It’s strange how some blogs take ages to be written. This one was very unwilling to come forth for over a week, and ideas that were zooming around in my head just wouldn’t be committed to a blog in the right way. I realise that a lot of this is to do with the inspiration and input I get from interactions with other people; you could say that I had less interaction when I was in hospital as I was marooned in my des-res isolation suite, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. There was a sense of purpose when I was in hospital; the purpose being to get out of there as fast as I possibly could, so every conversation, especially with the medics, was geared specifically towards achieving that goal. There were constantly changing characters to be observed, and of course the ongoing politics of me taking complementary therapies to recount. Now I have been unleashed on the public again (well, sort of), my world has actually shrunk due to the restraints of having almost no immune system. I do manage to go into work as we only have a small office, so short of somewhat frosty interactions with our UPS driver (we WILL get a smile from him one day!), I am somewhat bereft of blog fodder. I am hoping this will change soon, as I am really bored with it.
I risked going to Marks and Spencer just before Christmas and picked a time when I hoped there would be fewer people around. There were, but unfortunately two of them were directly in front of me on the escalator, busily coughing their little hearts out and I was trapped downwind of them. I was on a fairly urgent mission to the ‘Ladies’, but, unfortunately for me, so was the lady in front. Having disembarked the escalator we both headed off in the same direction, with her ahead of me, coughing all the way; I ducked and dived through various racks of shoes and bags, but there was no short cut. I still finished second and had to follow her into the conveniences with my scarf around my nose and face like a really bad undercover agent. The following day I woke up with a bad headache and really sore throat. Echinacea, grapefruit extract and tea tree oil were added to an already top-heavy pile of remedies, but they seemed to do their stuff. Joe did say that it could take up to a year to get my immune system back to something approaching normal, so I only have about another six months to go. Oh joy! I can’t wait to go the pictures, or theatre again, or get the train up to London, go to a party…..even go to a church service. We were hoping to go to midnight Mass this year at our cute little local church, but in a moment of extraordinary clarity I suddenly realised that also wasn’t a good idea.
We did manage to have a little pre-Christmas outing though, which had the added advantage of giving us a lot of fresh air in the most beautiful setting. Leeds Castle is in Kent, about 125 miles from Bournemouth. It is a stunningly beautiful, fairytale castle set in a moat, and dignitaries from Henry VIII onwards have stayed there, although there has been a castle on the site since around 1100. This is England at its best, and a huge benefit of me being ill and confined to quarters (or no flying) is that we have seen a lot more of this beautiful country than we would have done otherwise. The last owner bequeathed the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation, a charitable trust, who now run it as a venue for conferences, weddings, and for private hire. I first went there last year, pre-illness, and fell in love with it. A recent email from them tempted us to come and sample the delights of the Christmas market in the grounds as well as a festive evening meal, accommodation, breakfast and free entry into the seasonally decorated castle, all for a very reasonable price. Just look at the picture below (taken on our last visit when the daffodils were out). Could you turn it down?
And here it is with its Christmas tree and all the pretty lights – taken as we approached the main house from the bridge over the moat:
One of the less exciting aspects of the castle’s location, in comparison to our own, is that the journey involves either getting snarled up in traffic on the worst stretch of the notorious M25, or getting snarled up in traffic going across country. There are any number of routes to try, so we opted for a cross country one that ended up taking us about two and a half hours. This point is important later on, so please pay attention! :-) But the stay was delightful and it was so good to be away. We stayed in a converted stable block dating from the 17th century, as rooms in the main castle are for people going to events like weddings. The weather was fabulous and we were able to wander freely around the grounds and into the castle to our hearts’ content. Just a little break can bring about big shifts in one’s perspective, and I think this one helped us to move forward from the events of this year. We can now look longer term and start to resuscitate the dreams that were by necessity put on hold by my illness. The treatment plan took up all our time, and we didn’t have the luxury to think about much else – and didn’t want to, to be honest. It is good to be getting back enough energy to have some left over for dreaming :-). Having learnt from our journey across from Bournemouth that there were several towns to avoid, if we didn’t want to spend hours stuck in traffic, we chose another route back. That took three hours and involved a huge amount of roundabouts. Keep paying attention. :-)
Thankfully, Christmas has returned to being Christmas this year. On December 11th we passed the one year anniversary of my diagnosis; the actual moments of being in the consultant’s office are as clear as if they happened yesterday, and obviously they completely changed the fabric of Christmas 2012, and of course the whole of 2013. As the year ends though, I am cancer-free, and things are thankfully very different – so my thoughts have been taking a slow wander back through the whole experience. I am a whole year on in calendar terms, but about a zillion years on in terms of outlook and perspective. Both my life and Stephen’s have been picked up and dropped from a great height this year, which was truly horrible, but the massive advantage of being at a great height, albeit temporarily, is that you certainly get a different view. The exact amount of ‘dropping from a great height’ wasn’t at all negotiable, like, say, bungee jumping or cliff jumping, where you can probably decide which cliff or how high, or even whether to jump or not, so I would say that the Very Important Lesson I have learnt this year is that life isn’t negotiable at any level. I wasn’t aware that I needed to learn that particular lesson, but apparently I did. Control has thus been a big theme, as in, realising I don’t have any of that either. I have control over my attitude, to a certain extent, although no amount of positive thinking would have stopped me from throwing up due to the chemo drugs. Believe me, I tried. I pay a lot more attention now to my thoughts and whether they are positive or negative; I know that others don’t necessarily feel this way but in my mind, there is no point pretending to paper over the cracks and be jolly and positive on the outside if I am feeling dark and negative inside. I have had to find the courage to delve deeply into my fears and face them head on, because that is the kind of person I am. I certainly haven’t managed to complete the process as I believe it is on-going, but I am getting there.
And this is where all you wonderful people come in. I would never have got as far down the line if it wasn’t for all the unconditional love and support that have flowed towards me and Stephen. People have many different ways of dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment, and it has been incredibly liberating to be able to write freely about each step of the way and to get such an amazing response. I know that some people need to deal with it in privacy, but I found it much more empowering to share the misery around, and rant and rage in public. I have to say that most of the raging has been related to my favourite soap boxes of Big Pharma and the appalling way our food is messed around with, but fear not, the soapboxes are safely stashed away until next year while I partake of Christmas cheer :-). But look! In spite of myself I have to raise a glass to Big Pharma for delivering me cancer-free into 2014. My body has undoubtedly been through the mill several times over and there may well be long-term consequences because of it, but another thing I have learnt is that there is no point worrying about tomorrow (although that is still a work in progress too). Over the last couple of months I have struggled with a bit of a cold and intermittent sore throats, which I am sure you can understand are a bit worrying when you think how this all started. My blood tests seem to be fine, so there is no cause for alarm – something I found very hard to take on board. Funnily enough, when I mentioned it to Joe at the last visit, he suggested Vitamin C. Can you imagine our hilarity at an NHS consultant suggesting Vitamin C? He laughed his socks off too, and, waving at his computer screen, said, “Well there’s no point me suggesting any of our stuff as you won’t want to take it!” How could I forget something as obvious as Vitamin C? Still, we all had a good laugh, something I can’t even imagine would have happened at the beginning of all this. Joe totally respects my views and I feel blessed to have such a fabulous consultant who has allowed me space to question him and for my own research.
We had a lovely Christmas, part of which involved a journey to a family event which was only a few miles away from Leeds Castle. Twice in one week – weren’t we the lucky ones? We were clever this time though. We knew that the back roads across country would be really busy, so with a fair amount of confidence we chose the magnificent M25. As did most of the other people in the South of England. For our non-UK friends, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas when it is traditional to go a bit further afield to see relatives. Seeing relatives this way often involves taking your own bedding and sleeping on blow-up beds or sofas – all good fun and everybody goes about it in good spirits, but it means the car gets full to the gills. We camped in almost stationary traffic in the overtaking lane of the M25 for, ooh, about two hours, which gave us the opportunity to look at all the other cars that were equally well stuffed. And you know those urges that you usually suppress because if you didn’t they would be silly, dangerous or downright embarrassing? I had an almost uncontrollable urge to get out and walk along past a few cars just to see the looks on the occupants’ faces. I mean, how weird would it be to walk on a motorway? Guess you had to be there. Fortunately the traffic did move a tiny bit every so often, so common sense prevailed and eventually we made it to our destination, some four hours later. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?
A very good time was had by all, and on the following day we embarked on the return journey. Knowing that the back roads would be very busy as they cut through towns where all kinds of post-Christmas sales would be in full swing, and safe in the mistaken belief that other people would have already left/were staying longer, we decided to take the motorway route again. Pretty much the same cars were taking the return journey, only this time I noticed that the duvets and pillows had been lobbed into the cars in a more haphazard, let’s just get the hell home, kind of fashion. The faces behind the wheel were also a lot paler than on the trip up. Progress was a lot slower (is that even possible?) than before and I started taking a good deal of interest in our mobile neighbours. From the lady filing her nails at the wheel (yuk – how can people do that?) to the mum in another car clearly involved in her book, ignoring both the driver’s stern face and the mayhem going on between the children in the back. And the young guy in his boy racer car. How silly does a stationary boy racer car look, especially on a motorway? It was a curious glimpse of humanity, which is probably completely unappreciated by those poor souls who are stuck in such traffic as a matter of course in their working day. I’m kind of lucky that for me it was a novelty. Oh, and the best bit of all was the hand-jiving. I tend to do most of the driving so Stephen is resident DJ. Yes we do have an iPod but we don’t have Bluetooth in the car which means the sound quality is absolute rubbish as it comes through an AUX cable. So it is back to the old fashioned ways of somebody actually changing CDs, which Stephen does par excellence. He also has some really cool compilations which are brilliant for driving. You absolutely have to have the right kind of music for motorway driving. Or standing stock still on a motorway – same applies just in case you suddenly move. I had loads of fun having a waist-up boogie, but looking around me, everyone else had their eyes firmly fixed on the car in front in case it moved. Or maybe they just didn’t feel like having fun. I did get tired eventually though, and just a bit frustrated, and I was VERY pleased to get home. Five hours later. Even longer than any of the other journeys. But the wonderful thing about this experience was that it was a wonderful chance to practise mindfulness. There wasn’t an alternative route, so we were stuck with it – and once I stopped feeling frustrated that we seemed to have made the wrong decision again (which didn’t take long to be honest), I just enjoyed the people watching, and being in the moment. So at least I have learnt a bit this year!
So thank you for your company throughout this very strange and challenging year. I wish you and your families happiness and peace – and above all – good health in 2014.