I never really liked running anyway

I’d always joked that I didn’t really like running. There was some truth in it. I loved how fit it made you, I loved how you felt after you’d been on a run and most of all I loved Parkrun – those free, weekly, timed 5k runs that take place in hundred of locations across the UK every Saturday morning. Since finishing treatment for primary breast cancer in February 2016, I’d also run a half marathon, a 10-mile run and a 10k and for a while I even trained with a running club. You don’t do all that if you genuinely don’t like running – but I always found it hard and I wasn’t a natural.

Then in March I got a pain in my spine and my right hip. I followed it up and it turned out I have secondary or metastatic breast cancer.

As well as there being cancer in my bone marrow and in three vertebrae, there is a lesion in my left-side rib area and there are “areas of less significant scattered bone disease”. As for my right hip, while there are no obvious signs of cancer in the hip itself, the pain I get there may or may not be related in some way to the diagnosis. Either way, that’s where there is most pain.

I suspected my running days were over but I hadn’t put it to the test. I needed to find out one way or the other.

Last Sunday morning, I plucked up the courage to give it a go. I put on my running kit, including for inspiration the Parkrun t-shirt I got for having chalked up 50 runs, and set off for Tooting Common at the end of our road. I went as slowly as I possibly could without it being considered fast walking. It didn’t help. It took just a few steps for me to know it wasn’t going to work. I’m not going to exaggerate; the pain was nowhere near excruciating but I just knew my hip couldn’t take it. My back, I could feel, would also start hurting soon.

I waited a few minutes then tried again. It still hurt. I tried once more, and that was it. I limped to a secluded spot on the common, sat down in the shade of a tree and proceeded to shed a bucketload of tears – of anger, frustration, sadness and self-pity.

So now I know for sure. Barring some weird reversal of the crap that’s going on inside my body, my running days are in the past. I guess I knew they were but I think I had to go through the motions. Maybe on some subconscious level I knew I needed a good, cathartic cry.

So much for getting a century of Parkruns. I made it to 86, which is pretty damn good. For those of you who may be thinking of suggesting I limp or walk the course 14 times just to get to 100… the answer is a big no.

It’s strange. On one level, I’m really disappointed but on another I’m already over it. Maybe I really didn’t like running that much anyway! More likely it’s because I know I have no choice. Or perhaps sometimes a good cry is just what’s needed to help you move forward. I’ll continue volunteering for Parkrun every now and then as I’m so grateful for what it has given me over the past three years. It was a key part of my recovery from my treatment for primary breast cancer and I’ve made new friends through it and had such fun. I ran all but one of my 86 Parkruns in the past three years, most of these on my home course on Tooting Common. I started it in earnest in April 2016 – six weeks after I finished radiotherapy – and never looked back.

On the positive side, I’ve restarted treatment. I had to have a short break as the drugs made my neutrophil count drop during the first cycle to below the level that was judged safe to continue with treatment. Neutrophils are the white blood cells that fight infection. Pharmaceutical intervention was needed to get them back up to the required level but we got there and here I am, back on track with Cycle 2. I have blood tests next week to check to see how things are going.

There’s clearly lots going on inside that I’m not physically aware of. But what about the things I am aware of?

Well, it sometimes takes some careful manoeuvring to get out of bed in the morning without too much pain. This is mainly due to the pain in my ribs – where we’re pretty sure there is also cancer – that sometimes develops overnight and to the discomfort in my hip, which – regardless of what’s causing it – is sometimes there a lot of the time but is annoying rather than painful. My back is not generally painful but can start aching if I walk a good distance.

My hip hurts every time I get up from a seated position and take my first few steps. The pain generally wears off as I start moving about but a few people have commented that I sometimes walk with a slight limp.

The level of pain I have in the morning gives me a sense of how things will go over the course of the day. I either take no painkillers (that’s the most common outcome at the moment), over-the-counter strength painkillers or prescription painkillers. The problem with the strongest ones is that you’re not meant to drink alcohol; the pain has to pretty bad before I take those!

The pain is at its worst by far in the days following the monthly Faslodex/fulvestrant injections and the Zometa/zoledronic acid infusion. Getting the injection in your buttocks verges on the painful side of uncomfortable and your glutes hurt like hell for a couple of days afterwards. The Zometa and the fulvestrant can – and do – cause bone pain for a couple of days afterwards too. Painkillers are most definitely needed then.

Also, I swear my hair is getting thinner by the day. Thankfully diarrhoea – a serious concern with the Verzenios/abemaciclib tablets I’m taking – has not been a problem. I’m not saying it’s been non-existent but it’s not been a problem.

I already knew tennis was out. Now it seems running is too. There’s still the cycling; I rode 62k yesterday, in glorious sunshine, the furthest I’d ridden since starting treatment in late May. I’m paying for it now as I’m absolutely whacked. Thankfully I’m not working today and, as Wimbledon is on, I have an excuse just to sit on the sofa and do very little other than watch amazing tennis on TV and finish writing this!

The question now is whether cycling is enough or do I need to seek out something to replace the tennis and running? Swimming anyone?

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Legal doping and Hank Williams

I can personally attest that blood transfusions do indeed improve your cycling performance! Unlikely as it seems, I have become a legal doper.

I had some scheduled blood tests done on Monday with a view to starting my second cycle of treatment after seeing the consultant the following day. When I saw the consultant, however, she told me my haemoglobin level had fallen even further. It was clear that a blood transfusion was the obvious option to help combat the anaemia that the low haemoglobin level was causing – even to me who’d been in denial as to whether it was necessary.

The secondary breast cancer I have is in my bones and bone marrow, with the latter affecting my body’s ability to produce the required amount of red blood cells. Red blood cells contain haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body.

A transfusion would mean I didn’t feel as tired as I’d been feeling these past few weeks. I’d been finding that if I went up the stairs too quickly, I had to stop at the top to get my breath back. I couldn’t rush anywhere – it was taking half as much time again as it usually did to walk to the the tube and from the tube to work. On Thursday, therefore, I spent the whole day at the hospital having two units of red blood cells transfused.

You’re meant to feel the effects of a transfusion pretty soon after having it. I therefore decided I owed it to myself to do Parkrun on Saturday morning. Parkrun is the free, weekly, timed 5k runs that take place in hundred of locations across the UK every Saturday morning. I’m a massive fan and while I haven’t run for months, I’m keen to start doing Parkrun again if I possibly can. However, I had a pretty strong feeling that even if I had the energy to run for 30 minutes plus, my back (there’s cancer in three vertebrae) and hip (the pain there may or not be related to the diagnosis) wouldn’t cope for more than a few hundred metres. So I knocked that idea on the head.

Come today, though, I decided I’d aim for a proper bike ride. Since May 19, I’d only been out on my bike a few times and I hadn’t cycled more than 10 miles. You get out of the habit pretty quickly so I did have to psyche myself up for it. Also, we were at a wedding last night (nails painted accordingly!) and this morning I wasn’t exactly raring to go. It was a beautiful day, though, so eventually I forced myself out the door.

Off I cycled to Richmond Park in south west London, did three laps then cycled back home, stopping only at lights and junctions and to take photos of the beautiful fawns in the park. I cycled almost 35 miles in total and surprised even myself. In fact, I would have done a fourth lap had I not wanted to make sure I got home in time to watch Andy Murray in the men’s doubles tennis finals at Queen’s. In the end he didn’t play until much later on so I could have gone ahead and done the extra lap.

Painwise I felt almost fine the whole ride – no hip pain, no back pain, and just a little pain in my left ribs (where it’s likely there is cancer).

I can’t say for sure but I really don’t know whether I would have been able to do that ride at the start of this week. I’m not sure I’d have attempted it. Of course I’m aware that even with the transfusion, my haemolgoblin will still be below normal levels, but it’s all relative.

As well as having a transfusion, I’ve also had to take a temporary and hopefully short break from treatment. I’m disappointed but the blood tests had also shown that my neutrophil levels had fallen during the first cycle to below the level that’s judged safe to continue with treatment. Neutrophils are the white blood cells that fight infection. We’ll do some more blood tests tomorrow and hopefully we’ll restart treatment on Tuesday. The break in treatment has also probably led to me feeling less tired as one of the drugs I’m on can also lead to anaemia.

I’ve written many times before that I had in effect resigned myself to being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at some point. I was at high risk of it happening and that’s precisely what has occurred. Accepting that it might was part of my coping strategy.

I even had a headline planned for the blog post I would write if it came back. It was “The f***ing f***er’s f***ing back and I’m f***ed”. In the end, though, I decided not to use it. I went for the much plainer and much less crude and bleak, “It’s back.”

While the first part of my unused headline captures perfectly how I feel, I hope it’ll be a good while yet before the second part becomes a reality. As the wedding last night and today’s bike ride show, there’s still plenty of world out there to enjoy and plenty of wonderful people to enjoy it with. In the end, we’re all f***ed, aren’t we? To paraphrase the late, great American country singer Hank Williams, none of us is getting out of here alive.

Cycling plans come crashing down

This really was going to be the year of the bike. I’d even bought an additional week’s leave from work so I could fit in all the cycling trips, events and related training that I had planned.

The secondary breast cancer diagnosis I received at the end of April, though, put paid to that. The primary breast cancer I was treated for in 2015/16 has come back and has spread to my bones – most significantly to my spine  – and bone marrow. It’s treatable but not curable.

I know the diagnosis is the key thing here. Everything else, really, is insignificant. However, when I got my diagnosis, I just felt all the ambitious and exciting cycling plans I had for the summer collapse around me. To make matters worse, I had my good bike stolen from outside the hospital where I had the appointment with the consultant on the very day she told me she strongly suspected my cancer had come back. It really felt like someone had it in for me.

Most significantly, I’ve had to pull out of the big charity bike ride I was planning on doing in France in July that consisted of cycling Stages 5-7 of the Tour de France route a week before the real thing. I was due to cycle 345 miles over three consecutive days as part of a big fundraising event known as Le Loop. Instead, I’ll be following the other riders’ progress from my home in south London. The other riders are doing anything from two to all 21 stages of the Tour.

I’m a member of two cycling clubs, one of which is BellaVelo, a fabulous women’s cycling club and community based in south west London. A bunch of us from BellaVelo had signed up to do various stages of Le Loop. It was all very exciting. There was such a buzz around it. Almost every conversation I had with relatives, friends and colleagues involved someone asking how my training was going or asking for details about the event itself. I’m gutted not to be doing it.

I’ve also had to withdraw from the “Highland 500”, a version of the famous North Coast 500 ride that I was planning to do with my brother Peter the first week in June. This was to have been a major piece of the training for Le Loop. For seven days in a row, I should have been struggling up and racing down one hill after another in the Scottish Highlands. Instead I was at home in Balham getting to grips with the treatment I’d just started and with the symptoms of the cancer itself. 

Among other things, I have anaemia as a result of the cancer being in my bone marrow – it can also be side effect of the treatment I’m on, so that probably hasn’t helped – and I’ve suffered a massive loss of energy. I bought a good second-hand bike to replace the one I had stolen; at the moment even looking at it makes me tired. In fact, the anaemia is at the stage where the consultant oncologist is proposing a blood transfusion.

My fundraising for Le Loop had been going really well. I was already well over my target of £1,200 when I got the news that my cancer had come back and realised there was no way I would be doing this event.

The training was also going well. I was walking or running up the stairs on the London underground. I was doing indoor cycling sessions aimed at improving my pedalling technique, my endurance and my hill-climbing abilities. Quite frankly I’m not sure how much progress I was making on that last front but I was at least trying! I even rode up and down Box Hill in Surrey five times in a row one day.

I had also been on a cycling training camp in Mallorca with BellaVelo in March. That trip was to kickstart my outdoor training for Le Loop… and that’s where my back and right hip starting hurting. I followed it up when I got back to London and that ended up in a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Sadly I only managed one ride with my other club, the Balham Cycling Club.

All was not totally lost on the cycling front following my diagnosis. We agreed I’d start treatment the week beginning 20 May and this meant I could go ahead with the four-day BellaVelo cycling training camp that I was helping organise in the New Forest from 9 – 12 May. I was slow, as I knew I would be, but it was great fun.

It also meant I could go on a four-day tennis camp in Mallorca with three friends, as planned, from 13 – 17 May. I could have started treatment that week, but I think the consultant felt sorry for me. “Do your tennis,” she said, “before I take away your summer.”

Finally, on 19 May, I did the shorter version of the Etape Caledonia, a beautiful closed-road bike ride that starts and finishes in Pitlochry in Scotland.

I had signed up originally to do the full 85-mile route, again with my brother Peter. I was pretty confident I could do the full distance but I knew I didn’t have the strength to do it in the allotted time. There was no way I was going to suffer the ignominy of being swept up by the “broom wagon”, so I did the shorter, 40-mile route instead.

It was a bit of a logistical challenge to get to Pitlochry but I’m glad I made the effort. It was very special – and not just because I’m Scottish! The real reason, of course, was that I knew I was starting treatment in a few days’ time. I didn’t know (I still don’t) when – or even if – I’d next do another ride like that. Peter rode the first 13 miles with me to where the two routes separated then sped off to complete the full 85 miles.

The final cycling-related casualty this summer of my diagnosis is likely to be Ride London, the 100-mile closed road bike ride through London and the Surrey hills that’s taking place this year on 4 August. I got a place in the public ballot this year. This was to be the third and – I’d already decided – final time I’d do it. It was to be the grand finale to an amazing summer of cycling.

You never know. If I get off lightly on the side-effects front, get an energy boost,  manage to get my head in gear and keep cycling during these first few months of treatment, I may try the shorter, 46-mile version of Ride London. At the moment, I have no idea how feasible that might be. 

The pain in my hip disappeared for a while but it’s back now. Regardless of whether it’s related to the cancer or not, that pain is worse than any pain I have in my back (where there’s definitely cancer) or in my ribs (where it seems likely there is).

My cancer will obviously affect my physical ability to do things as it progresses. It’s already doing so and we’re just at the start. Specifically, I fear my days of competitive tennis are over. Just like that. The stress on my back and hip is just too much.

As for running, well I’m not so sure on that front yet. I can’t bring myself even to try at the moment.

There’s obviously a weight-bearing thing going on here. My hip doesn’t hurt at all  when I’m on the bike and my back only hurts a little. All the way through my treatment for primary breast cancer and beyondthe bike has always been part of the solution. I’m desperately hoping that continues to be the case.

So how did it all happen?

Here’s how I found out I had secondary breast cancer.

I developed backache and a sore right hip in mid-March while I was on my first ever overseas cycling trip, in Mallorca. The week-long trip was the first proper phase of the huge amount of training I was planning to do over the following few months that was to have culminated in a long-distance, three-day charity bike ride in France in July.

Initially I put the pain down to a mix of factors. For starters, while I’d done plenty of indoor training, I hadn’t ridden much at all outside or for any distance over the winter, and here I was doing back-to-back 50-75 mile rides involving quite a few hills. Also, I wasn’t using my own bike. While the rental bike was far better than mine and I loved it, I figured I was probably riding in a different position and that that was part of the problem. I hoped I’d just strained my back and hip and that it would soon get better. Interestingly – and fortunately – while the pain was at times quite bad, there was no pain at all when I was on the bike and cycling.

The pain persisted when I got back to London, although it would come and go. The most common place to which breast cancer metastasises or spreads is the bones and I knew backache was a potential symptom of it having spread to the spine. The pain was worse at night and when I was lying down. I did some reading and discovered that these too were signs of “bone mets” in the spine.

I very rarely get backache of any kind. Pretty quickly therefore, I decided to contact the consultant oncologist who treated me for primary breast cancer in the summer of 2015 and ask her advice, hoping all the while that it was just a sprain and that it would go away soon.

That was in late March. The consultant said it made sense to investigate further, so I had some blood tests done the following week.

The following weekend, I held a games afternoon at home to raise funds for the charity I was going to be doing for the bike ride in France in July. Other than the intermittent back ache and the periodic hip pain (the latter had in fact almost gone by then), I felt as fit as a fiddle. This fundraiser had been planned for ages and, at that point, while I was worried, I was still hoping the remaining pain would disappear with time.

That hope all but disappeared when the consultant subsequently called to say some of the blood results “weren’t entirely normal”. It made sense to follow up, she said, and a PET CT scan was being arranged for the following week. The writing was on the wall.

Despite this big shadow hanging over us, my husband and I managed to have a lovely Easter. The pain in my right hip had gone away completely at this point. As for the pain in my back, it sometimes disappeared for days at at a time, it always came back.

In the now forlorn hope that I would still be doing the various cycling events I had planned for the summer – or perhaps it was just to make myself feel better – I went out training on three of the four days of the Easter weekend. I even set myself a new speed record, reaching just over 40mph on a descent in Surrey.

My husband came with me on two of the rides. We don’t usually ride together but I think we were both aware that our lives were about to undergo a massive change and wanted to enjoy each other’s company while things were still relatively normal.

I had an appointment with the consultant the day after the Easter weekend, on 23 April. This was a couple of days before I had the PET CT scan and it was to have been my regular annual review with her. The consultant knows from having treated me before that I like facts and straight talking. So when I asked what she thought the problem was, she told me that, going by the blood test results, she strongly suspected that the breast cancer I’d been treated for more than three years earlier had spread to my bones and/or infiltrated my bone marrow. We even talked through potential treatment plans.

Among other things, the level of a specific breast cancer marker (CA 15-3) in my blood was very high. While this was “meaningless in itself”, I also had anaemia. The two things together clearly spelt trouble.

A week later, and the results of the PET CT scan confirmed what the consultant had predicted – “bone metastases and bone marrow relapse”. As well as there being cancer in my bone marrow and in three vertebrae, there is a lesion in my left-side rib area and there are “areas of less significant scattered bone disease”. As for my right hip, while there are no obvious signs of cancer in the hip itself, the pain may well be related in some way to the diagnosis. Then again, it may not be.

Thankfully our two young-adult sons were away at the time. We had time to digest the news ourselves and to plan a strategy for breaking it to them.

Since the PET CT scan, I’ve had numerous additional blood tests, a bone marrow biopsy, an MRI scan of my spine, and I’ve started treatment.

I have, of course, had to withdraw from the charity bike ride in France in July. More on that later.

Treatment – a reluctant trailblazer

“A trailblazer on a path you don’t want to be on.”

I paraphrase slightly, but that’s what the specialist breast cancer nurse at the hospital where I’m being treated said I was.

I have to say I was touched by the huge degree of empathy with which the nurse said it. This was just after the consultant told me that the treatment she was proposing for my secondary breast cancer was a combination of drugs that had only just been made available under the NHS in England.

Given together, the drugs have been shown to improve what’s called “progression free survival”, ie the length of time patients live without their disease getting worse, and so delay the need for chemotherapy.

This latest development has been described as “fantastic news” for women such as me. The nurse was spot on with her description. I’m the first person at my stage of the disease and at my stage of treatment to have this therapy at the hospital trust where I’m being treated. I’m definitely grateful, but it’s a funny kind of gratefulness.

I started treatment on 22 May and I’m trying to focus more on the fact that the consultant is hoping for a “durable clinical response” than on the “significant, unavoidable or frequently occurring” risks of the treatment that are ticked on the consent form (see image).

The drugs are abemaciclib and fulvestrant – the brand names are Verzenios and Faslodex respectively for anyone who’s interested.

Abemaciclib is taken continuously in 28-day cycles as tablets – one tablet, twice a day, 12 hours apart. Fulvestrant is given as two injections – one in each buttock, not pleasant – each of which takes a couple of minutes to administer. You’re given it on Day 1 and Day 15 of Cycle 1, then on Day 1 of Cycle 2 and all future cycles – so that’s every two weeks for the first three doses, then once every four weeks.

You stay on these drugs for as long as they’re keeping the cancer in check and you can manage the side effects. Or, officially, for “as long as the patient is deriving clinical benefit from therapy or until unacceptable toxicity occurs”.

It could be a few months before we find out whether the drugs are working or not. If they’re not, you move straight away on to the next line of treatment. As for toxicity, the big worry with abemaciclib is diarrhoea. It’s a very common side effect and it can be so severe that the dose has to be reduced or a break in treatment is required. Three weeks in and I’m extremely relieved to report that I have got off very lightly indeed on this front. That may be partly explained by the fact that one of the side effects of the painkiller I’m on for the pain from the “bone mets” I have is constipation. I like to imagine the two drugs battling it out together inside me for supremacy.

You’re under close medical supervision, especially in the initial phase of treatment. You have blood tests every two weeks for the first two months, monthly for the following two months, and then as needed. You have scans every few months to check whether the drugs are working.

The cancer is in my bone marrow and bones, most significantly in my spine. Bone mets weakens your bones and puts you at risk of fracture, so I’m also back on the bone-strengthening drug, zoledronic acid or Zometa. I have that monthly too – via infusion, like chemo, on the same day I have the fulvestrant injections. The infusion itself takes 15 – 20 minutes. Zometa can also ease the pain that comes with bone mets. On the downside, as I mentioned when I started taking it before, it can also occasionally cause a very nasty condition called osteonecrosis of the jaw.

Fulvestrant is a hormonal therapy that aims to help shrink or slow the growth of metastatic breast cancer such as mine that feeds on oestrogen. Abemaciclib is what’s called “targeted therapy”, ie it’s a type of drug that targets specific characteristics of cancer cells, such as a protein that allows the cancer cells to grow in a rapid or abnormal way. Abemaciclib is one of a class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors, which work by targeting two crucial cell division proteins, CDK4 and CDK6.

There’s a bit of a debate over whether CDK4/6 inhibitors are chemo or not. In the end, it seems it comes down to definitions.

This new combination treatment that I’m on hasn’t been in use long enough for it to be clear whether it also improves long-term survival, ie whether you live longer overall. In terms of quality of life, though, improvement in progression free survival is hugely important. The treatments don’t get any easier as your cancer gets worse. Not do the effects of the cancer itself, of course, so the longer it can be held in check, the better.

It’s very early days. Let’s hope I fare well on that trail I’m reluctantly blazing.

It’s back

This is the blog post I hoped I’d never write. A lot of people who aren’t yet aware of my situation will be shocked and upset by it. There are so many people I’d like to break the news to on an individual basis but that’s just not possible. Whoever you are, thank you for reading.

It’s back. I’ve been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. The primary breast cancer for which I was treated “with curative intent” in 2015/2016 has spread and turned up in my bones – most obviously in three vertebrae in my spine* – and bone marrow.

The consultant oncologist who broke the news to me is the same doctor who treated me originally. She knew I knew this very well already but I guess she had no choice but to include it in the conversation; it was “treatable but not curable”.

So here we are, having recently started treatment following a diagnosis of secondary/advanced/metastatic/late stage/Stage IV breast cancer. Call it what you want, they all mean the same thing – a life-limiting illness with a very uncertain prognosis.

I was diagnosed formally on 30 April (though I knew it was coming) and I started treatment on 22 May. I’m on a new combination of powerful and aggressive drugs that are aimed at preventing the cancer from spreading any further for as long as possible. Like the consultant, we’re hoping the drugs will result in a “durable clinical response”. We’re trying to be positive and to focus on the fact that I’m largely well at the moment and we hope treatment will keep me this way for a long time.

The good news is that “bone mets” from breast cancer can often be stabilised and managed for long periods of time, ie for a number of years or more. The fact that it’s also in the bone marrow complicates things. We can but see how it goes. The aim of treatment is to control the cancer, relieve symptoms such as pain, and reduce the risk of fracture – while at the same time trying to maintain a good quality of life for the patient.

It wasn’t inevitable, but anyone who follows this blog will know that I was at high risk of recurrence. Lord knows I wrote about it often enough. While I had in fact made peace with that, there’s very little I wouldn’t give for this not to have happened.

For a long time after finishing treatment for primary breast cancer, I lived in fear of it coming back. I worked very, very hard to get to a position where, while I thought about it often, I really no longer worried about it and just got on with living. Life was good; it was very good. I had conquered my fear and I was in a position of pragmatic acceptance that it might one day return. I’m really proud of myself for having got there. It wasn’t easy.

That mindset of acceptance is really helping me now. It’s a difficult time for us all but life goes on. We’ll aim to keep enjoying it and we’ll keep hoping for the best for as long as we can.

As always, writing helps. I’ve already got a few more posts in the pipeline – about my treatment, how I found out, how I’ve had to cancel big cycling plans I had for this year, etc. You know where to look if you want to read them. Wish me luck.

*As well as being in my bone marrow, the cancer is definitely in vertebrae T8, T9 and L4. There is also a lesion in my left-side rib area as well as “areas of less significant scattered bone disease”. My right hip hurts like hell sometimes but while I’m told there are no obvious signs of cancer there, it could well be related in some way to this new diagnosis – although, equally, it may not.

The “repellent strategy” of counting your blessings

I’ve just finished reading a novel in which the protagonist refers in the opening page to the “repellent strategy” of counting one’s blessings.

It’s as though the people who recommend you do this “really believe a dramatic loss can be replaced by the renewed appreciation of all that one has been given”, the character says.

I got what she meant immediately.

I’ve never been a fan of counting one’s blessings. I always felt it was akin to tempting fate. Before now, though, I’d never heard the sentiment expressed so articulately.

I think back to my state of mind for a good while after I completed seven months of treatment for Stage 3a breast cancer in February 2016.

Treatment consisted of chemo, mastectomy and radiotherapy and then daily hormone therapy – the whole caboodle. I’m at high risk of my breast cancer coming back and of it ultimately being the cause of my eventual demise. Have I mentioned before that breast cancer has an estimated rate of recurrence of around 30% and that around 11,500 women and a couple of hundred men die of this disease in the UK alone every year? Yes, you’ve mentioned it a few times, you say wearily. Well, from my point of view, it really can’t be said often enough.

Anyway, if you follow this blog, you’ll know that for a good while after treatment finished, I was in a high state of anxiety. I was convinced it was just a matter of time before my cancer turned up somewhere else in my body and started the process of finishing me off. There were plenty of good things in my life at the time, and I was well aware of them. However, the idea that simply focusing on them would rid me of my anxiety was laughable.

Tig Notaro is an American stand-up comic. Like me, she’s had breast cancer. She’s written about days when she could “only sit very still on my couch, trying to breathe. I felt like I was about to lose my balance and fall off not only the couch, but the planet entirely.”

I remember that feeling only too well. It wasn’t counting my blessings that helped in the end. Most fundamentally, it was acknowledging that this was a perfectly legitimate reaction to the traumatic events that I was experiencing. As newspaper columnist Annalisa Barbieri wrote just recently in The Guardian in response to a reader’s problem: “I think [advising you to] stop stressing about something that matters so much to you is asking a lot, and maybe you need to allow yourself to be who you are at this time.”

Scared was what I was and that was ok. Once I’d acknowledged that, I was able to take steps to deal with it all.

I knew that worrying was making me miserable and I desperately disliked being miserable. I realised that if my cancer did come back, I wouldn’t want to look back and see I’d spent the whole time between treatment and recurrence worrying. Also, and this to me was critical, it seemed that some people with far bigger issues than I had seemed to be coping better than I was. Of course, you don’t know how much someone is worrying unless they tell you but it made me realise there was no rule that said I had to worry myself sick over anything.

I took action. I talked to people about how I felt. I went on a course where I learned distraction techniques and devices for managing negative thinking and worry. I learned how to distance myself from my thoughts and I now have a good set of tools to help me fend off these bouts of fear, anxiety, dread – call it what you will – whenever they appear and whatever they’re about.

I still find the worry tree really helpful. I learned the importance of living in the now. “Today I am healthy, today I am well” is still one of my favourite mantras. Also, another health issue in the interim – microinvasive melanoma on my right calf – pulled me up short and made me realise the futility of worry. Worrying about one thing doesn’t stop other – potentially worse – things from happening.

And of course, exercise. Lots  of it, in my case. It’s always a massive help. Never fails to cheer me up.

Anyone who knows me knows I am extremely aware of, and grateful for, the many, many good things I have in my life. So how about some of the more important positives?

Last month I was signed off by the consultant dermatologist, having completed my one-year follow-up after being diagnosed with and treated for very early-stage melanoma last summer.

The chemotherapy-induced nerve damage I have in my feet hasn’t been anywhere near as bothersome these past few weeks as it’s been at other times.

My two teenage sons seem happy; sadly it seems that’s not a given these days among teenagers.

I couldn’t ask for a better husband… although I may change my mind on that later if he doesn’t bring something nice home for tea! Seriously, though, that is a very comforting thing to be able to say.

Finally, I’m fitter than ever – accounting for age, of course. I’m loving all the cycling, running and tennis I’m doing. My body let me down in the past, but for now it’s doing me proud. I took part in the Great Scottish Run in my home town of Glasgow last month (photo!) – running 10k in well under my target of one hour.

At the same time, life has its challenges. I won’t name them here but part of the key to being content is, I believe, accepting that ups and downs are normal. Also, it’s not all or nothing. You can be dealing with lots of problems and still be happy.

I think back again to when I was first diagnosed, back in July 2015. I’d walk down crowded streets thinking no-one else had a care in the world. I wanted to scream at people and tell them to wake up, tell them they had no idea how lucky they were, tell them to appreciate their good fortune. That was, of course, nonsense. By the time we’ve reached a certain age, most of us have “cares” of some sort or other, some far more serious than others. Most of us find a way of muddling through.

The main cause of my anxiety hasn’t changed, but my way of dealing with it – and with other potentially anxiety-inducing events – has. I can only hope my breast cancer doesn’t come back, despite me being at high risk of it doing so because of the stage it was at when I was diagnosed. I still think about that every day. Indeed there are days when I realise I’ve been thinking deep, dark thoughts for longer than is healthy. But it’s ok. I know what to do. Acknowledge the thoughts, remember they’re just thoughts, deal with them or actively move them away from the front of your mind and move mindfully on. And if they come back, just keep calm and do the same again until it works. Some days it takes longer than others to get back to “the now”.

Here are some examples of when distraction techniques are needed.

Every day I take a tablet containing letrozole, an oestrogen-blocking medicine whose ultimate objective is to reduce the risk of any breast cancer cells that may have escaped chemo and that are currently lying dormant somewhere in my body from becoming active. I get goosebumps every time I fill my repeat prescription. That’s another two months I’ve cheated this disease, I think to myself as I leave the pharmacy with my latest supply of little yellow pills.

That “I wonder if I’ll still be healthy then” thought comes sneaking in to mock me whenever I start thinking or planning too far ahead. It happened at work a month or so ago, when I heard we would be moving offices in early 2019. It happened more recently when some friends asked if we fancied going on holiday with them next February. And it happened again a few weeks ago when I put down a deposit for a cycling training camp in Spain next March.

March is five months away. In my world, that seems a long time. I take a calcium and vitamin D tablet daily to counteract the osteoporotic effects of letrozole. There’s been a mix-up with the prescription and I now have six months’ supply. That makes me feel quite uncomfortable.

This all makes you realise that so much of life is about planning for the future. If my cancer does come back, the fact I’ll have lost my deposit on a holiday or whatever will be the least of my worries so I may as well get on with enjoying the planning of it. I also realise how fortunate I am to be able financially to do these things.

And how about this? The book I quoted from at the beginning of this piece is called Unless, by the late, great Carol Shields. Reading some reviews after I’d read it, I discovered this was Shields’s final novel and that she died of breast cancer in 2003, not long after finishing it. I’d had no idea. The assumption is that she knew she was dying when she was writing this book that I so enjoyed. Finding that out really knocked me for six – especially when I realised we were at the same stage at diagnosis. Six weeks or so on from finishing the book, I still I find the whole thing really unsettling. Even writing this now, I have to make a real effort to stop my thoughts running away with themselves.

Also, many people including me were saddened and shocked recently by the sad and untimely death from breast cancer of the BBC presenter Rachael Hodges at the age of just 40. Tragedies such as these are, of course, desperately sad for the families and friends of the person who dies. On a personal level, though, you can’t help thinking that could have been – indeed could still be – me.

Rachael started a podcast with two friends who also have had or are having treatment for cancer called You, Me & The Big C – Putting The Can In Cancer. It was incredibly popular but I have to admit I could never bring myself to listen to it as I felt it was just too close to home.

It’s the same with those cycling socks that say “F**k” up the back of one and “Cancer” up the back of the other. I couldn’t possibly wear them. I’m still too scared of the beast to laugh at it or mock it.

So, in essence, happy to be here, loving life and all the good things in it. But never complacent or carefree, and always aware it could be snatched away at any time. I could count my blessings, but I’d rather not. Like millions of others, I’m just trying to deal as best I can with whatever life throws at me – the good, the bad and everything in between.