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.

Chemo

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.

At sea

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.

 

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.

Meet Jonathan!

There aren’t many jobs where having had cancer works in your favour, but here at Shine it strangely does. Today, our first ever Programme & Administrative Assistant, Jonathan, starts working with us and we couldn’t be more excited! We were delighted when we met Jon and found that he had both the skills and enthusiasm we wanted – and also that his own experience of cancer meant that he totally gets what our work means.

Jonathan grew up in Bournville, Birmingham (with the scent of Cadbury chocolate in the air!) going to drama classes, singing, playing the piano and building a huge Lego collection. He studied acting at university and is now based in Poole. Jonathan will be helping to ensure that everyone has a great time at Shine’s national events and that as many people as possible know about Shine’s work via social media. We asked Jon to write his personal experience of cancer so that we could all get to know him.  Read on to learn more!


What were you diagnosed with, and when?

jonathan-smith

Shine’s new Programme & Administrative Assistant, Jonathan

I was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour (pineal germinoma) in 2007 which had spread to my spine.

How did you find out that you had cancer?

Unquenchable thirst and un-ending trips to the ”porcelain throne” were my first strange symptoms in 2004. I was told constantly by my GP that I was a “healthy young man”. It was 2006, when my weight had dropped to below 7 stone and I’d begun to see double, that my GP finally referred me to eye hospital.

After identifying (and filming) a rare eye condition, the eye department sent me for a MRI scan which revealed a ”small benign lesion” pressing on my pituitary gland and optic nerve. A pituitary condition (diabetes insipidus) which was causing my water problems was also belatedly diagnosed.

On 27th March 2007, I woke up barely able to walk or speak, and emergency brain surgery finally revealed I had a malignant tumour.

What did you think and feel when you were diagnosed?

I had no idea what a “lesion” was or that it could mean “tumour” or “cancer”. I continued working for a year not thinking anything of it and just coping with the daily symptoms.

Everything changed following surgery as I understood that the tumour was life-threatening and what the treatment entailed. I always felt fortunate knowing that it was likely to be curable and I didn’t feel scared as I was determined to do everything to get through. But I was naive about what that would involve.

How did the people around you react?

People at work really supported me throughout the strange symptoms while I continued to work and once I began treatment. They took me out and visited when I was able and kept me sane.

My parents and family were there for me 100%. I moved in with my folks and there were times when they had to do everything for me. I reacted badly to medication and radiotherapy and changed so much with the hormonal effects and tiredness, but they were always positive that I’d return to my old self.  I know it was really difficult for them and my sister to see my anxiety and panic attacks but not once did I see them get upset or short-tempered with me. Legends!

What treatment did you have?

The brain surgery (an endoscopic third ventriculostomy) relieved the pressure on my brain. I was then put on high calorie drinks to increase my weight and strength in prep for six weeks of radiotherapy.  I was also on dexamethasone which caused my longest stay in hospital as I reacted badly to being weaned off the drug following treatment.

For a couple of years afterwards I still had regular tests to determine what hormones had been affected and I had six monthly MRI scans until 2012 to ensure the tumour was completely gone. Physiotherapy helped my walking and counselling helped me cope with the hormonal and emotional impacts of the illness.

How did you feel through treatment?

I felt in limbo after the surgery in March 2007 as I waited for radiotherapy to begin in July. I was determined to increase my weight but felt very apprehensive about the effects of the rays. Unexpectedly those three months also gave me time to sit back, to think, to appreciate the everyday things in life that you don’t notice when rushing about in work (I enjoyed the changing seasons). I felt really close to my parents as they cared for me day to day and I found comfort in creativity, drawing, writing and art.

Anxiety, tiredness, restless legs and other nervous system effects of medication and hormone deficiencies had the biggest impact. I became withdrawn, found talking very difficult, couldn’t tolerate loud noises, music, follow conversations or cope with any confrontations. During the withdrawal of dexamethasone I began to think my brain had gone AWOL as I had panic attacks and couldn’t cope with stimulus at all.

What happened after treatment finished?

It was tough getting my life back on track and returning to work, handling my new anxiety, energy and physical conditions and getting accustomed to being partially sighted. I developed techniques to manage the effects and to help me get used to my new day-to-day reality.

The support of friends and family was uplifting but my condition made it very difficult for me to socialise, and I felt pressure to return to “normal”. I felt a need to push myself, taking a new promotion within weeks of returning to work, which I wasn’t ready to cope with.

Starting a part-time Masters degree gave me something else to focus on and work towards other than just getting better. I was incredibly thankful that the medical profession were able to cure my tumour but also became very aware of my own mortality and that of people around me. I felt a responsibility to make the most of every second which also brings pressure.

If you could give one piece of advice to yourself before your treatment what would it be?

My advice to my pre-treatment self would be to value more the support of friends and family and to accept that you’re not going to be on top form when they see you; it won’t matter to them anyway. Oh, and to ditch the red paisley head scarf!

What excites you about working for Shine?

I’m really excited about joining with Shine to be able to contribute to others’ awareness of the help available through treatment, while recovering, and adjusting to the aftermath of cancer and also how it changes you. I appreciate how having cancer early in life interrupts everything, alters your outlook and future, and I also feel the unfairness of incurable diseases limiting lives that are just beginning. I’m motivated to make sure that others going through this are aware of all the great events and support Shine provides. I’m really looking forward to helping young people feel they’re not alone, that they can face this together, and to help them forget for a while the battles they’re having.

Any big plans for 2017?

2017 marks 10 years since my diagnosis. Although the tumour has left me partially sighted I’m enjoying better eyesight following a recent operation. I’ll also be testing a new drug to improve my hormonal jiggery-pokery. I’m making the most of moving from London to Dorset, where my parents and sister (and new nephew) live, and can’t wait for summer by the sea!

Life, but not as you knew it: Being a “Plus One”

Most of the blogs we feature are written by young adults who are living with cancer – but who cares for those who care for us? And what does it feel like? In our latest blog, Caroline writes about coping with her husband’s diagnosis and the ways she found to look after herself when everyone was relying on her. Shine has a small but growing “Plus Ones’ network. If you’re a partner, friend, parent or sibling of a young adult with cancer, why not join our growing Shine Plus Ones network? We run it via Facebook – just click on the link and request to join.

As always, we’d love to know what you think about this blog – and please share it with anyone you know who might be interested!


Cancer barged into our lives uninvited, ruthless and arrogant, and rapidly took the reins. Even before my husband was diagnosed, we knew something wasn’t right and our lives had already changed significantly – mostly in terms of anxiety. I would lay awake in the still of the night, hugging my nursing daughter close, terrified that I might soon be a single mum. Our life full of promise – in a new home, a new job, new friends and a new baby – was stopped in its tracks. The foundations of my life were suddenly very unstable and a new role as “carer” had been thrust upon me.

Caroline P

Blogger Caroline Puschendorf

Cancer became our dictator

From the day we received the diagnosis – germ cell carcinoma, intermediate stage – the loss of control of our daily lives seemed to escalate. My life was no longer about running the home, toddler groups, changing nappies and days out as a family. It became about appointments, test results, clinics and chemo. As much as I tried to keep things “normal” for the kids, the inability to plan was overwhelming. Even mundane decisions that I previously took for granted were no longer within my control. I didn’t know from one day to the next where our family would need to be or who would look after the kids and for how long. The unpredictability of my husband’s symptoms challenged family life even on the days that weren’t disrupted by unscheduled or delayed hospital appointments.

Then, just as we were settled into a rhythm with chemo and had a “treat to cure” plan, my husband got very ill with a virus while he was neutropenic. We were back on high alert. This was a stark reminder of the fragility of our situation, the uncertainty of the future and my perceived powerlessness.

I was exhausted, emotionally drained, and my own health was beginning to unravel

Caught up in the adrenalin and anxiety of my husband’s health crisis, I neglected my own health, both physical and emotional, by repeatedly prioritising my family. I slowly realised that my health was just as important – after all, everyone was relying on me, plus it was one thing I could control. I chose to invest in myself and to proactively nourish and nurture my family. I researched and developed a “no-fad” cancer-patient friendly eating plan and set about caring for my family’s health.

Caroline P 2

Caroline’s husband, Rob, and one of their children

As a biologist I am well aware that our bodies need a plethora of resources to function at their best. We need nourishment, rest and movement in unique and varying amounts, especially in sickness. Only when balance is achieved do we build the reserves we need to invest into others and/or support our body in recovering from illness.

Having been a carer with two young kids, I know how important my health is, but also how easy it is to put it at the bottom of the list, but once I adopted some simple strategies, my emotional and physical health – and that of my family -massively improved.

Staying in the moment

  1. Being still for 5 minutes each day. Simply breathe and be there. Accept all thoughts and feelings that come, embrace and experience them,–especially the hard, gut-wrenching ones, then release them. This is difficult, as we get so used to suppressing emotions and putting on a brave face, but this strategy stopped me misdirecting my anger, anxiety and frustration at unsuspecting and innocent parties. For example, I realised that when my son’s behaviour was uncharacteristically awful, it was actually a reflection of my anxiety, fear or stress. Acknowledging these emotions allowed us to enjoy each other and have fun.
  2. Connecting with my husband. It’s easy to slip into the role of carer and loose touch with your old relationship. Make time to love each other in the way that you used to; a partner, sister, brother, son or daughter. Love without pity, sympathy, anger or fear. Just be there with love and laughter. Remind yourselves of what you mean to one another.
  3. Being grateful every day. I used to get annoyed when people said this to me, were they expecting me to be grateful we had cancer? That’s not what I am saying. I am saying find the positives, even the little ones, each day. Is the sun shining? Did you find a parking space? Did you get good results? Were you able to share time together? Getting into the habit of thinking through the positives, event while you brush your teeth, can be a powerful thing!

Taking control of my health

In addition to the above, I also made a few changes to my diet and routine:

  1. I took Epsom salt baths 1-2 times a week. This was amazing for alleviating tension and encouraging a peaceful sleep – something that was very elusive!
  2. I cut back on caffeine and sugar. These are easy to over-dose on, especially during times of stress, but they ended up making me feel irritable and tired, which was less than ideal. I also stayed away from hospital vending machines and made sure to take healthy snacks – like fruit and raw nuts – to our appointments.
  3. I implemented a “no-fad” cancer-patient friendly diet. Taking charge of family health through food was really empowering. I found a way of eating that suited the whole family and was based largely around a mineral broth.  It was easy to eat and highly nutritious food that worked well for a chemo-weary tummy!

After three rounds of BEP chemo and major abdominal surgery, my husband is now in remission. Life is slowly returning to a new kind of normal, and that’s ok.  Cancer slowed us down and changed us, but it hasn’t broken us. There’s a lot of life to live and we are bouncing back!

Caroline Puschendorf is a nutrition and health coach who blogs regularly here.  For some of her recipes, including her Super Mineral Broth, look here.

 

 

Coping with anxiety after a cancer diagnosis

As we dive deeper into 2016, we’ve noticed a lot of talk on our social media sites about anxiety.  Is it normal to feel anxious after a cancer diagnosis? What about after cancer treatment? To help you kick off the new year and get the best out of the next 12 months, we’re delighted that our longtime friend, supporter and all round Shiny person Emily Hodge (aka Coaching Emily) has written a blog about coping with anxiety after cancer. Take a read below, try out some of the techniques – and know that you’re not alone.


Coach Emily Hodge
Coach Emily Hodge

Having worked in both the NHS and health charities and then experiencing cancer myself, I have seen how prevalent anxiety is among the general population. It can be event more prevalent within the cancer community, given the uncertainty and the threat to life that a diagnosis brings.

In my coaching and therapy work with clients, we discuss and use a range of techniques that look at supporting ourselves with anxiety and moving forward in spite of it. They’re not ‘cures’ for anxiety but rather activities or routes to take depending on someone’s circumstances. Here are a few of the many.

Recognise anxiety

Being aware of how you’re coping and what reactions you have to certain situations are a start to recognising anxiety. Often we get so used to a state of mind that we forget to assess it, but understanding our tolerance for it is important. We might think it’s normal to cry in the toilets at work once a week, or to feel anger and guilt all the time but it doesn’t have to be – this might be anxiety rearing it’s head and you might need support with it.

Take a look here and here for trusted sources regarding signs and symptoms of anxiety.

Talk about anxiety

If you’ve recognised it and realise it’s not something you can cope with right now, please see your GP or another trusted person for guidance. Talking about it with someone you feel comfortable with might be the step that helps you next.

Slow down and breathe

Before we can take any big action, we may need to catch ourselves and slow down. Stopping, breathing and slowing our racing thoughts can be the first thing we choose to do when we recognise something uncomfortable. We might want to run (the so-called fight or flight response) but if we can stop rather than rush around, it can be the beginning of a different relationship with our thoughts and feelings.

One quick technique to try is the “5-5-5” breathing technique:

  • Stand up with both feet stable on the floor
  • Look forward with eyes into the distance or closed and hands by your sides
  • Take a deep breath in for 5 seconds
  • Hold this breath for 5 seconds
  • Exhale for 5 seconds
  • Repeat this 10 times (or as long as you feel comfortable) and then check out how you’re doing

Recognise when we last felt less anxious

When we’re in a calmer state (maybe after the breathing or perhaps completely separately), take a moment to think about the times when your anxiety is less present. What are these situations, what time of day do they occur, what happened just before and just after? These indicate times that you feel different, bringing in an awareness of how your mood changes and can help you to recognise that you don’t feel the same way all the time.

Recognising how you’re feeling is important with anxiety because it can trick us into thinking that we’re always like this, and it never changes. If we’re able to see that it does indeed change over time, then we can start to understand our triggers and think about how we could respond differently in the future.

Work out what you love 

Similar to the above, spend some time thinking about what you love. What is it that makes you lose track of time, the thing that helps you forget yourself, the activities or places that you simply love? How possible is it to go to or get more of these in your life? If it doesn’t feel very possible, what might need to be moved or changed to make it more possible? What does even just thinking of this activity do for you?

Get outside

People can get evangelical about being around nature but there’s a reason for it! Evidence shows that being around and able to see green aids feelings of calm. Find the bush at the end of your street if there’s no park to go to – what is it doing? How does it smell, look, feel? It’s a small, small thing but have a go and see what happens.

Equally, go outside and look up – what do you see, hear, smell, and feel? When did you last look up outside?

Finally – walking (however you enjoy it – on your own, with friends or family, a dog, a podcast, music) is a great way to move us into a different state.

Therapy

More formal support can come in many forms – there are talking therapies such as counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which may be available through your local NHS, other therapies such as mindfulness, or body work like acupuncture, the Emotional Freedom Technique, massage, or Reiki. We’re all different and knowing what suits us is important, but you don’t have to do it alone. If you need help to find the right support, try talking with a friend, asking a therapist for a free 20-minute phone consultation, or making a GP appointment.

Medication

Many people might think of anti-anxiety drugs or anti-depressants as a last resort, but they can be a brilliant way to help with the change in chemistry that is going on in the body, particularly following chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgeries. Medication may not be for everyone, but for others it might be just the route to be able to access other support in the first place.

Finally we might feel pressure to ‘solve’ our anxiety because there are so many apparent routes to doing so. But it can be important that we first understand what it is we are dealing with, and how we’re coping before we’re ready to do anything about it. Give yourself a pat on the back for reading this and look at it again when you’re ready.

Emily is a health psychology specialist who worked in the NHS before her own cancer diagnosis. She now runs private one-to-one, group coaching and therapy to support people during and after challenging times in their lives. She’s worked with Shine for over five years and regularly sees cancer clients. Check out her anxiety vlog and website here www.coachingemily.com

Life – but not as you knew it: The Perils of Living Life in Overdrive

Most young adults living with cancer have been told at one time or another that we ‘should live every day like it’s our last’ (if there’s one thing cancer is good for, apparently it’s a cliche!).  But what happens when you go all out and try to make up for ‘lost time’? Is it possible to live life at 100 miles an hour and still function?

Is our latest blog, Victoria describes her experiences of living her life in fast forward – what she did, why she did it, and the unexpected pressure that came with creating a ‘list for living’.  Take a read. It’s a great reminder of the need to balance fun and a little bit of rest!


VBG photo

Guest blogger: Victoria Bel Gil (pictured with two members of X-factor finalists Rough Copy)

The emotional aftermath of my recovery from cancer has felt like having an unexploded bomb in my back garden. Even though I know that it’s gone for now, I still dread the day that it may become active again. I worry that, after years of lying there quietly and undisturbed, it will begin ticking and become an immediate danger to me once again.

While this feeling does not follow me around everyday, it catches up with me when I am faced with having to make future plans and decisions around my life. Simple and enjoyable tasks such as signing up to a new mobile contract, buying new furniture for my recently (pre-diagnosis) purchased home, or enrolling on a year long college course began to give me anxiety. I have felt – and still do feel – uneasiness around making future plans.

Once I finished treatment, many well-meaning friends and family members wanted me to catch up on what I had “missed out on” and to live my life “for today”. Invitations flooded in – and I took them all!

In the first six months after treatment I visited Brownsea Island twice, changed jobs, enrolled on an evening course in floristry, went to London Fashion Week, got a boyfriend (and ended it), saw an X Factor finalists’ show, visited gardens in Holland and Hampton Court, rocked out at two festivals, travelled to visit friends in Devon, Bath, Cardiff and London, and spent Christmas in the New Forest – and the list went on. Days out? Yep count me in! Night out on the town? Yes please! I even created a ‘list for living’ full of all those exciting things that I’d always wanted to do but had never got around to. Having looked cancer in the eye and showed it the door, the list became vitally important to me. I felt as if I had to fill every minute of my existence and not waste any time.

So what’s wrong with getting that tattoo you’ve always wanted (yes I got one!), doing that charity sky dive (not yet but I’ll be doing it for Shine when I do!), or booking a holiday to India (I’m saving up)? Nothing I hear you cry. Do it!

While ‘doing it’ is great advice, I had not counted on how exhausting it would be. I also discovered that the flip side of a life in overdrive can be unbearable disappointment. I had loads of amazing days out and fun times, but I often ended up feeling exhausted and unfulfilled. Take one of my living list items: run a half-marathon. At the time of my breast cancer diagnosis I was 38 and recovering from a recent divorce. Running had been a coping mechanism for the end of my marriage and, before my diagnosis, I had signed up to run a half-marathon for children’s cancer charity. I had completed many 5 km and 10 km races and was well on my way to achieving my goal.

And then: bam! In March 2013, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer in my right breast and was given six rounds of chemotherapy, a right mastectomy, and 25 blasts of radiotherapy followed by 17 Herceptin injections over 15 months.

Throughout my treatment, much of my half-marathon training went on hold, though I am proud to say that I continued to run (slowly) throughout chemo, much to the terror of my parents. I even did an off-road 5km in the pouring rain between rounds 5 and 6 of chemo! Once I had my mastectomy, however, even my stubbornness couldn’t ignore the infections I kept getting in my surgery site as a result of pushing myself too far. When I realised I needed to stop, I felt a huge sense of loss and disappointment. My confidence in running had gone and, unbeknown to me, my little living list had put me under enormous pressure.

Eight months post-treatment, I have only just started running again with my little group of running friends, and my confidence is slowly returning. Instead of feeling bad about not completing the half-marathon, I have realised that I needed to start “listening to my body” and be more realistic and gentle with myself. To help me do this, I’ve devised some strategies:

1) Set realistic goals and plans: I have re-written my list for living to be more realistic and flexible to my new needs. Running a marathon may not be possible but running weekly with my group certainly is. Following an 8-week return to fitness programme that I was referred to by my GP, my fitness has improved. Last week I went on an evening run and kept up with my friends for nearly 5km!

2) Be kind to myself: I have allowed myself to take it easy and, rather than beating myself up, I focus on how far I have come in the nine months since treatment. If I don’t feel like running one day, I don’t feel bad – I just go to the next session and move on.

3) Celebrate the new goals and don’t underestimate new achievements: In my new post-treatment life, I run daily marathons. These include getting myself up, showered and dressed (impossible after my op without help), walking my dog twice a day, going to work part-time and doing my own house work (which somehow always seems so satisfying now!).

Is life dull? Not at all. I feel proud that I am taking back my independence. I still believe its great to plan and take small steps. But it’s also important to celebrate those steps and to remember that even though we are slow and hesitant we are still moving forward.

Oh and the bomb? Well, hopefully if it starts ticking again I will be better prepared. I look forward to meeting the hunky fire fighters who can help to blow it up!