A Shiny, Cloudy Escape

The Great Escape is Shine’s flagship weekend for young adults with cancer. Every January we gather 22 people at the Grove Hotel in Bournemouth for a weekend of hanging out, information, walks – and usually some karaoke.  This year’s Escape (our third!) was just as fabulous as our earlier two and we’re grateful to Robin Taylor who has written a blog about his experiences at the event. We’ll open registration for our 2017 Escape in October but you can learn more about it on our website, including videos from our previous weekends.


 

A Shiny Cloudy Escape

Photo - Robin Taylor

Our blogger and 2016 Escapee, Robin

Just before Christmas 2014, I was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a form of blood cancer mostly seen in children and adolescents. I am 34 and was previously pretty healthy. I have since been through a rollercoaster ride of treatment and recovery and 12 months on I’m finally settling back into a routine. I joined Shine Cancer Support to meet people of my own age who have been through similar experiences and decided to apply for the Great Escape because it seemed like a great opportunity to network and meet others outside my usual social group.

The ‘Journey’

I arrived at the Grove Hotel just before the Escape officially started. I’m naturally a little shy and it usually takes me a few moments to adjust to a new group. A group of people were leaving to get lunch and it suddenly dawned on me that, as I hadn’t been to a Shine event before, I might be the only person to not know anyone. However, I was greeted with a friendly smile by Laura, who signed me in and pointed me in the direction of my room. I dropped off my bags and decided to find the lay of the land. As I walked down the corridor, I met another “Escapee” who said that she didn’t know anyone either so we decided to find coffee.

Robin

Robin during treatment

I soon realised that most people had met for the first time that day and that I was less of an outsider than I had first thought. As we sat down for coffee, we were handed bags with name badges and some notepads, leaflets and goodies including chocolate. There were now a few of us sat chatting in the warm conservatory looking out onto the garden. A few minutes in, Emma bounced into the room and introduced herself, welcoming each with a hug. I think she spotted my British awkwardness and apologised saying “sorry, but that’s how I roll; you’ll get used to me,” I had been in the building for about fifteen minutes and already felt like part of the team. Emma was followed by Ceinwen who identified with me as a “chemo buddy” as we’d had the same treatment.

Breaking Ice

After coffee, we headed to the main meeting room. Emma and Ceinwen (whom Emma helpfully introduced as ‘Kine-When’) quickly built a great rapport and the presentation was informal and engaging. They talked through the schedule, some ground rules and explained that the weekend might be emotional. We were also introduced to the support staff including a (very much in demand) psychologist and an on call nurse. In talking to the ‘peer supporters’ (young adults who have had cancer and have been on previous Escapes) throughout the weekend, it was clear that they were all easy to talk to and had a wealth of knowledge to offer. The activities for the first day were designed to help us get to know each other. At dinner-time, the tables were chosen for us at random which worked really well as we all quickly met and, by the end of the second day, everyone knew each other.

I surprised myself at how quickly I had settled in – within 24 hours, strangers had become friends. By the end of the day inappropriate jokes and cancer-related anecdotes capped a raucous evening

Day 2 – Calm before the storm

Yoga (which was optional), a first for me, kick started my morning. As a runner, I could see the value of the stretches and the relaxation techniques. The session was designed to cater for all abilities and I could feel the benefit at breakfast.

The day started with a myth-busting discussion – it was interesting to see that I was not alone in my ‘common knowledge’ and ‘tabloid fact’ scepticism. We were introduced to some useful online resources with which we could help inform our opinions.

The afternoon was a fairly intense discussion about the emotional strain that a diagnosis can have on us. There were some really emotive discussions around how we managed our personal feelings and those around us who were also affected. Listening to some of the conversations found me holding back tears on a number of occasions.

We went out for dinner which was held at a fine high street pizza establishment – a welcome break from the walls of the hotel and good to catch up with people in a neutral environment.

Day 3 – A Sea Change

After my second yoga experience, we quickly settled into a discussion around relationships. We talked about how we communicated with friends, family and partners. On top of our varying diagnoses and prognoses, our family lives were just as varied but sharing the host of struggles that we could all identify with was a liberating experience.

The lads in the group were in the minority, but I had a number of really engaging, open and frank conversations. It seems that we all had handled ourselves in a very similar way and talking through our coping strategies was both cathartic and enlightening.

After lunch we broke into separate groups, and I was glad to see that I was not the only bloke in the fertility discussion. Though outnumbered, I felt comfortable talking about this difficult subject in front of the group, and the discussion was well guided by a highly experienced specialist nurse. As one of my fellow male companions said later “we learned a lot about how… er it works” (followed by a huge laugh from the group)

Apart from a few optional activities, there was a fairly generous break before dinner so I decided to go and hide. I didn’t even get round to switching the TV on or pick up my book as planned before the emotions started pouring out of me. To help me get through the next few hours, I decided to write a poem:

A bottle

There’s a bottle within which all my tears go.
Emotion comes, I take one, stopper the jar, then stem the flow. 

It’s difficult to know where and when or why they come.
The swelling fear, the hide and run.

Feelings don’t frighten me, I know they’re there.
I’ve just learned to close them down.
I don’t reflect, I look forward.
I don’t regret, I learn.
I’m trying to live,
to work,
to achieve.

My experiences don’t define me.
I learn from my experiences and define myself around them.
I’m still learning.

I’m trying to live,
to work,
to love.

I’m realizing…
that soon,
if I don’t let them out,
the bottle might explode.

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Karaoke superstars

Before I knew it, it was time to head back for dinner which was followed by a pretty intense evening of karaoke. Audience participation was at a record breaking high, and some unexpected superstars arose from behind the curtain.

Hike and home

The event of the final day was the ‘Hengistbury Hike.’ We started with a talk from a fitness instructor whose specialism is working with cancer patients. As with all the speakers and contributors of the weekend, he was engaging and interesting – and even for a fitness convert like me, his approach was really interesting. The hike was well planned with different routes depending on ability and we spent most of the time chatting and taking in the beautiful scenery. The weather was exactly as expected (rainy and cold!), but refreshing and not too harsh on us. We returned for a de-briefing followed by a hugely emotional and huggy parting of our ways.

Group walk

2016 Escapees starting the Hengistbury Hike

The journey home was a blur – I had the radio on but didn’t hear it. I think my mind was spinning from all I had learned and the wonderful people I had met. The comments in our private online group over the following days have been a testament to the bonds we formed, and I’m very grateful to everyone for having shared part of themselves with me.

I would have no hesitation in recommending the Escape to other people. On top of a range of practical advice, I learned that talking about how I feel is not only important for my own recovery, it will help those around me.

Robin Taylor blogs at http://www.robinbtaylor.com

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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: Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to be introduced to Greig Trout, a two-time cancer fighter who is currently travelling around the world, getting his mojo back.  Greig is followed on Twitter by thousands who virtually keep up with his adventures. While we admire (and are hugely jealous!) of Greig’s amazing travels, we also really appreciate the honesty he’s shown in talking about the mental health impact of his cancer diagnoses. In our latest blog, Greig talks about the insomnia, depression and post-traumatic stress he’s had to cope with since he finished his last treatment.  None of these things get talked about enough and many people diagnosed with cancer feel like there’s something wrong with them when they don’t ‘bounce back’ to their pre-diagnosis selves.  Take a read below – we’d love to know what you think. You can tweet us on @shinecancersupp or email us at info@shinecancersupport.co.uk


Greig Trout photo

Greig on his travels

 

Anyone who has survived cancer will tell you that there is never a moment where the doctor turns to you and declares “you are cured”. To my knowledge that didn’t happen when I survived cancer as a child and it certainly didn’t happen this time round as an adult. Every six months you are simply told “all is looking good, I’ll see you in another 6 months”.

I was first diagnosed with cancer as a seven-year old. I had a stage IV Wilms tumour. It was pretty far gone and I had tumours in my lungs, my arteries and my kidney. As well as having my kidney removed, I had extensive chemo and radiotherapy. I was very lucky to survive when many others on my ward didn’t.

My worst fear came true at the age of 30 when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I couldn’t believe it. My mum had always told me that I’d had my tough time in life and that it would never come back. Perhaps rather naively I believed her.

Getting cancer as an adult was a completely different experience to that as a child. The only things I remember about being ill as a child are being sick all the time, losing my hair and the smell of the chemo. I don’t remember ever worrying immediately afterwards whether it would come back or not. People would say how brave I was but in truth I just had no idea what was going on.

As an adult I completely crumbled both before and especially afterwards. When I was ill I always believed I would get better but when I was better I didn’t believe that I was. I liken it to climbing Everest only to get the top and then suddenly having all your ropes and safety equipment taken away. I was gripped by fear. Fear of the cancer coming back, fear it hadn’t actually gone, and fear that I had very limited time.

This fear led to a whole assortment of issues. I suffered from insomnia, spending most nights staring at the ceiling first just worrying about cancer and then about pretty much everything else. I then developed severe eczema on my face and body and, when I did sleep, I suffered from night sweats. I was highly emotional and lost all my confidence. I felt like a glass filled to the top and just one drop would send me over the edge.

The worst thing about all of this was that I hated myself for feeling this way. Wasn’t I supposed to be filled with pure elation and with a new love of life, like all the cancer survivors I’d read about? I was certainly grateful but happiness seemed to elude me. I’d gone from someone who was confident and enthusiastic about life to someone who didn’t even want to leave the house. When I saw friends they would often comment on my skin or how tired I looked. It was tiredness that led me to finding out I had cancer, so each time someone said this all I heard was “Greig, you still have cancer”.

I honestly thought I was losing my mind. Cancer was all I thought about. I tried different forms of therapy and eventually resorted to anti-depressants. The relationship I was in then ended; looking back perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  I wasn’t the man she fell in love with anymore.

It wasn’t until I chanced upon an article in a women’s magazine that it occurred to me that maybe everything I was feeling was actually normal. The article was about the singer Kylie Minogue. Kylie had survived breast cancer and in the article she said that there wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t think about cancer. Perhaps selfishly, this made me feel better. It seemed I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. I had read so many books where people proudly claimed that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them. This was the first thing I’d read which I related to.

It took my doctors a long time to use the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for my mental and physical condition. I had always associated PTSD with the military and war so I’d never associated it with cancer or illness. This seems ridiculous now considering it is all in the title; ‘post-trauma’. It doesn’t matter what kind of trauma it is.

My issues with PTSD have been worse than both my cancers put together. When I was ill I always had hope that I would be okay but that hope quickly vanished when I was better and it was the worst feeling in the world. Without hope I was lost.

I’m currently on an around the world trip and it’s my on-going experience with anxiety and PTSD that not only prompted me to take it, but also to share my story. I wondered how many people out there hadn’t read that article about Kylie and I wondered how many people felt like I did.

The good news is that a feeling of fear and anger after cancer is completely normal, and the anxiety can be controlled. I have received hundreds of emails from people around the world who have gone through exactly the same thing.  I found that simply writing a list of things to look forward to helped me to overcome my fear of the future. Within a couple of months of writing my list I started to sleep again and my skin cleared up. I started to feel excited about the future instead of fearing it.

Cancer is still my first thought of the day but I can now turn my thoughts around to much happier and optimistic ones. I have found that doing things you enjoy is the best medicine of all. You don’t have to travel the world but simply do some thing that makes you happy. Watching the sun go down or having a cup of coffee while watching the world go by are still my most favourite things in the world. I just try to do them more often now.

The main thing people should know who are also going through this is that you are not alone and that there is hope.

You can follow Grieg on Twitter at @101Greig. You can also follow his adventures of 101 Things to do when you Survive on Facebook here

If you need further help and advice to cope with anxiety, depression or PTSD, you may find the following links useful:

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Mayo Clinic blog on PTSD and cancer

Depression and Cancer on Cancer Research UK’s website

What happens at the Escape?

Between Jan 29th and February 1st, Shine ran our second Great Escape. For those of you who don’t know, the Escape is one of our best events – a three and a half day get together for young adults with cancer. We take over a hotel, we hang out, we talk about all the stuff we don’t usually get to talk about (like dating, depression and infertility) – and this year we hit the karaoke hard. You can see a video of our 2014 Escape here.

One of our Escapees, Minh, has written a bit about his experience at the Escape. Take a read – and get ready to sign up for Great Escape 2016!

2015 Escapee Minh Ly

2015 Escapee Minh Ly

The Lead Up

I began writing this as I sat on the train to head down Bournemouth for the Shine “Great Escape”. I’ve been in remission coming up to 8 years now and have pushed it to the back of my mind quite well. I can’t help but feel scared about spending four days talking and hearing about the subject cancer. I fear bringing up the past.

Why then, did I decide to go on the Escape? Well the fear didn’t really occur to me when I applied! Looking back on my application, I put that “I would like to spend time with people who have and are going through similar things that I’ve been through, particularly in my age range”.

I’d been to a couple of the Shine meet ups in London where I had met a few of the other “Escapees”. To help everyone get to know one another a little, we were all asked for a photo and a few paragraphs about ourselves to circulate. And to get us talking, a private group on Facebook was set up for us. It seems that I wasn’t the only one feeling slightly nervous.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but with clear skies from the window of the train, I hope for it to stay like this for the walk on the final day!

The Escape

“What happens at the Escape, stays at the Escape!” – an Escapee, 2015

The whole experience and organising was great! Shine knows not to jump into the heavy topics on the first day, with everyone tired from travelling and new to one another, so they ease us in with introductions, let us get to know each other, have us do magazine cutting collages, and share our first dinner together. It was a very warm welcome.

The following days, a number of different sessions were run, some for everyone and the others in parallel, allowing the Escapees to choose the sessions that was more relevant to them. I’ve only been to the standard conference-type events, where you sit in an hour long session just to hear a couple of people talk, so that was what I thought the Escape would be like – but it wasn’t. Instead, there would be a short talk on a topic and then some form of interaction, whether that was breaking away into smaller groups for a bit of discussion before feeding back to the group as a whole or individually.

For me the topics were interesting, thought provoking and sometimes hard-hitting.  I particularly found myself nodding (well inside my head!) to a lot that was said in a session about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’ve bottled a lot up and not really spoken about cancer until it’s too late and I have some form of breakdown. This session told me that I’m not the only one having trouble after remission and also that this can happen not just straight after treatment but many years later.

There was a lot to take in over the four days and I didn’t get time to process it all during the time away. There is so much going on, but its not always full-on; there are plenty of tea and coffee breaks (much cake included!) and you get free time to explore Bournemouth, the beach (5 minutes away), chat with others or just relax in your room. In the evenings, to take your mind off it all you could play a bit of bingo (with a variety of alternate bingo number calls) or partake/listen to the rest of the gang hitting up the mic and doing a bit of karaoke.

There was a sadness to be leaving the others at the end of the Escape, but I also felt ready to go back to my life, and ready to take action on the next steps.

The end of the Escape, but the start of moving on.

During the Escape, I thought about what I was looking for, why I came to the Escape and what I really wanted. This kept changing from session to session, day to day. After the first day I was sceptical about whether I would get anything out of the Escape as my mind seemed so lost and confused.

So what did I get? Firstly, I got the realisation that I need to talk about what’s happened to me, to relive it and stop burying it in the back of my head, whether that be by writing a personal diary, blogging ,or talking to a counsellor. I will never be able to get rid of the memories of being ill, but everything I learned at the Escape will help to dampen the effect it has on me when it suddenly crops up in my head.

Second, in the other Escapees, I’ve found friends who understand and who I can talk to when it feels like there is no one. Everyone is very supportive of one another and even after the Escape that has continued online.

Overall I feel good! I’ve had a bit of weight off my shoulders and though I’m not sure how long this feeling will last, I now know what needs to be done.  I think this is the first time that I’ve been in a positive mind-set about my cancer since I got into remission.

What people get out of the Escape will differ depending on their experience, but one thing is for sure: you will meet a fantastic set of people. The Escape was full of laughs (and some tears) as well as fun, and amazing people. It’s something I needed and something I will never forget. Thanks Shine and big hugs to the Escapees of 2015!

Minh Ly is a member of Shine’s London network.  He was treated for lymphoma 8 years ago and is in remission.

Life – but not as you knew it: Laughter as medicine!

Got a case of the January blahs? Here at Shine, we’ve been looking at ways that we can beat the dark, grey days and bring a bit of happiness into our lives, regardless of the challenges 2015 might bring.  Luckily for us, we found Mandy Riches of Grin and Tonic which uses Laughtercise (yes, you read that correctly!) to promote physical and psychological health.  Mandy understands cancer because she’s been there: diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice in her twenties, she was then diagnosed in 2011/2012 with breast cancer.  Yes, we know it sounds a bit weird but we also think it sounds like lots of fun so read on and visit her website for more information!


Mandy Riches

Three-time cancer superhero and laughtercise guru Mandy Riches

 

There’s something about one year ending and a new year beginning that I find unsettling. It’s often a time for self-reflection which brings a myriad of emotions, ranging from the optimism and excitement of new opportunities, to a longing to simply curl up under the duvet and hide from the world. Since I was first diagnosed with cancer over 20 years ago, I’ve often had an urgency to really ‘live’ life though I’ve found that this is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it contributes to the fact that I can look back on 2014 and feel incredibly proud at achieving what I describe as my crazy scary challenge: cycling from Edinburgh to London in five days for charity. For someone who often feels like a cancer factory, this accomplishment helped me to regain strength both mentally and physically. The absolute focus on following my heart and in achieving something that once seemed out of reach was invigorating.

The flip side is that this urgency sometimes completely and utterly overwhelms me – the need to make the new year count, the need to make every month, every week, every day, every second count. It can be exhausting and my New Year self-reflections could easily spiral into the January blues. However, as I lie snuggled up nursing my inevitable winter cold, I have decided instead that I will laugh in the face of the January blues using Laughtercise.

What is Laughtercise I hear you ask?

Laughtercise is based on the principles of laughter yoga, which combines laughter with deep breathing. When my good friend Stephanie Hill from Grin and Tonic heard about my third diagnosis of cancer, she felt powerless and wanted to find some way to help me and my family, so she engaged us in using laughter as an exercise (as opposed to laughing at comedy or jokes). With simple, fun exercises and some deep breathing your serotonin (the happy hormone) increases, the laughter becomes contagious. You feel more relaxed, less stressed, more energised. Like many, I found it a bit barmy at first and I could have easily discarded it as “I’m way too reserved for that kind of thing”. But by simply letting go a little and using techniques to anchor it into daily life, it was brilliant.

Mandy and her colleague, Steph

Mandy and her colleague, Steph

For most of my adult life, I’ve been dancing the tango with cancer: twice with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the 1990s and then breast cancer in 2011/12. I was devastated to have cancer for a third time, and it hit me much harder emotionally. I don’t know if it was the optimism of youth that carried me through the first two, or the cumulative effect of ‘here we go again’. Perhaps there was even an element of the unfairness of the breast cancer being caused by the radiotherapy I received for the Hodgkin’s.

One way or another, I experienced an overwhelming sense of emotion. I found myself crying for no real reason, I couldn’t sleep and I’d often wake up with tears streaming down my face. I found it really difficult to articulate what was going on.  Mortality had smacked me in face again and at least some part of me felt smashed, whether that was my sense of myself and who I was, my loss of innocence, my view on time, my view on what next.

I never thought that Laughtercise would become such a useful tool, but it did, and continues to be so. It has helped me to feel more in control of my life at a point when it seemed like cancer had taken over everything and every thought. Physically, the act of laughing and the deep breathing also helped to release some of the tightness I felt in my chest following reconstruction for my bi-lateral mastectomy. It also helped me connect with my family and friends in a really meaningful way.  When you’re dealing with cancer, people don’t know if they are allowed to laugh around you.  It was easy for me to give ‘permission’ for them to laugh with me, and although it started as an exercise, it was contagious and incredibly powerful, helping them to relax and deal with my illness too.

I know it all sounds a bit mad, but honestly you have to try it!  I am passionate about bringing more laughter into the lives of as many people as possible, and together Steph and I have created a DVD called “Dealing with Cancer? Laughter Works”. January can be a tough time for many people, cancer or not. Whether you’re happy, sad, or just need a little pick me up, I’d encourage you to get out of bed, grab the next person you see, or simply look in the mirror and give it a good Ho Ho Ho. It’s infectious!

In addition to being a freelancer writer and running her own Customer Experience Consultancy, Mandy is now proud to be a Director of Laughter at Grin and Tonic.  

 

Life – but not as you knew it: Talking it out

A cancer diagnosis changes everything.  Whatever cancer you’re dealing with, whatever treatment you’ve had (or are having), adjusting to life after you hear the words “You’ve got cancer” are never easy.  In our blog below, Viv Wilson shares her experience of cancer treatment and how valuable counselling has been in helping her to cope with all the changes she’s experienced.

At Shine, we know how important the right psychological support can be. We also know that less than half of all younger adults facing cancer get offered counselling – and that’s not good enough.  Many hospitals offer free counselling for people going through cancer treatment. If you think you’d benefit, ask your consultant or clinical nurse specialist for a referral. And remember that Shine’s meet ups  are a great way to meet others who know what you’re going through.

Talking it Out

Guest blogger: Viv Wilson

Profile pic

I was diagnosed with widespread, high grade DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) in my right breast in June 2012.  At the time, I was a 42 year-old single mum with twin teenagers.

My mum had breast cancer at 45 and later died of pancreatic cancer.  As the same thing had happened to her mum, I went for genetic testing. As it turned out, I don’t carry any of the known breast cancer genes but I decided to have both breasts removed as a precaution. I asked the surgeon to give me temporary implants so that I didn’t have to be flat chested.  I had a bilateral mastectomy and my new breasts looked great.  But ten days out of surgery I developed a massive infection in my left implant and I had to have it removed. In May 2013, I had the right one removed as well.  It was then that my world crashed around me.

The whole reason I had asked for temporary implants was to avoid being flat chested. To end up like flat chested anyway, after all the surgeries, was a real shock.  I just couldn’t accept the way my body looked.  My stomach stuck out beyond where my breasts should have been which made me really upset.  I felt like I looked pregnant and had I nightmares about getting dressed. I also hated the “softie” breasts that the nurse had given me. Putting them in my bra was just a reminder of everything I’d been through and they often moved around so much they ended up under my chin rather than on my chest!

After my diagnosis and surgeries, I often felt that I couldn’t quite be myself around my family and friends. I am happy and jolly by nature and I didn’t want that to change, but lot of my time seemed to be spent looking after the feelings of everyone else rather than my own.

I wasn’t offered any counselling after my mastectomy.  I did speak to the breast care nurse at the hospital, who was fantastic, but I always felt like I was bothering her, as she was so busy. I felt cast adrift.

It was only after I had the right implant removed privately that I found out about a counselling service that was offered at our local hospice.  I was given the number of the counsellor and decided to give them a ring.  I was feeling so low that I didn’t really have anything to lose.  Counselling is part of my own job so I also knew what it entailed and it didn’t frighten me.

I have always suffered with depression, anxiety and panic attacks but until the diagnosis I was coping with things much better.  Having gone through cancer, it reared its ugly head again and I felt like I was back to square one.  There was so much to think about: Why did this happen to me?  Will it happen again? How do I feel about my body now? How do other people view me?  Do I want reconstruction?  What happened to the me I used to be? The list of things going round in my head was endless.

When I started the counselling, I found that I really needed to talk over the traumas I’d been through, from having weak veins and having the nurses spend a good couple of hours every day trying to get 4000mg of antibiotics into me, to what having no breasts meant to me and how I was going to recover.  But one of the most valuable things for me about having a counsellor is that it is my hour to say what I want to, however I want to.  I have a chance to talk about my fears and worries in a place where I don’t feel judged and I don’t feel as though I’m are going to offend anyone.  To have that release once a week was – and still is – immense.

I have been able to talk through all of the issues I have with the things that have happened.  Although the counsellor doesn’t try to give me solutions, she helps me to work things out myself and has made me realise that many of my thoughts and feelings are normal.  We have also talked about the loss of my mum five years ago and my feelings about how things might have differed had she been here.  There is an endless pot of emotion to wade through or at least that’s how it can feel sometimes.

If someone had told me a couple of years ago how this experience was going to affect me, I wouldn’t have believed it.  I haven’t got to the point where I’m ready to move away from counselling but luckily I’m able to keep going until I feel ready to stop.  Counselling isn’t for everyone, but through it, I have been able to discover who I am and work out where I fit into the world again. What it has also done is to help me to accept who I am now and that this body is my “new normal”.  I have taken myself off the waiting list for reconstruction which feels like a real step forward in accepting where I am today.

If you feel it would do you good, give counselling a go and see if it helps.  Go in with an open mind and get out of it what you need. After all it’s your life, your body and your future.

Viv blogs at http://vivsmiles.wordpress.com