Hello, my name is Penny, I live in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire and I am 48. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of lockdown, 2020.
Creativeness and visualisation are wonderful tools to have in your bag of self love.
Self love. What does that really mean? I mean I’ve never disliked myself by any means; I see myself as a decent, kind, honest human being. Most would agree with me. I think that was probably why I was a little bit miffed when cancer arrived, because I didn't really want to be changed. I was happy with how I was, with who I was.
However, change was a comin' whether I liked it or not and self love was on the horizon.
When I came home from work, I took my shoes off as usual and went upstairs to my spare room. An hour or so earlier at work, I had sat back on the chair and felt a itch like pins and needles, almost like a pop to the skin. Driving home I had felt it again. I took my jumper off and my instinct was to run my hand down the far side of my breast. Don’t ask me why, but it was.
In that split second my world was about to turn inside out and upside down.
I will always remember the day I found out I had cancer. Not the day I was told. No. The day I knew. Not the day my surgeon and breast care nurse told me. No. It will always be the day I found a lump and I just knew. I didn’t cry, I calmly said a swear word followed by... "I have cancer". I walked downstairs and rang the doctor.
It’s funny what you remember when you’re faced with such trauma. I don’t remember what the surgeon told me after the word cancer, but I could tell you what top I was wearing and which lipstick I had on. Fuchsia Flash, if anyone was interested.
Memories do last and stay with you and I was very clear in my own mind that cancer may have burst in the door without knocking, like an unwanted visitor, but it would need to respect me and allow me time to adjust and process it. It’s like your first kiss, the posters you had on your bedroom wall as a teenager, the name of your first pet and you were when you found out Princess Diana had died. I was working in Corsica, if anyone was interested. You never forget.
For some reason, when I found my lump I went upstairs into my spare room rather than my usual bedroom. To this day, I still don’t know what drew me into going into my spare room, because it wasn’t a room I would often spend time in.
A home to me is far more than bricks. It’s what happens behind those bricks it’s the memories that you create. A home can be a source of comfort. It’s who you are, how you feel and it's what happens within that home. We all have a home where we are delivered news. News that’s hard to take, news that brings a sigh of relief, news of total excitement, along with moments and events that are just absolutely wonderful. They all happen within a home.
So, I was not about to start dwelling on any negative memory of this happening in my home. I decided to simply see it as a process that I had to go through, just something that had happened to me when I was in this house. Those emotions and those feelings stay with you and I was certain from the very beginning of my feelings and emotions. I was not going to allow cancer to overspill it’s fear into my home, surroundings and my life, providing a constant unwelcoming memory of fear. Of course there were days when it did and does. I would be lying to you if I said the fear didn't overspill sometimes, but I wanted to minimise that as much as possible.
With lockdown arriving it was going to be me, my home and my garden. A trio of elements that would help each other through.
I think that any trauma provides a certain amount of urgency which you feel within yourself. This is how my summer of SELF LOVE came about.
Cancer made self love feel essential. Prioritising myself was something I found difficult before my diagnosis. It can take time to learn how to do this, so I have shared a few of the things that helped me, to help you to take care of yourself more, whether you have experienced cancer or not.
First on the list was creating a Spotify music list. I would ask everyone what their favourite track was and I added it to my list. From David Bowie Let’s Dance, Pointer Sisters I’m so excited, Tiny dancer by Elton John to Tom Chaplin Quicksand... Each one held a memory and had a meaning to me.
I would sing if I was auditioning for my life, which in a way I was. Music takes you you away and transports you free of charge, takes you backwards and lifts you forwards. They would all help me and support my emotions. I would listen to northern soul, Motown and 80s classics while dancing in the kitchen. It was even better if I knew the words.
I would lie on the bed in my room when I could see the sun setting and I could practice my restorative yoga with my lovely teacher Carly, who’s voice would transport me to a different place. Carly, I don't think you ever knew how much you helped me. It was an escape. I would lie on the bed surrounded by cushions and just listen to my breathing and I would visualise the cancer leaving my body. This became something very important to me. I would say three things everyday to myself: "It's curable, it's treatable and it's going...". My oncologist had said it was treatable, and I added in the word curable. My friend wrote down the word 'treatable' in capital letters, underline, in a notebook that I have kept since. These three short words became a powerful mantra for me: "curable, treatable, going".
These worked for me and my situation, but you could also use words like "manageable", "in control" and "coping".
Every day I would say these words to myself, when I was in the house, cooking or running, it became a mantra. I would constantly repeat it to myself as my feet pounded the pavement.
I had attended many different classes and styles of Yoga and pilates over the years. Long before it became popular to do downward dog while drinking nettles from a nearby field. With lockdown in full swing, I looked online for a 10 minute yoga practice which promised it would be better than better than a morning coffee. I practiced this yoga sequence every single day and at the very end the teacher Lesley would say the words "our quote today is..."
Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn by Harriet Beecher Stowe
These words definitely struck a cord with me. They moved me forwards even on the days the injections made it harder to move. I would remember the quotation and MOVE.
Motivational messages really helped. In addition to my yoga practice, one friend would send me a motivational saying or image every day. I kept these on my phone I would look at them because they bought a feeling of connection, happiness and kept me going. I would sent out videos to make my friends laugh, of me dancing with my wigs on, cutting my hair myself, or cooking, and that made me happy.
4. Magazines & Photographs
I set up two or three subscriptions for a year's worth of magazines that I thought I would enjoy very much. It became a nice surprise once a month when they arrived. I ordered home style and modern gardens and would flick through and think this is what I will do next year. It provided a sense of moving forward with the creative ideas they contained.
Following treatment, I signed up to Jennifer Young's Monthly Cancer Care Packages. Similarly to the magazine subscriptions, it was a lovely to surprise to receive a package of specialist skincare to feel a sense of luxury pampering and self care.
With lockdown being well underway, I would also ask for friends and extended family to send me any photographs of what they had been doing, to help me feel connected and not so isolated from the rest of the world. It gave me a sense of sharing their lives, even if it was just what they had for dinner.
It is easy to say that you are grateful, but what are you really grateful for? I became grateful for the simple things in life and I would write down what I was grateful for. I was grateful I could run, I was grateful I could cook, I was grateful I had a roof over my head. The list was endless.
I would create a mood board or mind map with photos of things I was grateful for. I would also create mind maps for creative projects I wanted to do and that gave me a sense of a goal for the future.
Food makes me so happy. I live for food. If I am not talking about it, I am thinking about it. It’s a conversation opener, a social leveller, a shared connection. I have always encouraged young people and children I have known and worked with over the years to cook and to enjoy their food.
I had set up projects showing and encouraging young people how to cook and to share different foods from different cultures. It was such a joy when a student made a lovely dish. It opens your eyes to different cultures and foods from countries throughout the world and I absolutely love that. Being a backpacker when I was younger took me to lots of different parts of the world and food became a delight. So, during my treatment I would cook using garlic and lots of ginger and coriander which reminded me of far away south East Asian influence.
This provoked lots of memories of far away, care-free times which created a smile on my face, remembering what a wild child I once was while I stood in my kitchen with no hair and no eyebrows.
Cooking my favourite foods was without a doubt the biggest help. I liked to cook and it became all about my needs, the purest self love I guess. My love affair with food never stopped. It took me right back to when I first left school and I had learnt to cook at college. For me, food had always been my biggest indulgence.
Clothes are another thing that I have always loved. I feel that I am able to put clothes together pretty well. I had been a stylist many years ago and worked in Monsoon and John Lewis. So, I used my skills and I would spend the afternoon getting creating different looks from 70s, hippy chick to retro, using my wigs and hairpieces to create a different look, because the person staring back at me wasn't the same person. It was almost like dressing up as a child, as if I was watching the classic children’s programme Mr Ben, for those of you that remember him. He loved dressing up, for those of you too young to remember. He's a worth a Google, Mr Ben.
Buying myself a new pair of pyjamas from John Lewis was one of the first things I did. I felt that if I was going to be in my pyjamas for most of 2020, at least I would have a nice pair of pyjamas to be in. They had to be comfortable, stylish, bright and cotton material. Along with pyjamas, I spend most of my time in sportswear: bright leggings, pilates tops and other sportswear.
I was taking care of myself and my body through fashion and through cooking. Taking care of my skin felt like the next natural step. It was after my diagnosis that I started taking a proper look at what was in my cosmetic products. I didn't want to be using anything with chemicals or unfriendly ingredients. It was through this research that I found Jennifer Young and her specialist skincare for cancer patients. The Beyond Beauty products were a godsend.
With summer in full swing, I wanted to surround myself with baskets of flowers, just because I love them and they make me feel happy. Gardens do heal you. My garden gave me that sense of moving forward and I could visualise what I was going to grow for next year. Creativeness and visualisation are wonderful tools to have in your bag of tricks.
Spending time in my garden looking at flowers and plants was a huge deal to me and helped my recovery very much. I would sit all day in the garden just listening to the sound of one particular tree just gently moving in the breeze. It reminded me of being on holiday. The green space I created when I moved into my house was carrying me through a difficult period in my life and I would sit for hours with friends or alone, imagining this time next year. All the time knowing that the flowers will bloom again, the drinks will flow and laughter would follow.
9. Spare Room Styling
I don’t know why but this became the room I would sleep in from time to time .
As the lockdown summer heat approached, this room was cooler, with the sound of the birds and the the occasional hum of the odd bit of traffic in the distance. I knew there was life out there. I did some re-styling of colours and textures to make the room feel calm. We all have a room in out house which we love, some maybe a just a little more. A favourite spot.
A chair that we long for at end of the day. A favourite throw to keep us cosy. A view we can’t stop looking at. Whatever it is, I created that for myself with colours, textures and the flow of the room and love.
I said to myself I will buy myself something after each treatment. I wasn’t sure, but I wanted something that became significant but not a dreadful reminder. Some people like tattoos but I don’t have apart from my tattoos spots given to me my the radiographer. I didn’t want to join the dots or make it a feature.
So I brought myself some jewellery from a lovely lady on Etsy. One being a chain with the words 'hope' on the back and the other being a ring with a wave which I designed. I wear this on my right finger because that was my effected side. The wave represents how I felt, I was riding a wave. Some days in life the waves are calm and others they come crashing at your door.
Like with the yoga and motivational quotes, it was nice to have an uplifting reminder throughout the day. The chain was hope and I still wear this every day. When I look in the mirror I can see the word 'hope' looking back at me.
We all deal with cancer in very different ways. There is no one how-to guide which fits everyone. No two women are the same and it’s often seen if someone has had cancer you should seek out a friendship or you get given their number. I often think that’s funny because you wouldn’t group people together if they had a verruca. However the strangest of friendships do form and they do change. Cancer changes so many things.
You do what you have to do. Some decide to run a marathon, others give up meat, sell their home, leave a job, cut their hair, get divorced, swim the Thames, or join the circus. Whatever works for you, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that you do what you want to do when the reset button has been set.