Now We Are Forty…

It was my fortieth birthday a couple of weeks ago. FORTY, for fuck’s sake! I am now a 40 year old woman! How on earth did that happen?

Oddly, I wasn’t in the least bit concerned in the run up to the day. No denial, no keeping it quiet, no plans to pretend, like the mum in Judd Apatow’s hilarious movie ‘This Is 40’, that I will remain 39 forever, no telling people not to make a fuss. That’s not my style: I like MAXIMUM fuss to be made of me on my birthday, and always make a fuss of people I love on theirs.  Any excuse for champagne, frankly. No, I embraced it utterly, and planned a big grown-up garden party.

As the Significant Birthday approached, people kept saying things along the lines of: ‘Ooh, the big Four-Oh, how are you feeling about it?!’ and I was then able to spout my ‘Theory of Being a Forty-Year-Old Woman in 2013’. Which goes something like this. There has never, in human history, been a better time to be a woman. There’s still a long way to go – there’s appallingly bad shit and inequality and unfairness and misogyny and sexism still going on around the world to women and girls – but nevertheless. In particular, there has probably never been a better time to be a woman over 40. Or an Actual Grown-Up, as I now think of what used to be called Middle Age.

At the RA on the Big Day

At the RA on the Big Day

Just look around you, at the musicians and actors and models, the business leaders and entrepreneurs, the writers, journalists, politicians and sportspeople. There are an awful lot of Actual Grown-Up Women among them. Some of the coolest, sexiest people in the world are now over 40. Kylie’s 45 (KYLIE!), and Madonna was 55 last week, for goodness’ sake. Jennifer Aniston is 44; Samantha Cameron and Susanna Reid are both 42. Paula Radcliffe was born the same year as me. Karren Brady is 44, and JK Rowling is 48. Cameron Diaz is a year older than me. Yeah, really! The original supermodels are all in their mid-40s. Women aged over 40 are at the top of their game: mature, confident in their skin, look frickin’ amazing, and have an attractive sheen of experience and wisdom.

In short, when I think of myself as a 40-year-old woman, I don’t think ‘Shit! I’m over the hill! I’ve done nothing with my life! In my advanced years I must cut my hair unflatteringly short and wear crap clothes and ugly shoes and no make-up and inexorably trudge down the path to old age and incontinence and death!’ Rather, I think this: Wow. This is totally going to be the best decade ever! This is the decade when I will accomplish my dreams and achieve my potential. Now my children are no longer tiny and totally dependent on me, now I have something approaching a life of my own again, it’s going to be amazing. This is where I get to be utterly myself, where there are no barriers. apart from my own thoughts, to business success, finishing that novel, being thin, being comfortably-off, being happy, and being fit and healthy.

That’s the most personal thing, right there. The healthy bit. My thirties weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Apart from giving birth to my two darling children, I was basically stressed, broke, anxious, depressed or having panic attacks for much of my thirties (and twenties, if we’re being honest). And then my late thirties were spectacularly crap thanks to my Cancer Experience. You know how much I hate the language of cancer – the battling, struggling, fighting, surviving stuff – but as I approached my 40th birthday I actually felt euphoric about having reached this ripe old age because (and you may never hear me use this word again) I survived. I got this far. And so my party was a chance to say thank you to (almost) all the people who supported me and DH through it, and to celebrate having actually got to 40, which looked like a distinctly shaky possibility three years ago when I was diagnosed. IMG_3210

Still, I do wonder when I’m going to feel grown-up. Does that ever happen? When I was younger, my mum would say she still felt 18, and I never got what she meant, until recently when I realised that in my head I am basically still 22 and feel no more emotionally mature, stable, sophisticated or cool than Taylor Swift. I am hoping that at some point I will know my limit on white wine, stop drunk texting and tweeting, re-heel my shoes on time, learn to play golf, or tennis, own a fancypants coffee machine, have regular manicures, and never run out of bog roll or milk. That time is not now.

My birthday itself was perfect: the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (my annual art indulgence) with DH and the kiddies, and then champagne afternoon tea at my new favourite restaurant, Balthazar, with the surprise addition of my mummy, which reduced me to tears. DH bought me a stunning grey snakeskin Michael Kors handbag and, from the kiddies, a gorgeous gold ‘Pinchy’ name necklace, made for me by a stroppy little Polish man in Hatton Garden (His phone call alerting DH to the completion of the commission was a terse ‘Hello? Pinchy is Ready’. Dial tone). Then a takeaway and more champagne at home with our best friends, which accidentally got a bit drunken. Then an indulgent lunch the next day at Le Gavroche with my wonderful parents, and sis and brother-in-law, who gave me the most beautiful gold bracelet. Mama and Pops had created an amazingly nostalgic Aspinal leather photo album with photos of me from newborn to now, embossed with ‘Maja – the first 40 years’ on the front. (Mummy said she was going to put 1973-2013 and then realised that it would look like I had actually died…) IMG_3188

So I didn’t really need the party I had planned. But what a party it was. We cunningly shipped the smalls off to our dear friends’ house with an all-night babysitter so all the kiddies could have fun together and all the adults could stay at ours and have a lie-in the next morning.  We spent all day dressing the garden: hay bales covered with colourful fleeces, Chinese lanterns in sorbet shades, fairy lights, and bunting. At 8pm, guests started arriving and under the gazebo there was live music – a guy and a guitar, and his girlfriend singing Kings of Leon tracks beautifully – to accompany prosecco, and canapes made by my mummy and best friend. We even had catering – a deliciously meaty South African barbecue – and then the party really got started, with DH manning the ‘Marisco Disco’ (ie a playlist on my iPad attached to a proper sound system kindly loaned to us for the occasion).

Everyone had dressed up. The wine flowed. I danced on the patio under the fairy lights all night, with my best friends and my family (my mum and dad have got some stamina, I can tell you). I can’t remember the last time I did that. Being whirled around by gorgeous boys for hours on end was quite marvellous. I lost count of the number of times we had Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ on, with 46 people shouting ‘You know you want it, you’re a GOOD GIRL’ repeatedly. My sister (dressed as Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys circa 1988, just because she knew I would love it) and brother-in-law presented my birthday cake: delicious chocolate brownies in the shape of the number 40, each with a candle. One of my oldest school friends had flown over from her home in Malaysia just for the weekend, just for me. Another lovely friend came straight from his flight from Ireland and arrived at 11.30pm to share my celebration. Almost everyone had booked a hotel room, so they could fully commit to partying. I was spoiled with gifts of every major champagne label under the sun, and some beautiful jewellery, and compliments on my last-minute dress, and many, many hugs and kisses. The old Salisbury gang was back together for the first time in years. My uni chums were there, and my mummy friends. Everyone had a ball.

The last guests left or went to bed at 4am. (The neighbours kindly asked us to take the music inside at 1am.) And when everyone else had gone, I stayed up for a bit by myself to savour it all and quietly open a couple of pressies. To soak up the last vestige of party atmosphere, and cement my memories. My jaws ached from smiling. My knees and toes were killing me from dancing in heels for seven hours. I’ll never forget it. It was perfect. IMG_3452

Being born in 1973, we’ve had a few 40th celebrations over the past year, and more special ones to come in the next couple of years among my closest friends. It does feel like a really significant birthday, a real milestone or marker in one’s life. Some people dread being 40 as it approaches, and I totally get that. It’s a natural trigger for quite a lot of self-examination and life assessment. I say: embrace it. Enjoy it. Celebrate it. Mark it, as noisily as possible with as many people as possible and as much champagne as possible. And when the hangover has abated, and life, somewhat surprisingly, gets back to normal, get on with the business of living, and loving, and start planning your 50th birthday celebration. I’m thinking Vegas…

Why I love my husband

I fessed up to DH this week how worried I was about various aches and pains in my back, ribs, abdomen and hips. He made me say it: I’m scared the cancer has or will come back. I don’t know where, or how, but that’s my vague, nebulous, all-pervading fear. I’m probably healthier than the rest of you put together, in fact, but terror is a powerful thing and it twists every thought and sensation into ugly shapes.

And after blanching and taking a deep, ragged breath, he put his hands on my shoulders and looked down into my eyes and said: ‘Pinchy, you are exhausted. You have not stopped this summer. Get some sleep, keep off the booze for a bit, get back into a routine with school and work, and see how you feel. If you’re still concerned in 10 days, go to the doc.’

Wow. So that’s why I married him. That’s why we’re still together after 22 years and 12 rollercoastery years of marriage. That’s why he’s my best friend and my rock and why I love him very deeply despite our occasional off-the-scale rows and frequent miscommunication. He takes the piss out of me constantly; he annoys me in a million tiny ways (wet towels, dirty socks left by the sofa, loading the dishwasher wrongly, tuning me out when he is on his Blackberry, the usual);  he worries about things that to me seem inconsequential, and is infamous for sometimes being moody, anti-social and monosyllabic. But put the man in a crisis – or the threat of one – and he can be a frickin’ hero.

My boy at the summer party – a rare smiley photo!

He says the right things. He remains calm and rational. He can be astonishingly wise. He is kind. He tries to look after me, when I let him. He listens. I fell in love with him when I was 15 because he made me laugh, and was tall and strong with floppy blonde hair and outlandish sartorial taste. He still makes me laugh now the hair is almost disparu, and although he has replaced tartan trousers with the Surrey Dad uniform of Superdry, Crew, Ralph Lauren and Joules, he does still look adorably eccentric in his lycra cycling get-up. He is an extremely capable, involved and loving father to DS and DD, and knows when I have officially Had Enough and whisks them off to the park for an hour so I can ‘re-group’.

He’s the only person on the planet who sees the very worst of me, and yet he still loves me in all ways to the absolute best of his ability. He writes notes in birthday and Christmas cards that make me cry. I take him completely for granted, most of the time. But the spontaneous little leap of happiness in my heart when I see him turn into the drive in his car or bicycle at 7pm says it all. I’ll inevitably be snapping at him five minutes later, but that’s tired working parents for you. We’ve been together a very, very long time, since school, and not having him around would be like losing a limb (though as the Paralympics has shown, that’s not necessarily the end of the world these days ;-)). I can’t say that I’ve never looked at another man in all those years and I can’t say I don’t enjoy a bit of flirting. I can’t say I haven’t thought – as I’m sure he has – that our marriage has been challenging. But I wouldn’t be without him for all the Earl Grey in the Home Counties.

And, annoyingly, he is right: this summer has been exhausting. Memorable and wonderful, but really quite tiring. The last day of term was a whirl of watching the Olympic torch and a very champagne-fuelled hen do, immediately followed by a few days en famille on the Isle of Wight, glamping at Tom’s Eco Lodge during that heatwave we had at the end of July. I was relaxed and happy from the moment we got on the ferry, and the kiddies adored every second of it, from running feral in the woods with other campers’ children, to swimming in the surprisingly warm English sea. DD hadn’t believed there was such a thing as a beach in Britain (mummy fail…) so being with them for the whole collecting shells/rock pools/sand castles/ice-cream thing was even more magical than our trip to Disneyland Paris last summer. We accidentally saw the Queen on her trip to Cowes, had a boiling hot afternoon at Robin Hill Park, met up with my gorgeous sis and her best friend and their broods for some paddling, and all ate together in the evening after firing up the wood burner. There was no telly, and no internet access, and it was bliss.

‘Roughing it’ on the Isle de Blanc.

Then there were the Three August Birthdays. My beautiful DD’s 6th was a lovely, giggly day at Build-A-Bear Workshop and Pizza Express. For my 39th, DH presented me with a guitar, sketchbook and fencing lesson. He had clearly been sneaking a look at my bucket list – he always buys me the most thoughtful, generous presents. And, thrillingly, my best friends S&J treated us to Derren Brown tickets on my birthday, which also happens to be their anniversary. And what a perfect surprise it was to see them on the station platform and to have champagne and pre-theatre supper at Christopher’s  in Covent Garden together before the best evening’s entertainment ever. (Still can’t work out how he did it…) And for my cheeky DS’s 4th birthday, lunch at Jamie’s and a trip to see Brave at the cinema with his little chums.

Not to mention the Big Fat Summer Party, our combined birthday party, which I’d been planning for months. This involved: around 60 of my favourite grown-ups and children chillaxing in our garden on picnic blankets; a gorgeous hot day; a gazebo;  great tunes; groaning tables of yummy food and cold beverages; a bouncy castle; a face painter; children’s entertainers and ‘movie time’ for the kids with popcorn, so the adults had plenty of child-free time. That took some organising, and although I’m glad I was hosting because it was all exactly how I wanted it (control freakery), I would have liked to have been able to hang out with everyone too.

And between all of this was a big work project, DS finishing pre-school, a trip to London with DD and her best friend to see the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and eat ice cream on a lion in Trafalgar Square, and a week of one-to-one swimming lessons. Almost zero time to myself, to catch my breath. I thought there would be more time for just doing bugger all and more laid-back playdates with old friends this summer, but it’s amazing how quickly you can fill up six weeks of ‘free’ time.

We finished the summer with a week in the Cotswolds, staying in one of the stunning modern glass-backed houses set around lakes at Lower Mill Estate. Best friends in another house round the corner, lots of swimming in the indoor pool, spa treatments, kids scooting around in safety, days out in beautiful countryside (loved Bourton-on-the-Water, which was NOT anything like Venice, as advertised, but did have a great model village which featured itself many times over, getting smaller and smaller, like something from Borges). The week also notably featured too many heavily-salted prawn cocktail snacks, and an awful lot of wine. Us five adults basically pickled ourselves for a week in sauvignon blanc and malbec. It was our 12 year anniversary while we were there and we went out for supper a deux, though we managed to have a couple of blazing drunken rows during the week. And towards the last day of the holidays all the twinges and anxiety I had back in June and July reappeared. Too much wine, too little quality sleep, too much going on, too much emotional turmoil. It is possible to have too much fun, it transpires.

Crazy kids at Bourton-on-the-Water. Not Venice.

So I have Taken Action. Plan Pinchy is thus: Sobriety, Sleep, School. I am on day 5 with no alcohol and committing to a Dry September. (I KNOW! Totally unlike me. I hope that didn’t make you spit your tea out.) It’s the first time for months that I’ve gone for more than a day without a nice glass of something but, weirdly, am not missing it at all. So far. I’ve been taking all my supplements, including the powerful anti-cancer ones: carotenoids, Indole-3 carbinol, turmeric. I have a kinesiology appointment coming up, and a session with my health creation mentor. I am going for a walk every night, chanting affirmations like the mad crazy-haired middle-aged woman I am. I am trying to go to bed early, though I am still having difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up in the morning. Nytol doesn’t help: I am like sodding Rasputin, nothing knocks me out.

Tomorrow DS starts school (of which more very soon), DD goes up to Year 2, and I get back to editing in silence at my desk overlooking my monkey puzzle tree. And at the end of next week, if I don’t have more energy, less discomfort, smaller bags under my eyes and a bigger smile on my face, hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to the GP I go. Holding DH’s big old paw very tightly.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

You know that thing I said a while ago about not feeling any fear when I was diagnosed with breast cancer or throughout my treatment? Well, turns out you can only Keep Buggering On for so long before the big ol’ scary monster, Fear itself, bites you on the arse and one has what I will delicately describe as a Wobble. (You don’t want to know the extent of the tears and associated snot, frankly).

Friends who have been through health crises of their own or with children tell me this is entirely normal. It works a bit like post-traumatic stress disorder, from what I can work out. The big thing happens, you get through it (no choice: it’s happening whether you dissolve into a puddle or not, and the human pysche is astonishingly resilient), you survive. All is well. You stop being intimate with consultants and surgeons. Then, a while later, a thought pops into your head. An insidious, sneaky, betraying thought that starts ‘what if…’

Exempli Gratia: ‘What if that pain/twinge/ache/tingling/weird colour is because Something Is Really Wrong?’ The body has let one down before with a poor performance, after all. Quite dramatically too. Specifically, in my case (let’s be brave and look it in the eye, shall we?): what if that annoying ache in my back is because I have secondary cancer of the liver (rather than another bout of sciatica)? What if that discomfort under my left rib is because I have secondary cancer of the pancreas (rather than getting so excited about my new health discovery, chia seeds, that I overloaded my gut with sudden, massive amounts of soluble fibre)?

If something really is wrong, do I really want to know? Do I want to be prodded and scanned and take the gamble of a) being completely reassured and feeling like a happy idiot or b) being told devastating news that means I will be compelled to write birthday cards in advance for my darling babies and husband for the next couple of decades?

I had a quite intense session with my awesome health creation mentor, Kit, this morning, which prompted me to blog about this. She’s had first hand experience of The Wobble: she was diagnosed with ‘incurable’ cancer in 1992, is in fine fettle, and still panics before every annual check up. She reckons fear is just an acronym of ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. She asked what the thought was that I was thinking, and where it had come from. I know exactly. It was a feature in my beloved Grazia magazine about three weeks ago. It was from the fiance of a young woman who had just died from secondary breast cancer, in her liver, after recovering from breast cancer treatment and then getting a pain in her back. He had been hoping she would make it to their wedding this month. She didn’t quite get there.

This very sad story would have given me the jitters by itself, but there is a twist worthy of the Whitbread first novel prize (ooohhh….). It wasn’t the first time this beautiful girl had been in the magazine. She had written her own story in 2010, just after being diagnosed and having her first chemo. I remember, graphically, reading her feature, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I read it in bed, just after finding the lump in my breast for the first time, two or three days before fessing up to DH and booking an appointment with my GP. I remember the gut-liquidising chill as I read it: I already knew, deep down, that I was about to follow the same path. Chemotherapy in particular, before I had any idea of what it actually entails, was one of the most terrifying things I could imagine enduring.

And so when I read that she had died, my thought  – the thought behind all of this fear over the past few weeks – was this: ‘What if my life is mirroring hers?’ Almost instantly, I started to notice twinges and discomfort all over my body, all of which also have perfectly innocent explanations. No back pain at first, but I worried so hard about it that, sure enough, some back pain manifested itself. I worried so deeply, I’ve given my immune system a bashing and am currently fighting a rubbish chesty cold – the first for years (I really don’t get ill, apart from the obvious…). I panicked about my alcohol intake. I spent an entire evening, last Friday, crying on DH as I explained why I was scared. For, like, five hours (poor sod). Hot, salty, really big ploppy tears. They just wouldn’t stop. It was remarkably cathartic, actually, because to be honest I haven’t really cried specifically about caaancer at any point.

Then on Saturday afternoon I decided to take action. I had heard rumours of the mind-clearing benefit of exercise, though as a largely sedentary, distinctly non-sporty person, I had little experience of this. Regardless. Strapped on dusty trainers and, if I can just shock you, dear reader, I went for a run. Yup, you read right. Pinchy made like Forrest Gump and just….ran. And then walked for a bit, before running, and walking again, round a quiet local residential area, accompanied by an interesting selection of tunes on DD’s borrowed Shuffle. Among the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and Kylie there are a fair number of Disney themes. Turns out The Climb by Miley Cyrus is a perfectly acceptable running track…

Run, Pinchy, run!

Do you know what? Those rumours are true: moving your body really does clear your head. In the stressy age of extreme juggling we live in, that in itself is far more of an argument for getting off one’s fat arse than the nebulous idea of ‘getting fit’. Kit suggested that the universe sends us loving lessons, and maybe the message embedded in my fearful state was my own need to take proper control of and responsibility for my health: my diet (already pretty good, but I have made some more tweaks and am liking James Duigan’s Clean and Lean approach. I will learn to love kale…), the amount of wine I get through (38-year-old working mum levels. You know what I’m talking about), and my lack of any exercise other than 60 kettlebell swings most mornings.

My instinct is that she’s probably right. And she’s also right that I need to pick up the phone to my oncology team and say I’m not comfortable with waiting until next February to be checked over. Being signed off for a year is AMAZING, obvs, and I’m sure my consultant wouldn’t have done so if he wasn’t entirely sure that I’m fine, but six months in, I’m also miles further from medical attention than I have been since I was diagnosed. Which may also have something to do with The Wobble.

Other action: do some yoga cat poses to sort this damned sciatica out. Stop with the chia seeds for a bit (already done; gas levels no longer on the red-for-danger bit of the dial). Most importantly, apply the four questions that make up The Work of Byron Katie to that pesky ‘my life is mirroring hers’ thought:

1. Is it true? (I don’t know)

2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true? (No)

3. What happens when I think that thought? (The Wobble)

4. Who would you be without that thought? (Fully enjoying being happier, and more myself, than I have been at any point in my life, ironically).

Then turn it around: my life is not mirroring hers. We are completely different people, with different diseases, different treatments and different outcomes. I am safe, and free, and all is well.

And a final reminder to myself and everyone else: MOVE AWAY FROM GOOGLE if you or anyone you love has a question mark over some aspect of their health or what’s happening in their body. American health forums filled with fear-filled posts by the ‘worried well’ seriously Do Not Help. Ever. Now, I must ring my oncology team. At some point.

Pinchy, punch, first of the month…

I’ve started 2012 by already ticking something off the bucket list: firing a shotgun. Not at DH, I hasten to add; we and the lovely friends we spent New Year’s Eve with fired into the air at midnight to celebrate the long-awaited end to That Bloody Year. It was brilliant! Definitely need to do a shooting day this year. And drive a tractor. And learn to play tennis. And take up fencing, or archery, or hockey. And write The Damned Novel, of course. ‘Such fun!’, as Miranda’s mother would say.

The last night of the year was great. Endless plates of yummy food, during a five hour game of poker. The four of us were at the table all night, with our guests Miss Taittinger and Mr Barolo. Eating, drinking, laughing. Perfick. Well, almost: it would have been great if our four children had actually, y’know, slept during their sleepover, but hey.

Today we took down our beautiful Christmas tree from the bay window where it has sat twinkling for three weeks in exactly the way I envisioned when we first set eyes on this house in July, and started the New Year proper, with the requisite resolutions to be healthier, eat better, exercise more, drink less, go to bed earlier. (We once got to 18 January without wine. I’ll let you know how we get on this year…).

There are two types of resolutions in my book: Habit Changers and Big Goals. My Big Goal you all know about (writing the novel rather than talking about it and going through the synopsis with everyone I meet). The Habit Changers involve the usual suspects, plus: investing in beautiful, matching, comfortable underwear (after my balancing surgery in 22 days, when my boobs will be the same size again, though rather less of a handful); playing more with the kiddies (I have rediscovered my love of Lego this Christmas, and also the searing, Hugh-Grant-style-sweariness-inducing pain of stepping on a rogue two-er stuck in the flokati…); being rather more high-maintenance in the eyebrow/bikini-line/manicure/pedicure department; learning a new joke every day; having a monthly date night with DH; doing more fun stuff with friends. And getting kittens. And maybe a light box to ameliorate the winter blues. And thanking the universe every night for all the wonderful things and people in my life, and the blessings of every day. And worrying much, much less about what other people think. And doing my affirmations every morning (currently: I love and accept myself just the way I am).

There is a theory, of course, that January is precisely the wrong time to be making any sort of lifestyle-changing pledges. It makes much more sense to continue to hunker down, eat comfort food, move slowly, and generally stay in semi-hibernation, and then as the first signs of spring start to emerge, match nature’s exuberant rebirth with our own new start. The number of people running around Guildford this morning was hilarious. Why not wait a few weeks to start blossoming?

I am so looking forward to this year. Today is such a lovely contrast to this time last year, when the side effects of my New Year’s Eve third chemo were beginning to kick in, and the good times seemed such a interminably long way in the future. But now the future is here, and I have a funny feeling in my tummy (and prickles in my eyes, actually) when I think about all the possibilities the year ahead holds.

And it has been quite a wonderful Christmas: for the first time, it was just the four of us on Christmas Day, in our own home. On Christmas Eve we went for a walk in the Surrey Hills with our fab friends Team H, then left a mince pie, carrot and a nice glass of Malbec for lucky Santa.

The kiddies with their offering for Father Christmas

We had a romantic bit of well-aged sirloin (insert your own joke here), and finished wrapping the waaay-too-many-but-what-the-hell presents for the smalls. In the morning, they jumped onto our bed to open their stockings and have some pretty serious cuddles. We had pain au chocolate for brekkie, then cracked open the prosecco and managed to string present opening out from 9.30am to 11.30, when we had a big American-style brunch (waffles, syrup, bacon, eggs, berries, mmmn…). In the afternoon, DH assembled various Playmobil and Sylvanian Families sets while I got on gradually with the roast, which we ate at 4.30pm. The kids were on great form, we all got on really well, all day. They were delightful company: aged five and three, they are now a real double act and huge fun, and just about old enough to play family games like Connect 4 and Guess Who? (and the ill-advised Doggy Doo, but we won’t talk about that). It was a perfect, relaxed, low-key, family Christmas, polished off with Downton Abbey and a nice bottle of red.

The letter Santa left this year

It sort of felt like the Christmas we grew up. For the first time, we weren’t the kids going home to our parents to be fed and watered and hand over the grandchildren. We were the grown-ups. I cooked Christmas dinner for my own family (rather well, I have to say, partly due to a great-quality bird and partly down to stress-free accompaniments from Mr Marks and Mr Spencer). Something shifted for me and DH this Christmas: I have another theory that growing up is not at all a gradual process, but goes in leaps, followed by periods where things don’t change very much. We both feel like we have had a couple of major leaps forward in the past year.

I have to be honest at this point and add that you still get growing pains in your late 30s. As DH has found, it can be hard to not slip into the traditional (sometimes disempowering) roles you’ve always played as a son or daughter when parents are around. I have also found this big leap forward challenging, especially finishing my caaancer treatment on December 1. I was elated at first, but then started feeling a bit weird about it all. I mentioned earlier in the year, between my surgery and radiotherapy, that it felt like ‘God put me down’, as my lovely health creation mentor Kit once said. And I’ve been feeling like that again, except much more acutely.

I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read an interview with my Breast Cancer Hero Jennifer Saunders in December. She ‘fessed up that, actually, there are many aspects of going through treatment that are enjoyable. Being absolutely the centre of everyone’s attention, being showered with love, the laughs and quality time you have with friends on chemo days: what’s not to like? And then suddenly it’s over, you’re fine (thank God), everyone’s relieved, you all celebrate and then… life moves on, for everyone. And the funny thing is, it’s actually a bit lonely and bewildering.

Having moaned about hospital appointments and invasive treatment for over a year, I now feel slightly lost without knowing I am being kept such a close eye on by my medical team. Things get back to normal (and you know how much I have been worshipping at the altar of normal all year) and yet…what is normal, now? I don’t want to, can’t, go back to things being exactly the same, because I wasn’t happy, or fulfilled, or myself. But neither do I know what the New Normal, for me, looks and feels like, quite. I have days where I am loving life, getting on with everyone, feeling good in my skin, and then other days where I feel utterly disjointed and confused, out of kilter, and completely misread situations. My communication skills desert me and conflict reigns, confusingly. I feel like someone’s disconnected the sat nav of my life, or I’m following the rules for a different board game to everyone else.

But I guess these things take time. It’s a big period of adjustment. As always, I’m probably in too much of a hurry. I just need to breathe, drop my shoulders, smile, and go with the flow a bit more. Be myself, and let everyone else be who they are. Now that’s what I call a good New Year’s Resolution. If I can hang onto this particular wagon for January, I might just form the best habits ever. That’s worth raising yet another glass of champagne to, I reckon. When I get over my dry few days, anyway. Happy Noo Year!

No cheese, please, Louise

I’ve been meaning to write this post for months. I was finally goaded into action by a bit of half-arsed ‘investigation’ into using food as medicine on Channel 4’s ‘The Food Hospital’ last night. After lots of basic, sensible stuff on how changing your diet can dramatically improve your health if you have diabetes, polycystic ovaries, high cholesterol or migraines, there was a five minute segment on a young woman who had breast cancer.

It had already spread to her spine. That’s not good news: with secondary cancer you can never officially be ‘cured’. So she had done her research and come across a hypothesis that replacing dairy with soya would have a huge impact on preventing hormone-dependent breast cancer (which accounts for around 50% of breast cancers: this is what I’ve had, and it’s more aggressive but there are more tools in the bag to tackle it at the moment.) I am very familiar with this theory, because the book it’s espoused in, Your Life In Your Hands, is practically my bible.

It was written by an earth scientist called Jane Plant, whose breast cancer kept coming back, tumours popping up all over the place. The fourth time, she was given months to live, and says she felt like giving up. But she didn’t. Instead, she used her scientific background to examine research papers from all over the world. She discovered that while in the UK, one in  ten (I think this is now one in eight) women will contract breast cancer, in China it’s more like one in 10,000. As she looked into this startling discrepancy, Jane Plant became convinced she had discovered the first causal link between diet and breast cancer.

Her story, and the book’s premise that the hormones in dairy produce can cause hormone-related cancers such as breast, ovarian and prostate – is compelling. After her last bout of cancer, she was given only months to live. Nearly 20 years later, she’s still alive and kicking, and the cancer is still in remission. Jane Plant suggests that the only living beings that need and can properly digest and process cow, goat or sheep milk are baby cows, goats and sheep. She intriguingly repositions dairy from ‘healthy and natural’ to ‘poisonous junk food’. There’s a bit of conspiracy theory involving two baddies – Big Pharma and the Global Dairy Industry – but I don’t have a massive problem with that.

The book so resonated with me when I read it just before my surgery in April (having being urged to read it by two different people on the same day – I’m a big one for following little signs from the universe like that), that I immediately cleared the fridge out of all dairy products.

This was A Big Deal because I’ve had a major love affair with cheese my whole life. In restaurants, I always went for the cheeseboard over a pudding. Cheddar, parmesan, brie and Boursin were staple foods in our house. Fondue? Nom nom nom. Not to mention milk, proper butter, premium yoghurts, custard, and ice-cream. I tried to buy organic – the non-organic dairy industry is as horrific as battery-farmed chickens – but otherwise had never thought twice about dairy other than the potential impact on my hips. Dairy’s good for you, right? And a great way of getting protein into children, yes? Well, perhaps not.

Cutting out dairy was easier than you might think. For me, the book opened my eyes to seeing my diet in a whole new way. It was a no-brainer: if there is even the slightest chance that Jane Plant is right, then why wouldn’t I switch from dairy to soy? We now have Alpro soya milk, yoghurt, and desserts instead of dairy, and dairy-free spread. I don’t exactly love tofu but I do use it. I drink miso soup. I snack on those lovely dried soya nuts and use soya beans (also known as edamame thanks to Wagamama). I love cooking and haven’t found avoiding dairy is even slightly tricky.

After a few months of being strict with everyone in the house, I am now confident enough that I can resist dairy to let the kids have the odd bit of grated cheese or Babybel, and DH to have butter and proper milk in his weekend coffee (soya milk is great in tea and on cereal but curdles revoltingly in homemade cwaffee. Not sure how the coffee shop chains manage it, but I do love my flat white with soya as a weekend treat). And I do have the occasional sliver of sheep’s cheese (Manchego, Pecorino, or Roquefort), since that seems less problematic, hormone-wise. But actually, much to my surprise, I just don’t really like the taste anymore. You know the thing that Chinese people say about Westerners, that we smell of rancid milk? That’s pretty much what all dairy smells and tastes like to me, now. All cow’s milk, no matter how fresh, just smells ‘off’. I don’t think the odd bit of dairy is going to hurt, but broadly speaking, it no longer has a role in my diet.

The kids are completely cool with the new regime. DS, in particular, has benefitted: I always suspected he was dairy intolerant because he was such a collicky baby, especially on my dairy-fuelled breast milk, and his nappies were ‘leave-the-room-retching’ vile. Since the switch, his tummy is absolutely fine, and nursery have been good enough to keep him off dairy as much as possible too.

So why did that Channel 4 show get my back up? The ‘nutritional experts’ briskly waved aside the young woman’s decision to swap dairy for soya as ‘controversial’ and said it was ‘up to her, but they haven’t found any evidence to support it’. Whoever ‘they’ are. The programme also then made some sweeping generalisations about avoiding all cancers, not just hormone-dependent breast cancer, including not drinking to excess, not smoking, and eating plenty of fresh fruit and veg.

Firstly, no causal link (ie x causes y) has ever been discovered apart from smoking and lung cancer. There is no definite link between smoking and any sort of breast cancer, although of course cigarettes do contain about a million carcinogens so it’s not a great idea. The evidence on alcohol is conflicting, and personally I think the benefits of relaxing with a glass of red after a stressful day outweigh any unproven risks, especially if we recognise the extent to which stress affects our immune system, which fights off the cancer cells we all have in our bodies. Plus wine is my only vice, so the nay-sayers can f*ck off.

Thirdly, cancer apparently loves sugar, and most fruit is very high in sugar. Fruit juice is practically all natural sugar with very little nutritional benefit. Yes, we get vitamins and fibre from fruit, but personally I aim for five portions of fresh, colourful veg and legumes or pulses a day, and avoid fruit (and, obviously, other sugary) apart from the occasional treat. I’m not alone – I’ve heard a few rumblings lately about the ‘five a day’ thing being flawed, because we really don’t need five portions of fruit a day, which is the easiest way of following this rule, especially for kids.

So there we are. I’ve fessed up. I don’t watch Martine McCutcheon in those Activia ads and think, ooh, I have to have a yoggy. I can’t say I don’t sometimes hanker over a very ripe, stinky brie ooching across a cheeseboard. But if you were in my position, I bet you’d give dairy a second thought.

The year I f*cked caancer!

Do you know what you were doing a year ago today? In precise detail? Do you know where you went, who you spoke to, what they said, the expression on their face, the sound of their voice, how you felt in every bit of your body, on October 13th 2010? I do, because it was the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I know quite a few people, who I love very much, who know exactly what they were doing too. It’s not quite up there in the global consciousness in the same way as hearing that Elvis, Kennedy or Lady Di had gone to the great Celebrity Big Brother in the sky (plus I am not actually dead, unless I’m unknowingly in some weird M. Night Shyamalan movie and none of you have told me). But in my small universe, it’s a Big Day. (Here’s my first blog post on the subject).

Can you believe it? Where did those 12 months go? It seems like yesterday, and yet parts of the year have felt like time was standing still. I’ve been having quite bad flashbacks for the past few weeks as The Date approached. I’m sure the memories will fade over the years, but there’s something about it being exactly a year ago that has been making me feel nauseous and tense for a while. Then, in a nice bit of universal circularity, last Friday we finally moved in to our new gaff (of which adventures, more later), bang on a year after I reported the discovery of my lump to my GP.

DH went into work late this morning so he could do the nursery and school run with me, because that’s what we did a year ago together before I had The Mammogram, and also because he didn’t want me to be by myself this morning. And probably didn’t want to pretend it was a normal day for him, either. We didn’t do a sentimental flypast of the Jarvis Centre where I was diagnosed, though: cancer tourism’s not our thing.

When we got home after depositing the smalls at their respective places of play and learning, a massive bunch of gladioli was waiting for me, with a card from DH. I was very touched – they are beautiful, and he’s seriously not an ‘ordering flowers’ sort of guy, so it means a lot. Then my mummy arrived, ostensibly to help with the unpacking, but mostly just to be with me for a few hours. And then the postman bought a beautifully-written card from my sister that made us both cry quite a lot.

I remember some moments of that day in surround sound and Technicolor. Staring at the screen with the mammogram pictures of my breasts, and it being bleedin’ obvious that one of them had a very bright white mass in the middle. My blood running cold when the word ‘chemotherapy’ was mentioned. My tummy turning to liquid. DH and I sitting on our fabulous friends S&J’s sofa, in shock immediately after getting the news, all shakily raising cups of tea in a pledge to ‘f*ck caaancer’, which became Team Pinchy’s mantra. Having to tell my sister, and my mummy. Not being able to say the raw, powerful word ‘cancer’; telling everyone it ‘wasn’t good news’ instead.

Also: feeling, for that day and the five or six that followed, that I was in a calm bubble of golden light, like I was blessed (I do know this sounds bloody weird, and I sincerely hope you never have to experience the same circs, but that’s the only way I can describe it). Feeling with absolute certainty that I would get through it, and it would be the most important, life-changing event of my life. As it has proved to be. I really wouldn’t want to go through the past 12 months again, but I promise you, I wouldn’t not have gone through it. I’ve learned so much, and changed so much inside. This also probably sounds a bit odd, but lots of people who have been on a ‘cancer journey’ say the same.

Although please, my dearest family and friends, look after yourselves cos I sure as hell don’t want to go through what you’ve just been through: far easier, as I’ve said on many occasions, to Keep Buggering On when you’re the one going through The Thing. Far harder to be powerless as someone you love goes through it.

And the 12 months since: a blur of scans, chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, consultant appointments. Endless giving of blood and receiving of intravenous, expensive, new, effective drugs. Having to tell DD that mummy’s booby had some bad stuff in it and I would need some strong medicine. The week of worry after my radioactive bone scan, which would have revealed if the cancer had already spread (in which case: no cure, just holding off the inevitable). Exploring a whole raft of alternative and complementary therapies. Cherishing the ‘normal, normal, normal’ days. The trauma of even partial hair loss (the new stuff on my crown and neck is about four inches long now, and dark and curly. I am hoping that at some point I will have long wavy red hair again rather than morphing into a pube head…) Choosing a wig. Erasing my beloved cheese and all other dairy produce after reading Jane Plant’s ‘Your Life in Your Hands’. The indescribably nightmarish quality of the Chemo Months: the sickness, the dead mouth, the constant nosebleeds, the exhaustion. Finally getting my critical illness cover payout so I could stop stressing about work during treatment (and just about afford our forever house). The impossibility of remaining demure as I whipped my top off to be groped by an endless succession of medical professionals. The bottomless love, support, generosity and general perking up from all directions. Letting that Chinese lantern go last New Year. Feeling responsible for so many tears. The bliss of our holiday in Spain. Doing the Pink Ribbon Walk and raising just short of three grand for Breast Cancer Care. The realisation that having two boobs of different sizes is not, after all, the end of the world (tho I am looking forward to my balancing surgery at the end of January).

Discovering interesting new body facts: my Franken-nipple actually functions; I no longer need deodorant under my right arm since 30 lymph nodes were removed; the weirdness of shaving an armpit with no nerve endings in it; you don’t just lose hair on your head during chemo; my nails have dips in them that correspond to each chemo session, and there’s still two dips (fragile, splitting) to go even though chemo finished in March.

Well, what a difference a year makes. I promised DH that day that I wasn’t going anywhere, and here I am. Very much alive and kicking, and enjoying a large glass of Fortnum’s champagne courtesy of my incredibly generous and thoughtful friend B. In an actual champagne flute, now my mummy has unpacked our glassware: we’ve been drinking pints of merlot out of squash tumblers like French peasants since the move last Friday.

You’ve all raised several glasses and cups with me over the past year, and here’s another toast. Please stand and raise your hot or cold beverage of choice: here’s to having f*cked caancer good and proper. Here’s to love (so much love), and faith, and hope. Here’s to my wonderful DH and our gorgeous children, our amazing family, and our fantastic friends (that’s you lot), without whom I simply could not have got through the past 12 months. Here’s to the next 12 months, and the next, and the next…

Birthdays, birthdays, birthdays…

DH and I committed something of a rookie error in our family planning. My birthday is in August, and so is our wedding anniversary. And then DD was born on the first of the month. I told DH not to touch me ever again in October or November, but lo and behold, DS arrived two years and three weeks after DD. Add a couple of summer-born nieces and a nephew born 12 days after DS into the mix (we know what our siblings were doing in the late autumn…) and we now have a crazy six week period where we have six family birthdays (three of which are in the same week) and an anniversary. Most of which come out of the same pay cheque. Gulp.

So the day after my radiotherapy finished at the end of July we were plunged into the balloons, candles, and cake of Party Central. That Saturday, we had a soft play party for one of DS’s nursery buddies in the morning, followed by my squidgy niece’s first birthday bash about half an hour away, and then over to our other beautiful niece’s fourth birthday (the usual rather splendid mini-festival by the Thames) at tea time. The kiddies were amazing, in great spirits all day (much of which they spent naked and splashing in paddling pools, in between eating vast quantities of sugar and bouncing), napping where they could and still singing along to James ‘Sounds Like’ Blunt in the car on the way home at 10pm. My sister made a very lovely and emotional toast to her baby girl and me, saying it was like a dream come true that the big bits of my treatment ending coincided with celebrating C’s big day. There may have been some happy tears, I couldn’t possibly comment.

The celebrating continued with our friends S&J on the Sunday, during which I took advantage of not being the designated driver and imbibed rather too much champagne and Barolo in the sunshine, resulting in the infamous Lobegate row between me and a rather more sober DH. The following day was my delicious DD’s fifth birthday – where on earth did that go? A half decade already! – and we dressed the garden with butterflies for a little tea party for her best friends. In another bit of classic Pinchy planning, after everyone had left at 6pm, we had to pack to leave for Disneyland Paris – the kiddies’ joint birthday treat – early the following morning.

Disney was everything it should be. We went to Florida on our honeymoon and I’ve always wanted to take my children. Paris is so close, and our three days at the Hotel New York, 10 minutes’ walk from the parks, were really magical. At just five and not-quite-three, they were the perfect age, in total awe of everything from Sleeping Beauty’s castle, to the Buzz Lightyear ride (DS is obsessed with Toy Story) and the It’s A Small World boat ride, which we had to go on twice (and still can’t get that slightly sinister theme music out of our head…).

We were all in one room, which worked better than I thought. We got up around 8, dug into our bag of snacks, hit the park for two hours, came back for the last breakfast setting for brunch at 11am, then went on more rides, had another snack, and then all ate out around 7pm. By the time we’d got back to the hotel and bathed after supper, we were all ready to crash. And, after queuing for an astonishing 90 minutes, we even got to meet the real ‘Rapunzel’, thus making DD’s birthday wish come true.

There were some downsides, of course. The trip was excruciatingly expensive before we even got there, and everything at Disney is crazily overpriced. The food is largely disgusting and£11 for a children’s portion of fried crap seemed to be the going rate. You would have thought a pint of cider was actually molten gold. The queues are quite long for smalls – a minimum of 20 minutes and often double that. And the service is hilariously French, to the point of the ‘cast’ of the parks appearing to be caricatures of French customer service personnel, they were so rude and generally unaccomodating and unhelpful. Perhaps it was all a giant post-modern self-referential joke. But I don’t think so. No-one said ‘have a nice day’, which was fine, obviously, but it was very much the opposite of what you might expect from one of Walt’s establishments.

 

A couple of days after our return, it was my turn for birthday pressies. I was spoiled rotten, it has to be said, including a gorgeous nude patent handbag from DH, stunning leather jacket (which Grazia would probably describe as ‘butter-soft’) from my sis, Pennyhill Park spa voucher from my mummy and Pops, a Mulberry heart key ring from S&J, and many other very thoughtful gifts. I am a very, very lucky girl. And of course, the best thing was not the undeniably lovely pressies, but the most fun night out with a really fab group of my amazing friends and family.

We met in All Bar One, all marvelling that we could not remember the last time we were in a bar as couples, then hit Jamie’s for an absolutely debauched dinner. I dimly remember eating my linguine, but after that, nada. I think there was some chat about tattoos, and I had limoncello for pudding (never a good sign). No memory of this, nor the other bar we apparently went to, where DH was asked to put his shirt back on after launching into one of his regular Freddie Mercury impressions. He did look after me, though, even giving the reluctant cabbie ‘the cancer chat’ to persuade him to take the wobbly 38 year old home. Oh the shame! Great fun, though. I was looking pretty good at the start of the evening (after a good haircut at Aveda booked as a surprise by DH as he said my hair was looking ‘a bit cancery’!!), but when I woke in the morning naked but for my silicone chicken fillet still stuck to the mini-boob, I felt rather less glam. Sadly, I do not seem to be ageing as elegantly as some of the excellent wine I’ve drunk this summer.

After a memorable barbecue a week later (which culminated in me chanelling Barbara Dickson for a scary version of I Know Him So Well. Pinchy may not be Polish for ‘nightingale’: our guests were actually trying to leave as I sang, ushering their children away from the crazy lady), we all had a bit of a break from Good Times last week. DD had a week in kids’ club, and I was back to the badlands of Cancer Central with a bump. I am back on the Tamoxifen after seeing Dr Houston, my oncology consultant. I had a very interesting kinesiology session with my amazing friend E before this, as I was clearly hugely intolerant of the drug. She did an energetic detox on me which appeared to suggest that it would now be absolutely fine for me to be back on the drug, and I would have no side effects, with the caveat that my body could not process the whole daily 20mg horse pill in one go, and I should split it, having 10mg in the morning and 10mg in the evening. I had read about many women doing this on the advice of their doctors anyway, and I have to say, so far, so good. No hot flushes, and I haven’t tried to kill anyone. Houston said if I felt murderous again, DH should call him (they are golf buddies now, don’t forget…). I said that would assume he wasn’t the subject of my hormonal rage.

Then last Thursday, it was the 12th of 17 Herceptin drips. It was raining and I was very down that day. I would quite happily never see that chemo suite again, you know. In my head I am so over this caaancer business, and everytime I have to spend a morning up at the hospital it feels very depressing. You never, ever get used to the needles, and sitting among people who are mostly much older, much more ill, and much less optimistic. I just don’t feel part of the cancer community at all, it’s not something that I feels defines me in any way, and I just want to get out of there as soon as possible every time. I cried for most of the day. My hand is still bruised from the damn canula, but luckily an evening out with E&G was in the diary, and some very good steak and Malbec sorted me out.

And finally, to the latest birthday this summer: my darling cheeky little DS was three on Monday. We had all the grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins, not to mention his fairy godfather (sorry JB, you know what I mean!) over for a lovely tea in the garden on Sunday, which again resulted in much naked shrieking (not from me, I hasten to add. Not this time, anyway). The house is now full of Fireman Sam and Toy Story stuff, including the brilliant ‘real’ Buzz Lightyear, who is strangely attractive for a bit of plastic. He’s got all the chat; I think I might be falling in love with him. Then DS started pre-school yesterday – just upstairs in his nursery, but a real change for him. He was a little star and I think he’ll settle in fine.

So all in all, a busy, busy summer thus far. And I haven’t told you about the house we bought while all this was going on…