Closing the door on cancer

On Saturday Dan and I moved out of the flat we’d been renting since the week after my breast cancer diagnosis. We moved in during July 2015 and at the end of April 2016 we moved out. It’s quite a short time to live in a home but a lot happened in the nine short months we lived there – I had a lumpectomy and lymph node clearance, fertility treatment, six rounds of chemotherapy, three hospital stays and 20 rounds of radiotherapy. Our life revolved around my treatment and I wasn’t well enough for much else for the majority of the time.

Whilst my treatment is ongoing, my life is no longer dictated by chemo and radio and I’m able to rebuild my life; a life post breast cancer. I have a new job and Dan and I have become home owners. This exciting change has meant I can close the door on the home I lived in during the most challenging time of my life.

Moving out of my flat felt so symbolic. As Dan and I packed the car up with the last of our belongings, I had to go back to the flat one more time, alone, to say goodbye. Weirdly, I had to spend a moment in the bathroom. It’s a strange room to want to bid farewell to, I know, but it’s the room I associate most with my cancer; it’s where my hair washed away, it’s where I was sick, it’s where I sat in pain. It’s also where I had to dig deep within myself.

I’m grateful to those four walls, they kept me warm when I was cold. But now it’s time to move on and leave that behind, for good.

On Saturday, as the door to that bathroom clicked shut for the final time, I gave it an extra tug. I did the same with the front door. And the door to the carpark. Chapter finished – diwedd.

 
 

What’s radiotherapy like?

This week I finished my radiotherapy treatment. The four weeks have flown, despite the 90 minute round trip in the car each day to Poole hospital.

Dan sent me some beautiful sunny roses to mark the occasion and we’ll be going out on Saturday to celebrate this as well as our five year anniversary and hopefully a Wales win in the rugby.

Before the celebrations, I wanted to share my experience of radio with you…

Before starting radio, about half way through chemo, I had an appointment with a specialist doctor to arrange the next stage of treatment. We discussed what radio would involve and the possible side effects. With all that was going on with chemo, I’d forgotten much of what was discussed but this wasn’t a problem as we went over everything again in the pre-radio appointment, about a week before starting.

At the pre-radio appointment I was given the tattoos that were mentioned in the initial appointment – permanent marks that would make life easier for the radiologists. I had imagined the tattoos would be a series of ‘blobs’ the size of bindis but instead I have three tiny pinprick dots on my chest which you wouldn’t notice for looking. Before having the tattoos I’d read forums where people had said they’d chosen not to have them because they didn’t want the ‘constant reminder’. I wonder if these people would have made the same decision if the term tattoo wasn’t used and if they’d realised how tiny the ‘tattoos’ would be.

In the radiotherapy department, there were two machines, named Elekta 1 and Elekta 2, on which I would be treated. At the pre-radio appointment, I was given a list of my appointment times and which machine I’d be treated on each day. Ahead of each appointment I put my appointment slip in the box so the team knew I’d arrived and got changed into the hospital gown I’d been given, before taking a seat in the waiting area.

Once called to Elekta 1 or 2, I removed the hospital gown from the area to be zapped, laid down onto the machine and the radiologists lined up the machine to the three tattoos, which was the part that took the most time. Once the radiologists were happy that I was positioned in exactly the right spot (the same position every day) and that the machine was lined up, they left the room and the radiation did its thing. During the first three weeks of appointments, I was zapped (I’m sure there’s a technical word for it) in three places; either side of my breast (where the cancer had taken hold) and the area around my collar bone (where cancer cells would spread next, if it were to have travelled).

My appointments were early morning, around 9:30 every day. This suited me well as it meant I could get straight back to work and settle for the day. On the first couple of mornings, I found the process very emotional, I can’t explain why. It’s odd being exposed where you’re never normally exposed to strangers and having them looking at and touching your chest. You’d think by now I’d be used to that but somehow it was different this time.

By the end of the first week, I was accustomed to the routine and the friendly radiologists kept me entertained with their chat and 80s music. Every one of the large team of radiologists was truly lovely.

In the final week they zapped the site of the cancer. This treatment was a lot quicker than the previous weeks as they had to line the machine up just the once.

Possible side effects include tiredness, aches and pains, lymphoedema, nausea/vomiting and a skin reaction similar to sun burn.  I was really lucky to only feel mildly tired. For the tiredness I drank lots of water and to avoid a skin reaction I was using My Trusty Little Sunflower Cream (a cream designed for people recovering from burns) twice a day from a week before radio started and I’m still doing that now as the peak of treatment is 10-14 days after finishing.

How did your radio experience compare? Are you about to start radio? Feel free to ask any questions and share your experience in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, here are my top tips for getting through radiotherapy treatment:

Don’t wear your best white bra 
They often use a pen to exaggerate the tattoos or to mark a specific area and the marks can transfer.

Take someone along to your first couple of appointments
Like everything unknown, it’s a bit daunting at first so it’s good to have someone waiting for you when you come out of your appointment.

Get some My Trusty
The rays can take their toll on your skin. I was really lucky that my skin didn’t react and I’m 99% sure it was because I was lathering on My Trusty Little Sunflower cream. Get into a twice daily cream routine and you won’t regret it.

Take it easy
The radiation can make you tired so you don’t want to be trying to do too much. Listen to your body and if that means going to bed at 8pm or getting someone to drive you to the hospital, that’s fine, just take it in your own sweet stride.

Those are my recommendations, what are yours? Please share them in the comments below.

Lots of love,
Becky xx

Top 10 tunes to get you through cancer treatment

Here are my top 10 tunes to add to your ‘get through it’ list. See it as a mix tape from me to you.

10. Fly Away Home is one of my favourite films and this song is one of the reasons why. It’s both uplifting and moving, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Mark Isham, First flight from the film Fly Away Home

9. This song does what it says on the tin – we can all be hard on ourselves and others even when we’re carrying heavy loads. This is definitely one to dance around to – forget your worries and throw some shapes!
Jess Glynne, Don’t be so hard on yourself

8. Sometimes running away from it all seems like the best option but by facing treatment head on shows how strong we are – stronger than we know.
Naughty Boy featuring Beyonce and Arrow Benjamin, Runnin’

7. This piece has a beautiful and strong cello part. Close your eyes and enjoy…
Ludovico Einaudi, Two Sunsets or Due Tramonti

6. Since moving to the sea, I’ve found myself sat on the sand watching the waves and feeling their healing energy. This song is about being thrown into the deep end and the tide creeping in.
Ellen and the Escapades, When the tide creeps in

5. I love Georgia Ruth and is one of my GR faves. During chemo, I liked to think about when ‘winter’, ie chemo, would be over and I could look back and say, ‘well that was winter’.
Georgia Ruth, Winter

4. This song makes me think of my Dan and how much he’s supported me – he’s held my hand through some hard times and I’ll always be grateful to him for letting me lean on him.
Jess Glynne, Hold my hand

3. We all need a good feel good power ballad sometimes – crank it up, girls!
Alicia Keys, Girl on fire

2. This song was originally written by the folk singer, Dafydd Iwan, about famine in Ethiopia, but recently it was re-recorded by a group of Welsh artists, including Iwan, to promote Irfon Williams’ campaign to get access to a drug that’s available on the NHS in England, in Wales. The good news is, after a long fought campaign, Irfon and his supporters were successful and the drug is now available in Wales. I love this version of the song and hope you do too.
Welsh artists, Hawl i fyw/Right to life

1. This one is for all the amazing women who have supported me through this shitty time. Thank you for being part of my sister act.
Patina Miller, Sister Act

Getting back to fitness after chemo

I’ve always enjoyed running but in the year before my breast cancer diagnosis I was running more than ever. It was a great way to get some exercise and made my commute from East London to Surrey far more tolerable. And now, living on the coast and being able to run along the beach makes exercise even better.

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Ahead of starting chemo I’d hoped to exercise throughout the treatment or on week three of each cycle, at least. But when my body was being put through its paces, chemo paces, getting to the gym or going for a run couldn’t have felt more impossible – basic tasks left me out of breath so their was no puff for running and the like.

Whilst I absolutely wasn’t capable of physical exercise, it didn’t stop me craving a run along the beach. The fact that other people having chemo were managing to exercise and, in some cases, run 10k races days after treatment made my frustration worse. In the days following chemo I was often found in a hospital bed, which goes to show how differently we all react to the drugs.

The fact that my reactions were quite severe made me even more determined to get exercising as soon as I could. The weight gain side effect of the drugs is also a huge motivation for me to get my heart pumping and muscles working hard, so much so that I signed up to two 10k races – Cancer Research’s Race for Life in Bournemouth in June and Cardiff in July – before finishing my course of chemo.

At the time of signing up, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to run them – when you get out of breath walking 10 paces, a 10k couldn’t feel like more of a challenge. I also had radiotherapy to go and wasn’t sure how I’d react. I’m now 12 days into four weeks of radio and whilst I’m still not 100% certain I’ll be running a decent 10k by June, I’m determined to give it my best.

So how do you get from zero to 10k in five months?

The eight week training plan from Women’s Running is my starting point.

I printed out the plan and joined the gym for a month to run on the treadmill. The first gym session involved running for a minute and walking for a minute for 20 minutes. The running-walking thing lasted for five minutes before I felt like my teeth were going to fall out from exertion so I walked for the remaining time. After three more gym sessions I managed the full 20 minutes of alternate walking and running – in the space of a week I’d come along way. It’s amazing how quickly the body adapts.

Running on a treadmill isn’t my idea of fun and now the weather is starting to feel spring-y, I’m back to beach running. The sun and the view really lift my spirits – I feel so lucky to have such a beautiful setting at my feet.

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With the beach calling and the sun beckoning, I’ve been on four four-ish kilmometer runs this week, which have taken about half an hour, including pauses for breath and a couple of speed walking intervals.

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My bloods are starting to get back to normal so breathlessness is less of an issue but keeping up the endurance is definitely a case of mind over matter. Whilst there’s no shame in stopping for a break, I feel like it’s my brain stopping me and not my legs. That said, it’s really important to listen to your body and taking it slow and steady is essential. That’s why I’m really proud of my ‘measly’ 4k. I’m getting into my rhythm and it’s going to get easier but I’m being sensible with my body. My next goal is to make the 5k run to Boscombe pier by the end of next week – I’ll let you know if I make it!

If you’re looking to get back to fitness after chemo, it’s worth speaking to your oncologist. My oncologist suggested starting with stair walking or getting a step for exercise if you live in a flat. Also, lots of gyms offer a free month or two for people referred by their doctor. I was really excited about this (I know, I need to get a life) but be warned, the gym may take their time in setting it up (I’m still waiting for my free membership weeks after being referred by my doc).

Good luck with your journey back to fitness and let me know how you’re getting on

Becky xx

 

Chemo skincare saviours

Chemotherapy certainly takes its toll on the body, both inside and out. It’s an invasion that doesn’t leave a single cell untouched – that’s the whole purpose really, isn’t it; to bleach out the bad cells. Unfortunately it doesn’t leave the good cells unscathed; chemo drugs target all rapidly dividing cells and as a result, they leave their calling card with hair, skin and nails too.

Today I want to talk about skin and nails. Hair is another ball game for another day.

Throughout my chemo I’ve received some fantastic skincare gifts from some truly lovely people and I wanted to share the ones that worked best for me. Here are my top five chemo skincare saviours:

My Trusty Little Sunflower cream

my trusty

Perfectly named, this cream is the business. Available in body butter, a non-perfumed moisturiser (my preference) and a lavender scent, as well as other products, it was originally designed by Salisbury District Hospital for burns victims and people having plastic surgery so you can imagine it’s pretty strong stuff.

Initially I was skeptical (my skin wasn’t instantly soft and smooth after one application) but after three or four uses I couldn’t believe the difference it made. It’s a natural cream that really moisturises and it absorbs quickly (even the body butter) so you don’t have to wait ages for it to dry before getting dressed – a big tick for me.

I’d recommend using it all over your body, focusing on particularly dry areas and your scar (I use it on my scalp too, when it’s flakey or itchy) every other day so your skin can still make it’s own natural oils.

My trusty tops the list because it’s natural, it works wonders after just a few uses and all profits go straight back into Salisbury Hospital patient care – everyone wins.

It’s not particularly cheap but it’s worth it and the online shop often has deals. A number of shops across the UK stock the cream and I’ve also seen it in my hospital pharmacy so keep an eye out for it when you’re picking up meds.

Olive oil soap

ooil

You need this in your life, ladies and gents. A friend of mine brought me a bar back from Italy and it’s working wonders. It completely got rid of the dry, itchy scalp I’d been having after just one use. I use it two or three times a week on my head and every day on my body – it really locks in the moisture. This, combined with a lathering of My Trusty is a marriage made in moisture-matrimony!

Olive Oil soap is a real hit for me. I had no expectations but was amazed how quickly it did the trick on my scalp. It’s reasonably priced, it’s natural and it works quickly. That’s my kind of skincare!

You can buy bars made in the Mediterranean easily from Holland and Barrett, the Vitamin grocer and other online sellers.

Neal’s Yard Organic Shea Nut and Rosehip lip balm

I’ve never been one for lipbalms but my gorgeous friend, Lauren, said this balm holds the answers to the questions chemo would ask of my lips and she wasn’t wrong.

I’m still guilty of neglecting my lips but when I do remember to use it, it really makes a difference. I’ve found my lips have been soft and healthy looking, despite the winter cold and irregular application.

If your lips are calling for some TLC, head to Neal’s Yard shops or buy online.

Drapoline

Ahh bottoms. First it’s boobs, then it’s bottoms…

Thanks goodness for Drapoline – it’s not just for babies you know.

Drapoline is readily available in supermarkets and pharmacies so you won’t have trouble getting your hands on a pot. It’s not exactly natural but when it does the job, I’m willing to make that compromise.

Defiant Beauty Nail Oil

nailI’ve been lucky with my nails – they haven’t turned black and they haven’t fallen out * touches wood *. I’ll be honest, I haven’t done anything to prevent this – my nails have been au natural 90% of the time and I’ve not done much with them, except occasionally use this lovely nail oil from Beauty Despite Cancer. I’m not suggested that the oil prevented any colour change or nail loss but it seems to have kept them relatively strong.

My oil came in a beautiful gift set from my work colleagues but you can buy the oil separately too.

 

These products were my skin saviours and I’d love it if they work for you too. I have naturally dry skin and different skin types will respond differently but if any of these work for you, let me know!

What potions and lotions helped your skin survive chemo? I’d love to hear your recommendations 

The day I thought would never come is finally here

Today, the 15th January 2016, brings my final chemo session – yippie, whoop, harrah!

It brings a feeling of elation as well as a battle to hold back tears of happiness and gratitude that I am able to say my chemo is coming to an end, hopefully forever.

I feel like I’ve reached a HUGE milestone and learnt so much about myself along the way so what better time to share a bit of the journey to get here than today.

It’s been a challenging ride. Even before chemo began the not knowing what to expect was bizarre; there are many different drugs and everyone reacts differently, so other peoples’ experiences were often lost on me.

Then there was the first round of chemo. From the moment they administered the first drug – Herceptin followed by Docetaxel and Carboplatin – I was waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Am I going to vomit (my main concern)? Am I going to feel fluey? Is my hair going to fall out right now (I’d brought a headscarf just in case)? Little did I know that any reactions experienced in the oncology bay would be the least of my worries.

It wasn’t until day three that I really felt the chemo hit – the mouth ulcers, the hot flushes, the exhaustion, the sickness. Looking like a cross between a 15 year old boy and Sandi Toxfig didn’t exactly help my morale either thanks to an outbreak of steroid induced spots and my newly cut barnet. Talking of hair, that was another waiting game – when would it fall out?

The second round of chemo came and alas – Sandi Toksvig was as thick as ever and showing no signs of going anywhere. I was beginning to feel like I’d aged myself 20 years for nothing. Still I’d heard the effects of chemo could build and so the apprehension was ever present.

I was wrong about Sandi, she wasn’t as stubborn as I’d given her credit for. The hair loss started slowly after the second round – malting just a little more than usual. A week later and it was coming out in clumps EVERYWHERE!

Round two brought my first hospital stay. I’d caught an infection but I was also neutropenic (low white blood cell count) so I couldn’t fight it. The drugs worked wonders and I was allowed out on my birthday, feeling a million dollars. My first port of call was to the hairdresser. The time had come to shave what was left of my balding scalp – on my own terms. My hairdresser, Tasha, was amazing – we had a laugh (see ya later Sandi) and there were no tears. There was no charge either. It’s times like these you realise how kind people can be.

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My new look

Round three brought another hospital stay – the biggest test of all. On arrival to the hospital my dad had to practically carry me to the ward, I’d never felt so weak before. Unfortunately I had to get worse before I could get better but I did get better, thanks to the fantastic team of docs and nurses.

After round three I was terrified of the next dose and the end had never felt more distant. Luckily my oncologist was on a mission to keep me out of hospital, warning me that chemo can kill (like anyone needs to hear that?!) so they couldn’t risk another hospital stay. Her stern words came with an adjusted dosage of the relevant drugs and boy has it made a difference. The last two cycles haven’t been fun but they’ve been easier than before and I’ve stayed out of hospital (phew). I’m hoping round six will be no different.

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We did it – Team Jones (with mum taking the photo)

So here I am, finally the day is here. I now have three weeks until my last cycle finishes. Now all I can think about it how much I’m looking forward to sipping some celebratory prosecco (pass me a pint glass) and seeing fewer bodily fluids – I’m over that lark, thank you very much!

How would you describe your chemo experience? How did you feel when it came to an end? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.

My breast cancer diagnosis was a strike of luck

Yes, you read that correctly – my breast cancer diagnosis was a strike of luck. Well, three strikes actually:

Lucky strike #1: I found a lump purely by accident 

I discovered a lump when waking one morning. In a lazy daze I rolled to press snooze. As I did so I brushed my left boob and felt something that didn’t feel like much like boob. I was instantly awake. After further inspection I could feel a brazil nut size lump.

Dan and I discussed it, thinking it was probably a cyst and nothing to worry about but we agreed I’d go to the docs, just to be safe.

Lucky strike #2: The doctors aired on the side of caution

A week later I had a breast examination with a junior doctor. She was lovely – asked about family history of breast cancer (of which there is none) and other symptoms like weight loss (of which there were none). Her verdict was that she thought it was most likely a cyst but she was going to chat to a colleague between appointments to get her opinion. She’d call me to let me know the outcome. The call came and they had decided to refer me to The Royal Marsden in Sutton (down the road from where I lived at the time) to check the lump out, just to be safe. 

Lucky strike #3: The nurse thought twice 

A fortnight later, I rocked up at The Royal Marsden. It felt strange to be there. It’s a dedicated cancer hospital and as someone who didn’t have cancer, I found walking past so many very ill people in the corridors incredibly humbling. After arriving on the Breast Cancer Rapid Diagnostic Clinic, I was seen by a specialist nurse who examined my breast. She said it felt like a cyst, that it was nothing to worry about and was I ‘happy to leave it there?’. Having read the leaflet sent by The Marsden, I was expecting a little more than an examination and was slightly confused over what she meant by ‘leaving it there’ – I was expecting to have a scan of sorts, at least. In response to my surprised reaction, the nurse decided to send me for a scan, just to be safe.

It was the scan that followed and the subsequent biopsy that revealed I had stage three breast cancer. It just goes to show you how important it is to check yourself and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to the doctors who aired on the side of caution and the nurse who thought twice. If either of them had made different decisions, my future prospects may not be looking quite so bright. I was lucky to be diagnosed when I was.

It could have been easy to overlook a healthy young woman with no family history of breast cancer because it’s not all that common, hence it happens all too often. This is something Kris Hallenga has experienced first had. When Kris went to her GP about a ‘lumpy boob’ aged 23 she was told it was probably hormonal, after all she was too young for breast cancer, right? Six months later and the lump was ever present so Kris and her mother insisted upon a referral.

Two months later and with an ‘avocado-sized lump’, Kris finally discovered she had breast cancer. Not only did she have breast cancer but it had spread to her spine and was now stage four – as advanced as it gets. Since then, the cancer has spread to her liver and her brain. Had the cancer been diagnosed on her first trip to the doctors, she could be cancer free right now. Instead, as Kris puts it, ‘cancer is kind of my life these days’.

Kris
Kris Hallenga, founder of CoppaFeel!

But rather than sitting back and festering at cancer, Kris and her twin sister have used their experience to set up cancer charity, CoppaFeel!, to spread the message that breast cancer does affect young people. After all, it’s not as freakishly rare as you might think – in the UK, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women under 40 and around 2,100 new cases are diagnosed each year in women aged 20-39 according to Cancer Research UK.

CoppaFeel! encourages young men and women to get to grips with their breasts and regularly check them for lumps, bumps and anything that doesn’t feel normal. As someone who found my lump by accident, I’ve become very aware of how important it is to check yourself. So if there’s one thing you do today, let it be a quick boob check and with this easy to understand guide from CoppaFeel!, you have no excuse not to. If you notice something that doesn’t seem right, get on to your doctor – you have nothing to lose by getting it checked and potentially a lot to lose if you don’t.

 

‘When the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly’

“The transformation from chrysalis can take weeks, months or even years – mine took one year. And although I have become this person, I’m still in the midst of a larger transformation, one that I won’t recognise until I look back at me now and say ‘who was that girl?’ We are constantly evolving; I suppose I have always known that, but because I always knew that, I feared stopping, and it is ironic that it was only when I finally stopped that I moved the most. I know now that we never truly stop, our journey is never complete, because we will continue to flourish – just as when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” Cecelia Ahern, The Year I Met You

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Starting my first post with a quote might seem like a bit of a cop out – a cheat to ease me into a bare canvas. Maybe it is but it’s also significant. It’s a quote from my favourite author, Cecelia Ahern, taken from one of her more recent books, The Year I Met You.

Why is this collection of words noteworthy?

In July I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following months were a whirl of operations, hospital visits and treatments. I felt like I was trapped in a bubble, feeling my way through augmented reality. It’s only now, nearing the end of my chemotherapy treatment that I’m beginning to see things clearly and fully digest what’s been happening and what’s going to happen.

As a result of this newfound clarity, I’ve been able to think about who I want to be and what I want to achieve with this life I’m lucky to have. In essence, I’m beginning my own transformation from chrysalis.

One positive I want to come from my experience is a blog; if I can share my experience and make things just a little easier for other young whippersnappers going through cancer diagnosis and treatment then I’ve achieved something huge.

That said, I’m not 100% sure what the blog is going to become – what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to be organised. I’ve considered not posting until I’ve figured this out but who cares that there’s no fancy design or integrated twitter feed right now. What matters is it’s going to grow, evolve, metamophasise into something. What matters is I’ve made a start, just as I’m making a start on my journey to recovery.

2016 is going to be the year I create and nurture my own blog, it’s also going to be the beginning of my transformation from a chrysalis. It might take weeks, months or even years but I’m making a start.

Just as when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly…