Does it ever get easier? 

I used to love autumn. I still do, just maybe not in the same way. With the arrival of September and summer days coming to an end, I knew it was time to schedule my annual check up and scans.

I’ve had such a wonderful few months of travel and of being a little more free from this worry that often hangs over me that breast cancer might return. 

A couple of weeks ago, I knew that I would have to schedule an appointment. Instead, I took up running 3 times a week, maybe to distract me, to run away from things but it had the opposite effect. I started feeling more wound up and exhausted. Cancer is such a head spin. I found it hard to push away thoughts of doom and gloom, even started to notice some lumps and some pain to my breast. During the run up to my scans felt like I was on hold, with no motivation to make any plans or schedule anything that I could look forward to. 

I stopped running and scheduled the appointment. I remember how anxious I felt last year going through the scans again and thought that surely this year it would feel a little easier. I can’t say that it did. The day of the scans arrived and I was a bundle of nerves. I guess my surgeon knows this now and knows how to handle this.

So grateful that Vic came with me and we sat down for a pre-chat, I told her my worries and that I had noticed some areas near the implant that might not seem right. She examined me thoroughly and said that it all felt absolutely normal and that she wouldn’t expect anything bad to come out of the scans. 

Next up was the mammogram. I would have preferred to skip this and go for the ultrasound and MRI but she convinced me that all show different things and she wanted to be as thorough as possible. I had forgotten how uncomfortable the mammogram was- ouch! Really? Has technology not moved on from literally squeezing a breast between two x-ray plates to the point of pain?

Next up the ultrasound to check the areas around the implant. The radiologist was a sweet guy I remember from last year and he also remembered me for being anxious. He calmly talked me through what he was looking at on the screen and after checking both side and comparing images with last year, he confirmed that all looked fine.

I immediately saw my surgeon after that who re-confirmed this. What an unbelievable relief! Probably the biggest relief I have ever felt – apart from last year after the scans. It’s an indescribable feeling. Like you’ve been given a gift. We hugged in a big embrace and she asked me to stay positive about the MRI which will take place in 10 days time. I asked her whether it would ever get easier, maybe after 5 years or longer? She didn’t think so. I’m clearly not the first or only patient to be this anxious. 

As I walked out and turned my face towards the warm autumn sun, I felt so alive and full of joy, ready to celebrate this little milestone and with optimism that the MRI will work out just fine.

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Lessons in letting go

It’s been a month since my trip and I often close my eyes, transport myself back, smile and feel calm. I joined over 20 people who came from different corners of the US on a Yoga retreat in Cuba. I was nervous initially – both about the long flight on my own as well as not knowing what to expect, what type of people I’d be meeting or how my days would pass. I have to say that it has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I had a wonderful week starting and ending each day with gentle yoga, healthy, organic meals throughout the day, beach walks, connecting with people from different walks of life and explorations of Havana. Having gone through last year’s experiences, Cuba was a lesson in ‘letting go’. Letting go of things I can’t change or have no influence over. In Cuba this typically meant letting go of the fact that taxis were booked and never turned up, no online connection and other things that we take for granted in our normal daily lives that just aren’t a given on the island. On a more personal level, I worked on letting go of the upset and anxiety.

Not being online all day every day has been a real eye opener. Conversations with people were no longer interrupted and no longer centred on the latest news or latest posts by other people. We only ever grabbed our phones to take photos. It made me realise that I spend every day obsessively checking and communicating via my phone. Having gone through this online detox, I have vowed to connect for work but otherwise leave my phone at a distance.

It was also good to disconnect from the life that is so familiar to me. Witnessing a totally different culture, which thrives on music, dance, laughter and Love rather than material possessions. It was a unique experience to meet Eduardo Pimentel, the Godfather of Cuba and not only take part in his yoga classes but also receive a one-to-one session from him. Some of the things he pointed out to me will stay with me for life.

Havana itself seems to be a twisted dreamland of poverty and beauty stuck in a different time zone. It really is a place to get lost and immersed in. I loved every minute in that city.

Taking part in daily yoga sessions that were less focused on physical exercise but more on mindful spiritual practice allowed me to completely chill out and silence my mind. Our two Yoga teachers brought a kind, nurturing, gentle feel to each practice as well. For the first time in over a year I felt really at peace. Cancer, cancer treatments, tests, cancer scares,- all of that seemed a million miles away. I would like to be able to bring some of that feeling back from time to time.

Since returning from Cuba, I’m continuing my regular yoga practice and healthy lifestyle choices, and I feel well physically and more grounded mentally.

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Joy

If you had told me a year ago that there would come a time after diagnosis and treatments when every other thought wouldn’t evolve around mortality, cancer, being ill and if you had said that this would be towards the end of 2016, I never would have believed you. 

I’m more and more aware that whilst often in the back of my mind, I’ve started to really find joy in things again. The fear may still be there, but doesn’t always have to dominate. Maybe it is also this fear that keeps me on guard, keeps me living more mindfully when it comes to choices, nutrition and lifestyle.I just finished reading ‘When breath becomes air’ by Paul Kalanithi. A heartbreaking, emotional and interesting read. Many parts of it struck deep chords.

Since the diagnosis, I find myself in a twilight between wondering about life, meaning, time, death, love and between being sucked into daily london life. I feel good physically and mentally too. 

Yet, the time coming up to Christmas so starkly reminds me of the turmoil I went through only 12 months ago- tormenting whether to have chemo or not. Whether to take that tiny bit of percentage to prevent recurrence against a backdrop of poison being injected into my body. Sometimes I think back and can’t believe that I actually went through everything.

As I ski down beautiful, soft snow and look up the majestic alps in Courmayeur, breathing in the freshest mountain air, I feel alive and grateful. 

What is urgent

What does urgent mean to you? Something that needs to be done straight away? Something that takes priority over other things? Is anything ever really urgent?

Following my six monthly consultation with nutritional therapist Jo a week ago, I had a blood test done at my local GP surgery this Monday. As I’m now taking a new set of supplements, which amongst other things will work on strengthening my gut and thereby my immune system, Jo recommended a blood test to look at inflammation markers, Liver function, Renal, all the usual full blood test results with an addition test for Vitamin D.

Blood test went smoothly and I was told I’d have the results in 4-5 days time.

A day later and just as I was coming out of Yoga, I had a voicemail from the GP practice. It said to contact the practice for an urgent appointment. It was as though someone had flicked a switch to ‘panic mode’ and I suddenly felt anxious. So I called the reception and they confirmed that the GP had asked them to make an urgent appointment and asked if I could come in at 3pm that same day. Sure I will. I put the phone down and thoughts started racing. I tried to use my breathing exercises to calm down but couldn’t quite shut the voices up in my head. What could possibly be urgent about this type of blood test? What could they have possibly found?

I called Jo for some re-assurance and she said that some levels may be slightly off-keel following the chemo earlier this year. This helped calm me a bit.

3pm came round and I went in to see the GP who was on duty at the time. I had never met him before. I sat down and he said: ‘What can I do for you today?’ I starred at him in disbelief and told him that I’d been asked to come in urgently to discuss my blood test results. He looked a bit confused, then opened up my file, asked a couple of questions on why the blood test was done in the first place and finally got to my test results. Vitamin D levels great, inflammation markers all good, Liver function test good, full blood count including my white blood cells good (doubled from May which is great) and calcium levels within the bone profile all good. The only thing he said was slightly raised was a new item that they started testing more recently called ‘Blood ionised calcium’. He said that as overall calcium levels were okay, he wasn’t worried but that he’d like to take another look at these values in 2-3 weeks time. He didn’t want to worry me but mentioned that breast cancer can move to the bones, etc. so it’s important to keep an eye on these results in general. He wasn’t quite sure though what the meaning of a raised ionised calcium level really meant.

I asked him to please make a note on my records to never ever call me again and say that something is urgent unless it really was urgent. Given my background, surely they could have been more sensitive or thoughtful in their approach. He was very apologetic and said that he often marks things as urgent to make sure reception actually make the appointments. Unbelievable.

I left with a bit of worry in my mind about this ionised calcium but have decided to put it to one side after a conversation with Jo and see what the next test results will bring. In the meantime, I’ll probably have a slight allergic reaction to the word ‘urgent’ – at least for some time to come.

Processed with Snapseed.

Processed with Snapseed.

 

Clear!

As I’m approaching my one year since diagnosis next week, and following a mastectomy last year followed by chemo and hormone tablets, I pulled my annual scans forward slightly. It was probably one of the most terrifying things going back to where things started. Having the mammogram again, the ultra sound and finally an MRI last week due to a very dense breast… it all felt very emotional. 

So I had the MRI on Tuesday and this time managed to convince them to let me listen to music. While it was slightly more relaxing, it also allowed me to judge how much time had gone by from the number of songs played. I was told I would get the results 24 hours later.Thursday came and I starred at my phone for most of the day but no call came. In the end I called the surgeon’s secretary who said they were chasing the hospital for the scans. Another day of waiting lay ahead, another day of being anxious.

Yesterday, I called their office every few hours and finally had the call back at 5pm to say that everything was completely clear! I was in a shop at the time and had to drop everything and take a moment to let it sink in. A moment to cry tears of relief. The biggest relief. 

I know that it’s early days but in my heart I’m celebrating and it feels divine. 

Massive relief

Mammogram: clear. Ultrasound: clear. Massive relief!

The much anticipated day for scans arrived today and it was an agonising morning of waiting. I have been nicely distracted with Yoga and a trip to Munich earlier this week but when I woke up this morning, the Princess Grace was the absolute last place on earth I wanted to be at.

I saw Doc Hogben around 10.30am and she was upbeat and positive as ever. She had a quick look at both sides and said that she wasn’t worried about anything and that we should just get the tests done asap and send me home with a smile. Whilst this was comforting, coming face-to-face with the mammogram machine brought back dark memories of last year. I looked at it and started to cry. Everything came flooding back to me in those few seconds. The scariness of last year’s ordeal at Lewisham Hospital and everything that followed… all the conversations, the results, surgery, the treatments, the trauma of it all.

The procedure itself was over in less than a minute of course. Then the waiting game began for the ultrasound. A whole 1.5 hours of waiting, of feeling cold, feeling slightly nauseous, sweating, stressing, trying to apply some breathing techniques learned at Yoga. Vic was with me all morning which gave me great comfort and distraction too.

Finally, it was my turn for the ultrasound and the radiologist examined both sides and said that it all looked good. No concerns from his side. Phew! Back in the room with Doc Hogben who confirmed that all was clear. However, due to the incredible density of my breast tissue, she has asked me to have an MRI in two weeks’ time just to be extra cautious. I was hoping not to have any more tests but of course appreciate that it’s best to. I know from friends that in some cases the MRI picked something up while the mammogram didn’t but I will try to stay optimistic. At least for now I can breathe a big sigh of relief!

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Namaste

So the literal translation of this greeting is different with each language but they are all pretty much saying the same thing. In Sanskrit, the word ‘namah’ means bow, ‘as’ means I  and ‘te’ means you, translating into “I bow to you.” Regardless of  language, the word simply invokes a sense of sharing a spiritual connection and creates a sense and feeling of oneness and balance.

And it is this sense of oneness and balance I’ve been seeking and seem to have found recently.

I’ve been going to Vinyasa Yoga classes for the past 10 days for most of those days and the practice has helped me calm my mind, challenge my body and keep me sane.

Autumn is approaching and while it’s my second favourite season after summer, it also now carries a whole host of memories of autumn 2015. Not just memories but the realisation that I’m due to have my first ever scan since last October. In fact, the scan (mammogram) is not due until late October but I’ve decided to bring things forward as I just want to know and move forward. When I last saw my breast surgeon, she said we would do a mammogram and MRI in the autumn. So I booked an appointment to see her next Thursday, 29th September. Why wait until the anniversary in October?

Since early September I’ve been panicked – to say the least – about this scan approaching. It’s a funny things with cancer in that you can look and feel so well but just don’t know what lies beneath. I have no symptoms whatsoever and from doing self-examination, I think my other side is the same as it always was. Yet, there has been this voice in my head that says: what if it’s back, what if they find something, how will you cope? Will you cope? What will the prognosis be? It was during the second week of September that I found myself in a spiral about this and while I was spinning progressively downwards I caught up with a friend who mentioned Yoga to me.

I tried Yoga over the years but always insisted that it ‘wasn’t for me’. With my mind spinning with anxiety, I decided to give it one more go and joined a Vinyasa yoga class in North London. Vinyasa is based on coordination movement with breath to flow from one pose to the next. It’s tough, I won’t lie. I barely managed to hold certain postures in the first class, never mind breathing at the right times. However, I did manage to focus most of the 1.5 hour class on my breath and this in itself did wonders. I walked away feeling calm and at peace. And since that day around 10 days ago, Yoga has become a central part of my day-to-day planning. I even caught myself scheduling meetings around yoga classes.

The more I explore yoga and the more classes I attend, the calmer I feel. I like the fact that the sessions include meditations and I now try and make Yoga part of my everyday routine. Who would have thought?! It’s physically straining and I can feel my body hurting in places I haven’t felt before but I’m feeling stronger in my body and mentally more focused on stillness, on quiet time.

I think I’m hooked! Long may it continue…!

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