Lean on Me

When I first had my cancer diagnosis I was gutted.  I remember so clearly driving back from hospital with my husband and actually wanting to just drive off the road.  It sounds dramatic, and it was, I had no idea how I was going to deal with this news.  Then I looked at the man next to me, who I love so much, and life seemed worth fighting for.  What I didn’t expect, was for my friends and family to rally round to such an incredible degree.  You are going through this horrible experience on your own, but at the same time, you are being lifted by your team, all of whom have a particular role in your new-found state.   Going through my treatment, I would call on each one for their particular expertise.  At the beginning, I wanted to give something back in return as I was so grateful, but in fact what’s important is to accept the kindness of others, and know that you will do the same for someone else when it’s they go through something horrible.  Each friend is important, but your core team will be there for you, each, in turns out, with a specific role.

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The StraightShooter Survivor

She’s already been through the treatment, and she tells it like it is.  It’s the person you call for practical advice from the moment you first find out, to the recovery period.  She doesn’t hold back, and will tell you all the gory details, preparing you for the realities of what you’re about to go through.  In my case, this was my friend Chloe, who was always at the other end of the line

The Dynamo

Immensely practical, this friend will come to your side to organise your day-to-day routine.  Cooking great batches of healthy food for the freezer, making freshly squeezed juices, cleaning the house, and making sure you get exercise every single day, even when you hate the idea.  My sister Ruth fulfilled this role – she was like a magic fairy, coming in to sort me out.

The Healer Expert

Your expert friend, who not only understands conventional medicine, but also food as a medicine.  I was really strict with my diet from the moment I found out, but not in a bonkers way.  Everything Andrea told me to do, I followed, but she wasn’t draconian about it.  Andrea’s basic rules are: eat hot foods during chemo and cold during radiotherapy; cut out alcohol, sugar, wheat, dairy and eat very little meat; and always put a Japanese pickled apricot in your belly button before chemo!

The Visionary

A couple of days after finding out about my cancer diagnosis, Clare drove up to see me.  She has tons of positive energy and knows me well.  She looked at every area of my life, where toxicity could have occurred – food, lifestyle, thoughts – and helped me vision a future for myself to help me get better.  Combatting cancer isn’t just about taking the medicine, it’s about reviewing your life, and taking steps to be healthy in all sorts of ways.

What struck me when going through this process was how kind people are, and for me the lesson was to accept that kindness, without having to return anything.  Your friends and family are there to support you, and you will do the same for them whenever you are needed.  They will all fulfil a different role, and your relationship will never be the same again, it will be stronger having been through this together.  There may also be a couple of people who let you down – this happened to me, and I was angry they weren’t there for me – but now I just keep them at a distance, it’s fine, but I know who my true friends are.

Nearest and Dearest

Many couples split up during an illness – it either strengthens the relationship or breaks it.  My mother reminded me of this when I first received the news (just to add to my collection of worries….).  It’s a very testing time, and one that I underestimated in terms if its effects on my husband until it was all over…..the treatment that is…

When I first had my cancer diagnosis, my husband was with me in the small clinic in South West France.  I was conflicted, as on the one hand this news is a totally isolating experience – you are facing possible death – then on the other hand you have someone there next to you who loves you, and will do anything for you.  You owe it to them to get better and come through this.  It is also a disease, which requires you to be pretty selfish – in a good way – you need to reassess your life, your habits, and make the necessary changes to ensure your well-being.  My husband had no choice to go along with everything I imposed – only healthy foods, very little sex (!) and constant trips to the hospital.  The balance in the relationship suddenly shifts – it’s all about you and getting better.  My poor husband didn’t get a look in.

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I knew he felt pretty helpless, we talked about it.  He was watching me go through this horrible crisis, and he wanted to do all that he could to support me, but for much of the time I was lost in my own thoughts, or just trying to deal with the day to day realities of chemo and radiotherapy.  My husband would make sure I was warm, make meals for me if I was too unwell, and manage my friends and family, with regular updates of my progress by phone/email/WhatsApp.  Particularly at the beginning I found it too stressful to speak to my close family members, even my own mother, as I knew the pain she was in hearing this news.  My husband was the one to break the news to everyone, at a time when he probably wanted to just curl up in a ball, he was always being the strong one for the two of us.  In addition to the emotional stress, there was the added complication of being in another country, and trying to get our heads around the French administration system.  He managed all of this side for me which was a huge relief, but an added burden for him.

The process was a mystery to the both of us, so even though we had a vague idea of what the side effects of post surgery, chemo and radiotherapy were, the reality was always a surprise.  Our day to day life fell into a routine of caring for me when I was too weak to do anything for myself, interspersed with visits from friends and family.  This was the only respite he had from the daily grind.  It wasn’t so much the physical strain caring for someone else, but the mental one.  What if I didn’t get better?

Everything came to the surface just at the moment I started to feel better.  My husband was still in caring mode, and couldn’t judge how I was feeling and was used to me being ‘the ill one’.  It was at this time that his mental and physical reserves hit rock bottom ‘I’m just running on empty’, he would say to me.  I then started to receive messages from friends and family asking whether he was okay – they were clearly seeing things I wasn’t.  Finally, when his adult children came to stay, it came to a head.  He was stressed, and had a short fuse, and was upset when speaking to other people.  Something had to give.

What was strange was that I knew I couldn’t help him.  His distress was about me, and he needed to talk to someone other than me, which in a relationship when you’re used to sharing your feelings, is a strange position to be in.  Eventually we found a therapist to speak to, after a bit of cajoling from me and his children.  It seems to help.  Sometimes people just need to off-load.  The experience has been very trying for both of us, but thankfully it’s brought us even closer together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letting Go

Just at the point when I started to feel better after my breast cancer treatment, I became aware of incredible tension in my shoulders. It’s been six months since my last cancer treatment, and I’m feeling pretty strong, but this next challenge arrived when I thought I could finally relax.  The sensation is something like the image from the film Black Swan when the feathers are trying to break out from under the skin on her back.  As a metaphor it’s pretty powerful  – renaissance, phoenix rising, letting go – and that’s how I try to think about it.  The reality is pretty uncomfortable as it’s hard to sleep at night when every turn is painful.

Breast cancer is no longer in my thoughts and discourse all day, but there is always a residual fear that the cancer will come back.  I am no longer ‘carefree’ – I am monitoring my health like a hawk with the added stress that this mysterious illness can be silent.  The tension has manifested itself in my shoulders, like a soldier after the war has finished but still in fight or flight mode.

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The upper back and shoulders is a classic area for people to hold on to tension and stressful thoughts.  I could hardly move in bed because of the tightness.  I craved to be massaged.  I also knew I needed to cry.  I was crying over small things – watching the news, listening to a song, imagining the pain of others, but it wasn’t enough. My theory is that once I release this tension through crying, I will be bien dans ma peau (comfortable in my skin) again.

I looked for sad films, but my tears would only last for a short period of time and the tears never felt powerful enough.  Then I remembered a mantra given to me by my friend Robin, which is also called The Crying Prayer – Vajrasattva.  Every time I listened to this, particularly the version I would burst into tears.  I have also been doing Yoga with Adriene – a series of yoga programmes which are seemingly guaranteed to make me cry.  She has specific routines for upper back and shoulder tension, which are fantastic.  I also have a physiotherapist who massages this area too.

What’s happening in my upper body is a physical manifestation of the psychological tension I have felt throughout this process.  I’m hoping that as my body heals, my mind does too.  I keep thinking of those feathers trying to burst out of my back…..wish me luck.

Animal Magic

If you’re a dog owner, you’ll know that their particular needs and wants usually come up high on the list of house priorities.  This is even more true of terriers, a breed which is generally pretty independent and not a ‘human pleaser’.  They’re much more concerned about, in no particular order, walks, food, and playing.  Then something happens when you’re ill, your feisty little dog becomes the perfect companion.  It happened almost straight away.  I’m not sure whether he could smell the cancer – certain breeds can do this – but they definitely know that you need their support.IMG_1586For almost a whole year, my dog Sammy followed me around everywhere, he lay on the rug next to my bed, sat next to me on the sofa, and generally behaved as if his most important job was to comfort me and help me get better. I will never look at him in the same way again, and every time he is naughty I remember his incredible kindness, and generally forgive him everything!

The cat didn’t fare quite so well.  Just before my diagnosis his skin started to get really bad.  Endless trips to the vet didn’t resolve the issue.  In my darkest hours, he started to look even worse – scaly skin with open sores and threadbare fur.  He almost became a physical representation of what was going on inside my body.   When my friend Christine came round – a Fire Prayer healer (see previous blog) – she explained that the cat was absorbing my illness to help me, and would get better once I started to get better.  She placed her hands on the cat to try and relieve its skin discomfort.

It’s been a year now since the beginning of my breast cancer treatment, and six months since it finished, and the cat is now looking like a normal cat again – he’s regained his weight and his fur is looking shiny and healthy again.  Did it absorb my illness?  If he did, I am so grateful to him.  He had just been an outdoors cat who had arrived in our garden looking for a home – given his selfless acts, he now has special status in the house!

Never underestimate the intelligence and sensitivity of your furry friends!

 

Banishing Evil Spirits

There are lots of healers in South West France – it’s very rural and the traditional methods of healing are still very present.  My neighbour Evelyn who has had terrible back problems had seen a healer in a nearby village, and the results had been pretty miraculous.  I had a lot of tension in my upper back following  my treatment, so I thought why not.  But rather than a quick back rub, I ended up receiving what was akin to a full-on exorcism.

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The healer lived in a farm house down a small back lane.  When I arrived on a swelteringly hot August day, the men of the house were all taking their post lunch nap before going out into the fields again.  I was welcomed into the house by the old lady and invited to sit down at a large table.  I explained that I had had breast cancer, and I was concerned it would come back, plus I had lots of tension in my upper back.  She picked up a pendulum lying on the table, blew on it, and then held it over my breast area.  The pendulum began to move, and she announced everything was clear.  She then stood behind me as I sat on the chair and began to massage my neck and shoulders for a few minutes.  There was a silence and I wondered if it was all over.  I hadn’t really felt anything, and was mentally preparing to leave.  At that moment, as if she could read my thoughts she said: it’s not over yet.  She picked up her crucifix and stood behind me as I sat on the chair.

Our well diviner (see previous blog) had already explained to me that my cancer was most likely due to geopathic stress (our bed was in the wrong position), or that bad spirits were attached to me, so as I’d already dealt with the energy lines in the house I guess I needed to cover all my bases to make sure there wasn’t anything evil attached to my body.  The healer proceeded to say a prayer over me, and asked me to take her hand and walk back and forth across the room in the holy spirit.  What was remarkable was when I did this there was a cool breeze even though it was baking hot outside with zero wind.  She then asked me to sit back down and called out for the cancer to be gone, and for any evil spirits to leave my body.  This went on for around fifteen minutes with the crucifix at my chest. There were no dramatic moments, but I did feel perfectly safe, and was grateful for any help she had given me.

Following on from this, she then asked if my breast area was still hot from the radiation. Had I received the Fire Prayer?  I explained that I had, but she told me it hadn’t been done properly.  She then held her hand just above the breast area, and recounted a prayer over and over.  Occasionally she would make a sharp movement with her hand as if she was shaking something off.

I spent almost two hours with the lady.  She told me to come back if I needed some more help, but that I was perfectly fine.  The only thing she did suggest was to take Propolis a by-product from bees with healing properties.  She wrote the name of a farmer who lived in a village not far from me, but would only pick up the phone at 6pm when he’d finished on the farm.  At the top of the note it said ‘Tell him Delphine sent you“.

Bath Time

If you have a bath, the chances are you don’t use it very much.  Most of us are in a hurry and so jumping in the shower seems much more efficient.  But going through cancer treatment is a time when you need to focus on your wellbeing 100 percent.  Before the chemo started I wanted to be able to use the bath as a refuge, somewhere to relax and unwind – something which I’d forgotten how to do.  Bathing in the water is really good for the body and the mind – I needed its restorative powers as I went through what was going to be a really challenging time.

pexels-photo-105934.jpegI knew I was going to have zero energy after my chemo started, so I made sure I cleaned the bathroom, and set it up as a little bathing retreat.  My friend Clare bought me a little headrest pillow, I got the tap fixed (the thermostat had been broken for about four years) and I made sure the fluffiest towels were at my disposal.

The bath become a place to relax after each hospital visit to literally clean out the toxins mentally and physically.  Before getting into the bath, I would use a dry skin brush on my body, to help flush out the nasty chemicals and to improve my skin.

When you have a cancer diagnosis you need to be very careful about which bathing products you use, as you don’t want anything which contains harmful chemicals.  I used natural soap to clean my face, and that was it – skin has a tendency to dry with chemo, so it’s best to guard whatever natural skin oils you have, not strip them away.  I used to put Epsom Salts in the bath, which are are great detoxifier help after each chemo session to flush out the chemicals in my body.  Epsom Salts are from England, but any natural bathing salts will probably have the same effect.  They also have the added benefit of softening your skin – as the chemo progressed, I had an itchy rash on my head, where the  hair had fallen out, and also on my body, particularly on my arms.  Before cancer, I would regularly put moisturiser on my body after having a bath, but during the treatment I wanted to keep all my pores open without any blockages, so using these salts really helped to keep my skin soft.

I also put a little Bluetooth speaker in my bathroom to listen to music and guided meditations.  Spotify have lots of meditations, including Deepak Chopra’s. They help you to relax, think more positively, and help with sleeping, which was becoming a real problem for me.  Part of the meditation also includes breathing exercises, so you’re really oxygenating your body too which helps with the healing process.

This is just a little something to help to get you through a really awful process.  I’d forgotten to take care of myself, and the simple pleasure of lying in a bath really helps you to relax, and also clean you out your mind, body and soul.

Phoenix Rising

I really didn’t want to have chemotherapy.  Not only did I not want to lose my hair, but I didn’t believe in it.  Surely something which was going to damage my immune system and kill healthy cells was going to poison me, and in the long run weaken me, making it more likely that I would have cancer again.  It was all so quick, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so I had to put trust in my surgeon, who did seem to know what he was talking about, yet I still struggled with the idea as the day drew closer, especially as I had been told this treatment was just ‘preventative’.  On the lead up to my first treatment, I talked to friends and family, and would often use the word ‘poison’.  I clearly had an issue, and I knew this type of language was not going to help me get better.  So there I was, stuck between a rock and hard place – my gut said, ‘don’t do this’, and my head said, ‘you don’t have a choice’.

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I have a clear memory of those first few chemo sessions.  I was hysterical.  I entered into the ward, and saw lots of very sick people around me – grey, no light in their eyes, and weakened bodies.  What on earth was I doing?  I didn’t belong here and I was going to become one of ‘those people’ and my life would be over.  I cried hysterically, so much so, they sent the psychiatrist in to see me.  They wanted me to take anti depressants, but to my mind, it was perfectly understandable that I was upset, and anyway I didn’t want any more crap in my body.  I also hated the port that had been put under my skin and made me look like a robot.  It gave easy access for the chemo drugs directly into my veins, and is something which usually stays in the body for two years.  I couldn’t stand looking at it- not only did I look like some sort of futuristic robot, with a large implant under my skin, but the idea that I could just be plugged into the machine was a dystopian  nightmare.

So what to do?  I knew it was important to believe the treatment was going to make me well, but as it was ‘preventative’, it was very hard for me to get my head around the idea that this was helping me.  My friend Andrea, a medical doctor with experience of cancer care told me to imagine the chemo as if it was little particles of light cleaning my body.  When I was plugged into the machine, I should try to meditate on this, rather than the idea I was being poisoned!  My dialogue (inner and outer) focussed on the idea of re-birth, a renaissance, phoenix rising – I was going to come out of this stronger, fitter and with purpose.  This gave me the strength to get through it, and rather than be a victim of cancer, I was going to try and turn it into a positive.  So, over time I came to accept what was going on (or was so weak, I didn’t have the energy to fight back!), and I also became far more empathetic to the people around me in the hospital – rather than thinking of these people as ‘the other’, I felt we were all in this together, no matter what stage we were at.

One day I shared a room with a lady who was wheeled in on a trolley.  She was literally wasting away – she could have been 40 or 80, it was impossible to tell.  I remember the two ambulance men (built like rugby players) lifting her gently onto the bed, and then with immense kindness one of them placed her soft slipper back onto her foot.  Later in the day a nurse came in, and spoke to her in a calm reassuring voice, and on leaving kissed  her on the forehead.   With these gestures I was struck by the humanity of all the staff  – it outshone the treatment and it helped me to face this terrible challenge.

I still find it difficult when I read things about chemotherapy and the lasting damage it can do, but all the dreadful side effects are slowly melting away, and I’m hoping my positive frame of mind is helping my body to make a full recovery.