No 10, 30 and 48 on the List for Living!

10) Snorkel on a coral reef

30) Go coasteering 

48) Sail alongside a pod of dolphins at sea

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All I wanted to do was go on holiday. To relax and enjoy some sunshine in Oman with my friend Chantal, the flower girl. And thats exactly what I did a few weeks ago. But also I was able to do some things on my List for Living which was an amazing bonus! 

Even before we’d arrived I managed to persuade Chantal to come snorkelling with me despite the fact she’s not a fan of boats. She gets bad sea sickness. I promised her it would be fun. But I didn’t realise it would be quite so adventurous. When I’ve done snorkelling before its been pretty easy. You jump into the sea, have a little snorkel about and then get back on the boat. Hahaha this time it was very different. 

This was hardcore snorkelling. We swam along the coastline following our guide who was the most incredible swimmer. It was just a shame we weren’t! Up until that week I hadn’t swam for almost two years, for a long time I’d had a PICC line for the chemo which went into my arm and could not get wet because of a risk of infection.

I took my time, slowly drifting over spectacular coral reef, watching colourful fish up close. I found Nemo and millions of his friends. But when I looked up I was always trailing well behind everyone else.

I used to be a really strong swimmer but that was a long time ago. To start with I wondered how I was going to keep up. There was nowhere to rest. As we got further along the coast, I was tired but also surprised that I wasn’t totally knackered. The flippers you wear on your feet helped but it seemed that my body remembered that it liked to go for a long swim.

Towards the end I picked up the pace and got alongside the guide. Not because I was suddenly full of energy, it was mostly out of fear! The sea had become quite rough. I was on one side of the guide, Chantal on the other. She had the same idea. My friend admitted afterwards that by this point she was feeling sea sick in the waves. However just before we were able to get back on the boat, we were rewarded with the wonderful sight of a large turtle. I was so relieved when we finally got back on the boat. 

This was snorkelling and coasteering all rolled into one. If I’d had known how tough it was going to be I wouldn’t have signed us up. But I’m so glad we went. Just like other times when I’ve done stuff on my List for Living something special happened – my body came alive in an unexpected but amazing way.

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On the journey back to our beach Chantal, understandably, asked if I minded if she didn’t come on any more boat trips. 

A few days later I set out on my own. This time I hoped to see dolphins out at sea, something I wanted to do for a long time.

One of my favourite stories that I reported on as the BBC’s correspondent in Ukraine was about military dolphins. The creatures lived at a Ukrainian navy base in the Crimea. During Soviet times this is where dolphins were trained for top secret military operations. When I visited the animals were being used to help children. Youngsters with mental health problems were allowed to swim with them. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by dolphins and wanted to see them in the wild.

In Oman the boat trip I’d chosen looked good but there was no guarantee. I even had to sign a form to say I realised that I might not get to see any. As we left the harbour, the captain announced that we would see pods of dolphins in a few minutes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I though to myself. But he was right.

All of a sudden, there was a group of dolphins swimming alongside us. My heart flipped. It was just so magical.

Every time the dolphins leapt out of the water or a new pod appeared, the only sound you could hear was oooohs from the ten or so passengers on board the boat.

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My pictures aren’t brilliant as I spent most of the time watching rather than clicking away. The dolphins seemed to play a game of tag with us. They would appear at the side of the boat, swim alongside us then go out in front. Our boat would stop, the dolphins would go on ahead. Then they’d circle back to us. There were several pods, it was hard to know where to look at times.

This was one of the best experiences of my life. I love my List for Living. Without it I might never have seen these incredible creatures in the wild.

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Now I’m back at home, I’ve finally got around to updating my List for Living. There were some things that I’m never going to be able to do. I have to be realistic. Run a 5K? These days I couldn’t even walk it. My bucket list is now a bit less adventurous. I’ve replaced some of the more difficult items with equally lovely but far more achieveable things which I’d like to do.

Chemo holiday holiday!

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Hello again. I know it’s been a while. I’ve been on holiday. Yes, an actual, proper holiday during my chemo holiday! If you’re not seriously ill then you’ll probably find it hard to appreciate just what a huge deal this is.

For a start planning ahead is hard. I never know how I’m going to how I’m going to feel tomorrow let alone in a few weeks. You have to be relatively well to get on a plane. Your immune system needs to be strong enough to deal with a cabin full of other people’s germs. Then you worry that when you get there you might get ill.

Dreaming of a holiday got me through the last lot of chemo and the worst of the recovery period. I didn’t mind where I went I just wanted somewhere warm with good hospitals.

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And it was great. I went to Muscat and Dubai with Chantal, my friend the flower girl. All the photos of our lovely holiday were taken by her.

I was able to forget about all the cancer nonsense. It was hot, relaxing and I didn’t get ill at all. While I was away I was able to tick a few more things of my List for Living! More of that in a later post.

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Apart from the holiday I haven’t done too much else. I’ve just been concentrating on recovering.

If you imagine that each course of chemo is like running a marathon. You focus on finishing. It takes all your strength just to get round the course. You want that medal around your neck and a nice hot bath. But each time you cross the finishing line it seems that you barely enough time to catch your breath before you have to run another one. There’s no choice, you have to run to stay alive. Each marathon is harder than the last. That’s why the recover has seemed tougher than ever.

Some of the side effects, like the sickness and the nausea, faded quite quickly. But the fatigue has been worse than ever. The problem is that the chemo made me so ill that I lost what little fitness I had. Anything that doesn’t involve lying down is such an effort.

A few days ago I was talking my coat off. As I took my arm out of the coat sleeve, my arm accidentally slipped out of my cardigan. For a few seconds I felt like I didn’t have enough energy to put my arm into the cardigan sleeve. I did manage it of course. But it’s tiny things which make you realise how far you still have to go.

It’s relentless. You think that you’re making progress and then the next day you’re needing a sleep in the middle of the afternoon. It’s so very frustrating. But finally I am getting better. I’m beginning to feel like myself again and that feels good. 

When you have cancer and body goes through such ongoing trauma you need to be mentally strong. To get round the chemo marathons and to keep going during the recovery. Such a big part of coping with this disease is dealing with the difficult thoughts that come with it.

Every few weeks I see a cancer counsellor. It’s an opportunity to talk frankly. The best part is that I can get upset but he doesn’t. It’s kind of like chemo for the nasty thoughts caused by the disease. They are blasted away. Only with this talking treatment I always walk out feeling much better. The counsellor often gives me a new perspective on my problems.

The hardest thing to come to terms with is that my life will be cut short. We were chatting about this during my last session and my counsellor told me that he thinks of me like a butterfly. They might not be alive for long but flutter about and seem to have a great time.

One of my favourite places to sit and rest is in my garden. I watch the birds and occasionally the neighbours cats but I’d never seen a butterfly there before. Since seeing my counsellor I’ve noticed lots of them. It makes me so happy when I see these bright, beautiful creatures. Now they seem to be everywhere.

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No 8 on the List for Living!

8) Visit Pompeii and drive along the Amalfi coast 

It’s funny how one road trip can lead to another. A few years ago I was traveling across Italy with my friend and colleague Sean. We’d just finished a long work trip. As we drove towards Rome, Sean told me all about the beauty of the Amalfi coast. I’d never been there but it sounded so wonderful that I was determined to visit one day. I’d also wanted to go to Pompeii for a long time. To wander through its ancient streets. So I decided to put them together on my List for Living. When my friend Kath saw this she was delighted. This is one of her favourite parts in the world. Many years ago we were flatmates and since then we’ve traveled loads together. Kath has visited me in every single country I’ve lived in, sometime more than once. We’ve had some brilliant adventures around the world! Visiting Pompeii and the Amalfi coast was even more incredible than I imagined. It was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had.

 

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No 17 on the List for Living!

17) Go into space

Yes, I’m really being sent on a mission into space!! I’ve got myself a round trip ride on to the asteroid Bennu. I will be on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx space craft. Okay, I’m not actually becoming an astronaut but my name is going into space!

I’m going to get an intergalactic adventure, sort of, without any of the dangers. My name will soon be up in the solar system with the stars. In tiny little letters, it’s going to be etched onto a microchip which will be taken aboard a spacecraft which is jetting off to the asteroid Bennu.

As far as I’m concerned this means I can tick off number 17 from my List for Living!

It’s not just me going. Last year NASA and The Planetary Society invited anyone to submit their name. Our microchip will travel into space in 2016. The robotic mission will then spend a couple of years there before returning home.

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It’s going to be cosmic!

No 9 on the List for Living!

9) Explore the ancient ruins in Rome

Rome is one of the most wonderful cities in the world. I loved it from the first time that I visited as a teenage backpacker. I’ve been back several times and on every single occasion I have somehow managed to fail to go inside the Coliseum or the Roman Forum despite my best efforts. Last year my friends Ruth, Lynne, Lisa, AK and Carolyn helped me to put this right. Although on the first day we didn’t make it! But we tried again. Thank you girls for getting up really, really early so we could beat the queues. It was brilliant to finally see these fantastic sights and tick it off my List for Living however it was even better to have a trip away with special friends.

 

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Spoonfulness

Wow it’s been a while. So hello again!

I haven’t been writing for the past few weeks or so as I’ve just been incredibly tired. I’m still short of magnesium. Stupid, stupid magnesium. Ever since January when chemo ended I’ve been having a weekly IV drip of the stuff. Hours of being hooked up to a machine on the chemo ward. There’s been no escaping that place!

I’ve gone from having almost non-existent levels of magnesium to having half what is considered normal. Thats where it’s stopped. For ages my levels have refused to budge. Here’s the irony….having chemo depleted my stores of magnesium so I need more but because of the chemo my kidneys can’t retain it.

It’s so very frustrating. Plus on top of the exhaustion, it also causes muscle weakness and cramps.

With limited energy I have to be quite selective about what I do and how I spend my spoons. I’ve mentioned the spoons before. When you have such fatigue it helps to think of what energy you do have as something tangible like spoons. You only get so many spoons a day. Sometimes none at all. There has been a severe spoon shortage just lately and so I’ve been using them sparingly.

I have used some spoons on exciting things. Hopefully soon I will blog about what done from my List for Living but have been too tired to write about!

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.)