My breasts

I have 4 breasts. I’ve lost 3 along the way, so that makes 7 in total – a strikingly magical number.

My right breast is an amazing, hand-crafted piece of art, sculpted out of my own flesh. It is admired by medical professionals on a regular basis.

My left chest wall is flat and scarred. My left breast tried to kill me, too, and had to be removed. The implant I had put in failed. I can’t have another go – the skin is thinned and scarred by radiotherapy. It’s not viable.

Obviously, if I’d known this was how things were going to end up, I wouldn’t have had the reconstruction. I’d be flat all over. I’d have a choice of breasts – no breasts at all for sport; small, chic ones for sophisticated occasions; party ones! Maybe.

Instead, I have a small collection of left breast prostheses. Be aware that I am a woman who can’t control her pens, her sunglasses, her mobile or  her reading glasses. That means my kids are used to hearing me shout “I’ve lost my boob, I’ll be down in a minute”. That counts as normal in our house now.

Firstly, I have a firm, silicone breast. My every day breast. It’s reasonably realistic in texture, but it’s always cold, and it’s the same plastic pink colour as my daughter’s long neglected Barbie.

Next I have a clear, light-weight, chlorine resistant swimming breast. Sometimes I wear it all the time – if we’re going away on hand luggage only. It looks like an affectionate jellyfish, snuggling up to me. It feels weird.

My last breast is the first one they gave me post-op. It’s a little muppet softy, gentle on new, tender wounds. It feels like a firmly stuffed rag doll – without the arms and legs. And head. I wear it for running, because there’s no friction.

Now I don’t have any breasts of my own, I have more than any woman could reasonably need.


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The best way to stop weeds

Actually, I was in the vegetable patch. And what I said was “The best way to stop weeds is to plant stuff”. Himself was hoeing and I was hand weeding round the walking onions. The sky was blue blue blue, and the ground was hard, but gently moist once you got below the surface. The pea shoots are just starting to twine themselves around the sticks, there are artichokes sprouting up (pull them out! They want to take over the world!) and the birds are going crazy. We have a big colony of rooks at the top of the field, and they are raucously sociable. It’s like living next to a student bar for birds.

Anyhow, that’s what I said, and then I pondered what I’d said in that way you do when you’re working with your hands outside, and I realised that that, pretty much in a nutshell,(that could be put onto a soft focus nature picture), was a valid, positive,philosophical stance to take on life.

Or maybe I’ve pinched someone else’s idea without realising it. Maybe it’s on a million motivational posters out there. I don’t care. I thought it up in my own head, in my own vegetable patch, and I’m sharing it with you.

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If we were having coffee…

…I’d tell you that things are growing here. My daughter went off to the fair with her friends last night, popped over to say “‘Bye” to us, and then went back to them, and pizza and sleepover. It’s great, but it’s also the beginning of the “‘Bye”s.

The vegetable patch is cleared and we have started planting. I have trays of seedlings in the porch, all fresh and green and tender, waiting to be planted. Over the last couple of weeks the trees have changed, from bare branches with a faint green haze over them to bundles of leaves with a hint of branch and twig beneath them. Soon they will be all leaf. There are blossoms on the pear tree and the plum trees. The quince tree has masses of buds and one lone, soft pink flower. The crab apple has dark pink buds swelling fit to burst. There are sweet scented lilac flowers in the hedge, and the banks are purpled with bluebells.

My husband has cleaned up his bike, ready for some dry weather. The windows need washing. I hung clothes out on the line yesterday, and brought them in smelling of good, clean air. We are living in a state of optimism, hoping for a barbecue summer.

I’d go back to telling you about my daughter. She hung washing out yesterday, without being asked. She washed up for guests last weekend. She’s growing up: up and away, but she will always be my little girl.Of course she will. That’s the deal. She’s growing like the fruit trees are budding, like the peas are shooting up, like the oak tree is putting out leaves. I’m looking forward to the blossoms, and then the fruit.

And then I’d pull myself up, because this is a bit deep for a Sunday morning. I’d offer you toast, with my neighbour’s excellent apricot jam. And then I’d pour you another cup of coffee to take out to the garden, because  it’s spring, and everything is growing.

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Keeping it open

For me, the worst thing about this whole cancer secondaries has been the feeling that doors are closing for me; the feeling that life is shutting down.

I have always loved new beginnings, new adventures. I’ve always loved having a sense of opportunity – of lots of opportunities. I’ve always assumed that there will be something new – at the end of this phase of life I’ll try something else. Even with jobs I’ve loved, my happiest day has been the day I put in my letter of resignation.

This cancer thing, though, is limiting. It puts a question mark over everything. Should we book this holiday? What if…? Could I move jobs? What about moving house? Could I even get a mortgage? How long should I stay in this job for? This job that’s getting harder and more stressful all the time?

In the beginning, I turned from being someone who said “Yes” to being someone who said “No”. I stepped back from taking on more responsibilities at work. I accepted that this was where I was. I even censored my own bucket list, for goodness’ sake – scared of wanting things I couldn’t have.

But the first thing my husband did – after he’d scooped himself up off the floor, and then helped me scoop myself up off the floor – was book a trip to Finland, to see the northern lights. And he has kept on believing in me as someone who can say “Yes”.

I still feel that my path is narrower than it was before my diagnosis. I live my life in the chunks between oncology reviews. I think about the future, but with a little set of brackets in my head (“what if…?”). But I try to say “Yes”.

And if there is a trick to all this, that’s it. Saying “Yes”. “Yes” is hope, and fun, and joy, and love, and all the things that make up this glorious, wonderful, amazing life. It’s also pain, and fear, and worry, but they are part of life, too. “No” takes you somewhere dark and cold and small. Even when there aren’t many things to say “Yes” to, I think it’s still better to reach out to them than to back away.

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It is easy to forget to be grateful. I’m not even sure what we are grateful to – not to a God, because we are secular humanists, aren’t we? Maybe to other people. Maybe to the world. Maybe to blind chance. Maybe even to ourselves.

These things don’t always notice your gratitude. But you will.

It is easy to skim over the small details that make up a life, and concentrate on the big events – the exams passed, the holidays, the parties, the promotions. And they are fantastic – though the fizz wears off  pretty quickly – but as the Mad Hatter points out, it’s much better to celebrate un-birthdays than birthdays. There are 364 of them a year.

I have kept gratitude journal on and off for a while. It’s something I like to do. I enjoy recalling and recording the beautiful, transient moments that make life a little better. It’s funny what comes up: the time my dear friend’s teenage daughter gave my little girl a manicure (and that’s a long time ago); the perfect combination of bacon and avocado; the work colleague who brought me a cup of tea because I looked tired.

I wonder what it would be like if you did the opposite? If you kept a journal of things that irritated and annoyed you? Things that got you down?

I think I might have effectively done that for a while as a teenager. I’ve often tried to keep diaries and not succeeded very well, but I’m pretty sure that if I could track them down I’d find they were pretty moany. I’m also pretty sure that if I read through them I’d find I’ve forgotten most of those terrible things that made my life so desperately unhappy. Or they’d look so laughably trivial I really wouldn’t understand why they made such an impact.

My life is a mosaic of good and bad moments – and quite a few that pass by unnoticed. Drawing my attention to the good moments reminds me why I’m alive and why I want to be alive.

So happy unbirthday to you.

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If we were having coffee…

…We wouldn’t be having coffee. It’s far too late for coffee – I’m working tomorrow. So I’ll have something caffeine-free…hot milk, maybe, or something herbal. Lovely.

So, I’d be telling you that the big news is that my daughter did her first day of work today. Paid work. Waitressing in the village hall. She’s delighted with herself, came home with lots to talk about. She enjoyed it, but she’s got a few grumbles. She’s a worker, after all. She’s allowed to grumble.

My first job was waitressing, too – a summer job, in a tea rooms in a stately home. It seems a long time ago, now. I saved my money from that job and bought a tent – a brown, ridge pole tent – we still have it. We’ll be using it next weekend, when we overfill the house with friends.

Like her, I discovered the strange delight of going through the door marked “Staff Only”. Of being an insider. I do like that. Seeing how it’s done. Being part of it. Belonging.

What else has happened? Sunshine! The bluebells have opened – the banks around here are a mass of blue and  yellow and green. You catch the scent of them as you go past, and it’s amazing. Smells are so basic, so linked in to emotions, all part of that very primitive bit of the brain. A smell can take you directly into a memory, and experience, in a way that nothing else can.


In a way, bluebells are to the English what cherry blossoms are to the Japanese. We go out specially to look at them, to feast our senses on them. Autumns are unpredictable, not like the New England extravaganzas. Fruit blossoms are staggered, and we don’t get excited about them. We do get excited about bluebells: we wait for them, we look out for them, we visit bluebell woods at bluebell time, we post on Facebook about them. Our children sing about them. It’s that blue haze across the woodland floor, and that glorious scent, and the amazing abundance of them.

So there you are. The bluebells are out, and I’m working tomorrow. Mwah mwah. Thanks for the tea. Coffee next time!


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The start of the cancer story.

When I first had a diagnosis of cancer I was – of course – terrified. I was scared of dying, of leaving my beautiful children behind, of leaving my husband, my parents, all of that. I wasn’t even 45 yet. I had no family history of breast cancer. I hadn’t lived a crazily ascetic marathon-running lifestyle, but I had a healthier lifestyle than most of my friends – and they hadn’t got cancer. The bastards.

And then, I picked myself up, did my time in the chemo unit (chemo: less fun than it sounds), had my mastectomy, relied on friends and family to support me and my little nuclear family through it all, got myself blasted on the radiotherapy unit, kept on working as much as I could, kept my head down and kept going.

It all stopped. I was fine.

I had a reconstruction – a big lump of ugly abdominal fat sculpted into an amazing new breast; 2 days of sitting in a side room heated to sauna level, another fine set of scars that to me were a line drawn under the whole horrible business.

But of course, I was wrong. Completely, utterly, stupidly wrong.

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