My Second Life

On this day 19 years ago I went to the operating theatre to have my left breast removed, it had developed a significant invasive cancerous tumour and it had to go! I am, as far as I know, in remission. I celebrate this day as my second birthday, the last 19 years as the second life I was given; and I try to use it well. So here are 19 of the things I have learned:

  1. There’s really no such thing as the “all clear”, I have given up explaining this but really no-one can be guaranteed “cancer free”, the correct term is “no evidence of disease”.
  2. I am still me, a work in progress but always me. Cancer didn’t take anything from me, I am not my disease. I am not “the one who had breast cancer” because I am so much more than that.
  3. Who I am is far more important than how I look.
  4. Who I am is a gazillion times more important that what anyone else thinks of me. Their judgement is about them, not me.
  5. Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people. Lightning does strike twice or even more times. Heartbreak is a part of life, as long as you have love and joy, you will have grief and sorrow; but the love and joy will prevail and it is worth it. Oh, and cancer is a lottery – I didn’t `deserve’ it, no one deserves it. We constantly look for explanations but sometimes there just is no explanation. If you have been diagnosed, please, please know that it isn’t what you did or said or took or didn’t take. Yes, there are health risks and if you want to reduce yours and live a healthier life, please do – you will no doubt benefit but as the bible says “Todays burdens are enough for one day”, don’t add to your load with blame or shame.
  6. Everything changes, all the time, regardless of whether you want it to or don’t want it to. You are not in control, you cannot change it – accept it, go with it.
  7. Anything is possible, good and bad, so stay open that possibility.
  8. Perfection does not exist, you aren’t perfect and nor is anyone else. Your parents aren’t perfect, they are just doing the best they can and they know you aren’t perfect – they just want the very best for you and sometimes it comes out a bit twisted. But really, they love you just exactly as you are.
  9. As Maja Angelou says “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
  10. There are no bad feelings, just your feelings. Listen to them, let them tell you what they mean. You are not your feelings, but they are important.
  11. I tried to say this better but couldn’t, so take it away Emily Dickinson
    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul
    And sings the tune without the words
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land.
    And on the strangest sea,
    Yet never in extremity,
    It asked a crumb of me.
  12. Count your blessings, gratitude has been proven to improve well being and it’s a great practice to get into.
  13. Forgive and send love to everyone, especially those who don’t seem to deserve it – they are usually the ones who need it the most.
  14. You can do it, even in the fiercest storms of your darkest days – you are stronger than you know.
  15. Breathe deeply, practice slowing and deepening your breathing as a means to steadying yourself when life churns you up a bit.
  16. As the wonderful Matt Haig says “notice the beauty”, look around you, there is always something to appreciate.
  17. Everyone has something to teach you.
  18. Learning is a wonderful gift, stay curious, ask questions and listen.
  19. Love is everything – to love and be loved.

Mental Health is for life .. not just an awareness week

61024946-4FC0-4A6A-8330-9A8955EE2AF4.jpegLast week was mental health awareness week, a great opportunity to raise the profile of mental health and mental illness. After a difficult week this week, it struck me this morning that mental health isn’t just for mental health awareness week. I was drawn here to share how I am taking care of my own mental health, I hope this will encourage whoever is reading this to consider their own actions to promote their wellbeing.

Step 1 is acknowledging that it’s been a tough week; and allowing myself to “sit with” and reflect on some of the challenges and my feelings and emotions. For me, I work best by journaling this or by drawing images that reflect my thoughts and feelings. I’ve always been a writer and a scribbler. Mindfulness always sounds so powerful but I am not sure I manage it very well; although I think it’s a bit like yoga – it’s not a competitive sport, you find your own level (and the more you practise the better you get). Allowing yourself this reflective space, exploring your feelings and understanding, as best you can, what those feelings are telling you, deepens your understanding. If you have a good friend, coach or therapist it is a step further to have them ask you about things and listen to your reply – they can often notice something that is just outside of your awareness; and this can be helpful to deepening your understanding. And the power of being listened to is often enough to help you heal.

Step 2 is being grateful, acknowledging all the positive aspects of life or even just one – as the amazing author Matt Haig says “look for the beauty”. This can also help to bring perspective, for many years after my cancer diagnosis I would look at all issues from the perspective “am I dying?”; sadly it’s not a perspective that sticks but occasionally life is kind enough to kick me in the rear and remind me that living to face another day is a privilege. I remember, many years ago, seeing the great Maya Angelou in an interview where she was asked how she maintains her positivity and she said that her mother would say “no matter how miserable you feel, whatever you are going through, you need to remember that everyone who died last night would give anything for five minutes of what you are going through”. I have always remembered that.

Step 3 taking care of me – rest, exercise, good food and for me a beautiful bunch of flowers, finishing the presentation I am delivering on 6th June, tidying up and doing my physio exercises for my impinged shoulder. I think self-care is a very personal thing, I’m aware the tidying wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Our personal tastes, preferences and abilities dictate our rest, exercise, food and treat choices. Sometimes the pressure for 15 minutes vigorous exercise, 5 a day of fruit and veg and 8 hours sleep can lead to inertia through our perception of “not good enough”. My philosophy is that 1 portion of fruit and veg, getting my backside out of the chair and allowing myself the opportunity for sleep is better than nothing. We are all climbing our own mountain.

So, I encourage you to consider your mental health today and do what you can to nurture it. I wish you success and peace.

Pause, Breathe, Connect

One of my hobbies is photography; thinking about why I enjoy it always brings me to the same thing – that opportunity to slow down and do something “different” from my day to day. As a general rule I am busy, rushing around – if not in physical terms at least mentally. My thoughts race and I am always thinking about what’s next. Any photographer, at any level, will tell you that such frenetic energy is not generally conducive to good photography! The digital era has made it easier to be “snap happy” but the best photographs and the greatest enjoyment (to me at least) is in `stopping and taking notice’. So that’s my step one – pause, stop rushing, just “be”. Take notice of what’s around you, as Matt Haig says “Look for the beauty”. I believe this step incorporates several of the cornerstones of good mental health – mindfulness, taking notice and practising gratitude.

Step two, breathe, always a good idea, but actually a top tip for taking good photographs. The key to a sharp image is the steadiness of the photographer’s hand (unless you resort, as is necessary sometimes, to a tripod and remote shutter release); and the best way to get a steady hand is to steady the breath. Taking your shot at the point that you finish releasing a deep breath is usually the steadiest you can achieve (although it also depends on your stance – feet flat on the floor with a good centre of gravity is pretty important too).

image1Step three, the one that has achieved the most appreciation for my photography, connection. You might think this is just in people shots but it is possible to find a story and connection in any shot. This breathes passion into your art. My favourite photograph, of my own, is a shot of a fallen tree at the Johnston Observatory in Mount St Helens. I knew as soon as I saw the scene that, for me, there was an emotional connection to the blast of 1980, I could imagine the tree being blasted into its current position which connected me to the force of the blast and the emotion of the event. I have entered the print into competitions and no-one makes the same connection but they “get” the shot as a powerful image.


As a photographer and artist, I have much to learn but the joy is in the learning and the experience. I hope you have a hobby that brings you peace and happiness, even if it’s accompanied by a certain level of frustration!