Check your boobs, people!

So Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around again: yet another disease awareness campaign during which the women’s mags, weekend supplements, Twitter and Facebook feeds will be full of pink ribbons, real-life stories, tips for examining yourself and reminders of the importance of a Healthy Lifestyle. If you, or people you love, haven’t had a brush with cancer, it’s pretty easy to skip over those pages. I know I used to: those features and posts just didn’t seem relevant because young women don’t get breast cancer, right? And anyway, it’s too scary. And maybe even a bit too much information. And then, ironically, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer actually during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, four years ago. I’ve always had immaculate timing. breast_cancer_care_checklist_0

Funnily enough (not funny, obviously, but I’ve always needed to laugh blackly about this stuff – the alternative is dissolving into a soggy pile of woe, which is not really my style), the week I was diagnosed I had, in fact, just read one of those ‘real life experiences’ about a young woman with breast cancer in Grazia, about which I wrote a couple of years ago. I was 37 years old, with a four-year-old daughter who had just started school, and a two-year-old son. That month, everything changed.

Four years on from that surreal whirlwind – from discovery of lump to oncology department in a matter of days – Breast Cancer Awareness Month resonates rather more. But it’s complicated. I sort of glance at the features and the information sideways. I still can’t look at them head on. Even having gone through it – or perhaps because – it’s possible to have ‘cancer fatigue’. And it’s just too close to home – I have my Year 4 mammogram at the end of this month, won’t be officially in remission for another year, and my consultant is now making noises about me being a candidate for the new 10-year protocol of taking the crazy-making Tamoxifen instead of the standard five years. And even when I’ve got through all of that without so much as another twinge, cancer haunts.

People I know who are well past the five years, even ten, 15 years after diagnosis, still say they are not ‘over’ it. That it never really leaves you, having had cancer. That every year around the anniversary of diagnosis, even if it was decades ago, they still have a frisson of fear. The memory of that utterly life-changing, bowel-liquidising moment when they say ‘chemotherapy’ to you for the first time is too powerful to ever fade completely.

And then, inevitably, giving rising rates of all cancers, someone else you know is diagnosed and starts going through the exact same treatment pathway as you, and it brings it all back again. This happened recently to me – an old colleague posted her shocking news on Facebook and it knocked me sideways with nausea. She is handling the treatment with humour, eloquence, stoicism and immense calm, which I much admire. She says my blog posts when I went through it were inspiring, which is very kind, but I think it’s more that the human spirit is quite remarkable. Many, many people who have complete breakdowns at stuff like lost luggage or being hit up the arse by a man in a white van will end up dealing much better with a genuine, life-threatening crisis.

Nevertheless, reading her upbeat updates on her treatment was, I think, the reason why I found myself sobbing in the car park at Surrey Sports Park a couple of weeks ago. I was due to meet my best friend for a swim after dropping the children at school, and just as I parked the car, a propos of bugger all, I had a flashback. During which I was lying topless on the bed in the assessment room at the Royal Surrey County Hospital’s breast unit, with one arm in the air and the consultant taking a biopsy of the lymph lump under my armpit. On the computer, there was the mammogram of my right breast, the terrifying, obviously-not-good-news white mass of tumours shining out of the screen. It was a split-second memory, but it was very, very vivid, and I just burst into tears and sat in the car crying by myself, thinking ‘I am not in any way over this. I have not really dealt with the utter nightmare of what happened, and I am really scared of it happening again’.

It’s over (probably forever), but it’s not ever going be be over, at the exact same time. You forget, and then you remember, and it’s like being winded all over again.

I love autumn. It’s my absolute favourite season. I love the colours and the leaves and the conkers and the low sun, and the return of my preferred uniform of opaque tights, short skirts and long boots. I love the ‘return to school’ feeling, the hard-wired desire to buy new stationery, the urge to make the home organised and cosy in preparation for winter nesting. I love the start of ‘roastie season’, where every Sunday involves friends, family, red wine, open fires, a sizzling joint (the meaty kind, obvs) and all the trimmings. But on top of that, autumn has become my most fearful season, and October is now the weirdest month. There are so many layers of reminders: every year it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, every year I am getting jittery as my annual mammogram approaches, every year I remember all over again those dates: the 6th, when I went to the doctor to report The Lumps; and the 13th, when I had the first mammogram and was immediately diagnosed. (October 6th is also the day we moved into our silver lining house three years ago, even more weirdly).

There is, though, the lightness and exhalation when the good news comes back from the radiography department: all-clear, I can relax and start planning Christmas. And the bigger picture stuff: I am so, so blessed. I had the most amazing treatment, from my incredible surgeon to my risk-taking oncologist and the lovely radiotherapy team. I am still well looked after, and in very good hands, and if I have any worries at all, I know I will be seen within days. I can tick off another year and am almost there, almost signed off! And then we can open the vintage Dom Perignon I have squirrelled away!

And, of course, I am still here, and well, and life is to be lived and enjoyed. I’m still around to see my babies grow up into wonderful, kind, funny, clever, dazzling young people and to hug them endlessly. Still here to laugh and cry and eat and drink and dance with my husband and my friends and my family, all of whom are so special and lovely and generally awesome, I must be the luckiest girl alive.

None of which would have been possible if I hadn’t known, via my flicking through all the features in women’s magazines over the years, what to look for, how to examine myself, and the importance of reporting anything that ‘just doesn’t seem right’ as soon as possible. Most breast lumps and bumps and pain are benign, and your mind will have been put at rest. If that’s not the case, and Stuff Needs Sorting Out, you’ll be whisked through our amazing healthcare system and have the best chance of effective treatment. So do give Breast Cancer Awareness Month a tiny bit of attention this October. It might just save your life.



A bit of a trial

One of the most fortunate aspects of being diagnosed with breast cancer in October last year was being one of the last people in the UK to be eligible to take part in a trial of a new chemotherapy drug.

This was the sister drug to Herceptin, which is used in hormone-dependent (or HER2 positive) breast cancer to stop HER2 protein receptors on the surface of the cancer cells picking up too many ‘Grow, you buggers!’ signals. The new drug, codename pertuzumab, works alongside Herceptin to separate these same rogue receptors to reduce the strength of the signal they are receiving. It’s being developed by Roche, and I was on phase III of the trial. The earlier phases had shown excellent results in older women with metastatised (secondary) breast cancer, and this phase was to see whether the outlook was as good for younger women with advanced primary breast cancer, like me.

And, as you may recall, the results have proved to be amazing. All three tumours in my breast and lymph disappeared within a couple of arduous sessions, with the two hormone treatments followed with the traditional chemotherapy drugs carboplatin and docetaxel. So far, so good. High five me, high five Roche. The trial also meant I had my wonderful, dedicated research nurse Celia to look after me, co-ordinate all my treatments and appointments and scans and tests. Because when you’re on a trial, you see a lot more of your consultant, and have a lot more scans and other checks, than you would otherwise.

At the start of that long journey into the unknown, this was hugely reassuring. I kept being told that people on drugs trials generally do a lot better in terms of response and recovery than those who aren’t, and this is probably at least partly down to being so well looked after, and being kept a very close eye on. It’s practically like going private on the NHS. I feel very lucky and hugely privileged to have benefited from a drug that won’t hit the market for years and will almost certainly be as controversial as Herceptin was in terms of its cost to the NHS, and might not even get approved by NICE.

The Herceptin lasts a year, so keeps going (albeit with no side effects) for another six months after you’ve finished what everyone thinks of as the real chemo. And it’s bloody expensive: I have to call the pharmacy the day before my three-weekly appointments to confirm I am fit and well enough to have it because each little drip bag costs £1,500 (yup, you read right) and once made up to order for each patient, only has a shelf life of 24 hours. Once my 17 Herceptin cycles are over on 1 December (second to last one this Thursday!), that drug alone will have cost the NHS £25,500. And that’s not including the new drug, the other two chemo drugs, all the scans and tests, the medication to offset the side effects of the chemo, the surgery, the radiotherapy, five years of tamoxifen, or my unscheduled week in hospital after my first chemo when my immune system went awol.

So why I am bringing up the trial now, as I approach the end of the invasive aspects of the cancer treatment? Well, as well as all the general fabulousness of being on a trial, there are also significant downsides. You all know I’ve never defined myself as a ‘cancer sufferer’ or a ‘cancer victim’ or a ‘cancer survivor’. Some people find cancer is a springboard to getting really involved with the disease, fundraising and raising awareness and generally ensuring that their experience leads to some good. But, like Jennifer Saunders as interviewed in this week’s Sunday Times Style magazine, that’s not really something I’ve ever had any interest in. I did the Pink Ribbon Walk to raise loads of dosh for the admirable work of Breast Cancer Care, but to be honest, I’m more into taking cancer on the chin as a really important life lesson, and then moving onwards and upwards. For me, my cancer journey is coming to an end, fizzling out, and then it will be over, behind me, and I can just forget about it, while continuing to work on my physical, emotional and spritual health to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

But being on a drugs trial means that it’s very difficult to maintain that stance. There’s just so much hospital contact. And over the summer, after I finished my radiotherapy, I had started thinking that I might opt out of the trial at the end of this year, just to get my life back a bit quicker. I didn’t really want to be seeing my consultant every three weeks during the Herceptin and then every 12 weeks for the whole of next year.

As it is, I’ve had to rearrange almost every appointment to fit around the children and work, neither of which has been taken into account by anyone on my medical team at any time. There’s only so much logistics and childcare I want to arrange for an appointment that is essentially a box-ticking exercise for a pharma company rather than being of any further benefit for my health. My suggestion for the research teams who identify and recruit candidates for drugs trials is that they really need to make it work around people’s lives so they can easily stick with the regime, rather than making it so stressful and time-consuming.

I’ve had roughly double the normal number of MUGA radioactive heart scans as you would normally have, for instance, to the extent that one of the nuclear medicine team said he had flagged up that I was having far too many for a woman of my age and exceptionally good heart health (Herceptin can damage heart function; no-one’s really sure what the two drugs together do). The last straw for me was on one morning in September when I was due to have yet another MUGA.

The nuclear department was running late, as per; so late that I had to flag up that I needed to collect DS from nursery in an hour. The scan requires two injections, 40 minutes apart, and then the scan itself is about half an hour, plus sundry haning around, so they need to do the first injection about 1.5 hours before it’s finished. They shrugged it off, said they couldn’t speed anything up, and so I left. Well, stormed out ranting, tbh. I was furious. I’d taken the morning off work to have an unnecessary, invasive, radioactive procedure and no-one had any interest in making sure it happened even vaguely on time. I stomped up to Celia’s office and ‘downloaded’, and told her I was opting out of the trial and would certainly not be having any more MUGAs. She was really lovely, and quite upset on my behalf, and sorted everything out so the rest of my treatment would proceed as it would if I was not on a trial. They still need to keep an eye on my heart, but I can even have a quick, non-invasive echocardiogram instead.

I felt instant relief, even more so when at my next consultant appointment, I was told I didn’t have to see Dr Houston for another three months. And even more ‘caancer has been well and truly f*cked’ news was to come in mid October, when I had my one year mammogram, with some trepidation (I’ll have one a year for the next five years). It was extraordinary, tear-promptingly painful, especially as the scars on my right breast were squished, and I was told at the time I’d have to wait three weeks for the results, but the all clear came in the post two days later. Huge sigh of relief all round. Another milestone passed.

If you are ever in the double-edged sword of a position where you are given the chance to take part in a drugs trial, I would still wholeheartedly recommend it, especially if it’s phase II or III. This isn’t guinea pig stuff: it can really improve your outcomes. But don’t be afraid to do it on your terms. Don’t think you have to accept every appointment you are given, or every scan. Establish a good relationship with your research nurse and use them to arrange everything and make your life easier. When it stops feeling like it’s about you and your health, you are at liberty to opt out. Taking part in testing a new bit of science is usually a good thing, not only for the patients involved but people with the same condition in the future. But always remember: it’s your body, and your treatment, and it’s important that you always feel in control of that, especially when you’ve been blindsided by something as potentially power-leaching as a cancer diagnosis.

Tattoos and time out

I have my first tattoos. Can you guess? Nope, not the names of my DH or my children, or a rose, a cherub, or Chinese script that I think says Peace but probably says Arse. My tattoos are two tiny black dots either side of the New Boob, to make sure I’m being nuked in the right place when radiotherapy starts next month. I did ask, on DH’s request, if they could do them in the shape of a dolphin, but apparently the NHS doesn’t do that sort of thing.

The tatts were done during yesterday’s planning appointment for the radiotherapy, which also involved being drawn on again, like my breasts are some kind of doodle pad for bored consultants. Then I had to lie in a rather uncomfortable position with my right arm over my head, holding onto a pole (in other circs, this might sound titillating, but I assure you there’s nothing remotely Bada Bing-like about a CT scanning room). I then had to lie perfectly still while the scanner took pretty pictures.

I do not have this sort of thing. Even spelled right...

This phase of my treatment will start on Monday 4 July, immediately after we get back from hols. I’ll be at the hospital every weekday for four weeks, so all of the month, basically, including the first week of the summer holidays. The appointments only take ten minutes, so it probably takes longer to find a space in the carpark. Side effects I’ve been warned about include fatigue (as much from the to-ing and fro-ing as the radiation), and sore, red skin like sunburn. Apparently I need to get myself an aloe vera plant and rub the fresh juice from the fleshy leaves directly onto the skin. I can’t use anything perfumed on the area for the whole time and a few weeks afterwards.  For the first three weeks, the radiation will be to the whole breast, and the last week is a different sort of thing just where the tumours were. Just to make sure every last cancer cell is dead.

I met a lovely lady at my mother-in-law’s Team Pinchy coffee morning a couple of weeks ago who had made an excellent recovery from breast cancer 15 years ago, only to have it recur in the scar eight years later. They didn’t use radiotherapy as standard belt-and-braces treatment in those days, and she reckons her recurrence was entirely preventable. Speaking to people with those sorts of experiences really helps to process the importance of the treatment, and reminds me that it’s a bit more than just a huge inconvenience.

In another ‘gosh, I never thought I’d own one of those’ moment to match the purchase of the wig, yesterday I also collected my silicone prosthesis to slip into my post-surgery bra and swimming costume. It looks and feels like a chicken fillet. It’s very soft and comfortable, looks brilliant, and the children are fascinated by it. Both of them gave it a try on their own chests. DD said tonight it’s my ‘dressing up booby’, which made me guffaw.

I had yet another appointment at the hospital yesterday, to see my consultant before today’s Herceptin drip (which was fine, thank you – took ages again as lots of hanging round in waiting rooms with a startling number of people, including one delightful woman who was sounding off loudly about mobile phones (I think she meant me tapping away on my Blackberry) and ‘queers’). Anyway, I was actually honoured with an audience with Dr Houston himself for the first time in months, rather than one of his registrars. He spent quite a lot of time talking about golf (DH has seen more of him than me in recent months) before reluctantly turning to the subject in hand. Eye Eee, my intolerance of the Tamoxifen.

My lovely breast care nurse, she of the sympathetic tilt of the head, had received a rather tearful call from me on Tuesday. I’d gradually been feeling more and more unhinged over recent weeks, culminating in a couple of days at the end of last week where I really think I would have got off a murder charge. I was swinging between sudden rage, real seeing-red anger (including terrifying the children by roaring and throwing a lunchbox. I know, awful), and being in floods of tears (thank you to all those who let me cry on their shoulder last week). In between times I was feeling flat – edging towards depressed, actually – and sort of muzzy-headed. I felt out of control, scarily so, and on Friday night I skipped the pill because I wanted to be on form for the Pink Ribbon Walk. Lo and behold, I felt more or less normal all day. By Sunday night/Monday morning, we were back to mood swing central, so I stopped taking the pills and put in my emergency call.

I was bracing myself for some sort of battle with the good doctor, but he was brilliant. Clearly this is not a put up and shut up situation after all. He told me to take a nine week drug holiday, keep a mood and hot flush diary, and then have some blood tests to ascertain my menopausal status. He says it may well be a combination of a ‘major life event’, a chemo-induced menopause (thanks GOD I have my babies already, I can’t imagine how painful this is for younger women who haven’t had children yet), and the Tamoxifen. If it is the Tamoxifen, he can prescribe yet another drug to take with it, a new generation anti-depressant that will even my moods out and also help with the hot flushes. Not keen on all these pharmas, I have to say. We shall see. In the meantime, since stopping taking the meds, I feel absolutely fine, which is marvellous.

And I also made a huge decision this week. After a momentous coaching call with Amanda Alexander, who yet again teased out what is actually going on below the Pinchy bullshit, I cancelled the work I had lined up for July. I felt terrible about this, because I have never let a client down before, but I’m going to be sensible for once. For the first time since I was diagnosed, I’m going to stop work during treatment. This is a Big Deal – I really hung onto work as ‘normal’ during my chemo and very soon after surgery. I was even editing stuff for clients on the chemo ward. But you know what? I’m tired now, and I need a break, and if I try and fit work in on top of the radiotherapy, I am going to get in a pickle.

Double tah-dahhh: I’m also officially having August off for DD’s first summer holiday. She’s in a play scheme for one week and is spending three separate days on a ‘daughter swap’ with my lovely friend E so both of us have some time to get on with stuff while our littlest ones are at nursery. So rather than cramming in work during these precious hours, I will, for the first time I can remember in my life as a mummy, have some free days to do WHATEVER I WANT. I didn’t even have maternity leave with either of the kiddies, really, as I just carried on writing during naptimes, rather foolishly.

I am tremendously proud of myself. It feels utterly liberating. Sheer relief. I have a bit of work to finish before the holiday, but then I can properly relax, knowing that when I come back all I have to concentrate on is getting through the treatment, and enjoying the children, rather than stressing about juggling work as well. Sometimes, you have to accept that it’s OK to drop a ball, you know.

So it’s been a  week of firsts that the cast of The Only Way is Essex would be proud of: tatts, fake tits and time off any real work. Now where’s that St Tropez so I can get my face the right shade of orange?

Team Pinchy did it!

We did it! I am still smiling. Yesterday was such an amazing day. Team Pinchy did the 10 mile Pink Ribbon Walk at Petworth House in Sussex, and has so far raised more than £2,700 for Breast Cancer Care.

Team Pinchy at the finish!

The day started well: DH let me have a lie in, and woke me with a cuppy tea and a good luck card, before making me a properly good fry up. (I might hang onto him…) Then at 11am, me, my mummy, my sister, and my beautiful friends S, N and B met in the marquee, all in our pink t-shirts with our numbers pinned to the front, all nervously excited.

Mummy had made us all bracelets from pink beads, and B very kindly surprised us all with a Champney’s voucher for a pedicure for our soon-to-be-battered feet. My lovely Pops had volunteered to be a marshal, so he was there too, and dished out lovingly-created bags of all day breakfast with sausages, boiled eggs, biscuits, and even little packets of salt, pepper and his usual ‘parsley garnish’.

After a welcome from the event organisers, the editor of sponsor Woman & Home magazine, and celebrity supporter Andrea McLean (her off of Loose Women, accompanied by her mad dog, also in a pink t-shirt), we had a bit of a warm-up led by Green Goddess Diana Moran. And then at midday, we were off! There were 800 people walking yesterday, and as the line of pink t-shirts stretched ahead of us on the Downs (we started at the back), I felt quite overwhelmed by the scale and significance of the event.

The South Downs are without doubt one of the most beautiful bits of the country, and the views as we trekked up and down the hills were stunning, with a dream cottage round every corner. The weather was perfect – white clouds scudding across blue skies. The sun came out long enough to cheer us, and the clouds kept us cool enough. We walked in pairs, rather than all together, being of differing heights and ages, and caught up with each other at rest/water/wee/lunch stops along the route.

My mummy, sis and Pops

At mile 5, mummy jettisoned her 20 year old trainers, which had inevitably fallen apart almost instantly, and did the second half of the walk in flip flops. At mile 7, some Enid Blyton-style enterprising children were selling homemade lemonade by the side of track, with 50% of profits going to the charity. I found mile 7-8 the toughest, including lots of very steep, narrow tracks through muddy woods, with burning thighs. (Obviously none of us had done any proper training…)

At the top of the final hill we saw Petworth House come into view again, and felt elated as we did the last achy mile. As we approached the finish line, I saw some little figures running through the grass, and realised it was DD, DS, and my gorgeous nephew. I got a bit wobbly at that point, as they raced towards us, and I walked the last 100 yards holding hands with my babies. Just before the finish, DH and my lovely brother-in-law met us with glasses of pink champagne – such a fab, thoughtful gesture. (It has to be said that the dads all did a stirling job being On Duty all day yesterday, including taking our respective smalls to parties, sorting out meals, naps, and clothing, dealing with little accidents, and generally keeping the children alive).

My best girls

We all tied our pink ribbons to the finish line, and Team Pinchy crossed it together, arm in arm, and all in tears. It was an extremely emotional moment: I’m actually sobbing again as I write this. We’d carried our ribbons throughout the walk, with personal messages written on them. I dedicated mine to Team Pinchy and all the mummies who go through breast cancer. All the messages were so touching (although S was concerned that her lovely dedication sounded a bit final, like I’d actually died).

We’d done it in just over four hours. I remember cheers, and photographers, and feeling we’d really achieved something. We hugged, cried, rested, drank, and watched the kiddies, including B’s daughter, dancing on the stage to Madonna and Queen. Then we all went our separate ways, elated and emotional. We headed back to my sister’s house for a well-deserved takeaway (my mum’s legs had completely seized up by this point, bless her), and drove home with sleeping children, before sleeping for a full, uninterrupted eight hours for the first time in months.

I woke this morning still on a real high. Because although, as S’s DH pointed out, we’d only walked a couple of times round a golf course, it was a Big Thing. When we registered in February, I had two chemos and surgery to go, and the walk felt like a very long way away, in all ways. And then the day was upon us, and I was with some of the people I love best in the world, who have always been there and who have supported me so brilliantly since I was diagnosed.

It was a strange feeling, being the one who they were walking for. Every so often, it hits me that I have had breast cancer, and it’s a shock all over again, like being winded. But at the same time as forcing me to acknowledge what I’ve been through, the day felt like a real marker in the sand. A line drawn very firmly under the worst of the treatment. A celebration that we have all got through it, together. A very firm two fingers up to caaancer. I felt strong, and so alive. And so very, very honoured, proud, and humbled to have been joined on the walk by five wonderful women.

Breast Cancer Care exists so no-one – women, men, partners, friends and family – has to go through breast cancer alone, and Team Pinchy embodied those values to perfection yesterday. So thank you – everyone who was there, all the virtual members of my team, everyone who sent messages, and everyone who donated so generously. On paper, it may only have been the equivalent of a corporate golf jolly, but in practice, it was one of the most memorable days of my life. Go Team Pinchy, blisters and all! Whoop whoop!

What it’s been like being my mum: a guest post

I asked my amazing mummy if she would write a guest post for me. So here, in her own words, unedited and unabridged, is what it’s been like as a mother and grandmother having a daughter with breast cancer. ***WARNING: KLEENEX REQUIRED!***

‘A crisp, cold November morning last year.  My darling daughter and I left her house at 7.30 am to drive to the hospital for her first chemo.  I sat in the passenger seat, experiencing an emotion that was somehow familiar.  It was the same feeling that I had as my darling husband drove me to the hospital for her birth to be induced 37years before.  Abject fear, knowing it had to be got through, that I had to deal with it as bravely as I could, that I didn’t want my DD to see that fear.

Dear M, a friend who had been through chemo the year before, helped me to prepare; I needed to know what to expect.  I knew that I would still be unprepared – the strangest scenario, taking my own daughter, still a young woman, for treatment more usually associated with women of my own age.  But I was glad it was me going with her the first time; it seemed right for both of us.  Other than the day she received the diagnosis, when there were many tears, she had (at least when she had been with her Pops and me) been focused, enquiring, and determined that she was going to get through this.  The last thing she needed was a mess of a mother on that day of all days.

We settled into a routine, of sorts, every three weeks.  Chemo on Friday, me and DH staying the night, bringing our darling grandchildren back with us the next day, other Grandma taking them back on Monday and staying the night, DD gradually getting back to something like normal by Tuesday afternoon.  For the last two sessions DD and her family came to us after the chemo so that they could all be together.  Much better for us all, although hard for me and DH to see DD on days 3 and 4 after the chemo, when she was so weak and nauseous.  Harder still for her.  But she greeted her children with a smile every time they went into the bedroom to see her, gave them a hug, read to them and was in every way simply incredible.

 And I wasn’t alone.  DD’s Pops, my own DH, has been with me practically and emotionally throughout.  He cooked, shopped, ironed (so much ironing with two small children!), played with the kiddies, cried with our son-in-law over a drink or three when DD soaked in the bath after chemo.  Me trying to hug both of these big men at once, tears streaming down all of our cheeks.  Smiling when DD came down after her bath.

And I had my other DD – the only person in the world who was going through exactly what my DH and I were going through.  She had a very new baby and a toddler when Pinchy was diagnosed but she was steadfast and strong, so loving and caring, always checking that DH and I were OK, never noticing (although I did, a lot) that I could not spend the time I would have done with her and her babies if things had been different.  I simply don’t know what I would have done without her.

A friend’s daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before DD, with surgery followed by chemo.  The daughter tried to protect her mother by not telling her much, not seeing her much. It didn’t work.  I am more grateful than I can say for DD’s blog, for her being able to articulate so well, and in writing, exactly what was happening not just with treatment but with her own emotions.  The blog helped me to absorb and fix these new clinical and medical words in my memory.  That is so important when you need to support someone going through lengthy and complex treatment.

I have wonderful friends and colleagues (and a very special mum of my own) who understood that sometimes I was running on empty and needed time out, and who cheered me up when I was just so tired of feeling sad all the time. 

But I end this guest blog on a happy note.  DD looks beautiful, amazing.  She kept most of her glorious hair thanks to the cold cap.  The baldy patch on the crown is now covered with new hair and not noticeable at all.  She gets tired, still has radiotherapy to go through (although M says it’s a walk in the park after chemo, so fingers crossed) and more Herceptin and the dreaded Tamoxifen for 5 years (menopause symptoms – been there, but as DD says, 37 is way too young for night sweats and hot flushes).  And balancing surgery in November so she has two matching breasts (although her Pops says no-one should be looking THAT closely!) 

But she’s OK – she has had the very best care from brilliant clinicians and a topnotch surgeon, and from her clinical trial nurse, Celia.  I know from M and J (another friend who has been through chemo) how precious it is to have the same person looking after you in a cash-strapped NHS where it is normal to see a different chemo nurse every time who may or may not have been able to find your file.  I know that DD has been lucky (well, she could have been luckier!) in being in the right place at the right time when she was diagnosed.

This weekend I will be walking with both of my darling daughters for Breast Cancer Care.  DH is volunteering as a marshal.  We are all looking forward to a great day out for a good cause.  Just a few short months ago I could not have imagined such relative normality.  I have stopped holding my breath.’

A fabulously normal half term

The first day back after a school holiday is a funny thing. I don’t know about you but today I feel a curious mixture of relief that we are back into our routine and I can get back to the relative calm and quiet of the office for some adult head space, and regret that the fun is over and we are back to getting out of the house by 8am to do the nursery and school run.

We had a packed week. It started, happily, with me and DH having a night away in Bristol to let our hair down and be by ourselves for the first since I was diagnosed (not counting me recovering from chemo or surgery). Actually, we hadn’t had a night away since our 10th wedding anniversary last August, where my lovely parents took pity on our impoverished state at the time and booked us a very romantic night at Howard’s House in Wiltshire. This time, we stayed at the Bristol Hotel on the waterfront and retraced my old uni haunts, including lunch at Brown’s, where I had my graduation lunch. We saw a Banksy, and had some retail therapy (I am now totally down with the kids in my lime green Hollister t-shirt, although I was stunned that the shop was dark and I kept tripping over whippet-thin 13-year-olds in denim hotpants who were probably wondering what a sad middle aged woman was doing squinting in their midst).

We then had a very boozy dinner at Graze, a brasserie run by Bath Ales (River Exe clams, local lamb, pork belly, that sort of thing, with rather better wine than student days). And all weekend, we talked and talked and talked. We had long, honest, tearful conversations about what the past eight months have been like for us both and how we are feeling now and about the future. It was a very important 24hrs, much needed, and lovely to know we could relax with the children having fun with their grandparents.

Then, it was over to the kids. On Monday, we were at a rather brilliant birthday party for one of DD’s best friends, during which a ‘fairy ballerina’ kept 22 small girls and two boys entirely mesmerised with games and stuff for two hours. That’s some talent. Even DS was doing ‘ballet toes’ in his Spiderman outfit by the end. The mums loved her because it made the party almost effortless, and the dads just loved her.

On Wednesday, I took DD and DS to Peppa Pig World at Paulton’s Park near Southampton, where we met their cousin, auntie and grandma. It was pricey – a flat rate of £19.50 each if you book online, for everyone over 1m tall (luckily DS is still only 96cm…) – but worth it. The theming of the park is just perfect – the colours, the look and feel, the subtle use of the show’s music were all spot on – and the smalls loved it. Some of the queues were a bit tedious, but the seven main rides were lovely and all intended for adults to go on with younger children. Plus there was an outdoor play area and indoor soft play. DD was an enchanted angel, and DS only had four minor melt-downs during the day, which wasn’t bad for a two year old without a buggy in his first theme park, for more than five hours. I wouldn’t go in the school holidays unless you had no choice, but I thoroughly recommend it.

On Thursday, me and DD dispatched DS to nursery and headed up to London on the train. We went on the carousel on the South Bank, as always, then walked over the bridge to visit grandma’s office at the College of Optometrists , a beautiful four-storey building in Craven Street. DD was a little in awe of seeing my mummy being the boss, but asked for a tour, and was introduced to all the staff, many of whom have been extremely generous in donating to Team Pinchy’s Pink Ribbon Walk this Saturday. Then the three of us went to a little Italian place in Villiers Street before me and DD headed home.

On Friday, it was time for another day out down the M3, for my  wonderful mother-in-law’s coffee morning to raise more funds for Breast Cancer Care. She had rallied all her friends and former nursing colleagues, and during a lovely morning of homemade cakes in the sunshine, she managed to raise an astonishing £315. I’ve just checked our totaliser, and am delighted to report that even without this being paid in and other promised donations, we are at exactly £2,000! Whoop whoop! I thought that was a really ambitious target, so I’m chuffed to bits – thanks so much to everyone for being incredibly generous.

On Saturday, DD was invited to her first ‘pamper party’ by a school friend. She is four. Gulp. (And in the same week that the Mothers’ Union launched its campaign against the sexualisation of children). I went along as chaperone, needless to say, especially since the whole idea of little girls being ‘pageanted up’ contradicts what I said last year. It was at a really cool kids’ hair salon in Farnham called Spikes and Curls, where every chair (including some shaped like fire engines and planes for wriggly boys) was in front of a flat screen telly with CBeebies on.

The five girls had their hair curled, French-plaited and glittered. Fine. Then their nails done. OK, I let DD have painted nails for school holidays anyway. Then they were made up. Eeek. (Naturally they all chose pink eyeshadow.) I was quite struck that as the layers of blusher, mascara and lip gloss went on, my beautiful baby girl actually looked less and less pretty. Her giraffe lashes, freckly cheeks and grey-blue eyes just don’t require cover up or diversion. It was scarily close to the general effect of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. The girls loved it, of course, but it made me feel a bit queasy. The brilliant Linda Jones has written a great post, Why Are Our Daughters Growing Up Too Quickly, which struck a real chord with me.

Our last half term hurrah was a trip to the Thames Ditton Miniature Railway, down the road from my sis and her family. We had a marvellous afternoon going round and round on the pimped Hornby trains in the drizzle before the kiddies collapsed into bed, tired and happy. Me and DH finished our busy week with a bottle of red from the brilliant Naked Wines, plus The King’s Speech on box office, equally whacked out and content.

Because do you know what the best thing about this half term was? For the first time since DD started school last year, I felt like a normal, healthy mummy doing normal, fun holiday stuff. She’d barely started school when I was diagnosed, and the half terms, Christmas and Easter holidays since have basically been about me having scans, treatment, and hospital appointments, and recovering from chemo and surgery, rather than having fun with my kiddies.

I can’t say I was Mary Poppins all week and didn’t snap or feel tired, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy stepping into my garden office this morning to the sound of the birds and nothing else. But I can say that I didn’t take a single moment for granted. It really was a precious week, and now I can’t wait to get radiotherapy out of the way (I’m seeing the radiology consultant tomorrow for the first time) so I can enjoy the summer holidays.

My first charity fundraising thing

Gosh, my thighs are still aching. After months of sort of enforced inactivity, I decided it was about time I did some exercise. Not randomly: me, my mum, my sis, and three friends who I met five years ago through NCT when we had our gorgeous girls (aka Team Pinchy) are doing one of the Pink Ribbon Walks this summer to raise cash for Breast Cancer Care.

There’s less than three weeks to go now until our 10 mile walk across the Sussex Downs from Petworth House on 11 June. So on Sunday morning me and my friend S left our respective broods with their jaded daddies (her DH baggy-eyed thanks to an early start from their youngest, my DH from a boys’ boozy lunch in London that lasted 10 hours. When I raised an eyebrow to the wisdom of this plan, he actually quoted my last blog post on fun back at me. Sigh.)

Anyway, we walked four and a bit miles along the river Wey from Guildford to Godalming. It was bliss. Fresh air (at times a little too fresh), sunshine, peace, beautiful views, fabulous company, being close to nature (including the paddling horned cattle that I got all excited about because I thought they were water buffalo. Idiot. I don’t think I will live that one down for a while.) We did it in under an hour and a half, so we should easily do the 10 miles in four hours – the organisers reckon it should take somewhere between three and five hours.

And we are doing brilliantly on the fundraising so far, too. We are required to raise at least £175 each to take part in the run, so our team target was £1,050. I set up a Just Giving page to make it really easy to donate, and as of today we have already raised a fantastic £1,440 – 130% of our target. Whoop whoop, girls, well done!

I’d really like to get to £2,000 (because I like nice round numbers, and because it was the year I got married), so all donations are warmly welcomed! Just go to Thank you!

I’ve never done anything like this before. I always donate to the usual big charity telethons but I’ve never had a personal connection with a cause. I chose to raise money for Breast Cancer Care because the organisation, particularly through its website, has been an invaluable source of information and support since I was diagnosed. And I’m already seriously thinking about doing the charity’s Machu Picchu climb in 2012 or 2013, for which I’ll need to raise £4,000. I’ve always wanted to visit Peru, so that will be a real life goal as well as an amazing shared experience with other women who have been on the same sort of journey as me.

But first things first: don’t try and climb hills at high altitude before you stroll along the Downs etc. Now I just have to keep up the training with plenty of brisk 20 minute strolls and maybe another long walk. This neatly dovetails with my Health Creation goals: fresh air/sunshine/exercise: what’s not to like? Far better than the stinky old gym, where I cancelled my membership last week and felt a large weight of ‘shoulds’ being lifted from my shoulders.

And even though I love food and wine waaaay too much to ‘diet’, I’ve also (whisper it)  joined Weightwatchers to try and shift that final post-baby stone (2lbs off in week one, yay)! I really don’t think it matters what eating plan you sign up to: I’m just finding that tracking everything I eat is making me much more aware of unconscious snacking and portion sizes, and the impact of alcohol on my daily calorie intake (about which: eek!).

Lots of walking will also hopefully mean I feel better in my cossie when we go on holiday at the end of June. My body confidence isn’t exactly high at the moment, what with the lopsided tits and everythin’, so every little helps (At the weekend, DD asked: ‘Mummy, which is your booby that hangs down?’ Out of the mouths of babes…).

One thing that has given me a real boost this week was being included on the Race for Life dedication of someone I haven’t even met. The very lovely Kate Husbands (aka @moomi_mama), a friend of a friend, ran it in 37 minutes (a personal best, I gather) and sent me this picture of her bib.

Now, I bet her thighs are aching more than mine…