Living life with a new intensity… and Olivia Newton-John

It’s only June and already it’s been a busy year. I’ve gone skiing – twice, once with family and once with friends. I’ve been to Spain – also twice, once when I took my mum to Malaga for a few days, and then later to Valencia for a tennis weekend with some friends. I’ve been up to Glasgow – for work, but I made the most of it and stayed with my mum – and I’ve gone up to Edinburgh for a friend’s birthday party. I’m not finished yet; in less than two weeks, I’m off to New York to spend a few days with my beloved godmother.

I know my carbon footprint is massive with all these flights but my priority at the moment is seeing people who matter to me and spending time with them. I do look after the environment in lots of other ways.

20170531_004948 (4)You’re living life with a new intensity and you’re feeling good. You’re in a running club and on top of that you’ve joined a cycling club. You’re doing 10-mile runs (this coming Sunday, run number above) and 74-mile bike rides (last Sunday). You’re playing lots of tennis. You’re enjoying work. You’re “giving something back” by doing some volunteering with a couple of charities.

You’re hugely appreciative you have the means and the time to do all these lovely things. It’s all great fun but you’re not fooling yourself. You know that, having had breast cancer, the reason you’re so active is that your drivers are different from most people’s. You’re acutely aware of the fragility of life and of how quickly things can change and you know that you’ll never again take your health or your time here for granted.

It’s nearly two years since you were diagnosed with Stage 3a breast cancer. Your treatment went really well. You’re tolerating well the daily hormone therapy you’re taking to reduce the risk of your cancer coming back. You’ve got nothing to report to the consultant breast surgeon when you see him for your latest six-month check-up a couple of days before you fly to New York.

The thing is, once you’ve had breast cancer, it’s never really over. Just ask Olivia Newton-John, or rather Sandy from Grease, who announced a few days ago that the primary breast cancer she was successfully treated for 25 years ago – yes, you read that right, a whole quarter of a century ago – has come back in her spine. That pain in her lower back that she thought was sciatica was in fact metastatic or secondary breast cancer. And secondary breast cancer, while treatable, is currently incurable. Not that you’d know that from most of the reporting of the Newton-John news.

Everyone who’s had a cancer that can return deals with it differently. My way, for the moment at least, is not to leave for tomorrow what you can do today. I know too well that what’s just happened to Newton-John could happen to me at any time – tomorrow, next year, in five years or indeed in 25 (although I have to say if I’m still here and it comes back in 25 years’ time – at which point I’d be 78 – I reckon I’ll have done well).

Even if I hadn’t had breast cancer, the news about Newton-John’s recurrence would have been upsetting. As Rosie Millard writes in a brilliant article in The Independent newspaper, “the news that the Grease star’s cancer  has returned grips women of a certain age who grew up looking to her as something of a lodestar of our own happiness and maturation”. I saw Grease for the first time as a teenager in the summer of 1978 in Vancouver, where I spent the whole of the school holidays – courtesy of my great uncle who lived there – enjoying a freedom I’d never had before. The film hadn’t come out yet in Britain and so for a few months back home in Glasgow I had rare bragging rights among my friends!

Sandy’s transformation from good girl to bad scandalised and thrilled in equal measure us 14- and 15-year old Catholic schoolgirls. My mum didn’t approve of the film. I remember her telling me that she’d heard there was “a not very nice scene in the back of a car”! I bought the album. I’ve still got it. I know almost every word to every song. I feel I’ve been singing along to the soundtrack for much of my life. I even dragged my husband and some friends – some were willing and some were not so willing – along to the sing-along version as part of my 50th birthday celebrations a few years back.  And yes, we dressed up!

If you follow this blog, you’ll know I’m doing a 100-mile bike ride in July to raise money for a breast cancer research charity. One of the fundraising events I was planning to organise involved a showing of Grease. I’m not sure I’ll do that now. Instead of being a bit of a laugh, it would just be sad.

The fact that breast cancer can come back and kill is the reason I’m raising funds for Breast Cancer Now. One of the charity’s goals is that by 2050 no-one will die of breast cancer. I’m doing the Prudential London-Surrey 100, on Sunday 30th July. It’s a mass cycling event that starts at the Olympic Park in east London, goes out through the Surrey hills and finishes back in central London in front of Buckingham Palace. If you’d like to sponsor me, you can do so here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/maureen-kenny.

My training’s going well and I’m really enjoying it. I’ll carry on living for the moment and as I’m struggling up a hill on my next practice ride I’ll spare a special thought for Sandy Olsson – or rather, Olivia Newton-John – as she gets on with this next challenging phase.

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When losing counts as a massive win

I was beaten two sets to one in a two-hour tennis match earlier today but I have no hesitation whatsoever in counting this particular loss as a massive win.

This was the first league match I’d played since I was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer. I carried on playing tennis throughout chemo but I dropped out of the leagues and this was my first league match in ten or 11 months. It would have been nice to win but the fact I was playing competitively again really was prize enough.

As you all know by now, the cancer was in my right breast and the right axillary lymph nodes. Given the type of surgery I was to have – mastectomy and removal of all the lymph nodes under my arm – I really was worried that my competitive tennis days might be over. My concern may have been misplaced but the fact is that some women who have their lymph nodes removed afterwards have long-term problems in terms of shoulder, arm and hand strength and mobility on the operated side. And I don’t have to remind you of how terrified I was of developing lymphoedema (Fear of lymphoedema).

I don’t appear to have problems on the mobility or strength front and while I have developed lymphoedema in and around the operated area (Looking forward to a “much more symmetrical overall shape”), there’s apparently no evidence to show that playing tennis increases the risk of it developing in my arm. At least two consultants have encouraged me to go ahead and play, as long as I feel up to it (Acupuncture, tennis, a haircut and going back to work & Should I play tennis? “Yes, just don’t play Federer.”). And so I found myself on court this morning.

grafton
The lovely Grafton tennis club in south London

It’s now five hours since the match ended and my arm and shoulder feel fine. And mentally I feel great, which is not usually how I feel when I lose, especially after winning the first set! There are still aches and pains and problems to solve in and around the operated area but it’s a huge relief that they don’t appear to affect my tennis-playing capabilities.

I lost 6-3, 4-6, 3-6. Not too shabby, all things considered.

Happy Bank Holiday Monday!

Tennis II

A few of you have asked whether I did in the end challenge my two teenage sons to a tennis match before I started chemo. That was after I’d written a post (Tennis I) way back in the summer saying they hadn’t yet beaten me. Should I leave well alone or risk defeat, I wondered.

Well I had a knock-about with the older lad before that first chemo session back on 19 August. We played and chatted for around half an hour then he suggested we play a “friendly tie break”. He won 7-5. Now does that count as beating me in an official sense? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

I genuinely thought I’d be hanging up my tennis racket as soon as I started chemo. I really can’t put into words how delighted – not to mention astonished – I am to have been able to keep playing throughout. I pulled out of the ladies doubles team I was in and out of the club leagues, but I have played a fair amount.

Every time I got out there on the court was a bonus. I surprised myself when I won – although that hasn’t happened for a good while now – but in all honesty I was happy just to be playing. I no longer run for balls that a few months ago I’d have got to no problem and my lovely doubles partner has had to get used to losing not just some but all of the time. I still love it though.

jamie and mumAnd what a massive treat to get a session through our tennis club at one of the indoor practice courts at Wimbledon one evening last week! My older son (yes, he’s the one in the photo), my doubles partner and another friend from the ladies team I was in and I turned up a little early… to find Davis Cup TV commentators Andrew Castle and Jamie Baker playing on the court we would play on ten minutes later! And yes, we were told to wear “whites”.

So a million thanks to the lovely young man my son is turning out to be and to the fabulous women who’ve made time to play over the past four months. I’ve got two matches planned for this coming week, the final one for Friday, the day before my operation. You’ve got to really, haven’t you, especially when you have no idea when you might play again.

 

 

Paris and being where I never thought I’d be

Now that it’s happened a second and third time, I realise this urge to take my wig off and have a photo taken at the tops of high places is all about wanting – and perhaps needing – to record instances of being somewhere I never thought I’d be while undergoing chemo.

The first time was earlier this month at the top of a hill in Wales (The Great Sugar Loaf Uncovering). Then this past weekend it was in Paris, where we’d gone for a few days, once at the top of one of the towers of Notre Dame cathedral mo ndand then at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

I really thought I’d be so wiped out with the chemo that I wouldn’t be able to do much of anything at all in a physical sense.  But since starting the sessions just over three months ago, I’ve managed to keep playing tennis, I’ve been out for a couple of short runs, I’ve kept cycling to some degree (if not outside then on training rollers inside), I did that hillwalk in Wales and now I’ve conquered these two Paris landmarks.

The last thing I want to do is give the impression that chemo’s been a walk in the park as it really hasn’t been (“Maureen is tolerating the chemotherapy remarkably well”… just not today). There have been some days – but thankfully not too many – when it’s taken a real effort even to move from the sofa. Also, I still have three sessions to go, although after tomorrow’s session it’ll be down to just two. But I’m hugely relieved – not to mention happy – I’ve been able to do so much. There’s an important lesson here for all us about the pointlessness of expecting the worse.

To get to the top of the Notre Dame, my husband, two boys and I climbed a total of 387 steps up a couple of very steep spiral staircases. You go up in groups of around 20 and, while I was sweating by the end of both the first and second levels, I definitely wasn’t the only one in the group who found it hard going. It was well worth it, though, for the views and the sense of achievement in equal measure. In the photo it looks like those chimeras* are about to take a bite out of my head!

Managing that inspired me to tackle the Eiffel Tower. So on Sunday night, Jamie, Finlay and I climbed the 704 steps to the 2nd stage. That was in fact easier than the near-400 steps at Notre Dame. The Eiffel Tower steps are nowhere near as steep as the steps in the cathedral tower, you’re outside so it’s cooler and there are plenty of places to stop to rest. You get the lift to the top from the 2nd stage, which is where the photo was taken. m te 2

The blue light in the background is the laser beam from the tower. In the photo it’s the exact same colour as my jacket, but to the human eye it was white. All credit to my boys for this photo. As I prepared to “de-wig”, I asked if they were ok with me doing this. They both looked at me as if I were mad (good to see some things never change!) and one simply said “Why wouldn’t we be?”. I do wander around the house bare-headed so they are used to it.

There’s no need now for any more photos like these. I know I can do it. Also, I’m really not sure where I’d go or what I’d do next!

*Today’s architecture lesson… These are chimeras, not gargoyles. Gargoyles were built into the ends of the gutters to drain rainwater off the roof; chimeras are used as simple decorations.