly timed honesty. In other words: a mistake. It's so easy to shatter what we've worked towards and once broken, it can't be re-built to look the same as it did before. This fragility in what we hold dear is a concept which fascinates me and has certainly leaked into both my novel plots so far.

How does your Writing process work?
Scrivener - highly recommended
In the line which runs between the writing process of (flying by the seat of their) pantsers and the plotters of the writing world, I am squarely in the middle. There's nothing I enjoy more than sitting down at the pc or with my notebook and bashing out the next 10,000 words of the plot which I didn't know existed until my characters pulled them from my brain and poured them thorough my fingers onto the page. However I have to do some work before I can get to that stage. Usually when I'm not at my desk, and most often when I'm running, driving or even cleaning (much as I despise it), I'll bash out an idea in my head. But if I can't clearly see the reason for writing the story, at least one of the characters who will make my story happen and how the story's going to end, then I won't even put pen to paper. Like a plotter, I have to have this scaffolding before I can start. After that my writing process is the anteater's tongue; a sort of tether rolled out to its full extent on page one and then quickly rolled in pulling the story with it along a clear trajectory to the ending. How the characters choose to dance on the tongue, well that's up to them.

Other than that? I use lots of cups of tea, way too many print outs to be good for the environment, the wonderful Scrivener software so that I have all my ideas and chapters on the computer rather than covering the floors of a study, bedroom and landing. I also use different locations. In different places I spot howlers and see beyond blocks which had made my writing stall. I suppose some may see this as an excuse to visit an array of different coffee shops. I couldn’t possibly comment.

So, what have you allowed to fester in a drawer for years, writing or otherwise, and been pleasantly surprised when it's reappeared? Please share!

Now for my own two tags in the Writing Process Blog Hop.

First up is Annalisa Crawford  whose wonderful blog I'd describe as 'soulful humour' - although at the moment it's all just very exciting over there as she has a new book out, a collection of short stories called, Our Beautiful Child. And thank you, Annalisa, for always finding time to leave a comment on my blog, bless you :)

My second choice is Jane Alexander who writes thought-provoking, often quirky, tales of her observations and findings as she travels around England and further afield in the search for better health (physically and spiritually). Catch Jane's blog here.

Monday 9 June 2014

Tutu's ready? And we're off!

Ready to start. Tutu? Essential.
After 240 minutes on a bike (nought point no miles travelled) and with four bottles of energy drink, four litres of water, two jelly babies, five Nutella sandwiches and a handful of cashew nuts behind me, I'd like to offer you all a very big and sweaty hug for sponsoring me to do the four hour Spinathon in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care. 

It was a great way to spend a morning, even if I did scowl a little at seeing 6am on a Saturday. Wonderful pedalling camaraderie and mad teachers made it fantastic fun and the promised chocolate cake and Bucks Fizz at the end gave us truly professional athletes that final kick of motivation to keep us going.

The organisers at The Hydro Leisure Centre had hoped that the 20 of us who took part in Saturday's Spinathon might raise a good £500. The latest total is in excess of £2,700. Thank you so much to all of you who responded to my blog and took the time to visit the Justgiving website with your wallets open. I was overwhelmed and so touched by your support.