Things I’ve Learnt – Breast Cancer Part 14

With Sarah Maxwell, personal trainer and the woman who gave me back my body. Thanks to Finca Buenvino for the location.

Photo: Georgia Read-Cutting


In no particular order…

1. Don’t put your Aloe Vera in the ‘fridge unless you’re into S&M.

2. ‘Tits’ can offend some people but if I say, ‘My breasts,’ I feel like I’m doing ‘phone sex.

3. Not even breast feeding in public can prepare you for having a young man in white coat, 6cm away from your nipple, announcing, ‘Perfect, beautiful,’ when he lines up the rays on the ‘big machine’.

4. Breast cancer biopsies hurt like hell and don’t believe them when they say that other women haven’t cried as much as you.

5. Breast cancer unit decorators are very fond of Orla Kiely.

6. That copy of yesterday’s Metro in the waiting area will still be there tomorrow.

7. Buy four sports bras BEFORE your op, then you won’t have to send your son to JD Sports when you get home afterwards and read the post-op literature.

8. Vit E oil works wonders on wounds and afterwards you can spread it on your face at night and stick to your pillow.

9. Join a dating website when you’re having radiotherapy [secretly]  and have lunch with a guy who announces, ‘ I must tell you, I’m having radiotherapy.’

10. If you can’t feel any lumps, doesn’t mean you haven’t got breast cancer. Go get that mammogram.

11. Show other women your scars at every opportunity – their imaginations are far worse and they need to be reassured. Show men if you like – same goes.

12. You will find yourself walking ’round John Lewis like Lord Nelson. Let them stare.

13. Say CANCER a lot, it removes a lot of the fear.

14. If you’re lucky, like me, you won’t look ill – before, during or after your treatment. This surprises and shocks a lot of people and is not so good for the sympathy vote.

15. You do not have to wear pink. Ever.

16. Don’t Google. Don’t Google. Do not Google.

17. Fight for the NHS.

18. If you feel patronised by medical staff or receptionists, tell whoever is a-doing of it. Politely.

19. Take supplements before, during and after treatment. The best ones cost an arm and a leg but are well worth it. Find a naturopathic nutrionist and follow their advice. This is a time in your life when they genuinely will help.

20. Yes, you can drink while you’re having radiotherapy but drink too much and you will have the worst hangover EVA.

21. There’s a lot of it about but you will always know someone else who is going through greater hell.

22.  Drink lots of water. Yeah, yeah, yeah…

23. Write it down. Obvs.

24. When spreading Aloe Vera gel on your tit after radiotherapy, do not miss out your nipple. Yes, it will feel a bit pervy but it will smart like hell if you don’t.

25. Your sexy, uplifting, lacey trimmed, underwired bras that have been the mainstay of your existence for the last 15 years will be banned for months and you may get to love your Sloggi one-size-fits-all. You can get them in black.

26. Your women friends will save your sanity.

27. Rejoice, your cancer gets great funding.



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Radio 2 – Breast Cancer Part 13

I’ve hit the wall – 10 days into radiotherapy, five more to go and suddenly, sitting still seems such a good idea. Gazing at my laptop screen, planning what I would do if I could be arsed. Listening to Snatam Kaur and wishing I was Costa Rica. I’ve ordered new hall carpet, cleaned the kitchen shelves, dug out the electric heaters. It’s like nesting for a baby, I’m in waiting.

Waiting for the waves to leave my body, my energy to return and breast cells to rejuvenate. My nipple’s a bit sore, I missed that bit with the aloe. Strange really, it’s hardly diminutive but playing with my nipples has always been someone else’s job.

The best thing about Barts is Maplins, there’s one at the bus stop where I get off. The shop smells of men and every woman needs a good three-way plug.

Next week I will discover the joys of on-line shopping with Waitrose and will mostly be making Christmas cake, pudding and mince pies.

See you on the other side.



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Radio Routine – Breast Cancer Part 12



Simon Patterson, ‘Cosmic Wallpaper’

My brain runs riot, my eyes jiggle and jump. My dreams are escape plans to nowhere; reconsidered, reconstituted  relationships; obstacle races through unfathomable mazes. 
My heart pounds, my head aches. I’m coming off Citalopram.

Must drink more water.

My weekdays are anchored by radiotherapy. 45 mins to Barts, 15 mins lying down, 45 mins back. I commute to the city. Every afternoon. For three weeks. Men in suits, women in trainers, me lying down, discussing Spain with my tits on show.

‘You’ve got a lovely tan.’

They talk to me like a child.

‘Don’t worry about the big machine, it’ll come close but it won’t touch you. It makes a whirring sound.’

They draw lines on my skin, mark me for placement. Green light-lines trace my torso. My eyebrow itches, my nose twitches. I stare at Simon Patterson’s ’reconfigured celestial constellation’ in the light-box ceiling and decide it’s a  map of Prog Rock. Art therapy for the drowning. Suddenly, I’m deep in the system and the reality of my diagnosis bites through my blasè veneer. I’ve had cancer, didn’t know I had it, ergo may have it again.

At home in the bathroom, I spread ice-cold Aloe Vera gel on my breast to prevent the worst of skin damage – burns, blisters. My fingers trace the scars, nervously notice the rearranged flesh beneath the skin. The dips and furrows. Will a lover ever discover this?

Must drink more water.


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Writing Holidays, Spain

Please go to our new website for more info and photos:


I’ve been on many creative writing courses and this was the best.’ CHRISTINE, teacher.

I loved being part of a group who gained pleasure from the process of writing without pretension. The retreat builds confidence and enjoyment. A fun, challenging experience, full of encouragement.’  CAROLINE, development consultant

A good balance between work and play, between walking and writing, resting and eating, staying at the Finca and visiting other places. Elaine’s skills at prompting interesting writing are excellent. The food was fabulous. I’ve never eaten so well, or so often! Sam, Jeannie and their team made us feel very welcome and well looked-after.’  GILLA, translator.

Good variety of cerebral and physical, humour and serious. Really thought-provoking and fun exercises. ‘ LINDA, teacher.

The best holiday I’ve ever been on alone!’ LORRAINE, company director.

                                                                        MAY 21–28

JUNE 4–11



Holidays are held at the beautiful Finca Buenvino, Andalucia, Southern Spain. A luxurious, superbly comfortable, bohemian and eclectic family home owned by Sam and Jeannie Chesterton.  Stuffed with antiques, family heirlooms, art and books, it is situated on their secluded organic farm with Iberian Black pigs, chicken, sheep and the occasional stag. There are 150 acres of chestnut and cork woods to explore and ancient drovers paths to follow.

I will show you the therapeutic value of writing down your life, on paper with a pen, for yourself and for future generations. You will share memories in an uncritical and supportive small group. You will record your story and  uncover your unique writing voice. You will rediscover your creativity and give yourself permission to play with language – inventing, exploring and delighting in your mark on the page. You will leave empowered and assured of your place in life as a writer. The retreat includes journalling, notebooking, memoir, autobiography, life writing and creative writing. It is open to everyone, no previous writing experience is necessary. There are daily mindfulness meditation sessions by the infinity pool; meditative, observational walks in the wooded hills of the Sierra de Aracena National Park; visits to local unspoilt, white washed villages; and morning and afternoon writing workshops with plenty of time for a siesta.

The price includes ALL EXPENSES (apart from airfares) full bed and board and amazing food cooked by Jeannie, plus wine at lunch and dinner. Also included is tapas tour of Seville, breakfast one morning in local bar, visit to hammam, spa [including massage] and a visit to Europe’s largest grotto in the local town of Aracena with time for shopping and a glass of Manzanilla.

Arrival: We will include pick up from a pre-determined point in SEVILLE (daily flights from UK)

Accommodation: The course is limited to six people.

Food & drink: The price of the holiday includes full board – cooked breakfast, buffet lunch, tapas, three course dinner and unlimited wine for 7 nights.

Transport: All transport is included. If you wish to return to the airport at a time that does not coincide with the rest of the group, this would be charged extra.

PRICES: £1550 sharing, £1850 single. 10% for bookings before January 15th.

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Showing-Off – Breast Cancer Part 11

Before with biopsy bruise and after, or at least up ’till now.

Jackie Collins has died, after ‘secretly battling with breast cancer.’

Why ‘battling’? Why ‘secretly’?

The terminology of cancer diagnosis, prognosis and treatment infuriates me. Of course, I respect Jackie’s right to privacy and not everyone is like me, showing off their tits and nipples to all and sundry. This week, one of my post-op photos was reported to Facebook as offensive and I had to remove it. The one above, on the right, was reported and subsequently allowed. Not enough nip, I assume.

Does ‘battling’ infer that she lost and died? No, it’s down to sods law, genetics, possibly booze and fags and a healthy dollop of luck and above all, modern medicine. I have no idea where I’m going with mine but I do know that I am not brave or fighting.  I do know that Barts hospital mammogram radiography team spotted my dodgy cells early and that my female surgeon did a bloody good job of making my tit look presentable after the lumpectomy and lymph node removal.

But ‘secretly’? That’s difficult because I believe that the more we share our experiences, the more we help remove the fear of CANCER. The fear of deformity, the fear of immediate death. The word cancer is still spoken in hushed tones.

‘I’m glad you’re feeling better, ‘ say dear friends. But I have never felt ill and that is the insidiousness of it. Cancer creeps up on you and smashes you in the face – or tits – when you are least expecting it.

Allegedly, Jackie told no one because she didn’t want to be a ‘burden’ but every single person I have told  has offered help in some way. We understand what cancer diagnosis CAN mean in the worse case scenario, for the individual and their family, and want to offer love, encouragement, practical  help or just an opportunity to rant!

Give your friends a chance to step forward and share your ‘journey’, another emotive word. You won’t be a burden, you’ll be a learning curve.

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Monsters – Breast Cancer Part 10

Print by Jan Irvine

‘Can I book you in for radiotherapy ?’

‘But I haven’t had my results yet, it’s on Friday?’

‘Oh, it’s just routine, just in case.’


I feel fine, I LOOK fine but who knows what’s lurking in there?

I saw it when I came back from the hospital after my operation. A small, black creature with a horny backbone and webbed wings. It was  shivering, wedged in-between the speakers on the book shelves in my bedroom. It looked at me over it’s hunched shoulder and used a skeletal finger to wipe the snot dripping from its nose. The ragged bandage, high on its right arm, was stained with fresh blood. When I was asked to draw my Dark Side on the Hoffmann Process, it looked just like that. Part of me that was sick, part of me that I had to leave behind.

When my husband was getting ill again during the long years of his cancer treatment, he told me knew it was happening because, when he closed his eyes, he saw a crazy, red, dancing figure. Our subconscious, our imaginations, our fears – play games with our hearts and perceptions

I feel fine but my cancer diagnosis, even the teeny-tiny, oh so insignificant one that I have had, sits like a pool of lead in my stomach.

‘Well, he went in for this and then they found that and had his leg off.’

‘They thought it was breast cancer but it was the black plague…’

Always the drama queen, always the over-exaggerator for comic effect, always wanting to be the centre of attention.

But my life is like someone has cleaned my windows, the world sparkles and I sit and stare. Colours are brighter, edges sharper, I’m waiting for Friday.




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Marked – Breast Cancer Part 9

Cancer is boring, it’s like the neighbour who pops in and eats all the biscuits and then asks if you’ve got any cake? It charges in and takes over. You need a secretary when you’ve got cancer,

‘She’s not in, she’ll be back later.’

It’s all people talk about. You’ve joined a gang, you’ve got a new job description. CANCER.

Tedious, time-consuming and strangely club-like. You exchange glances with strangers, all attired in robes that open at the front. The TV in the waiting room blares out Simpsons or that sit-com with the nice terrier and the old bloke with his favourite chair. You wonder why some are here alone, others with fumbling partners. You wish you were anywhere else but glad you’re at Barts: where St Johns is just down the road. You smell fear, you taste acid. You try not to look at your phone.

You try to meditate, you want a drink. They draw a cross on your tit and pin point the bastard. The nasty little number who has put the fear of God into your daughter in Greece and your boys in London. You wish you had a dog but you are glad you aren’t in Syria. You know you are lucky but wonder why, when you mention you have cancer, people gulp and know not what to say?

‘Are you having a lumpectomy?’ says I.

‘No, a mastectomy,’ says she.

I’m lucky, I’ve just got calcium crystals and won’t have a drain. I go to Oxford Street and look for bras without wires that don’t look like hammocks. Dream on.

Enjoy not having it – one in three of us will.



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I’m Scared – Breast Cancer Part 8

I’m scared. My kids are scared.

What if I wake up on the evening of the 30th of July and they’ve sliced both my tits off? I’ve signed a form, they might.

I’m sorry, this is not the time for rational thought. This is the time for stopping my daily aspirin so I don’t bleed to death. The aftermath of my breast cancer  biop looked like a still from Reservoir Dogs; the nurse had to lend me a clean t-shirt to wear home. It was red  luckily but the V-neck so wasn’t me.

This is the time to start measuring my blood pressure twice a day to make sure I don’t explode on the operating table. It was so high at the pre-assessment that they suggested cancelling surgery. So my blood pressure shot higher, ‘Go and have a walk around outside and get some fresh air,’ said the sister.

Sarah Maxwell took me Carluccios, bought me a large glass of red and a risotto  and I returned in triumph. Blood pressure  down, surgery back on. She cried, I cried, the sister hugged us both. Result.

Friends and wine, who needs more?



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I Don’t Believe In Fairies – Breast Cancer Part 7

Photo: Monika Evans

I don’t believe in fairies or the healing power of crystals but I bought one with three points when I was trying to conceive my third child, I don’t believe in astrology but I religiously read my stars and I’m pleased as punch by the positivity in my recent predictions. I don’t believe in psychics but one I interviewed told me that my husband wanted me to have white freesias in my bedroom, so I do. I don’t believe in palm readers but I loved the one on Brighton Pier who said I was going to live ’till 94 and die a very rich woman.

But I do believe in karma and Monika Evans.

I met Monika in Deia, Mallorca  three years ago when I was running writing retreats and she worked for Lynne Franks, my employer. Amongst Monika’s many  and varied talents and qualifications, she’s a Reiki Master with a BA in Modern History and Politics, an MSc in European Studies and a Post Grad Diploma in International Journalism, she also  ’interprets the ancient wisdom and symbolism of the Tarot applying it to modern life for divination, healing and soul guidance.’

However you interpret that, what I most certainly know is that with extraordinary accuracy, gentleness and good humour, over the last few years her readings for me have been pertinent, down to earth and, when I’ve looked back over a period of time, scarily predictive – but scary in a good way!

When I told a friend recently after I was diagnosed,  that I was going to have a Skype reading with Monika  she looked horrified, ‘Are you sure you should?’ Envisaging death and the reaper sneaking onto the table with glee. I thought that maybe I was playing devil’s advocate but I trusted Monika to break it to me gently!

It was the most positive reading I have ever had. One thing struck home with me, ‘You may look back in two years time and think that breast cancer was not such a bad thing in your life.’ With my usual cynicism, I guffawed  but now, more and more I can see what she means. I am taking better care of myself; friends and family have helped me feel even more loved and supported. As my eldest son said recently, ‘The things you are going through remind me what’s important.’

You can reach Monika for a Skype reading at, tell her I sent you.


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Cancer is Caused by Anger – Breast Cancer Part 5

Twice in the last week I have been told by friends that cancer is caused by anger, i.e it’s my fault. Sod genetics and smoking, it’s the hissy fits that have brought me down.

I am angry that I’ve got it but only a saint would welcome it with open arms. This attitude reminds me of the Uncle Arthur Bedtime Stories books that my mother used to buy me every Christmas from a bloke who came to the door. Sweet little tales of children who were hit by a bus because they were rude to grandma. They put the fear of God into me, which I guess was the point.

Emotional turmoil can make you eat too little, drink too much and retreat to the sofa with the dog but give you cancer? And isn’t sulking, bottling it up, meant to be worse?

Without doubt, stress attributed to my heart attack five years ago – yep, anything for attention, me. But cancer?

Anyway, isn’t it a bit too late to beat myself about my past? I thought that’s what I dealt with on the Hoffman Process and in a monastery in Katmandu.

Seriously, leave it out. You’ll make me angry.



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