In which Pinchy swims for bloody hours

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to blog about this. I’ll probably work it out while I’m writing. Last month, I did my Biggest Ever physical challenge: I swam 5K for Sport Relief. Yes, I know! Me! The doyenne of exercise-avoidance!

Five kilometres, I can tell you, is a bloody long way. It is, in fact, 200 (count ’em) lengths of the Surrey Sports Park pool. It seems even longer when you can only do a ‘majestic’ (ahem) breast stroke and have never done more than happily bob around a holiday swimming pool for 40 years prior to taking on this challenge.

I’m being slightly disingenuous, of course: I didn’t just get in the pool on the day and hope for the best. I had been training for it since September, along with my two co-swimmers, my dear friend S and her oldest buddy A. Well, when I say training, it was more like swimming up and down for a bit twice a week, and then going for a natter, a cuppa and a panini because we were ‘famished’. At first, anyway. We were all comfortably swimming a mile – 64 lengths – by November, although that was taking me an hour. And then I sort of… stalled. I didn’t really get in the pool much during December and January. Or February. I started to seriously think about pulling out of the swim. I hadn’t started fundraising and was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task for a non-swimmer.

Come to think of it, I was overwhelmed by much over the winter. It’s true that you only realise when you emerge from a tunnel how dark and cold it was in there, and how long it has been since you felt the warm sun on your face. Sitting here now, feeling broadly OK, I can’t quite believe what a struggle those wet, overcast months were, in all ways. It was probably a combination of seasonal glumness, a stressful time re finances, my natural tendency towards depression, and big bad life-changing stuff going on for friends who I love fiercely. Plus I was working almost every evening to meet deadlines and very involved with our school campaign after our head teacher left suddenly. (See my previous five posts for the full story!)

This period of General Rubbishness, pre-swim, was topped off nicely by a week in Egypt. Our first family holiday abroad for three years, and the first since I finished my cancer treatment. We took the kids out of school for a week and could still only afford it by hiving off a bit of the money we’d borrowed for a basic refurb of our decrepit kitchen, combined with DH’s first bonus for a few years. In other words, we were quite desperate for a holiday. The kiddies were looking forward to it so hard I thought they would burst before we hit Sharm. We were going to have an amazing time!

There is a small but important life lesson here about ‘non-attachment to outcomes’: the more you want things to be a certain way, the less likely they are to meet your expectations.  I’m always quoting Alain de Botton on travel – something very true he once said along the lines of ‘the trouble with holidays is that you take yourself with you’. The trouble with Egypt was that I took my tearful, short-fused, exhausted self there and expected to be transformed instantly by the sunshine, sea views and all-inclusive package  into the easy-going, cheerful version of myself. What actually happened was that I sat on the lounger with cause-less tears running behind my shades while our delightful and beautiful children had an amazing week in the pool. My Kindle died, both our phones were stolen from our hotel room, necessitating far too much interaction for DH with hotel security and management, reps, and Egyptian police stations, plus there was the worst torrential rainstorm Sharm had seen for decades. My energy was in such a shit place, frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if I manifested all of the above, like a frickin’ witch.

I was planning to swim loads while we were there. I didn’t. I did snorkel on a coral reef with beautiful fish, like Actual Finding Nemo, though, and that lifted my spirits a little. When we returned, it was only a fortnight to the Big Swim and I had only covered less than a third of the distance in my training sessions. So I went Forrest Gump. I got in the pool and just swam, for 80 lengths. Then a couple of days later I swam 100. Then 120. And finally, on the Monday before Sport Relief Swimathon Saturday, I ringfenced three hours and swam 180 lengths. At that point, and not at any point before, I knew I could do it. S mentioned that last year’s Swimathon times were on the website. I made the mistake of looking and realised that I really was going to be one of the slowest in the entire country – no-one in my age group had done 5k nearly as slowly as my predicted time of 3hrs 20 minutes. The only women who had done that sort of time were (I kid you not) called things like Doris and Ethel, which I pejoratively assumed meant that I was as slow as a Very Old Lady.

That week, as I wondered again why I was doing this, the Sport Relief programme about Davina McCall’s far more crazy challenge to cycle, run and swim 500 miles from Edinburgh to London, was on telly. The documentary followed Davina on her trip to Africa before taking on the challenge. As she sat with the little girl whose days consisted not of school and games and fun with friends but the monotony of breaking rocks and breathing dust with her mother, hour after hour after hour, for pennies, I cried. I realised that the money I had already raised at that point would send two little girls like her to school for a year. THAT was the point. And I cried again the next morning when I tried to explain to DD when she asked why I was swimming so far. There was my motivation. To give little girls, just like my bright and funny and precious seven year old daughter, a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless, I still had to do the damn thing. I didn’t sleep the night before the swim. I woke up in a terrible mood, really jittery and anxious. S had an upset tummy and A had her back strapped up. It was not looking good. The worst thing was waiting all day: the event wasn’t due to start until 6pm after the  start time moved from 5pm. I went slightly ballistic, and pointed out to the organiser that this would mean I would be in the pool until nearly 9.30pm, meaning my children couldn’t be there at the finish line and our plans for a takeaway and champagne with my M&D, who were up for the weekend to cheer me on, would be buggered. After she realised quite how slow I was (and that she’d probably need to give me the keys to lock up…) she asked if I’d like to start an hour early, in my own special lane. Like a special person. FFS. My sister texted, accurately: ‘We are not a family of athletes, Pinch’. I graciously accepted, of course.

So we arrived at the pool. DD and DS had secretly made me a poster saying ‘Go Mummy Go!’ I got into my cossie. Put my goggles on. Still shaking. My lovely friend B arrived en route to her date night just to see me off. Good luck countdown texts arrived from other dear friends. Team Pinchy was cheering on the sidelines. I got into the water, put my bottles of sporty drink stuff raided from DH’s cycling larder on the edge, and started. I was not entirely in a lane of my own – there was also a small child, who swam the entire 200 lengths in less than two hours, and a series of elderly gentlemen doing the 5k as a relay, who also finished well ahead of me. It took me a good 40 lengths to get into any sort of stride. If one can be shaking while ploughing up and down a pool, that was I. I stopped briefly every 20 lengths for a quick gulp of drink, and to check in with the very patient lady counting for me. Every length took one minute, for the first couple of hours. Then, as everyone else in my lane finished and I had it to myself, I actually got quicker. I was coming in under target! photo 2

My family and S’s arrived to cheer us all on for the finish. The last 20 lengths were punishing: I was breaking new ground, and by that time my right arm was very painful. It’s the one that I had all the lymph nodes removed from; my movement is slightly limited on that side and it does get very uncomfortable at the top and in the armpit if I overdo it, risking lymphodoema and cellulitis ( I’ve only had this once, and it was royally crap).

Then, suddenly, it was the two hundredth length. My darling husband and babies stood at the end of the pool shouting ‘COME ON PINCHY!’, and I was trying to swim 25 metres while doing an odd mixture of sobbing and laughing. And then it was over. My official time was 3hrs 8mins. I’ve just checked and I was the 3,680th person to finish in the country. Whoop! Because I had started an hour early, I was actually out of the pool a few minutes before my much speedier swimming buddies, and was able to cheer them on at the finish. We had done it! Between the three of us we’ve raised a couple of grand so far, I think – you can still donate on my page at https://my.sportrelief.com/sponsor/majapawinskasims – I’m a few quid shy of £700 so all donations very welcome!

There was elation and achiness and lots of hugs. And we all got a medal, much to the smalls’ delight. Then champagne and a massive fat well-deserved Thai takeaway at home, followed by a bath in oil provided in my lovely school mum friend E’s ‘survival pack’ (along with bananas and jelly babies).

I woke up the next morning, terribly glad it was all over (although slightly surprised I had not turned into a size 6 sylph overnight). And at that moment, I began to feel better. Lighter and brighter. I had a health kinesiology session with my very dear friend Magic Emily, which helped shift things further and sorted out the achy lymph-free arm. And I have felt a little bit more myself every day since. I haven’t completely shaken off the Gloom, but I’m getting there. And that’s prolly why it took me so long to blog.

I’m never, ever swimming 5K again. But I quite fancy a different sort of physical fundraising challenge. I’m thinking trekking Peru for Breast Cancer Care next. Machu Picchu, anyone?

 

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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.

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!

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…

The end of the first school year

Today is the end of term. The last day of DD’s first year at school. I know time speeds up as you get older, but this is ridiculous: it seems like a matter of weeks since I left her at the door of her reception classroom for her first full day and then cried all the way back to the car. Mind you, there was the slight inconvenience of the Big C: when I was diagnosed in October we’d barely got into the rhythm of being a schoolgirl and a school mum, and the months since have been a whirlwind of scans and new shoes, chemo and uniform, surgery and learning to read, packed lunches and radiotherapy.

All of which could have had a disastrous effect on such a sensitive soul (DD and me both, ha!) but we got her first report yesterday and I could have died of pride reading it. In the face of all that upheaval and worry (and being the youngest in the school), my extraordinary daughter has done astonishingly well by anyone’s standards. I knew she was a bright cookie and a very lovely small human, but it’s very good to know that her teachers can see everything I see in her.

All I wanted was for her to make friends, enjoy herself, love reading, and have fun, and she’s done that in spades while being ‘A PLEASURE TO TEACH’. Fab. Her teachers have been fantastically supportive all year, dishing out cuddles and, literally and metaphorically, holding DD’s hand as she took her first steps on the school journey. I’ve sent DD in this morning with some very well deserved thank you pressies.

The long-serving, warm, lovely head teacher is retiring today, too, and she will be missed. She knows the name of every child in the primary school, is always ready with a cuddle and praise, and is one of those teachers who you know genuinely loves children. So next school year will be interesting in lots of ways: my treatment will be over by Christmas, there will be a new head teacher in January, and we will be filling in school application forms for my licious DS, unbelievably. He’s not even three until the last week of August, so he’ll be starting when he is four and a week, bless his skinny little knees.

He’s settling into pre-school at his nursery beautifully, though, and will be fine. I’ve always thought that having babies in August or September is particularly tricky: the young ones just seem too little to start school, and September babies often seem bored and more than ready by the time they are finally allowed to start (not to mention that extra year of pre-school fees).

We’ve got plenty of fun lined up this summer: DD’s social diary is already looking pretty packed, including a couple of mummy days out while DS is on his full nursery days. I’ve always taken a day off to see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, and last year took DD with me for the first time. She adored it, so we’re going again this year together (and then to ‘a little Italian place for carbonara’ as she always requests in London, bless her mini-cosmopolitan soul). And we’ve got tickets to see Kate’s wedding dress at Buck Palace, hurrah!

What DD doesn’t quite know yet is that the summer hols festivities won’t actually start for me until next Friday, when I finally finish The Month of Radio Ga Ga. Next week she’s having quite a few playdates when I’ll be at the hospital for a stupid week of five rads, two consultant appointment, one heart scan and one herceptin drip. Pfft. DD knows none of this. She doesn’t need to. As far as she’s concerned my bad booby is better, because it is. Still, we will be celebrating next Friday night: DD’s asked if we can all go out for a curry, en famille.

In other news, hot off the press (and this will possibly be TMI if you are a bloke), MY PERIODS HAVE RETURNED!! This may not seem like something to celebrate, but there was a general suspicion in medical quarters that the ‘chemopause’ – your lady bits basically going into hibernation for the duration of the treatment – may have turned into full-on menopause. And I’m not even 38 yet, so that did feel too young. I didn’t want any more children anyway, but there is something about that choice being taken away from you that is deeply upsetting. But no! Two weeks ago I felt a familiar twinge in my ovaries, and exactly 14 days later, the mother of all menstruations arrived. I actually think it’s been eight months’ worth all at once: it’s like a particularly grisly scene from the Sopranos every morning, and for the first three days it felt like wolves were ripping out my womb. But I am so bloody pleased that my body is working again, I don’t care. DH was quite emotional when I told him: the idea of having a menopausal wife evidently wasn’t high on his ‘must have’ list this year, on top of everything else.

I was feeling a bit down yesterday, probably because after the novelty of being fertile again wore off, I remembered how tedious periods are, but I have perked up considerably today, not least because I am finally officially a size 12 again and am rocking my new  black skinny jeans. Yay! (Thank you W for introducing me to Tim Ferriss and his Four Hour Body regime – I’ll do a post on this soon).

Today, the sun is shining for the first time in weeks, and after this morning’s session I will be three quarters of the way through the radiotherapy. Whoop! This last big chunk of caaancer-f*cking is almost over!

Hola! We’re back from sunny Spain.

Oh, that was a lovely holiday. A week of glorious sunshine in Espana, in a huge villa on the La Manga resort in Murcia, with great friends, a private pool full of inflatables and laughing children, and a fridge full of San Miguel and Fanta Limon.

We ate, we drank plenty of Rioja, we laughed, we chilled out, we forgot about running our lives by the clock. And we all had plenty of playtime: the three older kiddies were in kids’ club for five mornings and loved every second of it, from crazy golf and dance competitions to colouring and making masks; the menfolk played a round on each of La Manga’s three stunning golf courses, (resulting in comedy ‘golf tans’ with very brown forearms and very pasty beer bellies) and me and my beautiful, tall, brown, bikini-clad friend S had a couple of truly blissful mornings in the spa.

We had one session of a sauna, steam and Vitamin C facial, and another of a full body treatment including exfoliation (S declined the offer of her tits being done; I said my therapist could polish up the big one but leave the little scarred one alone, ta), body wrap, herbal bubble bath (with a shoulder massage and a drink by our side – we were both feeling a bit smug at this point) and then a massage. Mine was a hot stone massage, which involved being drizzled with hot oil and then hot pebbles being used to rub away every ounce of tension. I cannot tell you how relaxed we were afterwards – we could barely speak.

The children were AMAZING from start to finish. You never know how planes, travelling and being out of routine are going to go with little ones – it could have been a disaster, and we’ve had a couple of crap journeys before. But they were all brilliant in both directions, and very quickly settled into a routine of siestas and eating late with us in the evenings, either a BBQ at the villa (with Spanish Mystery Meats) or in one of the resort’s many eateries. They played really nicely together all week, and our family afternoons splashing in the pool with armbands, boats and lilos were really fun, happy hours. The girls’ swimming lessons paid off with lots of confidence and I was so proud to see DD earnestly padding her way across the pool with her woggle under her arms. DS made endless requests for a ‘drink and a snaaaaack’, usually in the form of those lovely biscuits you only get on holiday that are like two rich teas with choccy in the middle. Nom nom nom.

Me and S were pleasantly surprised how much downtime we got – there were periods when all the children were asleep in the afternoon when the grown-ups could ACTUALLY SUNBATHE AND READ by the pool (I got through When God Was a Rabbit, Michael McIntyre’s Life and Laughing, and halfway through Caitlin Moran’s brillantly funny How to Be a Woman). Can you imagine such a thing? As a mummy who is always always rushing round and juggling kiddies and work and domestic stuff, and always on a deadline, this was beyond luxe, frankly, and made it a far more relaxing holiday than I dared to expect. We even managed some eyeing up of the ripped pool guy (which led to J declaring his wife was a ‘visual slag’). And the whole mastectomy swimsuit/dressing-up-booby thing was fine, honestly, you would never know it was Tits v1.5 software under there.

I had treated myself to a few new dresses, mainly from Phase Eight, mainly in VERY bright colours, and spent the entire week in flip flops, apart from Date Night. Both couples had a night out with the other two babysitting, which we spent in the restaurant and the piano bar of La Manga’s hotel. I wore my astonishingly high new tan wedges, which I fell off, Naomi Campbell-stylee, on several occasions, firstly slipping on a wet floor on my entrance to the restaurant (pride dented as much as knee, obvs) and then on the walk home, which was entirely the fault of the three margaritas I drank while we played rummy and watched the sharking action in the piano bar. Crowds of golfers in their 30s, 40s and 50s who may or may not have been married were eyeing up the very slim pickings of girls in the bar. Tres funny.

I’ve even come back with as much of a tan as I ever get – I’m now a pale biscuity colour and my freckles are starting to join up. I look pretty healthy, actually, although my hair is a dry, frizzy mess and I long to have my long, shiny locks back.

But all good things must come to an end. I was surprised to find myself in tears as we drove out of the resort and headed back to Alicante (incidental note to everyone: NEVER follow me and DH into a strange foreign city. We WILL fail to navigate the one way system, get lost, panic and have a row).

When we booked the holiday, in February, I was only halfway through my chemo and S and J’s DS was just getting over his latest op. It seemed like a long way away for all of us, something to look forward to and keep us going, but I think we all felt there was a possibility we might not actually get there. It seemed like a bit of a dream after such a long, shitty time for both families. And then we were there, in the hot, blinding, Spanish light at the end of the tunnel, and it was really, really special. A week of newly minted, happy memories to replace the nightmarish quality of the past many months.

I usually love getting back to home sweet home after a holiday, but this time it was a shade less great being back in our cosy house, in our own beds. Because after a week of heaven, I have come back to Earth with a bump. It’s not just post-holiday blues. In about an hour, I will be having my first of 20 radiotherapy sessions, every week day for four weeks. DH is coming with me for the first one, because although I am sure it will be fine, I am scared, and resistant, and tired after two sleepless nights, and fed up of this caaancer-fucking, and just want my sodding life back.

I just have to remind myself that being zapped will give me a far greater likelihood of many more fun family holidays. And I need something else to look forward to. Roll on Disneyland Paris on 2 August… I’ll let you know how the radio ga ga goes.