Saturday, 31 December 2011

Reflections and Anticipations....

I'm not sure how it will feel writing this post - easy, hard, painful, enjoyable? I think I just have to get on and write it and leave the soul-searching until afterwards, otherwise it will never get done.

It's December 31st. The end of one year and almost the beginning of another. Traditionally, it's a time to look back at the year just gone and look forward to a new year, fresh start, whatever. Usually  we would spend NYE with friends, perhaps having dinner, popping open some fizzy, laughing and generally having some fun - not too much time spent usually analysing what's happened, but rather just enjoying the continuation of the celebrations which began a week ago.

This year, however, I shall be going to bed early, well before midnight. I have absolutely no desire to see the old year off with any kind of celebration. I want to draw a line under 2011 and just waken up in a new year which - I fervently hope and pray - will be a better year for my family and me. I might sound curmudgeonly, but given what kind of year I have had, I just don't feel like pinning a smile to my face (well, as much of a smile as I can manage!) and pretending that everything has been fine when it patently hasn't. Equally, I don't want to sit in a maudlin heap, tears dripping into my glass as I bemoan what a rubbish time I have had and get all "why me?" about it all. So, on reflection, I think it's best that I just take myself off to bed early, after a quiet evening with my lovely husband.

I have been reflecting, as  you might expect, on all that's happened in the last year - and of course there has been a lot of good stuff. This time last year we were in New Zealand and already celebrating the new year before spending the most amazing four weeks in the most beautiful country. It all feels a bit dream-like, to be honest, but I think that's a function of what happened later. I do think it's important that I remember the good bits of 2011, to get some perspective. Our holiday was fabulous, meeting up with Amy after she'd been away for 5 months was wonderful, her coming home unexpectedly early was incredibly welcome and of course, Adam succeeeded in getting a place to study to become a primary teacher; his ambition for so many years. And, slightly less measurable I suppose, I have learned a lot of good things this year. I have learned that it is possible to get what seems like the worst news and that you can carry on breathing, putting one foot in front of the other, doing normal things. It might all seem like an effort, or as if it's all happening to someone else, but you can do it - and I did. I learned that I have many good and kind friends who supported me and my family in so many ways. Quietly, subtly, not expecting any gratitude or reward - these friends helped. Sometimes in practical ways - providing food, doing the ironing, checking if we needed shopping done, offering to do housework, driving me to hospital for the six weeks of radiotherapy treatment - and sometimes in more emotional ways: a text that arrived at a low point, reminding me that I am in someone's thoughts, being held in people's prayers, sometimes just a gentle hug, whether literal or metaphorical. I learned that some people I expected would be involved and supportive seemed to remove themselves from our lives - maybe their own lives were difficult and busy or maybe they just can't cope with illness. It happens and I can understand it. I also learned that some people who I thought would be more remote actually ended up being a huge source of support and encouragement. Most people behaved to type, I think, but it has been an interesting lesson in how people can behave in unexpected ways.

I learned that my immediate family  - Neil, Amy and Adam - have the most amazing strength and resilience and that together, the four of us can deal with whatever life throws in our direction. We have coped with my diagnosis and subsequent treatment, with all its attendant and horrible side-effects. We have kept our sense of humour, but recognised the need for tears and anger (although it took me a very long time to acknowledge that I could show these feelings). I never doubted the love we had for each other, but our experiences this year have brought that love much more out into the open and displayed it proudly for the world to see. We all learned that my being ill shouldn't be the only thing happening in our family life - there are four of us in this family, four lives, each with their own happinesses and sadnesses, opportunities and challenges, and we needed to make sure that my problems didn't overshadow all the other important things going on.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned is that it is possible to see a future, even when your whole world falls apart and crumbles around your ears. When all the certainties you once assumed have been taken away, you have to take the broken pieces that are left and reassemble the jigsaw to reflect a different picture. That picture may not be the one you have been working towards for as many years as you can remember, but it doesn't make the picture any less pretty, or valid, or worth trying to create. Maybe my jigsaw is smaller than it was. Maybe the picture won't last as long. Maybe, maybe - I don't know really what my picture is. But I do know that it's a picture I want to see. I want my life to last as long as possible and that means doing my best to remain fit and healthy and give myself the best chance of getting well again. We haven't discussed my prognosis with the consultant but I suspect that, given the sheer speed and aggression of the cancer and that it had already spread to several lymph nodes, I am not necessarily going to be a huge drain on the pension funds.....although I am a young (in the NHS's eyes) patient and haven't damaged my body through smoking and heavy drinking, so that surely counts in my favour, I hope?  In a way, if we don't discuss my prognosis, it means we don't have to confront it and work out how we are going to deal with it. It's the big cancer elephant in the room, isn't it? And of course, we can't pretend that we don't notice this big grey mammal for ever, so at some point we will have to have this conversation and deal with it. But we will deal with it. I know we are strong enough to face things and to keep breathing, putting one foot in front of the other, doing normal things.

I truly don't want this post to be negative. I feel incredibly lucky in so many ways: lucky that I spotted my lumps early, lucky that I was taken seriously by the medics, lucky that I live in the 21st century in the UK, with the fantastic resources of the NHS, lucky in my friends and most of all my wonderful family. Yes, it was bad luck that I ended up with a rare form of a rare cancer and that it was so aggressive. But we have coped and I feel very humbled by the support I have had. I know that my family and I will find the strength to deal with whatever we face. However, we all  hope that 2012 won't test us in the same way as 2011 has. Sometimes you just don't want your strength and fortitude to be put to the challenge any more. Sometimes you just want a bit of a quiet, predictable life, with no surprises and not too much to test your mettle. I may get that in 2012, I may not......I do know some things that will happen in 2012, though. I know that I will have regular check-ups to make sure I am okay. I know that I will once more be relying on the wonderful people in so many parts of the NHS who will look after me. I know that Neil, Amy and Adam will support me and surround me with their love and care. I know that our friends will help and support us and hold us in their thoughts and prayers. I know that, in April, I have got to get around 26.2 miles of the London Marathon, whether I end up walking every step rather than running! I know that, at some point, I want to return to work and feel I am making a contribution to an organisation's success.

I know that I will make the most of the year.

Thank you all so very much for all you have done for us and for walking every step of the way with us. My journey (sorry to go all X factor on you!) is by no means over and I will continue to need your company, so stay on this path with me, please. I need you all.


Monday, 19 December 2011

Frohliche Weinachtsfest!

Can you tell I've been to Vienna since I last posted on here? :-)

Neil and I had a fabulous time in Austria. Early start on the Saturday meant we were able to drop our bags off at our hotel before midday and set off to have a look around a few of the 20 Christmas markets that take place in Vienna during December. We have been to Salzburg and Innsbruck before, so we knew what to expect, but there's something so magical about the twinkling lights, the aroma of mulled wine and hot punch wafting past your nostrils, the chatter of the crowds and the cold freshness of the air that captivates me anew every time I visit Austria at this time of year. We wandered around a few markets, tried some sausage and sauerkraut (sausage was fine, but sauerkraut is not for me, even when my taste buds aren't fried to blazes! ) and some mulled wine - and on that point, I am pleased to report that my taste buds are happy with mulled wine or hot punch in small doses, but the more alcoholic the content, the less I can tolerate it. It was fun trying some different ones to find out, however, and Neil manfully finished anything I couldn't drink.....

By mid-afternoon, our early start was catching up with us, so we went back to the hotel for a rest. Our hotel was really centrally-based, next to the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the Parliament building, close to a couple of underground stations and tram stops. It was a modern "statement" type hotel and before we went, we looked at some photos on their website to get a feel for what the rooms would be like. We were a teeny bit concerned that the en-suite walls appeared to be made of glass but assumed that there would be some frosting somewhere to preserve one's modesty (or at least, try to keep romance alive!). But no. The walls were clear glass! Thankfully, though, there was a blind on the wall that looked out onto the main part of the room and we lowered that - although we didn't discover until our last morning that there was a way to block the view totally by twisting a knob on the wall (I hadn't spotted that, so there wasn't total blackout!). By the time we got into our room, we were both so tired that we just took our coats and shoes off and flopped down on the bed.

Two hours later, I woke up, feeling mighty refreshed and ready to get showered and go out for another look around the markets and then for dinner. As part of his research into our trip, Neil had found details of a local restaurant serving typical Austrian food (Wiener Schnitzel), so we wandered through some markets and made our way to the restaurant at about nine o'clock. In we went, were given a table and some menus and made our choice....then we noticed that no one in the restaurant was actually speaking German (lots of Italians and a couple of other Brits), the walls were yellow with nicotine stains - smoking in public places is still permitted, which felt very alien to us - and the two owner/waiters were doing their best to yellowify the walls even more by puffing away at every opportunity! Our food arrived and it is no exaggeration to say that it was a mountain of meat of indeterminate origin, most of it flattened and cooked in breadcrumby stuff, some of it just sitting on the plate in a lump-of-meat fashion and, beneath the meatfest, a pile of chips! The concession to healthy food was a wee bowl of salad, which consisted of insipid lettue, grated carrot and (oh yes!) sauerkraut....all swimming in vinegary dressing. Put it this way, the whole meal experience doesn't rank in our top 10 of gastronomic experiences! We gave up pretty soon and waddled out of the restaurant feeling very.....meat-bound, I suppose. Luckily, we had about a 15 minute walk back to our hotel, which made us feel a bit better, getting some fresh air and exercise.

The next morning, we were still feeling so full from the meat bonanza of the previous night that we couldn't really do justice to the fabulous breakfast at the hotel: great choice of fresh fruits, cereals and  yoghurts, cold meats, fish and cheeses, hot food, pastries, bread, jam etc..... we nibbled on a few things before admitting defeat and heading out for the day.

Over our three and a half/four days in Vienna, we managed to pack in quite a lot, apart from the numerous Christmas markets! On our first full day, we went to the Belvedere art gallery, where there is lots of original Klimt, including his very famous "The Kiss" and various other artist, including Monet and Manet. We spent a few hours happily absorbing some culture and then went back to one of our Christmas markets for something to eat (we had felt full up all day from the meat mountain of the previous night!). Back to the hotel for an early-ish night and up bright and early (okay, not really!) to experience more Vienna, this time making our way to Schonbrunn Castle and Zoo. We had thought that we would spend a couple of hours at the zoo and then spend the rest of the day at the castle, but no, we spent pretty much the whole day wandering around the zoo! And what held our interest for the longest? Was it the giant pandas? The tigers? The lions? The meerkats???? No, we spent at least an hour feeding the squirrels! There were beautiful red and black squirrels scampering around the paths at the top of the zoo and they were so used to people being around them that they would come right up close. In fact, I had red squirrels eating from my hand, with both their little front paws up on my palm and their little whiskers tickling my cute! It was just the loveliest experience - but ironic that we were close to all these magnificent, endangered, beautiful animals and I spend most of my time and get the hugest amount of satisfaction from the little squirrels roaming free. Of course, red squirrels are so rare in Britain now that if I did see one as a child, I don't remember it and I certainly haven't seen one as an adult, so I suppose that it is an endangered species as far as Britain is concerned.

We ran out of time to see the Castle so decided to do that the following day. Of course, as part of our wandering around the Castle and the other parts which were open to the public, we managed to go near where we had seen the squirrels the previous day and were lucky enough to have another close encounter with a little red one - not for very long, though.  The Castle was, well, a castle, really. Sumptuous rooms, a real sense of history, an insight into how posh people lived  and a way to connect people and events.

Sadly, it was then time to go back to pick up our bags and head out to the airport for our flight home. We had left Neil's car at the airport car park and were home by about 11.30 pm, tired but feeling we had really made the most of our time in a beautiful city.

I had surprised both Neil and myself with how much walking I was able to do without the need for a rest - one of the reasons why Neil had booked us into a city centre hotel was so that we could easily go back for a rest if I need one during the day, but in fact I was fine and kept going. Okay, we weren't route-marching, but we didn't dawdle. Once we were home, I was sensible and had a quiet day on Wednesday, although in the evening we went up to London to meet up with some friends for a meal at the Oxford and Cambridge Club , no less! On the Thursday evening, we went to the Christmas show at the Orpheus Centre, where Amy works as a fundraiser. They performed a version of A Christmas Carol, written, composed, designed by the students themselves. The students all have either a physical or learning difficulty and everyone takes part, regardless of whether they can walk or talk. Two students had keyboards which they used to produce synthetic voices. Several were wheelchair users and quite a few had no speech at all. It was an incredibly inclusive show - no singling out of the student who played Scrooge over and above students who had "wheel on", non-speaking parts. It was my first experience directly of the Orpheus Centre and I found it absolutely inspirational. If anyone wants to find out more about the amazing work they do at the Centre, check out

Over the last few days, we have had <drum roll> The Return of Adam from Uni....da da daaaaah! He arrived home on Saturday afternoon and clearly hasn't fully embraced student ways, as he didn't bring home any dirty washing and claims he has left his bedroom tidy enough for us to see when we take him back in January - although today he admitted that his friend Hannah had tidied it for him! He's no fool, our son.... Since his return, we are going through three times as much milk and cheese, even though he has been out Saturday and Sunday evenings and has spent every morning in bed until late morning. Luckily his little Corsa is still taxed, insured and has a current MOT so he is able to catch up with his friends that he hasn't seen for months. We waited until Adam came home to get the house ready for Christmas - Neil has got the tree and tomorrow he has the day off work, so he and Adam can get the boxes of decorations down from the loft and we can get the house looking festive. I am finally starting to think that it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas and found myself humming the song today.....sorry, everyone within hearing distance. My voice is not what it was before I had r/t!

I said to Neil tonight that I feel tired, but happy. My joie de vivre has returned - perhaps not in the same quantity as before ( I hope I can say "yet" with some certainty) but it's definitely there. I am much more interested in things than before and can see further ahead when it comes to planning things. I can see a future now, whereas a few months ago I couldn't see past the end of this year. I now have my date for the PET CT scan, which will, we hope, give us the reassurance we need. I feel I can try to set my worries to one side for much of the time, although every now and then I get a niggling sense of anxiety. That's entirely normal and I feel that I have more armoury to cope with the times when I feel like that. In the meantime, I am looking forward to family time at Christmas and being able to celebrate with a glass of fizzy on Christmas Day - something which was in doubt until fairly recently! It's all about celebrating the small successes :-)

If I don't post before Christmas, I wish you all a blessed and peaceful Christmas and remember the true meaning of Christmas: to make sure the champagne fairy visits me!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Quick update...

...following our visit to the consultant today. We saw the consultant who is in charge of the whole Head and Neck Cancer clinic, Dr Newbold - we hadn't seen her for a few months, so it was good to catch up with her. We had gone along expecting to have to push for me to be allowed a PET CT scan, which my first consultant at East Grinstead Hospital had said would be the best way to check that all the cancerous cells had been caught, because it's so microscopic that an ordinary scan wouldn't pick it up, but he had also said that it would be hard to get one (on cost grounds) and that he had had to put up quite a fight to be allowed to refer a 19 year old! So we had been (metaphorically) girding our loins and rehearsing justifications as to why I should be allowed one. No need - Dr Newbold said it wasn't common practice, listened to what we said, looked at my notes, saw I had had one before my surgery and said it made sense to have another as a comparison to the earlier benchmark, as it were - result! We were so delighted, not just because we truly believe that this is what we need to give us reassurance that I am in remission - while accepting that firstly, it may give a false result in either direction and second, that we would have to deal with it if it does indeed show that I still have cancer - but also because it was so good not to have to fight for it. Such a relief.

The consultant did a physical examination, looked inside my mouth, at my gums, teeth and tongue and is very pleased with me. She says I have recovered really well, given the time since finishing radiotherapy, so that was pleasing. The PET CT scan won't take place till February/March, because there will still be inflammation in the treatment area, even now, several months after finishing r/t, so we need to be sure that has all gone.

Neil and I were both really pleased with today's appointment and were grinning as we walked back to the car. I see the consultant again in January, as she wants to keep an eye on me until I have this scan. In the meantime, Neil and I are off to Vienna tomorrow for a few days to enjoy the Christmas markets - very early start, so I shall finish this post now and get off to bed, having checked for the umpteenth time that the passports, flight documents, hotel confirmation etc are all there!

See you next week!!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The benefits of exercise.

Greetings, one and all!

My last post talked about how positive and how much better I felt after returning to exercise and that it meant that - at least for the moment - I don't have to take anti-depressants. My exercise regime has continued, with gym visits yesterday and today, and <drum roll> I returned today to my Zumba class, which I used to love but haven't been to for over 6 months. I was unexpectedly shaky at the start of the class, because I had to tell the instructor that I had compromised shoulder mobility so that she could keep an eye on me in case anything went badly wrong and also because a few people remembered me and were asking where I had been etc. But once the music started and we warmed up, I was fine. It was as much fun as I remembered and I surprised myself by how much I recalled - I could tell I hadn't done much running, though, as my calves really felt it when we did the jumping up and down parts! I walked most of the way home afterwards with one of the women from the class and we had a nice chat, so it set me up nicely for my appointment with my psychologist in the afternoon.

The last time I had a counselling session, I got pretty distressed. I really wanted to be able to demonstrate today that I have moved into a more positive phase, largely because of being able to exercise again. The first thing she asked me to do was complete a short questionnaire to see where I am in relation to my state of mind at the previous session and, after I filled it in, she said that my scores were well within normal range and asked if something had happened to make me so different. I talked to her about how being active was making me feel as if I can cope with everything better, partly because of producing happy hormones but also because being fit and healthy means that I am better able to cope with any possible further treatment I might need. I think that getting upset at the previous session also helped me realise that I am allowed to show my feelings and be angry, upset or frightened about what's been happening to me. It also means that if I show my feelings, I am tacitly giving Neil and the children "permission" to show theirs too and that we don't need to worry about upsetting each other. This is a difficult time for us all and it would be unrealistic if we didn't have feelings of uncertainty or fear, so it's far healthier for those feelings to come out. Otherwise, there's a risk that cancer becomes the elephant in the room that we don't want to talk about. This blog has always given me a chance to set out my feelings, which has been mightily cathartic, but sometimes you have to have face to face conversation about things.

After a long discussion about it all, the psychologist said (and I agreed) that at this stage, there's nothing that talk therapy can add to how I feel, since I now have my coping strategy sorted and have moved into a different phase. So, with the proviso that I reserve the right to contact her if I feel I would benefit from another discussion, I am "signed off". I'm really pleased at how far I've come in the three weeks since I last saw her. I have read articles about how exercise can help overcome depression and anxiety - well, I've certainly had it proved to me! Of course, I am not naive enough to think that I will never have any bad days. Everyone has them, whether they are dealing with illness or not, so I am bound to have low times. But that's normal, and I know that I will be able to get through it. I need to remember how good exercise makes me feel and realise that I can get back to that state.

Another thing that has helped me is going to a Head and Neck Cancer Support Group meeting at the weekend. Neil and I went to our first meeting, at Maidstone Hospital. I knew one other patient from the Facial Palsy Support Group and there were two HCPs from Queen Victoria Hospital whom we knew, so at least we recognised a few faces! It was a very sociable meeting - it's a well-established group and this was the Christmas Social, so we had cakes, some singing and a Christmas quiz. Those of you who know us well will know that Neil and I are very competitive about quizzes and yes, we did win! However, we did give answers to other teams who were struggling, so we weren't really tooooo competitive :-). There were quite a few people there who have far worse facial disfigurement than mine, so it gave me a different perspective on how I look. And there were people there who are 8 years or more from their original diagnosis, which is so encouraging, seeing them looking so healthy and being so involved in life. A very useful morning for  us.

We did a bit of socialising at the weekend too. My friend Lin came over for lunch on Saturday with her adorable toddler son. He is seriously cute but it made Neil and me realise just how long it has been since our children were that age! We'd forgotten that toddlers love repetitive games - seeing Lewis's whole body shake with giggles when we played a game with the fridge magnets was just lovely. We were both exhausted afterwards, though - you really do forget how full-on young children are! We had been invited to a party on Saturday evening - quite local, so not too far to drive. I was feeling a bit meh! about going, partly because I was wilting a bit but also because I was getting a little bit anxious about going into a room full of people. Looking back, I can see it was precisely because I was a bit tired that I felt anxious. We decided to go just for half an hour, but once we got there, the hosts were so pleased to see us and we ended up chatting to old friends and to some people we'd never met before and had such a nice time that we ended up staying for about two hours. It was the right decision to go and I'm glad Neil persuaded me - not only did we have a good time, but if I hadn't gone, I would possibly have started to feel more anxious about the next social event I was invited to. As it is, I went to Zumba today not thinking at all about how I looked and whether people would wonder what had happened to my face, although, as I said earlier, I did have a teeny wee wobble at the start. I recovered well and I know now that I can deal with these situations. In fact, some of the time I forget that my face is a bit different from how it was - that's progress!

I've been joining in a really interesting discussion on Mumsnet website, about the language we use around cancer patients - "fighting", "winning or losing the battle with cancer". Why do we only use that terminology for cancer? We don't say "he's fighting a broken leg", do we? Interestingly, the unanimous view on the discussion is that it can be really unhelpful if cancer patients are expected to stay positive all the time and not let it beat them - sometimes it's hard to stay positive (as I know) and sometimes you have to let it all out and show your anger and fear. But if everyone is exhorting you to stay positive and be a fighter, you can feel as if you are letting people down by not being like that. And what does it imply if someone doesn't beat their cancer? - that they didn't fight enough? They weren't enough of a warrior? I absolutely agree (and I know I have said it on here before) with Danny Baker, who also rejected the fighting analogy and said that his body was the battleground and the battle was between the cancer and the medics. I find it so interesting that there's so much more emotive language around cancer than any other illness that I can think of - is it because if we see cancer patients staying positive and upbeat, we can somehow reduce cancer to less of a frightening monster under the bed?

That was all pretty serious - and I make no apologies for it. I have used that kind of terminology in the past and genuinely didn't think I could possibly be making it harder for the cancer patient, but now I am in the position and I am that patient, I see it differently. That doesn't mean my view is the correct one, but it's how I feel and therefore it's correct for me!

Day off the gym tomorrow, I think. We went "en famille" this morning; Neil, Amy and I together, which was rather lovely. Having been to the gym for the past two mornings and having done a Zumba class, I think I might quite enjoy staying in bed tomorrow morning for a bit longer. Lazy? Moi? Never ;-p

Thanks, as always, for comments and support, both on here and via email or Facebook. And, of course, biggest thanks and love for Neil, Amy and Adam x

Friday, 2 December 2011

Hurrah for happy hormones!

It's true, exercise really is good for you! Since going back to the gym last week, I have felt more positive and energised than at any time over the past six months. I am taking it slowly and trying not to push myself too far, but at the same time I want to increase my levels of fitness and build up stamina (got a marathon to run next year, you know!). I'm doing a mix of cv work and resistance work, with some shoulder physio and abs work as well. I tried running for the first time yesterday and did a minute walk, a minute run for 10 minutes, then ran for about two and a half minutes. It felt good - but hard! I knew I had lost a lot of my base fitness and stamina and the way I felt when I ran proved it!

When I saw the psychologist a couple of weeks ago, I said exercise was one of the things I miss - and it's not just about the endorphins it produces but also about the fact that running and exercise are so bound up for me with my perception of myself that all the time I was unable to exercise the way I want to, I felt farther away from how I wanted to be. And from how I used to be. I really hoped that starting to exercise again would be a positive thing for me psychologically as well as physically, and happily that seems to be the case - at least, so far!

I saw my GP yesterday to talk to him about whether I should take anti-depressants (my psychologist had suggested I have the conversation with him) and as soon as I said that I had started exercising and that it made a difference, he said about endorphins and research showing that exercise is as effective in dealing with mild depression as a/ds. We had quite a long talk about it and we agreed that, at the moment, my exercise regime is helping me cope better with what's happened, so I don't need to take any medication at the moment. The proviso is, obviously, that if I get to the point where I do feel unable to cope, I go back to see him and we discuss medication. I don't mind taking medication to help me through things, but I must confess to feeling a sense of relief that I don't have to worry about possible side-effects or having to change medication if the initial one doesn't suit me. So, as long as exercise makes me feel positive about myself and that I can deal with what's happening, then that will be great.

I am so pleased - and relieved - with the change I feel in myself over the last 10 days or so. I've been lacking confidence in so many areas, including driving, to the extent that I have avoided driving except when absolutely necessary (usually to get to hospital appointments and even then, only in the last couple of months). Yesterday, I had to drive to the Marsden to see the dental hygienist and I felt like my old driving self, as it were - didn't get anxious, didn't think I was bound to have a mishap or lose my way (silly, really, as I could probably direct someone to the Marsden if I were blindfolded and sitting in the back of their car!). In fact, I felt so fine about it that when I left the Marsden, instead of going home, I drove into Croydon and did a couple of hours of shopping. Now, that really is a breakthrough, as it meant that I voluntarily put myself in crowds of people and accepted that I might be on the receiving end of looks or comments. I did it. I didn't avoid it, I actively sought out the challenge. And it was fine. I actually found the supermarket shop this morning more of a challenge, but that was probably because everyone seemed to be really dopey, blocking aisles with their trollies, stepping out without looking and then glaring at me as if I were in the wrong. I think early Christmas panic-buying had set in!

At the Marsden yesterday, I was seeing the dental hygienist. Long-term readers of my blog will remember that one of the side-effects from my radiotherapy is weakened enamel and higher risk of tooth decay, with attendant difficulties if any tooth couldn't be saved and had to be extracted. I have been diligent with my teeth-cleaning and flossing, even though there have been times when my mouth was too painful to open properly and the absolute rock-bottom time, when cleaning my teeth made me vomit (I do hope you're not eating your lunch or dinner when you read this!), so I have failed to clean them properly a few times. However, the hygienist said they are looking really good and I am looking after them very well, so she signed me off and I only need to see the hygienist at my dental surgery from now on (this means, of course, that I shall now have to pay for it, whereas at the Marsden it's free!).

All in all, yesterday was a good day. Wednesday was good too, as two former colleagues (and current friends!) came over and took me out to lunch. They had driven over in Jim's Aston Martin DB9 and we went for a spin - wonderful! I even asked them to take photos of me sitting in the driver's seat, which shows how much better I must be feeling, because normally I avoid cameras like the plague. Of course, it could be that I am just shallow and my misgivings about being photographed were easily overridden by the desire to be seen sitting in a posh car and pretend it's mine! It was good to catch up with Jim and Alan and we had a good laugh.

Today? Well, today I have been to the gym first thing, with Neil. I didn't enjoy running as much as yesterday, so I did less of it and did some time on the step machine instead. The old Ali would have been cross about not doing the running, but this Ali just says - well, I did other exercise instead and it is very early days. It will come. Then the food shopping (grim) and I have blitzed the cooker and oven, tidied out, cleaned and reorganised some kitchen cupboards and am now having a bit of a sit-down. The sun is shining, the washing machine is whirring, the cats are sleeping and I had a lovely chat with Adam, who phoned me from Carlisle. It's the Christmas Fair at the school where he is doing his teaching practice, so it's all very exciting for the children (and Adam!). Amy has her work Christmas night out tonight, so it will be a quiet night in for Neil and me, and all the more precious for being so.

Long may this positive feeling continue! I am off all my painkillers now, so my only medication is half a sleeping tablet at bedtime and I said to the GP yesterday that when this prescription runs out, I don't want to renew it. I feel it's time I tried to establish a sleep pattern that's not based on chemicals.
I know I will have down days, but I genuinely feel as if I have turned a corner and am returning to a normal that I feel more comfortable with. And when I have a down day, I shall remember how good I feel now and remind myself that I can feel like this again.

I see my psychologist next week and I would like to be able to go in and show this positive, energised Ali to her, but much depends on how I feel on the day and I accept that, although I will make sure I have been to the gym that day before I go to hospital!

Thank you for your support and friendship - I am keeping this blog going, because it helps me to set things down, whether things are going well, or not so well, so please keep reading! Biggest thanks and love, as always, to Neil, Amy and Adam.