Dancing through cancer: how a new project is helping women with cancer

In a special guest post Emily Jenkins, founder of Move Dance Feel, introduces her project and writes about the work she does to support women living with cancer.


I love to dance. Be it in my kitchen, on the train platform, or (more appropriately) at a festival, I like to move. Why? Because it brings release, it’s revitalising, and it eases tensions in my mind and body. Dancing helps me to breathe better, sleep better, and feel more alive.

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Emily Jenkins

We are all capable of dancing, despite the self-conscious mind telling us otherwise. Far too often people concern themselves with the aesthetics of dance: how it looks, rather than how it feels.

I work with different  groups in community and arts contexts, and in recent years have specialised in an area known as Dance and Health. Using dance in health contexts is not a new phenomenon, though due to greater recognition of its benefits and connection to wellbeing it is rapidly growing in popularity.

My job is to break down preconceived ideas of what dance is, and inspire people to move in a way that feels good for them. I use creative techniques that encourage a greater understanding of and appreciation for the body, focusing on self-expression. Through shared, positive experiences, dance can promote social cohesion and help to build meaningful relationships based on trust and understanding.

Dance is a multifaceted art form which very much accommodates the multidimensional needs of people. In contrast to Western medicine, which often compartmentalises illness, dancing addresses the whole body, which in turn acknowledges the whole being – physically, mentally, and emotionally. This can have transformative effects on participants, as they get to know a part of themselves perhaps previously overlooked.

In 2016 I launched a project in East London, Move Dance Feel, providing free weekly dance and movement sessions for women affected by cancer. I established the project to explore what dance could offer in the context of cancer recovery, and to address a recognised need for post-treatment support.

My first personal encounter with cancer was in my teens, as I witnessed my grandfather wrestle with the devastating effects of melanoma. I recall visiting him shortly before he died and being very affected by how much the disease had taken him over. The image of his emaciated frame had a profound impact on me. Over time, as I supported friends living with cancer, I particularly noticed the overwhelming effects on the body, and also the mind.

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Move Dance Feel session

A motivation for setting up Move Dance Feel was learning that 70% of people affected by cancer report negative physical, emotional, and mental side effects between 1 and 10 years after treatment – a statistic that I found very hard to digest. At the same time, I read that physical activity proved effective in reducing the negative side effects of cancer treatment, as well as reducing the risk of reoccurrence, so I was puzzled as to why dance wasn’t being offered.

Originating at a community centre in Bromley-By-Bow with a Macmillan Social Prescribing Service, Move Dance Feel is now running in three cancer support organisations across London, providing sessions at Maggie’s Barts and Paul’s Cancer Support Centre as well. The project is for adult women (18+) with any type of cancer, including those who are supporting someone with cancer. We welcome people at different stages in their journey (pre, during and post treatment) and no prior dance experience is necessary. Participants are also welcome to bring along a female friend.

At the heart of Move Dance Feel is artistic practice, where women come together to dance instead of talk about their cancer. They meet each week to be active, creative and, most importantly, to laugh and have fun.

My favourite aspect of the project is meeting other women. As a communicative art form, dance provides insight into people’s characters and enables intimate moments of exchange. More often than not, these moments are energised and playful, but they can also be nurturing and grounding in times of instability. The nature of this exchange helps to experience a sense of belonging and can lead to feelings of self-discovery, learning from others how to help ourselves.

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Dancing at Move Dance Feel

My aim is to integrate dance as a permanent offer within cancer care programmes, and further evidence of its need within the public health sector. I am also in the process of setting up a performance element of Move Dance Feel to bring a sense of visibility to women who are living well during and after cancer – in the hope of inspiring others to dance (even if it’s alone in your kitchen!).


Emily will be running a taster session at our Shine Connect 2019 conference (11th May 2019). To register your interest in the conference and be notified when registration opens, click here!

If you’d like to know more about Move Dance Feel, or let others know it’s available for them, please follow Emily on Facebook or Twitter.

You can also find Emily at www.emily-jenkins.com.

Photos taken by Camilla Greenwell, www.camillagreenwellphotography.com. 

Ten years after testicular cancer

In this post, Tom Richens writes about his diagnosis and treatment for testicular cancer, and how he’s chosen to celebrate long-term remission.


The 8th of August 2008 is an easy date to remember due to its symmetry. It is also a date that I will never forget: the date that I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I was 29 years old. Deep down I knew that something had been wrong for a long time, but I kept convincing myself that everything was OK. I had felt a persistent dull ache in my right testicle, but there were other symptoms too. I experienced acute back and abdominal pain, then fatigue. Eventually, my right testicle was excruciatingly painful and about twice the size of my left one. I went to see my GP. He immediately sent me to hospital to undergo an ultrasound, and by the end of that day I had my diagnosis confirmed: a malignant teratoma of my right testicle. The testicle had been taken over completely by the tumour.

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Tom, ten years on

My right testicle was removed via an orchidectomy. I was offered a prosthesis but I declined due to the increased risk of infection. As it was, I got an infection anyway. The orchidectomy was a success and the tumour markers looked clear, which was a good sign that the tumour hadn’t spread. I had been incredibly lucky.

I was referred to a clinical oncologist, who set out my options for further treatment. If I had chemotherapy there would be about 2% chance of the cancer coming back, and I would need regular check-ups for five years. If I didn’t have chemo there would be about 40% chance of the cancer returning, and I would need to have tests every two weeks for five years. There really was not a choice to be had, so I agreed to have chemotherapy.

I was put on the BEP chemotherapy regime. My treatment started on the 14th of October 2008, my wife’s birthday. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to show her a good time! Initially I experienced very few side effects, but within a short space of time I began to lose my hair and the treatment became quite debilitating. I had no energy at all and would generally alternate between sleeping and being sick. . I craved burnt and bland food – very strange for someone who has always been a great food lover.

I was relieved when I finished my treatment. However, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have other, less positive emotions. Anxiety that the cancer would come back was there all the time. What if that meant losing my other testicle? Deep down, I also felt a sense of insecurity as a result of the treatment. I didn’t find this easy to acknowledge at the time. Eventually I went to see a counsellor, and this proved to be really helpful.  I could open up about what having cancer had really meant to me. I would say to anyone: it is no shame to feel insecure, anxious, or even angry. Talking about it is not a sign of weakness, but actually a sign of great strength. I know that as blokes, we don’t like doing that!

I had regular check-up appointments for five years: first at three-monthly intervals and then less frequently, until I was seen on a yearly basis. There were always nerves before my appointments, but I knew that the medical staff would pick up anything sinister.  After a few minor bumps in the road, after five years I was officially discharged. It was a fantastic feeling, and time for the celebrations to start!

I always felt that it was really important to mark key milestones in my remission. My wife, my step-children and I enjoyed a fabulous holiday to Egypt in 2009 to mark one year of being ‘all-clear’. We probably wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t for what had happened the previous year, and we had a terrific time. They deserved it more than I did really, as their love and support throughout my treatment was amazing. When I was discharged after five years, we had a great night celebrating, and then my wife and I took a spa break at a beautiful hotel in the Cotswolds. Finally, as this year marks ten years since my cancer diagnosis, I have decided to embark on a photo shoot. I have never been a particularly self-confident guy, but the photoshoot really represented how far I had come and I got progressively braver as the shoot went on! I could never have imagined that I would have been brave enough to do something like this, so it really was a final piece of closure.

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Ten-year anniversary photo shoot…

I often get asked if having cancer changed me. Overall, I would say I am the same person as I was ten years ago, but there are certainly some subtle changes and lessons I have taken on board. I still worry about work at times, but I always make far more of an effort to ensure family and friends come first. Having cancer gave me the impetus to do things that I would never have considered previously. I organised a charity cricket match in 2010 that raised approximately £5000 for Cancer Research UK. It took eight months of hard planning but when it all came together it was a fabulous day. I also ran the London Marathon in 2016 to raise money for the same charity. It was damn hard work, but the most wonderful and rewarding experience. I would never have considered it had I not had such a burning desire to give something back after my own cancer experience.

As a cancer survivor you will never forget your diagnosis or treatment. However, I think that it is important to look forward in life. For me, the raw emotion of having cancer has subsided over time. I would never say that I was lucky because getting cancer isn’t lucky but today, life as a survivor is pretty damn good. Value every day and enjoy life.

 

The photos of Tom Richens were taken by Khandie Photography, and are reproduced here with permission from the photographer.

Website – www.KhandiePhotography.com

Facebook – www.facebook.com/KhandiePhotography

Great Escape: reunited!

2018 Escapee Caroline shares her experience of our Great Escape Reunion, a one-off event celebrating five years of weekend retreats for young people with cancer.


I was lucky enough to be able to attend the 2018 Shine Great Escape (read my fellow Escapee Rosie’s blog about it here), and I was invited to the Great Escape Reunion almost as soon as I had accepted my place on the Escape itself!

It turns out that 2018 was a year worthy of celebration: the Great Escape that I attended was the fifth weekend away for young adults with cancer that Ceinwen Giles and Emma Willis had organised since Shine began. In March, Shine organised a reunion event in London, inviting all of those who had attended a Great Escape to come along and celebrate the anniversary with them.

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Some of the 2018 Great Escape attendees reunited!

The afternoon began with tea, cake, and conversation, which gave us time to chat with our fellow Escapees and meet those who had attended in previous years. While it was a great opportunity for many to catch up, for the 2018 attendees it was also a chance to get to know each other better. Although we all feel a strong bond with our ‘tribe’ as a result of the Escape, there are still so many things that we want to learn!

Once we’d warmed up and helped ourselves to a piece of flapjack or four, the Reunion continued in true Escape style – with Sharpies, crafts, and collages. Although some Escapees remain defiantly unartistic, everyone took part in creating collages to show how the experience had affected their lives. It was amazing to see how much one weekend away could change our perceptions about cancer and our attitudes towards living with the disease.

After the activities came a potted history of the Shine and the Escape from Ceinwen and Emma, including stories about how they’d manage to convince friends and friends of friends to sign up to voluntarily spend a weekend at a hotel in Bournemouth with a group of young people with cancer – hardly the most glamorous of mini-break ideas! We are all overwhelming grateful that they pulled it off, as the next portion of the afternoon showed. Representatives from each Great Escape gave short presentations about their experiences and gave us an insight into what everyone had been doing since their Escape. This part of the afternoon was emotional for many reasons. It was fantastic to see photos of weddings, exciting trips abroad, and new babies, which gave us optimism for our futures beyond cancer. However, the moving tributes to those who have sadly passed away since attending their Escape reminded us all about what it is that brings us together. After the presentations, we raised a glass not only to Ceinwen, Emma, and the volunteers, but also to the wonderful Escapees who are no longer with us.

And as for the 2018 Escapees? Although we weren’t convinced that we would have much to report after only a few weeks apart, we had managed to achieve a surprising amount: a few new jobs, several dates, a couple of people returning to work, and some meet-ups already in the calendar for later in the year. And then, of course, the few thousand (!) WhatsApp messages we had exchanged with each other since leaving Bournemouth. It seems that a Shine Great Escape isn’t a Shine Great Escape without a very active WhatsApp or Facebook group!

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Fond memories of the Escape…

The reunion came to a close with a group discussion about the future of Shine, and how we could ensure that more young people are able to benefit from everything the charity has to offer, then a delicious buffet.

 

I’ll leave you with a few comments about the day from my fellow 2018 Escapees. Thank you again for everything Shine, and all the volunteers who have contributed to the Great Escape!

‘It was great to chat to previous attendees and see that they are still benefiting from the Escape and have gone on to make good progress. Also, it was nice to see that they are still good friends with each other years later. The Escape has a long-lasting impact and doesn’t just fizzle out after leaving the bubble of The Grove.’

‘I get really tearful thinking about our Escape and the Reunion. I feel like I belong with you guys, where I don’t belong anywhere else.’

‘[Our group photo from the Reunion is] my work screensaver!! I look really happy, which makes me smile, and when I have a tough day it reminds me that we’re in this together.’

What is a ‘Great Escape’? To learn more about the Shine Great Escape and how you could apply to take part, check out our website here

Escaping in 2018!

Every year in January, we escape! Since 2014, Shine has run a Great Escape in Bournemouth. We’ve had amazing feedback over the years from all of our “Escapees” – young adults with cancer who tell us that over the 3.5 days that they’re together that they make life-long friends.  One of our 2018 Escapees, Rosie, has written about her experiences. Want to learn more? Read on! And if you’re interested, we’ll be opening applications for our brand new Manchester Escape in May!


IMG_0451When I was asked to write this blog about my recent experience at the Escape I had to think about my answer for a little while. The first blog that I wrote for Shine nearly a year and a half ago (just a couple of months after my diagnosis) had, looking back on it, a naively positive tone to it. At that time, as far as I could see, my diagnosis and treatment had a beginning, a middle and an end – upon which I would happily return to my old life and then climb Kilimanjaro (as you do).

Well, anyone who has lived with cancer for a while knows that cancer never really leaves you and that you have to go through a period of grieving for your old life and adjusting to a new normal. In my case, my medical team are unsure if my breast cancer has spread to my spine or not and I am therefore now on treatment indefinitely.

My body and my mind have been through a lot and with that I stepped back from blogging because I didn’t feel like I had anything very positive to write about. I didn’t want to be one of those whingeing cancer patients just going on about how sh*t everything is. But the truth is it is sh*t and that’s ok. And it’s also probably a bit more relatable than sickening positivity!

So, I found myself writing this blog and in the process of trying to come up with a catch title, I Googled ‘Escape’ and the first definition that came up was ‘break free’. It made me think of a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly which is kind of how I think of myself before and after the Escape.Blog 1

When the opportunity came to apply for the Escape, there was never any question in my mind that I was absolutely going to apply. Those I knew who had been before hadn’t stopped raving about it and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is a wonderful thing!

I was so excited when my spot was confirmed and I couldn’t wait to meet all of the other “Escapees”. I was pleased to find that I already knew some of them from Shine Camp. A private Facebook group was set up and we were also all asked to submit a picture and a short bio so that we could start getting to know each other before the big day came. This was also really useful for people who were anxious about attending because they were able to share their fears online and everybody was really supportive in return.

It took me a whole 6 minutes to arrive at The Grove Hotel in Bournemouth (I live locally), which is an awesome place for cancer patients and those with life threatening illnesses. As a group, we took over the whole hotel and brought the average age of their usual guests down significantly! The hotel staff were great and seem to enjoy this annual event which is now in its 5th year. The on-call nurse sometimes even doubles up as a bartender….nothing if not efficient!

There were about 30 of us in total including Shine staff, volunteers, and peer supporters.

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The 2018 Escapees and peer supporters before the hike

After collecting our awesome goody bags we were ready to get started. The next few days were a full on mixture of laughing, crying, information gathering, team building, soul-searching, sharing epic-ness. We had entered into a safe bubble and at the end of it, although we were all mentally and physically exhausted, no-one wanted to leave and go back into the real world.

“Life changing”, “one of the best weekends of my life”, “four of the most exhausting but brilliant days I have ever experienced”, “fantastic”, “fabulous” “wonderful”, “amazing”, “incredible”, and “uplifiting” are just some of the words that were used in our post-Escape WhatsApp group to describe the weekend. If that doesn’t encourage you to apply for next year’s Escape, I’m not sure what will!

There were a number of workshops run at the Escape. One of them was titled ‘Debunking myths’ and I think this Russell Howard video sums it up quite nicely!

Another session was called ‘Living with Cancer’. Working in groups, we were encouraged to write down all of the things that we have lost due to cancer….needless to say that those pages were full very quickly and we could have carried on. Some common themes were dignity, confidence, friends, family, control, independence, future, certainty. Is it any wonder that so many of us experience some form of depression, anxiety and/or PTSD following diagnosis? There was ‘on the ground’ emotional support offered by both professionals and peer supporters for the entire weekend and hints, tips and signposting to other organisations given for the longer term. This session was the inspiration for my #onewordforcancer on World Cancer Day.

It is brilliant to have been able to bond with so many other young people who know what it’s like to pick our way through this cancer minefield. Humour is a really important coping mechanism and there was plenty of that in evidence at the Escape. Some of us also decided we should all carry red and yellow cards for those people in our life who get us down!

Saturday night brought with it the opportunity to let our hair (if it had grown back) down, thanks to a photo booth and karaoke provided by the awesome peer supporter Richard.

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Photo booth

We were also honoured with a visit from our very own superhero Smash-It Man spreading his #smashitforshine mission. It really did have to be seen to be believed!

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Smash it for Shine Man made an appearance!

Sunday involved a fun warm up, some stones (can’t give away all the secrets but mine involved guilt and being kind to myself) and a trek to Hengistbury Head. The Escape is offered free of charge to attendees but it costs approximately £1000 per person to put on, so the hike is a sponsored event to help pay for attendees next year. It’s not too late to sponsor us here. 

Before the weekend was up, there was just enough time to tell the person next to us what we appreciated about them. I was told that they appreciated my resilience in the face of changing goal posts which really meant a lot to me. Just today my oncologist said that it would be against medical advice to climb Kilimanjaro. But fear not those of you who have helped me raise an incredible amount for Shine because there are other options on the table! Watch this space….

It was then not goodbye but more like “see you later” because Shine are organising a reunion for all five years of Escapees in March.

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Shelli was promised extra sponsorship if she did the hike in a Scully onesie. Done!

I would just like to take this opportunity on behalf of all of my cohort to say a massive thank you to all the staff and volunteers who are involved in this event. We know that so much behind-the-scenes stuff goes on and we really are forever grateful. Special mention to Christopher who stepped down as a peer supporter this year but remains as Chair of the Board of Trustees and an invaluable asset to the charity.

(Thank you also to everyone who let me use your photos, sorry I couldn’t fit them all in! xx)

Rosie is a member of Shine’s Dorset Network and was a 2018 Escapee. 

Shine and ASTRiiD – a new way of connecting people with cancer with flexible employers

Here at Shine, working after cancer has always been a core part of the work that we do. We’ve long been aware that our Shine community is full of talented people who are often un- or under-employed because of a cancer diagnosis or treatment. That’s why we were delighted to meet David and Steve Shutts, the brains behind a new initiative called ASTRiiD which aims to pair up people living with cancer who need flexible or part-time work, with companies that need talented people but don’t need them 9 to 6pm in an office. It’s win-win!

The ASTRiiD team have written a blog below which we’re delighted to share. Over the coming months we’ll be partnering with them as they launch ASTRiiD and begin connecting people with cancer with some great companies. If you want to know more, pop on over to their website or follow our Facebook or Twitter for updates!

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The choice of career available to most school leavers today is simply staggering compared to David Shutts’s own experience 35 years ago. For him, it was a life in the armed forces that beckoned, so he joined the Royal Navy aged 20 and became a Marine Engineer Officer where he served on a dozen different ships and travelled large parts of the world.

Aged 45, he thought it was time for a second career, this time in industry, and he was enjoying his professional life. Then suddenly, he was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer. Incurable and inoperable, this diagnosis set the course for what will be David’s newest stage of life. Now, two years after his diagnosis, David is pioneering a project that will transform the lives of thousands of fellow cancer patients across the UK.

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ASTRiiD Co-founder, David Shutts

“There is only one way to approach this situation” David suggests, “and that is to make the most of every day available. It’s a bum deal but that’s what it is. Accept it and get on with making the most of what’s left.”

And this is why David has founded a project he calls ASTRiiD.

ASTRiiD aims to connect people who have long-term illnesses, but who also have plenty of skills and experience, with businesses that need an injection of talent and expertise.

“Holding down a permanent job can be a massive challenge for people with cancer and other serious health problems,” said David. “Yet many people still want – and need – to work. And don’t think, just because you’re young, that you don’t have what’s needed. I can assure you that there are many businesses out there where the ability to learn counts just as much as any formal qualification.”

ASTRiiD, which stands for Available Skills for Training, Refreshing, Improvement, Innovation and Development, is underpinned by technology from the IT partner, Salesforce. “ASTRIID epitomises modern commerce; there are no long winded application forms – we are doing everything on line through our website and are proud to be working alongside a leader in this field”.

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ASTRiiD logo

As well as providing heavily discounted licences to run the website, Salesforce (which is also supporting Shine) has pulled together a pro bono team to help David deliver the project.

“I call the members of this community the ‘Invisible Talent Pool’ as currently they are invisible to business and business is invisible to them. Through ASTRiiD I want to make the invisible visible.”

“By helping people find meaningful work, we hope to be able to boost an individual’s self-esteem and self-confidence.”

The demand side of ASTRiiD is provided by the UK skills gap, the term given to address how companies struggle to find the right people with the skills, experience and attitude they need to grow their business.

“There is a vast demand for skills out there. Our business landscape is dominated by micro-, small – and medium-sized businesses, all of whom at some point will need help to let them grow and prosper.”

“I speak from experience,” says David, “without question my health has deteriorated over the last two and half years since my diagnosis in May 2015.  But working on ASTRiiD and keeping busy has helped m maintain my mojo and my feeling of self worth and I know I’m in a much better place as a result of having meaningful work than I would have been if I’d had nothing to keep my mind and body active.”

“The beauty of ASTRiiD is that with the right connections we are supporting individual members, UK business and making sure that we stop ignoring a huge community of talented people.”

“That’s got to be the right course to steer.” says David.

Please take a look at ASTRiiD’s website for more information. You’ll be able to register and summarise your talent and experience and, importantly, let employers know just how much work you can manage). ASTRiiD’s matching process will then look to find those roles that you are best suited to, always keeping you in control of the communication so that you are only made ‘visible’ when you are ready.

For more information about work and cancer, make sure to read Shine’s previous blogs and watch our videos with Working after Cancer

 

 

 

How pets can help you cope with cancer

When the going gets ruff, the woofs get going: How pets help us to cope with cancer

Sarah Carlin (33) who has small bowel cancer and lives in Liverpool, explores how Shine members’ furry Florence Nightingales are helping them live better with cancer…


I’ve been dealing with cancer since 2013. It’s as about as much fun as it sounds.

During a particularly dark period recently, I realised that one of the few things capable of raising a genuine smile was my dog Elsie, a Cairns/Yorkie cross with about nine teeth and breath like the bottom of a fishing trawler.

My 50th attempt at taking a selfie with Elsie

Sarah and Elsie

I then remembered all the other times that pets had helped me through. Pre-diagnosis, when I would spend hours lying in bed, throwing up industrial amounts of green bile into a washing-up bowl, my mum’s cat Flo – who, it has to be said, would probably at that stage not have said hello to me in the street if she were human – would come to my bedroom and gently knead me with her little paws. When I was feeling better again, she’d get back to blanking me. During chemo, our family dog Bunk – a rescue Staffie cross who definitely missed his calling as a late 90s emo – would come up to my room and lay a heavy black paw on my stomach, as if to say “I understand”.

With a hunch that I wasn’t the only one being looked after by my pets in this way, I asked the Shine community about their own experiences with furry friends in Shine’s closed Facebook group. It quickly turned into a love-fest about all things on four legs, for the following reasons:

1. They’re a reason to get out of bed (and the house)

Alison's SuzyQ

SuzyQ

Owning a pet dog is like having a weird hybrid of a physical therapist, life coach and in-house dirty-protestor. Crippled by fatigue? So depressed you don’t want to get out of bed? Struggling after a big operation? They don’t want to hear it. They want you out of those PJs and taking them round the block, stat, or they won’t be responsible for the consequences. And they can’t promise that those consequences won’t be coming via their digestive system either. And even pets that don’t need to be walked – like cats and rabbits – need to be fed and watered.

 

The positive impact that this responsibility has can’t be

Fran's George

George

understated. One Shine member, Julie, remembered that her dog Izzy helped her recovery from an operation for bowel cancer by getting her active again just seven days after surgery. Fran, diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia at 29, said her cat George was her “reason for getting out of bed every day, no matter how rubbish [she feels].” And Alison, who had treatment for breast cancer recalled that her cat SuzyQ gave her “a sense of purpose and unconditional companionship”.

2. You can share in their joy – without the complicated feelings

When you have cancer, especially as a younger person, you often feel disassociated from your peers. It’s great spending time with your friends, but sometimes it’s tough seeing the life you could have been living if the C-bomb hadn’t been dropped on you. You know, having babies, having hair, being able to get travel insurance without selling a kidney (which nobody would want to buy anyway, obvs) or just being able to plan something in three months’ time without factoring in worst-case-scenario scan results. Basically, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with, cancer is there in the background like a sinister ostinato, reminding you that life isn’t as you hoped it would be – something that can be really destructive to your relationships and your state of mind.

How pets can help you cope with cancer

Your interactions with pets will carry no such baggage, however. You can truly be in the moment and share in their enthusiasm for life, whether that’s chasing a ball, trying to swallow a piece of cake whole or their absolute joy when you walk through the door after-surely-abandoning-them-forever (a.k.a. going to the shops for half an hour). You can share in their perfectly mundane triumphs with no complicated feelings. Unless, say, you had a real love for Chappie dog food but ate too much after a chemotherapy session once and now you’ve gone right off it. Or you used to love chasing mice but your oncologist has told you to knock it on the head because it’s an infection risk.

3. They bring the lols

How pets can help you cope with cancer

Elsie makes me laugh every day, whether through her world-class meerkat impression, her iron will or the fact that whenever we walk past the British Legion, she always, inexplicably, tries to go in (FFS Elsie, you’re barred!). And I’m not alone. Lisa, who has bone cancer, said her little dog Coco “brings a smile to my face every day…brings happiness and makes every day worth living.” And Christine, who has bowel cancer, said that her bunnies, Marigold and Juniper, “always make me smile even if I’m feeling awful.”

Christine's Marigold & Coco

Marigold and Juniper

 

4. They really care

I was blown away by the number of people in our Facebook who shared stories of the TLC given to them by their pets. There were dogs trying to ease painful legs, horses sensing when their owner was having a bad day and amazingly, given the fact that they have reputation for being the haughtiest of the household pets, an awful lot of very caring cats who would be a real asset to the NHS.

Lyndsey, who has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, remembered that her kitten, Stinky – who she adopted during treatment – would carefully settle into the crook of the arm that didn’t have a PICC line in it and purr her to sleep. Another Shiny, Jo, who has metastatic breast cancer said that her “Bichon baby” Pixie who “curls up with me in bed when I feel poorly and keeps the cuddles coming when I feel low” helps her cope with her situation.

Jo's Pixie

Pixie

5. Sometimes, it seems they can perform their very own PET scans (boom!)

One thing I wasn’t expecting when I put my post up was the number of people who had stories about their pet appearing to try to alert them to the fact they had cancer. Tracey remembered that her cat would always lie on the breast that had cancer pre-diagnosis. Anne’s dogs Buster and Lucky started to repeatedly snuggle into her left armpit, which prompted her to do a self-check and find a lump that was eventually diagnosed as aggressive triple negative breast cancer. And one of Danielle’s dogs kept digging on her leg so much that it prompted her to go to the doctor in case she had some sort of infection. It was actually a chondrosarcoma. That animals can sniff out cancer is actually a recognised phenomenon; some sharp-nosed pets are already being used to assess urine tests in the NHS. You can read more about the science behind it here.

We loved talking about our animals and I’m so glad that I – and so many other Shine members – have pets that are helping us through some very tough times. Here’s to a very furry Christmas and a yappy New Year!

PS We couldn’t fit all the pet photos that were submitted into this story. But they’re below if you want a quick look at the Shine Super Pets!

How running and cycling taught me to cope with chemotherapy

Having chemo? Fancy a run?

For many of us, the answer is a firm “no!”, but in our latest blog, Alison fills us in on how her approach to running and cycling has helped her to cope with her treatment for breast cancer, and we think there’s a lot of wisdom in her approach to breaking things down into manageable chunks. Take a read, let us know what you think – and please do share!


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Blog contributor, Alison Carter

Keeping fit and being a healthy weight have been important to me most of my adult life. As a child and in my teens I was hopeless at all sports (always one of the last to be picked for any team), but I spent hours doing ballet and tap, which kept me fit, flexible and gave me an appreciation of what my body could do. I wasn’t an especially good dancer, but I loved it.

My twenties saw me working hard and travelling a lot for my job, with not much time for exercise. Then as I turned 30, I discovered running and a female-only gym. Both these things made being fit accessible to me, and I had a light bulb moment when I realised I didn’t have to be good at something to enjoy it. I am not fast (my best half marathon was 2 hours 6 minutes), but what I don’t have in speed I make up for in determination. And probably most importantly, I discovered the massive endorphin rush, the so called “runner’s high”, that exercise gave me. What a great stress buster!

A few years later, as my right knee started to fail me, a friend suggested we cycle from London to Paris for charity to mark turning 40. Really???140727_North_Downs_Sportive_0114

Before I knew it, I’d bought a bike and was clocking up miles and enjoying the same benefits that running had given me. The charity ride was tough, but awesome and I’m now an avid cyclist. Through all of this, I developed a real appreciation of how amazing my body is. I may never have a flat stomach, but I love what my body can do for me.

The cancer bomb

So, it was a massive curveball when this January I was diagnosed with breast cancer. How could this be? How could this amazing body have cancer in it? Ok, I’ve had stress in my life and enjoyed plenty of wine, but cancer? Me?

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Having breast cancer treatment – with the cold cap!

I know some people feel their body has let them down when they get cancer, but I think it’s just really bad luck. I had no choice about getting cancer, but I can choose how I deal with it. My feeling is that how I treat my body is my best defence against the cancer coming back (my cancer is stage 2, grade 3). And I’m sure that being fit going in to breast cancer treatment has made a difference.

What cycling has taught me 

I’m just about to have my last round of chemotherapy (number six of FEC-T), to be followed by radiotherapy and Tamoxifen. Treatment is tough, but I have been able to bring to it what I have learned from running and cycling, and this has really helped me.

Treatment plans are subject to change, but it’ll be about eight months in total, so, I broke it in to chunks, as I would any long run or bike ride, with five clear stages:

  1. Surgery
  2. Chemo
  3. Radiotherapy
  4. Tamoxifen
  5. Recovery, the new me, after eight months.

When I cycle a long bike ride, such as Ride London, I train for it for months to prepare. Strangely, this is now how I view the last 15-odd years of my adult life: building a physical and emotional resilience that I never knew I’d need until the cancer bomb was dropped.

When I’m on a ride, I’ve learned that breaking it down to goals gets me through. I didn’t invent this, it’s standard practice; your brain usually gives up before your body does in such events, so finding the psychological plan is key. My first goal may be getting to the feed station at mile 19 where I know there’ll be flapjacks and so on. Experience has also shown me that I get a dip midway on all long rides and runs. I start to tire or pain or injuries start to niggle, and the end is not in sight yet.  In my head I desperately want to give up.

My treatment has been so very similar to this: one phase at a time, then one chemotherapy at a time, setting goals and rewards, and remembering that there will be a midway dip, but I’ll get through it.

After chemo round three I fell in to a huge dip, and I could happily have given up at that point. My hair was falling out, everything tasted of cardboard, my veins hurt and I had constant acid reflux and nausea. I was exhausted. Mentally and emotionally I was spent. But I took it one day at a time, just as I would have done on a tough run or ride.

On my good days, as I emerge from the side effects, I go for walks, do a spin class when I feel strong enough (I have to lie down for two hours afterwards!) and make sure I have goals that will give me a sense of purpose and achievement. As a result, during chemo I have done a Race For Life and cycled the Pink Ribbon Tour in London. I also ensure I have plans to see family and friends on my good days. These things exhaust me, but they fill my soul. I’ve learned to pace myself through cancer treatment just as I do through a run or bike ride.

My last chemo is next week. I know I’ll have a tough week where I lose myself to side effects, but one day at a time and it’ll be done. Then I can focus my energies on rebuilding myself ready for the next phase. That first finish line is almost in sight.

For many years, Alison was a fashion buyer. She now leads the creative photo studio for a large UK retailer. Working to to squeeze as much out of life as possible, she can often be found either on her bike, in a theatre, talking to her cat, at an art gallery, or having crazy fun with her niece and nephew. You can follow her blog here.  

For tips on how to support a friend with cancer, take a look at this blog entry. And for a list of things NOT to say to someone with cancer, read our blog here.