Moving on – with the help of broken crockery

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


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Blog author, Karen Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowel cancer at 32: Life, but not as you knew it

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness month, so in our latest blog post, we’re bringing you a blog by Cara, a Shine member who was diagnosed with bowel cancer shortly after she turned 32.  Currently undergoing treatment, Cara is passionate about raising awareness of bowel cancer and its symptoms, as well as sharing her experience of treatment. Please do share this blog with others and, as always, let us know what you think!


As April is bowel cancer awareness month I am asking this:

#Isitok that on average 2,500 young people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year and that many of these individuals experience a delayed diagnosis? A delayed diagnosis that stems from a perception that in your 20s and 30s you’re too young to possibly have bowel cancer?

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Guest blogger, Cara

I decided to write this blog post because that is exactly the situation I found myself in 14 months ago when I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer and I hope that by sharing my story I can raise awareness of the disease and make people stop and think. After all, nine out of 10 people survive bowel cancer if it is caught in the early stages and the key to this is early diagnosis. My advice is that if you have a concern and it’s not normal for you, don’t be embarrassed speak to your GP about it. We all know our own bodies and you know when something just isn’t quite right.

A little about me……

At 32 years old I found myself staring cancer in the face like an insurmountable challenge that I didn’t know if I was strong enough to tackle. It had taken 10 months to reach a diagnosis and when I speak to other people my age with bowel cancer I’m not alone in having been told we are just ‘too young to have cancer’.

My cancer story started when I decided to pay a visit to my GP because I was slightly concerned that there were some changes in my bowel habits and I was experiencing abdominal cramps. A routine blood test showed that I was anaemic and the GP made a referral. Looking back now the anaemia explained the tiredness I had been dismissing for months as something that just happens when you “turn 30” – something which now makes me chuckle as if reaching 30 puts you on some slippery slope to the realms of being an OAP!

Before I knew it, we were six months down the line with no answers as to why I was anaemic, and with the suggestion that the pain and anaemia were both down to period pain. During this time, I also had to deal with the death of my father. It was a difficult time, but as I dealt with my grief, my life began to get back to some sort of normal. I was going to the gym, going out with my friends and I even took part in a charity cycle from London to Paris with work.

However, as the weeks passed I found myself being unable to keep pace with my friends. Little did I know that my anaemia had slowly been getting worse and that lurking in my colon was a growing tumour. Just before Christmas, after a couple more visits and chats with the GP, I found out that my red blood count had fallen dangerously low and that my doctors were considering a blood transfusion. A test on a stool sample discovered blood that wasn’t visible to naked eye and I was quickly referred for a colonoscopy. That was when I knew I had cancer. I had seen this before when my father had been diagnosed. From that point my diagnosis happened very quickly but what I still couldn’t get my head around was why, with my family history of cancer, the faecal test wasn’t done at the beginning alongside everything else. It’s still something that I question today.

Since my diagnosis I have faced 14 months of endless hospital appointments, blood tests, seven hour days in the chemo unit, major surgery and blood clots, and while I would love to say I am at the stage of moving from cancer patient into the ‘life after cancer phase’, my post-chemotherapy scan showed lesions on my liver and the cycle has begun all over again. I am now undergoing a more aggressive chemotherapy which involves the joy of a ‘cold cap’ in a vain attempt to save my hair!

Another twist in my tale…..I have Lynch Syndrome…..

Lynch syndrome is the most common form of hereditary colon cancer and can increase the risk of developing colon cancer by up to 80%. Statistics make it as common as the BRCA mutation, but many people won’t have heard of it. Being in active treatment, I haven’t been able to fully address the impact that Lynch syndrome could have on my future, but I know that when the time comes it will have an impact on decisions about children and also that there will be decisions to make about having preventive procedures. While it would be very easy to think that knowledge of this mutation could have helped to detect my cancer earlier, I can’t change the past. I do believe though that knowledge is power and, that by ensuring I get right screening, I can minimise my risk of developing another cancer in the future.

What I have learned….

Dealing with a chronic disease forces you to develop a certain superhero strength…but that’s not to say that there aren’t difficult days or days where I feel so overwhelmed by it all that I don’t know how I going to make it through the next bit of treatment. Cancer will change me, but how is not yet fully clear. I’ve been told that I am so strong to be able to deal with everything that I am going through ………personally I don’t think I’m anything out of the ordinary. I think we all have superhero strength within all of us. It’s like the saying goes: ‘you don’t know how strong you can be until being strong is your only option’.

Cara works as a buyer in the womenswear department of a major UK retailer. She volunteers as a Cancer Research UK Campaigns Ambassador and claims to have an unhealthy addiction to travel literature and anything travel or adventure related! You can follower her on Twitter @Caraeliz24.

 

 

 

 

 

Breathe and bend! How yoga can help you cope with cancer

Every year, at Shine’s Great Escape, we run morning yoga sessions for our “Escapees”. For many, it’s the first time they’ve tried yoga and most people are pleasantly surprised by how much they get out of it.

In this blog, Stephanie Bartlett shares her experience of starting yoga during her cancer treatment and how it’s helped calm her busy mind.  Want to learn more? Below Stephanie’s blog, we’ve posted some ‘getting started’ tips from Shine’s yoga guru (and podcast host) Tatum de Roeck!


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Stephanie with son Theo

Last July I was diagnosed with cancer.  As a young and healthy 32 year old, I certainly wasn’t expecting it, though I have learnt very quickly it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are or how ‘healthy’ you thought you were.

Cancer for me has been ‘mind consuming’. In the seven months since my diagnosis, my mind has been consumed with everything cancer related, from the seemingly endless weeks of waiting for test results to the side effects of 18 weeks of chemotherapy to the apprehension of the next course of treatment; there was just no getting away from it.

That was until I discovered yoga. My very first yoga session consisted of some simple breathing techniques and some basic stretching and relaxation. I followed my instructor and it was very peaceful. I found it easy and I soon realised that an hour had passed and I hadn’t thought about cancer.

I can only describe how I felt after my first session as a balloon floating in the sea. I felt present in the here and now.  My mind felt completely empty.  No thoughts had entered my mind the entire time. I had no idea what it felt like to be free of the constant cancer woes until then. I also felt very relaxed, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and like I was finally lightened of the burden.

I continued to practice yoga with my instructor about once a fortnight and before I knew it I had learned a whole yoga flow and every session we were adding to it. I was also learning more how good it was for my mind and body. Post-surgery and during chemotherapy I looked forward to each session as I viewed it as my escape from cancer. I then found myself doing yoga on my own at home in the days in between seeing my instructor – I could finally escape cancer every day. I knew exactly what to do and I loved it.

The truly great thing about yoga is that no matter how I was feeling or how physically able I was (and this changed from week to week, with the effects of surgery or chemotherapy), I was always able to do yoga. And it’s really not about getting one leg wrapped around your neck while balancing in the shape of an elegant swan – rather, it’s all about connecting with yourself and using your mind and body no matter how much you’re able to move.  Basically, we can all do it, no matter how flexible you are.

As a busy and working mum to my five-year-old son, Theo, I’m constantly on the go.  Life is always eventful and there’s no escaping the constant need to be somewhere or do something.  This consumed a lot of my thoughts before cancer and adding cancer to that mix made life even crazier. Yoga enabled me not only to calm down my mind but also to focus on simply moving and breathing.  It lets me forget the chaos that life has thrown at me and it enables me to put into perspective the important things that are worthy of my attention. Most importantly, it also helps me forget about the pointless little things that can fill the gaps.

I have certainly caught the yoga bug; I now know a moon flow, what sun salutation is and can do my warrior poses.  During each of these yoga flows, the actions and breathing are the only things on my mind. Even before the cancer diagnosis I didn’t know it was possible to escape; I’ve always had a busy mind so for me it’s been a real eye opener. Steph1

I cannot recommend yoga enough to anyone going through a cancer diagnosis or treatment – an even those that aren’t. I once thought “oh, yoga is not for me – it’s too airy fairy”.  How wrong I was!  I have even booked myself onto a four day yoga retreat in Spain, as a reward once all my treatment is over. It’ll involve hours of yoga, relaxation and a well needed break in the sun.I genuinely never believed yoga would help me as much as it does but I honestly love what yoga does for me.  Give it a go, you won’t know until you try it!

Stephanie lives with her son, Theo, who is five, and she was one of Shine’s 2017 Escapees. To learn more about the Great Escape, click here. And if you’re interested in trying yoga, read on for a briefing by our yoga instructor (and podcast host) Tatum de Roeck!


Thinking of trying yoga after cancer?

Three months after Tatum de Roeck qualified as a yoga teacher, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Below, she shares her tips for getting started with yoga. Tatum

Even knowing quite a bit about yoga, I was still daunted going into a new class when my body felt so alien. It was tough dealing with feeling physically limited, emotionally all over map and mentally frazzled. What made it easier was having an idea what to expect from a class and how to find the right one.

I now teach yoga as my main job and give classes as part of Shine’s Great Escape weekend. Many Escapees have never done yoga before and the class has given them the chance to find out they rather like it! So for others who think they might fancy giving yoga a whirl here are some tips and thoughts to help make finding the first class a little easier.

Yoga is yoga, right?

Not all yoga is the same. The spectrum of classes range from ones where all the poses involve lying down on the ground with cushions and blocks, to hot sweaty powerful classes that seem to be created for acrobats from Cirque du Soliel.

I’m not flexible, can I still do yoga?

Yes! Yoga isn’t about what it looks like on the outside but how it feels inside your body. You can be one millimetre into a pose and feel the benefit of the stretch. If you feel it, that’s your pose and it is perfect. Someone else might have a different rotation in their hip joint and their legs may impressively flop out, but they may be working on how to engage their muscles instead which might be just as much of a challenge. It’s good to bear in mind since everyone’s body is wildly different (and always changing) we don’t bend to yoga, it is yoga that should bend to us.

Starting Slow

Slow classes give you time to try a pose, see if it’s right for you and adjust as needed. Even if it’s a super relaxing class it gives you a chance to hear some yoga terminology, become familiar with teachers providing different options, and to build confidence for trying the next class.

How do I find a slow class?

If there is a yoga studio nearby I would either pop in or give them a call to ask if they offer a relaxing, slow or gentle classes. Some bigger studios sometimes even offer classes handily named something like ‘yoga for people with cancer’. Most mid-size studios will have great introductory offers of unlimited classes for a couple of weeks. This can be a really useful (and far cheaper) way to try out different classes. Sometimes yoga classes at the gym are unhelpfully labelled ‘yoga’. In these cases its useful to get some more info otherwise you might be in a sweaty power hour territory.

The key things to ask is it is suitable for beginners and is it gentle? If possible it may be good to see if you can briefly contact the teacher before you plan to take the class.

A lot of cancer centres like Maggie’s also offer yoga and if they don’t offer yoga on the premises it’s worth giving them a call to see if they know a place or a teacher they’d recommend.

What do I wear?

The main thing is to wear something comfortable, which doesn’t restrict movement but isn’t too loose. The reason we don’t wear baggy T-shirts is because some of the poses (like a forward fold or child’s pose) will cause loose T-shirts to ride up exposing the stomach and lower back or rising so much it covers your face. Very baggy shorts can also show a bit more than you bargained for. If this happens you spend the class fighting with your clothes which takes away a little of the joy (I’m relaying this from personal experience!).

Getting to the first class early

It’s a good idea to get to your first class 15 minutes early. There will be forms to fill out and it’s a good time to talk to the teacher before the class starts. You can let them know you are trying yoga for the first time, that you may need to take it easy or have a part of your body where there is a limitation of movement. They are the best people to give you a bit of an idea about what to expect in the class.

Do I need to do all the poses?

Nope! Yoga is about being in the body and feeling out what is right for you. Anything that causes sharp pinching pain or any sensation which takes your breath away is a sign from your body saying that position isn’t right for you at that time. If this happens you can come out of the pose slightly or fully. There is a pose called child’s pose which is the go to position any time in the practice. It’s the pose to regain your breath, to rest or simply stay there until another pose that you might like comes along.

Giving it another go

Since there is such a variety in yoga styles, teacher personalities and range of environments it is worth giving yoga more than one class to really determine whether or not it’s right for you. If you find it ultimately isn’t what you want at the moment that’s totally ok too! You’ll know what it is and that it’s there if you ever want to come back to it.

Ask for Recommendations

One of the best ways to find a class is to ask others who have tried and tested classes already.  In the comments below, feel free to share your experiences and any places or teachers you love. You never know another Shiny person may be in your ‘hood and looking for a class!

 

Meet Jonathan!

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

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


What were you diagnosed with, and when?

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Shine’s new Programme & Administrative Assistant, Jonathan

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

How did you find out that you had cancer?

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

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

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

What did you think and feel when you were diagnosed?

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

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

How did the people around you react?

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

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

What treatment did you have?

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

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

How did you feel through treatment?

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

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

What happened after treatment finished?

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

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

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

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

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

What excites you about working for Shine?

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

Any big plans for 2017?

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

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month – meet Emma!

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, having shared the story of one of our Directors last month (for Blood Cancer Awareness Month), we thought we would share the story of Emma, our other founding Director this month. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Emma experienced the isolation that often comes with a cancer diagnosis and is all the more acute when you’re young. Way back in 2008, Emma started meeting up with other young adults with cancer and the roots of Shine took hold. Today, Emma runs Shine with Ceinwen and is Shine’s Director of Operations and Training. Read on to learn more about Emma and why Shine does what it does!

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Emma (left), with Ceinwen at Shine’s 2016 Great Escape

When were you diagnosed and what with?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2006. I had two tumours and the cancer had spread to five of my lymph nodes. I also had unconfirmed spread into my breast bone and the lymph nodes in my chest so I’m still not 100% sure what stage my cancer is/was!

How did you find out you had cancer?

Early in 2006 someone drove their car into the back of mine while I was stopped at some traffic lights. I had whiplash and sprained ribs and was having physio. I found a lump in my breast that was next to one of my ribs so the GP thought it was a bleed caused by the accident but said he would refer me to the hospital anyway. When I finally got my letter from the hospital, the soonest they could see me was in 12 weeks time (this was before the two week wait was introduced in the NHS). While waiting for my physio appointment at a private hospital (I had BUPA through work), I noticed a sign for a specialist breast centre so I figured I’d get an appointment there as I had already paid my insurance excess! I was seen the following week and was sure that they were doing all of the tests to get more money from the insurance company!

I was so unconcerned about the follow up appointment that I went to receive the results on my own on the way home from work. The words from my doctor – “I’m really surprised but it is a little cancer” – will always stay in my mind. I remember thinking ”what’s a LITTLE cancer??”

What did you think and feel when you were diagnosed?

Because I had come in alone, the consultant suggested that I call my partner and come back in when he arrived. I was in shock. I can only remember certain phrases like “you’re so young that we’ll throw all of the possible treatment at you” and “normally we aim for five years survival but, with your age, we are going for 20”. I remember thinking that I would still be in my 40s after 20 years and that that wasn’t long enough.

Over the next few days, I went into planning mode to deal with work, friends, family and the huge number of hospital appointments that I suddenly had to fit in. Looking back, I coped by focusing on the practicalities such as finding pyjamas for hospital that buttoned up at the front (surprisingly difficult!).

How did the people around you react?

My partner and family were as shocked as I was. We had no family history of cancer and I hadn’t met anyone who had dealt with cancer at my age before. I really thought that it only happened to older people.

Everyone tried to help with practical arrangements but I avoided a lot of my colleagues and friends as I felt awkward dealing with their reactions. I lost count of the number of times I heard phrases like “but you’re too young for that” (I know!) and “my uncle’s brother’s wife’s sister had that – oh, she died” (thanks, that’s really helpful!).

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Emma during treatment

What treatment did you have?

I started with surgery to remove the original tumour but, when I went into surgery, they found another one. I had a lumpectomy rather that the mastectomy that would have been recommended if they’d known about the second tumour. I decided not to go back for the full mastectomy as my surgeon had got clear margins (it’s amazing how much jargon you learn!).

My oncologist then recommended a CT scan and a PET scan both of which showed up “dodgy bits” in my breastbone and the lymph nodes in my chest. At the time, I didn’t really understand the difference that made to my diagnosis but as the next lot of treatment would have been the same anyway, we went ahead with chemotherapy.

We also discussed the fact that I hadn’t had children and talked about options to preserve my fertility. My partner and I discussed it and decided not to take any of the options as they meant delaying chemo. I started my treatment with injections into my stomach to send me into a chemical menopause.

All together, I had 8 rounds of chemo, given every three weeks (FEC-T) and also started on infusions of Herceptin that went on for a year. I also had six weeks of daily radiotherapy to the remaining breast tissue and into my neck and I also started taking Tamoxifen tablets, (though I later switched to Exemestane). I stayed on the injections and tablets for 7 years in total. I used to say that I would rattle if I was shaken!

How did you feel through treatment?

The surgery wasn’t too bad as I was in a lovely, swanky private hospital with three course meals and a wine list! It was a bit scary having the anaesthetic though – and a bit weird coming round and finding myself halfway through a conversation that I couldn’t remember!

Going straight into menopause was also bit of a shock to the system. Overnight I developed massive hot flushes and sweats and felt like an old person when I tried to get up from the sofa.

The chemotherapy wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be but it did get worse as I went through all eight rounds. By the end of it, I had absolutely zero energy and felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My veins also decided to stop working so I agreed to have an operation to implant a portacath. This meant that the Herceptin could be given straight into a port under the skin in my chest which had a tube leading straight to my heart (sounds scary right but it definitely made life easier!).

My treatment went on for 7 years in total and I still take some tablets to deal with the after-effects of the treatment. After each type of treatment finished, I was worried about the cancer coming back as I felt like I was losing some protection they gave me. I still find the regular scans frightening though. I haven’t found a way to remove that ‘scanxiety’ completely but it is much easier with my Shine family around me.

Throughout treatment I thought that, once I was done with the main treatments, that my life would go back to normal. That never happened and when the hospital visits slowed down and treatments came to an end, I felt as if I had been abandoned to work out what came next. I felt like I was living in a ‘should be’ era – I should be feeling amazing that I’d come this far, I should be able to pick up my life from where it left off…. I am naturally a very positive person and I didn’t initially recognise that the feelings that I was having were of isolation, anxiety and depression.

It took nearly three years for me to admit that I was still struggling and to take steps to get help. It is not an understatement to say that my amazing counsellor, Kathy, changed my life completely. With her, I was finally able to sort through the mess of everything that I thought I ‘should be’ feeling and to talk through the experiences I’d had through treatment and beyond. At first I couldn’t understand how talking about it would help but it enabled me to face the anxieties I had been holding on to and to feel more empowered about my future, whatever that holds.

Tell us about your work with Shine

Throughout treatment, the “you’re too young” comments kept coming and the support groups that I attended were full of people showing me photos of their grandchildren! Eventually, I met the amazing Justine through a random breast cancer chat room. She was just a few years older than me and had also been through treatment for breast cancer. We met for coffee which ended up lasting four hours and I suddenly realised just how isolated I had been.

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Emma and Justine at the first Shine party in 2008

That meeting led us to start Shine (although we didn’t have a name!) and we decided that we should reach out to other younger adults with all types of cancers. In the first year we connected with over 100 people in Dorset and it felt amazing to make sure that other people didn’t feel as isolated as we both had. We had fun too, doing things that suited us (mainly bars and coffees!) rather than the standard cancer support group format. And thus, Shine was born….

Meeting Ceinwen in 2010 was the next brilliant coincidence. Ceinwen had been diagnosed with cancer shortly after having a baby (you can read her story here) and was looking to do something similar to Shine in London. We met for coffee, which again lasted 4 hours (be careful if we ever have coffee together!), and we realised that we had a lot of similar ideas about the lack of support that was available to younger adults diagnosed with cancer. Together we started work on the ‘Small c’ Project, the first research project in the UK to look at the needs of young adults with cancer. We then went on to develop a programme of activities and events that aim to meet those needs.

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Emma and Ceinwen with Shine Trustees Laura and Christopher

We also started setting up Shine Networks in other parts of the UK, giving people the chance to meet others in similar situations much more quickly that we had been able to.

The feedback and stories we heard from the people that Shine supported in the early days quickly made my career (banking – sorry!) seem much less important and certainly less rewarding. I eventually left my career in 2012 to fully focus on Shine. I have never regretted any part of that (despite the massive impact on my bank balance!) and absolutely love my job, even on a Monday morning – and at 2am on a Sunday as it’s not really a 9-5!

Nowadays, we are both still working hard to reach the 30,000 young adults diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK and to develop more programmes to fill the gaps in support that still exist for young people dealing with cancer.

What difference has Shine made to you?

Personally, I now have a huge network of people around me that just “get it”. I can talk to people about things I wouldn’t put on my “normal” friends. I also have people that also get the dark humour and the fact that you’re definitely not being ‘negative’ by talking about your funeral music or not planning too much for the future!

I love to feel like what we do makes a difference to peoples lives, and I still sometimes can’t believe what we have achieved in just a few years (mainly because I’m always thinking about the things that we need to do in the future!). In short, Shine has definitely changed my life for the better!

How do you feel now about your experiences? What‘s been the biggest change you’ve faced?

I’ve just passed my ten-year ‘cancerversary’, but the fear of my cancer returning is still there. Certain things still trigger the trauma of some of my experiences through treatment and I don’t think that will ever go completely. However, I am much more able to deal with the scary bits now and, of course, know amazing people who help and support me.

I don’t feel grateful for having cancer. Instead, I feel grateful that I have been able to channel my experiences into something that helps other people and also brings me personal joy and fun. I try not to stress over the small stuff and I honestly appreciate much more about the wonderful people that surround me.

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Emma in 2016!

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

This is hard! I felt invincible before I was diagnosed with cancer and I think most people in their 20s (or 30s or 40s!) feel the same way unless they have personally experienced something really scary. I’m not sure I would have taken my own advice anyway but it would probably be to appreciate the people around you and the things in life that actually matter – and to make sure that you are living the life that you want, not the one that is expected of you.

More information about Shine’s impact and our history, staff and Trustees can be found on our website here. If you’d like to get in touch, please drop us a line at hi@shinecancersupport.org. 

Life, but not as you knew it: Pregnancy, cancer and lights in the dark

There is never, ever a good time to get cancer, but having to face your own mortality while waiting to give birth to a new life is especially hard.  At Shine, we know a number of families who have had to cope with cancer while pregnant or shortly after birth. In our newest blog Hayley shares her story  of coping with bowel cancer while waiting to have her son.  It’s not something you read about very often (and quite frankly cancer and pregnancy seems like something that just shouldn’t be allowed!).  Take a read and let us know what you think.


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A heavily pregnant Hayley

My car keys made a nice, dramatic sort of jangle as they crashed to the floor. My purse too, made a satisfying crunch before skidding and coming to rest against the wall.

I must have made a dramatic scene: a large pregnant woman hitting the decks like that. Voices gathered in the darkness. Can we get her into a chair? Who is she? Can you hear me?

I heard myself protesting at being given a shot of morphine “I’m pregnant! I don’t want it”. The A&E staff were harried and unsympathetic; they hovered over me attaching lines, fussing and talking. A young doctor eventually presented me with a medical book to ‘prove’ pregnant women could have morphine if needs must. I didn’t try to read it.

The pain became more bearable and the scene came into focus. The A&E consultant came to talk to me. I told him I’d had bowel problems for years on and off….they kept telling me it’s irritable bowel syndrome (it’s not, and I still think today it is Crohn’s but that’s another story). He went off to look at his computer. They took a polyp from my bowel two weeks before and I hadn’t had the results.

I watched the doctor frowning at the computer, leaning in towards it as if getting closer would make what he was reading make more sense. He sighed, and came back to me and held my hand. And he told me: it was bowel cancer. Suddenly everyone who was looking after me changed. They all looked a bit sorry for me. They talked softly. They held my hand. ‘I’m going to die’ I thought and began to cry for my children and for my unborn child. How the hell could I be 32, pregnant and have bowel cancer? The world cracked and fell to pieces far too sharp to walk upon.

I was transferred to a ward where I talked to my surgeon to be. The colorectal nurse told me to go away and enjoy the rest of my pregnancy (because once I’d been induced early and had my baby, I was going to have a colonoscopy, be scanned, have a foot of my bowel removed and thus also be removed from my baby. And they wouldn’t be sure of the extent of the cancer until after the operation). So nothing to worry about then!

The rest of my pregnancy passed in a blur of worry, pain, Co-codamol and panic attacks.

One grey, rainy Sunday I became breathless. The out-of-hours doctor sent me to the hospital to be assessed and handed me a sealed envelope to take with me. It soon became a ripped open envelope: mmmm now lets see….differential diagnoses… Pregnancy normal symptom? Anxiety? Lung mets? LUNG METS…he wrote that?

All the way to the hospital I cried. I was certain it was lung mets and there was no hope.

But it wasn’t. I had to go through an x-ray (pregnant women can’t have x-rays) and a lung perfusion scan to make sure. I remember crying and one of the nurses talking to me about her mum who had died of breast cancer but had had nine years of fight before she succumbed. She had tears in her eyes as she told me the story. She gave me a bit of hope. She was pregnant too. I often wonder about her and am grateful for the way she treated me. They aren’t all like that.

One of the hardest things to take being a pregnant woman with cancer, was having to attend a million baby scans so they could keep an eye on the baby’s growth. Every time I had to sit in that waiting room full of happy expectant couples, texting their families on their phones ‘It’s a girl’ or whatever was torture. I sat there alone and scowled at the world. They had no idea what I was going through and I wanted to shout “I have cancer!” at the top of my voice and shock them all. I wanted to share my pain. You get some dark thoughts when you are in dark places.

The wait for the date for the induction of my labour was one of the hardest I have ever had to endure. The not knowing the extent of my disease, the worry about the operation, the impending separation from my baby tortured me day and night. There was no real life, only endurance. Every minute ached, every day hurt, every week burned.

Then we did it. We went through horrendous unnatural labour to meet my third child. We called him Monty. He is beautiful and is the light of my days. In those early days and nights at home I would cradle him and cry silently at the thought of being apart when I went into hospital for the operation. He was five weeks old when the date arrived. Another heartbreak. A deep, instinctual pain of separation: mother from newborn. It hurt so much I cannot describe it. My poor husband.

But time passes, doesn’t it. We endure pain, physical and mental. We wake up, we sleep, we cry and we smile. The next day always comes. I came home from the operation after five days in hospital. I ached all over, my bowels were not working in any shape or form, but I was going home. It was bliss.

They told me I was clear. I should have been relieved but somehow the reassurances were empty and hollow. I was numb. It meant everything but I felt nothing.

The story continues. More recent MRI scans I have found something on my liver – bile ducts that have closed off. The liver specialist thinks it might be PSC. It is not good news and there is no cure. PSC goes hand in hand with Crohn’s; tests for this are inconclusive and ongoing but I am pretty sure it’s there. More darkness.

The reason for my cancer was a genetic mutation, so I was always going to get bowel cancer at some point. Without regular screening and, at some point, having my whole colon removed, I will get it again. My children will have to be tested. It is possible they could share my mutation. Dark, dark, dark.

Hayley and Monty

Hayley and Monty

What I have gained out of all this is the knowledge that I can only do what I can do. I can only fight mentally. My body, the doctors, the scans will be what they are. The course of my diseases will be as they are, progress as they wish, all beyond my control. All I need worry about is my mind and how to keep it on the right path…acceptance, hope (but I’m a pessimist), openness, the making of new friends. Friends in the dark. Friends in my dark.

When it comes down to it, it is sort of alright to be in a dark place when other people are there lighting it a little with their stories, their struggles, and their smiles. I do not feel alone. And that is the biggest gift, to sit in the dark and be surrounded by shining lights.

 

Hayley is (nearly) 34 years old,a mum of three and a primary school teacher. She lives near Norwich in Norfolk where her 6 year old, 4 year old and 8 month old – together with a dog, cats, ducks and hens – keep her very busy!

Shine has a growing private online community that you can access via Facebook; many of our members have dealt with cancer in pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. If you’re looking for additional support with these issues, please also check out Mummy’s Star, a charity that provides information and financial support to families facing cancer in pregnancy and the first year after birth.

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.