About a year ago I went to the Pyrenees with my husband for a walk to try and digest the bad ‘cancer’ news. On our journey we passed a stand at the side of the road selling bee products. We always try and find good quality honey, but this man had lots of other bee products, including Royal Jelly and fresh bee pollen. He was a lovely man, who was passionate about all things bee-related, and was clearly a bit of a star in the bee world as there were several media cuttings around the stand. My lasting impression was someone very kind, and other worldly, happy in his bee world. I duly took the pollen each morning, for energy and for my digestion, a large tablespoon taken with a teaspoon of honey. I also took a tiny amount of Royal Jelly on the tip of my tongue, to keep me strong for the impending treatment.
Bee products appeared in my life again, after my exorcism (see previous blog), Madame Dargelos told me to go and see Mr Pont for some Propolis, another bee product, to complete the treatment. I kept the small handwritten note, and decided to make the trip when I was in the area. Months passed by, and then after an invitation to a book club, I remembered Madame Dargelos’s recommendation. I dug out the crumpled piece of paper which had been tidied away, and then called Monsieur Pont for an appointment. He seemed quite irritable, and I had to repeat myself several times to make myself understood.
The day arrived, and I was slightly apprehensive, partly because I wasn’t sure I would be able to follow his directions I’d hastily scribbled down. Miraculously I arrived, on time, to a typical French house in the middle of a small hamlet. I knocked at the door and was invited into the front room of his house, with a roaring fire, and a motionless dog in its basket. Monsieur Pont was an elderly sprightly man with twinkling eyes. He explained that he gave everyone a half hour appointment so he could explain what the product is and its benefits. He also had a list of tariffs pinned to his wall, with old franc equivalents alongside the euro amount. I explained my situation and he asked me how many chemotherapy sessions I’d had. Apparently 12 is relatively low, so I should only take the Propolis (a by product of the hive with bee saliva mixed with alcohol) for two months only. It would help to bring my red blood count up, and strengthen my immune system. He then began to show me a large book of letters received from his clients over the years, with miracle results for various maladies, including cancer.
Before I left he asked whether Madame Dargelos had told me his age. I said ‘no’, so he asked me to guess…..always tricky – I said ‘definitely over 80′ – his eyes sparkled and he replied ’94’. I asked what his secret was, he said it was the Propolis. Over 80 years old, your body needs more strength, so he’s taken it morning and night for 14 years. I wondered who he was passing his knowledge onto, as I feared it would be lost for future generations. It also reminded me about the importance of bees in the world, not only are they pollinators, but apparently healers too.
Monsieur Pont gave me a warm handshake, after asking me to write my name, village and phone number down. ‘It’s so I know who is calling’ – the phone had rung at least four times whilst I was there, people wanting his advice and appointments, some of whom included local doctors, another apparent norm in this corner of France. I left with my bag of bee products with a warm feeling – this really is a magical part of the world.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.For 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!