HOPE OVERFLOWING

stories of grace, hope and life beyond cancer


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The uneasy dance of life and death – my fifth cancerversary

I am so often struck by the stark contrasts of this world, and particularly how sorrow and joy seem to be able to move together in a sort of uncomfortable dance, each one rising and receding in turn. It seems to me that life and death are so often the couple intertwined in this dance and I find their uneasy coexistence difficult to wrap my head around.

It is one of those weeks where I have a heightened awareness of both life and death. Life – because today is my cancerversary and marks five years since the day that rocked my world and I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. But also death – because yesterday I attended the funeral of a vibrant young woman called Sarah, who had recently celebrated her 32nd birthday and who got married last year and whose life was claimed by breast cancer just a few weeks ago. Yesterday we celebrated her life by marking her death.

The unfairness of this situation is not lost on me. As I sat in the church at the funeral yesterday wondering how granny was getting on with planting strawberries with the boys, I was reminded that it could quite easily have been my funeral that friends and family were gathering to attend. I was reminded that it didn’t have to have turned out like it did.

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As the family processed out of the church yesterday I was so struck by just how soon her life was claimed as her husband walked down the aisle out of the church, this time with no bride on his arm. This time he walked alone. I was struck by her untimely death by the presence of her grandparents at her funeral. Grandparents should not be burying their grandchildren. It’s just the wrong way around.

For me cancer plays a smaller and smaller role in my day to day life. But a few times a year when my hospital appointments roll around I have to engage with it once more. Almost two weeks ago I had my annual mammogram. It is always an event that I dread, not just because it is a pretty uncomfortable experience but rather because it always throws up worries that maybe all is not well after all. Perhaps the cancer has returned. This year I had my mammogram in the morning and in the afternoon we went away on holiday. We had the most glorious week away in the Cotswolds. The weather was gorgeous, the kids slept well every night and the days were filled with really fun outings. It was blissful, but occasionally the thought of my mammogram would creep back into my mind and I would wonder whether the postman had dropped a letter recalling me to the hospital through my post box yet.

The very first thing I did when we got back on Saturday was gather up the post and go through it all with a fine toothed comb looking for an envelope stamped with the hospital address. It wasn’t there. I hadn’t been recalled and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had somehow been granted a more time away from the clutches of this disease.

Sarah was the fifth young women in my sphere that has died from breast cancer in the past 12 months. Every few months I have been heartbroken at the news of another life taken and so celebrating my cancerversary this year feels very bitter sweet.

I am SO THANKFUL for another good year, to be healthy and to have the opportunity to enjoy a bit more of this life. I am so thankful for my family, my friends, my little business, opportunities to serve at church and in the community. I am so thankful that I am well enough to live a normal life and I feel blessed beyond measure. But today, in amongst it all I also feel so sad. I feel so sad for the lives gone, for the young children who have lost their mums and for the families who have lost daughters, sisters, aunties and friends.

I don’t know what it all means and I don’t know how to reconcile the unfairness of it all in my mind. I find that all I can do is cling on to the knowledge that it won’t always be this way and that one day all things will be made new and there will be no more sickness or crying or pain. But in the meantime, in the middle of the mess, these women encourage me to press on, to be thankful for each day, to run the race marked out for me and to choose to participate in the adventure.

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Why telling your story is so important

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I started this blog almost 5 years ago in the middle of the night whilst mid-chemotherapy and on a steroid induced high. Nobody told me not to take the steroids in the evening so wakeful nights were a feature of this phase of my life (although to be honest I am writing this late at night too, on my phone, because I have these thoughts pinging about in my head that need to be verbalised before sleep will come… I guess some things don’t change).

People sometimes ask me why I started blogging and for me the answer multi-faceted. I started blogging because I felt like I had to – I had something burning in my heart that needed to come out. I needed to be heard. I needed to wave my hand and say, “Hey! It’s me! I know all you see is a cancer patient at the lowest point of her life but that’s not all there is to me. I have something to give too even if it’s small.” I started blogging because I knew I needed to share stories of hope and grace because there is a lot of scary stuff out there on the internet when you are living the cancer story.

I started blogging because I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to tell my story of pain and grief but also my story of hope and perseverance. I wanted to tell the story of what it is to be struck down but not destroyed because even in one’s darkest moments pain is not all there is to life and blessing is still there to be found.

So although that’s why I started, why I kept going with it (albeit in a much more stop-start way than I would ideally have liked) is because of the impacts that telling my story has had both on me and on others.

I think one of the things that I have found most wonderful and surprising about writing this blog is just how healing it has been to me. I am a list person, I always have been. When I have a lot going on I always make lists and I take great delight in crossing off the done items (I even always like to add one or two things that I’ve already done and cross them off immediately so as not to miss any of my accomplishments! Ha!) I find writing lists incredibly useful because they help me to get perspective about what is happening and what needs to be done. They help me to break things up into bite-sized chunks and to remember what needs doing and they help me not to get completely overwhelmed by life.

For me, writing this blog has fulfilled a similar purpose. It has helped me take a step back from the madness of day-to-day life and take stock. It has helped me to think about what things are overwhelming me and what things I am thankful for. It has helped me to really look for the hand of God in my life each step of the way and it has been hugely instrumental in helping me to process the trauma of cancer and in putting my broken little heart back together again.

One of the other amazing things that has come out of writing this little blog in this little corner of the internet is that as I have told my story it has connected me to others in the most wonderful way. When we tell our stories, when we are vulnerable, it can be costly. We open ourselves up to negative and judgemental comments or even if we don’t have any of those we open ourselves up to self-doubt and huge feelings of inadequacy (darn you WordPress statistics!) But, the flip-side is, by being vulnerable, by telling our stories of struggle, we also open ourselves up to community and connection. As we are vulnerable with our stories we give others permission to be vulnerable with theirs and that can create some beautiful community. As we tell our stories, no matter how normal or unremarkable we think they are, we can help to give a voice to others who may be grappling with their own stories or who may be having difficulty articulating what’s going on in their own life. As we share our stories we open the door for others to say, “Yes! Me too!”

And to me that is a beautiful thing and that is worth the cost and the inevitable vulnerability hangover that comes after sharing something that matters to us. So keep telling your stories folks. Whether it’s in a blog, a vlog or with friends over a coffee – whatever works for you. By showing who you really are you are offering a wonderful gift to those around you and that is definitely worth doing!

 


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You are enough

So the promised advent post didn’t happen (sorry!) and now it’s almost Christmas. I blinked and my baby turned one yesterday and a new year is rapidly approaching.

I always love a new year. It holds so many possibilities and somehow gives us permission to revive dreams and hopes that have been forgotten or shelved in past years, or possibly even make space for a few new dreams.

I’ve never been very good at setting goals or making resolutions and actually sticking to them but I have such a strong sense this year of wanting to live more intentionally than ever before. I know that this sounds heavy and like there won’t be any rest as I will have to “make the most” of every moment. But, for me, I’m going more for grace-filled intentionality – one that builds pause and rest into its rhythms but that also helps me to be all that I have been made to be.

My longing for intentionality comes from a deep desire to live a great story wherever I can and to not let any year pass me by. I find it so easy to focus on just getting through each day, keeping things ticking over that before I know it another year has passed and although what I have been up to has been good and meaningful, I haven’t made it any closer to my goals or dreams.

I think my mind has also become more focused on making things count as I know six young women who have died this year. That is a lot. Too many gone far too soon.

In two weeks time it will be 57 months since I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. I read recently that the average (median) length of survival for women diagnosed with my type of cancer at the stage that mine was found at is 57 months. That is not a long time and as of a fortnight’s time, I will be on the right side of that statistic and for that I am so thankful.

But I know that it didn’t have to be that way. So, I am determined to do my best to be the kindest, most generous version of myself possible, to honour God in every way that I can and to serve my family and my community as best as I know how.

But, sometimes it’s hard and a lot of the time I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job of any of it. I can become filled with self-doubt and the thief of comparison steps in and makes me feel worse about even my best efforts.

Almost a month ago, I launched a little business, called Hope and Ginger, selling prints, journals and cards that I had designed. I had been working on getting it set up for a few months before I launched and I almost quit every day. Literally. Poor Joel had to give me a lot of pep talks to encourage me to stick with it.

It was so hard, not because of the work (which I love) or setting up the nuts and bolts of a business (which I have also really enjoyed – finally getting a use for my business science degree). It was hard because it made me feel incredibly vulnerable. These were things that I’d made and that were important to me and what if nobody liked them or bought them or what if people really hated them?

I wasn’t sure that I could cope with the rejection.

But, despite quite a few wobbles I was determined to achieve this dream and so I kept going and launched a very small range four weeks ago. One of my best-selling prints so far has been this one.

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You are enough.

This is a message that I have had to keep telling myself throughout this journey and I think it’s one that we all need to hear. Especially in the age of the internet, where it is only too easy to compare ourselves to others and consequently feel rubbish about ourselves.

We don’t have the washboard abs (or in my case any abs at all), or the huge Instagram following, or the perfect family. Our home doesn’t look like it came out of a magazine and our hair is always a bit of a mess. I’m sure you can think of your own comparisons to insert into my list.

But – the truth is, none of that stuff matters. What matters is that you are enough just as you are and you are so deeply loved. That is where our confidence needs to come from and that truth is totally transformational. As I was writing this I was reminded of the words of Romans 5:7-8 which reads:

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

His love for us runs so so deep. We don’t need to strive to be anyone else. We are loved with an eternal, powerful, personal and totally transformational love just as we are. This is a powerful and freeing truth. It sets us free from the need to strive to be enough or be the best and it sets us free to live our lives intentionally being all that we were created to be in Him.

Happy Christmas to you all! May you know the depth of Christ’s love for you this Christmas and may you remember that you are enough.


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My first proper haircut in four and a half years!

I don’t have many cancer milestones or hurdles these days and for that I am very grateful. But the one area that was still hanging around that I couldn’t quite bring myself to deal with was my hair.

In 2012 I had chemotherapy and lost all my hair, every last strand of it. Before the chemo started my hair was really really long and thick but even so when I was told that my hair would most likely all fall out with the chemo, I was surprisingly calm and not too fussed about it. To me it seemed like a small price to pay for a much better shot at long-term survival.

After my chemo started I decided I didn’t want to wait for all this long hair to fall out for various reasons, the main two being that I found the hair falling out physically quite uncomfortable and even painful and also emotionally it was hard.  I particularly hated how every time my baby son grabbed onto my hair a handful of it came out in his hand, and so I decided it had to go.

So in a fit of enthusiasm,  I went all GI Jane and got a buzz cut (without a guard on the shaver so it was really really short!) To be honest I slightly regretted going quite so short as my head was like Velcro, which made sleeping difficult as I just stuck to the pillow and in the end it actually took quite a few weeks for my hair to fall out entirely (I definitely should have just gone for a pixie cut, but you live and learn!).

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(Me in my hat and wig)

About five months later my hair had started to grow back (sort of) so I gave up on the hats and wigs (which I hated by that point) and once again sported the military look. The first time I went out with no hat/wig it was to a barbecue with about 80 people, most of whom I knew. I had just had a mastectomy and was feeling pretty awful. It took all the courage I could muster to not wear a hat/wig but I didn’t want to hide anymore so I just went for it.

I think I was looking pretty terrible and although everyone was really kind, no one mentioned my hair which was disappointing because to me it was a really big deal. About halfway through the party one friend came up to me and whispered, “You look beautiful” in my ear. I blatantly did not look beautiful. My skin was grey and I couldn’t move one arm after my recent surgery. I had gained so much weight from all the steroids and I basically had no hair or eyelashes. But in that moment, I felt seen by my friend and I felt so loved and I was so grateful to her for her kindness.

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(Hair just growing back)

Since then, I have never had a proper haircut, just a trim every now and then to make sure my hair didn’t look too 80s (which, I have discovered, will happen if you are growing your hair out from zero). Every time I went to the hairdressers I would be sure to clarify that I didn’t want them to cut anything more than absolutely necessary off. And so my hair has been getting longer and longer and longer.

Fast forward four and a bit years and my hair was once again really, really long and really really thick and to be honest it was driving me nuts. It was this frustration with my hair, rather than some deep philosophical revelation that made me realise it was time for it to go. So on Friday I had about five inches cut off and am now sporting a new look.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to the point of being ready to cut it off and I don’t know why up until now it was the one thing that I couldn’t seem to let go of. Maybe it was vanity. Maybe it was something to do with feeling like growing my hair was part of my recovery and so if I cut it my recovery must be over.  Maybe it was because I wanted it to get to the point that it was at before it all fell out. To be honest, I’m still not really sure and I still haven’t had any deep philosophical revelation about my hair and its length!

But, what I am sure of is this. I am so glad that I have finally felt ready to let go of another of the legacies of cancer and to take one more step towards normality. I am so thankful that cancer is part of fewer and fewer of my key milestones and life choices. I am so thankful for every day of good health and of course, I am so glad to have options with what to do with my hair!

Thank you to all of you who have supported us through all of my hair lengths. We love you and couldn’t have gotten to this point without you. Here’s a shot of the new hairdo (excuse the shiny nose!!) X

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Everybody needs a cheerleader

It has been two weeks since the October Yay Mail! Project ended and I’m really missing it. I was so humbled and touched that about 50 of you lovely people chose to take part in it with me which means that around 1500 pieces of lovely post were sent and received in October. What a joy!

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I’ve been thinking a bit about why I enjoyed the project so much and here’s what I came up with:

1. I loved how easy it was to bless and bring joy

Writing someone a card is such an easy thing to do. Probably the most time consuming bit is finding their address (I really do need to get an address book!) But despite it being easy for me to do the responses I have received from people I sent a card to have been truly humbling. So many people have gotten in touch to say what a timely encouragement receiving the card was.

I think the world would be a far better place if we all had our own personal cheerleaders (skimpy outfit not necessarily required) but sadly most people don’t have many people regularly saying, “Keep going! You’re doing a great job!” So to be able to be that for people even in just a small way is a wonderful thing and a great joy.

2. Encouragement feels great both to give and to receive

I genuinely think that everyone I wrote a card to is special and has something wonderful to offer the world and it felt great to tell them so. We can be so British about both giving and receiving encouragement and feel so awkward about it when there is really nothing to feel awkward about as encouragement is something that builds up both the giver and the recipient.

As I was typing that last paragraph my phone pinged and I received a text message from a WhatsApp pen friend that I have (slightly long story but we met briefly over the summer and I thought she was great but we don’t live near to one another so we WhatsApp one another and pray for one another – what a joy). The sole purpose of this morning’s message was to encourage me in whatever I was doing today and it has totally lifted my soul! It was so lovely to receive and has brightened my morning. Encouragement always feels great!

3. It’s so much fun to do fun projects that bless others together

I loved it so much that so many of you joined in with me on this project. As the month passed I loved chatting with those of you that I knew about how it was going and sharing cool encouraging stories. I think that there is something powerful about the community aspect of choosing to do something positive together. We could encourage one another to keep going and I found it helpful to know others were doing the project to keep me on track with it (although I wasn’t as organised as I would have liked and did have to write 9 cards on the 31st in order to finish on time – see the below picture!)

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds the world a bit of a scary place to be right now. There is political and civil turmoil in so many places and it feels like a spirit of division in so many communities. There is also a lot of fear. Fear of the future, fear of people who are different, fear of politicians, fear that our peaceful lives will somehow be interrupted. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and completely powerless to be any sort of positive change in our communities and it is so easy to feel afraid.

But there are many things we can do to break this spirit of division and fear, and to foster stronger senses of community and love around us. We can be kind. We can make an effort to get to know our neighbours/colleagues/other mums on the school gate/dog owners in the park. We can greet people and smile at them. We can look for opportunities to be encouraging and to speak life to others and call out the gold that we see in them. We can do be the blessing in our face-to-face and online lives. I’m sure you can think of other ways too.

I was listening to a talk by Nicky Gumbel on Sunday and he said something which really stuck with me. He said, “Encouragement is like verbal sunshine. Just like sunshine warms the body, encouragement warms the soul.”

That is who I want to be. I want my words to build up and not tear down. I want to only speak verbal sunshine. I want to be that cheerleader that everybody needs. I want to fight fear with love.

There is a great passage in the Bible that talks about love and one of the verses (1 John 4:18) says: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Love drives out fear. Love is stronger than fear. As we show love and compassion and kindness we will break down walls, strengthen our communities and that is a wonderful place to start.

Whether you were able to participate in it or not I hope that the October Yay Mail! Project has encouraged you to be the cheerleader that everybody needs and to seek to live a life of intentional love and encouragement.

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(PS. I’m hoping to put together a few thoughts about things to do for advent which you may like to join in with. Please do drop me a line if you have any awesome advent ideas that are a tradition in your home that I could include on my enjoying advent post. X)


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My friend – taken too soon

About three years ago I met a lady on a day that broke my heart.

The day wasn’t supposed to be a sad day, in fact quite the contrary. It was a training day for volunteers for the breast cancer awareness charity, CoppaFeel! and I was a new recruit. I arrived at the offices in London on that sunny Saturday and nervously began to introduce myself to the other ladies there. I think there were about 20 of us that day and the mood in the room was excited and jovial. But as we chatted and shared our stories I felt the sadness rise within me. Here was a room filled with vibrant, young women and all of them, all of us had endured a horrible trauma. We had all experienced disfiguring surgeries and had poison pumped through our veins in an attempt to destroy the unwanted intruder that is cancer and that broke my heart. It just didn’t seem right.

One lady that stood out to me had a story that was strikingly similar to my own.  We lived just down the road from one another, we were both diagnosed near the beginning of 2012, our cancers were both found whilst we were pregnant and our children were born within weeks of one another.

But there was one crucial difference between our stories. Whilst my cancer had only spread to my lymph nodes when I was diagnosed, by the time my friend’s cancer was diagnosed it had already spread into her lungs. Because her cancer had spread beyond its original site she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.

Secondary breast cancer currently has no cure.

Whilst I had a total response to my treatment, her cancer moved fast and didn’t respond well to treatment. She endured many different treatments and lived with this horrible disease for some time, but earlier this year it claimed her life and she died.

What a tragedy. A young husband and little girl lost their wife and mummy way too soon. A young life was taken too soon.

I will never be told that I have been cured or even that I am in remission but I have recently passed my four year anniversary of showing no evidence of disease. I know I am one of the lucky ones. Recently at an Alpha group that I am part of at church we had to answer the question, “Supposing God was real and you could ask God one question, what would you ask?” My response was easy. I would ask, “Why was I spared and others were not? Why do I get to see my children grow up and others will not?”

I don’t know the answer to those questions and perhaps one day I will get to ask them of God. But in the meantime I get to live the very best life I can.

Today I was at Borough Market with a friend. As we were walking around we saw this wall.

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It was a chalk board filled with lines saying, “Before I die I want to ______________”. The wall had been filled with all sorts of hopes and dreams and I wished there was a piece of chalk lying around so that I could’ve added my own. I have so many hopes and dreams for the future but I am also painfully aware that my story could have been so different. Cancer is an awful, indiscriminate disease and I could easily have been long gone by now. Joel could have been a widower before he turned 30 and Jonty could have grown up without me. Although I am not afraid of death the thought of leaving them makes my heart drop.

I have shed quite a few tears writing this post. It has been really hard to write. They have been tears of sadness, remembering those who have been taken too soon but there have also been tears of gratitude for the path I have walked and where I am now. Life is painful but it is also beautiful. In amidst the suffering there are blessings.

So, I am thankful for each day. I am grateful to still be able to have dreams for the future and that I get to share this life with my people and I am determined to make each day count.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Please please please get to know your own body. Check your breasts for any changes every month (no matter how young you are!). Feel as well as look. My breast cancer didn’t present with a defined lump, but I had markings on my breast, dimpled skin, an inverted nipple, pain and swelling. Not all breast cancers have lumps. If you notice any change please go to your gp and get a referral to a breast clinic. It could save your life. It saved mine.


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You (yes you, reading this) are awesome!

One of the things that I find most difficult about being a stay-at-home parent is the lack of external affirmation. Let’s face it, even with two sweet and affectionate little dudes at home, kids don’t really think to say, “Thanks Mummy for doing my washing/ picking up my toys/ scraping sprayed food off the furniture. I really value you and appreciate all that you do in this home to prevent it from turning into total chaos.” They just don’t say it, like ever! I wish they did but they don’t and so often at the end of another day filled with washing and scraping food I find myself with my love tank feeling low and the house still in total chaos.

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I guess it says a lot about how I am wired that I frequently wake up and think, “Wow! I really need some encouragement today!” In fact, it is often a prayer that I pray as I am going about my daily life, “Lord, please show me something to encourage me today.”

I know that it is not just me that needs encouragement. I think that we all thrive under positive, heartfelt affirmation from others, just as we wither under harsh and unkind words.

Lately I have been quite challenged by this. I look around and see so many people just trying to knock one another down. It is amazing how much interaction there is, online in particular, and yet how little encouragement. Rather, competitiveness and one-upmanship seem to be the name of the game.

In our house we have a little joke, whereby if someone says something unkind, then the other one will usually say, “What kind of courager are you being?” It is always said with a smile and a wink, but it is a gentle correction and is a challenge to think, “Am I being an encourager or a discourager? Am I building up or am I tearing down?”

I know what type of courager (yes I know it’s not actually a word) I want to be. I want to be an intentionally encouraging person, someone that makes it their business to call out the gold in others. I think that intentionality is key in this as being encouraging can feel awkward and counter-cultural at the same time. I need to choose to move past that and encourage anyway, to look for and call out the gold in others.

Each of us has so much gold within us that we often don’t see. The knocks of life and hurtful things in our past can cloud our view of ourselves and we can stop seeing how amazing we are and who we have been made to be. Encouragement is a beautiful gift that we can offer one another and it is one that has the potential to set people free to be all that they were made to be.

So to each one of you reading this (and I don’t mean this for a blanket you, but each and every individual reading this), know that you are enough. Please hear the truth of that statement for yourself today. You have been made with amazing gifts and talents. You don’t need to strive to be anybody else. Be yourself. You are enough!

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Let’s be a people that look for the good and not the bad in others and actually tell one another what we see. It’s ok if that feels a little awkward and counter-cultural and it’s also ok if the person doesn’t accept the encouragement. Whether they want to hear positive things about themselves or not doesn’t really matter, they might have been so knocked down that they don’t know how to receive kindness.

Let’s embrace the awkward and do it anyway! Be kind anyway. Encourage anyway. What a beautiful gift!