74. The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

This particular blog has been prompted by several people (including book reviewers) asking exactly what my attitude is to Big Pharma considering the rubbish press I give it – and that Oh! Look! It saved my life! Have I chosen to forget that bit, and all the millions of pounds that find their way via research grants and past local authority budget cuts into fantastically expensive treatment regimes like the one that saved my life? And, incidentally, that I didn’t have to pay for? Absolutely not, and trust me, if you ask that kind of a question you had better get that coffee/glass of wine right now, because the answer isn’t simple. It is, however, something that I am totally passionate about, and as I am apparently appearing to be biased against the system that saved my life, it seems there is a bit of clearing up to do.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is utterly terrifying. I know this because a) I had one and b) other people tell me about theirs, and they were just as terrified as me. For the fortunate few who are given a ‘wait and see’ approach to treatment rather than ‘we need you in tomorrow’, there is oodles of time to think about whether you want to risk dying of something else before the cancer gets you, or maybe do a bit of research into other ways of dealing with it. There are also the unfortunate souls who are turned away because there is nothing that can be done, and they are in a class all of their own. One where there is no teacher and no rules and they can do the wackiest things ever because there is nothing else that can save them. And nobody can take potshots at them for trying those weird and whacky things.

Right back at the beginning of this blog (Jan 2013) I said that I felt as though I had taken a wrong turning; I pushed open the door I thought was marked Health Club and ended up in a cancer ward. Whaaaat?! Alternative to my very roots as far as medicine goes, if there was something other than a prescription drug I could take to sort myself out, I would find it – so you can imagine how I felt when faced with an extremely toxic treatment regime that could kill me. They don’t bother to hide that bit by the way – it is listed as a side effect on the forms I had to sign. (That was a whole blog in itself – Blog #30 should give you a good laugh.) The lymphoma I was diagnosed with (Mantle Cell Lymphoma) had an aggressive proliferation rate of 90% so there was no time to sit around meditating and wondering what to do next, although TBH that is my preferred reaction to problems. In this instance I leapt straight into treatment because at these moments there is a split-second decision about whether to cash in one’s chips or attempt to stay around a bit longer and see the second half of the show. I decided I wanted to LIVE and that decision was made at a very deep level. In fact it wasn’t even really a decision, it was more a gut reaction, more like ‘WTF are you playing at? I’m not finished yet, in fact I haven’t even really got started.’

So that was that, and that was how I ended up with horribly toxic liquid pulsing through my veins at ungodly hours (lots of blogs on that too). In fact my lovely consultant Joe admitted, nay, apologised for the fact that the treatment is barbaric, but it is all they have just now. It might appear that I was in fact stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea as I could have died with either option, drugs (possibly) or the cancer (almost definitely), and I had to choose one of them. But once the shock of it all wore off I came to see that there was a middle way too. Just like those crazy rope bridges I would never go across, that stretch across canyons in countries I will never see because I hate bitey things, there is a strand of hope in all this. It would have been very easy to hang up my usually optimistic nature and put my whole life in someone else’s hands, and basically give up any responsibility for my own health. When I baulked (cried actually) at the proposed treatment schedule, which included 5 days in hospital every 3 weeks and at least a month in isolation, Joe said that in taking six months out for treatment and placing myself in their hands, I would hopefully get the rest of my life back. I’m not good at betting, but that seemed reasonable odds so I did actually put my life in their hands. But I kept a tiny bit of my spirit back for me. Because for me that rope bridge symbolised something that could get me back to health in better shape than would be expected from the treatment I was facing, and I had to have something to hang onto.

At this point I was writing regularly on the blog about trying to reconcile my ‘Alternative’ me with receiving toxic drugs, to which I was naturally extremely hostile, as they were delivered through the drip. And it doesn’t really drip, BTW. There is a horrible sort of thrumming vibration which feels awful. Well mine did. Anyway, in return I was getting some interesting comments. It seemed the more alternative of my readers were stunned that I was resorting to the much hated Big Pharma and that I should somehow be strong enough to fight this on my own (yes, really) while at the opposite end of the spectrum others couldn’t understand my need to explore diverse avenues to support my increasingly beleaguered system. Vitamins? Aloe Vera? Juices? What was I thinking? Where on earth did I get those weird ideas from? Actually, there were some pretty hurtful comments in recent reviews of my book, and they made me really cross. Why do people feel there is only one way, and that science is king? I believed, and still do, that there are literally loads of ways to support myself in any situation, and quite a lot of them are unsupported by science.

Oooh. There we go. The elephant is finally out from behind the curtains. I don’t actually care whether the science has decreed that arnica helps bruising, or that vitamin A will help to prevent chemo-induced mouth ulcers, or whether meditation helps people heal, or reflexology helps to clear toxins from the system. If it works I will use it, and I trust my body to tell me whether something is good for me or not, and I expect, in this first-world country, to have the luxury of that choice. I strongly resent being dictated to by a big authority (insert whatever is appropriate for your country here) that prevents the easy acquisition of herbal and homoeopathic medicine for political or financial reasons. Surely what is important in all of this is that we get back to, and maintain good health without further medical intervention, and that is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s culture of over-prescribing of drugs and adulterated food. Which is where my Facebook shares and Pinterest posts come in.

There might possibly have been a time, long ago, when I believed that governments and pharmaceutical/agricultural companies were working in our best interests, and that doctors prescribed drugs that really would help, but this is quite clearly not the case any more (if it ever was). And this is where the Internet really is a blessing, and I am determined not to get overly political here. It is pretty easy to do some research and uncover possibly more than you want to about almost anything these days, and sadly I have come to see that I was even more naïve in the past than I realise, especially on the medical front. I was sceptical before I was ill, but once I was in treatment my eyes were well and truly opened. I was astonished at the container load of drugs I was given after every cycle to help counteract the effects of the chemo, and then when I felt bad from those I was given more drugs to counteract the side-effects they caused. It just went on. I very quickly decided to take matters into my own hands and used a whole load of remedies and herbal teas (see the Vits, Tips and Resources page) whilst weaning myself off the majority of the drugs (and yes, Joe knew all about this), and started to feel a whole lot better for it. For instance, I was prescribed Omeprazole to help line the extremely sore stomach I was suffering due to the chemo. But I was doubled up in pain with stomach ache so it was suggested I double the dose. I tried that but the pain got worse so I was given pain killers, then a light pinged on in my head and I looked up the side-effects of Omeprazole. Yup. Side effects include stomach ache. So they give a drug for stomach problems which causes stomach ache, so another drug has to be used to counteract it. Clever, huh? Instant doubling of profits, from what I can see. A quick Google for ‘stomach ache with chemo’ revealed that L-Glutamine is incredibly gentle and very supportive of a trashed gut, which I had by that time. We belted to the nearest health food shop, and I kid you not, within 20 minutes of drinking that precious liquid, I was pain free and standing upright. Joe was fascinated and really interested to know that I was 2 drugs short of a prescription at that point; he is one open-minded consultant (thank heavens), but why is it seen as rocket science? At every appointment after that, his first question would be, ‘So what are you taking?’ He loved it, and was pleased I was doing something constructive to get myself well again. THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE, PEOPLE!

I am incredibly grateful to have been given another crack at life due to the drugs I appear to be rubbishing. But this is it – I’m not rubbishing the results of the hard-working and dedicated scientists whose work has saved my life. Science, without doubt, is wonderful, but it becomes something else entirely when combined with politics, money and profit margins. I am angry firstly that the cancer I had appears to have been caused by pesticide (hence the Monsanto posts) and secondly that drug companies have made millions by making the drugs to cure people of diseases they should never had got in the first place if they were eating decent food (hence the Big Pharma posts).

I am absolutely and totally passionate about combining the best of all worlds to cure diseases like cancer using what is now thankfully being studied, researched and openly referred to as Integrative medicine – which treads on an awful lot of toes as it combines conventional medicine with complementary therapies. There is a very long way to go with this and the fight will be a tough one, because Integrative medicine includes delicious stuff like mindfulness, aromatherapy, a decent diet, and many things that don’t create profit for big companies. The massive push to debunk anything that hasn’t withstood the rigours of trials isn’t to protect our poor, gullible selves at all – it is protectionist in the extreme. A little bit of research will reveal that the trials are usually funded by the companies that make the drugs, which renders the whole procedure totally pointless, but as we have discovered, these companies have deep pockets and will do whatever it takes to hound complementary medicine out of town.

That soap box was out for way too long, and it would be tempting to show you my entire collection, but I promised not to get too political, and this isn’t the place for it anyway. If you are interested in learning about the way we are being manipulated through the food we eat and the drugs we are told we need, there is an awful lot of stuff out there – you only have to look, or follow my posts. And maybe read something like The Seven Deadly Whites by Karl Elliott-Gough. Your eyes will be well and truly opened.

So – the goodie bag to take away from this particular party is that we have to fight for our freedom of choice, because it is threatened at every level, and awareness is the key in all this. We have the massive gift of the Internet, which makes communication easy, so news can travel fast – and we know more about what is going on, at just about every level, than ever before. Whether it is the TTIP agreement, Monsanto’s latest tricks, or mis-information about drugs, we need to stay alert.

Our bodies, our health, our responsibility.

Margaret xx

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73. About Time

I have been waiting and waiting for the right moment to post a new blog; waiting for some kind of lull, or even a tiny pause in the continual wave of emotions that are my reactions to massive world events way beyond my control. But there hasn’t been a lull, or a pause, or anything even slightly resembling a moment to take a breath, so clearly that is what I need to be writing about.

Overloaded? I know I am, and I’m sure I’m not alone. These are strange times indeed, the like of which I never even imagined I would witness in my lifetime, and I am having to resort to the survival tactics I learnt during my illness in order to stay even slightly sane. And in doing so I am reminded that  this actually is it. This is the life we have at the moment. The one where we see pictures on Facebook we really wish we hadn’t, or hear news of another atrocity or act of violence, or witness crazy politics nobody understands or wants to be involved in. There is no point in hoping to wake up from the dream, or waiting for someone to kiss it all better – this very moment is the one we are living in, good or bad, and it is the only one in which we can be properly present. I remember, waaay back at the beginning of chemo, I wrote that in the face of such an awful diagnosis and the prospect of months of aggressive treatment, the only thing I could control in the whole situation was my reaction to it – and I truly believe that is the case now, just as it was then. There seems to be so much anger and resentment around at the moment that it would be very easy to jump down in the pit too – but I didn’t go through the whole cancer experience without changing a bit and realising there is another way to deal with all this, as those kind of reactions don’t solve anything. In fact they are poisonous and spread way too easily. So let’s not spread them, huh?

Easier said than done, possibly, so let’s just see what the ever-wise Rumi has to say:

“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

… which I take to apply equally to a whole host of less than positive emotions that rear up inside me occasionally. In order to overcome these foes I am busily assembling my weapons of mass inspiration (and yes, I know it is an oxymoron) to help spread love and the ability to be calm in the face of extreme provocation (that’s the ‘polishing’ bit, I guess); right up the very top of the list is this beautiful flashmob meditation that I never, ever get bored of watching, promoting the socks off, or sharing in moments of panic or extreme need. Whack those headphones on and be transported to a place of exquisite peace and beauty for 7 minutes and 38 seconds with Thich Nhat Hanh and The Bell Chant


Nice, isn’t it? I used to play it when I was on the chemo drip as it made the time go that much faster and it distracted me from the unpleasant background vibration of the pump. Funnily enough I don’t equate the video with hospital and treatment – I just fall into the music and the atmosphere and don’t want it to end. Hope you do too.

And while we are on the subject of my favourite person of all time, Thich Nhat Hanh says (amongst a zillion other beautiful things):

    “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

 … which I especially like as it reminds me of a trick I learnt a long time ago, and I love playing it on grumpy people. It is easy when you are happy, so wait until you have a severe case of being pissed off – then SMILE. Yup, through gritted teeth if necessary, nice big smile with your lips closed (that bit seems to work a special magic), right to the edge of your mouth, even if you feel more like giving someone a big slap. I can absolutely guarantee that within about 20 seconds you will start to laugh at how ridiculous it is and the spell of the bad mood is broken. Then you might feel a bit more like doing this. Take a couple of slow breaths using this advice from the same wonderful human being:

 Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.

 So now we are all smiling a bit more, it’s time for the next weapon in my cunning plan. Smile at a complete stranger; especially one that is looking harassed – the supermarket is a good hunting ground for this. They will probably appear spooked or shocked, and almost definitely look over their shoulder to see who you are smiling at. That’s all you need to do. Because inside they will be having a bit of a smile too and that might just make their day, and you will feel a whole lot better too for having been nice. Did you know it apparently takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile? Being a basically lazy person I would always go down the path of least effort.

So smile :-)

In the same vein, the beautiful Anita Moorjani (author of Dying to Be Me, and the soon to be released What if This is Heaven? ) has responded to the pain we are expressing at the turn of current events with the following suggestion, which I am trying very hard to carry out. She suggests we try to carry out two acts of random kindness a day. “Oh yes,” I hear you say, “that one’s as old as the hills”. Well here’s the thing: the first, obviously is for someone else, and it can’t fall into your usual daily remit. (I’ll get on to the second in a minute so don’t leap ahead; it’s not clever and you’ll miss a good story.) So, for example, if your job is customer service and you are extra nice to someone, that is cheating and doesn’t count, as you should be doing it anyway. It focuses the mind wonderfully. We were in the local supermarket and I was very aware I had almost failed on the very first day: we were close to finishing our shopping and I still hadn’t managed to inflict my act of random kindness on anyone; then, at the very last minute I noticed a gentleman in a mobility scooter trying to get food from the freezer cabinet. What a horrendously difficult operation that was for him! I wandered over and offered to help and he was chuffed to bits. I sorted him out with a couple of frozen pies, then he asked if I knew where the curry was. This is absolutely my favourite food, so we had a nice chat about the joys of curry while I helped him to choose some lovely stuff, then we went our separate ways.

I’ll get on to the second act of random kindness in a moment, as the most amazing thing just happened (and I was wondering what to write about?!). We have the office door open (yay – British summer has arrived) and literally as I was typing up my freezer meeting, a lady walked by laden with bags, one of which split right outside our door. I watched stupidly for a couple of moments as torn up bits of paper fluttered all over our lovely clean road, and I must admit there was a moment of WTF? Then I realised here was an opportunity for an ARK and that I should help – I leapt into action, having absolutely no idea what that might involve, as what normal person walks up a long road with bags full of rubbish? Best not go there, but anyway it turned out it was her recycling so I collected up all the bits of paper that were blowing around and helped her get all her rubbish into our recycling bin. Phew. Big smiles all round.

OK – so the second act of random kindness is for YOU. Yep. It’s relatively easy to do something nice for someone else, but how about for ourselves? As someone quoted on Facebook recently, “I never thought I was a bully until I heard how I talk to myself. I think I owe myself an apology.” It certainly resonates with me, and the thinking behind being nice to ourselves is that if we feel nice and cherished we are more likely to pay it forward and be nice to someone else. I am definitely my own worst critic, and I am appalled when I stop sometimes and rewind my previous thought . Woah! If I wouldn’t say that to another person I shouldn’t be saying it to me. So a bit of work to be done there, especially in trying to do an act of random kindness for myself, which doesn’t come naturally. I guess one way would be to think what I would really like someone else to suggest to me as a treat, then possibly doing it for myself. Hmm. Food for thought. I’ll get back to you on that one.

Staying on the theme of Anita, and coming to my current favourite weapon of mass inspiration, is some beautiful music we heard at her workshop in February. It is called Purification, by Avishai Barnatan and you can download it on Amazon here. We were absolutely entranced by it when Anita used it for a group meditation and now we use it on a daily basis to calm down and tune in before we go to work. We are loving it.

I can understand that all this optimism and brightness could be getting a bit irritating (ooh look, that takes us back to the top!) so I want to leave you with this quote from When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times by the lovely Pema Chodron, which seems especially pertinent just now:

“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”

So let’s do that. Let’s be brave enough to leave the past behind and have the courage to trust in a better, kinder future.

Wishing you love and good health,


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72. The Power of Words

I gather I’m not alone in having had an extremely challenging week – for many reasons. Actually, I would use a much stronger word than that but I’m in polite company, so I will keep it clean. Funnily enough it started out in quite a promising fashion. On Monday I was delighted to receive an email via the publisher of my book, Under Cover of Darkness, from a lady who had reviewed it for MacMillan Cancer Research – a really lovely review, so I emailed her back to say thanks and asked if I could have the full copy of it for my files. She suggested I contact MacMillan themselves so I did. My contact there is also lovely and obligingly forwarded me a link, which unbeknown to me until I opened it, contained about nine reviews. Wow! That was exciting for a newbie author!

Now, I just want to clear something up before I press on: anyone who has ever written anything that has gone out into the public domain will relate to the excitement combined with trepidation I felt when I started reading the reviews. If it has a star rating then you know you are pretty safe with three and up. I am fortunate to have had some nice reviews so far, but I am not in the least bit precious about someone having a genuine reason for not liking my book. It is in blog format, which isn’t for everyone. It has a lot of italics due to this, which isn’t for everyone either. I tend to go into things really deeply, and again, that is too much for some people. Everyone deals with cancer differently and I fully respect that.

However, as I read on through the reviews I realised that although they weren’t all starred they appeared to be on a downward trajectory as far as approval of the book went, until the final one felt like a physical blow to my body, such was the venom and ridicule contained in the words. I just sat there absolutely stunned as I mulled over the words and the feelings attached to them. How could a fellow cancer survivor be so cruel? Hadn’t they learnt anything or softened up at all through their own experience? I had no name, and I hadn’t heard of the type of cancer that defined the author’s entry, so I have no idea of their gender, but they were around my age, possibly a bit younger, so not even a ‘grumpy old gal/git’ type. They attacked me on every level, calling my ideas ridiculous and crazy and unscientific (you know, stuff like good nutrition helping recovery, eating wholesome well cooked food instead of microwaving it, calming my mind using Mindfulness techniques), which I would usually laugh at and agree with, except in this context, which was really nasty. But they also seriously misquoted me, and that was what really galvanised me into action. Regular readers will know of my explorations into Buddhism through Nichiren (chant it out LOUDLY) and Mindfulness (sit with it and allow it to flow through you, breath by breath) disciplines, but neither of these worked for me. Actually, that’s not quite true, as I was stunned into silence and forced to sit with my feelings for a while, and I realised that it wasn’t because someone had a different opinion from me, it was that they had used words against me, and it hurt just like playground taunting does. They had honed their viciousness into a review with no thought whatsoever for the effect those words would have on the author; apart from their obvious lack of knowledge, shown in the way they attacked me, this person is clearly completely uncaring of the way they deliver such a damning verdict. I got to wondering how unhappy they must be to need to write in such a way and what kind of life they lead. Someone happy in themselves would never do that.

I also realised that I wouldn’t be able to let this go until I wrote back to them; in this instance I didn’t feel I was pouring energy into something negative, thus making it more powerful – although I ‘sat with it’ for a long time to be clear of my motives. I recalled a conversation with Swamiji many moons ago when I asked if it was ever OK, from a spiritual perspective, to be angry. She replied that yes, of course it was, because following a spiritual path doesn’t automatically mean laying down and taking everything thrown at you with no response. It means – as in so many areas of life – having the courage to stand up for yourself, and if required, answer back, only in a calmer and more coherent form.

So I wrote my letter to the reviewer, addressing the fact that apart from noting their sad and unnecessary venom in attacking things they clearly had absolutely no knowledge of, they had seriously misquoted me, something I wasn’t prepared to accept. I finished by wishing them continuing good health (yes, really!) and hopefully avoided any sense of wanting to rip their head off in the process. My contact has since told me that MacMillan have removed the review and have forwarded my letter to the reviewer.

It is now Friday and my mind has moved away from the pain and upset onto the bigger picture, which is how we use words with such abandon, not always fully realising their power. In the context of cancer care this is so incredibly important; with wonderful organisations like the Royal Marsden pushing the boundaries, embracing complementary treatments to ease patients through such mind-numbingly horrible treatments, why should an ill-informed and completely biased reviewer (there were several more that were less than enthusiastic about my book for similar reasons) have the last word? Why isn’t my opinion taken to be as valid as theirs? I think we all know the answer to that one, but I am cross in a very constructive way now and have written to MacMillan asking them how they can widen the remit of their support to include really radical ideas like mine (!). That was a joke BTW. Seriously though, I have also asked that they make it possible for people to reply to the reviews, so that ‘the other camp’ have a forum on which to challenge people who ridicule what are in fact very valuable therapies and treatments.

Continuing on this theme (albeit via a slightly circuitous route), way back in February, Stephen and I were fortunate enough to go to Anita Moorjani’s workshop in London. For anyone who is unaware of this lovely lady, in 2006 she was in hospital in Hong Kong with end stage lymphoma; she had huge lesions on her neck, her organs were closing down, and her family were told she wouldn’t make it through the night. She went into a coma, during which time she went to other realms where she met a friend who had passed over with cancer, and also her father, with whom she had experienced a difficult relationship when he was alive. It was made clear to her that she should return to her life and she was shown pictures of herself talking to audiences about her experience and to give the message that everything revolves around love – there is nothing else that matters. She came out of her coma, and recovered, and within three weeks there was no sign of cancer cells, dead or otherwise, in her system. In medical terms she is a miracle, and her life story is now being made into a film by Ridley Scott. Her experience whilst in the other realms was so powerful, and so filled with love, that even ten years later, and in the middle of yet another gruelling world tour, she still exudes an otherworldly glow that has to be witnessed to be fully understood. You can read more in her book Dying to Be Me.

Anita was incredibly supportive through my own illness, and was kind enough to endorse my own book, but this workshop in February was our first chance to meet face to face. It was several months ago now, but it had such a massive impact on me that I have waited until the time was right to share some of what was a truly magical and transforming experience, one that is still unfolding within me. Stephen and I were bowled over by her shining example of love. You can just tell that she has been somewhere else, way outside our own experience, and somehow that makes her message much more powerful. During the day she took some extremely difficult questions from the audience, all of which had the same answer, to love your way through the problem. Her continuing message is that there is only love, always love, and just love when it comes to dealing with the difficulties we face – so I was bearing this in mind during my difficult week. She also talked of being attacked for giving cancer patients ‘hope’. Because of what? That it might not work and they might die? Really?! So what about the consultants who gravely tell patients that there is nothing more to be done and they should just enjoy the time they have left? That is a death sentence in itself! Do they actually have any idea of how powerful those words are? I could leap on any number of soapboxes here, but I won’t as I know you understand, and the only way through it is to keep inspiring people and keep showing them there is always hope. Always, always, always, and nobody should ever have the power to take it away from us.

I saw a beautiful link on Facebook a while ago to an article about an indigenous tribe who treat miscreants by surrounding them for several days with members of their community, who spend the time telling them how much they are loved and treasured; the tribe’s attitude is that any level of dis-ease of mind, body or spirit comes from the fundamental feeling of not being loved and that it can be cured by literally bathing the person in layers of love. Doesn’t that sound amazing?

So now I have calmed down a bit I am ready to send that sad, angry, and possibly lonely person some love, in the hope that some of it will permeate their tough and hypercritical outer layer and soften them within so that they can be a little bit kinder to the people that cross their paths. And that is quite a nice way to finish my difficult week. :-)

Wishing you sunshine and health,

Margaret xx



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71. Cushions and Pillows

I realise I haven’t written a blog for over a month now, but sometimes the processes going on in my mind (and life!) are a bit hard to share – a work in progress I suppose. Waaay back at the beginning of 2013 (yes – 3 years on now, isn’t that incredible?), I started to, very cautiously, open up about the struggles I was having in coming to terms with the assault of the chemotherapy on my mind and body. In a way, the physical side was easier because a) I wanted to live and b) I got so involved in hospital routine that it was almost a relief to pitch up for treatment – with or without Fenella, as appropriate – and hand the responsibility for killing the cancer cells over to someone else. What I quickly came to realise was that c) to z) were all the other bits: my emotions, the battle between chemo and not-chemo that raged in my mind, the fact that I needed to survive the toxicity of the chemo probably more than the cancer, the need to take responsibility for my own health, and so it went on – in fact I really could go all the way to z) quite easily, and the blog gave me a massive outlet for the various stages I went through in my journey through the Dark Lands of aggressive treatment.

Back in those days there was always something going on that provided fodder for the blog: a new member of staff on the ward, another tale of Dot, more run-ins with the medical staff about drugs I didn’t want to take, my rapid escape plans from Ward 11, Life at Home and of course, keeping working as much as I could through all of it, which involved a certain amount of pretending-that-nothing-was-wrong, which was my private side making its presence felt. It was also key to my survival, as keeping busy gave me some respite from the constant chatter of the fear that had taken up residence in my head. Sharing these things on the blog was easy, as the journey through treatment was itself a story that in some perverse way I enjoyed telling – hence the book – but now (thankfully!) there isn’t such a keen focus, which sometimes leaves me wondering what to share and what to keep private. In essence I suppose, my personal back story of the period of treatment and recovery was how I was hurled headlong into a spiritual journey with a particularly steep incline; everyone reacts to a cancer diagnosis differently, and mine was an immediate first-from-the-gate pass into the Dark Night of the Soul.

Interestingly enough, that journey has continued at the same pitch, even though the surrounding landscape has cheered up considerably; my visits to the hospital are currently standing at three-monthly chats with Joe, which we enjoy immensely, but I am forever changed and can never go back. Just as a quick aside, Joe had a trainee GP sitting in with him, which I took as a splendid opportunity to educate him in the importance of complementary medicine, or even just the benefits of taking vitamins, to be honest. Something I’m pretty sure he won’t get anywhere else. My main concern at these appointments is that my blood test results are OK. This time the phlebotomist had to take eight vials of blood (which was a bit of a shock to both of us) as Joe wanted some extra things checked, but apparently everything is behaving itself at the moment, so I am exceedingly relieved. I asked about my Vitamin D level – which I supplement with two drops every day – and that is good, and my recent Dexa scan shows my bones are perfectly normal, which is also a relief after the curious incident of the swollen wrist (Blog #66). It is also something of a miracle considering the amount of aggressive chemo I had, especially just before the stem cell transplant. Joe asked what I take and I reeled off the usual stuff, going nice and slowly so Trainee GP could follow. Joe asked if I was back at work full time, which he always does for some reason; we both laughed our socks off and Stephen commented that I had never really stopped – apart from the really bad days and the isolation of course, when I worked from my laptop in my room. At which point Trainee GP asked what I did, so I told him about Wessex Astrologer and the blog, and gave him one of my very special pink business cards with Fenella on the front as he seemed genuinely interested. Here it is:

Business card

We also told him about Stephen’s involvement with Watkins, and to our surprise he asked for more information as his sister-in-law might be interested in some of the books. Result! I hope he enjoyed the appointment as much as we did. It is always lovely to see Joe, but I don’t want to be seeing him any more frequently (just in case the universe is listening).

But back to the subject in hand which is the tortuous journey of the Dark Night of the Soul. I was incredibly lucky with the support I was given to help me along the way, which apart from a completely unexpected outpouring of love from people I never even knew reading the blog, often took the form of suggestions from other people and books. I became well acquainted with Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful book Fear, which was never far from my side, and that led me deeply into a side of Buddhism I hadn’t encountered before. A very gentle and deeply contemplative style which was excellent for the 3 o’clock in the morning thoughts, when all is quiet except for the voices in your head, which are very loud. As I recounted in Blog 63#, my personal experience of Thich Nhat Hanh’s community from Plum Village touched me to my very core. And all they did was sit on their cushions, smile beatifically, and come out with some stunningly simple words of wisdom.

Running parallel to this, though, has been an experience which is almost directly opposite, and I guess it is this duality that I have been mulling over sharing. Then I read David Hare’s wonderful book, The Buddha in Me, The Buddha in You and I decided I did want to talk about my experience. Back in the early days an astrology friend made a comment on the blog that I should chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo as often as I could. I wasn’t really very clear why, but I love chanting, so in a very gentle, muted way, sort of did it under my breath from time to time. I started to research it and discovered that the chant is the key part of Nichiren Buddhism. This isn’t the place for a lecture on Buddhism, but I was interested to learn that Nichiren Daishonin was a monk in 13th century Japan who decided to simplify Buddhism (which can be incredibly complicated) so that the ordinary person could understand it. That went down like the proverbial lead balloon amongst the feudal, patriarchal establishment of the day, and Nichiren very quickly found himself in deep trouble. But whatever trouble he was in – which included exile and an attempt to chop off his head – he continued to chant and to spread the word that by practising his much more simplified version of Buddhism, the ordinary peasant really could achieve happiness in this lifetime. Fast forward several hundred years, and Nichiren Buddhism has now spread around the world through an organisation called Soka Gakkai International; my friend is a member in London and last year she suggested I go along to a local meeting to see it in action.

The first thing that struck me was how lovely and welcoming they all were, and the second was the volume of the chanting. Woah! What about quiet monks on cushions? I found it quite ‘vexatious to the spirit’ to use one of my favourite quotes from the Desiderata, and failed to understand how anyone could get much from it except a sore throat. But I read more, and went to the monthly meetings and actually really enjoyed the whole experience of being with such lovely positive people. What puzzled me was what exactly they were chanting for. Okay, well I have read that people chant for money, or jobs, which all seemed a bit too focused on the material word for me. But what happens if you have a big problem and don’t know the answer. I bravely asked the question. Can you chant just for a good outcome for whatever it is? Yes, absolutely. And if it is someone else’s big problem, can you chant for them to have a good outcome? Yes, absolutely. It was beginning to make a bit more sense, but I still hadn’t connected my head and heart on this, unlike the Plum Village Community, where I wanted to be a stowaway in their coach and stay with them forever. I mentioned this to my friend, and she emailed back that I should chant as though I was trying to set light to a damp log. Hmm. I was clearly missing the point. Then a really weird thing happened. We have faced several challenges in recent months and I was starting to get pretty frustrated and angry about the injustice involved. Somehow the lovely Thich Nhat Hanh’s prescription of sitting with the emotion wasn’t dissipating the build-up of emotion. I was in the flat on my own and had already started chanting when I thought about setting the log on fire; suddenly I connected to the anger and all hell broke loose. In my counselling course many moons ago we were taught a bit of gestalt therapy, which is about experiencing the physicality of the relevant feeling and using that energy to work through the emotion – a good example is punching pillows, which is a very good way of releasing anger without hurting anyone. I have punched pillows in the past and found it incredibly liberating, and now I had found my vocal equivalent. Wow. With tears streaming down my face I realised I had finally ‘got it’ and it felt amazing. I emailed my friend who replied that she had just had a dance around the room, because I had finally found the Buddha in me :-). A bit of an angry one possibly (my words not hers), but something had been unleashed in that experience and now a lot of things written about Nichiren Buddhism made sense. So, it was at exactly the right time that I came upon David’s book, which is the story of his own voyage of discovery – from being doubting and almost hostile to the sudden realisation that this practice had found a very important place in his life. It is a funny and incredibly inspiring book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

And so as I get to this particular point in the journey, I am pleased to find that both the cushions and the pillows can have a place in my life. And that is a huge relief, because on a long journey, there is always a need for a bit of comfort. :-)

Wishing you all good health



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70. Mindful Insomnia

Possibly a bit of an oxymoron, that heading, but I think it is appropriate. The night-time visitor that plagues so many seems to have become a bit of a fixture in my life, and given that I’m not the ‘bounce out of bed and do something like the ironing’ (I don’t do ironing really) kind of insomniac, I have tried to put my mind to other, more peaceful tasks to calm it down or wear it out and allow me the blessed oblivion of a few more hours sleep. I’m regularly wide-awake between about 3.00 and 6.00 AM, which isn’t funny with a very full working life where I have to be on the ball, and my attempts with various remedies, rituals, pills and potions seem to have been in vain. This morning at 4.30 I gave in and took some Quiet Life, and lay there observing it take effect, which was actually very interesting. I could feel the edges of my awareness becoming fuzzy, but somewhere deep within, something was hanging on for grim death, like ‘Ha! No! You will not put me to sleep. I shall not succumb!” I had a feeling something like this was going on, but this morning is the first time I actually witnessed it so clearly. Why the hell won’t it just rest?

In the wee small hours I also wandered through the various techniques I have amassed through the years, like deep relaxation (that works sometimes, one limb at a time, working from the feet upwards), my wise Mum’s lovely voice just telling me to rest and that it doesn’t matter if I can’t sleep (so this obviously goes waaaay back!), taking myself off to lie in my hammock in dappled shade next to the sea (that doesn’t seem to work any more), watching the breath (from my yoga practice)… Ah! Swamiji taught us to observe the cool air coming in through the nose, travelling all the way down to the base chakra, then the warm out-breath taking the same route back up and out, along with any negativity or greyness residing within. Did that for quite a bit and it wasn’t working, but in so doing I remembered the lovely practice of Mindful breathing – which I also practise just about every night, but which doesn’t always work – and decided to give it a bit of a different approach. I realised that my mind isn’t letting go for a reason, and that I might as well put all these hours of quietness to some use in discovering why.

Life in remission is a very strange creature, as I have mentioned more than once on this blog. Reaching such lush, green pastures – which at one point seemed very possibly off-piste – is of course a blessing, but at a distance you don’t see the weeds or nettles that grow amongst the grass. So in wandering through that same soft green grass of Remission-land one occasionally steps on something spiky, and it is a reminder of the wonderful Buddhist concept of Impermanence and that everything is subject to change. Yes, I do generally feel extremely well, but given that the cancer was probably growing in my system for a very long time before I was aware of it, I can’t help but be spooked when I get discomfort or an unexpected niggle or pain. Or just those dark and fearful 3-o’clock-in-the-morning thoughts even very healthy people must get. The basic technique of Mindful breathing is ‘Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in’ and ‘Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out’. Nice simple stuff that encourages us to stay in the present. I have also practised it using ‘Breathing in, I know that I am well’ and ‘Breathing out I release all negativity.’ And so on. The choices are endless but some of them feel better than others. Obviously they can’t be too long or you run out of breath, one way or the other. Also, in terms of relaxation, it is better to have a longer out-breath than in-breath.

This morning at about 5.30 I decided to use ‘Breathing in I am being healed’ and ‘Breathing out I release all illness and disease’, which is a bit of a twist on the usual phrasing and which I hoped would sort out my health demons. And after a while I had the most GIGANTIC realisation, which is why I had to write this blog. I wasn’t focusing on anything special that I was worried about, which is something I learnt having lymphoma; cancer patients suffering from tumours have something physical to focus on, but with a blood cancer it is easy to feel that the whole body is bad or failing or sick, which is incredibly destructive and not necessarily true. But it is a very different kettle of fish to be dealing with for sure, and the usual visualisations of little white soldiers belting around the body don’t work as with blood cancer they would be getting lost all over the place and wondering what they were supposed to be fighting. Which is why I gave up that particular idea pretty quickly. When I first started the breathing this morning I was aware of a lovely gold stream coming in with the in-breath – which is unusual because it is usually white or silver – and as I breathed out I just let everything go that wanted to go. I became more relaxed with each cycle (which is of course the plan), but interestingly I could feel the ‘breathing out’ was really clearing some stuff I wasn’t aware I was hanging on to. As each cycle progressed I realised that my body was doing its own completely spontaneous and un-guided ‘health regression’, for the sake of a better expression, and the layers of past illness were gently being cleared until my final memory before I conked out (yes!!!) was back at the time I developed M.E. It isn’t uncommon for cancer patients to have had diseases of the immune system in the past, but it wasn’t something I had especially dwelt on. It was so strange because I woke up thinking ‘Ah!’ and then wondered what I was supposed to be thinking ‘Ah!’ about, and gradually the memory came back to me. I know that the body has its own intelligence, and that a mind/body practice such as Mindfulness or yoga usually brings about emotional and spiritual changes, but I really hadn’t expected this tight inter-connectedness between them all on the health front.

The very important message I was given is that we don’t need to concentrate on what is wrong to receive effective healing. There is a temptation to focus on and hone in on the pain, or tumour, or tightness, or sadness – whatever – and try to dissolve it, which I can now see puts that area of dis-ease under even more pressure, a bit like my mind wriggling in protest about being put to sleep. And like worrying a spot or a scab. Picking away doesn’t do any good at all – in fact it often makes things worse. This experience has really changed my thoughts about the way that healing works, and whilst it isn’t exactly rocket science, I am excited to continue the process of healing to see how far my body wants to go back, and how much it can heal itself, all without me having to know what it is doing. That’s assuming I can stay awake long enough to observe it :-)

Wishing you good health

Margaret xx

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69. In conflict

And so it came to pass that another blog has rapidly made itself known to me, and as ever, I feel like I am just the messenger. The previous blog was all about birds and especially owls, mainly because we called in to our local Pets at Home to buy some cat food and ended up meeting Debbie and Mike and some pretty amazing owls. Fortunately for our cats we did manage to buy some cat food, but afterwards I was on cloud nine and got carried away with the symbolism and the sheer beauty of the birds. I was reminded of how wonderful it is for us townies to actually get to see something like an owl or hawk up close. Or even cows and horses, to be honest, because it isn’t something I generally do, but they don’t usually visit the pet store. But then as Mike so rightly pointed out in an email to me, it is a double-edged sword taking the birds out to meet people; this is not their normal habitat, and it is only because they are well trained and well treated that the birds can be trusted to cope with being man-handled by the public. They are most definitely not pets, and should never be seen as such. But it is only in being exposed to the birds – or in fact any animal in captivity – that most of us can experience the total wonder and glory of their existence; very few of us actually get the chance to see wildlife in its natural habitat so this is our only chance, and that is where people like Mike and Debbie are so important, double-edged sword or not. I wonder how many children go on to work in conservation because of a burning need to understand and protect the natural habitat or our native wildlife.

Before I get into massively deep water about conservation or animal cruelty, I want to say that this has been a very thought-provoking period in many ways. It has made me realise that my mind is often in two places at once, and they are mutually exclusive. Love the owls, hate the fact that they have been mistreated and have to be rescued, and then by some happy coincidence I get to actually stroke and hold one. And I am humbled that they get to bring comfort to children in hospices and to wounded war veterans who are locked in PTSD, when in fact the birds should be flying free. Then quite weirdly, my thoughts turned to other dilemmas, and the next one was straight to grief – but maybe that is because I am gutted that David Bowie died yesterday. I was no massive fan, but the fact that it was another goal to cancer upsets me more than words can say. I remember after my parents died (of cancer), literally days after my younger son was born, I was torn apart because I was should be feeling joy at my new baby, when in fact all I could do was cry for the loss of my mum and dad. Then feeling guilty when odd moments of humour came up and I actually laughed. Laughed! Yes, with two newly dead parents to grieve for. What was I thinking? Or suddenly finding myself singing along to a song on the radio. No – wait – I should be grieving. How inconsiderate. The truth of the matter is that we are born conflicted; there is always more than one thing to be thinking about. Remember when you were too ill to go to school but there was a party that evening? Ooh that was a tough one. Having had my own children now I can say I have witnessed that miraculous recovery in time for the party and it caused me no amount of distress trying to stand by my words. All I can say is that in my younger days it was tough love: no school, no party. Much like no work, no trip to the pub in the evening when I got a bit older. Old habits die hard J

And moving further out, I find myself conflicted between extremely healthy living and enjoying life a bit with a few glasses of wine or some truly wicked desserts. I know that sugar feeds cancer, so what am I thinking? I suspect that anyone touched by cancer is also weighing similar choices, and I remember some sage advice from a beautician at Leeds Castle. It was one of my first trips out after my hair started growing properly – before that time I wore a headscarf in public – and I treated myself to the first manicure in a year when we went to stay at the castle for the weekend. The lovely girl (who looked about 15 – sign of getting older I guess) told me she had lost her father to cancer earlier in the year but that he had a good period of remission after the first treatment and before he relapsed. She said that when it came back he turned to a really strict diet, stopped drinking, and basically stopped enjoying life. She told me – at her great age of whatever-it-was – that I should go all out to enjoy life, because the point of living is to live, and when her father stopped doing so was the point when he started to die inside, and his decline followed rapidly after. I think of her every time I feel guilty.

We face so many dilemmas because we are living in such troubled times. To be constantly sad because of world events isn’t constructive and it denies our friends the joy of making us laugh or cooking us a good meal, or whatever brings us together in the spirit of friendship; it is in keeping our inner fire strong and the spirit burning bright that we can do the most good for others.

It is in this context, where there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer, that I think a lot about the monks and nuns from Plum Village. In blog #63 I described how Matthew and I went to London to sit with Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastic community from Plum Village (in France) who were touring Europe. That in itself was a strange thing to do – taking a 2 hour train journey up to London to pay money to sit in almost total silence with a bunch of people on cushions – but actually it wasn’t. They were incredibly funny and human and nothing like we expected them to be. They had a massive impact on us and Matthew and I would happily have become stowaways on their coach for the remainder of their tour. We often apply their teaching to our lives, the most important of which is just allowing ourselves to be in the moment, whatever that moment might be, with all its uncomfortable feelings. It seems I have been in, or have been asked for my opinion of, several situations in the last few days, and the advice (including to myself!) is the same in every instance: sit quietly with the feeling. When we are faced with a conflict of interests, or a seemingly impossible decision, that is what we sit with. Pema Chodron talks about getting up close to ‘the spikey thing’ as described by her guru, Chogyan Trungpa, saying we should get as close as we can, get right into the discomfort, and just sit with it. Accepting that there is no definitive answer is liberating; we can’t solve everything. In fact we are unable to solve most things, and in realising this I think we find an element of freedom. And then we become strong.

Sending warm thoughts for your good health


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68. Gift of Wings

I have been waiting patiently for an idea to present itself for a blog. Before Christmas, I thought. Nope. After Christmas then? Nope. Surely there would be inspiration for New Year… I’ve found I can’t force writing a blog as that makes it really hard work and somehow the magic just doesn’t happen in the same way. And then something miraculous happened and a whole load of ideas suddenly exploded into my head, and I couldn’t get to my laptop quickly enough. I love the way a whole chain of events can unfold as a direct result of something apparently small and innocuous – and I have one such chain of amazing events to recount.

We know that words are powerful tools, and as a great admirer of good writing I love becoming involved in a book that turns out to be un-put-downable. Bookish types amongst you may have noticed H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. This was the unlikely winner of the Costa Book Awards for 2015 and I was entranced by the review, so bought myself a copy way back in the spring. Now that is a weird choice for me, to be sure. I have never been a great fan of birds – at least, not anywhere near me – as they seem very distant and I can’t imagine having a bond or a cuddle with one, and I don’t like a lot of wing flapping. Rather than the bird content, it was the subject matter that interested me as the author describes how she copes with the heart-wrenching grief of losing her father through bonding with a hawk. Being no stranger to grief, I was fascinated and consequently became completely hooked. By the end of the book I realised I had unwittingly become a fan of birds of prey – and in fact started noticing birds all over the place as if they had only just landed on the planet. I don’t mean blackbirds or gulls (of which we have zillions round here); no, I am captivated by the majesty and bearing of hawks and eagles and the nutty way that owls can turn their heads all the way round. I started to take notice of the swan families down at Mudeford Quay, then we saw the swans at Arundel, floating serenely on the moat around the castle. They became such a focus in my life that I turned to the lovely Judy Hall for help in understanding the symbolism as she is really good at all that stuff. She sent me an amazing link that describes the presence of a swan in your life as an arrow pointing to fluidity, intuition, dreaming on other levels and creativity. And:

“The concept of partnership is further expressed on a divine level in Hinduism, wherein the swan graces vibrant traditions as the Hamsa bird. In the Saundarya Lahari (translated: “Waves of Beauty,” it’s a text filled with beautiful mantras from the Hindu perspective) two swans (Ham and Sa) pair together, swimming around in the divine mind “living on honey from the blooming lotus of knowledge“. Isn’t that a lovely concept?”

So much in my life has changed since being ill, and I find that I am now more willing to dream, and to learn and to be open, because it was brought home to me just how precious life is and how abruptly it can end. I have much to do, and the creative juices are flowing like crazy; the swan symbolism is perfect.

Then a couple of weeks ago I had the most extraordinary dream. You know – the kind where you wake up disappointed that it was just a dream and you are back in the real world? I was at some kind of country fair, where a falconer was flying birds of prey. (That book obviously had more of an effect on me than I realised!) I asked if there was an owl I could see – for some reason it had to be an owl – and the falconer produced a beautiful pale cream one for me to hold and told me I could fly her. I love the way you get super powers in dreams :-). I magically ‘knew’ how to fly her and after several circuits round the trees she flew back to me. Then – and this is the best bit which gets even more amazing further down – she sidled up my arm and nuzzled into my neck. WOW! I had no idea they even did that! Then I woke up, disappointed as hell that I had been snatched from such an incredible experience. I couldn’t get her out of my head and started looking up falconry experience days as well as excitedly relaying it to Judy and checking back on that same website to understand the symbolism. Actually, just think of Hedwig in Harry Potter and you pretty much have it.

On Wednesday I told Stephen about the link I had found for a falconry experience day as a MASSIVE hint for my birthday. Which would be the longest wait ever as my birthday isn’t until July.

On Thursday (New Year’s Eve) we dithered around and eventually decided to go into work for a couple of hours on the proviso that we would leave early enough to get some food in the slow cooker for Lyn, John and Ben who were coming to welcome in the New Year with us. We knew the chances of that happening were about zero as we both get so lost in work that we are nearly always late leaving – hence the dithering. So despite our best attempts, the inevitable happened and we ended up belting out the door waaay too late, and we still had to call in at the pet superstore on the way home. They keep sending us ridiculously good money-off vouchers and it would have been rude not to use them before they expired. We practically ran into the store, where I ground almost immediately to a halt as I came eyeball to eyeball (well, nearly) with a beautiful creamy brown owl. I stared at it in total disbelief, then looked at Stephen and said something really deep, like, “It’s an owl!”

Aaargh! We were in such a hurry and this was torture. Obviously the owl wasn’t alone, and in the precious few moments I had, I managed to find out that the birds (there was another one further along the table) were being exhibited to help raise money for charity. £2.00 and I could have my photo taken holding the owl, except my phone was in the car, I was clean out of cash, and we were LATE already. I had enough time to stroke the owl then we were back out the door for our appointment with the slow cooker.

Back home, food safely slow-cooking, the time I had planned to use doing ‘Something Else’ (maybe a bit more work?) rapidly turned into a very small window of opportunity to get back to the store to see the owl. I mentioned this to Stephen as the pull was so strong, and total treasure that he is, he phoned to make sure the owls would still be there should I choose to hare back down the dual carriageway. I did and they were. I borrowed the £2 from Matt and here is the result:


And then all kinds of magic happened. After a lovely conversation with Debbie, who runs the welfare trust with her husband Mike, and a lot of strokes with and holding of ‘Biscuit’ the barn owl, I was about to leave when Debbie mentioned ‘Experience Days’, which are run by Mike. Mike had previously been talking to another visitor to the stand but he became free, so we started talking and discovered a whole host of amazing things, one of which is that he takes the birds into hospices to see children. He told me that Biscuit is very different when he is with children, particularly very sick ones. He told me that Biscuit is very calm and sits on their arms really quietly. He told me that Biscuit sidles gently up their arms AND NUZZLES INTO THEIR NECKS JUST LIKE IN MY DREAM. I absolutely promise you I am not making this up. I told him about my dream, and we talked about shamanic symbolism and how important all this is for cancer patients, especially as sometimes we don’t want to – or even can’t – talk about the cancer. In fact we want to talk about just about anything else, which is how this blog got started. Mike told me that sitting quietly with the birds unlocks the secrets of abused or bullied children, of dementia patients who can’t otherwise communicate, of depressed people who struggle to find meaning in their lives. My mind was buzzing with possibilities. Cancer is a terrifying and isolating experience, and I firmly believe that any contact which relieves that isolation will help with recovery and healing. There is so much that could be done and I am so excited. Finally my time was up and I had to go, as did he. The birds were safely stowed ready for their journey back to the aviary and I had some faster food to cook.

Mike and I will talk again – and with any luck I might get to hold Biscuit again. Isn’t life sometimes just truly amazing?

Sending warm wishes for a healthy 2016

Margaret xx


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