Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Apricot Jam and Other Stories

My daughter and I have been getting up lazily late in our Parisian hideaway, and tucking in to pastries and croissants with apricot jam out of tiny jars every morning. Coffee for the old 'un, hot chocolate for the young 'un.

Yesterday we finally made it to the Musee d'Orsay, queued for an hour to get in and had lunch on the 5th floor behind the clock. It was magnifique to see all the paintings by the likes of Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Gaugin, Van Gogh and others who, in their time, revolutionised the way painters worked ... their stories are rich and fascinating and I wish I knew more. I studied History of Art to A Level but I have forgotten most of it now.

Anyway since then we have been on a boat trip along the Seine (pleasant, but at times a struggle to see past the hoards of frenzied iPhone waving tourists photographing everything and seeing nothing ...), done some shopping (Gucci bag madam? No, I didn't think so) and eaten traditional food like French Onion Soup and Croque Madame in bustling bistros, where the waiters are friendly and the service is brisk.

Today we explored the passages and back streets of the 2nd arrondissement, there is so much there we hardly scratched the surface, but what we saw we loved.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Notre Dame Before Dinner

So much for art ... the Musee d'Orsay is closed on Mondays and the queue at the Louvre was gargantuan! So instead we wandered up through the statue garden and towards the Champs Élysées, stopping to take photos, eat crepes and swoon at the breathtaking beauty of Paris in the sunshine. It was very windy today so we had to wrap up a bit warm.

Later we went into Notre Dame, the iconic and vast cathedral many hundred of years old. There was a mass going on, so I sat on a wooden chair and listened to the priest singing and waited for the smell of the smoking incense to reach my nose. There were crowds of tourists milling about but it felt peaceful and respectful as we gazed up at the stained glass windows and gothic ceilings dangling candelabras over our heads.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Art and Artists

Tonight was the final of the BBC's Big Painting Challenge (not that I was home to watch it). I entered the programme's amateur artists' competition - the challenge was to paint something on the back of a postcard, and the top 1,000 entries will be exhibited at an art gallery in Manchester.

Tonight I am in Paris with my 14-year-old daughter. We arrived earlier today, feeling rather weary after a tiring week, and soon we will be snoozing in our French hotel room - classically boutique in style with its antique furniture, tall windows and floral wallpaper. We are in St Germaine, the buzzing beating heart of the Rive Gauche, but surprisingly our hotel room is fairly quiet. Tomorrow we are going to the Musee d'Orsay art gallery to marvel at the work of some truly great artists.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Flower Power

When I woke up on Mother's Day I knew I had to stay in bed and await my Breakfast in Bed. It arrived. I sat up and put my glasses on. On my plate was a pancake, a fried egg and a pastry. It was balanced on a tray with a card, some mummy-presents and a crocus from the garden. Lovely.

Because my Mum and Dad were coming round for lunch, I had bought some supermarket daffodils and tupils - which I squashed into a too-small vase - and when Big G got home from work late in the evening he presented me with a bunch of Happy Mother's Day flowers from the petrol station. It's the thought that counts, and I love that he thought of it.

Later in the week, I painted this picture of some of those flowers, whose lives had been cut short to enrich the profits of Big Business ... but who brightened up my home, my heart and my sketchpad on Mothering Sunday.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Wizardry in the Witching Hour

The early evening before the kids go to sleep, affectionately and wine-gluggingly known amongst parents as the witching hour, can evolve into a time of great enjoyment as your children get older.

When your kids are small, early evening is a tricky time of day. You're tired, they're tired, the house is a mess, your paperwork pile is silently scolding you for severe neglect, and there is always laundry to do. You go through the routine of fruit, tidy up, bath-time, pjyamas on, story-time, persistent playing and messing about as you coax and steer and try to persuade your little loved ones to calm down, get into bed and go to sleep. It's not easy. It's quite normal for the little darlings to get up again, call out, cry, demand another story, start asking questions in the hope that you will stay in their room for longer, and so on and so on and so on, until it gets late and you run out of patience, start shouting and everybody starts crying. The 'witching hour' is sometimes a warm, milk-sippingly cosy, loving snuggle ... and sometimes it is absolutely awful.

Over the last few years, my children have grown out of being hard work at bedtime. Aged 13 and 14, they have gradually become more independent and usually get themselves ready for bed, read and go to sleep without much fuss. I still need to be physically and mentally present, to make sure they go to bed at a reasonable time and have put their phones in the kitchen ... I still pop in to have a little chat and say goodnight ... and I need to be sufficiently aware of what's happening so that if they stopped brushing their teeth or started going to sleep with the curtains open I would know about it. But on the whole, my involvement ends with "it's getting late, GO TO BED!"

So Mums and Dads of small children, take heart. In time, you will find time to do what you want to do in the early evening. Last night at 7pm I decided the ever-present pile of outstanding chores could wait until tomorrow, and I got out my sketch book and started painting. The artwork isn't that good, and I don't expect anyone outside of the family will ever see it, but I don't care. That's not important. What's important is that when I sit down with a pen or a pencil or a paintbrush in my hand, some kind of wizardry envelopes me and nourishes my spirit ... I can't explain it, but Steven Pressfield does a brilliant job of explaining it in his book The War of Art - Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.

Having struggled with the witching hour for many years, this feels like progress.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Health Update March 2015

For friends and family! I love you all like chocolate. Here's a quick update on my health:

DRUGS: I finished my chemotherapy in mid-December so I am no longer grey of face and behaving in a sloth-like manner. I still get tired and need to sleep a lot, but the aches and pains have subsided and generally I feel a lot better than I did before Christmas. I am continuing to have my Herceptin administered intravenously every 3 weeks until the end of the year, but that's no big deal. I am meeting my GP next week about taking Tamoxifen for the next 10 years ... I'm concerned about side effects and whether it's worth doing, but we'll see how that pans out.

HAIR: The hair on my head is growing back, it's completely grey (some light but mostly dark) but it might go back to brown later (naturally or out of a bottle!) It's still extremely short so it's too soon to tell if it's going to be curly or straight, anything can happen after chemo-induced hair loss, but what matters for now is that I've got fairly good coverage over my scalp. I went to the spa on Sunday with my sister and was wig-free for the day - I got a few strange looks (who is that arty-farty skinhead, I imagined they were thinking) but I didn't much care. In 2 weeks my hairdresser is going to tidy it up with some scissors (just snip away the straggly bits) and then I'll be ready to face the world without my wig. A few people are going to be in for a shock! Changing hair so drastically will have a knock-on effect on the rest of my appearance - I'll start wearing earrings and more make-up, and I'm finding myself drawn to high-necked tops and paler colours. My eyelashes and eyebrows have come back nice and thick (and are probably two thirds of the way back to fully grown). This makes me very happy, as my eyes looked so bare and pale, and just plain weird, without eyelashes and eyebrows.

FITNESS: I'm about a stone lighter than I was a year ago, probably partly due to eating less or eating more healthily, but also because I walk a lot nowadays with Austin. I'm planning to start yoga in a month or so, but I don't want to take up any type of exercise that involves getting hot and sweaty until later in the year.

WORK: I went back in January and now do 3 days a week in the office until 3pm. That's enough for me at the moment. I'm busier than I used to be (B2B marketing) so I'm happier, and the people I work with are lovely. I can't say this job is my "calling" in life ... and I constantly struggle with the whole sitting-in-an-office-at-a-desk thing ... but the benefits (it's local, flexible, fairly easy, regular income) outweigh the downsides at this time when I need to be focusing on my well-being and not worrying about work. I'm doing a small amount of freelance work at home but much much less than before.

FEELINGS: I wrote about this in my last post. Overall I am feeling happy, positive and thankful, but I do have some deep-down post-cancer worries and feelings that I need to deal with. I'm writing a little bit in my journal most days, which helps me remember to stay calm, keep perspective, minimize stress & strain, look after myself, do things I enjoy, and generally put my well-being higher up my list of priorities than it ever was before. I do NOT find this easy! It would be very easy to slip back into old habits, but I'm determined to maintain a healthy immune system and make my body an unfriendly environment for the progression of cancer cells. It's going to take time.

G, L & B: They're all GREAT! And so is the dog.

Please keep in touch, I love to hear from extended family and far-away friends ... even though I'm not always great at replying.

That's it from me for now.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

"It's in the Trees, It's Coming!"

Wise people say that the months following chemotherapy can be more emotionally challenging than the cancer treatment itself.

This is because, whilst there is an expectation that now treatment is over everything is going to be fine, there are actually some unpleasant feelings lurking in the back of your mind that haven't been properly addressed yet. These feelings like shock, anger, guilt, sadness, anxiety and so on, often associated with grief and loss (of hair, health, identity, carefreeness, etc), can catch up with you when all the fuss has died down, and poke you in the eye with a stick.

Having read about this fact in one of the useful leaflets they give you at hospital, I put my name down for telephone/Skype counseling when I visited the Penny Brohn centre in October, even though there was a waiting list of several months. I floated slowly up the waiting list and today I reached the top and had my first telephone counseling session.

I was surprised and pleased with how it went. As I burbled on about myself, the small possibility of my cancer returning came up, and I said something that I hadn't said or thought before: "I feel like there's a gun pointing at my head". The gun may be small, far away, and it's hidden in the dark of the trees in the distance. It might not be loaded and it might never go off, but I know it's there and that's a bit scary.

After we said a cheerful goodbye and hung up, I lay down for a while in my daughter's bedroom where the morning sun pours in and it's super-warm. I then got up, made a cup of coffee, promised Austin we'd go for a dog walk soon and pondered the gun-in-the-trees thought.

It reminds me of this - a hauntingly beautiful and deliciously brilliant song by Kate Bush.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Today I Saw a Totem Pole

The end of January already. I've joined the growing army of contrary grumps who believe that January is the worst month to give up wine and crisps and start exercising ... drinking wine, eating crisps and hiding under a blanket watching TV are perfect activities for the month of darkness, cold and no money. So that is exactly what I have been doing.

February is different. Green shoots of spring flowers are daring to poke their tiny heads out of the frosty mud, and it isn't getting dark quite so early. I'm starting to feel like eating healthily and giving the wine a bit of a rest ... a feeling which, for me, usually precedes a period of creativity and optimism. So bring it on.

When I was hiding away, in the autumn and winter months of chemo, feeling poisoned, vulnerable and anti-social, I promised myself that 2015 would be the year of going places. Lots of holidays would be lovely but with school, work, limited money and a dog to think about, we can't realistically fill the year with holidays. However we can fill the year with interesting day trips and cheap weekends away, with some clever planning and shrewd bargain-hunting.

So today was the first such outing. We scrabbled into the car as early as we could - an unimpressive 10.45am - and went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, followed by lunch and a poke around the beautiful old Oxford University buildings. This small museum houses a curious collection of cultural objects past and present, grouped by how they were made or used, rather than by date or cultural origin. There are hundreds of displays of things like 'Body Art, Jewellery & Accessories' from different times, countries and cultures; 'Skates and Snowshoes', 'Smoking and Stimulants' and, rather irresistibly, 'Treatment of the Dead'. Absolutely fascinating. Pictured is a totem pole (it's so tall it reaches up to the second floor), which was bought for $36 in 1901 from the Haida community on the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the north coast of Canada. Apparently it was built by a fellow called Chief Anatlas of the Haida tribe, to celebrate his family's adoption of a young girl. I wouldn't have seen that if I'd stayed at home hiding under a blanket watching TV.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Whole of the Moon

This morning in the car I heard this song by the Waterboys.

Five minutes of wistful pop perfection from the 1980's, this song never fails to take me away to a place of giddy smiles and misty-eyed dreams.

I watch my fascinating teenage-kids, cast my mind back 30 years to teenage-me, and remember quite well how it felt. I see the tensions in their young lives, the passion, the yearnings, the fears, the confusion, the struggle. I see the ambition, the joy, the silliness, the effort they make and and the innocent longing to be something significant, somebody good and happy.

Sometimes they drive me crazy but my love for them is enormous and my belief in them and their future is huge. I hope they get to hold a rainbow in their hands.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Hope in a Bottle

I like washing my hair in the bath or shower nowadays. Because when I rub my head dry with a towel, all the soft, fuzzy new hair stands up on end and looks fuller than it does when it's been squashed flat by a wig or a headscarf. And I feel thrilled for a moment that my hair really is growing back!

And to make hair-washing even more exciting, today I started using a shampoo (in a pretty white and purple bottle) called FAST. This magic potion allegedly contains a special blend of herbs, vitamins and amino acids that make hair grow ... well, faster. I'm usually skeptical about this sort of thing, but as 438 reviewers on Amazon have given it on average 4 stars out of 5, I reckon it must be worth a try.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Waiting For My New Normal

Now that I have recovered from breast cancer surgery, my course of chemotherapy finished a month ago and I have just gone back to work ... I feel like I should be getting "back to normal".

The trouble is, I don't feel at all "normal". I have a great red scar stretching halfway across my misshapen, bony chest. I only have about 10 eyelashes and 20 eyebrow hairs left over my bare, weary-looking eyes. My head is covered with a short new layer of wispy pale grey fuzz, through which you can still see my scalp. There is a gadget, enabling easy access for ongoing intravenous drug needles, which is clearly visible under the skin near my neck. My muscles ache, my fingertips are tender and I am fairly tired most of the time.

Despite all of that, I feel good. Honestly, I do! I know that it takes to time to recover from chemotherapy; I'm strong and I'll tolerate, adapt and recover. I feel overwhelmingly lucky that my cancer was diagnosed so early, and treated so promptly with medicine that millions of people in the world don't even have access to. I have a family, healthy children, friends, a job to go back to, a car, food in the kitchen, a laptop to write on and a warm home to live in. My blessings are so plentiful that I'm almost embarrassed to list them (what a terribly British worry - not wanting to sound like you're boasting).

But do I feel "back to normal"? No. But until my "new normal" settles in and takes shape, I will just have to be patient.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Dreams of Leaving My Bubble

I've been having some bizarre dreams lately. Last night I dreamed that about 20 riotous kids were dropped off at my house for a sleepover, and the parents hadn't bothered to ask me if I would look after them. The downstairs was teaming with animals that I had to look after too - dogs, cats, badgers - and a comedy cartoon penguin that was hiding behind a curtain. Apart from the moment when I pulled back the curtain and the penguin and I exchanged shy smiles, the dream was rather stressful.

I think this was possibly a going-back-to-work-soon anxiety dream! I'll be going back on Monday, part-time as before, and my feelings about it are decidedly mixed ... a bewildering mix of excitement and terror, optimism and dread. For half a year I've been mostly hiding away looking after myself in my safe, quiet little bubble. So being back out in the real world, where people do actual work and don't wear sweatpants or take naps whenever they feel like it, is going to be something of a challenge.

I expect it'll be fine, I just need to get that first strange morning behind me. And maybe I can take the occasional nap under my desk when nobody's looking.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Back On The Drip

I am back in the Oncology unit today, but this time it's just for my intravenous dose of Herceptin, not chemotherapy drugs. These visits will continue every 3 weeks until November but hopefully it's no big deal, side-effects-wise, compared to what my body and head have been through over the last 4 months.

In fact I have rather enjoyed sitting still this morning and having time to think about what has happened to me and what might lie ahead. I read back through some of my chemo journal ramblings from September and October and shed a few tears, remembering, then I wrote a list of all the positive things I want to focus on this year. The themes are Recovery, Self-Care and Balance. How my ambitions have changed since this time last year!

Happy New Year dear blog readers. I hope 2015 brings you goodness, love and happiness ... after all, what else really matters?

Friday, 2 January 2015

Bumper Cars and a Castle

Christmas was jolly and everyone seemed happy enough. New Year's Eve was low-key but fun, as I had an old friend to stay. The house is halfway to tidy, and 'normal' life is trudging slowly over the horizon towards us.

For some strange reason my family visited Windsor 4 times over the holidays (it's half an hour away in the car). First of all, Big G took Little-Boy-B (and a friend) for his 13th birthday, and they went ice skating at the festive Windsor on Ice at Alexandra Gardens. Apparently the highlight of the afternoon was crashing and zooming around on the bumper cars - that timelessly reliable form of entertainment.

The second visit was 3 days later when Big G's sister arrived from the USA. I didn't go, but Big G went with her and the kids. Chocolate crepes and more bumper car rides, plus some awe-struck gazing up at the spectacular Windsor Castle, which is slap bang in the middle of the town and looms over everything.

I went on the third outing to Windsor. The kids and I met my sister and her kids, and the bumper cars were of course another big hit. We had lunch and strolled along the river - the visit was just long enough to feel we'd done something good, but not too long to tire me out completely. I could not wait to take my wig off and put my pyjamas on when I got home.

Two days later my friend was here to stay, so on New Years Eve we went to Windsor AGAIN! This time it was just Teen-Girl-L (and a friend) - they are old enough to go off shopping on their own so my friend and I had some time to chat about life's ups and downs over bowls of pasta. No bumper cars this time though. As darkness fell, one of the castle towers was lit up with moving Christmassy images of angels and heraldry and snow, it was lovely.

So thank you Windsor for your Christmas hospitality ... I probably won't be back for a while.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Counting Blessings

Last night we watched my favourite Christmas movie, The Polar Express. There are lobsters defrosting for bisque, twinkling lights around the house and a fridge stuffed full of food. We have wine and warmth, the presents are wrapped and none of us has a cold (yet).

There's so much to be thankful for, in my tiny corner of the world, and I'm counting my blessings.

One of the blogs I've stumbled upon recently is called Habitual Gratitude, by Lisa Valentine. Lisa believes in "the active practice of gratitude" and every day she writes about something to be thankful for. What a lovely habit to get into ... and what a great idea for 2015.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

6 Out of 6

The last of my 6 chemotherapy treatments was on Tuesday. It all went smoothly and I've had a couple of busy pumped-up days on anti-sickness steroids, getting lots of last minute things done in time for Christmas. I'm feeling energetic but I'm not sleeping well, so the tiredness is starting to creep in. I know that the weekend will be rough - it always is - but by next week I'll be on the road to recovery, without having to worry about the next chemo session. Because there isn't going to be one! I'm done!

My cancer treatment has dominated the second half of this year. I can hardly remember the spring and early summer, before my diagnosis. It seems like it was a different person, living that life. Many things haven't changed, but the way I feel about life has changed ... although all my fragile new thoughts and feelings are much too wobbly and jumbled to share yet on this blog.

The last week of the winter term is always a big yawn-fest. Over the last week my kids have dug deep and found the stamina to get through rehearsals, performances and exams, as well as the usual Christmas frivolities - they are exhausted and so ready for a holiday. Big G's sister will arrive from America next week, so we'll get the dog groomed and we've smartened up the bathroom and bought a new set of bed sheets in her honour. Let the Christmas season BEGIN!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Season Teller

There is a majestic old tree in our garden that casts a big shadow and tells how the seasons are changing. I took these photos of the tree this summer, autumn and winter. I always look forward to the happy spring tree, as the days get longer and the sun rises higher, the air warms up and tiny soft green leaves unfold to whisper a promise of renewal and fresh beginnings.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Ancient History Day

I love a good news story about an exciting historical artifact being found. So it made me very happy to read about the discovery of an original copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, the complete collection of his plays originally printed in 1623, that had been hidden away for 200 years in the archives of a library in northern France. Read the story here.

In the spirit of preserving ancient historical artifacts, today I went into the garage and dug out all my old forgotten drawings from the early 1980's to the early 1990's. A lot of the rubbish went into the recycle bin and I stuck the ones I liked into a scrap book. Some of the drawings are dirty or damp-damaged, having been stuffed into boxes for decades, but miraculously many have survived all of our house moves and multiple decluttering sessions.

There are several artists on my Dad's side of the family: My Grandma, my Dad, my cousin and some second cousins. When I was younger I used to love drawing and I did a lot of it ... but somehow life and work and other adventures took over as I grew up, and I guess I just got out of the habit. My pencils and sketch pads got buried in the back of a cupboard and my drawings were banished to storage. I'm thinking about starting art classes once my treatment is over - I don't know if I'll be any good any more, but it's worth a try, eh?

Here are a few of my favourite drawings from my teens and early twenties.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

From FEC to Taxotere

Having completed the last of my 3 doses of FEC chemotherapy (a cocktail of fluorouracil, epirubicin & cyclophosphamide), I had the first of my 3 doses of Taxotere (also known as Docotaxol) at the beginning of November. I felt surprisingly well afterwards between Tuesday and Thursday, probably while the anti-sickness steroid drugs were still flushing around my system, but by Friday I went downhill and felt quite poorly over the weekend and into the following week.

I felt very tired but, unlike with the feckin' FEC, happily I didn't have much nausea or light-headedness. And no fainting this time, hoorah! Instead I had some flu-like aches and pains, a small number of nose bleeds and dry flaky skin, which I know are common side effects, and - without wishing to go into too much detail - an upset tummy. What made this particular episode much worse than it might have been was having a heavy cold at the same time. Fortunately I haven't had many colds during my chemo, but this one wiped me out so I had a headache and sore throat to contend with on top of the usual post-chemo malarky. I had the second dose yesterday, and I'm hoping it won't be too bad as I don't have a cold this time (touch wood).

ANYWAY, that all passed and I felt very well then for about 10 days. This was a good opportunity for me to crack on with my Christmas shopping. Those who know me well know that I'm not usually this organised and generally put off my shopping until Christmas is perilously close. But as this year my 'feeling good days' are going to be limited, I wanted to get it out of the way when I had the chance. Most of my shopping was done online (in my pyjamas). I then spent a long day out shopping (not in my pyjamas), and then did a bit more bit on Saturday whilst waiting for my son to come out of the cinema. I reckon anything else I need can be bought locally, and most of it is now hidden away or on its way. After the side effects of my chemo treatment yesterday have passed, I'll do the wrapping and posting and food ordering before the LAST chemo dose on December 16th. My biggest challenge is going to be writing cards - I usually buy cards and don't write them, or I write them but don't send them - but this year I do have time, and I want to include my health & family news and thank people for their various gifts of flowers, cards, kind texts, Facebook messages of love and encouragement, food, offers to drive and help and so on and so on ... sending a Christmas card to say thank you for all that is the least I can do.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Enforced Glamour

There is a young woman who can usually be seen selling copies of The Big Issue on the streets of our town. She's been around for some years, although she is still quite young. Sometimes, if I have no cash or I'm in a hurry, I don't stop. But usually I do stop and buy one of her magazines and exchange a few pleasantries.

Today I saw her and asked her how she was, to which she replied, with her usual pained smile, "I'm tired today my love, I had a baby nine days ago so I'm very tired". Wow, congratulations, I replied, and asked her a few questions while she showed me a photo of a chubby little baby boy clenching his fists and dressed in a yellow sleepsuit. It can't be easy, standing out on the streets in the cold all day, trying to earn a living nine days after giving birth.

One of the reasons for going into town in the first place was to buy bottles of dark nail varnish. I don't usually wear the stuff, much to the annoyance of my 14 year old daughter who would love to paint my nails for me. However, I have just found out that Taxotere - the drug I'll be having for my next 3 chemo sessions - can have a damaging effect on nails if they are exposed to the light. So I've been advised to paint my finger and toe nails in dark colours for the duration of the treatment. How weird is that! Being forced to be more glamorous, for the sake of my health.