“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” (Martin Luther King)

The purpose of this blog post is to give some insight into what it’s like navigating life after cancer. I’ve often thought of the cancer journey as though it is made up of a series of train rides, each marking a different part of the journey. For me that journey so far has been: the ‘chemotherapy’ train, the ‘surgery’ train, the ‘more chemotherapy’ train, the ‘maintenance treatment’ train and now, since November 2017, the ‘life after cancer’ train.

This blog is made up of a collection of different blogs, which I wrote at different stops that I have to date encountered on the ‘life after cancer’ train. This is something that I will continue to do. I feel that this was helpful for two reasons. Firstly, to help me calm the inevitable anxiety that builds between my check-ups. Secondly, to give some insight into what it’s like on this part of the journey. In some ways I dreaded this bit the most; having less contact with hospital and fewer check-ups means more time to get caught up in my anxieties and fears about what might be going on in my body.

When I boarded the ‘life after cancer’ train, I knew it would be more comfortable than the treatment train because I get to have a seat instead of holding on for dear life, but the reality is that it still comes with its bumps and troubles along the way. Five months on and I have learnt a lot, but there is so much more to learn. Life after cancer is a beautiful thing but it’s also incredibly hard and fragile and to me, the title of this blog describes exactly what it can feel like at times. I’ve decided to share a few entries from the first few months of this year, cancer and non-cancer related, and I hope this can be a useful insight into this part of the journey.

Monday 12th February 2018 – Check-up stop

I found myself back at the Royal Marsden for my first 3 monthly check-up since stopping Avastin in November. I couldn’t quite get my head around how its come around so quickly. Walking up the front steps to the hospital felt very different this time compared with all the other times. I wasn’t there for treatment because Cyril has gone, but I was overcome with a strange feeling of happiness mixed with a horrible reminder that he could find his way back. In some ways it feels harder. This is because the more I take back control of my life and get back into the things which define me, the more I feel I have to lose if Cyril were to come back.

It was a quick visit this time; only one vial of blood taken to check my ca125 and ca153 levels. I’ll be back there again next week for an oncology check-up appointment and to review the results.

Once back home I felt really strange. Reality set in. The blood had been taken so now it was just a waiting game. I felt the familiar signs of anxiety and fear, wanting to cry but trying hard to not. I tried to reassure myself with the knowledge that whatever the results, I’m in the best possible hands and while that worked for a while, it didn’t stop it all getting too much later that evening when I went to fill up petrol. Yes that’s right; I had a breakdown… on the petrol forecourt! I’ve been driving a hired car this week and just the fact that I didn’t know how to open the petrol gauge set me off. I eventually managed to open it but then proceeded to splash petrol ALL over myself (no, I don’t know how either), which resulted in me ending up in tears and calling my dad to drive round the corner to save me from my petroleum panic which was clearly nothing at all to do with petrol.

Once sorted and back in the car I felt calmer. I needed to cry. I’m not quite sure why I was so fixed on stopping myself from crying because I know that it can actually be the thing that helps. As I drove to where I was going, I was able to think more clearly. I was able to talk myself through the three ways the check-up results could go:

  1. Markers and physical examination will be fine and I’ll just go back in three months. 
  2. Marker and/or physical examination will flag up something, but it will turn out to be a false alarm.
  3. Marker and/or physical examination will flag up that Cyril is back.

I need to keep reminding myself that there is no evidence to suggest option three so my job is to focus on that fact. I have felt good since November, my body has been behaving, and I’ve had no symptoms to suggest anything is wrong. So I have to remember that option three is one option, but not THE ONLY option.

Friday 23rd February 2018 – Results stop (and also my birthday!)

Over the past 10 days, I found myself trying to pretend I wasn’t waiting for my marker results; that there was no difference to previous weeks. It helped me get through a few days so I suppose some days it’s okay to pretend.

By the 16th February, I decided to come back to reality and call the nurse to ask about my markers because pretending didn’t seem to be helping as much. I was so nervous to ring; I was shaking, my mouth was dry and although I couldn’t see, I just knew I had a look of terror across my face. My nurse gave me the results which were very much in the normal range and the relief I felt was immediate.

Fast forward to yesterday (23rd February) and I was back in a hospital, this time to see my oncologist. We had a long chat about how I’ve been feeling and he checked my stomach for any abnormalities. All was fine and I was sent away with a new blood test form for three months time. It was the end of an anxiety filled week and although I was able to feel relief, it is never just relief.  The check ups remind you that there is still more to come and that relapse is not just a worry but is a possibility. This is also the case for a  new type of cancer because as BRCA 1 mutation carrier I have always been, and continue to be, at higher risk of breast cancer than I ever was of ovarian cancer. But for now, the risk of recurrence from my ovarian cancer is too high, which means I can’t yet take action with a preventive mastectomy to reduce my risk of breast cancer. It’s a horrible catch 22, but one I have to accept for a while longer.

Today’s appointment marks the end of a week and a half of anxiety and I’m very pleased to let it go. But I also need to remember that anxiety (or Jaws as I like to call her) is not all that bad. Anxiety helps me remain vigilant to signs and symptoms. I don’t want to push Jaws too far away because she was part of what pushed me to get help the first time. So it’s not about trying to not feel anxious, it’s about managing my relationship with it. I need to remember to read this before my next check-up.

Yesterday I also celebrated turning 29. Rather than think of the party or presents, birthdays seem, more than ever now, to be an important mark of all that has happened in the past year. And there has been a lot. Since my last birthday I’m back working full time, I’ve passed my masters and I am due to graduate this summer, managed to continue to be involved with ovarian cancer and BRCA awareness raising events, formed very special friendships and celebrated a one-year anniversary with my boyfriend.  I find it amazing to think back to all these positive things and how lucky I am to be able to list them because the painful reality is that not everyone who goes through cancer gets to do that.

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My friend Sarah Hall and I. Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27. She is also a BRCA 1 mutation carrier. She blogs about her breast cancer journey. Check out whenthingsgotitsupblog.wordpress.com/about.

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Finding my inner model at the Touch of Teal Glitter Gala.

 

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Getting back into the world of teaching!

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A cute photo of Alex and I!

 

5th March 2018 – Breast check stop

Next stop, breast check-up. This one was fairly quick and no major problems. Good results and plan in place; ultrasound and a mammogram in three months. Mammograms don’t usually happen at my age but it’s now going to a routine be part of my care. I’ve been reading up on them and based on this cartoon it seems like it will be interesting experience…

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Later on in the day, I felt the emotions and tears arrive and soon it felt like my head was going to explode. It wasn’t anything new going round in my head, just the same old scenarios spinning round, mixed with feeling desperate to be able to make the choice to remove my breasts rather than cancer making the choice for me. I often think about what it would feel like when and if the day comes. I’m not scared of it but actually weirdly excited. Although it can be exciting to imagine this scenario, I have to check myself from time to time because this is still a long way off and dependent on lots of things going exactly how they should, mainly me staying cancer free long enough for my team to feel confident to operate, which I know is certainly not a guarantee. The wait is hard. I feel that in some ways I said goodbye to my breasts the day I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They still remain on my body but they don’t really mean anything to me anymore. I just have to keep hoping that my body will continue to work well and keep me healthy so that I can one day make the choice I’m longing to make.

 28th March 2018 – Career stop

Today was a big day and for all the right reasons! Work is going well and I have been lucky enough to be part of a project that aims to create an international link with a school in South Africa. Today we got to arrange a Skype assembly; it was amazing to be able to watch the children from both schools start their friendship over the internet! We managed to make initial contact, but the connection wasn’t great so instead we ended up recording our assembly and emailing it across to them. I was buzzing after the assembly. I’m so excited to be part of the project and to be able to encourage the children to develop understanding and awareness of different language and culture, which has always been a passion of mine. Today was another reminder of how beautiful life after cancer is. I felt very lucky and grateful to be experiencing it all with my pupils and colleagues.

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12th April 2018 – A date with the MRI scanner

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Yesterday was the first MRI scan that I’ve had in 6 months (since I came off all treatment). It’s routine now and a way to make sure that Cyril is staying away. I went up to the hospital with my dad and Jaws came along too. And she didn’t behave as badly as I feared she would; at one point I’m sure I even saw her smile. I also managed the scanner much better than I thought I would. After having a substantial amount of my diaphragm removed in surgery, it becomes significantly harder to hold my breath for the required 17 seconds, but after a few attempts and some laughs with the radiographer about it, we managed to get the job done.

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Reintroducing Jaws (my anxiety pet shark).

Today I was back up to the hospital for the results. Jaws and I had a very good morning together. No fights. Until the waiting room that is. We played the less than pleasant ‘ovarian and/or breast cancer scenario’ game and the result was me becoming agitated and anxious. Add on a delay in my appointment time, which my rational side knows is completely normal in clinic, and I was already assuming the very worst… “The results are bad and they’re trying to figure out the nicest way to tell me this.” I finally got called in with all my thoughts being about needing to restart treatment, only to be told that the scan was clear and there was no evidence of cancer. No evidence of cancer; four amazing words that anybody going through a cancer journey longs to hear at check-ups. Although I know that this doesn’t take away the risk of recurrence and also of breast cancer, it’s a milestone that I feel incredibly lucky to have hit. My consultant drew me a diagram that showed the milestones I had already passed on this cancer journey, which made me feel even better because although I have my milestones in my head, I don’t think I had really registered just how many I had already passed. It’s easy to forget some of them but so very worthwhile taking the time to remember and acknowledge them.

Leaving the hospital with good news in hand was a great feeling, and one thing that I’ve learnt about my anxiety is that it affects my appetite but when it leaves, it makes A LOT of spare room for hunger. So I listened to my body and went on an eating spree! Which is very easy to do in the brief walk from the Royal Marsden to South Kensington tube station. It went like this:

  1. A take away Pret a manger sandwich
  2. A portion of chips from Lyon café
  3. An ice-cream biscuit from Snowflake
  4. Half a Palmier biscuit from PAULS Bakery
  5. Two praline chocolates from Jeff de Bruges

Once refuelled and with extra supplies for the train ride home, I felt calm and relieved. The reality is that Jaws is never truly gone but I managed her well today and I am well today. And that is to be celebrated. Just like Martin Luther King said, you have to keep moving forward. It can only ever be one step at a time so that’s just how it’s going have to be.

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Letters from a stranger

This month (16th November to be exact) I am able to say that I have now been in remission for one year. What an incredible sentence to say! As much as I love the sound of that, it is contrasted by the thoughts that I have about the future. Will remission last? Will I get to five years clear without relapsing?

But despite all of the questions and the underlying fear I have about it, I felt strongly that I wanted to mark this milestone, and I’ve been wondering for a while about how I was going to do this. Should I do something that would take me out of my comfort zone? Should I try something new? I couldn’t decide on anything. A few weeks ago, I thought about it in a different way. What if I mark this milestone in a way that keeps me connected to the reason I’m at this milestone in the first place? With this in mind, I thought about setting up something that isn’t just for this year, but something that I hope to do every year for cancer patients.

When I first thought of this I knew I needed to do something that would bring a smile to patients’ faces. Then I thought about how many followers and visitors the Finding Cyril blog has and so I wondered if I could call upon this very large group people to help me. Then it came to me!

My idea is to set up a way for people to give messages of support to those going through cancer treatment because when I was having treatment, one of the things that gave me comfort and encouragement was the emails and comments I would get to the blog. Often these messages were from complete strangers. In some way these were the especially special messages to me. So I’ve decided to set up ‘letters from a stranger.’ The idea is that we can start of chain of letters that can be given to patients on the cancer treatment wards. Here’s how it would work. You write a letter or note on email. It doesn’t have to be long. It could just be a small note to make somebody smile as they go through chemotherapy.

How to take part:

  • they are anonymous so don’t write your name
  • you then send it to findingcyril@gmail.com
  • these can then be given to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity  for patients
  • if it takes off then I will  do this every November around my remission date

Here are some examples of what I’m thinking:

Dear the person whose lap this letter lands in,

I know that you must be tackling an awful lot at the moment, and although there is probably little I can say to make things easier, I wanted to say that I am thinking of you. I also wanted to share my favourite Henri Matisse quote with you.

‘There are flowers all around for those who want to see them.’

I love this quote because it reminds me that when it feels like there are no flowers to be seen, it’s probably because I’m not looking hard enough or in the right direction. This is something that has helped me at hard times, so I wanted to share it with you.

Sending my very best wishes,

A stranger

Dear stranger,

I hope your day is going okay. I recently read a book by Sarah Ford called ‘Be a unicorn and live on the bright side.’ It’s not a book of many words, but one of the pages really stuck with me so I thought I would share it. It went like this:

‘Watching clouds made Unicorn feel really happy.’

I had a go today and Unicorn was right; I couldn’t help but smile. 

Sending you lots of love

A stranger

If you would like to take part in this project please email your notes to findingcyril@gmail.com. Please share this blog with as many people as you can. I am hoping to get lots of replies!

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One very long tube journey

After giving myself a couple of days to let things begin to sink in I have decided to share the blog that I wrote on my final day of active treatment.

Today is the 8th November. Today is the day that I can officially write the following sentence…I have now completed active treatment for Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer! As I write this I’m smiling, crying, feel overjoyed, terrified, relieved and very emotional. I’m also feeling very full because tonight we celebrated with pizza and a giant chocolate cake. I was even allowed to eat my favourite pizza with minimal mocking from my family about how pineapple should never be on pizza…It’s delicious, don’t judge until you’ve tried.

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Over the past few weeks and especially this week, I’ve been thinking back to a year ago when I started Avastin maintenance treatment. On 7th November 2016, after 18 weeks of chemotherapy and major surgery my oncologist told me that I was in ‘complete remission.’ My dad and I left the consulting room and went straight up to the day ward for my first dose Avastin. It ended up being an especially long treatment day because I also needed an IV of magnesium. I’m not sure my dad and I spoke to each other much that afternoon because I think we were both very much in a daze. I know I was. Then my new routine of three-weekly Avastin began and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past year. It was incredibly hard to adjust to because up until then I was used to being at the hospital every Monday for chemo, which meant that I got to have my blood markers done, see the team and feel very reassured. I really didn’t want to loosen my grip on my safety blanket. On 8th November 2017, I had my last Avastin and coincidently found myself sitting in the same chemo chair (number 20) I had my first chemo session a few days after I was diagnosed. As we left the ward I felt overcome with emotion. When I looked back at the empty chair my mind was spinning. I thought to myself. Will Cyril stay away? Will I ever need more treatment again? I know these questions, worries and fears so well now.

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About halfway through my Avastin journey I had what felt like a big bump in the road. My CA125 (the blood marker that’s used for ovarian cancer) went from 12 to 24. A CA125 of 35 or under is considered normal, so although mine was very much still in normal range I panicked. I was always told that markers are never a certainty and to not place too much focus on them, but that’s not always easy because markers become the one thing that is fixed in a very unclear situation. I remember how terrible I felt and all the horrible thoughts that occupied my mind. I found myself thinking and reflecting about what I had been through. For the first time since my diagnosis, I found myself thinking about just how different things could have been. It was also in part because of my worries about Avastin ending and ultimately my fear of Cyril coming back.

I would love to say that this is something I can learn to not be affected by but the truth is I can’t. I know that these worries will always be there, and I can’t stop that. However, I have to learn ways to try to accept and deal with them, which I know is going to take time. One of the ways that I’ve been trying to do that is by trying to become friends with my anxiety. She is a shark called Jaws.

Avastin has not been easy this year. It’s not exactly a chemotherapy drug so the side effects are overall less intense but there are side effects for sure. There’s been the continuous body ache, headaches and random bouts of nausea. It’s hard to get used to having these for a year, but when you know that you are being injected with something that is helping to make extra sure that Cyril does not creep back in, it becomes easier to put your arm out for the cannula each time. And over time you learn to cope with the side effects. Now that I’ve finished Avastin, these should stop for the most part, but the added question mark is how much was due to side-effects and how much is due to menopause which can also cause headaches and joint pain along with a whole host of other things. So now we wait to see.

I am obviously overjoyed to be a step further along now, and I’m sure my veins are eternally grateful for the chance to be left alone for longer than 3 weeks at a time. If I’m being honest, at the moment it feels like follow up will be harder than active treatment. I think this is because when you go through the treatment you are in survival mode and not really thinking about what’s going on. For me, this kept Jaws on lockdown to a certain extent. Post treatment and follow up means I’m further away from the war zone I was in, so Jaws feels like she can break free, circle round me as much as she wants and make me feel more vulnerable. I know that help is always there when I need it, but as I start to get my head around 3 month rather than 3 week check-ups, Jaws is finding it much easier to give her two-cents about the current situation. Here’s what she tells me:

“Three months is a long time to go without seeing a doctor Laura.”

“Lumps and bumps you find along the way might mean Cyril is back.”

“Breast checks and ovarian checks for you every three months.”

“You might have an ovarian cancer relapse. This could impact when you get to have your preventive breast surgery.”

“You might even get breast cancer before you can have preventive surgery. The risk from your BRCA gene mutation is still there.”

“You’re in early menopause Laura. An early menopause puts you at high risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.”

 Of all these, the only one I actually want her to remind me of is number two. She’s correct in saying that lumps and bumps need to be checked out and I’m actually thankful that she reminds me to be vigilant. After all, Jaws helped me last year because when doctors told me nothing was wrong, she pushed me to not accept what I was being told. Anxiety is not always negative. As for the other points they are all true. And they are not things I can tell myself to not think about because that’s an impossible ask. But what I do need to do is find a way to not get caught up in them, and to remember that I know a lot more about cancer and my body than Jaws does. I also know that close monitoring and support from the Marsden is going to help me adjust to this new phase of the journey.

However, sometimes it’s not as easy as reminding yourself of the facts. For example, last weekend I found what I know looked like a boil near my scar. Panic quickly set in and I told myself the following facts on repeat:

“It’s just a boil. You’ve had loads before. It looks and feels like a boil. IT MUST BE A BOIL!”

But as much as I told myself these things, I quickly worried that it was a cancer related lump. It’s not just the thoughts that are a problem; it’s also a physically exhausting pattern of thinking. It had me lying on the sofa too tired to talk in no time. Cancer can make you lose faith in your body and it takes time for that faith to be rebuilt. In time I’m sure that Jaws and I will learn that it’s always best to get lumps and bumps checked out, BUT that there will be lots of times where these lumps and bumps are just normal lumps and bumps of life and not cancer related. I can’t guarantee this will always work but it’s a start.

I titled this blog ‘One very long tube journey’ for a reason. Since my diagnosis last June I have made the same trip on the Northern and Piccadilly lines to South Kensington station so many times I couldn’t begin to count. When you sit on a train, and the same train lines for as many hours as I have over the past 18 months you hear, “The next station is” so many times that you can replicate every the voice perfectly. You also get to know the length of time between each station and the points in the track that bump or curve. I can even tell you that the bumpiest part is between the Knightsbridge and South Kensington stops. Remember this next time you’re going that way and see for yourself!

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Battling Cyril is not all that dissimilar to a very long tube journey in London with lots of stop along the way. For those of you who know the tube, it’s rare that you only ever need to take one line to get to your destination. For a year and a half I’ve been on the ‘treatment line,’ getting off at regular stops along the way. This week, I came to the end of this line, and I had to walk to another platform and wait to board the ‘Life after cancer’ line. Getting off the treatment train at the final stop was really hard, but I managed to get myself on the ‘Life after cancer’ train.

How does it feel? Well I feel relieved, thankful, elated, very fearful and very emotional. I have no doubt it will be a bumpy ride at times, but I know I have people to help. This train feels better in some ways because I get to have a seat rather than stand up and hold on for dear life. I can use my hands to do other things now. Like keep writing my long list of the things I want and need to do as a stage three ovarian cancer survivor. When I look at this list I often find myself hesitant to start working through it because it terrifies me that I might start and then have things ripped away from me again. The fear of needing to swap back to the treatment train is real and it’s not going anywhere. I just have to learn to deal with it, and I know that Jaws has to come along for the ride. For now I’m just going to take it one stop at a time and deal with whatever this train brings. I’ll learn as I go. That’s the best thing I can do. There’s no manual for being on the ‘life after cancer’ train.

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‘The world is your catwalk, so just remember this when you are out there’ (RuPaul)

On Saturday 9th September 2017, I took part in the ‘Touch of Teal Glitter Gala.’ The proceeds from this event were donated equally between five charities: Target Ovarian Cancer, Ovacome, Ovarian Cancer Action, Penny Brohn UK and The Royal Marsden Hospital Charity. I was honoured to be chosen to model at the event alongside fifteen other incredible women who have all been affected by ovarian cancer. We took to the catwalk in front of a large group of people with the aim of continuing to raise much needed awareness about ovarian cancer. As a group, we covered a wide age range for diagnosis; the youngest person being diagnosed at 17 years at the oldest at 72. The age range is something that we must always remember – although rare, ovarian cancer can hit at a very young age.

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The event was put on by Adele Sewell and her incredible team. Adele is a BRCA 2 carrier. She has had BRCA-related breast and ovarian cancer. During my own cancer journey, I have had the pleasure of getting to know her, initially when I modelled at ‘Tea with Ovacome’ in March of this year. To me she is quite simply incredible. She’s always there for you, helping you to push forward at the times when it all feels too much or when Jaws (my anxiety pet shark) makes an appearance. She has enabled so many women who have had or have ovarian cancer to get an opportunity to celebrate how far they have come and at the same time raise awareness for ovarian cancer. She meticulously plans out the event days, making sure that the models get their hair and makeup done, have time to eat and rest but also spend time with the other models. She does everything in her power to make sure that her models look and feel beautiful and have a day to remember.

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The day of the gala began with a catwalk rehearsal before we headed off for hair and make-up. After this we had a quick dress rehearsal before starting our first run. Every time a model stepped out onto the catwalk it felt like a celebration of life, strength and determination. This catwalk is a catwalk like no other. It supports women battling this horrendous disease and also those around her. It shows people what it looks like to not only live with cancer but to live well with cancer. Watch the video below, which was taken by a member of Adele’s family and you will see exactly why it is a catwalk like no other.

The women who I got to share this day with have so many different roles. They are daughters, girlfriends, wives, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, friends…I could keep going. So with that in mind, think about how many people are in some way walking down the catwalk with them. This is because when you’re diagnosed with cancer, everybody around you is also on the journey with you. Watching you on the catwalk is a moment for them to also stop and reflect as well as cheer and support their loved ones on. One of my older sisters, who volunteered at the gala, got to see me on the catwalk and join in with my excitement.

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One of the best things about being part of the day is being able to talk with the other models and share experiences. We spoke about all aspects of our journeys including: chemo, surgery, Avastin and menopause. As someone going through menopause at 28, I get so much encouragement and comfort from talking to other ladies going through this journey. Below are some of the photos I took back stage!

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As well as a fabulous fashion show we heard from members of the associated charities and the amazing work that they are doing. We were also reminded of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, and the importance of raising awareness of these often misdiagnosed symptoms. Adele showed the audience a photo of herself from just before she was diagnosed where she looked about 6 months pregnant. She explained how it was only as this point that doctors became alarmed, and realised that it was not just bloating but something more serious. She spoke about the importance of raising awareness to try and make sure that women don’t need to get to this stage before alarm bells start to ring.

I know this experience only too well. Despite me looking increasingly bloated and pregnant in the weeks before I was diagnosed, doctors put this down to constipation. A second visit to A&E in one week led to the discovery of abnormal blood results and finally a CT scan, which highlighted the real problem. Two days later, I had six litres of ascites fluid drained off my abdomen. This experience is something which has and continues to affect me. Whenever I hear movement in my stomach I get anxious and Jaws comes out to give her two cents about how that might be a sign of ascites build up again. Whenever I have my abdomen checked at the hospital I always ask about fluid because it still terrifies me that before my diagnosis it was wrongly put down to bloating and constipation. This is why Adele’s words from the gala are so important to me. If you experience persistent symptoms that are the same as those of ovarian cancer get checked.  If something doesn’t feel right, ask more questions. You know your body better than anyone. Too often women are diagnosed with the disease in the advanced stages because the symptoms are initially put down to something else. And although rare, it can happen at any age. I say this as someone who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer at the age of 27, which was a factor in why I was initially misdiagnosed. But it happens. At any age. Below is a photo of me before my diagnosis with my pregnant looking belly. I find this photo hard to look at now. This is because I took it to send to my siblings as I was about to tuck into a bowl of prunes and drink yet another Movicol to deal with my ‘supposed constipation.’

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Cancer can often make you feel very different about your body, but experiences like the Glitter Gala are reminders of the importance of not only feeling good in your skin but also appreciating your body for all that is has done to get you to where you are. One of the body worries I have a lot of the time now is my new menopause body temperature. I seem to have developed a new internal temperature switch that is ALWAYS on. It means that I rarely ever feel cold (gone are the days where I thought about buying a snuggly winter coat!). I can have so many hot flushes in a day that I don’t often put make up on because you can guarantee that it will have melted off within the hour and left me sporting panda eyes. So having my make-up done professionally on the day was especially enjoyable for me, and it meant that I got to learn some tips from the make-up artist team about little things I could do to make it stay on better. This one of the ways I came away from this catwalk experience with renewed self-confidence in myself and my body. I am incredibly grateful for this.

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The gala was also perfectly placed in the calendar because September is gynaecological awareness month. This means that it’s a great opportunity to take time to learn about the symptoms of the five gynaecological cancers, including ovarian cancer. It takes only five minutes for you (men and women) to look up the symptoms then another five minutes talking and sharing them with someone else. That is how we will be able to keep raising awareness. I’ve also included some links below.

http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/womens-cancer

https://eveappeal.org.uk/gynaecological-cancers/

https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/patients/menopause/gynaecological-cancers/

http://www.macmillan.org.uk/information-and-support/ovarian-cancer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Cyril’s first online auction!

FOUR SEASONS COUNTRY CLUB

 QUINTA DO LAGO

ALGARVE

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2 bedrooms/2 bathrooms villa (can sleep 6). Set within 17 acres of private gardens on the prestigious Quinta do Lago Estate. A wide range of sport and leisure activities are available.

 ARRIVAL – THURSDAY 7th DECEMBER 2017 departing THURSDAY 14th December 2017.

 ACCOMMODATION ONLY – NO FLIGHTS

 DISCOUNTED GREEN FEES on the Quinta do Lago Golf Courses and on others nearby

Amenities:

 Fully fitted Kitchen with private terrace

Daily maid Service

Bathrobes and towels provided

Indoor and Outdoor pools

Gym

Squash

Snooker Room

Table Tennis

Bar with Log fire

Restaurant

Poolside Bar and Restaurant

Tennis Courts

 

This prize is donated by Peter Schwitzer and Peter Stern

The starting bid for this prize is £400. If you are interested please email findingcyril@gmail.com with your bid. Payment can be made through our Just Giving Page or straight to the Royal Marsden Cancer charity. I can advise people on how to do this. Our auction begins today and will run until 30th June 2017.

Please share the details of this auction with as many people as you can.

Thank you for your continued love and support. It means the world to me.

Laura

xxxx

BRCAfest – Food, fun, and fundraising!

On Sunday 9th April, I hosted BRCAfestmy first fundraising afternoon for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. The aim of the event was to raise awareness about BRCA gene mutations and ovarian cancer, as well as funds for the Royal Marsden cancer Charity. It was an honour to be joined by Mr John Butler, Consultant Gynaecological Surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital. Mr Butler and his team carried out my surgery in August 2016.

 There was a lot of preparation ahead of the day, and even more so on the morning of the event. I had some great helpers with me and it didn’t take long for it all to come together: we had amazing decorations, food and raffle prizes that people had so kindly donated. After a few hours of work, it was amazing to see the room ready for the event – I was so excited by that point! 

 The afternoon started with a chance for everyone to eat, drink and meet others. There were also lots of things on sale including some handmade cards and keyrings, as well as raffle tickets and auction prizes. Once everyone was seated I welcomed everyone and gave a short speech. I had been so nervous about the prospect of talking to a room a full of people. I think that blogging and talking about my experience has really helped me feel confident talking about cancer and my journey, but where public speaking is concerned, I’m used to talking to a class of children rather than a room of 150 adults using a microphone! Although, once I started to talk, my initial nerves disappeared and I actually ended up enjoying it.

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After my speech, Mr Butler presented a talk about the history of, and developments in, cancer and specifically ovarian cancer. He also spoke about BRCA gene mutations and the research and development that the Royal Marsden is doing in these areas. I learned so much from the talk. For example, about the developments in ovarian cancer treatment and drugs. While Mr Butler was talking, I remember looking around the room and seeing everyone so engaged, and I was so pleased to have played a part in raising awareness in this way. Mr Butler coincidently ended his talk with the same ending line as my speech – “knowledge is power,” which was great, as it was what I had hoped the main take home message of the day would be.

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 After Mr Butler’s talk, we held the raffle draw and auctionIt was so exciting and such a joy to see people win the amazing prizes that had been donated. It was at this point I had another really good look around the room to soak up the atmosphere and remind myself what all the hard work preparing had been for. I also couldn’t help but think how good it would be to do this again. And when I get an idea in my head, I tend to keep going with it, so watch this space for details of BRCAfest2018! 

 As soon as we had cleared the hall, a few of us sat round and started to count up the money we had raised. I am so excited to say that the grand total raised by BRCAfest was £5,402.17! This figure is just incredible, and it is so overwhelming to think about all the support that people have given in order for us to raise as much as we did. 

 Clearing up BRCAfest meant taking home A LOT of leftover food and when I saw just how much cake was left over, I instantly knew what I had to do. As I told everybody at BRCAfest, my medical team have been like my second family through treatment, and so I wanted them in some way to be part of the event. The next morning, I booked myself a cab and headed up to the Royal Marsden to deliver the cakes to some very special people who have, and continue to, take incredible care of me. They helped save my life and so giving them cake to have with their cups of tea on a Monday morning was just a small thing I can do to remind them all just how special they are to me. 

 I would like of say a huge thank you everybody who attended BRCAfest and those who donated gifts and food. And a special thanks to the children at Deansbrook Primary School and Little Reddings Primary School for making cards and keyrings that were on sale, to Fiona Cohen for afternoon doing her drawings for us and to Georgine Waller for capturing it all on camera. A big thank you to Hartley Hall for donating the venue for the event and finally to Mr Butler for being our guest speaker. 

 BRCAfest happened ten months to the day of my diagnosis, so on a personal note it was another celebration of how far I have come in such a short space of time. I often find it hard to make sense of just how much has happened in less than a year. I feel like a different person, and in many ways, I am. Photographs and images are an amazing way of capturing moments, good or bad but also for making sense of change. The photo on the left is from 9th June 2016 when I was on my way to see Mr Butler for the results and diagnosis, and the photo on the right is of me and Mr Butler at BRCAfest. To me these capture the same person, but also highlights some of the differences I see in myself.

 Now that the event is over, there are lots of things I need to focus on over the coming weeks. I have my Avastin treatment as well as my three monthly ‘breast MOT to check that my potentially killer mutant boobs are behaving themselves, and are only (thanks to the menopause) guilty of increasing in size…which I don‘t class as a real problem! I will also be taking a big step at work and getting back in front of a class of children to teach my first French class since May 2016. There is lots to come over the next few weeks, but the enjoyment and success of BRCAfest has definitely helped to set me up positively for it all! 

All photographs from BRCAfest 2017 can be accessed using the link below:

https://myalbum.com/embed/dMbZX2sppe0k

Marching through March for the Marsden

On Sunday 19th March, The Royal Marsden held their annual Marsden March – a 14 or 5 mile walk between the Sutton and Chelsea hospital sites. Each year the march raises money for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, all of which goes toward treatment, research and support for cancer patients, with the ultimate goal being ‘a future beyond cancer.’ The charity also encourages people to host their own marches in support of the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. This is exactly what my school, Little Reddings, did on Monday 20th March.

I’ve worked as a teacher at Little Reddings for about two years. I remember walking in for my interview and instantly getting a sense of just how supportive and friendly it was. Little Reddings has played an integral part in my personal and professional development as a teacher. Last year, before I had to stop working, I took on the role of French teacher and the Modern French Language coordinator. This position is something that I am incredibly proud of, and knowing that I had this to go back to after treatment, was a key factor in keeping me focused and motivated.

Our Marsden March started with me leading an assembly in the morning. I introduced the children to The Royal Marsden Hospital with photos and images. I spoke about my journey with ‘Cyril’ and played Rachel Platten’s ‘Fight Song’. I asked if anyone knew why this was such an important song to me; they rightly said that they thought it was because the song about fighting and staying positive. I explained that I first heard Calysta Bevier, a 16-year-old American young woman who is a survivor of stage 3 ovarian cancer, sing this song on America’s Got Talent, soon after I was diagnosed myself. Hearing this song was a significant moment for me; it soon became a song that I really connected with on an emotional level. There were times during treatment when I would listen to it repeatedly. I still put it on when I feel low or anxiety takes over. Hearing this song was probably the first time that I truly realised just how powerful music can be. Have a look at the videos below to hear Calysta Bevier and Rachel Platten singing ‘Fight Song.’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9msiUy0JN64

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo1VInw-SKc

I then spoke to the children about the history of The Royal Marsden Hospital, including The Oak Centre for children and young people diagnosed with cancer. I also talked about the staff at the hospital and all the different people who make the hospital run so smoothly, such as: the doctors, nurses, researchers, pathologists, physiotherapists, dieticians, psychologists, receptionists and the catering and cleaning staff. We went through some of these roles and I explained how each person’s role helps to keep the hospital running smoothly for the patients. My experience is that the staff often go above and beyond to make patients feel as comfortable as possible.  One example that I’m always reminded of is the catering lady on the chemotherapy day ward. Whenever I’m there, she always takes time to talk to me and remembers that I like apple juice, so makes sure I that I have some soon after arriving on the ward.

I showed the children some of the team who look after my care, we watched a video of the Duke of Cambridge talking about hospital and then a video about some of the more recent technology that the hospital uses. I wanted the children to see that technology, which is so important to our everyday lives with things like phones, computers and television, is also a vital tool in cancer treatment. By supporting the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity we are able to support the continued development and use of innovative, lifesaving technology. During my surgery, the team used something called a Plasma Jet; a surgical device used for women with advanced ovarian cancer. It allows surgeons to target and destroy ovarian cancer cells with greater precision and reduced side effects. Have a look at the link and the video below that explain more about the Plasma Jet and other technological advances used at the Marsden to treat cancer patients.

https://www.royalmarsden.nhs.uk/rm-magazine/new-technology-tackle-ovarian-cancer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5f5zz5fq40

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It was wonderful to see how focused the children were during the assembly and to hear the comments they made about the issues raised. The sad reality is that cancer is affecting more and more people, including many of their families, so it will be a word that continues to be so relevant to so many. When I first heard the word cancer, I was naturally filled with fear and dread (that’s how the name ‘Cyril’ came about; it felt less scary) As you go through the treatment, you start to see and understand all the different things that cancer can mean, and the national and international community of professionals who are dedicating their work to advancing cancer treatment and care. Over time, you begin to feel a little less fear about the word and see how it means a whole load of different things to different people. My feeling from my own experience is that we should be open and honest about it in order to try to normalise it.

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After assembly, it was time to march. We all headed out to the school grounds: staff, students and families – children from as young as five months took part and everybody was buzzing, even with the rain! It was an amazing feeling to see so much support and awareness. It was also an opportunity for people to reflect and think about those they know who have been affected by cancer. Some children spoke to me about this, talking about people they knew who had cancer. It confirmed for me the importance of providing, not just adults, but also children with chances to have these reflections. As a group we raised over £600 which, when transferred into my just giving account, took the total amount to over £10,000! I won’t even try to put in words what that means to me – really it is beyond anything I could have ever imagined… I keep clicking on the page just to see the figure!

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As we were marching, I was reminded of the fact that it was almost seven months to the day that I had my surgery (some of the key dates over the last year are permanently etched in my mind). To be surrounded by my colleagues, pupils and their families, as well as some of my family, was a reminder of how far I have come in such a short space of time. I’ve gone from being at the hospital every week to now spending more and more time back at school and getting back into my life as Laura, and not just Laura with cancer. I am so grateful to my colleagues, the pupils and their parents for their continued love and support. They have given, and continue to give me, hope, strength and courage. I love my Little Reddings family!

Our Marsden March was an example of how easy it is to march for the Marsden. You can do it, as they say, “anytime, anywhere”. So many of us enjoy going for walks, so why not add a new perspective to a walk you take in the future. For example, imagine if a group of ten people got together to do a mini My Marsden March and each got sponsored £1 by ten people. This would mean they would have raised £100 on a walk. Now imagine if ten of these groups did the same thing…amazing to think, isn’t it!

We marched on Monday 20th March, which is also another significant day – International Day of Happiness. And for me, it really was!

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Make time for tea!

On Tuesday 28th February, I was very privileged to attend the Eve Appeal’s launch of their March 2017 campaign: ‘Make Time for Tea.’ It was held at the House of Commons and I went along with my dad for a very special afternoon tea.

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From the moment I walked into the room, I got a sense of how important this event was going to be. The room was filled with: ovarian cancer survivors, patients who are still undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, families who have lost loved ones to the terrible disease, and MPs and celebrities who are in support the Eve Appeal and their efforts to raise awareness of, not just ovarian cancer, but all gynaecological cancers. The focus for this event was ovarian cancer because March is ovarian cancer awareness month.

Athena Laminios, Chief Executive of the Eve Appeal,was one of the first people to speak. Her talk focused on the importance of us all talking more about gynaecological cancers to raise awareness. We as women can often end up avoiding conversations about our bodies, and especially our vaginas, because we end up feeling embarrassed about it. Athena highlighted how we must all try to not shy away from talking about these issues just because it can sometimes feel uncomfortable. It highlighted for me just how important it is to allow these conversations to happen, not just between us, but also in our wider society.

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We were also honoured to hear from some inspiring women about their personal experiences of ovarian cancer. Alison, who is an incredibly special woman and a huge inspiration to me, spoke about raising awareness of BRCA mutations and ovarian cancer. She has been, and continues to be, there for me since my diagnosis, and was one of the first people I spoke to when I was diagnosed. She immediately understood what I was feeling without me even having to say much. It was humbling to hear her talk about her personal cancer journey and determination to raise awareness about this important topic. I am so thankful to have such support, guidance and love from Alison and her family.

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I spoke with other women like Alison who have lived with ovarian cancer. One woman I met told me how for many years, she lived in fear of cancer, but now over time, feels free from this fear. It was so reassuring to hear from her; like all of the women I have met, hearing about her experience gave me hope and encouragement.

I also met a number of celebrity supporters of the charity, including Dr Christian Spencer Jessen and Lesley Joseph, as well as a number of MPs. It felt so special to talk with these people about my personal journey as well as the wider issues relevant to ovarian cancer.

I wanted to write a bit more about what Athena mentioned in her talk; the importance of us talking about our bodies and gynaecological symptoms. I identified so much with this when think back to my own experience. Back in May 2016, I got terrible tummy cramps, which seemed strange to me because I had already had my period that month. I remember noticing other new symptoms after this and initially, the only reason I kept asking my GP about whether it was to do with my ovaries was because of where the pain was, not because I suspected it was cancer. Back then, I had no idea about the symptoms of ovarian cancer. However, as the symptoms and pain continued, and I started to search the internet, I began feeling more uneasy about what the health professionals were telling me and so I kept going back. This is one of the reasons I decided to start blogging; I truly believe that knowing the symptoms means that you can be more aware of when things don’t feel right in your body. If I have learnt anything from my experience of diagnosis, it is that you know your body the best. I also feel strongly about raising awareness of ovarian cancer amongst women of all ages. I stress ‘all ages’ because although rare, ovarian cancer can still occur in younger women, like it did with me.

So the take home message for me from the event was for us all to try and be more comfortable with talking about our bodies, our vaginas and gynaecological symptoms. If we can try to have these conversations more openly, then we can continue to make it normal for women too talk about when things don’t feel quite right and subsequently get things checked. One of the most terrifying facts about ovarian cancer is that it is often diagnosed in its latter stages, and usually once the disease has spread. The symptoms are often the same as conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or pre-menstrual syndrome. You can read more about this on the Eve Appeal website.

In aid of ovarian cancer awareness month, the Eve Appeal is asking everyone, women and men, to sit down for tea and start having these vital conversations about ovarian cancer, whilst also raising money for the cause. Have a look at the link below for more information.

So put the kettle on, slice the cake and let’s start talking!

Links and info:

  • Oliver Bonas have teamed up with the Eve Appeal and for the next two years, will be supporting The Eve Appeal through the sale of a number of products. All their profit will go to the charity, including all the in store carrier bag sales. https://www.oliverbonas.com/about-us/charity

BRCAfest update!

On 9th April, BRCAfest is taking place in Mill Hill. As well as having our raffle, we are also going to be having an auction on the day.

We have wonderful auction prizes.

1) accommodation for one week in Quinta Do Largo in the Algarve

2) a signed goodie from Jessica Ennis

3) two signed framed framed football shirts. One by Gareth Bale and the other by Juan Mata.

To be in with a chance to win these incredible prizes buy your tickets for BRCAfest now! Use the link below to purchase your tickets.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/brcafest-tickets-32137050784

Remember this event is going to spread vital awareness of BRCA mutations, hereditary cancers and the incredible work that the Royal Marsden does.

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BRCAfest

After I had my surgery in August 2016, my friend called me with an incredible idea. She had come up with an event to raise awareness about BRCA mutations and the associated hereditary cancers. With the support of our families, friends and lots of other people who have donated things we are very excited that BRCAfest (hopefully the first of many) will be taking place on 9th April. This is event is in support of the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. Please see the flyer for more details. You can purchases tickets by clicking on the link below.

 

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 We are still looking for raffle prizes and soft drinks for the event. If you are able to help us with this, or know of anybody who is able to help us with this please email findingcyril@gmail.com.

I want to thank everybody again for their love and support. It means the world to me.