Good Enough Just As You Are

September, more so than January, always makes me think about new beginnings probably because of many past years working as a college lecturer. September heralds the start of the new academic year and, during my teaching years, this golden, autumnal month was the start of a fresh calendar, new students and a whole new academic year ahead.  I still get those new beginning feelings in September, even though I left my lecturing post over 10 years ago. The thoughts associated with the new academic year never really leave you if you’ve spent years of your working life in education.

September always saw me questioning my abilities; the butterfly fluttering about my middle manifested by mixed feelings of personal doubt and other tummy churning thoughts that I harboured on my return to work after the summer holidays. And even now, my professional habit of September self-doubt and, “Am I good enough?”, thoughts revisit me at this time of year.

This month in the calendar will also see thousands of young adults up and down the country starting apprenticeships, colleges, and universities and as part of that process, meeting new friends, settling in and becoming familiar with their new surroundings. It’s an exciting time, but for many, the settling in period can be daunting too.

So, I thought I’d use today, September 1st, to remind me, and perhaps one or two of you, about some important life lessons.

Lesson  No.1: Press Mute

The voice in your head will always be your biggest critic. Make a decision, now,  that the noise saying,  “You’re not good enough”, is turned to mute. This minute.  Doing this, makes listening to our surroundings so much easier. I’ve discovered all kinds of good things about myself without that din.  The absence of its blaring tones creates head space to focus on everything you are good at and the wonderful qualities about you that have got you to today.

Lesson No.2: Worry Less

Worrying about how you are perceived by others, whether that be friends or colleagues,  is a pastime that’s futile, albeit one in which I’ve invested a lot of time. I’ve learned it achieves nothing and is a major contributor to the not good enough feeling.

Being a worrier is tiresome. I know this, but still need regular help to remind me just how tiresome. Excessive worrying removes the fun from life and is a growth factor for the joyless feelings of, “I’m not good enough”.

Over the years, I’ve spent so much time worrying about fitting in and being liked, a habit that started as a child and stayed with me throughout much of my adult life. When I eventually get round to writing a letter to my younger self, it’ll definitely begin with, “Do not worry so much”, and will end with, “Do not worry so much”, because my younger self will go on to learn it will make everything else in life so much easier.

Lesson No.3: You Are Human

It’s not just you. Doubting yourself as you start work again after a summer holiday, wondering if you’ll fit in as you start your new job/college/university, thinking about how difficult something is going to be? You’re a human being and other human beings are having those doubts too, right this second.

We all have feelings and thoughts that are sometimes overwhelming. Pause, remember to breathe and remember too, that thoughts aren’t necessarily facts. Take three deep breaths and tell yourself this: You are good enough and all will be well.

Lesson No.4: You Are Your Best Friend

Be your own best friend. Be to yourself, how a good friend is towards you. Show yourself kindness, patience and compassion. Believe in your abilities, have faith in them and regularly reflect on everything you have already achieved. In times of self-doubt, focussing on your weaknesses instead of your strengths, only highlights others strengths, registering none of their shortcomings.

Lesson No.5: Like Your Reflection

Take a few moments, every morning when you look in the mirror, to remind yourself that the person looking back is a reflection of you. Treat that reflection with care. Truly, there is only one like it in the world.

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Finally, remember this: today will come and it will go.

Whatever you are facing today, may courage be your partner and may it start and finish with these words of comfort, “Good enough just as I am”.

YOU are unique, you ARE loved, you are good ENOUGH already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hobson’s Choice

Chemotherapy is a highly toxic drug or combination of highly toxic drugs, given to a person who has been diagnosed with cancer, prescribed by an oncologist. Sounds straight forward enough?

I knew precisely nothing about chemotherapy before I was diagnosed with cancer other than some types of chemotherapy made people’s hair fall out and some types didn’t (I knew this odd fact because I’d met somebody once who was on ‘chemo’. They had a full head of hair and told me it wasn’t a wig. I always wondered about that…).

I’ve been told, “You’ve got cancer” three times in my life; three words that take a second to say but the impact lasts a lifetime. I was 34, 37, and 40 respectively.

Time Number One involved removing a bit of my right breast and 25 sessions of radiotherapy to the said right breast; Time Number Two saw me wave bye-bye to that right breast completely and say, “hi”, to a new, ‘reconstructed’ breast using skin and muscle from my back; Time Number Three meant I was never going to be told “You’ve got cancer”, again because it was Stage IV incurable cancer. This type means it’s found its way into one or more of your major organs and/or bones.

The thing I quickly learned about chemotherapy is that you actually get to choose if you would like to have chemotherapy or not. I never knew??? Because it turns out that if your oncologist believes that chemotherapy is going to benefit your chances of survival and you are offered it, then you, as the patient, have the final choice as to whether this chemical cocktail is allowed into your bloodstream.  There are lots of factors considered in order to arrive at this conclusion, like the size and position of tumour/s, lymph nodes affected etc, etc.

My introduction to chemotherapy came quite far along my cancer path (I don’t like the expression, ‘journey’. I’m not really sure why. I’ll have to think about that one). It was December 2007 and went something like this:

What do you mean?”, I asked, when my oncologist ended her explanation with…..”Or you can choose not to have chemotherapy”.

Do you mean I actually have a choice?”.

“Yes, you do!” she replied. “But if you choose not to have chemotherapy you’re looking at 3-6 months”.  Silence.

“Well, I don’t really have a choice, do I? My children are 6 and almost 10 and I’d like to try and see their next birthdays at least”.

Sometimes, a choice might be dressed up as a choice but it isn’t a proper choice really. It’s a Hobson’s choice; also known as no choice.  Decisions, decisions.

Anyway, I chose to have chemotherapy and it’s a choice I’m glad I made but not for the reason that you might think because whilst on chemotherapy my tumour sites grew and my cancer cells developed resistance to the chemotherapy drugs.  The reason I’m glad I chose to have chemotherapy was because it made me feel empowered but not in a fighting kind of way.

It makes me feel uncomfortable when I hear somebody’s experience of cancer described using the words, ‘battle’ and ‘fight’, because to me, as a cancer patient, if somebody dies from cancer, the use of these descriptors implies they have lost to the disease and that cancer has won. I personally don’t see it like that. A cancer diagnosis isn’t a battle to be won or lost; it’s a highly complex disease which if aggressive enough in nature will attack your body’s organs until they cannot function any longer. Quite simply, cancer makes its own rules and often changes them along the way; its mutations and strength have caused the deaths of lots of my friends and believe me they couldn’t have ‘fought‘ harder.

By choosing chemotherapy, psychologically I felt like I was making the best of a Hobson’s choice situation – that I was giving it my best shot. For me, empowerment meant accepting a course of treatment with the hope that it might halt the growth of my cancer. I was given facts that allowed me to make an informed choice to try to improve a bleak situation.

Sadly, my body’s response to the course of chemotherapy was not positive.  The cancer world describes it as “disease progression’ meaning there was more disease present at the end of the course of chemotherapy than there was at the beginning; utterly soul-destroying and bloody awful in equal measures. Delivering good news to a cancer patient is easy. Delivering bad news in a sensitive way isn’t; I felt just as sorry for my oncologist having to tell me as I did for myself having to hear it.

Enduring 18 weeks of chemotherapy and all it entailed was hard; being told the news, inside the claustrophobic environment of a tiny, windowless consulting room, that the disease had progressed, was harder. It took every ounce of effort not to scream loudly and claw the walls with what little I had left of my chemo-ridden fingernails.

The decision to start another 18 weeks of chemotherapy was out of my hands,  i.e. I wasn’t given a choice, because it turns out that an oncologist also decides if their patient is strong enough to have more chemotherapy and at that time, it was out of the question. White cell count, weight loss, and emotional stability of the patient, were all factors she considered for me as an individual.

Instead, she told me to go away and enjoy the summer and spend time with my husband and family in a ‘this might be your last summer’, kind of way.  I was also told I was going to be put on an aromatase inhibitor drug for three months. What the hell that meant I cared not, as long as I was able to have a break from chemotherapy which along with other side effects had caused chemotherapy-induced anorexia. My appearance fitted with the stereotypical image of a cancer patient and I was vulnerable, physically, and emotionally.

Then, several months later, something very unexpected happened. My body started to respond to the aromatase thingamajig drug and suddenly I cared very much what it was called, how it worked and why it was working. And, of course, my oncologist cared very much about what was happening too. Worldwide, it seems, there aren’t many people for whom the drug works in this way but for me, at this time, it is and it does. I’m closely monitored (every 16 weeks) and each time tumour marker testing comes, I take a look around me, count my blessings and hope for the best. None of us ever know what our tomorrows will bring.  That thought always makes me feel normal.

And that, my friends, is where I’m at. My wish beyond all wishes is that this drug could have worked for my many friends that I’ve lost to this very complicated disease; that it could have given them extra time with their family and friends. But wishing is one thing, knowledge is another; breast cancer is an umbrella term for a whole family of diseases and scientists now know there are at least ten different types. They also know that each individual cancer patient is just that, with a unique internal environment. What is less well-known is why each person’s response to cancer treatment is different.

All I know, is I’m very grateful. Very grateful indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radiators and Drains

A couple of years ago I was chatting to my twin sister about friendships. She said something to me that I hadn’t heard before which was: “You see, in life Laura, there are two types of people; radiators and drains”.

My jaw fell open because I thought that was one of the most insightful things she’d ever said. She laughed when I replied, “That is so true. That’s so clever of you Lizzie”. She was laughing at me because I thought it was one of her wise expressions (and she has lots). She told me it was a very well-known phrase that she definitely couldn’t take credit for.

I later learned that it’s one of  Oprah Winfrey’s but Lizzie, my ten minutes older than me twin-sister, who in my eyes is the more wise version of the two of us, could easily have come up with it! (For clarification and forgive me if I’m telling you something you already know, radiators are those who generate positivity and enthusiasm, filling you with the feel-good factor when you’ve been in their company; drains on the other hand lean more towards a negative outlook on life leaving you feeling flat, empty and low).

Who said this very wise thing doesn’t really matter. What matters, is that it’s true. And it’s important to decide which one you would prefer to be and which one you would prefer to be around.

I’ve had a lot of thinking time recently whilst relaxing on a sun-drenched beach in southern Spain.  I’ve been reflecting on lots of things including this topic and I’ve quickly arrived at the following conclusion: I’m a very lucky lady indeed because in my life I have lots of radiators and very few drains.

Living with secondary breast cancer has had a re-wiring effect on me and put simply, I function better surrounded by family and friends who uplift me, support me and make me laugh (including making me laugh at myself because the ability to retain a sense of humour is a VERY IMPORTANT THING when you live with metastatic breast cancer).

But just like the radiators in my house that are fitted with valves, the level of functioning as a radiator person has to be adjustable because being a fully switched on radiator-type all of the time is draining in itself.  My radiator family and friends are completely adjustable; they acknowledge my down days, know when I’m having one and know when a hug and a listening ear is all that’s needed; listening in a quiet way is a true radiator trait unlike a drain who is prone to talking too much, normally about themselves.

So, confession time……..I’ve had more than a few days in the last couple of months where I’ve behaved like a drain. What I call my ’80/20 balance’ has felt completely biased towards being drain-like.

Dealing with the grief of losing another friend, Allison, to breast cancer coupled with my 83-year-old Mam being very poorly at the start of the year made me sad and a sad Laura is a miserable toad who, if allowed to, turns very quickly into Little Miss Anxious.  I’ve been that person before and she drains me. My radiators rescued me with acts of kindness.  Thank you.

You helped me find my radiation again which in my book means being able to listen to the problems of others, offer support in their hour of need, make them smile when they’ve forgotten how to and remind them that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. And, that if all else fails, watching Car Share with Peter Kay, (Series 2, Episode 1) will cheer them up……”it’s a car not a coaster

Focussing on improving my radiator qualities produces a version of me that I like.  Allison wouldn’t want me to be sad, she’d want me to be happy and behave like a true radiator.

So, peeps, what’s it be? Radiator or drain?

 

 

The Power of a Smile

I started to think about the power of a smile when I read this week, that July 14th has been designated as the happiest day of the year, making it the day in which the most smiles will be seen according to leading psychologist, Dr Cliff Arnall, a former Cardiff University lecturer and now an NHS advisor on happiness and wellbeing.

Arnall arrived at this date for happiness to reach its peak, using a formula that looks at  key factors such as emotional connectedness, kindness, authenticity, family, friends and fun. The end of the working week, coinciding with the start of the summer holidays along with thousands of teenagers who are more relaxed as they have come to the end of their examinations all contributes, says Arnall to more relaxed domestic environments, making us all feel happier. All hail July 14th and smiles in abundance!

Returning to the impact of this universally recognised expression, which in itself makes smiling powerful, I’m interested in what smiling actually does for us and I thought some of you might be too. It’s a topic that’s been widely researched by scientists who have proven that smiling is really good for our health and includes a whole range of benefits.

Here are five great reasons to smile:

1. A true, genuine smile (known as the ‘Duchenne smile’ where the main cheek muscles pull up either side of our mouth and work in harmony with the muscles that surround each eye, creasing up the skin around the eye) causes positive physiological changes in our bodies and has been referred to as ‘smizing’ (smiling with the eyes). Smiling in this way can:

  • improve resilience against stress
  • strengthen our immune system
  • create a sense of wellbeing and positivity
  • release endorphins and serotonin: hormones which are natural painkillers and a feel-good hormone respectively.

2. Smiling is contagious. Try it. Be the first person to smile in a room full of strangers. A guarantee is that somebody will smile back at you.

3. The more you smile the more you enable your brain to re-wire to make positive patterns as opposed to the brain’s natural tendency towards negative patterns, creating what has been referred to as a ‘happiness loop’ 

4. Smiling costs nothing but can reap so many rewards fitting with the old adage that the best things in life are free but worth so much.

5. Even on days where we don’t feel like smiling, it’s reassuring to know that a ‘fake’ smile can still achieve some of the same positive effects upon our brains.

So……. leaving you with those reasons to smile, let’s practice some real ‘smizing’ and never underestimate the power of your smile.

Take a moment to smile at this video and pass it on!

Living With Hope

My thought for today is ‘hope’. It’s a word that, for the last 16 years, I’ve tried really hard, (actually that’s not true, I’ve tried really, really hard) to use as part of my everyday vocabulary even on days when I haven’t felt hopeful; saying the word out loud anchors me and reminds me of what might be on the horizon. It provides me with comfort, inspiration and motivation.

What is it though, this concept of ‘hope’ that has such a fundamental role in life?  The Oxford Dictionary describes hope as:

  1. A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen
  2. A person or thing that may help or save someone
  3. Grounds for believing something good may happen

Based on those definitions, it’s clear why hope plays such an integral part in every chapter of our lives; each page has hope embedded within it. Our hopes and dreams are what give us purpose to our existence and form part of the building blocks for a happy life. But life’s pathway isn’t always smooth and I believe that every one of us has challenges that we have to face throughout our lives; cancer happens to be the biggest of mine and it will be for the rest of my life.

A cancer diagnosis can be life threatening and forces an individual to open the curtain on their life and glimpse through a window where the scene outside might not include themselves in it. How must that feel? Well hopefully, lots of you reading this blog will never have had to do that; unfortunately, if you’re reading this and you have faced a cancer diagnosis then you know the feeling. I have yet to meet anybody who has undergone treatment for cancer who has never thought about dying from the disease and I’ve met a lot.  If you’re still reading, I promise it’s going to get more upbeat!

I really started to think about the concept of hope when I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, the incurable form of the disease; the breast cancer that started in my right breast had spread to other areas of my body. In my case this was my lungs and pleural lining of my lungs. It was December 2007 and I was 40 years old. Back then, my daughter Megan was a week away from her 10th birthday and my son Jack was 6 and my hope was that I would live long enough to see Megan start secondary school and for Jack to get nearer to double digits. (I’m sorry if I sound as though my hopes were a bit limited back then but my prognosis was 3-6 months if I chose not to have chemotherapy and a couple of years if I opted for chemotherapy so you can see where I was coming from!)

Breast cancer reared its ugly head the first time when I was 34; Megan was 3 and Jack was 5 months old. Uninvited, it decided to visit me again three years later when I was 37. My attitude to it then was cavalier in the sense of, ‘Does it know who it’s playing with here? I’m a busy career woman with a husband and two young children. I haven’t got time for breast cancer.’ But in 2007, I slowly came to understand that breast cancer doesn’t care who you are, what you do for a living or if you have children or not and when I realised that, I really started to understand the meaning of the word ‘hope’. Forced to look at life through a fresh pair of eyes and stare at my own mortality with crystal clarity, hope and I really got to know one another.

My sense of hope has changed over the years. It’s been hard to remain hopeful all of the time (my nautral tendency leans heavily towards the school of worry!).  Hearing the news that tumours had grown whilst undergoing chemotherapy was soul destroying but having hope that the drug regime to follow would work more effectively gave me courage to try the next treatment option on offer.

The psychological impact of living with secondary breast cancer has been enormous; I’ve experienced and continue to experience some very difficult days but through help and support, in particular from Dr Annie Hickox and my involvement with Breast Cancer Care, my emotional wellbeing has been nurtured and hope has found a resting place within me. The psychology of hope is something in which I’m no expert but I know how being hopeful makes me feel, compared to the stomach wrenching knots that fear can instill in me.

I’ve far exceeded my original prognosis and I’m inching closer and closer to a very small group of people worldwide who are alive 10 years on from a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer; life expectancy following a stage IV breast cancer diagnosis is difficult to accurately assess and varies due to a number of factors including type of breast cancer and the extent of spread to other areas of the body. I’ve lost friends to the disease who died five years on from their secondary diagnosis and others who tragically lost their lives after a year or so but the general picture globally means that reaching the ten-year survival milestone is a bit of an empty room.

My hope for the future then is this: that the room I currently sit in gets filled with people like me; people who live for many years with the disease who have had chance to live their lives, spend it with their families and friends and who can wake up on a morning with hope that their drug regime will allow them to see milestones reached and their dreams achieved. And, bigger and better than that, is my hope for a future where breast cancer becomes something that nobody dies from; a future where it’s a disease that can be controlled to the natural end of our days.

I was always taught in school to ‘aim high’ and my hope is doing just that.

‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…..’    

Emily Dickinson, December 1830-May 1886.

Hello you!

Hi there!  My name is Laura Ashurst.  I’m a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin and friend. For the last 17 years I’ve also been a cancer patient at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough;  I’m one of the one in eight women worldwide who develops breast cancer in her lifetime. I’m also a human being behind that statistic. I’m me and I’m living with cancer.

I joined this group of women as a ‘primary breast cancer’ patient in September 2001, shuffled along to ‘primary breast cancer patient with a reoccurrence’ in September 2004 and then became a Stage 4 ‘secondary, incurable breast cancer’ patient in December 2007.

Just sticking with the stats for a bit longer, because this bit’s important to me, really important; I’m approaching 12 years surviving secondary breast cancer and that’s why I blog about my life and my experiences of living with cancer. It’s a monumental milestone.  Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to still be here, 10 years after the day my oncologist said ‘You have terminal cancer’. But I am and I hope I am for a long time to come.

I’m also very, very lucky indeed which may not be a word that you expect to hear in a description of a person who has incurable cancer but that’s exactly what I am.  I’m lucky because I have a husband who has literally been my rock, two children who have blossomed into fine young adults, a wonderful wider family and a group of friends who have supported, loved me and enriched my life in so many ways.

Each of us has different challenges that we face; cancer happens to be mine. I’m blogging to share my experiences and if any of that helps one other person, my mission will have been accomplished.

Here’s to this wonderful life and the help we can give one another.