Monday 24 December 2012

The grand plan.

Last Christmas was a weird one. Six weeks prior, if you remember, it had been predicted that I had ‘months, not years’ to live… which doesn’t half screw with your Christmas shopping. Suddenly, every gift took on an added pressure; a sombre significance; a something-to-remember-me-by meaning. And, short of buying everyone a 7-inch of Last Christmas, you just can’t find that kind of stuff on the high street.

Understandably, then, Christmas 2011 held a whole new importance; everyone’s carefully honed plans changing on the unspoken subtext that this might be my last. This year, I decreed, I must savour every moment, leave the organisation to others, and soak up enough seasonal spirit to see me through those I may miss.

Or at least it might’ve gone that way, had I not insisted on such perfection that I spent the average family’s entire Christmas budget on luxury wrapping paper, became obsessed with the symmetry of the lights in our front window, and stressed myself into gaining a stone in cheese. Of further frustration was that, ordinarily, I’d have had all my presents bought and wrapped by November (give me a break, I’m a Virgo) – but, oh no, not last year.

Thankfully, my family shook me out of Obsessive Christmas Disorder with days to spare, devising a rescue-rota designed to keep me away from anything even remotely organisational. Instantly, I had nothing to do but stare at the suspiciously present-heavy tree, chomp my way through all the toffee pennies and dress my newborn nephew in a series of daft outfits. And, of course, it worked. Christmas Day 2011 was indeed every bit as special as I’d hoped it’d be (no thanks to me).

This year, keen to avoid 2011’s mid-December ribbon-tying breakdown, I decided there was no shame to be had in doing as I always did and going turbo-Virgo; planning the hall-decking embarrassingly far in advance and beginning my shopping super early… which is precisely what I did, vowing that, since I’d dodged the ghost of Christmas future, I could revert to normal in 2012, having learnt the lesson that, in fact, any of my previous Christmases could have been my last, and it didn’t mean I had to go into screaming implosion over Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen.

Uncool as being the first to a festive M&S shopping bag may be, however, this year it proved simple good sense, given that the run-up to Christmas 2012 involved a meltdown that had more to do with pain than presents, a fortnight’s stay in Trinity Hospice (gawd love ’em), and the Gamma Knife brain surgery I’d previously mentioned on the blog (which, typically of The Bullshit, uncovered five more brain tumours than expected).

A quiet Christmas Day of just me, P and Sgt Pepper will aid the continual recovery from all of the above (most notably the latter – and, trust me, it ain’t half tough to get your newly-fried noggin around the seemingly simple things it suddenly finds difficult to do: walking without falling, looking at a screen without your eyes freaking right out of their sockets, remembering what you just did…), while a new stretch of chemo beginning on new year’s eve will hopefully alleviate the bracketed binds of this sentence.

But while I may have been forced into being cooler when it comes to Christmas this year; there’s been another worry on my mind over the last few weeks: my absence from the blog. Having spoken about it at length with my mate Jonze (who longtime readers may remember from this post), it’s become clear that things have got to change where my attitude to Alright Tit is concerned. Because, while I may have cured the something-to-remember-me-by, sombre-significance of all things Christmas, those worries appear to have inadvertently transferred themselves to all things blog. Where once I was afraid that a gift might be my last, now I’m fretting that the case may be the same for a post. Where once I was worried that every action must take on a new significance, now I’m fretting about every written word. What if I write my shittiest ever post and never get the chance to rectify it? What if being post-shy leads to another long absence from the blog that gets people worried I’ve… you know? What if the last ever sentence I write contains a typo, ferfuckssake?

As you might have guessed from the pre-Christmas several weeks of silence where the blog is concerned, these are the kind of troubles that can tie a lass in knots. And what’s even clearer is that I simply can’t go on this way, viewing a once-saviour of a strategy as a noose around my neck. It’s just not fair on me or the blog.

How things will change, I don’t know. That’s for the new year to reveal. (And I’m desperately open to suggestions on that front, by the way.) But I do suspect that the correct way to right my perception where Alright Tit is concerned is most likely to do just as I did where Christmas is concerned. Besides, it just doesn’t seem proper to turn something designed for enjoyment into something chore-like – particularly so when there’s a sleigh’s worth of specialists who’ve worked hard all year to prove that poisonous prediction of Christmas yet to come so gloriously wrong.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Not enough words.

‘Eh up, this must be bad,’ I said, as my clinical nurse specialist, head oncologist (that’s the Curly Professor, longtime blog readers) and his new registrar walked into the consultation room all together, like my very own three horsemen of a soon-to-be-revealed apocalypse. You see, after you’ve been at this cancer stuff for a while, you know the consultation-room drill: one registrar = good news; registrar + nurse = something to explain, but nothing to worry about; whole team together = DANGER.

And, if we delve into more complicated arithmetic, the sum of: whole team + clipboards + pasted-on smiles + prior waiting-room encounter with tilty-headed nurse (- prior waiting-room encounter with cheery, winking nurse) + a call the day before to hastily arrange said appointment (- a call the day before to say the scans looked fine) = pure, frantic, disastrous, spontaneous combustion. Which is exactly the kind of reaction that would have taken place, had the Curly Professor not met my cynical greeting with an intriguing: ‘Well, yes, it’s bad. But also, it’s good.’

And therein lies another thing you learn once you’re a seasoned pro of The Bullshit (a Bullshitter?): there just aren’t enough words to describe it all. ‘Bad’, for example, could mean anything from ‘you have cancer, but we can get rid of it’ to ‘I’m afraid we’ve run out of options’. Thus ‘good’ could be the ‘we’ve got rid of it’ or the ‘not to worry; there’s something else we could try’. And then, of course, of all the Not Enough Words, those available are either pitifully inadequate (chemotherapy isn’t quite the spa treatment it sounds) or worryingly onomatapeic – like the Gamma Knife I may soon be having. Back in the consultation room, then…

‘Lisa, there are a number of new tumours in your brain.’ 
He doesn’t beat around the bush, ol’ CP; one of the myriad reasons I love him so. ‘But they’re very small, so I can sort them,’ he said almost cockily, miming the shape of a Malteser, and interrupting the formation of an enormous ‘FUCK’ in the mouths of both me and my husband.
‘Honestly. They won’t be a problem. Perfectly treatable.’ (This is genuinely how he speaks. Unconventional, perhaps, but it’s a method that instils so much confidence in you that, were he to have a LinkedIn profile, I’d happily endorse him for the role of God.)
‘They can each be zapped in a matter of 20 minutes.’
P and I stared back as though he’d just proclaimed, ‘Now watch, as I make this clinical nurse disappear!’

‘Hang on, hang on,’ I said, needing to take this back to the beginning, recalling the location of my first brain tumour, in the meningeal layer protecting my now-frazzled noggin. ‘Are they in the brain, or on it?’
‘You said there were a few. What’s a few?’
‘And where exactly?’
‘Three are in the cerebellum, the other’s in the parietal lobe.’
‘Do you know where those parts are?’
‘Well, I saw that thing the other night on…’ I stopped myself before admitting to having watched Channel 4’s calamitous Drugs Live. ‘No, not really.’
‘I’ll write this all down for you,’ offered the registrar.
‘The cerebellum deals with balance; the parietal lobe with language,’ CP continued.
‘Have you had any problems with your balance?’
‘Well, I dunno really. I s’pose I’m always losing my balance. Even before the cancer.’
‘Right, well just be on the lookout for anything new.’
‘Okay. And the meningeal tumour?’
‘Exactly as it was. Still insignificant.’
There we go again. Insignificant. ‘Insignificant’ is the clinical term for the thing that shrank my prognosis from ‘three to four years’ to ‘more likely just months’; the thing that – thank goodness – has since been shrunk to the size of a Toffee Penny, and yet nonetheless frightens the very crap out of me every time I have even the slightest inkling of a headache; and the thing, funnily enough, that I was convinced had begun to grow again over these last few weeks. I’d steeled myself for it. I’d repeatedly run through the conversation in my head. I knew how this appointment was going to go. I’d even practised P in the likely list of treatment options available to us.

‘So how did the others…?’ I looked at P. His stunned, startled eyes were still stuck on the plurality of the ‘brain tumours’ revelation. ‘How did they even GET there?’ I imagined some kind of evil night-time sidekick of the tooth fairy, who, having been usurped by the Curly Professor’s conjuring of a once-sizeable meningeal tumour into the final remnant of a Quality Street tin, cruelly sought revenge by stuffing further confectionery into the gaps in my brain where ‘not falling over’, ‘walking in heels’ and ‘speaking French’ ought to be.
‘I’d expect through your neck,’ he mused, ‘Or via the disease in your skull. But that’s not important. What’s important is that they can be dealt with.’
P and I answered at the same time: he with ‘When?’; me with ‘And what about the other scans?’
‘Well,’ he said, casually folding his arms as he rested his back against the wall of the treatment bed on which he sat. ‘There’s good news and bad news on each of those fronts...’

At this point, I remember being more concerned by the lack of adjectives at CP’s disposal than the nature of the news. All these hopelessly clear-cut opposites to describe such an inexact science; it’s a wonder doctors can adequately explain what’s going on to their patients, let alone we poor buggers try to understand it. Surely the single accurate term in the entire sodding cancer field is that of ‘shadows’ on scans. The whole damn thing’s a ruddy great shadow, fercryingoutloud. There’s neither good news nor bad news. Neither black nor white. No perfectly all clear, nor put-a-date-on-it terminal. That’s what makes the whole thing so ruddy difficult to get a handle on; never mind explain to anyone else.

In which case, the best I can do is tell you that the ‘good news’ lies in the treatability of my brain tumours; the ‘bad news’ being that the correct treatment – the aforementioned Gamma Knife (sounds worse than it is) – is only available privately at the Cromwell hospital, and thus hangs on my local PCT signing off on funding. Which they of course will: I mean, come on – have you ever messed with an angry Midlander with limited time and a leopard-print walking stick? Besides, CP’s so convinced that he’ll get me a positive answer that he’s insisted (okay, recommended) that I squeeze in a holiday in order to stop me fretting about it. (Yes, P and I utterly worship him. And yes, we’re off to Malta this weekend.)

As for the good/bad where my bones are concerned, then (cue boring bit), there’s neither an enormously worrying difference in recent like-for-like scans nor a spike in my tumour markers (read: good). But (ah, where would we be without a ‘but’, eh?) the increased pain in my hips suggests that The Bullshit might be preparing to rev its engines again: hence the need for a ‘quick blast’ of chemo to sawht it aaht, pub-fight-style (read: bad). ‘Quick blast’ being the Curly Professor’s words, of course. ‘Two three-week sessions of the shit stuff over a life-pausingly monotonous six weeks,’ being mine. But hey, one man’s gold is another man’s getting smacked in the face with a water balloon full of cat piss, innit? And, as I dare say a fair few of you know yourselves, that’s just typical of the kind of terrain The Bullshit forces you to negotiate.

The contradictions get my goat as much as the definitions. Like being entirely convinced that there was a recurrence of the existing tumour in my brain, yet so heart-stoppingly shocked to hear that the problems were in fact brand new. Feeling so pissed off that my lovely, fun-filled treatment break is almost over, yet still ready for the next stage of the scrap. And then the absolute devastation of having one (nope, four) more motherchuffing, futnucking tumours to contend with – yet completely, self-assuredly, almost smugly confident that my curly-haired hero will save the day with his Bullshit-busting – if somewhat inadequately named – treatment plan.

It’s a bit of an odd gripe, I know. You might think that a bunch of contradictions, a load of opposites and a difficulty to find the right word might seem like daft things to worry about in circumstances like this. And you’d be right. They are daft. It’s just that, with so much new information to take in – right at the moment at which I hadn’t expected to hear any – it’s disconcertingly difficult to figure out how I honestly feel about all the good, the bad and the… y’know, the other stuff.

Monday 24 September 2012

Zen and the art of the air rifle.

Something very few people know about me is that I’m an Olympic-standard rifle shooter. I’ve never competed in the Olympics, of course – nor, in fact, have I ever competed at all, but the actuality that this sport is something at which I truly excel is something I just know, you know?

You may want evidence of this claim, in which case I’ll point you to the fact that, in all the rifle-shooting games I have ever played, I have NEVER MISSED A TARGET. Never. I’ve hit every single tin can, every single moving duck and every single bullseye on those theme-park shooting ranches where pissed-looking mannequins appear out of beer barrels. Heck, I’m even an Olympic-standard shooter for the digital age, having repeatedly gained high scores with my laser gun on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin ride at Disney. Oh yeah – I’m that good. 

I guess it’s just one of those things for which I always suspected I had a secret talent. As a kid, I’d spend an inordinate amount of time pondering all the undisclosed super-skills I might never realise: my world-class shooting expertise; the superhuman ability to dream future events; a heroic threshold for pain… (Turns out I might’ve blown the lid off the latter.)

And yet, such is life, it’s the things you’d never expect yourself to be any good at that tend to get you places. My astonishing ability to polish off a box of Cadbury’s Fingers in less than the time it takes to drink a cup of tea, for example, has got me a rather impressive thighspan. My dweeby attention to grammar got me into a career in editing. And then, just recently, a new-found aptitude for meditation has helped to get me out of a cycle of panic attacks. Yes, Old Self, you read that right: I’m meditating.

Before you get all rolly-eyed on me, writing me off as the kind of letdown who once swore she’d never enter into any of ‘that wanky stuff’, allow me to plead ignorance. See, I was kind of hoodwinked into it. What I thought I’d signed up for was some sort of physio-based yoga/movement/breathing type class (cos that’s not wanky in the least) …it just got a bit meditationy, is all. I didn’t even realise I was doing it, honest! I just went along with what my teacher told me to do, and when it got to the ‘now, slowly, open your eyes’ bit… well, it took me a while. And then I felt a bit weird, like I’d been daydreaming – albeit in a very concentratey way – so I turned to my teacher to find her looking at me funny.

‘What?’ I said.
‘Crikey,’ she said.
‘Eh?’ I said.
To which she replied something along the lines of: ‘It’s just… I’ve never really known that. I’ve never known anyone to meditate so naturally.’
I laughed, of course. I mean, she said ‘meditate’, ferchrissake! Haa.
‘It’s really quite incredible,’ she said. ‘Lisa, you’re a natural!’
At this point I assumed her to be just, y’know, making it up a bit – not in an insincere way, exactly; just to be ultra nice… because she genuinely is ultra nice, or p’raps because she feels a bit sorry for me what with the incurable cancer stuff and all, or maybe because she’s Italian and therefore probably just enthusiastic by nature. (You see what I mean? THIS is how I see the world. I’m the last person who should be a natural meditator.)

Only, it happened the next week. And the one after that. And the one after that. And then I started to wonder whether it might have something to do with the decrease in my panicky moments. At which point I figured I ought to start mentioning it to people.

I started with P.
‘I think maybe you should come with me and see for yourself,’ I said. ‘You were going to join me at Trinity one afternoon anyway [this being where my classes take place], so you might as well just come for the whole day and try it, too.’
It was a bit sneaky of me, really, because I knew he couldn’t say no. See, when you’re terminally ill, people tend not to disagree with you. Even those who are most likely to. I might’ve told P that I’d felt a funny presence in the old part of the building, for instance, or that I thought I’d started to see people’s auras – and where once he’d have told me to fuck right off, now he’d probably be a bit more likely to say ‘oh, really?’ and let me get on with it, albeit with a subtly raised eyebrow. And so along he came, to ‘experience meditation’, on what turned out to be such a beautiful day that we could do it outside, on a bench beside the pond. *sounds wanky-klaxon*

Stalwart that my husband is, he joined right in – but I could sense his awkwardness from beside me. Not in a feeling-the-force way, like – more a desperate-to-trump-on-a-creaky-bench kinda thing. The same happened when my Mum came along and gave it a go, though her unease was a little more audible, what with her needing to cough every 30 seconds, and my being distinctly aware that she was silently panicking about only being able to breathe out of one nostril.

They each agreed that the 45-minute session was ‘relaxing’ and that they ‘could see what I got out of it’, but – genuinely grateful that I was to them for coming with me, and gleaming with more than a little extra love that they’d given it a go – neither experience offered a eureka moment of ‘aha, I get it!’. And nor should it have. After all, I don’t ‘get’ Mum’s obsessive reliance on smelling salts to cure all ills, nor do I ‘get’ my husband’s insistence that he’s got the world’s fastest digestive system. (In the interest of fairness, I ought to note here that, on the day Dad joined me at Trinity, my meditation teacher was unfortunately away. Well, perhaps not unfortunately, given that I can’t escape the prediction of my old man piss-takingly breathing like Darth Vader beside me.)

So, alas – with the exception of my lovely teacher – meditation also remains the kind of secret talent that I’m unable to properly share. That’s fine, of course: I mean, my inner self isn’t exactly something I can wear on a t-shirt slogan, nor is it even that interesting, to be honest. (As Mark Vernon so brilliantly puts here – in the most succinct piece on meditation I’ve ever read – ‘it’s mostly pretty humdrum’.)

Which, I s’pose, is why – although I spend wayyy more time meditating than I do rifle-shooting – the latter is something I’m much more likely to blithely boast about; far happier, apparently, am I for you to see me as a gun-totin’ hotshot than a cross-legged yogi. Daft, innit? I guess it’s like Dad said after spying the book on the mindfulness of dhamma meditation that I’d taken on holiday: ‘I always knew you were a bit of a silly buddha.’

Monday 6 August 2012

A birthday wish.

Dear family and friends,

Later this month it’s my birthday. I’ll be 33, like a long-playing record, or the temperate at which water boils. Or, interestingly (/uninterestingly), the one age I’m likely to share with Sgt Pepper. (In cat years, like. I’m not 4. Just to clarify.)

Anyway, yes, birthday. There was only one thing I wanted for my birthday: to make it there. And, provided I can avoid getting sawn in half, tripping over boxes marked ‘TNT’, and keep away from falling pianos on the run-up to the 30th, I think we can safely say I’ve done it. So what else do I want for my birthday? (Aah, 33 years of ‘I want doesn’t get’ utterly wasted eh, Mum and Dad?)

Well, since you ask, there is something I’d like, please. (Pah, as if my parents didn’t drill politeness into me from the womb.) Just one thing. And it’s pretty simple. See, with my birthday in mind, I’ve been looking at my life in terms of the things that I need. Not the working-iPhone, Mulberry-handbag, three-pairs-of-Converse stuff, because I’m a jammy bugger who’s already got that covered that doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of it all. And so, what I realised I really do need, then, is to continue my life in the manner in which it’s currently being lived: sometimes expectantly, sometimes anxiously – but, ultimately, happily.

But where the hell can you find the wrapping paper for that, eh? Well, that’s kind of the point: I don’t want you to buy wrapping paper. Or, for that matter, a card. And more to the point, I don’t want (sorry – wouldn’t like) you to buy me a present, either. Because, as suggested in the above paragraph, there’s something I need a lot more instead.

As no doubt you’ve heard from me over the last few months, I’ve been spending some time – every Thursday, actually – at Trinity Hospice. (Yeah, I shuddered the first time I heard that, too. Turns out, though, it could easily rival Disneyland for that ‘happiest place on earth’ title. And if you don’t believe me, come along one Thursday and I’ll be happy to prove you wrong.)

It took a rather unadvised handful of anti-anxiety pills to even get me out the door on my first visit, so shot to shit was my confidence. But, as I later explained in this blog post, Trinity’s mobility-bus driver Mick, who came to pick me up, assured me that the happy-go-lucky girl I once was would be coaxed out again, with the help of the day staff at Trinity’s day centre, Mulberry Place.

Here we are: the Thursday club
Thursdays have since become the jewel in the crown of my week. I’ve benefited from physiotherapy, worked my way through some tough-ass psychotherapy (and some much gentler counselling), learned new skills and made new friends. And, granted, those friends are more than a few generations years older than me, but they’re mates in the truest sense of the word: we love each other’s company, we can talk about anything (and equally, nothing), we constantly take the piss out of one another, gossip like teenagers on a lunch break, we’ve got each other’s backs, and have each contributed towards the building of an enormously special dynamic. Seriously, if we weren’t all so bloody sick, we’d be the Avengers or something.

The aim of the staff at Mulberry Place is to “improve wellbeing by building the confidence of patients, families and carers; helping them to find ways to cope with what may be an uncertain and challenging future.” All of this care – both at Mulberry Place and Trinity’s in-patient wing – is provided free of charge, yet only one third of its funding comes from the government. Without the £6 million raised in charity every year, Trinity Hospice simply wouldn’t exist. (And £6 million is a heckofa lot to ask for a local charity.)

Which brings me back to my birthday, and my wishes for it. I’m lucky enough to have an incomparable husband, an exceptional family and truly wonderful friends. I have a lovely flat, with a wonderful cat and a fully-stocked fridge. I have the ability to work, enough money in the bank to keep me in Tunnock’s Teacakes (or, more to the point, mini Twister lollies – The New Tunnock’sTM) and, for now at least, I have my health. But despite the combined brilliance of every thing and every person above, when I found myself in a sickeningly depressing, post-treatment slump of terrifying uncertainty, only one thing was able to bring me back to life: Mulberry Place, and all the superbly rehabilitative, healing, restorative magic that goes on within its doors.
Thus when I said that what I’d like for my birthday is to continue my life in the manner in which it’s currently being lived, I’m sure you can appreciate how integral Trinity Hospice is to that. 

So, please: no presents or cards this year (I won’t be in the country to accept them anyway) – how about visiting the below web page and giving whatever you might’ve spent to Trinity Hospice instead? (Or, more specifically, to Mulberry Place, which is where I have asked that any money raised on this page be apportioned.)

There is, quite genuinely, nothing else I need… nothing except my Thursdays, and all the lovely things I already have in my life. So let’s save the festivity-type-stuff for another time, yeah? Maybe for when I make it to 34. Because hey, who wouldn’t want to celebrate being the same age as the atomic number of selenium, or the dialling-code for Spain, eh? 
Oh aye. 34. We’ll go mad then.

With all my love,
Happy-go-lucky Lisa x

PS: Obviously, not all of you reading this are in the circle obliged to know my birth date – and thus, of course, I absolutely don’t expect you to contribute towards my birthday fund for Mulberry Place. What you might like to do instead, however, is help me spread the word about how wonderful Trinity are, whether by sharing this post, learning a little more about the hospice via their website, or even by offering your services as a volunteer, here

To contribute to my birthday fund for Trinity Hospice, please click here

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Friday 27 July 2012

Lisa Jane.

There are two Janes in my life, one of whom you already know: my Mum. I suspect that, after one book and four years of blogging (four years!), you’d have a pretty good picture of Mum by now, but for those without the benefit of 49 months’ worth of my life story, allow me to paint a quick picture of the woman who brought me into the world, arse-first.

The first thing to say about my Mum is that she is utterly, unreservedly selfless. She’ll put anything off to help you out, when in a group she has an inability to make a decision just in case her preference doesn’t match with someone else’s, and she always makes sure she gets the burnt end of the lasagne. (Not that Mum ever burns her lasagne – it’s the stuff of legend – but you know what I mean.)

It’s probably also worth noting a few of Mum’s other qualities: like how she’s THE person you need around in a crisis to get things in order, yet has been known to descend into a full-on meltdown when she can’t lock the patio door. More than that, she’s dependable, almost embarrassingly kind, and I’m lucky enough to call her my very best friend.

One thing for which Mum has never taken credit – nor have I ever publicly given her credit – is that, for as long as we’ve been alive, she and Dad have surrounded both my brother Jamie and I with only the most excellent, upright, wonderful people; whether in family members, or the kind of friends that might as well be family members: something I like to think each of us has taken with us in our future choice of mates. And, by ’eck, it hasn’t half contributed to a happy life.

One such friend is the other Jane in my life – the Jane who sends funny cards on every possible occasion, who once warned the doctor investigating her piles that she might fart in his face (‘Why do you think I’ve got a swept-back hairstyle?’, he said), and who has – particularly over these past few years – become a cross between the daft-as-a-brush, filthy-joke-texting mate that everyone should have, and a surrogate mother on supply-staff hours. (Seriously, you should read one of our text conversations – you’d have yourself an immediate sitcom.)

While spending time with my lovely fam back up in Derby this week (part of the holiday from treatment and blogging that I’ve been enjoying so much I’m this close to crowning myself the Judith Chalmers of Cancer [see previous post for details]), I spent an afternoon with Jane and her gorgeous, soon-to-go-to-uni daughter, lapping up the sun in their garden while eating my favourite cob, crisps and cake (okay, cakes) from my favourite local bakery, Birds. (If ever I decide to move back to Derby, Birds will be the reason why.)

The night before, I’d wondered whether Jane might let me have a look at her wedding photos from 1983, when she married Russ, with me as one of her bridesmaids. Jane and Russ and my Mum and Dad were really good mates. They met through the cricket club my Dad played for and – given the many, many happy stories Jamie and I were told as kids that involved them – it was clear to us from the get-go that Jane and Russ weren’t just especially dear to our folks, but were bloody special too.

A perfect example of their mutual daftness was the night before my Dad was due to have a vasectomy, when there was a knock at the door. When he answered, he saw Russ driving away, then looked down to find two bricks and a note that read: ‘Save yourself 80 quid, mate. There was the time Jane and my Mum went to see Paul Young and a security guard searched Jane’s handbag to find six pairs of knickers with her name and number written on the gusset (all Russ’s doing); and the brilliance of Russ calling his parents to announce that he and Jane were coming round to announce ‘something important’… only for the expectant grandparents to open the door, ask Well, what’s the news?’ and Russ to answer ‘Jane’s made a trifle.’

They had such fantastic time, the four of them, all at an age with which P and I can identify – that poignant pre-and-post-30 time when everyone’s attention seems to be switching to weddings and babies and settled futures. The stories of their good times formed my earliest childhood memories – alas, I don’t remember many specifics; more the sheer joy that was in the atmosphere whenever this fantastic foursome got together, and the residual warmth that passed, osmosis-like, onto their children. Until Russ died suddenly, aged 30, leaving 28-year-old Jane with their 12-month-old son.

What happened next isn't my story to tell, but surely anyone with half a heart can attempt to fill in the horribly life-altering gaps. Rather, what I want to try to get across about my ‘other Jane’ in this post, is just how brilliantly, reasonably, admirably – and continually hilariously – she has continued with her life; much later marrying a wonderful man: a man who loved and appreciated and respected her so much that he simply couldn’t not make her his wife. Jane was taken completely by surprise, perhaps to a point where she didn’t really want to at first. ‘But I’m still married to Russ,’ she thought – a point she made clear to her soon-to-be fiancé: ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I will be your wife. But only if you can appreciate – and be happy – that I’m Russ’s wife too.’ And, of course, he did. And soon a daughter came along, completing a family that’s a normal and happy and brilliant as any family could be.

Once our cobs and crisps and cakes were eaten, we headed back inside, where Jane immediately produced her 1983 wedding album – without me even having to ask (something that tends to happen spookily regularly with the two of us).
‘Do you fancy?’ she asked, holding up the album.
‘Hell yeah,’ I answered. ‘But are you sure it’s okay?’
‘This is happy stuff, Lis,’ she said. ‘Why shouldn’t we remind ourselves of it?’ Damn right, too.

As we tearily and teasingly looked through the images of Russ, typically handsome in his suit, and Jane, pretty as a picture in her wedding dress and yellow bouquet, I clocked the yellow roses on the mantelpiece. ‘It would have been Russ’s birthday yesterday,’ she said. ‘I don’t like to take the flowers anywhere else, cos he’s not anywhere else. He’s here.’

I completely got it, of course: though our stories are very different, Jane and I understand each other in a way that nobody else can. Granted, she doesn’t know the details in full like Main-Jane Mum and the rest of my immediate family, but nor does she need to. Because Jane appreciates the acceptance one must begrudgingly come to after a tragedy. And – better yet – she appreciates that it’s perfectly possible to live a very happy life thereafter.

Friday 8 June 2012

A matter of time.

Ordinarily, when I’ve been away from social media for a while, it’s a sign that all is not well. As any of my mates will tell you, I have a somewhat useless habit of ‘going under’ for a few days (all right, weeks) when things are particularly shitty, generally waiting until someone forces the problem out of me before I do anything about it. This last month or so, however, has been rather different. My lack of Twittering or Facebooking or whatever isn’t the result of a turbulent period, but instead the result of that most glorious of time-fillers: normality.

It’s all thanks to my treatment break, of course: a timely, precious and enormously appreciated stretch in which my social activity is – finally – more actual than virtual. I’ve spent time back home with the family, been out for swanky dinners, seen more of my mates, had weekend escapes in lovely hotels, spent a gorgeous week in Spain (so gorgeous, in fact, that we’re off there again tomorrow), been to gigs, attended a lovely wedding, had my friend Ant from LA over to stay, thrown a Jubilee party… in short, I’ve squeezed in the all the life I wasn’t able to live while on seven months’ worth of chemo into seven weeks’ worth of chemo-break. It’s been bloody wonderful. And, given that this well-earned rest is teetering on a could-end-at-any-moment precipice, I’m buggered if I’m calling a halt to the fun just yet. Life, I’ve come to learn, is very simply about making time for happy memories and spending time with the people you love – and that’s what I’ll continue to do, until such a time as The Bullshit creeps back to piss on my chips, when I’ll scrap with all I’ve got to get back to this; the good stuff.

The only problem with such a situation, however, is that there are more demands on my time than perhaps ever before. And in these days of uninhibited openness, constant narration, candid diarising and ever-growing friendship circles – particularly through the likes of blogging and social media – it can prove tricky terrain to negotiate, and I’m conscious of coming across as the kind of person who uses those tools only in times of dire need, ditching them (and anyone associated with them) when things are looking up. The truth of the matter, though, is that – as an advocate of the sharing culture that social media has granted us – I want to let everyone in on the good as well as the bad. It’s just, I suppose, that when things are better, and you’re so desperate to drink it up, it leaves less space to do so, and hence just living takes precedence over sharing that living. And, you might say, quite rightly too.

Since we’re talking truths, though, there’s even more to it than that. Because, see, in this wonderful period of living, it’s not just my lack of time to share my narrative that’s making me look somewhat on the quiet side, but my lack of inclination. Since September last year, all I’ve had to think about is how I’m feeling, how long I’ve got, and whether my treatment is worth the trauma. But now, all of a sudden, those things – permanently etched into my mind though they remain – have been allowed to sit on the back-burner, gifting me time to think about the more important things in life, like what to buy people for their birthday, whether my nails match my outfit, and what to delete on the Sky+ to make way for more Jersey Shore …all of which have, on a number of occasions, taken precedence over blogging or tweeting or replying to Facebook messages or emails. In short, I suppose, where previously my brain’s been filled with Bullshit, now it’s filled with bullshit. And so it’s no surprise that where the cancer crap is concerned, lately, I just don’t want to talk about it.

I apologise if that’s a confusing message to send out, particularly when we all know that there’ll shortly come a time when I’ll have to (heck, want to) talk about it once more. Right now, though, I’m just so over it that I’m, I dunno, under it. Which, granted, is a bit on the ridiculous side when you’re supposed to be keeping up a blog on the progress of your health.

Another confusing message I may have sent out – okay, overused – is the one that goes thus: ‘Yeah, definitely! As soon as I’m on my treatment break...’ Talk about stitching yourself up, eh? Because, with the disproportionate amount of time spent in treatment than out of it, there’s only so many times you can come good on that promise – particularly when it comes to the friends I’ve never met; the folk whose virtual kindness has been so helpful to me through years of The Bullshit.

The odd person has become impatient with me – angry, even – as a result of this state of affairs, but what those virtual friends perhaps don’t know – where my real-life friends do – is how much of a knock my confidence has taken over the last few months. Where once I was poised and self-assured and perfectly fine when it came to meeting new people, now I only feel confident in the company of my very closest family and friends. Thus, when you add that side-effect to the lack of time in which I have to see my nearest and dearest before everything goes tits up again, the result is a lovely big dollop of guilt about how my treatment break – my timely, precious, enormously appreciated treatment break – is spent.

In many ways it’s classic me, this, isn’t it: finding stuff to fret about in the very period I ought to be fret-free, but old dogs and new tricks n’ all that. You might call it fatalistic; but I call it funny (albeit the sick side of funny). Because, hey – in the grand scheme of worries, these are pretty bloody lovely worries to have. And let me tell you, it ain’t half nice to know that, even after a months-to-live talk, you’re capable of going back to fretting about daft stuff like how much time you spend updating your Twitter feed.

So I do hope you’ll excuse me if I smirk my way back to Spain this weekend. But please don’t be offended if you don’t get a postcard, eh? Chances are I’ll just be having too much fun to write one.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Whaddya gonna do?

As anyone following our respective Twitter feeds will know, P and I watch a LOT of Sopranos. We came to it late (which, I’m trying to convince myself, is the new ‘I was there from the beginning’) but, since discovering its genius, we’ve fired through that box-set at a rate of knots. This latest run through (at which we’re a tantalising one disc from the end) is, I think, our fourth spin of the show – something which the Bing-uninitiated would consider a monumental waste of time, while fully-signed-up Sopranos soldiers just get it: they get the necessity to hone your New Jersey vocabulary; they get the extra attention paid to every recipe (so what, no fucking ziti now?); and they get the fact that, however many times you’ve seen a series, you’ll always take something new from it.

Granted, not all Sopranos-taught life-lessons are ones to jot down in your ‘ways to live’ journal, but recently I noted one Mafioso tradition that, in fact, makes a lot of sense to me... In ‘the business’, as soon as they discover the news of someone’s death, they immediately – instinctively – drink to that person. In fact, it’s such a completely normal occurrence that, wherever they may be – whether at home, at the office, in the car, or in front of the pork store – there’s always a bottle of something strong and a group of shot glasses (or, in the case of the car, a hip flask) ready for such an occasion. 
“A’ salut,” they say, clinking glasses in exactly that: a salute to someone dear. And good on them, I say.

It’s a thought I’ve revisited at least twice over the last week or so: first upon learning the awful, awful news that a dear friend’s ill baby girl had died. And then again a few days ago when it was revealed to me that my Twitter friend Ellie – and, more to the point, fellow cancer-blogger and secondary-sister, each trudging through terminal Bullshit as best we know how – had, after a short stay in hospital, been taken from us too, mere weeks from her wedding.

As tragic circumstances go, they’re both right up there in sheer horrendousness. And by heck, did I need a drink after hearing about each of them. But actually, sod what I need – because in truth, what I’d much rather have done was raise a shot glass – not out of alcohol-fueled relief, but in the bittersweet celebration of a life; an immediate opportunity to say, in spite of the tragically short lives in each circumstance, ‘Thank you, brilliant girl, for what you brought to the world’.

I suppose the real-life alternative is a cup of tea, though that’s generally just used as a receptacle to cry into; something to hold onto when you don’t know what to do next, let alone what to do with your hands in the immediate minutes after hearing shitty news. What I’m saying, I suppose, is just that I think it’s good, wherever possible, to somehow squeeze a thankful thought into the otherwise heartbreaking nature of ‘that moment’.

It was neither tea nor tequila that followed ‘that moment’ in Ellie’s case, however, but a hastily-arranged day-trip to Brighton with Kris and Francesca (two marvelous lasses in similarly shitty situations) – something we’d planned to do with Ellie this summer while Fran and I are on treatment breaks. And okay, it may not be the simple ‘salut’ I mentioned earlier, but it’s still an immediate tribute; it’s still a thank-you. (Plus, it’s got chips and candy floss. And it’ll all be done in honour of Ellie, in the spirit of Bullshit-ass-kicking we all share.)

Naturally, a haunting time has since followed, teamed up with a million panic-attacks and a million questions – did she feel okay towards the end; did she even know what was going on; was she happy with how it happened; where is she now…? But knowing that, immediately after discussing the news, Francesca, Kris and I were able to plan something positive has, I think, made the three of us feel like we’ve done the correct thing by Ellie, and – given the circumstances – the correct thing by us, too.

Of course, I have no more justification than anyone to tell a person how best to behave in ‘that moment’. Heck, the immediacy of grief is hardly something you can rehearse, is it, whether or not you’d ideally like it done a certain way. And so, please, I don’t want you to go reading too much into this post (but, y’know, don’t forget it either). I’m just saying… simultaneously recognising what you’ve had as well as what you’ve lost by saluting your loved one with a little snifter… it’s just a nice gesture, is all. 

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Coming out.

The day before yesterday, with my husband at work, I got dressed, picked up a set of keys and left the flat, shutting the door behind me. Y’know, that thing – that ordinary, mundane thing – that you do every day. Boring, innit? It says a lot about who I’ve become since my secondary diagnosis, then, that this most uninteresting of everyday occurrences was one of the most exciting things to happen to me in ages, given that leaving the flat by myself is something I haven’t done since – gasp – September.

The title of the most exciting thing to happen since then, however (well, the most exciting since the birth of my nephew), goes to something that, on the surface at least, seems infinitely more deserving – not to mention rather overwhelmingly unforeseen. I hinted at it last Wednesday when I tweeted an excitable missive from my chemo chair, promising a blog post explaining all very soon (apologies for the delay there, by the way – this last chemo is proving a right mofo to get over) so I’m chuffed to finally be in a well enough position to write the following sentence…

My treatment has continued to work – not just as we’d hoped it would work, but to an incredibly promising, shocking-my-oncologists level. 
Not bad eh?

And so to the science bit: through monitoring my blood every couple of weeks, we’ve seen that my tumour-markers (ie, those which show the amount of cancerous activity in my body) have continued to drop – at present, even, to normal levels. The MRI scans, meanwhile, have showed that the disease in my bones remains stable, with no new spreads to speak of (it’s almost impossible to judge whether there have been any small differences since the last scan, given the extremely extensive nature of Bullshit in my bones – it is, as we discovered in September, every-ruddy-where). The jewel in the crown of treatment results, however, is what’s been going on in my brain… You might recall that the last scan showed a small reduction in the size of the tumour on my meninges: something none of us were expecting to see, given that a right royal result for us, where my cancer is concerned, is mere stability: provided nothing’s getting any bigger, things are going well. Imagine everyone’s shock, then, when the latest scan revealed that, within the last three months, that tumour hasn’t just remained stable, but shrunk to a point where it’s only now visible as a thickening of the meninges. Or, to do away with the science bit altogether – where once it was a Kippah, now it’s a condom. Magic.

I expect it’ll have been the last paragraph – and not the first – from which you’ll have elicited the most excitement, and too bloody right… as impressive news goes, I’d challenge anyone to come up with something better right now. Me, though? I remain equally (if not more?) impressed with what happened on Monday. I don’t doubt that you think I’m a lunatic for thinking such a thing – admittedly, it is a bit on the daft side – but I have my reasons. In essence, it’s as simple as this: since becoming ill again, my life has changed to such an extent that, for the most part, I’ve become incapable of doing those ordinary, everyday things that most people do without a second thought: locking the door behind you, going somewhere alone, sitting in a café with a cup of tea…

The Royal Marsden’s incredible, ground-breaking strides in halting my Bullshit’s progress don’t, of course, change the eventualities of my disease – an incurable diagnosis is an incurable diagnosis – but what it does mean are two key things… 1) I’ve been granted that longed-for treatment break (YAAAAAAAAAAAY!) in the form of at least two months off chemo, lasting until such a time as The Bullshit inevitably begins to creep back; and 2) that, while nobody can say for sure, I’m hopeful – nay, confident – that the ‘months-and-not-years’ prediction might just have been flipped to a more lasting prognosis.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here, though, and instead concentrate on the meantime where, yes, there’s a social life to arrange and holidays to take (screw you, New York, I’m off to Spain) – but there’s also work to be done; work that rehabilitates me to a place where shoving a set of house keys in my handbag becomes as commonplace to me as it is to you. See, exciting as that moment was, it was also – I’m loath to admit – really bloody frightening, given how long it is since I did anything like that for myself. I’m coming to terms with the fact that, while being off chemo will hopefully mean less sickness and an increase in my energy levels, it unfortunately won’t make much difference in terms of my mobility (where my bones are concerned, the damage is done) – hence the new freedoms I’m hoping to enjoy will still have to come with a walking stick/wheelchair. But hey, leaving the flat with a stick is better than not leaving the flat at all, so I’ll do what must be done. The bigger hurdle to negotiate, as I discovered once I’d left the flat on Monday, is my confidence.

The plan was to spend a few hours with the lovely folk at the day centre of the wonderful, zen-like Trinity Hospice; the institution I’ve mentioned before who are charged with my palliative community care. Their driver, Mick, picked me up, listening empathetically en route like some kind of cabbie-cum-therapist about how long it had been since I’d come out alone, and how nervous I was to be doing something new.
‘So what were you up to before all this cancer crap?’ he asked.
‘I was an interiors journalist, in homes magazines and that,’ I replied.
‘Wow, what kind of thing were you doing?’
‘Oh – um, editing,’ I said, thinking how many worlds away that life seems. It almost felt like a fib, as though I were boasting about my A-level in German when, in fact, I can’t speak a damn word of it now.
‘Blimey, that’s impressive,’ said Mick. ‘You must’ve had to be really confident to do that kind of job.’
‘Aye, I s’pose I was,’ I admitted. 
Images of the Old Me pitching relaunches to editorial directors, encouraging advertisers to invest in long-term partnerships and filming for TV programmes flashed through my mind. Could anything have been further from the current picture, clasping onto my walking stick in the back of a specially adapted charity minibus, impatiently waiting for an anti-anxiety pill to kick in? ‘It just seems so long ago.’
‘Well, you’ve been forced to go to hell and back, love,’ said Mick. ‘And you’re only a baby.’
‘Hmm.’ I nodded, wondering what my Nan would make of her 32-year-old granddaughter getting so much use out the walking stick that she was once every bit as embarrassed by.
‘But we’ll get you right, y’know. You’ll get your confidence back.’
‘Coof, I hope you’re right, Mick.’

I don’t think I’d realised until then quite how much of me The Bullshit has taken. It didn’t happen overnight, obviously – my mobility had been taking knocks for a couple of months prior to my secondary diagnosis – but it was still pretty bloody rapid: one minute I was Me As I Want To Be, with everything going great; the next I was back to being a patient; a patient who could no longer get to the end of her street, who suddenly wasn’t allowed to drive, who had a limited time to live, and who became uncharacteristically anxious at anything from swallowing a pill to the prospect of socialising.

See, the first time around, The Bullshit stole its fair share: my tits, hair, ovaries, body confidence… This time, it seems, it’s come back to take the rest – in particular, the rest of my confidence. It’s the reason I have panic attacks when I find myself alone; the reason I’ve become even more averse to using the phone than I ever was (if such a thing were possible); the reason I’m only fleetingly on Twitter and barely ever on Facebook; the reason I’ve written less in the last few months than I ever have throughout my life; and the reason why something as simple as putting some keys in my handbag and leaving the flat alone has, pitiably, come to take on an Everest-conquering significance.

‘Ere, look,’ said Mick. ‘I’ve been doing this 16 years, so I know how it works. And I know that confident girl’s still in there somewhere. We’ll get her out of you, you’ll see.’
Thankfully – and I hope you’re listening, Bullshit – I’m not too far gone to think that Mick’s just blowing smoke up my arse. I reckon that girl’s still in there, too. Admittedly, she’s pretty bloody well hidden – not just by a kick-ass-disguising layer of uneasiness, but by several layers of oh-so-lovely chemo-weight (I mean, come on – the least cancer could do is make you thin, ferfuckssake) – but I know from my dedication to making this treatment-break count, my determination to get writing again, and my desire to make a permanent handbag-space for my house keys, that the more confident version of me hasn’t cashed in her chips just yet.

I can’t escape the reality that, along with the secondary diagnosis, my life has changed so much that it’s almost unrecognisable. But bit by tiny bit, I can – as I proved on Monday morning – claw back some of the old, locking-the-door-behind-me stuff that I miss so much. Yes, the two exciting occurrences of my past week might seem worlds apart in significance ­– but I’m sticking by the opinion that they’re equally important. Because to me, finally being able to do something like stepping out of my flat – not just after such a long time, but after such a monumental shift in the quality of my existence – feels every bit as celebratory as learning that a shrinking brain tumour has bought me extra time in which to enjoy life’s glorious mundanities.