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.

Advertisements

Recurrence 3: Keeping my side of a really hard bargain

no wine ice creamAfter you’ve had treatment for breast cancer, you’re told to do certain things to reduce the risk of it coming back. Don’t smoke, cut down on your alcohol consumption or stop drinking altogether, eat healthily, keep to a healthy weight, exercise and keep fit and, for many of us, keep taking the daily anti-oestrogen therapy (One down, just 3,652 to go).

This is all good advice. Really it’s no different from what we’re meant to do anyway (apart, of course, from the hormone therapy). I do have a problem with it, though. It risks making women feel guilty ifblame they don’t manage to follow it – regardless of whether their cancer comes back or not.

I’ll do my best to keep my side of this hard bargain. No matter how well I manage, though, there’s no guarantee I’ll stay “cancer-free” (Recurrence 1 & Recurrence 2). As with getting breast cancer in the first place (How did I “get” breast cancer?), there are factors – some undoubtedly we’re not yet even aware of – over which we have little or no control.

So what am I doing to reduce my risk of recurrence? I don’t smoke, so that wasn’t a problem. I’ve always been active and done loads of sport but I’ve now started running regularly – not far, but at least I’m doing it. Also, I make a point of cycling to places where before I might have driven. So I’m probably fitter than I was before  I was diagnosed last July. I’ve also shed a good few kilos. I’ve gone from being a regular to an occasional drinker of alcohol… although I did make an exception for the few days I’ve just spent in Madrid (If planning a holiday is a clear sign of recovery…)! Finally, while I reckon I ate pretty healthily before, I have changed my diet quite substantially. I eat far less, for a start. I can’t bring myself to become a vegetarian but I have cut down on red meat and I’ve almost completely cut out processed meats – I very rarely now have things like bacon or chorizo, both of which I adore. I didn’t eat a lot of what I would term “rubbish” before, but I’ve cut out almost completely things like crisps and biscuits. We were on the coast in Norfolk for a few days over the Easter break and I didn’t even have an ice cream. Yes, I agree, where’s the fun in that?

I know these changes are all positive, but to be honest I’d feel better about them if they’d been driven by a genuine desire for change rather than by fear of recurrence.

A while back, I went to two pubs in one day – not my usual practice, I assure you. In one I had a coffee and in the other I had lime and soda. That would have been unthinkable before breast cancer. I’m sure it’ll wear off but I’m still at the stage where I have to force no funmyself not to be paranoid or judgmental about the drinking and eating habits of friends, family members and even random members of the public. I look at folk knocking it back in the pub or tucking into some really unhealthy food and think “I know where you’re heading”. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up healthier and fitter than ever before but I’ll be bloody miserable and a real party pooper!

 

Same run, but no tears this time

That’s two Saturdays in a row I’ve done the 5k Parkrun on Tooting Common here in south London. Last Saturday there were tears as I crossed the finish line; yesterday there weren’t.

I’d run 5k round the common once on my own (Passing the Velux window test and “running” 5k) since finishing seven months of treatment for breast cancer at the end of February. So as I set off last Saturday at 9am with around 250 other runners and with Andy running beside me, I was confident I’d be fine. But I couldn’t hold back the tears as I crossed the finish line. I guess running the same route at the same time as all these other people – and knowing thousands others were doing exactly the same thing in Parkruns up and down the country – in some way made me feel I was back in the real world after having been in some sort of parallel universe since I was diagnosed last July. My husband Andy – for the millionth time over these past months, it seems – provided a shoulder to cry on. Thanks also to our friend and neighbour Steve, who finished just before me and ended up with me crying on his shoulder too. Seconds later, I was fine again.

Yesterday there were no tears. I finished – two minutes faster than last week – with a smile and a feeling I was moving forward on the road towards my “new normal”, whatever that ends up being.

#iloveparkrun #keepitfree

Post-op progress report No 4: Passing the Velux window test and “running” 5k

I’m delighted to report two massive achievements in terms of my physical recovery from my operation and more broadly from my breast cancer treatment in general.

Firstly, on a beautiful, sunny Spring morning a little over a week ago, I managed to open the Velux window in our bedroom in the loft for the first time since my surgery last December. Secondly, just this morning, I ran five kilometres round Tooting Common. This was the first time I’d been out running since finishing chemo last November (and even then I’d only really gone running two or three times since starting chemo in August).

If someone had told me a year ago that I’d get excited about something as trivial as opening a window, I’d have said they were having a laugh. But here we are. We didn’t know then that I’d be recovering now from six months of breast cancer treatment that involved chemotherapy, major surgery (a mastectomy, full lymph node clearance and immediate reconstruction using blood vessels and tissue from my abdomen) and radiotherapy. We also wouldn’t have known that I’d develop something called “cording” in my right arm following surgery that would mean I was simply unable to grasp anything tightly with my right hand or indeed to straighten my arm and exert any level of pressure. This time last year I hadn’t even heard of cording.

Anyway, the fact is that I’d tried and failed to open the Velux window on many occasions since my operation three-and-a-half months ago, on 19th December, so I was delighted when I finally managed it the week before last. It hurt but I’d done it. It meant the cording was loosening up. It still hurts to do it now, but it’s easier every time.

As for my jaunt round the common today, it was very slow but I think it just about qualifies as running*. I’d asked the plastic and reconstructive surgeon at my most recent appointment with her whether I could start running again. She’d said yes so I kind of felt I had to get out there and put my money where my mouth was before I meet her again, on 12th April, for my next six-weekly review. Also, the Saturday morning 5k running phenomenon that is Parkrun has come to Tooting Common and I’ve been gearing myself up to do that. The plastic surgeon had said to double up on the upholstery front if I did go running (It’s not over ’til it’s over) so, this morning, supported by the Sweaty Betty crop top that I bought for my sailing trip across the Atlantic at the end of 2014 (What a difference a year makes) and a sports bra, I set off.

When I look back on those first few days and weeks after the operation when I could hardly move (Post-op progress report No 1: Biting off more than I can chew), I find myself totally in awe of the capacity of the human body to repair itself. (Yes, I know the human body is equally “good” at destroying itself but we’ll set that aside for the moment.)

I knew I was getting stronger as I’d caught myself running up the stairs in the house a few times in recent days. That’s how I went up the stairs as a matter of course before I started treatment but at some point towards the end of chemo, I’d started walking instead. I’d also at some stage gone back to getting out of bed the right way without thinking about it but I’ve gone backwards somewhat on that front recently. The swelling and tenderness in and around the breast area (Breast cancer “reminders”) means that when I wake up now I have to work out which way to move that will cause least discomfort. Also, I have to confess that I’m already stiffening up after my run and am feeling a like an old lady sitting here on the sofa. All in all, though, I’d have to say things are looking up.

*To illustrate just how slowly I ran, I should tell  you that Andy, not the world’s fastest runner, accompanied me round the common and said he’d to make a real effort to keep down (is that the opposite of keep up?) with me!