Topping off a lovely few weeks with my 100th Parkrun

I’ve just done my 100th Parkrun and it was the perfect end to a lovely few weeks.

I started doing Parkrun seriously in April 2016 to get fit again after finishing active therapy for primary breast cancer. Little did I know then that these free, timed, volunteer-led Saturday morning 5k runs would become a big part of my life and that almost four years and two cancer diagnoses later, I’d be chasing down my 100th.

Reaching one hundred is a pretty big milestone in the Parkrun world. I couldn’t be more pleased, especially as at one point earlier this year, not long after I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, I genuinely thought my running days were over.

It really felt like a massive achievement. Others agreed. Friends turned up to cheer me round our local course at Tooting Common in southwest London with the banner they’d made when I cycled Ride London last summer. One friend ran the whole 5k with me. Another chose to make this her first Parkrun. Finally, there was a welcome party waiting for me with champagne, party poppers and cake!

It was the perfect end to what had been a very pleasant few weeks.

Just two days earlier, I’d gone ahead with the ninth monthly round of the treatment I began in May for secondary breast cancer. I’d had a wide range of blood tests the day before. It’s no longer as straightforward as saying that the results are showing good news across the board – the relevant tumour marker has edged up again. However, my oncologist clearly thinks the balance is still in favour of continuing with the same core medication I’ve been on since starting treatment last May. This is my first so-called “line of treatment” and the longer you can stay on these early lines – and off chemo – the better.

I’d been feeling good physically most of the way through the four weeks of treatment cycle #8 – apart from on one key front, more of which below. Feeling well, however, is no indication that things are going well inside. That being the case, together with the uncertainty of the past couple of months, it was a huge relief to hear I’d be staying on this treatment for another four-week cycle.

So off I headed to the day treatment unit for three lots of injections and to collect my next 28-day supply of the abemaciclib tablets that I take every morning and every evening.

Treatment at the day unit consisted of four individual injections: one of the same drug (fulvestrant) in each buttock lasting two to three minutes each, one of another drug in the left side of my abdomen (denosumab) that took about a minute, and a quick 30-second jab of yet another drug (filgrastim) on the right side of my abdomen to finish.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I felt like a pincushion by the time I was done. That’s not a complaint; it really is just a statement. They can stick as many needles as they want into me if it keeps the cancer in check.

It’s been the loveliest of Christmases and New Years – spent very sociably but also very locally. Our two boys started uni in September and it was great to have them home for a few weeks. A highlight was them treating us to a delicious home-made Beef Wellington on Boxing Day.

I’ve been having a lot of fun sports-wise. I was on a mission to reach my 100th Parkrun as early in the new year as possible. To achieve this, I did four Parkruns over a ten-day period – two regular Saturday runs at my home course and two special events, one on Christmas Day at Dulwich Park a couple of miles away and one on New Year’s Day, also at Tooting.

Also, I’m back playing in the tennis leagues at my club. Over the holidays I played – and lost – two singles matches.

Most fun of all, on New Year’s Day a friend and I took a dip in Tooting Lido, the local 100 x 33 yard open air swimming pool. Even with a full wetsuit, we managed no more than two widths – my hands and feet were frozen the second I got in. It felt like a suitably bonkers thing to do on the first day of a new decade.

Another positive relates to the issue of drug side effects. Severe diarrhoea is a potentially serious side of abemaciclib, one of the two drugs I’ve been on from the start. There had been moments but I hadn’t been too badly affected. That all changed with treatment cycle #7 just over two months ago when I switched from Zometa, the drug I’d been taking to reduce the risk of bone fractures and other “skeletal related events”, to denosumab, which is aimed at doing the same thing but in a different way.

If you’ve had bad attacks of the runs – and I mean really bad – you’ll know how nasty diarrhoea can be. If you haven’t, well just be grateful. The antidiarrhoeal medicine loperamide quickly became my new best friend. I can now boast of being an expert in its use – for both treatment and prophylactic purposes.

While it didn’t spoil our recent holiday in Jordan it was, as I said euphemistically to the oncologist, most certainly “an issue”. I could only look longingly at the all-you-could-eat breakfast buffet at the smart beachfront hotel where we stayed for the last two nights of the trip. That felt most unfair. Also, I bet I’m one of the very few people who know the location of all – and I mean all – the public conveniences in Petra.

Anyway, the good news is that this cycle so far I haven’t been troubled anywhere near the degree to which I was in the first two cycles. It’s usually at its worst in the first two weeks – and at its very worst in the first few days – of the four-week cycle. Fingers crossed things are settling down.

Finally, the charity Breast Cancer Now has chosen to feature on its website an update of a blog post of mine that I wrote originally last November after a lovely summer and a trip to the US to visit two much-loved aunts. The fact that it’s had lots of positive feedback from many, many women with breast cancer makes me very happy indeed.

As I said, it’s been a lovely few weeks. Indeed it’s ongoing. At a ridiculously early time tomorrow morning, I fly off to the French Alps for my annual ski trip with friends. I’ve stocked up on loperamide but I do feel very fortunate even to be in a position where I’m able to  go. It’s from Friday to Tuesday, and the aim is to ski on each of the five days we’re away. I call it a long weekend; my husband calls it a short week. He is technically correct, but don’t tell him I said that.

Here’s to 2020. Let’s hope it’s kind to all of us.

Relax, honey, you’ve passed

This post is in praise of the man who is still making me laugh after some 35 years of partnership.

My previous post was about how a diagnosis of an incurable, progressive, disease gives you an opportunity to reflect on life. Well, this is me reflecting on my relationship with my husband and best friend.

Like any couple who’ve been together for a long time, we sometimes drive each other nuts and bicker over silly things (or is that just us?). On our recent trip to Jordan, we’re wandering round the incredible Roman ruins of Jerash in the north of the country, and I jokingly tell him off for some ridiculously minor infraction.

Jerash

In response, he quips that sometimes he feels he’s still on probation. He smilingly says he’s worried that one day he’ll find out he’s failed and I’ll tell him, as we say in my native city of Glasgow, to “sling his hook”.

This has me doubled over laughing. It makes me laugh every time I think back on it.

We’ve been together essentially since we were 21. We survived living in different cities and indeed in different countries for several years early on. We got married two children and 20 years into the relationship – almost 16 years ago – and he was the one who joked in his speech at the wedding that it had taken him nearly two decades to be sure he’d made the right choice!

The idea that I’ve yet to decide whether he makes the grade is hilarious. As he knows very well. At least I think he does. Just in case, though, I’d like to say for the record that this man who is still making me laugh out loud 35 years on has indeed passed his probation. What’s more, he’s done so with flying colours and deserves the highest distinction going.

Reading Unsheltered in the Dead Sea

Part of the trick to a long relationship is being willing to say sorry quickly after a falling out. It has to be said that it took both of us some time to learn this – and I confess it took me longer than it took him. On holiday, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered. In it, one of the main characters says that sorry really is “the word that could never be said enough in the space of one marriage.” I think most people would agree.

Now bear with me on this next part, there is a point to it.

Recently, I’ve increasingly taken to making sure my boobs look level when I’m wearing tight-fitting clothes. When I had my right-side mastectomy in December 2015, I had a reconstruction made out of fat taken from my belly area. The radiotherapy I subsequently had robbed the reconstruction of its elasticity – it’s a known risk – with the result that the right one looks pretty much the same now as it did four years ago and the other one, ie the real one, well, doesn’t. Nature, shall we say, has taken its course. (You are allowed to laugh; we do.)

These days, therefore, it takes some readjusting when I get dressed to get that sought-after “in-bra symmetry” look.

That photo!

Anyway, back to Jordan. It’s late afternoon and we’re wandering through the spectacular archeological sandstone site of Petra. The light is beautiful. He takes a photo of me at the entrance to a cavernous tomb. “That’s lovely,” he says, “I’ll post that.” It’s a close-up, and it’s going on social media. I ask, almost instinctively, “What do my boobs look like?”

What I mean, of course, is do they look lopsided or uneven in the photo? He, very deliberately, looks at my actual chest and replies with a smile, “under the circumstances, not half bad”. We both know what he means and, again, it has me laughing for ages.

I could have kept all this to myself. Shortly after our holiday, however, I happen to find myself listening to the first album in 17 years from Tanya Ticker, one of my favourite country singers from back in the day. There’s a song on it called Bring my flowers now (while I’m livin’).

You may not know this, but I am a huge country music fan. With song titles like that, how could you not be?

Anyway, the song is basically about how if you’re fortunate enough to have people in your life that you cherish, you should let them know that you appreciate them while you have the chance. Because guess what, folks, as Tanya Tucker tells us in the song, “We all think we got the time until we don’t.”

She sings: “Bring my flowers now while I’m livin’. I won’t need your love when I’m gone. Don’t spend time, tears and money on my old breathless body. If your heart is in them flowers, bring ‘em on.” Fantastically schmaltzy, even for country, but a great sentiment. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see how those lines hit a massive chord with me.

I’m the one with the incurable illness – secondary breast cancer – and you might think that my drawing attention to this song is to encourage those people who cherish me to let me know they do. In that regard, any of you reading this are indeed very welcome to “bring my flowers now” whenever and in whatever way you want. This post, though, is for my partner, who reckons that under the circumstances, we’re doing not half bad. I couldn’t have put it better myself. This is me bringing him his flowers now. I’m lucky to have him.

Lucky or unlucky? It depends how you look at it

Understandably, a lot of people get upset when you tell them you’ve been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. My boss was one of the first people I told, back in April or May. We chatted and she said, sympathetically, that I’d been so unlucky.

She and I both know how serious any type of secondary cancer is. If you’ve been diagnosed early enough, it will be treatable and can be controlled – in some cases for many years – but ultimately it’s incurable. What treatment does is buy you time. 

Instinctively I agreed with my boss. To find out at the age of 55 that your likely prognosis is in years not decades felt pretty unlucky to me.

Almost immediately, though, it occurred to me that that wasn’t actually the case. In fact, I said to her while trying to hold back tears, I’ve been incredibly lucky.

What do I mean by that?

Well, there have been some very sad and difficult times but, broadly speaking, I have not had a hard life.

I have an amazing partner I’ve essentially been with since I was 21. We’ve had and are continuing to have lots of good times together.

I have two lovely, healthy and seemingly happy young-adult children. 

Mum, my brothers and me

I had a happy childhood with loving parents and five great brothers. My dad died just a few years ago but my mum is alive and kicking and clearly loves me to bits. My brothers and I are all still very close. The photo here is from when I was up in Glasgow this summer.

I have two aunts – my dad’s two sisters – out in the US, one of whom is also my godmother. I’m very close to both despite the distance between us. I went out to visit them this past summer, thus the photo below. One of my brothers was there too, from Scotland, and while I know the term “joy-filled” sounds schmaltzy and cliched, I can’t think of a better way to describe the few days we were all together.

My husband’s parents, my in-laws, thought the world of me. We were lucky to have them in our lives for as long as we did.

Outside of the family, I have a godson and goddaughter I’m incredibly fond of. I got to see both of them this summer.

My lovely aunts and me

I have numerous wonderful friends and lots of different friendship and acquaintanceship groups.

We’re financially secure and I have great colleagues and a job I love.

I’ve been able to travel extensively, both on a personal and professional level.

I’ve been responding well to treatment; there was no guarantee I would. 

Physically, most of the time, I really don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with me over and above the standard things any 56-year-old female might expect to have. I’m cycling, running and playing tennis.

Other treatment options will be available once the specific treatment that I’m on stops working. I hope it’ll be a long time before that happens but I’m aware it could happen sooner rather than later.

So have I been lucky or unlucky? Maybe it’s not a question of one or the other. We’ve had our share of troubles and no-one would ever choose to have what I have. Regardless of how well I feel physically at the moment, living with an incurable disease is really tough emotionally. Among other things it’s hard not to feel guilty for bringing this upset into everyone’s lives. 

Healthwise, I can but hope for the best and take the coming months and hopefully years as they come. In the meantime, I’ll try to stay calm and be easy on myself, and keep appreciating and making the most of this life – lucky or unlucky – that I have.

A birthday, a bike ride and a breast cancer reality check

That was a fabulous weekend – despite there being a stonking big breast cancer reality check at the end of it.

On Friday I went ahead and started my sixth monthly treatment cycle for the secondary breast cancer with which I was diagnosed in April. A mix-up with bloods meant it didn’t happen the previous day as planned. According to the blood test results, things are still looking good. For that, I am incredibly thankful.

The following day was our older son Jamie’s 21st birthday. It was the loveliest of occasions.

My mum bowling!

The two boys came back from uni and my brother Peter, who is also Jamie’s godfather, came down from Glasgow. He brought my mum with him. Finally, my two adult nieces – the boys’ cousins – who live in London (and who very sweetly call me their London mum) were also there, with the boyfriend of one of them. We went bowling!

The cake

Since I was diagnosed with this treatable but ultimately incurable illness in April this year, milestones have even more special significance than they ordinarily would have.

At this one, there was a sense of calm and wellbeing with lots of joy, affection, love and laughs… and, of course, cake. 

Then on Sunday, the next day, the two cycling clubs I ride with – BellaVelo CC and Balham CC – joined together for a 100 kilometre bike ride in my honour and to raise funds for research into secondary breast cancer.

Up to 90 of us, including my brother Peter, rode out through Surrey in different pace groups and then all met up in a coffee shop back in London at the end.

After the ride

The Balham club has a nice write-up and more photos of it here. The charity we raised funds for is called One More City.

It wasn’t until I saw the photos that I realised quite how many colours I was combining on the ride. I decided it would be fun – and appropriate – to wear both clubs’ kit and then, with the gloves, I added a touch of “breast cancer pink” to mark the fact that we were doing this in October, breast cancer awareness month.

The debate over the whole pink thing is quite polarised. In my case, I don’t mind the use of the colour but I do object to the use of “fun” props such as inflatable boobs and pink wigs, pink boas, pink tutus and the like. I get the fact that people want to make public displays of support and/or need an outlet for their own fears or other feelings but I find a lot of it quite tasteless. I think it trivialises, infantilises and sexualises this killer disease.

Colour clash!

Now we’ve got the feminist speech out of the way, let’s get back to Sunday’s ride. The two-club kit combo was bright enough but I hadn’t taken into account the bike and water bottle. That took the whole colour thing to another level!

The bright colours were appropriate, though, as they kind of reflected my mood. I was quite overwhelmed that some 90 people had signed up to do this event. I was definitely feeling the love. The support and sentiment that led to this ride taking place meant a great deal to me on a personal level and on top of that it was great to get these two lovely clubs together. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who helped organise and took part in the ride and/or have supported the One More City charity.

Relaxing on the sofa on Sunday evening with a glass of white wine, I reflected on what a lovely few days it had been. Treatment had gone ahead and both the birthday celebrations and the bike ride had gone really well. It had all been very special.

Then I read on Twitter of the death from secondary breast cancer of Deborah Orr, a huge character and well-known personality from the world of journalism. At 57, Deborah was just slightly older than me; she was also a Glaswegian. Chillingly, she died just months after receiving her secondary diagnosis. She was clearly very ill, but her death came as a shock, at least to me. I suddenly felt terribly sad.

Right there on the sofa, I raised a glass to Deborah and felt even more grateful for the weekend I’d just had.

How’s this for awesome?

Here’s an update on the past few weeks. It’s mostly been more than good and a couple of really lovely things have happened to me.

If things carry on at this rate, I may well attempt to cycle the full 100-mile route of the Ride London event early next month.

Here goes.

First off, later today, essentially without there being a break from treatment cycle #2, I start treatment cycle #3 for the advanced breast cancer I was diagnosed with a few months ago.

At St George’s Hospital in Tooting in south-west London, I’ll have two injections of Faslodex (fulvestrant) in my buttocks, I’ll be given the bone-strengthening drug Zometa (zoledronic acid) via a drip in my arm, and I’ll start my next round of twice-daily Verzenios (abemaciclib) tablets.

Each treatment cycle lasts 28 days. I had to have a short break between cycles one and two and I feared there might be another one between two and three – or that we might have to reduce the dose of tablet that I’m on. I’d really rather not have either at this stage as there are some signs that the drugs are having a positive effect and I’m totally paranoid about doing anything that in any way, shape or form might reduce the effectiveness of the treatment.

The reason I had the break between the first two cycles is that abemaciclib had pushed my neutrophil count to below the level that’s considered safe to continue treatment. That’s still happening. To counteract that, I had to self-administer injections of a drug called filgrastim yesterday evening and the previous evening. I’ll do the same again half-way through and at the end of this latest 28-day cycle. Filgrastim boosts the production of neutrophils – the white blood cells that help fight infection – and I inject it in my belly area. I did much the same during chemo nearly four years ago.

Assuming this treatment cycle passes uneventfully, my next trip to the hospital won’t be until near the end of the 28-day period, when I’ll have blood tests in advance of seeing the consultant and hopefully get the go-ahead to start treatment cycle #4. In the time between the two injections, we should manage a ten-day family holiday in Spain.

Re the drugs having a positive effect, my blood test results from Monday show that my tumour marker levels are down – again. A decrease in marker levels during treatment can indicate that the tumour is responding to treatment. You don’t want to get too excited but that’s a positive early sign.

On the pain front, I haven’t needed to use painkillers for weeks now. I have been in no pain whatsoever for a good couple of weeks. I’m expecting potentially to have to take painkillers over the next few days as the fulvestrant and zoledronic acid can cause bone and joint pain.*

There have been some tough moments emotionally, when I’ve started thinking too far ahead. However, for now I’ve become a bit of an expert at pulling myself back to the present PDQ.

Now on to the subject of exercise. Since suggesting in my last blog post that I might take up swimming to make up for no longer being able to run or play tennis, I have been swamped with offers from friends and acquaintances to swim with them – outdoors!

In the past ten days alone, I’ve been for two early-morning swims at Tooting Lido, the big outdoor swimming pool near where I live. I’ve also been to an evening session of open-water swimming at the beautiful Shepperton Lake on the outskirts of south-west London. I’m due to swim again at Tooting Lido early tomorrow morning and at Victoria Docks in the Thames one evening next week. All new and lovely experiences for me. I don’t have the fitness to do front crawl for more than a few strokes at a time but breast stroke is fine.

On top of all that, I managed a 75-mile bike ride last Sunday, with two cycling friends. I thought it was a flat 100k route but we followed a friend’s route and hers was 120k! That’s made me think I should at least try to do the longer, 100-mile route of Ride London, the mass participation, 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 but when I started treatment in May, I didn’t think I’d even be in a position to attempt the shorter 46-mile route.

And how’s this for awesome? If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know I was gutted at having to pull out of a big charity bike ride known as Le Loop that I was planning on doing in France earlier this month.

As part of Le Loop, I was due to cycle Stages 5-7 of this year’s Tour de France route a week before the real thing. A bunch of us from BellaVelo, the cycling community and club based in south west London that I’m a member of, had signed up to do various stages of the Tour as part of this big fundraising event.

It turns out that some of the BellaVelo women who did take part in Le Loop – often riding more than a 100 miles a day in ridiculously high temperature0f708d09-3921-4813-8b36-87b0d4421f63s – wore ribbons with the Scottish flag on on their helmets or bikes or even as hair ties while they were riding. Why? Because they thought it would be “a nice way to include you in Le Loop even though you were unable physically to be there”.

I’m still feeling so chuffed about that. What a kind gesture. That has to be up there with having had a sonnet written for me!

There’s more. Two BellaVelo members are currently riding every stage of the Tour de France the day before the pros. They’re part of a team called InternationElles and they’re doing this amazing feat to raise awareness of inequality in cycling. Anyway, what they’re doing is incredible and so demanding… but they took time out to send me a video of support. That was very cool.

Staying with the cycling theme, it was my 56th birthday recently and my husband gave me as a present a lovely framed photo of the two of us dressed up for an evening out… with 6153A64E-7A21-46B2-9139-683FB49A8D45a second option – of me with my bike and in full cycling kit – in case I get fed up with his first choice! In the one of me on my own, I’m standing at the top of Box Hill in Surrey. It’s a classic ride for south Londoners and we’d cycled there a few weeks ago to see whether I’d be able to do it. I was delighted that I could. My husband knows how much both photos mean to me. He is a star.

On top of that, on Monday I had the best evening out with three friends I’ve known since my early days in London. I’m the only one who still lives in the capital and this was a very hastily arranged get-together. They’ve been friends with each other since childhood and I’m the blow-in! It was a beautiful, fun-filled, life-affirming evening.

I could go on but I’ll mention just one more thing. A friend has given me a book called the Poetry Pharmacy, by William Sieghart. If you haven’t come across it, try to get a copy. It could change your life.

Plenty of other friends and family members have made other lovely gestures. I massively appreciate them all. I feel surrounded by kindness. People are amazing and it’s good to be alive.

*In the end, painkillers weren’t needed. There was no pain at all in my glutes after the injections and no joint/bone pain at all over the following days.