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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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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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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Hey baby!

Five weeks ago our lives once again changed forever as we welcomed another precious little boy into our family. Little Aaron Gabriel, our Christmas miracle baby arrived on 21st December! What an amazing gift he is to us!

To be honest, that he was a boy came as something of a surprise as I was absolutely convinced we were having a girl. I was so convinced that we were having a girl that I wasn’t the least bit fussed that we didn’t have any boys names picked out before going into hospital… seriously not even one. We didn’t even have a shortlist! After he was born we set ourselves a deadline to name him before his big brother arrived the following day as we thought it would be confusing to introduce 3-year old Jonty to a nameless brother! It’s amazing how a deadline focusses the mind and despite months of name debate we settled on Aaron Gabriel quite quickly.

Last week a friend told me that there was a Michael McIntyre sketch about the name Aaron so of course I had to look it up… In the clip he says that Aaron is the worst name as it is the name given to children of really lazy parents. They open the baby name book, see Aaron as the first name and say, “Yip, that will do!” close the baby name book and get on with their lives! Despite not having a name before he arrived I promise we gave it a bit more thought than that and didn’t just pick the first name we found!! 😉

Although I will spare you all the details of the birth, it was lovely (well as lovely as childbirth can be!!!) and a really redemptive experience following the trauma of Jonty’s arrival. There were so many answers to prayer, but most specifically, for me it was an experience free from fear which was a total gift.

Little Aaron arrived one day early, which was another answer to prayer as I was really hoping that he wouldn’t arrive on Christmas day… Being due on 22nd December people kept saying to me throughout my pregnancy, “Ooh, I bet the baby will come on Christmas day”, which to be honest I stopped finding amusing after perhaps the 10th time it was said to me (although I think I always managed to smile politely). When your Dad is a vicar as Joel is and always has to work on Christmas I thought sharing your birthday with Jesus might be a bit difficult growing up so was desperate for this little one to have his own day.

The last five weeks have gone by in a blur or Christmas and New Year, and all the busyness that goes with that season, late night/early morning feeds, moments of feeling total euphoria and moments feeling totally overwhelmed, Joel’s return to work, and now starting to figure out what normal looks like for us in this new chapter.

For me re-entering the realm of babies has been mostly lovely. We are so much more relaxed about everything this time around and I no longer sit holding a thermometer in the bath to check that it is the optimum temperature before popping him in (to be honest I can’t even remember what the optimum bath temperature is for a baby although I definitely knew last time around).

Already, having the opportunity to parent this little chap feels like a redemptive experience for me and so much of the trauma and the memories of pain and anxiety that I associate with the early days of Jonty’s life are beginning to be healed. In this I am reminded of the truth of Philippians 1:6 which says that he who begun a good work in you will carry it on to completion. For this, and the many other gifts that God has so graciously given us, I am so thankful and I know that this is all part of God is putting me back together one piece at a time.

Here’s a picture of our newest little guy taken yesterday. Happy (belated) new year to you all!

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Hope always

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Recently I have been inspired by all of the lovely typography people on Instagram who share beautiful hand drawn images of inspiring/funny/random words that they have written or painted onto crisp sheets of paper.

Since I was a little girl I have always loved pretty stationery, nice pens and beautiful writing and my ten year old self even did a calligraphy course one school holidays. I think as a result of this life-long love I find these beautiful hand drawn photos such a highlight of my Instagram scrolling and I always pause to look at them and wonder how they have been crafted. 

So, last weekend, in a fit of enthusiasm and a desire to be like these Instagrammers, I decided to buy myself a sketch pad and fine liner pen and have a go myself. When I buy nice craft supplies I often will hold back on using them, rather preferring to save them for when I have something truly special or ‘worthy’ to create, but this time I challenged myself just to go for it and get practising!

That evening I was sitting chatting to Joel when these two words popped into my head – “Hope Always” so I quickly jumped up and did this little doodle.

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As I did it I started to think about these words…

Hope always. 

They can mean many things.

These words are a sort of motto of one of the breast cancer chat groups to which I belong. This particular group is for women with the specific strand of breast cancer that I had. Although it is a small group, as this type of breast cancer is so rare, it is also a group where lots of the women walk a very hard path due to the aggressive and unpredictable nature of the disease.  

I love that this is the motto of the group and that despite all of the challenges that members face that there is this thread of hope that runs beneath it all. I love that women often finish their messages of encouragement to one another with the words, “Hope always” and these words always resonate somewhere deep within my soul. 

I was thinking a bit more about these words yesterday and the tiny phrase of scripture, which is part of a much larger and great section in Romans 5 sprung to mind:

Hope does not disappoint 

Another translation says, “Hope does not put us to shame” 

I know in my own life that sometimes it can be so hard to be hopeful. When our hopes are repeatedly dashed, when our dreams only seem to get further away rather than closer, when we see others doing or being what we so desperately hope for ourselves, it can be hard to keep moving forward, to keep hoping.

Because hope is risky.  

Allowing ourselves to hope opens us up to disappointment. It opens us up to pain and the possibility that our hopes will never be fulfilled in the way we dream. And that is hard. 

But then, what is a life without hope? It is surely a very dark place.

I believe that life is so much sweeter with hope in it. In spite of the vulnerability it creates or perhaps because of it, I’m not sure. But I do know this, a place of hope is a good place to be.

I think the writer of Romans knew what he was talking about when he said that hope does not disappoint. He was talking about the one sure hope that is found even in the face of suffering in the love of Jesus and salvation through Him. This is a hope that we can cling to even when everything else seems to be so unsure. It is the sweetest hope of all and surely will never disappoint.

Because, in Him, we are never abandoned.

Hope always.


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Finding a voice in the pain of the beaches and October pink washing

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It has been nine weeks since I last wrote a complete blog post. That is a long time and the holiday in Spain where I wrote the last post, with its long, lazy days spent on the beach couldn’t seem further away from England which has suddenly turned grey, autumnal and very chilly!

It hasn’t, however, been nine weeks since I have started a blog post and my computer and iPad are littered with half-written, unfinished and abandoned posts, given up on with yet another frustrated sigh. If I wrote on paper my wastepaper basket would surely be overflowing by now!

It’s funny how sometimes I feel that there is so much to say, but yet it is so difficult to get it all out in a way that truly conveys how I feel. It feels like trying to put a bowl of cooked spaghetti into a logical order. It is hard and messy and doesn’t always go well. 

I find it particularly hard to write anything or convey how I am feeling when I see a lot of pain around me and this summer has witnessed a lot of pain both globally and closer to home. What could I possibly add to the conversation that would seem anything other than at best, irrelevant or at worst, self-indulgent nonsense?

 So, as a result, and to my shame, the horrendous events of dead babies on beaches, the advancing diseases of those around me, as well as the untimely deaths of members of online forums of which I am a part, have gone on with me largely standing silent. My voice crying out against all this pain has remained unspoken and unheard. I have instead found myself crying on the side lines both at the tragedy of it all, as well as with the frustration that comes from not knowing what to do to help and how to stand up and be counted in a meaningful way 

More recently I have been faced with the pink washing that always appears at this time of year. October is breast cancer awareness month and each year I watch with interest at what will be shared via social media to educate and raise awareness of this horrible disease that kills so many each year.

This year the Young Breast Cancer Network UK (YBCN), a network of young women with breast cancer of which I am a part, is sharing a member’s story each day of the month. Many of these women are living with secondary or metastatic cancer for which there is no cure. All of the stories hold great pain and sadness and I have found myself once again being so broken by seeing this pain and yet also carrying a strange sense of guilt that I am so well and my future is looking bright.

The unfairness of it all is not lost on me and I know I am one of the lucky ones on so many fronts. I can find no words to add that would lessen the suffering of those living with cancer as part of their daily lives and so I find myself, once more at a loss for words.

So now that you have waded with me through my internal mental turmoil (thanks for sticking with me through that) what is there left to say?

Earlier this summer I met up with a friend who writes a brilliant blog which I love to read and which is such a blessing to me. I was expressing this mental turmoil to her and she gave me this advice. She said, “Cath, this advice is going to change your life. Just be yourself.”

Although said with a smile and a joke, these simple words really struck me and challenged me. They helped me to realise that it is ok if I don’t have anything useful to say or if I can’t fix all the problems of the world in 800 words or less. Being present and being honest is enough.

So where that leaves us is… I still don’t have anything particularly useful to say on any of sadness that I have seen either on Europe’s beaches or closer to home with those facing illness or bereavement. 

In some senses, I still stand silent on the side lines crying with sadness and frustration.

I wish I could make everything better. But for now, even though I have nothing to add to the conversation and my voice is largely silent, I do still STAND with you.

I pray and I stand on the truth of Revelation 21:4 that this too is temporary and that there will come a time when:

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.”

As the harrowing images of the summer recede in our consciousness as the media moves on to new stories, and as the pink washing of October begins to fade as the month passes, it is my prayer that I may continue to be moved by these stories. May the cry of my heart still be for justice and for healing and may we all stand in solidarity with the broken and the hurting trusting in the Restorer and the restoration that is to come.