No 50 on the List for Living


50) Drink champagne in one of the best bars in the world just before Christmas to celebrate still being alive.

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It’s exactly a year since I was told I may only have six months to live!! And here I am, very much alive.

I marked the special day with a festive chemo cocktail at hospital. But I’ve also had some proper celebrations. If you keep beating the odds what else can you do but drink a glass or two of champagne.

Happy Christmas! x

Chemo no 4

If you’ve never experienced chemotherapy then you should consider yourself incredibly lucky. It is really, truly, one of the worst things I’ve ever had to go through.

I’m now just over half way through my current course of treatment. What makes it so bad is that it builds up in your system. This cumulative effect makes each evil chemo cocktail more horrific than the last one. This stage is also tough because I’m still a while off from finishing.

It seems like ages ago that I had chemo no 4. It’s taken me more than a week to start to feel sort of normal.

My normal is very different these days. It means I feel okay. I’m not stuck in bed. I’m not throwing up. I’m not feeling too emotional. I can walk without too much pain. That’s my new normal.

Despite this I still quite enjoy the actual chemo day itself. As usual I had lovely friends there to help distract me. They came armed with some very thoughtful presents. So Chemo no 4 went quickly.

But within hours, I could feel that the poison was working. This doesn’t usually happen so fast. Over the next few days it got worse. It seemed like I was tumbling into a deep pit of misery. My body and my head hurt so badly. There was intense tiredness and nausea and all sorts of other horribleness. It took four days to hit rock bottom. It was a very dark, bleak place and it took far too long to leave.

Now, I’m out and suddenly it’s almost Christmas. When you go through cancer treatment you kinda dip in and out of life. You lose track of time.

Luckily I have something to remind me about 25th December. My next session of chemo is on Christmas Eve. It’s not the most festive of things to do. But I’m still here. And this time last year I wasn’t sure that I would be.

Bringing home the bacon

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Just call me Lady Gaga. There can’t be many times when you go out wearing a dress made of meat! Lady Gaga had beef, whereas I had bacon. Red and white rashes made of fabric.

This of course was a fancy dress outfit. It was all down to my friend Rache. She had got us two outfits, bacon and fried egg. You may find this surprising but the meat option looked quite good, it was almost like a bacon body con dress. However the egg and especially its yoke, was not at all flattering.

Even so Rache said she would wear the egg costume. When someone lets you be the bacon, you know that’s a sign of true friendship.

The outfits were for a weekend away with my fabulous fancy dress friends. This is something that had been arranged more than a year and a half ago. We ‘d just done the Race for Life. Well, my friends had. I watched and cheered them on; thanks to surgery and chemo I was far too ill to take part. Afterwards someone suggested we plan another trip to Butlins. This time we chose to go to a ‘disco inferno’ weekend in Bognor. Basically it’s an adults only weekend and is one big party!

Back then, after the Race for Life, I never imagined I’d be still going through yet more chemo. Thankfully our weekend coincided with my well-est part of the gap between treatments. It was a couple of weeks ago but my energy levels make it hard to do too much writing. Also soon after we came back, I had chemo no 3.

During the weekend I was able to sleep loads so that I didn’t miss out. I’d been worried that I wouldn’t even be able to go but I’m glad I did.

In Bognor there were so many people in fancy dress that my bacon didn’t seem at all out of place at all. There were nine of us. As well as bacon and eggs, in our group we had a hotdog, plus bottles of ketchup and mustard. Also a Rubik cube, a 50 shades inspired punk rocker and Boy George! It was such a funny and random weekend. We just laughed so much.

At one point when we were walking from our hotel to the bar, the condiments with their red and yellow squeezy top hats were being very slow and were someway behind us. We shouted to them, “C’mon ket-chup.” I also quite liked asking people if they knew where the nearest grill was!

Wearing a body con of bacon was so silly and hilarious; while the egg looked like someone had stuffed a pillow under the bright yellow yoke. Just thinking about our almost full English ensemble gave me and Rache hysterics. It was really good just to enjoy something so stupid for a change.

The thing about cancer is that it’s all so serious. I know, it is terrible and it should be treated seriously. But that sombre state can seep into almost every aspect of life. I don’t want constant sadness. I still have so much living to do.

Let’s face it we are all going to die. We will all get hit by that bus someday. It’s just that I know which bus it’s going to be. My days are filled with either chemo cocktails, their disgusting side effects or talking about medical stuff, all the time hoping that my bus will be very late.

Having a deadly disease doesn’t kill off your sense of humour or even your desire to have some fun. Sometimes it feels quite the opposite.

However I do draw the line at wearing a onesie. My friends had bought the all in one outfits for us all to wear on the Sunday of our weekend away.

Now I love a bit of fancy dress and clearly I’m a big fan of looking like bacon….but a pink pig onesie ??? I did wear it. Okay it was only for an hour or so but then I had to get changed into civilian clothes. The onesie was pastel pink, fleecy material and with my wig, it was far too warm. That was my excuse anyway.

I did say that if I had a choice between chemo and wearing a pig onesie, then I would take the toxic treatment any day.

That was until chemo no 3. Then I would have preferred the fluffy pink outfit. But it was still a close call!

Chemo #3

I didn’t realise it at the time but I think that it all started to go wrong with the chocolate milk. The night before my chemo I forgot to have my usual glass of cold, sweet milk. I read somewhere that it helps you prepare for the onslaught of cancer-kicking chemicals. Not sure how much science there is to that but it’s a comforting routine.

It was dark when we set out for the hospital on Tuesday morning. My aunt Judy was driving us. She was a games maker driver for the Olympics so I knew I was in safe hands. But the miserable weather and sloooooow traffic jams seemed determined to conspire against us. Then I remembered about the missed milk. I knew it was going to be one of those days.

When we arrived I noticed that the room on the chemo ward, which was to be my base for many hours ahead, had a stopped clock. That just about summed up how I felt.

If you’re not ill, you may think that its terrible what I’m going though. It is. But I also get to see the other side. At hospital there are many people who are far worse than I am. Clearly it means that there are sometimes emergencies and delays which can’t be predicted. I don’t mind waiting, I’m just relived that its me left sitting there, instead of causing the consultants to come rushing off through the corridors.

I was told that my blood count was really good. It means my body is coping with the savage chemo regime and my immune system is recovering well in-between the sessions. The only problem is with magnesium. As always, it seems, this is far too low and I needed a bag of it via the IV drip. That added on another two and a half hours before the chemo kick-off. And so it went on.

But there was no drama for me, thankfully. Instead I had wonderful friends to entertain me who brought cakes, presents and gossip from the outside world. I feel so very lucky to have the support of lovely family and friends.

And I’ve saved the best for last. I had my first set of test results since the start of my latest lot of toxic cocktails. Big drum roll…..They show that the chemo is working!!!

After just one session of chemo, the tumour marker tests called the CA125, has dropped by a quarter. It’s amazing news and will help me get through all the horrible side effects to come. I’m already half way through my treatment. Just three more to go. Hooray!

Back home after a marathon 11 hours at hospital, I finally got that cold glass of chocolate milk. It was a sweet celebration.

Oh, by the way, happy 100 to me! This is my 100th blog post. I never thought I would do so much blogging. But continuing to blog means that I’m still here and still going strong. Thanks for reading and being there for me.

Chemo#2

Evil. Thats the only way I can describe chemotherapy. My second cycle of the treatment was horrific. Not the day itself. That was fine, fun in the usual speeding time with special people chatting, drinking coffee and trying to ignore the drip that was feeding me the toxic cocktail of drugs. No, it was the days afterwards that were hard to handle.

As the steroids wore off, the horrific-ness kicked in. It was one of the worst chemo hangovers that I can remember having. My mood felt as awful as the physical symptoms. The last time I felt that ill was last year when I was in intensive care following major surgery and a brief, unexpected, flirtation with dying.

The only positive thing I can say is that there was none of the nausea of chemo no 1. I didn’t have any projective vomiting yay! Thanks to everyone who tweeted me suggestions about what anti-sickness medicine I should try. The new tablets are working beautifully.

Then it lifted. After almost a week, the nasty chemo symptoms just left me. I’m still tired but at least I feel human again.

Luckily this happened just as I was due to do a day at work. Okay, it was down to more than just luck. I had thought that I’d be recovered by then.

You may be wondering why I still want to do my job. It’s totally my choice to work. I don’t want the cancer, the chemo and the uggggggh feelings to be the only things in my life. Besides, I really enjoy it.

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On Monday I was reporting on the impact of the storms for BBC News. It wasn’t feeling ill again that I was worried about but more the windy weather. This was my first day wearing a wig again. Not such perfect timing.

When I was stood outside I had the straps inside the wig on their tightest setting. It was a vice like grip and it hurt a bit but at least it kept my wig secure on my head. There would be no chance that a cheeky gust of wind would give it lift off!

It’s the same wig as I wore on TV before, only my hairdresser Angela has given it a new look. I do have a whole new autumn/winter collection of wigs to wear but I want to start off with something I’m comfortable with.

My hair seriously started to fall out just as I was feeling so desperately ill. Great big handfuls of my lovely, new hair. I almost had a proper fringe. It seemed that most of it slid off at night and onto my pillow. Previously my hair has slowly left me so the speed at which I went bald this time was a shock. It took about a week before all I had was some lonely tufts. It looked as horrific as I felt.

This is one of the hardest parts of the treatment. You understand that you are going to be very ill but it the fact you lose your hair as well is very upsetting. You no longer look like yourself. The chemo takes away your identity.

I knew there was something unpleasant I had to do. A few days ago I had what remained of my hair shaved off. There is nothing left. My appearance has gone from poorly to pop star. Now I look like Jessie J when she shaved her head. Ha! I’m only joking. My head looks all white and weird however it is better than it was. Most importantly, instead of letting the chemo do something to me, I took charge. And this makes me feel strong again.

20 on the List for Living

20) Present a BBC Radio 4 programme

Yay! I’ve done something else on my List for Living. Last Sunday I presented the BBC Radio 4 programme, Pick of the Week. It was a very special moment and a privilege to have this opportunity.

This is something that I’d wanted to do for years. When I returned back to Britain from being a foreign correspondent, I enjoyed doing some presenting for the BBC World Service. From time to time I’d front the World Briefing programme. I also wanted to become a presenter at Radio 4. It’s a station which I love reporting for and listening to. But when the cancer returned last year, I had to put that dream on hold.

Writing my List for Living made me realise that it was something I still wanted to do. I applied to join the mentoring scheme run by the Sound Women development group for women working in radio. I was successful and the Radio 4 presenter Martha Kearney became my mentor. With her help and brilliant encouragement I started to try again.

It was an incredible feeling to finally be able to present a show on Radio 4.

I would really like to write more about this but I had more chemo a few days ago. I’m feeling horribly ill. It’s as if I’m in the middle of the worst ever hangover. I can barely stand up. My whole body hurts. Oh and just to make everything seem even worse, almost all my hair has fallen out.

So instead of saying anything more, here is my Pick of the Week and my debut as a Radio 4 presenter!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03df77g

(You’ll have to be quick though as this is only available until Sunday evening.)

28 on the List for Living

28) Zoom down a zip wire

Really, what was I thinking?? Why did I want to dangle in the air, held only by a few ropes? Fly across a quarry so deep that it’s used as a diving centre? I had ages to wonder as we waited for our turn on the zip wire.

I had been lulled into a false sense of security. When we got to The Wire in Chepstow there was a picture of a woman doing to zip wire and she had a seat. It kinda looked like she was on a swing. Great, that’s what I’ll do. But do you think my friends would let me take the easy option? Of course not!

There big of group of us. Rache, my friend who loves fancy dress, organised the day. Thankfully without any fancy outfits although she did point out to us that she’d seen a video of Batman and Robin riding the wire.

This is billed as one of the longest, tallest and fastest zip slides in the UK. It reaches speeds of up to 40 miles an hour.

To get to the start of the ride you have to walk around the quarry that you will zoom over. That certainly gets your heart pumping. It makes you realise just how far you are going to go.

At the top of the quarry, on the edge of the cliff, is a high platform with a ramp that you have to walk up. You have to then climb up a small stop ladder. From there the only way is down. And over the water. Very fast.

I lined up with Denise, one of my oldest friends from school. We were both strapped in and petrified. She went first. I had to wait and watch as she zipped off and away. The man in charge pointed out the Severn Bridge in the misty distance. My legs were turning to jelly.

Finally, it was my turn. I’d like to say I took a leap of faith. But actually it was more of a tentative step. Then whoosh. The feeling was incredible. I was flying through the air. After a few seconds of sheer terror, it felt peaceful being above the water. I loved zooming on the zip wire.

Doing something like this makes you understand that fear is only a feeling. It doesn’t mean you can’t do something. What I really enjoy about doing my List for Living is that it’s such a great excuse to have fun with friends. We laughed, we screamed and we all survived.

You may have heard those screams in my BBC World Service documentary, The Bucket List. If you missed it, here’s a link to the programme.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01j9ghq/The_Documentary_The_Bucket_List/

Now we are looking forward to our next adventure. This time it does involve fancy dress. The thing that will be the most frightening will be what we are wearing!

The Bucket List

You’ve read about the things that I’ve done on my List for Living. Zooming down a zip wire, glass blowing and being driven fast around a race track in a sports car. Well, now you’re going to be able to hear me doing them!

My radio documentary, The Bucket List, is on the BBC World Service tomorrow (Monday) at 9am and again at 8pm. I’m so excited; I can’t wait to hear it being broadcast.

It’s not just my programme. The Bucket List has been produced by Rebecca Maxted, the award winning maker of beautiful radio. I have to admit that she did all the hard work.

It all started off with a chance compliment about my hair. Only I had no hair. I was wearing Raquel, my short blond wig at the time. Now, many months later, our documentary all ready to be aired. It’s about much more than just my List for Living. I interviewed some amazing people. Just a warning though, it may make you cry.

Ahead of the documentary being broadcast, you may have seen an article I wrote for the BBC News magazine.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24477163

If that’s how you found my blog, then a big hello and welcome along!

There’s been an incredible response to the piece. So many lovely, heart-warming comments. Also I’ve had many offers of help for my List for Living including two marriage proposals!

Thank you.

 

Chemo #1

Memory is a power thing. Sometimes it’s the ability to forget that’s just as important as the stuff you remember. This is my fourth course of chemotherapy. Or to put it another way last Tuesday I had my 30th session! That seems like more than enough toxic drugs for one lifetime. Clearly not for me.

It all started off in a familiar way. I had a small operation to have a new PICC line put into my arm. Just like I had last time, the PICC allows blood to be taken out and drugs to go in without having to bother my rubbish veins with a needle.

It’s hard to describe what happens without being too gruesome. Basically a good vein was selected and after some local anaesthetic, a cut was made in my arm. The same vein was used as before so a tiny scar marked the spot. A thin, flexible cable went into my arm and into the vein. I’d forgotten how it was going to hurt.

The chemo itself was just the same as always. For my fellow cancer fighters who may be interested, this time I’m on taxol and carboplatin. New for this season is the red coloured modesty bag to cover the plastic pouch of chemicals.

The medicine that always makes me sleepy, knocked me out for chunks of the afternoon. Despite this I realised that I hadn’t remembered how the hours really drag while attached to the IV machine as litres of liquid are pumped into your veins. As it’s one session every three weeks, it’s a long day of drugs.

Checking out the glass with a chemo cocktail

But it wasn’t all dozing and dragging the drip to the loo. I had a visit from my friend Chantal, the flower girl and fellow glass blower. She’d gone and collected our work that we did because of my List for Living. Still bubble wrapped, she carefully placed my five pieces of glass on the bedside table. Wow I was blown away – I was really liked how they’d turned out! Also it was so good have something lovely there that wasn’t connected to my stupid disease.

Once the drip was done and the glass was packed up, I wasn’t too ill In fact, I felt good, really good. Filled with happiness. I felt like me on a very good day. Oh yes – there’s that steroid high again. It was a brilliant surprise.

What came next hasn’t been so pleasant. Chronic sickness has now been joined by fatigue, dizziness and joint pain. Uggggggh I hate it so much. I’m glad that I’d forgotten just how dreadful chemo makes you feel. At least I still have a couple more weeks before I have another toxic cocktail.

Back again

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I never thought this would happen so soon. I had hoped to have a cancer-free Christmas but that’s not to be. I have another tumour lurking inside me.

I start another round of chemotherapy today. I’ll have it every three weeks. It’ll mean a chemo session on Christmas Eve.

Of course, I knew that it was likely. When you have advanced cancer like mine you’re told to expect it to keep coming back, each time quicker than the last.

My last chemo ended in May. I arranged my next check-up at the very end of August. I wanted to leave it as long as possible, but not too long, if that makes sense. In the weeks leading up to the hospital date my body was full of pain. I feared the cancer had not just come back but it had spread. What the doctors call metastasis. One of the most evil words you’ll ever hear as a patient.

Two weeks before the appointment I had a blood test. It was taken after a busy day at work. I felt so alive, surely, I thought to myself I must be okay.

But no. The result was bad. It was no longer the perfect ten, the score had almost doubled. There and then I had to repeat the test. When the result came back the number had doubled again. It seemed like my worst fears were coming true.

Later a scan confirmed that the cancer was active again. It turns out that my new tumour is small and thin and not too far away from the last one. Along with sadness, anger and frustration there was some relief that it hadn’t spread. Apparently a lot of the pain was caused by stress and scar tissue.

Now that I know what’s causing the pain, it hardly hurts at all. I don’t look like I’m ill and I don’t feel it either. This is the best I’m going to be until next spring so I’m celebrating that with a picture.

After my diagnosis last Christmas Eve when I found out that my cancer had become incurable I was told to get my affairs in order which I sort of did but not really. You don’t want to think that you really have to. However now I’m more prepared. Last week I wrote my will. That was a hard day.

So here we go with more chemo. Uggggh. It’s all exactly the same. It makes me want to cry being back again so soon. The same walk along the dolphin corridor to the treatment centre. Seeing the same lovely nurses. Sitting in the same chair. Having the same side effects for the same anti-cancer drugs. Being pumped full of the same steroids. And losing my hair once more.

But I do have something very special on my side that’s making me smile and it’s not just James Bond.

Along with the conventional chemo, I’m also taking part in a clinical trial. I’ll take a tablet every day which could make the chemo more effective and stabilise my cancer. It’s very exciting as the results of the trial so far are looking very good. It’s having hope that’s keeping me going and got me out of bed this morning. Now I’m just waiting for it all the begin.

Stupid, stupid cancer. You have no idea how much of a kicking you’re about to get.