Sunday, 13 October 2013

A dozen Mills and Boon and a book about Romans

Stony Stratford is a great community to live in. It's friendly place with many different events going on, most of which are family-friendly. I often tell people who don't know the area (and who know we are part of the car-is-king, sprawling Milton Keynes) how great it is that we have everything we need in walking distance: a mix of shops, restaurants, banks, pubs, riverside walks, the library.

Ah, the library. What a shock to the town when its closure was announced a couple of years ago. As regular visitors with the kids we really felt a special piece of Stony Stratford was to be taken away and feared a general decline of the High Street as a result.

Fortunately we were not the only ones to feel this, and there were some passionate people ready to co-ordinate protests against the plans. Posters appeared in shop windows, a petition circulated, but then a truly inspired idea took hold: everyone was to take out as many books as possible over a few days to create empty shelves - an imaginative way to show commitment to the library and the cause of keeping it open.

So a couple of days before the end of this protest I went along to find the library was already looking sparse. It was moving to see it in this state - what an endorsement for the library staff who must have feared for their jobs, to know the library was valued so greatly by the local population.

The kids wanted to join in this 'Wot no books' campaign too, but there were hardly any children's books suitable for them left by then (they were only five and two at the time). We took out a few books, including a relatively advanced text book about the Romans, and I ended up with a load of Mills and Boon (well at least they would be light to carry home). We didn't quite reach our quota - 15 books each for three of us would have been rather too much for me to carry, but we did our bit. The library was stripped of books and the story was covered by local and national press adding weight to the campaign.

What jubilation when the library was given a stay of execution and now the Town Council have stepped in to look after the building while Milton Keynes Council continues to provide the library service.

This week we had the pleasure of being invited to the screening of a documentary film about campaign which included interviews of people involved, including local children (Pippa among them). It made me feel very grateful to the Friends of Stony Stratford Library (FOSSL) who made it all happen. Without these people supporting the great asset that is the library, and the strength of the community spirit in our town, we may have lost our local library.

The film is on Youtube at:

I'm pleased to say it is not all Mills and Boon and Romans for our library borrowing these days. Pippa is devouring all the Jacqueline Wilson books in sight, and my most recent read was the thought-provoking 'Long Song' by Andrea Levy.

So thank you FOSSL and library campaigners of Stony Stratford, we are very appreciative of all you did to preserve our access to quality books and the wonderful place that is the library. May it continue to thrive for years to come.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Making the most of every day

I'm not the only person who's had cancer who feels that, having been shown how short life could be, they need to make the most of the life they have. But this is often more easily said than done. How do you make sure your life has purpose and meaning? And that it is blessed with fun and love along the way?

When I was ill I was fabulous! Even if I do say so myself - I was focused on being well. It was almost as if I was thriving on showing how well I was, and how I was dealing with it all. Of course I had my moments (and I thank the family and friends who took the tears on their shoulders), but I managed to more or less ignore the gloomy statistics for someone with Stage 4 bowel cancer and get on with whatever the medical profession advised was in my best interests, never really doubting that I would not get through it in the end.

I don't think those are the rose-coloured spectacles looking back. I do remember the pain and exhaustion in hospital sitting alongside a very powerful urge  and determination to do whatever was necessary to get out of there and to be back with the family. I am rarely so assertive. Generally, there was no time to think about long-term work and life plans because it was all about making sure that I got better and that the family were looked after through this phase.

After a year of treatment, followed a year of fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. It was great to be putting something back and doing my bit to support people going through some of what I went through. Now, though, it is hard to know where to put the effort. I've been inspired by various events and people recently, but I still don't know what it is I'm inspired to do!

At Yorkshire Friends Holiday School this summer I was inspired to think about my Quakerism and what that means to me. I came back and for the first time wrote to my MP to protest against the proposed military action in Syria. I wonder whether I will start to become more political or more of an active pacifist?

I'm inspired by people who follow their dreams. I have some half-baked ideas of things I might like to do one day, but I am not harbouring any burning ambitions that I know in my heart I need to pursue. I just keep churning over the ideas because although I lack that obvious goal, I just have that nagging sense that I'm not fulfilling my potential at the moment. This is where a desire to make the most of precious life can turn into unhelpful pressure. It is probably also not helped by balancing my needs with those of the family (not that our needs are always at odds, but we have an uncertain time ahead of us and we need to be flexible to cope with potential upheaval down the line. We need an income!).

At the same time as this niggly feeling that I now need to be doing something else, something more. something bigger, something better, I do realise that even thinking about how to live your life is a bit of a luxury. When you are facing extremes (illnesss, poverty, sudden bereavement, etc) you have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and get through the day ahead.

So, until I start the next big thing I will continue to do a little bit of this, and a bit of that - enjoying being around to pick up the kids from school, a Macmillan coffee morning or two, time with family and friends, keeping up with exercise. When it comes down to it, these things too are important and precious. While waiting for the next big thing I mustn't forget to enjoy all of the many little things. Not making the most of any given day, shouldn't overshadow the opportunity to make the most of the next day, and the one after that.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

A lot happens in three years

It is three years since I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. If this had not happened life could be very different today. We could be in New Zealand for example.

In the intervening three years I have gone through a myriad of treatments which I have good reason to assume have been successful (although it is not really possible to rid yourself of the tiny, back-of-the-mind doubt that one day it will return, even if that is not for several years). I have also discovered strength, optimism and occasional humour in the face of adversity. After a year of treatment followed a year of fund-raising for Macmillan Cancer Support. It was time to put that new found energy to good use and give something back.

The last year has been calmer (just a small fundraising event and a bit of support for Bowel Cancer UK so far) and this anniversary date not a big deal as ongoing check ups tie in with years since surgery not diagnosis. However, this year the date has a whole new significance and my thoughts are with others and a cancer charity I have had little direct involvement with.

As I was being told I had a malignant tumour, a much happier event was taking place near by as a boy was being born. A beautiful, happy, loving boy. What unimaginable grief for his parents and nearest and dearest as his life came to an end so suddenly towards the end of last year. Then his parents took a generous decision to support the World Child Cancer charity, whose projects include providing life saving medicines to children suffering from curable cancers in countries such as Malawi. Without the specialised medicines and support, these children would not see adulthood, the charity gives them a future.

Today would be Sasha's third birthday and his dad is launching a new phase of his fund-raising efforts: a series of personal challenges and covering 1000km in memory of his beloved son. The whole community is supporting him, he is an inspiration.

Therefore, if you have the means to do so, please support his fantastic effort. You can read more and donate at the justgiving site:

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Signing up for a new challenge

Well, I've done it. I've handed over the exam fees for Grade 6 ballet (and hope they don't assume it is a typo where I've stated date of birth!)

When Rosemary - or should I say Miss Rosemary as is the custom for ballet teachers - suggested a few years ago that members of the adult class could take an exam I laughed it off. I'd done with exams I thought. But the idea took hold and having gone through, well, what I've been through, a physical challenge to show I can still put on a decent show at such things, became a more appealing idea.

I am very excited about doing this exam. It will make me work hard in class improving fitness and flexibility. It will encourage me to stick with plans to lose some weight (I might eventually achieve the 5:2 diet instead of my half-hearted, barely 6:1), do wonders for my figure (I can dream, can't I?), and be good mentally having to learn the syllabus and switch off from everything else for a while.

But oh dear me, this whole plan seems completely crazy too. What am I thinking?! Pink ballet tights. A leotard? And there is me self-conscious about my bumpy tum as it is. Not to mention the cellulite.

Also, Pippa is doing her exam (grade 2) on the same day. Now this could seriously end in tears if she thinks I am doing better than her. As it is, I need to make sure that it's all about her and not much at all about me when it comes to extra lessons and making sure we have all the right shoes/socks/tights/hair stuff etc.

Actually, Pippa has a lovely quality to her movement - something I could take inspiration from and should strive to emulate. Hopefully she'll work hard over the next few weeks, get a good mark and enjoy that sense of achievement at the end of it all. I think she'll do well.

For me, I just hope not to embarrass myself too much and ultimately to know I've done as well as I can at something I love for the age I am now. Not comparing myself to my daughter, other students, or to my younger self. Easier said than done!

Friday, 19 April 2013

TImes tables angst

I can't help thinking that our year 3 children are being pressed a little too hard when it comes to learning their times tables.

I know it will be a difficult week next week as far as homework is concerned. I predict tears, frustration, shouting, a desire to tear up the homework sheet. (And that's just from me, let alone our 8-year-old daughter!).

Having had just one week on the six times table, we're now onto the 3 minute test with a combo of x2, x3, x4 and x6. It is not clear to me how much they are meant to be learning by rote, and how much they are just practising by whatever means until they are really quick.

I wish they were just taking a bit longer over it. I feel as though a week longer at each stage would do a lot of good. Aforementioned daughter is doing additions and subtractions to get to where she should be in the table (so, 60 take away 6 for 9x6 for example). This is probably why 7 times anything is very slow to achieve. It's not a bad way of doing it, it's just painfully slow at times as a fog descends around the otherwise clear-thinking brain and she gets in a tizz.

The pressure of feeling she needs to learn all this by the time she is in year 4 doesn't exactly help either. Are all schools like this? All kids? Or is it peculiar to our girl who hates to get things wrong (but often resists advice on how to get it right)?

Fortunately she likes school and is doing alright. It's hard enough for us, but what is it like for parents whose kids really don't even want to try? It must take a skilled teacher indeed to handle the differences in abilities without making such young children feel as though they are starting to fail already when they struggle with this.

I hope we're not going to have a whole term of this, but by my calculations (no. of times tables left x estimated number of weeks per table = 15, see how I can put it into practice) we've a long way to go yet. Or if they really do hope to get it by year 4, it is going to be such a rush job they'll need to repeat it all anyway.  Which goes back to my original point really, apart from the very few to whom it comes naturally, they are being pressed a little too hard.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Cancer Research Campaign dividing opinion

The 2013 Cancer Research UK campaign 'Cancer, we're coming to get you' seems to be dividing opinion - not quite as strongly as love-it-hate-it marmite perhaps, but certainly some people think it's great, while others cringe.

It is probably no great surprise that I am not a fan (of the advert that is, I am of course extremely pro cancer research and without research into cancer treatments I probably wouldn't be here blogging today).

If you haven't seen it, you can watch on youtube as I did earlier after a twitter conversation with a couple of friends who also don't like this ad. Basically it is sticking two fingers up at cancer and saying all these people are going to be fighting cancer.

I get unusually irritated by some of the language surrounding cancer. This advert is part of that really. As if cancer is some kind of sentient being to do battle with. 'Are you scared? You should be'. Yeah, right. Cancer is where normal cells in the body have gone wrong and divide and grow in an uncontrolled manner. It isn't like a bacteria that could be killed off with strong antibiotics or bleach, or even an opposing football team you're playing mind games with.

It is great that Cancer Research UK and others are making significant progress with drugs, treatment and understanding of this disease, but I suspect we are still a long way off preventing the loss of life to cancer. Does it help people to think that they are doing battle with the disease? Why is it a battle?

I think I am now cancer-free (I think therefore I am?). This is not because I have somehow fought the disease well. This is because I was pretty healthy in all other ways, and although it was not caught particularly early the cancer was caught early enough. The course of radiotherapy followed by surgery then chemo were effective treatments. I was lucky.

If you feel empowered by swearing at cancer and saying that you're going to beat it, then great. Whatever works for you - just don't expect me to join in. And I am very glad that people are out raising funds by walking, running, abseiling, and other admirable activities.

Enough of my moaning - I don't even watch ads on TV!

So, whatever has motivated you to do it, thank you for raising funds for cancer research and good luck to all you runners in the Race for Life.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Why I'm backing the Bowel Cancer UK campaign

Bowel Cancer UK has launched its Never Too Young Campaign today - a campaign I am more than happy to support.

Well, it's obvious really isn't it?

When I was experiencing rectal bleeding, all the posters in the GP surgery focused on the over 50s, followed by a list of risk factors such as smoking, lack of exercise and a diet rich in red meat. Not me then.

The GP assumed haemorrhoids, and having had a small problem with piles in pregnancy that continued afterwards too (not surprising perhaps, pushing out a 9lb 6oz baby!) I was happy to accept this diagnosis. A busy mum and breastfeeding too (which meant some haemorrhoid treatments would have been inappropriate), I just left doing anything about it for nearly 18 months after the birth of our second daughter.

At some stage in this 18 months things changed. The bleeding was becoming more regular and more common but it wasn't dark (which could have suggested a tumour deeper in the bowel). The piles seemed to have shrunk, well disappeared really. Still the assumption was 'internal piles'. Treatment did help a little but it didn't go away. However, even at the time I insisted on the sigmoidoscopy for further investigation, I didn't expect cancer.

I'm here to tell the tale so would anything be different if I had not assumed that cancer was out of the question and that it had to be something else?

Er, yes! I would have gone back to the GP earlier.

Going back to the GP earlier may have stopped my cancer being stage 4 at the point of diagnosis. This means it had gone through the wall of the rectum and was present in lymph nodes. Thankfully, it had not spread to other organs as then the statistics for my survival would have looked rather grim. Another few months of delay, and I don't like to think what might have been.

If I had been diagnosed earlier, my treatment may not have involved 5 and a half weeks of radiotherapy with the short-term extremely painful side effects of radiation burn, and the long-term effects of early menopause. If I had been diagnosed earlier, my surgery may have been less radical, with a permanent colostomy and scar tissue still causing discomfort at times. If I had been diagnosed earlier, I may not have needed adjuvant chemotherapy for nearly six months to make sure that any cancer cells which may have escaped the original site could take hold as a secondary tumour.

So, if my support for the campaign can in any way help someone else get their problem investigated earlier, then it will have been worth doing. It could save a life or improve a life.

No-one is too young to get cancer. Granted it is rare. Granted it may very well be that you do have something other than cancer if you have some of the symptoms (bleeding, changes in bowel habit, bloating, unexplained weight loss) - piles or IBS for example - but it is worth getting thoroughly checked out. Part of the campaign is also to educate the doctors to take more notice of the symptoms and signs.

I was 40 when diagnosed, but I have seen blogs from people in similar circumstances who were in their 20s. Whatever your age, please look after yourself. Take exercise, eat healthily, know your body. Doing this won't necessarily stop you getting cancer, but it could. In my case it didn't stop me getting cancer, but I feel it helped me cope better with the treatment. And while no one has a crystal ball, it means I am back to my earlier assumption that I'll live to a ripe old age with kids all grown up, and die happy and fulfilled. Surely, that's not unreasonable to hope for?

To read more about the campaign, please visit:

Thursday, 28 February 2013

What Cancer Cannot Do...

I have been irked by an image circulating facebook recently. It is not because I don't admire the sentiment behind it, and it is in support of a fantastic fundraising effort for a charity dear to my heart, but basically I don't think it is true. I am a fan of positive thinking and messages of hope but this one does not sit easily with me. Cancer can do many of the things this statement claims it cannot. I feel compelled to re-write.

Here is the original (from the Dawn French website facebook page - incidentally not Dawn French herself, but the page of a fan which could easily be confused):

I am glad the writer of this was not there the evening before my seven-hour operation to tell me cancer cannot silence courage. I am glad the writer was not there for my second dose of chemo to tell me cancer cannot conquer the spirit. And yet...

These were moments in time. If the writer had been with me throughout, they may have learnt a thing or two about hope, love, courage and spirit. So, for what it is worth, my alternative take on this poem:

What Cancer Can Do

It can challenge your Faith - but you may find your Faith grows stronger
It can shatter your Hope - but rarely beyond repair
It can cripple love - but also deepen it
It can make it hard to find Peace - but when you find it you feel even more blessed
It can lose you friends - but gives you an even greater appreciation of your true friends who have supported you 
It can suppress memories - but you will probably find this is a side effect of chemotherapy drugs and is a transient phenomenon
It can change how courageous you are - sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis
It can knock your spirit and invade your soul, but again it can make you stronger. Take heart and learn from those who show us how to live well through difficult times. Accept help.
It can take you down roads you had expected to travel. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
It may or may not do any of these things. Cancer presents itself in many different forms, is caught at different stages, responds differently to treatment depending on the individuals affected. No-one can tell you what cancer will or will not do to you until it happens.