Friday, 6 April 2018

Lifestyle changes for sharks

There's been a great deal of coverage of Cancer Research UK's report on 'preventable' cancers. Of the 38% of preventable cancers, 15% are caused by smoking and 6% by obesity. I am a huge fan of CRUK's work, but I have to say that this is not a ground-breaking revelation. It is also not particularly helpful to cancer sufferers who have gone through enough with all the horrors of cancer treatment and certainly don't need to be told that they are in some way culpable for their illness.

The implication that cancer is, in some cases, caused by 'lifestyle factors', is, for a tee-total pescetarian who exercised regularly and never smoked a cigarette, more than a teeny bit annoying.

So, I was interested to interrogate this assertion a little further. On CRUK's website it is stated that "cancer is primarily a disease of older people...on average each year, half of the cases in the UK were diagnosed in people aged 70 and over". We're simply living longer. So, unless older people throw caution to the wind when they hit the big 7-0, and start chain-smoking and over-dosing on pies, their lifestyle is not really an issue.

I also wondered if cancer is a new phenomenon based on our diet, environment and sedentary lifestyle. There are a few things to consider here. The world's oldest documented case of cancer was reported in ancient Egypt in 1500 BC. I suspect that the ancient Egyptians did not lounge around on comfy sofas doing nothing (in fact, they had only low level wooden stools) but were largely pretty hands-on working as bakers, soldiers and farmers. Could this really be a cancer-causing lifestyle?

Another mystery is why animals get cancer. Now, I've seen some particularly fat cats and waddling dogs, but is their 'lifestyle' really causing cancer? Well, no, of course not. Scientists have known for more than 150 years that sharks get cancer and they're not snacking on junk food, but anything from molluscs to seals. And they can suffer from melanoma. An opportunity for shark sunglasses perhaps?

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, cancer accounts for 10% of animal deaths and even threatens some species with extinction such as Tasmanian devils. Viruses are also responsible for cancer in turtles, dolphins and porpoises. If only they could smoke less and swim a little faster, their outlook might be better.

OK. This is largely tongue-in-cheek. And, of course, it's important for everyone to live the best and healthiest life they can. That's a message we can all agree on. But for those of us who have, or have had cancer, it's not new and it's certainly not your fault. But as for this giraffe...


Amanda

Friday, 16 March 2018

Molehills and mountains

Well it's been nearly two and a half years since I was diagnosed as having "months not years" to live on 21st October 2015.

The many mountains I have climbed (metaphorically speaking, I am a rubbish walker) have been well documented on this blog. So this post is dedicated to the myriad molehills that I have overcome since that momentous day. The little but ordinary things that make me feel 'normal'. Here are five of them...

1. I finally lifted my two-year-long self-imposed photography ban. I have not only appeared in photos, I have also initiated the capturing of my normal-sized head in a selfie. This was long overdue as Dean's new colleagues were convinced that I was too grotesque to be captured on film, kept out of sight in a dungeon or even worse, that I was entirely fictional.

2. I have had a bad hair day. Well, a few actually. My post-cancer hair looks fantastic when I've just 'stepped out of the salon'. However, I wake up in the morning looking like an 80s tribute act and on occasion, have terrified the postman.

3. I have thrown away the crocheted hat that I used to wear whilst I had no hair (exacerbated by a face the size of a small planet). Wigs and migraines proved to be a pretty horrible combination, so I bought some fake hair from the Cancer Centre and my wonderful friend Lucy made some silk hats and attached the long blonde fake hair. Amazing!
Me with a bald head, a wonderful hand-made silk hat and fake hair from the Cancer Centre.

Disclaimer: Not actually me. My face was twice this size.


 4. I no longer attract sympathetic looks. There's a subtle, but noticeable reaction that a person who is unusual in some way evokes (a bald head, a head-scarf, massive cheeks etc.). It's a double-take combined with a dose of curiosity and a pinch of sympathy. This is multiplied by ten if it's someone you know but hasn't seen you lately. There's a shock phase, then an embarrassment phase and then an over-exaggerated trying-to-hide-your-horror phase. Now, it's a more favourable "don't you look well?" comment, unless I've just come back from a run and I'm red-faced and huffing and puffing with the exertion.

5. One molehill I still struggle with is cancer advertising. I think that cancer gives you an empathy booster switch and I can't watch a cancer ad or programme without crying my eyes out. I watched Stand Up 2 Cancer's celebrity bake-off including Bill Turnbull, knowing that his cancer had spread, but also that he didn't know about it at the time of filming. In the video at the end, he was so lovely about his family and endearingly candid about the spread of his life-limiting cancer, inspiring others to act rather than ignore their symptoms.

So, if you're suffering from cancer and have a huge climb ahead, just be assured that it's amazing on the other side, and that you too will soon bemoan the multiple molehills of normal life! And, if you have any unusual changes to your body, speak to your GP. Early detection of cancer gives you a significantly better chance of recovering from this hideous disease and getting back to a gloriously normal life.

Amanda




Sunday, 11 March 2018

Cancer and Mums

For many, myself and my husband Dean included, Mothering Sunday can be a challenging day. We won't be jostling for a family table at a local restaurant or surprising our Mums with flowers. Both our Mums are gone, but certainly not forgotten.

But this is a cancer blog, so this post is a tribute to all those Mums who have been taken by cancer, to all those Mums who are suffering from cancer, and all those Mums who had to endure the devastation of watching their child, young or old, suffering from this hideous disease.

My Mum was profoundly affected by cancer. She lost two of her beloved brothers to it, and her beautiful niece who was also bridesmaid at my Mum and Dad's wedding. She would often turn up the stereo full-blast to listen to 'He ain't heavy, he's my brother' by the Hollies. Having lost my sister to Meningitis in 1992, and then having to endure watching me suffer from the savage effects of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and two brain surgeries, it was as much as she could bear. It is a great sadness to me that she never got to hear about my wonderful remission news.

Today will also be a sad day for Dean and his sister, whose Mum was taken by cancer only two years ago. A wonderful Mum with an effervescent personality, an infectious laugh and a passion for watching any kind of sport on TV (as long as it didn't include darts player Phil 'The Power' Taylor - she would switch off the TV instantly whenever he came on!) she is sorely missed.

For many of my friends, this is a tough day, as surrounded by ads and posters for Mother's Day gifts, they only have special memories of their Mums to hold on to. Some of them were lost to cancer, many to other diseases.

Other friends are doing everything they can to support their mothers through the ravages of cancer, wishing they could take it away from them and praying for respite and remission. Some of my friend's Mums are nursing a partner with cancer, or devastating diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer's.

And, of course, there are Mums who have cancer, or are in remission, and have plastered a smile on their faces whilst suffering countless debilitating treatments whilst still fulfilling their most important job...being a Mum.

Finally, there are some Mums whose young children have faced the terrifying ordeal of cancer and I can only imagine how painful this must have been.

So today, I thank God for all the mothers who have loved us and supported us, battled with loss and are now no longer with us. We are, or have been blessed to have you.

Happy Mother's Day!

Amanda



 


Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Suffrage, suffering and incredible women

So, today we celebrate the fact that it has been 100 years since women were given the right to vote. Our debt to them can never be paid. As this is a cancer blog, I thought I would take this opportunity to look back on the many women who have played a critical part in my cancer journey.


My breast cancer nurse
As part of the team who managed my first cancer, Triple Negative Breast Cancer, I was supported by a wonderful nurse who answered all my questions and responded quickly to any concerns or questions I had (and I had loads).

My neurosurgeon
A brilliant and highly skilled surgeon to whom I owe so much. I trusted this woman with my most valuable asset, my brain. She conducted not one, but two, life saving surgeries on my large malignant tumours. Her team are amazing too.

My radiotherapy advanced nurse practitioner
During my second burst of radiotherapy (Whole Brain Radiotherapy), I was so battered by this horrific treatment that I was literally brought to my knees. The head of the radiology team was a smart cookie and identified that my response to treatment was cause for concern. She got me straight into a bed in the Cancer Centre where I suffered two seizures. If this had been at home, there may have been a different outcome.

My GP
Another intelligent and intuitive woman, my GP was proactive and responsive in referring me for treatment when needed.

My palliative care practitioner
After my prognosis of 'months not years' in October 2015, I was assigned a brilliant woman to help me to navigate the various challenges of being terminally ill; sign-posting me to legal, financial and emotional support (and providing another wonderful woman who gave me weekly foot massages!)

My Mum
My enormously clever and caring Mum, who despite the horror of losing one daughter to Meningitis and two brothers to cancer, held it together and loved me throughout. It is heart-breaking to think that she never got to know that I would be in remission and still going strong (by the Grace of God).

My incredible friends
The precious and invaluable support from my friends was second to none. From my lovely church friend, an elderly former theatre nurse, to my indefatigable friends who rallied me round, bought thoughtful gifts, travelled across the country and from around the world to be there for me, supported causes that were meaningful to me and all those who provided kind messages of support on social media. I will never, ever forget that support.

My fellow cancer sufferers
It's sometimes (understandably) difficult for those without cancer to understand its rapacious impact on sufferers' lives. My fellow sufferers, many of whom have died and none of whom have escaped without physical and emotional scars, were, and continue to be, an amazing and relentless source of support and comfort.

So, today, as I celebrate the enormous sacrifices that women have made to gain us the vote, I also honour those women who have stood shoulder to shoulder with me, or brought their expertise to help in my personal struggle. Thank you all.

Amanda



Saturday, 30 December 2017

My soundtrack to cancer

I'm not a particularly musical person. My husband Dean thinks my musical tastes are appalling, and my Spotify playlists are at best, pretty ropey. However, during my cancer 'journey' there were many songs that summed up my state of mind, the emotional highs and lows and the transition from loss to hope.

This is my soundtrack to cancer:

You're All I Need To Get By - Aretha Franklin
This was played at our wedding, and is dedicated to Dean. Clearly Dean wasn't all I needed to get by (chemo, radiotherapy, whole brain radiotherapy and three surgeries were pretty pivotal), but he has been absolutely phenomenal throughout.

You're My Best Friend - Queen
I dedicate this to my unfailing supporter, best friend, ally, and defender, my Dad. Present at every appointment and every hospital admission, my Dad stayed strong even though his remaining daughter was looking like she may not make it. There are no words to describe how wonderful this man is. 

(Something Inside) So Strong - Labi Siffre
This disease with its partner in crime, migraine, did test my physical and mental strength. But, I'm still here...

No Surprises - Radiohead
Cancer delivered a fair number of punches and blows, a terminal diagnosis having me on the ropes (to over-use a boxing analogy). After repeated bad news, I just prayed for no surprises. 

Underdog (Save Me) - Turin Brakes
I knew I was spiritually saved, but there were many moments when I wanted to be saved from the grim realities of cancer.

Beat It - Michael Jackson
No-one 'beats' cancer although some are fortunate enough to keep it in abeyance. You just take arms against it with any tools you have at your disposal. Mine were friendship, love, prayer, faith and hope.

Faith - George Michael
Without it, cancer can seem insurmountable. For me, faith underpinned my journey.

Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel
There have been some very troubled waters in my life to date, but I have been blessed with the sturdiest of bridges that even Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been proud of.

Amazing Grace - John Newton
Such a beautiful hymn. 'Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. 'Tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.' These lyrics really resonated with me and still do. 

Can I Kick It? - A Tribe Called Quest
Well it was kicked, but mine was only a bit part whilst the key players (brain surgeons, oncologists and specialists) took centre stage.

Harder Than You Think - Public Enemy
Cancer treatment is freakishly hard, mentally and physically. However, the more it throws at you, the more you build up your inner strength (whilst your outer strength is that of a new-born chick).

With a Little Help from My Friends - Joe Cocker
As emotionally sung by Lady Kate at my 'pre-funeral funeral' (an unusual get-together of 200 friends and family to say my goodbyes), this absolutely cemented what I already knew. My friends are incredible.

BONUS TRACKS

Getting Better - The Beatles
Just when I was completely at peace with my lot, some green shoots appeared. Instead of the imminent death we had all prepared for, there was a joyous yet tentative period of improvement. Could this really be happening?

Feeling Good - Muse
What a turnaround! I was not only feeling well. I was feeling good.

One Day Like This - Elbow 
Despite numerous hiccups and false alarms, the unthinkable happened! Expecting the usual bad news, at an appointment to ascertain the results of a worrying thorax scan, my oncologist explained away the non-cancer related findings and unequivocally pronounced that I was in remission. Wow! You don't get many days like that. 

Jump Around - House of Pain
Cue, a blast of my favourite track, Jump Around. This mind-blowing miracle led to a celebration of life, God's grace, a good-bye to pain and a tentative step towards a new life.

Hallelujah - Alexandra Burke
God is amazing. Fact.

Go Where You Wanna Go - The Mamas & The Papas
Woo hoo! My driving licence was returned two years after my seizure. A huge step for me and a huge relief to everyone who had been patiently driving me around.

Heroes - David Bowie
Finally, this song is for all those who are going through cancer. To the survivors. To those who have lost their lives. To those who have lost a loved one. To everyone in my personal journey. You are heroes to me.

If you want to listen to this eclectic (or more appropriately) eccentric Spotify playlist, you can find it below.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

A year of ups and downs

2017 has been a year of ups and downs. On the up side I have been working (albeit from home) and loving what I do. I have built up my physical fitness by 'running' three or four times a week (still facing the embarrassing concept of being over-taken by septuagenarian walkers). I have had some incredible breaks in Spain and recently got my driving licence back (for one year). My driving, like my running, has been cautious and slow, but it's happening. My hair has grown back so the extensions were no longer needed, and has been cultivated by Sarah at Egotrip into a blonde bob. My beach-ball head has deflated sufficiently to make me recognisable as a human-being and apart from random post-cancer treats (shooting pains and the like) and periodic health scares to keep me on my toes, I am pretty much on the road to recovery.

This is an INCREDIBLE result, bearing in mind I was facing the prospect of my last few months on this glorious planet only two years ago. And, this is due to the almighty grace of God, the skills of my gifted oncologist and brain surgeon, the outstanding support of my awesome Dad, the patience and love of my wonderful husband, the mind-blowing backing of my friends and family, the understanding of my colleagues and the support offered by my Church, St. Lawrence's.

On the down side, I have recently lost a precious friend to this horrible disease, a partner in facing cancer with all its indignities and challenges. Another friend died from cancer in the same week, a supremely intelligent and talented man from church with an Oxford Doctorate and a complex mind. Others are still facing the disease, in and out of various treatment phases, but united in hope that they will soon be in remission and even cured. Some are in remission, but still struggle to come to terms with the impact that cancer has had on their lives, and the lives of those close to them.

So, as the year draws to a close, I pray for peace, for healing and for hope for my fellow cancer sufferers, survivors and supporters. I pray for the families of those who have lost friends to this abhorrent disease and those who are adjusting to life without their partners and loved ones.

I am dreaming of an uneventful and brilliantly ordinary 2018 and I'm ecstatically grateful to still be here.

Amanda



Wednesday, 6 December 2017

A tale of two titans

Yesterday a couple of friends shared a link with me about a new injection for migraine (you can read more at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42154668). Now, everyone who knows me is aware that I have suffered from debilitating migraines since I was 21. I was aware of migraines from my teens. My Dad suffered terribly from them, and I remember him being violently sick, collapsing with pain and even crying in agony. It was horrific to hear, and I couldn't imagine how bad it must have been to bring such a brave man to his knees.

After my finals at Oxford, I was having a super long lie-in (remember those?) until I was woken up with an all-encompassing, vicious and searing pain. I couldn't move from my bed and (rather melodramatically) believed that I had developed a huge brain tumour (strangely prophetic now I think of it) and that it was going to kill me. It was well before the days of mobile phones, so I was trapped in agony until it finally subsided.

These episodes continued for over twenty years, and I battled for a normal life, investing thousands of pounds in treatments whilst my migraines seemed to be 100% resistant to anything I tried.

So, when I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer in November 2013, I had another titan to contend with.

Far from receding politely into the background to let Cancer take over, Migraine decided to join forces and compound its endeavour to grind me down. After my first chemo, I had a hum-dinger of a migraine, triggered by one of the concoction of drugs administered via comically large syringes. Despite removing the offender from the next dose, my migraines raged on, and with a plethora of nasty side effects from the chemo, to say that I was struggling was understatement of the century. My Dad 'treated me' to a series of appointments with a private neurologist which basically included a couple of days of steroid infusions administered intravenously. I felt great, until I had a migraine in the car on the way home.

Cancer and Migraine continued to apply their combined might, and during the 'Whole Brain Radiotherapy' that was used to treat my first cancerous brain tumour (the second popped up only six weeks later), I was pretty much at the end of my tether.

Fast forward to today, and not only am I in remission from the Cancer, I have also not had a migraine for over a year. I can't identify the exact point that I noticed that I wasn't suffering from them any more, as you don't miss what you don't have, but what I do know, is that my two tormenters are noticeably absent from my life. God has been incredibly gracious to me and I am beyond grateful.

I hope that this new injection will help migraine sufferers to combat its devastating impact, and allow them to live a pain-free life. For those who have cancer and migraines, I pray that they may be healed of both.

Amanda

Dean and I athletically celebrating my pain-free life