We are all artists

Like many kids, I loved drawing. I would do it a lot: mostly portraits of my cats sleeping, and also making picture books. Once I made a little book called ‘The Woodland Folke’; it was about squirrels and other British animals in a very British setting, which is odd as I didn’t go anywhere near the UK or even Europe until I was 16.

I did art as a teenager too, but slowly grew out of it as I grew older. Nothing unusual there, sadly. As someone once said, every child is an artist, so why are so few adults? It’s so sad, because creativity is brilliant for stress relief and escaping the noise and screens of life.

As a 33 year-old cancer patient, my life suddenly got strangely quiet. Yes, I still had my family and kids and numerous hospital appointments, but there was a lot I couldn’t do. I had chemo fatigue, I was hugely restricted on socialising, and I was house-bound for much of the time. What I could easily do, without leaving the house or being subject to germs, was draw.

I found #shapechallenge (run by @StudioTeabreak )on Twitter, and started to draw small and umimpressive doodles most days. It didn’t tire me out, let me be creative, and gave me a sense that at least I had done something ‘useful’ that day. It also offered a sense of community which had suddenly slowed to a trickle once my treatment started.

It was wonderful.

Now, 3 years later, I can draw so much better, and still love the artistic community and support on Twitter. Now I regularly take part on #PortraitChallenge which I never thought I would be good enough to do. Novices, book illustators and all sorts of creative types take part, and it’s great.

I also do drawings just for the sheer pleasure, and as gifts for friends. I have also contributed to the #breastcancerart project, which recognises the theraputic value of art for those living with or after cancer.

I realised that every time I draw, I feel happier. Some of the chaos of life is silenced and I have a little more peace. If something causes so much joy and isn’t illegal or bad for me, I would be crazy not to do it!

I believe that we are all made to be creative, but adult life squeezes it out of us until we are fooled into thinking that we can’t make or do anything beautiful. For some it’s visual art, others music, others baking, writing, carpentry or dance, but I believe that there is an artist in all of us, desperate to get out there.

Sometimes, I think that my drawing isn’t good enough to share, or that because I’m not using paint that it’s not ‘real’ art, or that people will judge me for showing off; but I know that those are lies and I will never be fully the person who I am made to be if I allow myself to be silenced.

And actually, what other people think of my art isn’t important (although of course I want it to be liked); because drawing makes me happy, and therefore is of great value. What could be simpler that that? ūüėä

Go to

http://www.jabberworks.co.uk/virtual-studio/

For more info on #shapechallenge and #portraitchallenge

For more about the breast cancer art project, go to

https://breastcancerartproject.wordpress.com

 

 

 

Happy 3rd cancerversary to me.

Happy cancerversary to me!
It’s three years exactly since I had my official diagnosis. I had the tests the previous week, and had been told that they could see it was cancer. But 15 April was the official, biopsy-confirmed diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer, with spread to the lymph nodes.
Maybe I shouldn’t mark this day: after all, it wasn’t a happy occasion. Perhaps my last chemo, in August, would be more appropriate. Or my surgery date, of 13 October, when the cancer was properly cut out. Or my last day of radiotherapy, in early February. That’s the thing with cancer: it gives you many important milestones. But, I’ll stick with this date I think. After all, it is a birthday of sorts. A day when I waved goodbye to the normal healthy young woman that I was, and started my new life as a cancer patient, then survivor.
So how do I feel this year? Last year, on my 2nd cancerversary, I was elated. I had recently stopped my life-destroying (how ironic, as they are actually intended to stretch out my lifespan just a little longer, but to the unacceptable cost of all joy or peace for me and my family) drugs, and was happy feeling a lot like the old Alex.
This year, I honestly don’t know how I feel. How am I meant to feel? Life as a cancer survivor is one without a map.
Sometimes I am hugely relieved just to be alive and every extra day is a blessing. Other times it feels like I cheated death, and it’s just waiting for me in the wings; until I am really comfortable. Then¬†I forget all about cancer and feel like a normal healthy person. Occasionally I feel boring and tired. Sometimes I feel I have been given a second chance: an eye-opening brush with my own mortality that seems like more a blessing than a curse. Then I think of how much my kids have grown up in the last three years: will I still be around for the next three? I am reminded of how God has blessed me with such a wonderful life, and how I shouldn’t waste it. Then I worry that I won’t be around to see my children finish school, get a job, get married, have their own children. Sometimes I believe that I will live to 90, just to prove a point. Other times I am grateful that I can help people newly diagnosed. Then I will feel that I’m not doing enough for those in the cancer community. And I also think about how unfair life is: not for me, but for the people without a voice; like the innocents being bombed in Syria, and the people struggling to survive in Burundi. And I think that I should shut up about cancer, after all, I am well and what’s the point of moaning? Then I can’t be bothered to think, and just want to watch telly, draw a doodle or read a book. So yeah, that’s a typical day!
I haven’t celebrated this day as such, but my daughter and I did bake cupcakes, which are surprisingly good. ¬†And what is the point of surviving cancer if you can’t enjoy a home-made cupcake now and then?

Work after cancer

One of the side-effects of cancer that you aren’t really aware of until it happens to you, is the financial cost.

I stopped work the day after my cancer diagnosis, and had 9 months off. Thankfully I have a very supportive workplace so didn’t suffer with a dramatic loss of income while going through active treatment. I am in education, and it was considered too high risk (to me) to be in work at this time.

I did return to work shortly before starting radiotherapy, and was able to work every morning before travelling the hour-long journey to have radiotherapy. I was determined to do this, as was desperate to return to ‘normal’ life. But it was incredibly tiring! I had no energy for housework, socialising or anything much really, for those five weeks. It was very difficult. But it did mean that I was earning again, which I both needed and wanted to do.

I suggest that if you or a close family member are diagnosed, that you look into what benefits you qualify for. Macmillan can help with this ¬†if you’re not sure where to start.

Macmillan benefits info.

Cancer takes a toll on your finances. You may not need benefits, but it is worth looking into.

Also, if you have critical illness on your life insurance, speak to your insurer as soon as you can.

As for going back to work, there is no date that you ‘should’ go back. Every cancer, person and family is different, so don’t let anyone tell you that you need to go back, if you don’t feel ready. However, if you can go back part-time, I would recommend it. I felt so much better (mentally) for returning to work. I felt useful again, and was completely bored with with being at home.

You may not be able to go back to work as quickly as you would like, though. Often there are complications from treatments, not least of all fatigue. Fatigue is not just feeling a bit tired. It’s something that many cancer survivors have to put up with for years; long after friends are expecting you to be back to perfect health again. My advice is to be kind to yourself. Cancer is not like flu, you don’t suddenly spring back.

Of course, you may not be able to afford to be off work for long. Make sure that you know all of your rights in the workplace. And get support from friends and family: could someone make you hot meals for your first week back at work, or help with your laundry or grocery shopping? Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help. Often people do want to help, but they aren’t sure how to.

You may not feel like going back to the same job. Many survivors don’t feel like the same person after cancer. You may suffer from anxiety or PTSD, and may not be able to go back to a high-stress or long-hours job. If so, give yourself some time to think about what you really want, amd look into different options. Talk to loved ones to see what they think.

When you do return to work, make sure that you keep your manager in the loop, so that they can support you. They can’t help if they don’t know that you are struggling. All people who have been diagnosed with cancer are protected by the law, and employers are not allowed to discriminate against you. You are entitled to reasonable adjustments, and to apply for flexible hours. Could you work from home one day a week?

Macmillan discrimination info

Going back to work can be surprisingly difficult, but it is one way to try to reclaim your life; to forge a ‘new normal’. Just make sure that you only do it when you are ready. ¬†Speak to your employer so that they can support you. And don’t expect everything to be exactly the same as before. Take your time with any changes, and remember to be kind to yourself. ‚ėļ

 

 

When breath becomes air

Paul Kalanithi was a man who spent his life trying to find Truth. First he searched for it in literature, then in neurosurgery and neuroscience. He studied at Stanford, Cambridge and Yale.

He wanted to understand the difference between brain and mind; between the physical and metaphysical. He was always acutely aware of his mortality, and was never afraid to face it.

‘When breath becomes air’ is a beautifully written autobiography of a man who had to make the difficult transition from a doctor who saved lives to a lung-cancer patient who knew that his would not be saved.

He continued to work as a surgeon despite aggressive treatment, and never gave up on his search for Truth.

This is an intelligent, thought-provoking and emotional story, and I would wager probably the best written book that I will read this year.

 

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Paul talks about how even when we live, we are dying.

Often our search for beauty, truth, for why we are here, sits in the tension between life and death. We feel immortal, cannot grasp not exising; yet are faced with the inescapable truth that one day we will die.

Beauty is often found in the physical representation of our mortality: a flower that will soon wither; a sunset whose light will suddenly fade; a short-lived rainbow. Their very mortality makes their beauty even more sweet.

If we choose not to avoid our mortality, but instead stare it in the face, I believe that our search for Truth will be enabled. The pretence that if we don’t think about death then it will never find us, just blurs our vision.

Paul Kalanithi was a man with his eyes wide open. It’s stunningly refreshing.

 

January again

January. Such a weird time of year. Many of us have eaten, drunk and spent too much over Christmas, and are now expected to come up with an unrealistically long list of things that we are going to achieve in the coming year. We are supposed to be healthy, have big goals and look forward with unbridled joy to the the amazing new year. Sod that. I have always thought that new year is such a disappointment.

Cancer hasn’t helped with that. For the last few Januaries, I have not wanted to look back over the past year, nor look ahead too far either. That’s the thing with cancer, it tries to steal your future, even if you have been given the ‘No evidence of disease’ good news.

I went to a NYE party at a friend’s house this year. It was just what I needed- a chance to be sociable, be silly and absolutely no pressure to look cool for social media (in fact, I’m pretty sure I was the opposite), to or get raving drunk to ‘prove’ how much fun I was having.

I realised that it’s been several years since I haven’t either dreaded or ignored the new year celebrations. For the last few years, that was thanks to cancer and its long list of treatments, side-effects (such as social isolation) and associated illnessses; and before that thanks to pregnancy or having a baby and not a lot of sleep.

So how do I feel about the start of another year?

Well, it’s hard to be too positive, as 2017 was supposed to be my going-back-to-normal year, when in fact it was a succession of illnesses and other unfortunate events. There were a few of highlights, such as having all of my family together; two cute arrivals; and Christmas, which I really enjoyed (and actually felt well on the day! ūüėĀ)

But, generally, I am feeling cautiously optimistic. I have a few Very Good Events to look forward to in 2018. Having a life-threatening disease is great at helping you to value every celebration; every birth and wedding and new start, because there were never any guarantees that you would be around to see them.

And when you have been told by the doctor that you are unlikely to be around for too many more… but I am able to live in the moment and not worry about the future, now that I can’t take having a long life for granted; in a way that nobody who has never been confronted with their imminent mortality just cannot understand. It’s a blessing in disguise, because it helps you to chuck out the junk of life, while holding onto the precious, much more easily.

I know that whatever happens this year, I will be glad that I am here to experience it, even the bad stuff.

If there was one thing that I could wish you, it would be that you could see how amazing this gift of life is: never perfect, often surprising, and far too short to waste worrying about all the junk, like how cool you look on social media. ūüėé

 

Two years later…

I realised this morning that it’s two years since my double mastectomy.

Thinking about how much has happened in those crazy couple of years, it actually seems much longer. I would love to say that as soon as active treatment was finished, that my family and I went straight back to pre-cancer ‘normal’ life… but that would be a lie. The truth is that nothing is ever quite the same again.

Your illness bubble suddenly bursts (and lots of people ¬†stop praying for you: it’s almost a tangible difference), everyone says how well you look, and you are expected to pick up exactly from where you left off, with nothing more than some scars and shorter hair to mark the ‘journey’.

The reality is so much more complicated and difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.

Perhaps some stats will shed a little light:

“At least 500,000 people in the UK¬†are facing poor health or disability¬†after treatment for cancer ‚Äď

At least 350,000 people living with and beyond cancer are experiencing chronic fatigue.

Around 240,000 are living with¬†mental health problems, which can¬†include moderate to severe anxiety¬†or depression, and post-traumatic¬†stress disorder (PTSD).”

This is a small part of a long list, provided by Macmillan cancer support.

Many relationships break down soon after a cancer diagnosis as well, especially when the patient is a younger woman. And with the hormone treatments that I was on for a while, they are so soul-destroying that the fact that any marriage survives them is a miracle.

Cancer’s slimy fingers reach into every aspect of your life: your health, your mental health, your relationships, your parenting, your career, your finances, your vision of the future, your life expectancy.

I want to say that I am actually very optimistic about the future, and I am not afraid of cancer or even of possibly dying young ¬†(although would rather not); but it’s no use pretending that I am the person that I was before. And Mike and the kids have been through the mill too: their lives have been massively affected and changed too.

The best advice that I could give to anyone who is close to someone with a life-changing illness (or their partner or child) is to be kind, listen and don’t fob them off with “Oh, but you look so well.”

¬†Anyway, I was meant to be talking about my double mastectomy… it’s only boobs, if you have to have one, you’ll get over it, and I would much rather be alive in an imperfect body than be a gorgeous dead person. ūüė䬆

I’m still fabulous, I’m still here, and I’m going to live the best life that I can.¬†

#breastcancerreality