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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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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His eye is on the sparrow

Yesterday morning I woke up with this phrase ringing in my ears, “His eye is on the sparrow.” I knew it was the lyric of a song, but I didn’t know the song (nor that it was part of Sister Act 2!) or any of the other lyrics and I certainly didn’t know why I woke up with these words in my mind. They were so clear as if someone had spoken them out loud.

We had a slow morning yesterday and so as the boys were happily playing I decided to take the opportunity to mull this phrase over a bit more by doodling it (and by playing multiple versions of it on YouTube). img_2728

As I got up off the floor after the boys had finished playing and I had finished my doodle I glanced out the window and was taken aback to see a small sparrow hopping around in our little, rain drenched back garden (I was so taken aback I didn’t even manage to get a photo). As I watching the little bird hopping about it felt as if the Lord was saying, “my eye is on the sparrow.”

As I wrote about a few posts back, we have gone through rather a lot of change lately. In addition to the major recent upheaval we know that there is more change and another move to come in the next few months. But despite knowing this we don’t know what this move will look like, when it will happen or where we are going.

Before our move two months ago I had been quite happy to live with all the uncertainty over our future but as the weeks have passed and there doesn’t seem to be any more certainty emerging I begun to start to allow myself to become unsettled and found myself having more and more niggling ‘what if?’ thoughts – what if this next step doesn’t happen in the way we had hoped? What if Joel ends up staying in his current job for an extra year? What if… A million different ‘what ifs’.

I looked up the scripture that the song is based on (it’s found in Matthew 6) and I was so struck by it. It’s about not worrying:

Stop being worried or anxious about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, as to what you will wear. Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father keeps feeding them. Are you not worth much more than they?

I was reminded that I don’t need to be afraid. I don’t need to know the next ten steps ahead and I don’t need to make a million plans of my own. Rather I simply need to be faithful in my here and now, in my every day. I need to take each step of this adventure trusting that the one whose eye is on the sparrow is on me too. What a gift!

I thought you might enjoy a bit of Sister Act 2 so here’s a link to the clip from the film where Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount sing this song. I hope you know the truth of this song for yourself too today.


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How pausing changed my life

Yesterday, the morning dawned bright and early with a little boy who did not want to go to school anymore and a baby who was cross for no discernible reason. My big boy had decided that he only wanted to attend school on the first and last day of each term and my little boy had just decided that he would be cross and so cross he was! The house was a total disaster area and as I woke up still tired after a full on few days the day loomed long and hot and sticky before me. Joel was due to be working late and I was only expecting him home at about 10pm and so as the day began I felt the misery levels rise at the prospect of a day filled with housework and crying children. Especially the crying children! They are hard to deal with for a whole day.

As I said goodbye to Joel I very ungraciously bemoaned to him what I expected my day to look like. I was angling for some sympathy and did receive some but not the bucket loads I felt I deserved! I begrudgingly waved him off at the tube station and trudged home muttering to myself about how lucky he was to be leaving the mess and the crying for a whole day.

As I got home from the school run I realised that I needed to make a choice about how this day was going to go down. I knew that I wouldn’t get through the day in any manner of which I would be proud without a reality check and an attitude adjustment. I seriously needed some perspective.

There is only one way that I know that consistently helps me find perspective and so I parked all the chores and stopped, sat and let my heart be still.

For me what that looks like is turning on some music (United Pursuit is my choice of the moment – I have put a link to my favourite of their songs below), reading some scripture and pouring my heart out in my journal or just sitting quietly and praying or letting the music wash over me.

So this is what I did. I sat on the floor, in amongst the baby biscuit crumbs and Happyland people with a small little guy crawling around and using my legs and a climbing frame and I paused. I rested and poured my heart out and let beautiful music wash over me and I read some truth and it began to restore my soul and melt my hardened heart. As I wrote and thought and prayed my perspective began to be realigned.

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I was able to give thanks for the mess in the house as it was mostly generated preparing for the funeral of Joel’s lovely Nan who passed away last week at the age of 95. Her funeral and celebration of her life had been the day before and as part of the celebration we all baked the food that she had been renowned for. The mess was as a result of honouring the life of a wonderful woman and I think that is a mess worth having!

As I paused I had some really special time with my little guy, playing next to me on the floor. And I was more able to enjoy his clinginess as it meant extra cuddles (which I don’t get as many of anymore now that he can crawl).

As I rested and stilled my heart I was able to give thanks for our lovely home and that it is filled with love and laughter.  

My perspective was truly realigned. What a sweet gift!

These times of pause are always sweet but it they are never perfect and are frequently interrupted. Most often, at this point in my life, these times happen on the floor. Sometimes they are cut short with a knock at the door or a baby that cries. Sometimes they are very short and sometimes I get the luxury of a longer pause.

But in spite of their imperfections these times are sweet and sacred and vital and they are without a doubt a completely key part of my day

I have learnt to embrace the mess and the imperfection of these times and not to worry about them. In the past I would only have “quiet time” if I felt that I had enough time, could go somewhere quiet, had the correct pens for my journal etc etc. The list of restrictions I put on myself were extensive and as a result the times I had were limited and I felt frustrated if they weren’t quite right.

These days if I imposed any of these sorts of restrictions it would mean that these times would literally never happen. I now snatch them on my own or with my little ones at my feet. The housework can wait 10 minutes. It will still be there, believe me!!!

Yesterday, more than ever I was reminded of the huge value of coming away from the frenetic pace of life and pausing for a few minutes with God. It is a beautiful, humbling and perspective altering choice and it can truly transform the shape and trajectory of each day.

What a beautiful thing to begin the day with a thankful heart and a peaceful soul and it is my prayer that even in the chaos and mess of life that we all make moments to be still, to allow our souls to be restored and to rest with Him each day.

 

 


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Why we have moved house AGAIN: choosing to participate in the adventure!

Recently I have been working through a course called Storyline with a group of friends and together we’ve been looking at the story of our lives so far, the ups and downs, the themes as well as looking for the redemptive perspective – the gold that comes as a result of the bad stuff in our lives.

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(Storyline ladies on a recent night out)

It has been really interesting to reflect on what has happened but also to think about how do I live a great story going forward? How are the choices that I make building into this story or am I always choosing the safe option, the easy way out? Would my choices and my life make the most boring book known to mankind or would there be some good stuff in there; some adventure, some conflict that was overcome, some struggle, some fantastic relationships?

 This slight shift in the way I think about my own life and decision making has really helped me to deal with some of the huge change and upheaval that have come in the past few months and as I have sought to live a great story courage has risen within me in a surprising way. 

When I wrote my last blog post 5 months ago (I really don’t know how it has been five months already!!) I wrote about feeling a call to be brave. It was such a strong sense at the time and the message was everywhere I looked. But when I wrote that blog post I honestly had no idea what that would look like at that point in my life. What would being brave at home with two little people actually mean as my life didn’t contain anything that required much bravery at all?

A week or two after I wrote the post, an opportunity came up for Joel workwise which would mean a new everything… New job for him, new house, new school for Jonty, new community. Not only this but this opportunity also meant that all of this would be temporary and that we would most likely be moving again next summer (which we were always due to be doing anyway). So it meant an additional house move, an additional new community, an additional mountain of hassle and admin tasks for me! It was quite honestly not that appealing a prospect!

This was not what I had in mind when I was feeling that I needed to be brave! I was thinking something a lot more low key and involving a lot less paperwork and time spent on hold sorting out bills and direct debits (and I now seriously wish the council would get something other than Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as their hold music!!) 

But this was an amazing opportunity and very quickly we realised we had a choice to make: Do we participate in the adventure or don’t we? Do we move with where we feel God calling us, embracing all the upheaval that it entails or do we stay put where it is safe and comfortable? 

At the end of the day, I don’t think that it was really all that much of a difficult decision because I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want to miss out on the adventure or the blessing or the calling because I was afraid or because I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.  

I want to be part of the adventure. I want to live a great story with God!  

So, I put my big girl pants, got out my book of lists on and we just got on with it!

We moved just over a month ago, from the suburbs of London back in towards the city, which seems to surprise everyone we meet. We always get the same response, “Oh! Why have you done that? Everyone at your stage of life always moves out, not in!” But we have moved in because it felt like the right thing to do, because it was all part of the adventure!

We have been blessed with a wonderful house in a great spot (and I discovered recently that it is five doors down from the house where my great-great grandparents lived over 100 years ago! How strange!). Last week Jonty got into an amazing local school and he started Reception there on Friday. Joel began his new job on Monday and so the new season has well and truly begun.

(First day of school fun)

So, the story continues. The adventure continues and I am excited to be part of it!

It is my prayer for myself and for us all that we never get stuck, that we never pass the adventure over because we are afraid or we think it will be too hard or we can’t be bothered with the hassle of change.

Let’s embrace the adventure and may our lives always tell a great story!