HOPE OVERFLOWING

stories of grace, hope and life beyond cancer


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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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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!


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The October Yay Mail! Project

Yesterday on a trip into town, whilst in my favourite art supply shop I saw a book of blank watercolour card postcards on the shelf. The front of each postcard is blank ready for painty creativity to be unleashed all over it and the back is laid out like the back of a standard postcard. I couldn’t resist and so without a second thought popped them in my basket.
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As soon as I bought them I started thinking about what I could paint on them and about all the possible people I could send them to and I got excited at the prospect of sending all this lovely post. I love to receive nice post! It is always such a joy to receive a little card or postcard or note and even if the message is simple it always makes me feel loved and valued that someone was thinking of me enough to bother to post me something. I wanted these postcards to make other people feel how I feel when I get special post.

As I was thinking about this I had this thought, “What if I sent someone a little bit of nice post each day for a month?” I think it would bless others but also would be a brilliant opportunity to think of others and seek to encourage someone every day, which would be a blessing to me as well. As I thought more about this I got excited – this sounded like a fun project to me!

I decided I would send a card or a postcard or maybe a very small gift to a different person each day with a positive message of encouragement for a month and as October is starting next week, I would do this for the month of October.

As I thought about this a bit more I wondered whether anyone else might also like to send nice post every day for a month and so the idea of the “October Yay Mail!” project was born.

I told Joel about my idea and he said it sounded like fun and that he was in too. Yay! Two of us!

So Joel and I will be sending nice post every day in October. But, I thought there might be others that might like to join is so I wanted to invite any of you who fancied joining us to do so! It’s going to be a fun project and I think will be such a fun way to bless and encourage those around us.

In order to participate, here’s what you need to do:
Post (hand post is fine) something nice, like a card, postcard or letter with a kind and encouraging message to a different person each day for the month of October.

That’s it! Very simple!

You can send your post to anyone but if you’re stuck for ideas I’ve thought of a few categories of people that you might like to surprise:
–          Someone you haven’t spoken to in more than one year
–          Someone from your childhood
–          Someone who lives in another country
–          Someone with whom you have a tricky relationship
–          A member of your extended family
–          Someone who played a significant role in your life at a formative time
–          Someone that you know is going through a tough time at the moment
–          Someone that you wish you saw more often
–          A neighbour
–          An ex-colleague

Perhaps try and send one to each of these if you can and see what happens.

There’s a week before October starts so maybe have a go at making a little list of who you might like to send some Yay Mail! to and start getting their addresses together.

If you want to get involved on social media I would love to hear how it’s going. If you have any stories from the project that you’d like to share please do drop me an email, comment on the blog, on the Facebook page or use the hashtag #Octoberyaymail.

I am so excited to tell 31 people how loved and valued they are, to encourage them in their every day and to give them some mail to say “Yay!” about and I hope you will join me too!


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There is always room at the table

Last week was my birthday! I turned 33. Woo hoo!! The day was mostly spent at home in quarantine as my big boy had chickenpox which we had only discovered the previous afternoon via a high fever and lone spot behind his right ear (in spite of him complaining in the morning that he had a bump on his back, which I informed him was just his spine and packed him off to nursery – oops!)

One of my birthday gifts from my sister and brother-in-law was a voucher to a local art supply shop. I was so thrilled to receive it and in the afternoon of my birthday my mum looked after the boys for a few hours so Joel and I could head into Kingston to run a few errands and of course to go and spend my art shop vouchers!!

I browsed and browsed for ages and finally settled on some watercolour brush pens (with a cartridge you fill with water and then use with paints), a set of 6 fine liners and a pad of watercolour paper.

As soon as I returned home I had buyer’s remorse about the watercolour brush pens. Were they actually any good or just an expensive gimmick? Surely a paintbrush would be as good? Should I just take them back and get something else?

The next day, I decided to give them a try and boy was I wrong! They are brilliant! I absolutely love them and I have been sitting at the dining room table doodling whatever pithy (or indeed not so pithy) quotes I can think of for the past week. What a joy!

This week as I was spending some quiet time alone I was reading a Bible story about a great banquet. After I read this story the phrase “there is always room at the table” came into my mind and so I doodled it (with one of my new fine liner pens!) in my journal.

As the week has passed and I have found myself sitting at my dining table, this phrase keeps coming into my mind… ‘there is ALWAYS room at the table’ and I have doodled it with my watercolour brush pens over and over thinking about its meaning.

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Last year I bought a 12 seater dining room table on a Facebook buying site for £10. It was the bargain of the year for me and even though it was in a pretty bad way I was so pleased with it. Over a weekend I sanded it, made a stencil then painstakingly stencilled a herringbone pattern onto it, stained it and varnished it and after it was complete I was absolutely over the moon with the results.

My table has a sort of uneven patina (as a result of the damage to the wood before I started) that I absolutely love. I love the herringbone pattern and how it looks like an inlay even though it is just paint. But most of all I love the size of the table. It is big! It can comfortably seat 12 although we have squeezed 14 round it once! The size is so wonderful because I love doing life with people around the table. There is something special about sharing a meal with others and I love welcoming people into my home. The size means that there is pretty much ALWAYS room at my table.

This got me thinking that even though practically this is the case I hope that people know that there is really ALWAYS room for them at my table. I want my table and my home to always be marked by love for others no matter who they are, by an open door and a warm welcome, and real life shared around the table. And I want my table to be a symbol for how there is ALWAYS room for us at God’s table, no matter who we are, whether we think we are worthy or not, he welcomes us in just as we are. He longs to do life with us and hang out round his table and that is a truly amazing thing.

Come and visit me sometime! I’d love to show you my dining room table and do life with you round it. There is always room.


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What I learnt from a chain of paper people

Earlier today as I was looking for some felt tip pens in our craft cupboard a chain of cardboard people that had been shoved in the cupboard fell out and landed on the carpet. This little group of folks had been in a party bag that my son Jonty had been given some time ago and they came with loads of stickers to make their faces and clothes. They are so sweet and have been very useful in keeping him entertained more than once in hospital waiting rooms!

I am fond of these little people, which is why I think I couldn’t bring myself to put them in the recycling after Jonty finished decorating them. I like their funny little faces, how they are all different and how they are all holding hands. I think there is something lovely about them. They belong together. I think that is what makes them beautiful.

This evening a friend shared an article on Facebook. It was a writer’s reflection on the insular lives we lead in the Western world and her longing to do life together with others: to share cooking, caring for each other’s families, to laugh together, carry one another’s burdens and to be truly known. Reading this article I was reminded of the paper people on my carpet, all different but all joined together, made beautiful by their connectedness.

Last week I had the opportunity to go and speak to a group of women in another city. After the session I was chatting to one of the ladies and she expressed a sadness that she didn’t feel truly known by anyone who lived close by to her. She was longing for deeper relationships, to have people to laugh with, to cry with and just to do life with, to have people just understand what she was about. She was longing for a village.

And I know that her story is not an uncommon one. It is one that I can identify with too. We all crave a village, to be known, to be understood and loved for who we are.

But why is it that these villages, these deep yet easy relationships seem to be so rare? Why do we struggle to do life in a full-on, messy, joyful way with others and to let them in to see us with a sink full of dishes and dust on the mantle?

I often think back on our time in Cambridge with fondness. It’s a funny thing really as it was in many ways the most difficult time in our lives. But in other ways it was so beautiful. I think it was the time in my life when I really felt most deeply connected to a community. I felt like I was known and that I was part of a village that loved me.

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Are those things linked? My own vulnerability and brokenness coupled with feeling connected? I think they probably are in some ways. For me, it was probably when I realised that I couldn’t manage alone that I sought out others to help me to manage. They loved me with open hands and I loved them in return. Children were cared for, meals were shared and prayers were offered up for one another. Sometimes there were frustrations, but we got through them together. It was simple and without pretence and even in the midst of so much pain it was a beautiful thing.

I think that so often we are held back from reaching out and building this village by fear: fear of judgement, fear of not being perfect, fear of being vulnerable and opening ourselves up to be hurt, fear of rejection, fear that others will be too needy or we will be too needy, fear that connection will just take too much time.

But we can be so afraid that we end up lonely and isolated and this is no way to live.

I long to live in this beautiful village with its deep relationships built on love and kindness and I am realising that if we are to build this beautiful village we need to move past our fears. We need to be brave and stretch out a hand to the little paper person next to us not currently in our chain.

There is so much brokenness and pain in the world. There has never been more of a need for a village, for connectedness, for love, for carrying one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). It is what Jesus modelled with his disciples, they ate together and did life together and were truly known by one another.

What good is one little paper person alone? But in a group all holding hands – what a joy.

We belong to each other. Let’s be the ones to make the village – it can truly change the world.