Writing through cancer: using writing as therapy (and a way to help others)

In this guest blog, Sara explains how writing helped her cope with cancer – and provides some tips on how you can get started writing too!


In three months, my book is being launched. In fact, people can actually pre-order it on Amazon now. I keep having a sneaky peak to check it’s still there. It is. There’s a picture of the cover (a photo of my feet in fluffy white socks) with my name in big capital letters. Which is really weird. Weird in so many ways. Had someone told me three years ago that I’d be a published author I would have laughed (very loudly) in their face. You see, I’m not what I would call a ‘writer’. I’m not one of those people who’s lived with an unwritten novel sitting inside them and I’ve never really had any aspirations to write poetry, short stories or even magazine articles. I’ve never studied creative writing and my day job only involves the legal kind of writing. But then something horrible happened to me. I had cancer. I started to write about it. And I haven’t really stopped.

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Guest writer Sara started writing after she was diagnosed with cancer.

I didn’t sit down one day and just write it all out. I jotted things down over the course of treatment: I described my emotions and how I was feeling; I recorded my side effects at length; I wrote long gratitude lists; I wrote about my anger, resentment and fear; I recorded the way in which treatment was given to me; I made lengthy, detailed to-do lists; I ranted about people who upset me with their thoughtlessness; I made lots of exciting life-after-cancer lists; I wrote about my hopes and dreams; and I recorded my day to day observations and general musings about life, death and everything in between. And all this writing made me feel so much better.

Then, towards the end of my treatment before I went back to work, I took all these notes and I set up a website, wrote a book and starting writing articles for cancer charities and organisations. I realised that whilst the writing was helping me, it might also help other people who were going through similar things.

If you’re going through cancer treatment, or you’ve finished treatment and you’re trying to put your life back together, why not consider writing about your experience?

  1. Remember that you are writing for whatever reason that you choose. So, if you don’t want anyone to read it then they don’t have to – you can keep your writing private. Nobody needs to ever read it; you could even ceremoniously destroy it in a defiant move against cancer.
  2. Everyone can write about their experience. You don’t need to be a writer. You just need a pen and paper, or a laptop, or a phone. You don’t need to be perfect at grammar and spelling. Just remember to write what is important to you, write from the heart and be honest.
  3. Use your writing to stay in control. Going to hospital for consultant appointments, oncologist appointments, scans, blood tests, clinical trial appointments, counsellor sessions, and everything else can be so overwhelming. Sometimes it can be helpful to take notes at these appointments and then rewrite the details into a dedicated notebook/computer folder so that everything flows from one appointment to the next and you can keep on top of what is going on, rather than feeling completely out of control.
  4. Try keeping a gratitude journal. Having cancer can feel so unfair and cause all sorts of negative emotions to build up inside you. Sometimes it might help to remember things for which you are grateful. And on the bad days, re-reading this ongoing list might help to lift you out of your slump.
  5. Don’t be afraid you write down your feelings and emotions, your fears and worries. If you write them out, then they’re out of your head and you can let them go. It might even help lift the weight of anxiety off your chest a little.
  6. What to write? If you like the idea of writing about your experience but you don’t know where to start, here are a few prompts to get you going:
  • How did you feel to be diagnosed with cancer at such a young age?
  • How did it feel to tell your parents, siblings, children that you had cancer?
  • How have friends treated you since you told them about your diagnosis?
  • If you’ve lost your hair, how did you feel about it?

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    Sara, during treatment.

  • What has having cancer made you realise, that perhaps you didn’t before?
  • Have any positive things come out of having cancer?
  • How have the side effects affected you?

7. Use your writing to express your feelings towards others. Anyone going through cancer knows that unfortunately not all your friends step up and rally around. This is incredibly hurtful and can knock your confidence to an even lower level. This is not what you need when you have bigger things to worry about. It can eat away at the back of your mind with thoughts like, “Why hasn’t she got in touch?” “Why am I not invited out with my friends anymore?” “What’s wrong with me?” It might help to write a letter to these friends telling them how you feel and why you’re upset with them. Don’t send the letter, just burn it or rip it to shreds and move on.

8. Don’t forget to write about the good as well as the bad. For example, it’s nice to write about all the lovely things that people do for you (like bringing you food or driving you to appointments) and it’s nice to read these back to remember how important you are to these people.

9. Consider whether you’d like to share your writing with others. Maybe you’d like to set up a blog (which is fairly straightforward using one of the DIY blog platforms like WordPress) or a Facebook page. With both these types of blogs you can share your writing with either just your friends and family, or open it up to anyone. If you don’t want to set up something yourself, get in touch with one of the cancer charities or cancer organisations about sharing your writing as a guest blog on their website (I’m always happy to post guest blogs about breast cancer for my website, tickingoffbreastcancer.com and, of course, you can always get in touch with Shine!).

10. Don’t be shy about sharing your writing with others. It can be a bit daunting to start with, but at the end of the day people going through cancer want to read about the experiences of others who’ve been through the same thing. They’re looking for reassurance, support, honesty and advice so if you can provide these, they’ll want to read what you write. And remember these words of encouragement from me:

You have something to say, so you should say it.

Even if it just helps one person, you are making a difference.

You have a voice, use it.

People will appreciate the advice of someone who has been through it.


Sara is the author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, a book about juggling a busy life with treatment for primary breast cancer. This book follows the physical and emotional impact of breast cancer on Sara’s life, and provides practical help by way of checklists at the end of each chapter. The book is out 26 September 2019 but you can pre-order the book now from Hashtag Press, Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles. Sara is also the founder of www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com, a website dedicated to supporting those who don’t know which way to turn for help after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis; those who are overwhelmed by the breast cancer resources online and those just looking for a comfortable, safe, calm place to turn for help. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Can you help us to shape the future of cancer support?

Way, way back in 2011, Shine Cancer Support was tiny. We had two support groups (one in Dorset and one in London) and we weren’t yet registered as a charity.  We had no staff, but we felt like there was a lot of need for support for younger adults with cancer. Unfortunately, try as we might, we couldn’t find it – and we also couldn’t find any research on the needs of younger adults with cancer in the UK. To help us make the case for change, we ran an online survey as part of our Small c Project 2012. This was the first research carried out into the needs of adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The results helped us to shape our work and create workshops, retreats and conferences that covered topics that were of importance to our community: fertility, working after cancer, coping with anxiety, and more.

Small c Project - Image 4It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since we first ran that survey! We’re now a small team of five people (all of whom have had cancer), and we’re a registered charity. We’ve been able to grow and expand across the UK and now have 14 Shine Networks. But we know there’s more to do, so we’ve decided to run the Small c Survey (version 2019!) again so that we’re up to date with the needs and issues that everyone in our community is facing. We would love to hear from you! If you can spare a few minutes, please do visit the survey and let us know your thoughts on how cancer has affected you.

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In 2012, 53% of respondents told us that they could no longer work in the same way as they had done before their diagnosis.

Why is this important? Well, when we did our survey in 2012, 53% of respondents told us that they were unable to work in the same way as they had done before their diagnosis. Fifty-three percent! Though we knew from our own experiences how tough returning to work can be, seeing the cold hard numbers in front of us made us determined to support younger adults with cancer to return to work – whether that was a new job, the same job in a new way, or something completely different. We’ve worked with a number of experts to develop workshops on working after cancer, and we’ve also included sessions on work at many of our Great Escape retreats and Shine Connect conferences. We’ve also been able to make the case to other charities and healthcare bodies that returning to work matters – and that younger people in particular need support because they’re facing cancer at a critical time in their careers.

Shine has always been a community-led organisation and we couldn’t do what we do without the insight we get from the younger adults with cancer that contact us. If you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s and have experienced a cancer diagnosis, please help us out – the survey is here.

Oh! And as a sweetener, you could win one of three £25 Amazon gift cards. It *is* only 141 days until Christmas!

From PE teacher to ski instructor – how coaching after cancer can help

In this guest blog post, Kaeti writes about how Shine’s coaching after cancer programme helped her to leave her old job and take her life in an exciting new direction.


What do you do when you realise that your ambition is no longer your ambition?

For as long as I could remember, I had wanted to be a PE teacher. When my friends in primary school were talking about being astronauts and vets, I wasn’t interested – all I wanted to do was teach. But being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30 wasn’t in my career plan.

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Kaeti was 30 when diagnosed with breast cancer.

I really missed my job when I was on sick leave. However, at some point during my eight months of cancer treatment, I realised that I didn’t miss teaching. The problem wasn’t my workload (you might have been expecting that complaint!) – actually, I had no idea what it was. Still, I knew for a fact that something had shifted, and I needed to figure out what was different in order to move forward.

A couple of months into my treatment, I saw on social media that Shine Cancer Support was offering career coaching. This was just what I needed: someone to help me make sense of the fact that I desperately missed being at work, but also knew that my teaching days were numbered. I felt like a failure: teaching was all I had ever wanted to do. Before my diagnosis I had been certain that I would progress through the ranks to deputy headteacher, and maybe even headteacher one day. Yet now I was lost, and I didn’t know what to do.

I took up Shine’s offer of support and met Emily Lomax, my coach. Emily works over the phone or via Zoom, and for our first session I think I talked at her for 40 minutes. She listened patiently to my ramblings. My first session had coincided with my return to work. I was excited to be back, but I knew deep down that even though I loved the thought of being busy, being needed, and feeling focused again, the idea of being a teacher was distressing. Cancer had made me realise that I wanted change.

After that initial session, Emily sent me some tasks to complete. One was about prioritising my values and the other was about looking at my energy levels. I realised that my values hadn’t really changed since cancer, but that my energy at work had been affected. The majority of the time that I spent in my job, I was in the ‘burnout and surviving’ zone. After everything I had been through with my diagnosis and treatment, I needed to prioritise recharging in order to thrive. We discussed these tasks and Emily lead me to realise that as a teacher, I could do other things. I was focusing on the fact that I had a PE teaching degree and ‘that only qualifies me to teach PE.’ Emily got me to think about all the transferable skills I have that could be beneficial in other sectors.

After this session I decided to jazz up my CV. CVs are not widely used when applying for teaching jobs, so mine looked sad and dated. Comic Sans? What was I thinking?! I’m a keen skier, and I remembered that a friend who works in the industry had offered to pass on my CV to his company’s head office, should I ever want to move out of teaching. I sent him my CV, and also passed it to some other skiing companies. In the meantime, I finished my sessions with Emily and began considering my options. Should I stick with teaching? It paid well, and I was good at it. Should I pack it all in and do a ski season? Should I re-train as a cancer rehab personal trainer? Should I go abroad to teach? These questions were exhausting, but relevant. Whenever I considered an option I revisited Emily’s energy task handout, and that helped me decide the way forward.

Emily had helped me to understand that I love organising events. It was easily the best bit of my job. I needed to remember this and not let the pull of money, a secure career path, and pressure from colleagues change my mind. A few weeks after my last session with Emily, I got an email from the Head of HR at my friend’s skiing company. She was very complimentary of my CV (I had updated the font!) and invited me to the head office to discuss some job opportunities. I went for the chat during the Easter break, and a week later – while doing some holiday work for a different ski company – I realised that it was time to move on from teaching. It wasn’t failure, it was acceptance of my changing circumstances and the fact that I was allowed to have new ambitions. My ambition of being a PE teacher was over 20 years old. It was time to do something new.

A week later, the ski company contacted me to offer me the position of events coordinator. I was hesitant at first as the job was mainly office-based, and I asked for a couple of weeks to consider. I was away with friends when the company replied to say that they had reviewed the job and that 3-4 months a year could be spent in the Alps working remotely and taking responsibility for trainee ski instructors. It felt like all my Christmases had come at once! I handed in my notice and I finish teaching at the end of this term. The minute I handed the resignation letter to my headteacher, it felt like a weight had been lifted.  I was somehow so much lighter: much lighter than I had been in months, maybe years.

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Kaeti takes on the slopes!

When I was considering the job offer, my mum told me ‘the world is full of teachers who have given up teaching, and teaching is full of teachers who wish they have given up teaching.’ It’s taken cancer and career coaching for me to realise that it’s OK for your ambitions to change. It’s not failing to want to do something new and different. I am VERY excited about my new start and even more excited about spending next ski season in the Alps, thriving and recharging! Thank you so much to Emily and Shine for the gentle shove in the right direction.

Shine’s 2019 coaching after cancer programme is currently in progress – but follow us on social media for details of our 2020 programme!

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!

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. 

Moving on – with the help of broken crockery

Here at Shine HQ, we frequently see questions about “returning to normal” in our online groups. Young cancer patients rightly want to know when they’ll be able to get back to there they were before but, in most cases, there isn’t an easy answer. For many people we work with, we know that life doesn’t ever really go back to normal. That’s not to say that it can’t be good (or even better) than before – it’s just that something as big as a cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling changed. In our latest blog, Karen shares her thoughts on “moving on” – and explains how it relates to the Japanese art of Kintsugi!


Karen Myers 3

Blog author, Karen Myers

The end of active cancer treatment is a weird time. It’s all you’ve wanted since diagnosis – an end to hospital appointments, tests, treatments, side effects, surgery, pain, discomfort, feeling a little bit shit. And then, if you’re lucky, it is over. You’re told that your treatment has done it’s job, got rid of the invaders, killed those nasty cancery cells so you’re NED (No Evidence of Disease) or in remission. You’re good to go. Back to normality.

Except there’s not really a ‘normal’ after cancer. At least not the same normal as there was before. It’s a readjustment. Your energy levels, your self-confidence, your relationships, your work and social life, your body and your body image have all been knocked. With the safety net of treatment removed, you are confronted with the things cancer has left you with or taken from you. After my breast cancer surgery, which removed my entire right breast and used skin and tissue from my stomach to rebuild a new ‘foob’ (fake boob), something I’ve definitely been left with is scarring. Physical and emotional.

My physical scars are going to remind me every day, for the rest of my life, what cancer has done to my body. They’re pink and vivid, only three months after my surgery, and although I know they will fade in time, I also know they are a permanent marker of the path cancer traced across my skin and my life.

But scars don’t have to be thought of as ugly reminders of something terrible, of the price your body has paid for fighting cancer. In an attempt to see my own scars in a different light, I’ve become a bit obsessed with broken crockery and the Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’.

Kintsugi, translated as ‘golden joinery’, is focused on repairing broken items of pottery with a lacquer mixed with gold powder. By using the golden glue, those joins where the broken pieces have been put back together aren’t hidden or disguised but embraced and celebrated. Kintsugi says that the breaks, and the subsequent repair, should not be ignored, but valued as an indicator of the hard history of that item. By adding gold, that history, the cracks, the breaks and the struggle to bring about repair, make the broken item of crockery even more beautiful than before. Kintsugi recognizes the fragility of the broken piece, but also testifies to its strength by making the new bonds glow and shine, to celebrate that which is holding them together.Kintsugi

To me, this is one of the most beautiful concepts that cancer survivors can apply to themselves. Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone tattoo their surgical scars gold (although it is somewhat tempting). Instead, I’m trying to embrace the philosophy behind kintsugi as a way to accept my scars, both those visible on my skin and those hidden in my heart and mind, as evidence of both my fragility and my strength. Bodies do break and break down. The human form is fragile, even when we’re young. There’s no shame in being ill, so why should we be ashamed of the scars that mark us out as having endured? Alongside the suffering these scars, these breaks in the pottery, also show endurance, strength, resilience, determination, sheer bloody-mindedness, and, we hope, recovery. No-one asked for them but, just like a piece of kintsugi-rescued crockery, our scars are part of our cancer, and life history.

Of course, when active cancer treatment has finished, anxieties about the future still abound – we worry about the risk of recurrence, of developing secondary cancers, the impact of depleted energy resources, the possibility of resuming work and the damage done to our mental wellbeing. It’s too simplistic and insulting to assume that because we have finished treatment we can simply ‘move on’ or ‘return to normal’. But for those of us lucky enough to be officially cancer-free, the kintsugi philosophy asks us to see those emotional scars and continuing anxieties as markers of our resilience. We might not feel resilient or brave – I hated anyone telling me I was brave during treatment. I wasn’t brave. I cried and raged a lot. I got on with it because I didn’t have any choice – but the golden lacquer shows that what broke us initially was overcome. We face continuing physical and psychological challenges, but with a history of obstacles overthrown marked into our skin and our psyche. It is glued into our repaired bodies and recovering minds.

I’ve never been much of one for tattoos. But since losing my breast to cancer, I’ve been fascinated by the stunning skin-inked artwork that some women have chosen to cover their mastectomy and/or reconstruction scars. Rather than opt for nipple reconstruction or 3D nipple tattoos, these women have put their own bold, beautiful stamp on their bodies. To honour what has been lost and to shout to the world that there is beauty even in scarred and damaged tissue. For me, it seems strange that the scars I see every day will eventually be forgotten by most of the people I know, even close friends and family, because they are hidden. So I see that tattooed artwork as a contemporary body-art form of kintsugi, and it may be that is the way I reclaim my own body, my own sense of self and remind the world that I have been broken but repaired.

Moving on is always going to be hard when you bear scars. But maybe with a glint of gold in your post-cancer wounds, be it real tattoo ink or metaphorical mind-glue, you can start the process of healing and re-forming into a new, fragile but resilient, kintsugi-d you.

Karen Myers is a blogger, baker, knitter, traveller, theatre-goer and escape room addict. She was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in July 2018 and has blogged about her experience at atozeeofbc.com.