Living with incurable cancer: Talking about the future when I won’t be here for it

In this post, Shine community member Christine reflects on discussing future plans while living with incurable bowel cancer.


I have incurable cancer. It seems to create a lot of awkwardness.

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Christine with her parents

 

But, life goes on. I know that when I die the world will go on without me. That’s the same for each of us, though hopefully for most people that time is a long way off.

In the grand scheme of things we are all just tiny specks who exist for such a tiny length of time. Most of us will have only a very limited impact on the wider world. If we are lucky we will have some small influence on our little circles. But really, for the vast majority, the future will be no different without me in it.

I have accepted my fate, as best I can. What I find difficult is that other people make all sorts of assumptions about how I might feel, and it ends up limiting conversation.

Sometimes when a group discussion naturally gets on to future plans, people start to look at me uncomfortably. They might even try to change the subject. It is really not necessary. I don’t mind at all.

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A photo from Christine’s recent holiday

I am not worrying about pensions, or mortgages, or planning a wedding. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand the importance of those things to other people, and I don’t mind discussing them, though obviously I might not have much to contribute. (Except on weddings – I have a lot of strong opinions there!)

Of course I am sad that I won’t have the future I thought I might. And I am sad for all the things I will miss. But that sadness is far outweighed by the joy of knowing that those things will happen. My loved ones will carry on living without me. They will be happy again. I am not suggesting it will be easy – far from it.

I don’t believe in a heaven, or that I will be watching over them. When I am gone, that’s it. Whatever made me me will cease to exist, and my body will return to the earth. I will live on in the memories of those who knew me, and I hope that they will continue to feel my love even when I am no longer here. Somehow I will always be a part of their lives.

Sometimes I forget that my days are numbered, and I have little daydreams about my future, the same as anyone else. To be honest even without the whole incurable cancer thing I doubt many of them would come to fruition. Few of us live the life we planned, which is often no bad thing.

I don’t mind talking about the future, either generally or people’s individual hopes and dreams. I don’t begrudge anyone their good health or their future. I don’t wish that everyone else was dying too, just to keep me company. So please don’t leave me out of your conversations or feel that you can’t tell me things.

I still want to be a part of your life while I can. And if that means planning for your future then I am more than happy to join in.

Anyone who knows me well will know that I am quite organised. I like my lists and plans. I’ve had to let go of a lot of that because cancer is so unpredictable. But now I have a whole new set of plans to make – for my funeral, my end of life care, my will. It could be a bit depressing, but actually I get quite a lot of comfort from it.

What I am trying to let go of is my desire to continue to control the future when I am no longer here. I worry about how my family will cope. At first I came up with all sorts of ideas of how I could guide them through. But the reality is that I just can’t. I have to accept that once I am gone, they will need to learn to live in their own way. I don’t get to be involved in that. If they decide to abandon the monthly smoke alarm tests and the house subsequently burns down then it will not be my responsibility.

I thought about leaving cards for all the milestones I will miss. But I don’t even know what those milestones will be. And when would I stop? It seems a bit selfish, to inflict myself on them even when I am dead. I don’t want to gatecrash, or to make them sad on what should be happy occasions. And really it’s only to satisfy my own ego. I am dispensable. Everyone will be just fine without me.

Life isn’t just about the big milestones anyway. It’s in the boring minutiae of the everyday. When I imagine the future I would have liked, it’s those little moments that I will miss. Not when we are all dressed up to go somewhere fancy or putting on our biggest smiles for a photo, but laughing because otherwise you’d cry, or finding something to smile about when you’ve had a really hard day. And actually I think, much as I’d love to be there to celebrate all the wonderful things that are to come, it’s the hard times that I am sadder about. It pains me to imagine my loved ones struggling and not being there to help them.

Of course, there’s not really anything I can do about it. I try to give everyone as much love as I can right now while I am still here, and that will have to be enough.

If you’d like to connect with other young adults living with cancer, please request to join our private Facebook group or follow us on Twitter (@shinecancersupp) or Instagram (@shinecancersupport). 

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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

Melanoma: more than ‘just skin cancer’

In this blog post, we’re bringing you a cancer experience story written by Caroline, a member of our community who was diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma at the age of 29. She’s keen to raise awareness of skin cancer and share the impact that it has had on her life. As always, please share this blog post and let us know what you think!


I’ve been worried about developing skin cancer since I was 14 years old. I had been stocking up on my favourite fruit-scented toiletries from a certain well-known beauty retailer, and the shop assistant had slipped a leaflet on sun protection into my bag. I’m pale, red-haired, and freckled – and since reading that leaflet, my delicate skin has barely seen the sun. I cover my shoulders in summer, wear sunscreen in winter, and pride myself on staying as white as possible. So how did I get skin cancer?

Mucosal Melanoma

I was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma, a rare form of skin cancer, in May 2017. I was 29 years old. Mucosal melanoma develops on mucosal tissue such as that in the nose, mouth, and sinuses, or in the gastrointestinal tract. In women, it can develop in the vagina, and on the vulva. In men, it may be found in the penis. I’m not going to tell you where my small tumour appeared – but suffice to say, you’re unlikely to see any of my surgical scars!

I spotted a suspicious growth in December 2016, but it took several months – and several

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Guest blogger, Caroline

doctor’s visits – before I had a biopsy. It’s hard not to feel angry about weeks of missed diagnoses, but my disease is so rare that I can’t blame the doctors who dismissed my symptoms. However, I knew that something was wrong, and I’m glad I persevered with return visits until I finally had a diagnosis. I learned early on in my cancer journey that there is nothing more important than being your own advocate. Melanoma can spread quickly, and more than one medical professional has told me that if I had not kept returning to clinics, I might not be here now. It’s a sobering thought.

Initially, my treatment plan was the same as the treatment plan for cutaneous melanoma (the one with the moles): I had a surgical biopsy to determine the diagnosis, and then went back into surgery a few weeks later for a wide local excision and a sentinel node biopsy. The wide local excision involved taking a larger section of tissue from the area around the tumour to make sure that there were no more cancerous cells. For the sentinel node biopsy, two lymph nodes in my groin were removed and tested for melanoma cells. Thankfully, there was no melanoma in my lymph nodes – but if there had been, my diagnosis would have been changed from Stage II mucosal melanoma to Stage III, and I would have had advanced cancer.

Unfortunately, my wide local excision found some more melanoma cells in-situ (pre-cancerous cells, which have the potential to develop into cancer) – so a few weeks later, once I’d healed, I was wheeled back into surgery for a third operation. Then, once I’d healed from my third operation, I had a fourth. And then a fifth. Each surgery delivered the same result: a small area of amelanotic melanoma in-situ. ‘Amelanotic’ means that the melanoma isn’t pigmented. In fact, it’s invisible! In the space of eight months, I went from a healthy, active, young woman who had never even set foot in a hospital, to a cancer patient who had been through five surgeries in attempts to rid her body of a now-invisible aggressive cancer. I can scarcely believe it.

Wow, you look so well!

One of the most difficult aspects of my diagnosis has been looking well. Melanoma doesn’t respond well to chemotherapy, and it is not an option for me. When I first ‘came out’ about my cancer, I was asked a lot of questions about chemotherapy. When would I have it? When would I lose my hair? How could I have a serious illness, but look so healthy? And (the worst): did I actually have a serious illness? Despite all my rounds of surgery, and the trauma that comes with any cancer diagnosis, I began to feel as if my specific ‘flavour’ of cancer was being downplayed. If I mentioned melanoma, I felt as if I had to explain that I had always looked after my skin, and actually my diagnosis was not down to any irresponsible behaviour. As an aside: just wear your sunscreen! And no, I have no idea if that mole on your arm is dodgy…

Cancer messes with your head

Although I know deep down that my diagnosis is serious, it took me a long time to stop feeling like a cancer fraud. Not only do I look healthier than ‘the average cancer patient’ (fun fact: there’s no such thing!), but I can’t relate to many support group discussions about chemotherapy and radiotherapy side effects as I had never had that experience. Even if my cancer progresses, chemotherapy will be a last resort.

Through Shine, I’ve been able to meet others who have ‘just had surgery’ and can relate to some of the feelings I’ve described. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever meet someone who has the same diagnosis as me (if you have mucosal melanoma, please make yourself known!), but it is wonderful to be part of a community that acknowledges all the effects that a cancer diagnosis can have. I don’t have to explain or justify myself anymore!

I’ve only lived with cancer for a few months, yet the experience has already taught me a lot about myself. It matters less and less what other people think or believe about my illness. Instead, I focus on how I feel, and my own perceptions of my strengths and limitations. I’m finally giving myself the space to listen to my own needs – and that could be anything from needing to burn off some energy at the gym, to requiring a lazy day of nothing on the sofa.

It is so important to listen to yourself.

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.