Wellbeing and wildlife: how nature helps me feel better

In this guest blog post, Shine member Hazel writes about how getting outside helped her to cope with treatment for cervical cancer.


It was 2pm. I’d gotten out of bed at around midday, but I hadn’t bothered to get dressed yet or even brush my teeth. The cloudless blue sky and warming sunlight beckoned me to leave the house, but they were hidden behind my tightly shut window blinds. I sighed, disappointed in myself for not making the most of the glorious weather, and wrote it off as ‘one of those days’.

As the daylight faded I told myself tomorrow would be different. I set my alarm, laid out my clothes and put my binoculars and camera into my backpack. Tomorrow I would go out for a walk.

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Hazel on the chemo ward

After being diagnosed with cervical cancer in November I underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, twenty-five fractions of pelvic radiotherapy and three doses of brachytherapy (internal radiotherapy). After finishing treatment in January the reality of the whole experience sunk in and early-onset menopause began. Anxiety, hot flushes and night sweats, coupled with aches in my pelvis, often make it challenging to get a good night’s sleep. These conditions give me go-to excuses for not leaving the house, especially on gloomy, cold days, despite knowing that getting out of the house makes me feel so much happier. Listening to birdsong, looking for wildflowers and immersing myself in nature are the things that help me forget about cancer and just enjoy being alive.

The next morning, true to my intentions, I headed out to one of my favourite local nature reserves. It was a beautiful day again. I had another chance to get out and feel better. I walked under a canopy of huge beech trees with their smooth grey trunks flanked by stocky holly trees, listening out for birdsong as I went. Among the various tweets and chirps cascading around the woodland my attention was caught by a series of loud, high pitched ‘pip-pip’ calls. Over the past few years I’ve made an effort to learn the songs and calls of birds (you don’t need to know which bird is singing to appreciate the wonderful sound though, of course!). I recognised the ‘pips’ as being the call of a nuthatch: a beautiful little bird with blue-grey feathers on their backs, pale peach plumage on their bellies and a striking black stripe running across their eye. I looked up into the trees, scanning the branches in the direction of the sound. I soon spotted not one but two nuthatches, a male and a female, using their beaks to prise bark off a silver birch tree in which they were busily hopping from branch to branch. I stood perfectly still, trying not to disturb them.

I get so much joy from watching wild animals going about their daily lives, gaining insight into their behaviour. There’s no space for anxiety about the recurrence of cancer or worrying about the future in those moments because my full concentration is given to the bird, butterfly or other natural wonder that I am in the presence of. After a few minutes one of the nuthatches flew over to a tree, clinging to the bark with its powerfully clawed little feet. It cautiously paused to look at me before it began stuffing the bark it had collected into an old woodpecker-made hole in the tree’s trunk. They were building a nest! I’d passed that hole-laden tree many times and wondered what creatures might make use of it; now I was witnessing something I had never seen before and it felt like such a privilege. It brought a smile to my face which lasted the rest of that day, and returns now as I recall the details of the encounter to write about it. This is the kind of moment I need to remind myself of when I am struggling for the motivation to get out of bed!

More recently, after the familiar difficulty of getting an appointment at my GP surgery, a sympathetic doctor prescribed me an HRT drug. I could have hugged him, I was so overjoyed at the thought of getting some undisturbed, hot-flush-free sleep. Unfortunately, upon consulting every pharmacist in the locality, I found the drug was unavailable with no timescale for when it might be back on the shelves. In my despair I sat and cried in my car.

I knew I didn’t want to be out walking on reserves looking and feeling as I did, so I sought solace among the plants and wildlife at home in the garden. Gazing into the pond I watched smooth newts: males with their striking, spotted breeding season colouration, and sand-coloured females. Their tails quivered, propelling them to the surface. They paused, suspended just long enough to take a gulp of air before descending back to the bottom of the pond, leaving a trail of tiny bubbles. There were also dragonfly nymphs, formidable predators in this tiny underwater world, sitting motionless and deadly. Some of our largest dragonflies spend up to four years in this form before crawling up the stems of plants and emerging as the beautiful adult winged insects (which live for a maximum of only seven months). With very little effort, my sadness and frustration had diminished, replaced by the childlike wonderment of watching newts and dragonfly nymphs.

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Hazel working at sea as a wildlife guide in 2017,
specialising in whales, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds

Of course we are all entitled to days when we just don’t feel like going out, getting dressed or getting out of bed, and there is no shame in that. Our bodies need rest and time to heal. Comfy clothes, chocolate and binge-watching your favourite TV series can be hugely therapeutic! For me though, there’s nothing like getting outside, even if just for half an hour, to seek out wildlife encounters and marvel at nature. In those magical moments my cancer might as well not exist; I don’t give it a thought because I am consumed in marvelling at the beauty of the natural world – and I feel so much better for it.

 

Shine Connect 2019: a participant’s experience

In this post, Shine’s blog editor Caroline writes about her first time at Shine Connect, our annual conference for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s living with and beyond cancer.


I discovered Shine Cancer Support when I was first diagnosed with cancer in early 2017. I felt completely lost and as I clawed around in the dark, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, I found the Oxford Shine network. I started going to local meet-ups, and then I was lucky enough to get a place on Shine’s Bournemouth Great Escape. I’ve been to Shine Camp, I’ve completed a fundraising 50km hike, and I also volunteer as Shine’s blog manager. If I could bear to look when the cannula goes in, I might even be able to confirm that I bleed orange too – who knows?

I’d never made it to Shine Connect though. I have anxiety that sometimes makes it harder to spend time with large groups of people and besides, who wants to give up an entire spring Saturday to talk about cancer? As it turns out, approximately 150 other young people with cancer! As May rolled around, I decided that this year I was going to give Shine Connect a try.

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Neil, one of Shine’s employees, greets some conference participants!

I’d signed up to attend the pre-conference breakfast, so I had an early start to get into central London from my home in Oxford. I arrived at The King’s Fund to coffee, delicious pastries and a big Shiny welcome! Each attendee (including me) had been matched with a Shine volunteer, which meant that I immediately found myself chatting with a small group of people, including one who had travelled all the way from Scotland just to attend Connect!

The conference began with a short welcome from Shine founders and co-directors Ceinwen Giles and Emma Willis, during which they introduced the charity and re-launched Shine’s small c project.

Second on the main stage was a panel discussion with Shine members Charlotte, Precious, Dan, and Chris who chatted about their own experiences with cancer and, in Chris’s case, what it’s like to watch a loved one go through treatment. I find it really useful to hear other young people’s stories. Regardless of the type of cancer, there are plenty of commonalities. The panel discussion picked up on a lot of themes that were then explored in talks and workshops throughout the day.

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Panel discussion on living with cancer at a young age.

There were lots of workshops to choose from but I’m really interested in improving my fitness to make sure I can live longer with my lung metastases, so I joined the session ‘Getting active after a cancer diagnosis’, led by Gemma Hillier-Moses from Move Against Cancer. Once Gemma had us all warmed up with a group attempt at the Cha-Cha Slide (so happy that there are no photos of me!), she talked about Move Against Cancer’s online programme for under 30s, as well as their popular 5k Your Way initiative. As someone who repeatedly sets herself challenging fitness goals but then gives up when she fails to achieve them, my biggest takeaway from the session was that movement doesn’t have to be structured. Going out just to run, rather than run 5km or run for 30 minutes, can relieve some of that ‘pressure to perform’ that we often experience. A brilliant tip!

Lunch provided the opportunity to share stories from the morning sessions, make the most of the delicious hot buffet (I’m still dreaming about the chocolate bread and butter pudding!), and meet the exhibitors in the marketplace. I snuggled the therapy dogs, picked up some lovely free moisturiser from Jennifer Young, and chatted to researchers about the specific needs of young adults with cancer. I also managed to catch up with some friends from the January 2018 Great Escape, which was great.

In the afternoon I opted for the ‘Managing Relationships’ workshop, led by Emma and Rosie from Shine. We talked about how the relationships with our family, friends, and colleagues have been affected by cancer, and the session felt quite emotional. Although I’ve taken part in similar discussions before, I still left the workshop with some fresh perspectives and new ideas.

After a quick cup of coffee (and scones and brownies!), all the conference delegates gathered for the keynote presentation: neuropsychologist Dr Stuart Anderson talking about the dreaded ‘chemo brain’! Dr Anderson put our cognitive skills to the test with a couple of simple but challenging exercises, then explained some of the scientific literature on the topic. I’ve never had chemotherapy but I’m sure that cancer has affected my brain cells – so it was good to hear that ‘chemo brain’ is also known as cancer-related cognitive impairment, and neurotoxicity from chemotherapy is only one of the many suggested causes. I can blame my poor memory and attention span on cancer after all! Thankfully, Dr Anderson closed his presentation with lots of helpful brain training app recommendations – so hopefully I’ll be able to concentrate again soon.

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Keynote speaker, Dr. Stuart Anderson talks about “chemo brain”.

Emma and Ceinwen closed the conference by thanking the event organisers TTA, the speakers, and all the excellent marketplace exhibitors. After a final group photo, it was time to open the bar! I had a fantastic time at Shine Connect and the day flew by. I’ll be back next year – and I hope to see you there?

Meet Neil: Shine’s newest employee!

We’re growing again! Meet Neil, our new Shine Network Support Officer. In this post, Neil shares his experience of having a malignant brain tumour and talks about how his life post-diagnosis led him to working for Shine. 


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Good times!

Hi everyone! My name’s Neil and I’m Shine’s new Network Support Officer. I am originally from Scotland but these days I live in North London. Previously I worked for a mental health charity which focused on social inclusion and co-working with volunteers, and I have been a member of Shine for a few years now. It brings me so much joy that I am now able to join Shine in supporting young adults after a cancer diagnosis.

I first discovered Shine while I was awaiting an oncology appointment at the Royal Marsden Hospital. In November 2016, when I was just 26 years old, I was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma, which is a cancerous brain tumour. I was working as a bar manager but was told by doctors that due to my dizziness, partial deafness and fatigue, I wouldn’t be able to do this anymore. It was a real shock to me that I wasn’t this invincible person that I’d always thought I was! I had surgery, followed by radiotherapy, and then a difficult recovery. During this time I suffered with some mental health issues. I moved back to Scotland after my diagnosis and my family and friends did such a wonderful job supporting me. While at home I attended counselling through Maggie’s which helped me to begin to understand all the trauma that had come from having cancer. When I moved back to London I started CBT therapy. This was awesome and I believe it really changed my life. I hadn’t realised that I had quite a negative voice inside my head, and being kind to myself continues to be such an integral part to my mental well-being.

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The scar from my operation for medulloblastoma

I was unemployed and having an awful time with my benefits, so I really wanted to get back to work as soon as I was ready. I went to my first Shine meet-up after days cooped up at home, and I thought they must have found me annoying as I had so much energy! To my delight I was completely wrong and I really enjoyed being around people who just ‘got it’. Some people in my life  didn’t care about me as much as I had thought they did, and I found myself in a really lonely place. The meet-ups helped with this, but since my treatment I had been quite shy about meeting new people and without working, I struggled to understand my place in society. I saw a post in Shine’s private Facebook group that invited men to apply for the Great Escape, a weekend in Bournemouth for 22 young adults affected by cancer. I applied and was accepted. It was life-changing for me (totally amazing!), and really made me want to focus on moving forward with my life. I met some lifelong friends and would highly recommend anyone who is interested to apply.

At my next Shine meet-up Clare, one of the London Network Leaders, recommended that I try some volunteering in my ongoing search for employment. I felt totally lost as I didn’t have a clue what I could do with no exam results (I was a naughty wee boy!), but I managed to start volunteering at a youth homeless shelter. I loved this. Many of the residents had mental health issues and I realised I had a keen interest in supporting this. I also recognised myself in some of them. After this I began volunteering for a charity that supports people with mental health issues. After two months I applied for a job at the charity and I was successful. I broke down in tears when they called me – and then I phoned my parents afterwards and sobbed away again! It felt like such a difficult road but I had got there, and my kind voice in my head gave me lots of compliments!

 

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My family have been very supportive of me

Since my treatment I had struggled with a loss of confidence, which was especially noticeable when dating! Complimenting someone when on a date was just beyond me, and I would get quite upset afterwards if I didn’t think that the date had gone well. Clare and Jess (another Shine London Network Leader) host a dating session at Shine Connect, which is Shine’s annual conference and the only one in the UK supporting young cancer patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s. I picked up some tips from them which really helped me to just treat each date as ‘practice’ and not get myself so hyped up beforehand. My best mate also kept on at me to ‘get the old Neil back!’. These days my confidence is much better.

After eight months in my charity role, I noticed that Shine was hiring for a Network Support Officer. I realised that the experience that I had in my current position, and the skills I’d picked up in previous management roles, made me a very suitable candidate – so I applied. Learning that my interview had been successful was another life-defining moment for me. And that really just brings us to now!

I am really passionate about helping people and I believe that that is my purpose on this world. If I could’ve spoken to myself during my bad times, I would’ve told myself to keep going. Don’t beat yourself up, and things will get better. Be patient and just take everything one day at a time. Make sure you are kind to yourself!

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope to see you at an event soon!

Shine’s Northern Retreat

Hi everyone, I’m Rosie, and I’m the newest member of staff here at Shine HQ.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2016 and after following the usual treatment route of surgery, chemo and radiotherapy, I now have ongoing maintenance treatment every 3 weeks.  This is because the docs think that, at one point, the cancer spread to my spine, although currently I have no active disease.

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At work in the Shine office

A close friend of mine told me all about Shine at the very beginning of my treatment and as soon as I went to my first Shine event, I was hooked! I decided very early on that if the opportunity to work for them ever came up then I was definitely going to apply! I took on a volunteer role of jointly running the Dorset network and then, last June, I managed to make it back to the second year of my social work degree at Bournemouth University.  I was super lucky that I was able to choose my placement and so, of course, I chose Shine! However, around Christmas time that I re-evaluated the route that I was taking; trying to keep up with academic work around my treatment, while also coping with fatigue, was proving troublesome. The degree no longer felt so relevant now that I had new priorities: mainly staying alive, enjoying the time I have left (however long that might be!) and giving back to the community.  As a result, I made the hard decision to leave uni and instantly felt much better! Then in January of this year, (very serendipitously!) an opening at Shine appeared that was perfect for me: part-time hours and the opportunity to get involved with all the fab work that Shine does. I applied, and the rest, as they say, is history!

One of my first jobs was to help out Hannah (who runs Shine’s Manchester network), to staff Shine’s annual North Retreat in early March.  Shine’s retreats give attendees the opportunity to have a break from the stresses of living with cancer while also getting to know others in a similar situation.  

Ten of us settled into a spacious and comfy farmhouse that we had hired for a weekend, in a small village not far from York. Everyone was free to do as little or as much as they liked throughout the weekend. The only thing that we asked was for everyone to muck in a little bit (if they were able) with the cooking and tidying up.  If our Tesco delivery was anything to go by, we knew that we definitely weren’t going to go hungry!

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Tesco delivery!

Once everyone had found their rooms, we all settled in and got to know each other over a lovely home-cooked spag bol.  Some people had been to Shine events before and knew a couple of members of the group, but for others this was the first Shine event that they had attended.  Everyone understandably had some anxieties about spending the weekend with new people, however that soon dissipated when we realised that we were all in the same boat.  

On Saturday, most of us braved the British weather and headed off to the local market town of Beverley for a bit of an explore around the shops and market stalls, and we also grabbed a bite to eat while we were out.   Afterwards, we headed back to the house to either rest, play games, or go for a wander in the surrounding grounds. At this point we were also joined by the lovely Rachel (who used to volunteer to run the north East network)! pasted image 0 (5)

Once we had spent some time catching up, it was time to jump in some taxis and head out for a lovely dinner in the local village pub.

Sunday was again a relaxed affair. Some of us stayed at the house to play games, while others went off for a walk.  The walking route ended up being a bit longer than anticipated but everyone ended up safely back at the house in time for a home-cooked roast dinner before half of the attendees packed up and made their way home.

On the final night, those of us who were left had some drinks and played some more games….Cards Against Humanity anyone?!

The next day, we were all sad to leave because it had been such an awesome experience! Those who had come not knowing anyone now no longer feel quite so isolated (especially as we have an active WhatsApp group to stay in touch) and the general consensus from everyone was that they would definitely recommend our retreats to other Shinies!

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Pub!

On that note, the next retreat that we have planned is in Dorset from 17th to 20th May!  If you are interested in finding out more, please drop me an email to find out more (rosie@shinecancersupport.org)!

Get yourself Connected!

About five years ago, a few of us at Shine HQ were having a coffee and chatting about why the UK didn’t have a conference for younger adults with cancer. After looking around a bit more (and confirming that there was indeed no such event), we took a deep breath and decided to do it ourselves!

We’re excited to be bringing back Shine Connect for a fourth time, for a gathering that’s bigger and better than ever before. We’ve kept the stuff that participants have liked (hello therapy dogs!) and added new and different sessions to cover topics that you don’t typically see covered anywhere else!Connect 2

What can I expect?

Shine Connect is a friendly conference – it’s got some conference-y type activities (like panel discussions and workshops), but it’s also an event where you’ll be able to meet other young adults with cancer. This year, we’re holding a pre-conference coffee & croissant session. If you’re coming alone or are just feeling a bit nervous about spending the day with strangers, register for this session! You’ll be met by some of our friendly volunteers who will introduce you to other conference participants. By the time we kick off at 10am, you’ll feel like you’re with old friends!ShineConnectGroupPhoto2018 (2)

And no, there isn’t a dress code (just wear what you feel comfortable in!).

What kinds of sessions will there be?

Every year, we survey our volunteers and online community to come up with a list of topics for Shine Connect. We then set out looking for experts that can cover those topics – it’s never an easy task but we give it our best! This year, we are super excited to have a number of never-seen-before discussions on some important topics:

Alternative routes to parenthood: We’ve often run sessions on fertility after cancer (and we’re still doing it this year!) but we know that a lot of those we support would like to become parents even if they can’t have their children naturally. We’ve lined up an amazing panel who are going to talk about egg and sperm donation, adoption and surrogacy. We looked far and wide for someone who has had cancer AND a baby via surrogate but they were very few and far between! We do, however, have the lovely Ben coming to speak about surrogacy – he’s just had a baby with his partner and is super knowledgeable about the surrogacy process in the UK and abroad. And our other speakers are experts too!

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Ben (with his partner and their new daughter) will be speaking about surrogacy.

Man Up! We’re very happy that the award-winner trainer Paul DuBois is coming to Shine Connect and running a session especially for men on managing stress and anger. There won’t be any sitting around in a circle sharing (promise!) but it will be a great opportunity to talk to other men going through cancer and think about how you might be able to understand and manage the tough emotions that cancer can bring up at little bit better.

Menopause: Whether you’ve had a cancer that directly impacts your hormones or not, many women who go through cancer treatment either end up in menopause or facing early menopause as a result – and it’s not talked about enough! In this session we’ll have a panel talking about how they’ve managed early menopause and we’ll also be hearing from Dr. Rebecca Lewis, a GP with special expertise in menopause (and no, we didn’t

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Dr. Rebecca Lewis, one of our panellists on menopause.

know that was a thing either!).

As if all of that wasn’t enough, we’ve also got sessions on:

  • Getting moving after cancer, with Gemma Hillier-Moses of MOVE Charity
  • Supporting children through a parent’s diagnosis, with Dr. Caroline Leek of the Fruit Fly Collective
  • A chance to get your boogie on with Emily Jenkins of Move, Dance, Feel
  • Dating after cancer (where we will discuss at which point you might consider telling your partner that you’ve had cancer!)
  • Fertility after cancer
  • A session on relationships and how they change after a cancer diagnosis.
  • We’ve also go a session especially for Plus Ones – if your partner, family member or friend would like to come along, they can join this session and meet others supporting young adults with cancer.

And to close the day, we’ve got the fabulous Dr. Stuart Anderson coming to speak about chemo brain. Can’t quite remember what that is? Well, it’s the cognitive changes that a lot of people experience as a result of cancer and cancer treatment – and Dr. Anderson, a neuropsychologist, will be talking us through why it happens as well as looking at ways that we can manage it.

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Prof Stuart Anderson will be giving the keynote on “chemo brain”.

Anything else going on?

Why yes! We’ll have free massages and a virtual reality pod where you can try to climb a mountain or chill out by a beach. And by popular demand, the therapy dogs will be back (though, as always, we’ll keep them in a separate room so if you don’t like dogs, don’t worry!). We’ll also have a marketplace with lots of other great organisations who support cancer patients.

And of course, Shine staff and volunteers will be on hand to tell you more about Shine and the work we do.

Sounds great! How do I register?

Simply head to HERE and register! You can sign up for the sessions you’d like to attend, let us know about your dietary requirements and also ask questions that you’d like to see answered in the session.

Tickets are £25 for young adults with cancer and the friends/family/partners. If you’re on benefits, we do have some bursary places available, as well as some travel bursaries. Just drop us a line at connect@shinecancersupport.org.

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Neil, one of Shine’s volunteers

Still feeling unsure? Neil, one of Shine’s volunteers said this after he came to Shine Connect 2018:

Definitely go for it! Shine is such a lovely, friendly community. I was chatting to people all day who had come to their first event and were nervous but everyone made them feel so welcome. I think everyone that goes remembers how nervous they were before their first event so they go out of their way to help others feel comfortable. What have you got to lose?!

Hope to see you there!

What I wish I’d known before radiotherapy

Are you about to start radiotherapy as part of cancer treatment? Cancer treatment of any kind can be a daunting experience, so we’ve consulted the Shine Cancer Support hive mind to ask: what do you wish you’d known before you started radiotherapy? Read on for our members’ words of wisdom! 


1. I wish I’d… checked out the treatment centre

Any hospital appointment can be stressful – especially if, thanks to cancer, you find yourself there almost every other day. Not knowing where you’re going, or what you’ll find when you get there, can add to the anxiety. Many of our Shine members said that they had been offered tours of their radiotherapy centre before treatment which helped them to prepare both mentally and physically. If you haven’t been offered a tour, it’s always worth asking for one. Don’t be shy about explaining why you would like to see the treatment area beforehand – if you think it will make it easier for you to handle the treatment, it will also make it easier for the staff to administer it. Everyone wins!

A short tour will enable you to ask specific questions about your type of treatment. Sarah, who had head and neck radiotherapy, found having to wear a mask for her treatment the most difficult bit, but she learned that ‘they can adjust it if you need it’.

2. I wish I’d… known what to wear

What you are able to wear to radiotherapy will depend on which area of your body is being treated. It’s likely that you will need to remove some of your clothing, but you may want to dress in a way that means you have to take off as little as possible. And don’t take off too much! One of our Shine members learned the hard way that she didn’t need to remove her underwear to receive pelvic radiation…

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It can get chilly in the radiotherapy room…

Our Shine community agreed almost unanimously that it gets very cold in the treatment room! If you need to take off your jumper and you start to feel chilly, know that you can always ask for a blanket.

3. I wish I’d… known that it would take a while

It might not take very long for you to get ‘zapped’, but you will still find yourself hanging around for a while. Shine member Becky says that ‘although treatment only takes a couple of minutes, you can be lying on the hard bed for 30mins+ while they set it all up!’ Alison says that for her treatment, ‘the waiting is even longer than chemo.’

Waiting can be particularly difficult. Pauline says ‘I wish I’d been told to leave my dignity at the door!! A group of people will be chatting away like you’re not there (but actually lying half-naked) and then they’ll be getting their protractors out and doing sums!! (“87”, “2.1”, “84.9”).’

Finally, a tip for speeding things up if you’re having pelvic radiation: let it rip! One of our Shinies says that ‘any “air pockets” in your bowels can slow down the process!’

4. I wish I’d… applied cream more effectively

You will be advised to apply creams, such as aloe vera or E45, to the affected areas to help with radiation burns. Ask your team which topical lotions or ointments they would recommend.

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Keep the cream handy

Emma, who had radiotherapy for breast cancer, says ‘I wish I’d been shown exactly where the treatment would hit. I was very good at using cream, etc. where I thought it was, but I didn’t know there was a part of my neck that would be treated, and this ended up with a horrible burn that is still scarred.’ One Shine member said that her radiotherapy treatment also burned the skin on the other side of her body, which she hadn’t expected. Check with your radiotherapist about where you should apply cream, and when.

Shine member Meera wishes that ‘they’d told me to use aloe vera on the skin before the burns started, not after.’

5. I wish I’d… been warned about the side effects

If you haven’t been told already, ask what types of side effects you can expect from radiotherapy treatment. Many people experience nausea and fatigue, for example, but you might experience other side effects depending on the location of your treatment.  Fiona, who had pelvic radiotherapy to treat bowel cancer, says ‘I would definitely say that you need to plan your life so you’re not far from the loo during treatment. Especially if you have a drive to work after being zapped each morning. I got to know the petrol station loos en route really well.’ Macmillan offers a free toilet card that might be helpful in situations where a public toilet isn’t available.

Georgina, who had head and neck radiotherapy, recommends stocking up on ice cream, or anything else that might be able to soothe a dry cough, or alleviate any swallowing difficulties. If you are having other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy, at the same time as radiotherapy, there may be certain foods that you can’t eat. If you’re looking for something soothing to eat or drink, you might also want to ask your oncologist what they recommend.

Katherine says she wishes she’d known that ‘surgery scars tighten up after they are zapped.’ Ask your medical team if they have any suggestions for alleviating pain or discomfort from this, or from any other radiotherapy side effects.

Shine members also shared a number of long-term side effects that they hadn’t anticipated – for example, Pelvic Radiation Disease. After head and neck radiation, Shinies reported long-term effects on their eyes, swallowing muscles, and salivary glands. Ask your team whether they anticipate any long-term side effects, and what you – and they – might be able to do in order to minimise the risks.

6. I wish I’d… known how other people would react

If you’ve had any type of cancer, chances are you’ve experienced some strange reactions from friends, relatives, or the lady who lives down the road. One Shine member who received radiotherapy said that some people thought she was now radioactive, and ‘dangerous to be around’ during treatment. Others reported that people who hadn’t been through a cancer diagnosis didn’t seem to think that it was a big deal: ‘oh, it’s only radiotherapy.’

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Other people’s reactions can be distressing

If someone you know is struggling to understand how radiotherapy treatment is affecting you, you could direct them to articles (such as this one!) that provide some background. Macmillan, Cancer Research UK, and Cancer.net have some helpful resources.

Alternatively, if you’d simply like a place to vent about the latest comment you’ve received, you can check out our private Shine Cancer Support group on Facebook and find lots of sympathetic ears!

Do you have any more tips for people about to undergo radiotherapy? Let us know in the comments! 

On being a Plus One

On 9 March we ran our second ever Shine Plus Ones workshop in London. We were joined by the partners, siblings and parents of young adults who are living with cancer. It was a great day that covered some tough subjects but we left feeling like we’d spent the day in the company of nice people (always a bonus if you’re going to spend your Saturday talking about cancer!). We are also really grateful that one of our Plus Ones, Chris, wrote a blog about the day so that we didn’t have to! Whether you’re a Plus One or not, take a read – it’s so important that, in addition to the person with cancer, that those around them get the right support too.


Hello, my name is Chris and I’m a Plus One.

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Chris and his fiancee, Kirsty

Three months ago my 32-year old fiancée was diagnosed with cancer. An adenocarcinoma of the submandibular gland – salivary gland cancer. She’s had surgery, healing, radiotherapy and now more healing, with plenty of tears, pain and mucus involved. Mentally she’s doing pretty bloody well considering. It’s a rollercoaster, as well you’ll likely know if you’re reading this.

For me, my fiancée’s diagnosis came off the back of my mum finding out that she had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma 11 years ago, at the age of 51. A few months later, her 53-year old brother was diagnosed with bone cancer and died within months.

Anyway, what I’m getting at, is that it’s been tough, right? I was 22 when my mum was diagnosed and that was scary. Now I’m 33, and man, I’ve just got onto a much bigger rollercoaster.

Support

The last few months have been tough. There’s been support – some fantastic NHS surgeons, registrars, consultants, nurses, radiographers, receptionists, dietitians, speech therapists, and physios. And we’ve been lucky to have access to some brilliant Macmillan nurses, coordinators and counsellors. But the one thing we’ve been missing? Young people. Friends our age don’t always get what we’re going through, and frankly why should they?

It’s tough waiting for appointments in rooms of 30 people, all looking at least 30, 40, even 50 years older than us. Of course it’s sh*t for them too – no one should have to go through this, no matter what age. But there are differences when going through this at our age, and that’s where Shine comes in.

Shine Plus One

We found Shine after some helpful recommendations. We joined some online groups and pencilled in a few diary dates – for me, it was the Shine’s Plus One Workshop, for my fiancée, some meet-ups, and for both of us, Shine’s Connect conference in May.

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At the workshop with Salma, one of the Plus Ones volunteers

A few weeks passed and I was on a morning train up to London, with my fiancée resting at home with morphine, Breaking Bad and her sister to help out.

Arriving at Somerset House I was welcomed with loud hellos, broad smiles and hot tea – a pretty good start! There were a dozen or so of us there, mostly new to Plus Ones and understandably a little nervous.

We settle in with Emma (one of the co-founders, and an excellent facilitator of what is a tough crowd, let’s be honest!). She laid out the plan for the day and put us at ease. Emma gave a little context and talks about what the charity does. Short answer: some bloody great work (though you can find out more details here). One thing that’s evident is the many friendships formed through Shine’s activities. It becomes clear that these friendships are genuine and numerous the more the day goes on, with references to funny stories of people in the room or those they support, and photos from events full of hugs and smiles.

Morning half

An icebreaker is there to break any tension and put people at ease, and without giving anything away, Emma did a great job. We were introduced to each other, to our situations and to what we were looking to get from the day. There were some tears, naturally (myself included), but there were plenty of laughs there too.

The conversation turned to talking about support from friends and family, and how so many people get it so wrong or do so little. There were lovely stories as well though – people happily being pointed in the direction of a cooker, cleaning products or a lawn mower. We ended feeling significantly better equipped to request help from those who offer it.

We had a great first few discussions but stomachs were rumbling, so we went off to lunch. There was mingling and conversation over a generous amount of sandwiches, salads and snacks (the remainder of which is later donated to two nearby homeless gentlemen). We referenced the great experiences of the NHS, and the not so great ones. And we all agreed that if you want anything done then quiet compliance just isn’t going to cut it!

Afternoon half

Coming back from lunch I paused to consider how well it’s going – I already felt more supported, more understood, less alone.

Kathy (a kind counsellor who works with families and patients in hospitals) facilitated a discussion around themes of loss. We broke off into groups and the expected came up – certainty, spontaneity, plans, time, but also some of those things that feel unique to those of our age that are facing this – loss of future family and career.

The topics were fed back to the group and then we discussed coping techniques, and even some of the gains you can get through this process – strength in your relationships and worrying less about the little things, nicely named by one of the participants as ‘give-a-f**k-ability’!

We then moved to talking about coping with worry. We talked about how you can feel knackered from being constantly tense, and waiting for more bad news. We talked about techniques to help with worry – writing worries down, drilling in and fully understanding them, or even dedicating some worry time in the day, leaving you free elsewhere.

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Ways that the Shine Plus Ones cope with worry and stress

As it was nearing the end of the workshop now, Emma slowed things down a little and gave us some time for ourselves with a relaxing eight minute mindfulness exercise. We slowly came around and drifted over to the bar, conveniently located in the room across from us.

Pub half (yes that’s three halves!)

The chats continued and moved seamlessly between how we’re coping and the everyday. We learned a little more about each other – walks were organised and details exchanged. We were just another group of people chatting in the pub, not defined by what we’re going through. Not defined by cancer.

And process!

I reflected on the day during my journey back to down to Brighton. I’m amazed at how much impact it had, how quickly I felt connected with the group, how much we laughed, how much we understood each other, how similar our experiences have been.

It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t awkward, it wasn’t a barrage of sadness. It felt normal, useful, fantastic.

I was left thinking “how can I help”? Help fundraise for a excellent charity, help others access what I got, help others understand the benefits. I’m starting with this blog.

If you’d like to get in touch with other Plus Ones, you can request to join our Shine Plus Ones Facebook group (make sure to answer the questions!). You can also drop Salma (a Plus One herself) a line at plusone@shinecancersupport.org to find out about meet ups and events.