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.

45 on the List for Living

45) Go glassblowing

I have always loved glass. The cold, smooth surface, the vibrant colours and the way it looks when illumined by light.. As a was a teenager I collected so much retro glass that I had no where left to put it!

Ever since then I’ve fancied having a go at glass blowing. I thought it was something that I would do some day. The trouble is that some day never really happens. Having a List for Living means that the some day has come.

My friend Chantal, the flower girl, organised the day. As a creative person this is something that she has always wanted to do too. When I was writing my list Chantal told me she knew the perfect place.

We went to the London Glassblowing Studio. It’s considered to be one of Europe’s leading glassmaking workshops and it shows. The art that’s displayed in the gallery is incredible. As our lesson started I felt very inspired. My teacher was the talented glass artist Louis Thompson. He helped me to create a snowman. Yes, the first thing I made was a clear glass snowman! But we managed to progress onto more complicated pieces.

Chantal and I had one to one tuition and we managed to make several items. Her work was delicate whereas I like my glass to be chunky.

It may not look too complicated but this is hot and heavy work. I had to borrow a t-shirt so I could cover up. The furnaces are heated to hundreds of degrees centigrade. As soon as I got close it felt that my skin was screaming.

To start with you get a lump of almost liquid glass. You manipulate it. Twirling, moulding and squashing. Keeping it hot by putting it in the glory hole (yes it really is called that) every so often. Advancing onto adding colour and bubbles. And then you come onto the actual glass blowing. It was so hard that it made me dizzy.

It was amazing to watch a lump of molten glass on the end of a metal pole transform into something stunning. It’s hard to believe what we were able to make.

It all had to go into a special kiln for a day or so to cool down very slowly. It meant we had to leave our work there so I’m yet to see the finished glass!

Over the last year and a half Chantal has spend lots of time helping me with hospital stuff. She’s given me countless lifts in her massive flower van. This was a lovely opportunity to do something together which didn’t involve anything medical and to create something so very beautiful.

Honoured

Twenty years after graduating I was back at my old university. Once again I was wearing a long black robe. But this graduation ceremony at Goldsmiths College was very different to last time.

I was there to receive an honorary fellowship. It was such a wonderful surprise when I found out that I’d been nominated. I was put foward by my lovely radio lecturer Tim Crook for services to journalism – my work as a BBC correspondent and this blog!

The ceremony was held in Goldsmith’s grand hall. One by one the students from my old course came onto the stage to receive their degrees.

I may be a little bit older than most of them but I felt like I should be sat where they were, rather than on the stage next to Warden and the Chair of the college.

I felt more nervous that I did two decades ago. Right at the end of the ceremony I had to give a speech. Hundreds of people were watching; this was much more scary than any live broadcast.

Then I was made an honorary fellow. With my mum and dad sat in the front row, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Being back at uni made me think about my career and my big foreign adventure. I realised that it if wasn’t for the cancer when I was 30, I probably wouldn’t have achieved half of the things I have. I also doubt that I would have got this honorary fellowship. It’s a strange feeling having brilliant things happen while at the same time as I have a killer disease.

It made me think about an incredible woman I recently interviewed. It was for a documentary I’m making for the BBC World Service about bucket lists. Susan Spencer-Wendel is terminally ill with ALS, a condition which destroys the nerves that powers her muscles. She wrote the bestseller, Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy.

Reading the book has helped me to understand these kind of experiences. Susan talks about making the best possible outcome from the worst possible circumstances. That’s exactly how I feel.

Almost 1,2,3 on the List for Living!

Hooray I’ve found a place in the countryside! It’s a fantastic feeling to be well on my way to doing the top three things on my List for Living.

1) Move to the countryside

2) Live in my own house

3) Get a dog

I’ve wanted to move to the countryside for a long time. It’s so easy to say that you’ll do it one day but just not yet. It was only after I’d been diagnosed with cancer for the third time that I knew I had to stop dreaming and get on with it.

After I’d come up with my list and I was going through chemo once again I would think about all the lovely things I was going to do. I imagined that I’d move in a honey-coloured cottage somewhere in a picture postcard village. Complete with wooden floors, timber beams and an open fire.

Ha, the reality is very different.

My new place has every kind of coloured carpet, polystyrene tiles on the ceiling and this ugly fireplace made of bricks. But that doesn’t matter. Soon it will all be gone and this will be my home.

That is, after a whole load of work.

It’s good to be able to focus on something that’s not cancer related. We need to replace decades of decorating. Just for starters, all the wallpaper has to be striped off the walls. In what must have once been a children’s bedroom, sometime in the 1960’s, we have just got back to the Magic Roundabout.

Once Zebedee and his friends are out and the place is a bit more modern I’ll be able to move in. Then I can start looking for a dog.  Something else I’m really looking forward to. It will be a while though.

I’m already finding the waiting quite hard. When you’re told you might not have long to live, it’s difficult to make plans. You want it all to happen NOW! Anything more than a few weeks away and I wonder if I’m still going to be around.

But here I am. And I’m confident that I will be able to tick off number 1,2 and 3 from my List for Living. After all these are some of the things that mean the most to me.

Super special tights

No matter how hot the weather you’re now going to find me wearing thick black tights. Even sat outside in the blazing bank holiday sun at a country show.

These are no ordinary tights. They’re very special. They’re going to make me feel a lot less exhausted. I’ve recently been told that I have lymphedema and these tights will help ease the symptoms. This condition makes your legs ache and – surprise, surprise – it also causes severe tiredness.

Ever since my last lot of chemo my feet and ankles have been very swollen. It got to the point where most of my shoes didn’t fit. I thought it was just water retention, a side effect of the killer chemicals.

But it turns I have lymphedema. It’s caused by the massive operation I had almost a year and a half ago. At least one of my lymph nodes was removed. It may have been more, I can’t remember. Your network of lymph nodes act as a waste disposal system. They help to transport toxic fluid out of the body. If the stuff isn’t properly pumped through lymphatic system then it builds up and leads to swelling.

After the surgery I was told that my lymphatic system may not work normally, but what with all the nightmare of that time, I completely forgot all about it.

That was until The Professor reminded me and diagnosed the lymphedema. By that point it wasn’t just my feet and ankles but also my legs and hands were swollen.

Since then I’ve been having medical massages which have really helped although afterwards I feel totally wiped out. It didn’t take long for it to work its magic. I also need to do daily exercises. I’ve watched as the swelling has gone down.

Now I can see my ankles again and I can’t help admiring them. Lymphedema is something which you can treat but never cure. It means that I will have to keep on wearing the special black tights. For ever. So I’m really looking forward to winter!

Bloomin’ well

floIt’s been a while. Far too long since I last updated this blog. I’d like to say that I’ve been away on some grand adventure. But no. I’ve just been shattered. I’m glad to say that my radio silence is not due to being ill again.

It feels like I’m being stalked by tiredness. I can’t just shake it off. Whenever I think that I’ve beaten it and I do more, like have a sort of normal day, it comes back again and knocks me sideways.

Of course I’ve spent plenty of time over the last year and a half being exhausted. But this is a constant and enduring kind of frustrating fatigue. My bones and muscles feel hollow.

I haven’t stopped doing things but I tend to do less and at a much more leisurely pace. This gives you more of an appreciation of the simple pleasures in life. I’ve been enjoying spending time with family and catching up with friends including some that I haven’t seen for decades!

Also I’ve now found new ways of being active without moving much. I’ve started doing a bit of gardening. Well, pruning roses in my parent’s garden. I either stand or sit and chop away. I quite like cutting out the dead and dying parts of the plant and ending up with a rose bush that’s very much alive. I’ve been surprised at how therapeutic it is. Plus it makes my arms ache, in a good way.

Back in the day before all the cancer stuff happened I had a personal trainer. One of the things we used to work on was improving my fitness so I’d be better at netball. My PT used to make me work so hard that I’d swear at him which he loved as he knew he was doing his job properly.

I don’t see my personal trainer anymore but not so long ago he sent me a present in the post. Inside a massive cardboard box was a netball. Now I spent small packets of time throwing the ball in the air, sometimes when I’m sat in my comfy chair in the living room. When you’re so unbelievably tired being able to do small things means so much.

Despite being wiped out most of the time, I do feel well. It’s now three months since my chemo ended. I’m gradually beginning to believe that things may not turn out quite as bad as I’d expected. After my devastating diagnosis in December I thought my life would now be a relentless circle of cancer-chemo-cancer-chemo etc with little time to recover in-between. Now I’m daring to think the gap between may be long and lovely.

Recently someone asked me what happens next. I replied that I was just waiting for the cancer to become active again. But as soon as I said it, I knew that wasn’t right. I’m doing anything but waiting. It was at that moment I realised something special. While the disease is dormant I’m getting on with enjoying life even though it’s now a seriously slow pace.