Happier New Year

This may seem a bit late but pretty much most of Christmas and the New Year has passed me by. There were some lovely moments however far too much of the last few weeks have been a blur of illness, aches and a throat full of the most painful mouth ulcers.

When it gets this bad you have to pause your life. Most of the stuff you want to do just doesn’t happen. You have a constant exhaustion. Meanwhile it seems like everything around you just carries on as normal. Recently there have been some wonderful comments on my blog. Thank you. I’m sorry that I don’t have the energy to reply right now but they’re all read and apperciated.

The three weeks recovery time after chemo no 5 are always the worst because it’s the penultimate load of drugs. The build up of toxic chemicals is horrific. There is no real chance to recover before the final session. Somehow chemo no 6 doesn’t seem quite so awful as you know that the treatment is over. At least for the time being.

So it was on Christmas Eve that I had chemo no 5. This was exactly a year after being told that the disease I’d thought I’d fought off was advanced and would kill me someday soon. What is it about my cancer that ensures I spend Christmas Eve at hospital??

This year there were no mince pies as we waited. It didn’t matter as I’m not allowed to eat on the morning of my chemo anyway. But there was some Christmas cheer on the ward. Especially as my friend Chantal brought along some festive flowers.

I saw the same lovely consultant as the year before. I’ve been her patient for so long. We have shared some Incredible highs….she gave me the all clear from my ever first lot of cancer. And more recently, some terrible lows…on Christmas Eve 2012 she explained that I may only have months to live.

But Christmas Eve 2013 seemed so much more positive. The latest test results were encouraging and showed that the chemo was giving my latest tumour a good kicking. Most importantly I was still alive! Still able to sit in that small, bright room and talk about my future. On the way out I gave my consultant a hug. I thanked her for helping to prolong my life. There’s not many people you can say that to!

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It wasn’t great being in hospital at that time of year. But at least we were all able to leave at the end of the day. There was a unique feeling that we had something special waiting for us when the treatment finished. Normally all you have to look forward to is projectile vomiting and a chemo hangover.

Even my bag of drugs had a Christmassy look. As they slipped into my veins I had a dreamless doze under a thin, blue blanket. When I woke up it was time for Christmas.

That night, when we got back, I slept in my own home. I’ve now properly moved to the countryside. Thats no 1 and 2 that I’ve been able to tick off my List for Living! It means I’ve stayed alive long enough to do the most important on my list. As I fell asleep I was happy that this Christmas Eve was much better than the last one.

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

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.

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.

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.

Chemo#17

Hooray this was my last ever chemo!

Well, not quite. But last for some time, hopefully. Appropriately enough, I had the treatment in the same side room as my last, last ever chemo, last year.

For the final dose I had to go past the garden of tears to get to the chemo unit. It’s a small square of green outside the hospital where you can go if you need a moment. It was there that I posed for photographs to celebrate my last chemo nine months ago. This garden reminds me of the brief time last year when I was cancer free.

When I saw it I thought I’d be sad but I felt surprisingly good. It’s hard to believe that I’ve had so many toxic chemo cocktails and yet I didn’t feel too ill. I think that my spin around Silverstone with David Coulthard from my List for Living gave me such a boost that the side effects hadn’t been so awful.

As I entered the revolving doors I was glad that I was able to walk into the hospital. I had the physical strength to get in there myself. I didn’t need any assistance. And, most importantly, I was still able to have treatment. I may be living with cancer now but it can still help me. That’s perhaps also why I didn’t feel too terrible. Chemo has become part of my life.

I may have felt well when I went in. But hours of poisoning later and it was a different story. I felt so drugged up. It seemed like I’d been given extra strong stuff as it was the last one session. Chantal, my friend the flower girl, slowly led me back out of the hospital afterwards. My woozyness and the wet weather outside meant we didn’t linger for photos. Besides, I knew that I’d be back but I wasn’t focusing on that.

For 11 out of the past 14 months I’ve had cancer treatment. I really need a break from it all. Chantal drove me back to my parents in her flower van. As we headed through the rain to the countryside I was dreaming of my chemo holiday.

No 36 on the List for Living

36) Be driven very fast around a race track in a sports car

Yay! It’s another big tick for my List for Living.

But it didn’t quite happen how I imagined it would. When I came up with no 36 on my list I thought that a friend of a friend with a flash car would take me for a ride. We’d probably drive around a small, local race track and that would be it.

However my friend Amanda who’s a sports presenter for CNN had a rather different idea and offered to help arrange something much more special. The former Formula 1 driver David Coulthard straight away agreed to take me for a spin around Silverstone. Who better to drive me than someone who’d twice won the British Grand Prix on the legendary circuit.

We set a date in-between my chemo sessions near the end of my treatment. It gave me something really exciting to look forward to.

I have to admit that I was nervous. These days the most frightening things in my life tend to be appointments with my oncologists to discuss my stupid cancer. So as DC helped to get me all kitted up, it felt brilliant to be scared about something that was going to be so much fun.

It was pretty surreal being there. The day before I was in a hospital bed hooked up to a drip of toxic drugs. As the poison slipped into the veins I looked at the race track on the internet using my iPad. I tried hard not to listen to the two elderly patients next to me who were comparing their cancers.

Less than 24 hours later I was at Silverstone.

Porsche lent us a 911 for the occasion – £100,000 worth of car. When it comes to being in a hospital bed verses a Porsche, I know which one I prefer!

We zoomed out of the pit lane. As soon as we went past the green light at the start of the track DC accelerated so hard that it took my breath away. I wanted to scream but nothing came out. He told me this was just a warm up so I’d get used to the speed. A warm up?!?

‘’Are you ready for the first corner?’’ I just about squeaked a yes.

I soon understood why he’d checked. Braking into a corner felt almost like doing an emergency stop at full speed.

Then we got fast, real fast.

David was very relaxed, pointing out the best parts of the circuit. Apart from his hands on the steering wheel, he didn’t seem to move much. Meanwhile I lurched from side to side, gripping the door handle for support. Once I got my breath back I managed lots of screams and plenty of oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-god. My fear was so funny and we laughed our way around the track.

There were a couple of other cars out there. For a few seconds we hovered behind them. Then over the noise of the engine I shouted “take ‘em”. DC was more than happy to oblige asking if I wanted him to use the inside or outside lane.

I’m sure the other cars were driving quickly but it was clear we were in a totally different class. Every time we overtook them, it almost felt like we were supersonic.

Our top speed was around 145 mph!

It was terrifyingly thrilling and yet I felt very safe. Even if I couldn’t stop myself from being thrown around the Porsche every time we went around a corner.

We did two laps of the Grand Prix circuit. It was an amazing ride. When I stepped out of the car I was a bit shaky but very happy.

Cancer takes away lots of the good stuff in your life. It creates many lows. You spend far too much time thinking about death. My List for Living is all about ensuring that I have plenty of highs too.

This gave me such an adrenalin buzz. It felt like I’d just a won a race. Standing on the edge of the track with Amanda and David afterwards, I realised that doing something incredibly scary had made me feel so very alive.

Amanda Davies, myself and David Coulthard
©James Rudd

A massive thanks to Amanda, David Coulthard and his BBC team, Silverstone and Porsche for making it all happen.