When you first hold that little bundle of wrinkled skin and shrivelled gorgeousness, in your arms, your life changes in the blink of an eye. Your carefree days of only having to worry about yourself are gone, your time is no longer your own. You are a mum. You are responsible for another life and the kisses of love and adoration that you pepper incessantly over that tiny head, are full of promises and dreams.
Eighteen months after I gave birth to our daughter, I sat in my doctors waiting room, wishing someone would take me in their arms, swaddle me in a blanket and kiss my head with promises while my dreams whirled around me like some kind of tornado.
I had been diagnosed with a hormonally receptive breast cancer for a second time. Not only did I have a husband this time around but I had a daughter, and the thought process that went with that minor detail made for a completely different thought process than it had before, seven years previously, in my twenties, when the most important thing to worry about had been whether to have white wine or red wine with dinner!
The plates we spin as mums are many; kids, routine, family, lifestyle, work, relationships, but when we are given the almighty serving dish of a cancer diagnosis to spin alongside, it takes so much of our attention to keep it spinning, that we can often find ourselves watching on while the other plates wobble to a lazy end and then crash to the ground.
A mothers love is a powerful thing but when I saw her toddling towards me on my return from that awful appointment, I felt totally helpless. What did this mean for her? How would we explain this to her? Who would look after her while I went to all my appointments? How much of her life would I be around for now? How was I going to cope with her energy? Does this mean she might be at risk?
As we processed everything, I put her to the top of my list. I wanted to protect her and I didn’t want her to notice anything different, but as details began to emerge of the treatment plan, I realised that her routine would be affected and we needed to manage that. Communication was key, but how do you tell a nearly two year old? How do you tell any child you, or a member of your family, have Cancer?
In this case, we kept it simple and related it to the global pink phenomenon that was then Peppa Pig. In all his glory Doctor Brown Bear stepped up to the mark and we told her that Mummy had an ‘ouch’ and would have to have daily visits with Doctor Brown Bear to make it better (though she looked understandably put out as to why she wasn’t invited too!)
But when, another eighteen months later, I had a third diagnosis, words failed me, never mind finding more to explain to a three year old. A child’s world is only as big as they are, their scale of reference is relative to their age, so the complexities of explaining to them something that is so often associated with death, becomes one huge scary issue!
My daughter was very young on both occasions, so we could just about manage the language and wave of questions that were fired at us like bullets, as we muddled through treatment and surgeries, but I was aware that she became clingy, a bit tearful and though generally happy and her normal outgoing self around others, the mothers guilt feasted and leapt upon these minor fluctuations, and self doubt and vulnerability caused my confidence as a mother to crash.
The hardest part for me was the huge black cloud that is the ongoing state of my fertility. A four year old’s radar for different family structures asserts itself considerably and when the question i feared the most was suddenly vocalised, it felt like a bomb exploding. The pain and the gut wrenching twist of my stomach, totally floored me, ‘Mummy, when will I have a baby sister or brother?’
Trying to keep language simple and not dissolve into a puddle is hard. We can’t predict their questions, we can’t guess what they will say next. So how do we manage issues such as the change in our appearance and hair loss, with older children? How do we tackle the sometimes debilitating fatigue and side effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy? Or, as in my case, how do we start a dialogue with children post cancer, and discuss the far reaching side effects on ourselves and our families? After my own experiences and talking to so many other patients and survivors who are also, first and foremost, Mums, I realised that the support for us, as a group, is not as accessible as it should be. When the darker and more intense issues surface and we are still spinning all those plates, who do we go to? We push the panic deeper down inside us. Oh for that darned instruction manual!
Our children are individuals too. They may open up and confide in us or another member of the family, but they may also turn inwards and become guarded and defensive. If we focus on Cancer as a thing are we overwhelming them with issues of mortality? If we don’t, how can we control what their friends and outside influences tell them? Our mummy minds are a hot house of contradictions and once again we feel helpless to the things we can not control! The unknown is a scary place and as mothers, we will always claim that responsibility to protect them from anything that may jeopardise their innocence.
Parenting Support and Samspaces recognise all of these concerns and complexities and are collaborating to offer a series of workshops to support and nurture these feelings and concerns. With tools, tips and models that have worked effectively in other tough parenting areas (divorce, separation and siblings with special needs) our aim is to provide a safe and honest space for mums affected by cancer, directly or indirectly (it could be another close member of the family,male or female) to discuss what it is we need to feel calmer and more productive, what we can do to support ourselves and our children in a more positive way as well as discussing how we can move forward while creating a new family normal. Perhaps, together, we can implement small changes and take slow, baby steps; like taking ten minutes each day to allow ourselves to separate from that intensity and play, interact and engage with our children, creating a more positive environment for them, while offering a safe space where things are familiar again.
In light of everything, I am so proud of the girl my daughter is becoming. She may push us to the edge with her insanely early wake up calls, but she is her own amazing person. Recently, when I tried to explain to her, what Cancer was, now she is older, she told me, quite adamantly, that Alzheimer’s is way worse than Cancer because Great Granny has that! I realised that in her world, Cancer can’t be that bad because I look fine, however Great Granny is slightly less fine! Kids are clever, they pick up on everything but whether two or eight, I am proud she has seen that a mother can be strong, brave and honest and if she grows up knowing nothing else, I want her to know,
‘A mothers love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path’ – Agatha Christie.
And that, my darling, includes Cancer! x
To reserve your spot on the first FREE workshop on June 6th 2017 click here;
I can’t say I am all that sure about sitting in front of my phone and videoing myself! Who is? But, I wanted to do a series of vlogs, face to face, explaining what SPACE means to me and why it has been such an important concept for me during cancer treatment and survivorship and the background to why I set up Samspaces and A Daily Space.
Talking to anyone affected by cancer is a personal and sometimes uncomfortable experience but it is something I feel passionately about. I want this community to know who I am, what I have been through and why I am doing what I am doing.
Check out the overview of the five vlogs I published on my You Tube channel in May 2017 where I discuss the analogy of the word and look at what each letter means to me.
“I’m sorry to say Mr Blair, but you have a brain tumour. It’s the size of a large egg, and we are going to aim to operate, perhaps some radiotherapy, chemotherapy, but if theres nothing else we can do, we will just keep you comfortable.”
As my husband was given those words I felt myself sinking into the floor. The world seemed to go slowly as I looked up at his Mum, perhaps expecting to catch her, but she just looked white. I looked to Ross, he seemed shocked, but calm.
That’s Ross though and there really wasn’t anything more to say.
That was the beginning.
He had been having headaches for a few weeks, had been going through depression and mood swings, but we had a new baby and we put it down to that.
Ross’ Mum, Dionne and I drove home without him and the car was eerily silent. No words could express what we were feeling.
Pure shock and fear. Deep, deep fear.
Getting back to my house we were met with Matty, Ross’s younger brother (who had been babysitting my two girls, while we had gone into hospital) he asked if everything was OK and his Mum told him the news. We just hugged and cried. Terrified.
Matty and Dionne left to go and see his sister and for a short time I was alone.
I phoned my parents and sister and delivering the news to others made me sob. What was happening? He had gone in with headaches!
The truth is, I new it was going to be bad, I never for one second thought it would be this, but I knew something was going on, something bigger.
I phoned my agent and left her a voice message. As a TV actress I had just finished filming BBC Casualty and had booked a film. I wanted to let her know that couldn’t happen, I just wanted to tie up loose ends, be present in what was happening.
I looked around at my house and I wondered what it all meant.
What would happen with us? The girls? How would I cope with this?
Nothing seemed to make sense and there was no answers.
I am an extremely positive person and I just knew I had to focus on one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Clear everything, seek help from those around us and be there for Ross emotionally.
We have an extremely good bunch of people around us and over the coming weeks (with Ross’ instruction) a schedule was put together and everyone took turns having the girls. We wanted to make sure they didn’t get embroiled in any of it.
Brooke was about 3 years and Texas 1, so they couldn’t really understand, but I knew they would sense something if they were around us.
Everyone chipped in, they took so much pressure off us and those that did that will always have a place in my heart. The girls nursery, lead by the owner Steph, took the girls for months, free of charge. That is the good in the world, that is humanity.
Someone from America contacted me in the early days and we spoke online. This lady had grade 3 brain cancer and she was very pragmatic about it all. She gave me the advice “This can still be your life, it will be brain cancer life now, but it doesn’t have to define you”
This stuck with me and as an advanced practitioner of The Law of Attraction and someone who knows that what you focus your mind on, you bring into your reality, I practiced what I preached.
When people tried to tell me how horrendous chemo was going to be for Ross, I said “He will be fine, we will focus on that when it’s here”
People mean well, but they often impart their own fears onto you and that just wasn’t how this was going to run. Some may see that as naive, but you’re wrong. Ross hasn’t read a single thing online, or otherwise into brain cancer, chemo, radiotherapy, brain surgery and because of this he doesn’t know what he is supposed to feel, he just feels it if it’s there.
He has been remarkable. Two brains surgeries, chemo, radio, seizures, doctors poking and prodding, having his driving licence taken off him. He has defied what people said.
He has left intense chemotherapy to go and play football, or ride his bike. He would go into chemo and say, “shall I breeze this one?” and I would, of course, tell him “yeah, do it! Why not?”
You will never hear Ross say “This is a nightmare” or “why me?”
Quite the opposite, you will hear him say “Why not me? None of us are immune, it’s just science” or “I’m bored if it now, it’s gone anyway” “They keep telling me I’ve got cancer, but I can’t feel it!”
He is never a victim, WE are not victims.
As the partner of someone going through stuff it can sometimes feel like you are watching a movie you cannot do anything about. You feel frustrated for them, want to take away any pain, but yet you are left to watch. I had to learn to let go of trying to control Ross. I wanted to tell him what to eat, what he could and couldn’t do.
I was scared, there is so much information out there (often conflicting) and I just wanted him to be OK. You have to let your loved one make decisions or you will find your relationship will shift.
It does shift naturally anyway, as the partner, or carer you take on roles you didn’t have before. Believe me, I was not chief driver in our house and I don’t relish in it now. At the beginning everything was down to me and although we have tremendous support, it felt alien.
Nearly 3 years into his diagnosis and he is currently having chemo again, you wouldn’t know there was anything going on in his body. It’s hard to imagine what we have been told is reality, so we live like it’s not.
It’s not our reality right now and we live with hope. We are very realistic people, we know its not an easy one, but we try to live in an authentic way and mix practical (doing a will and power of attorney etc) with living our normal life and hoping for the best.
It’s the letting go and the fear that stops most, but the reality is that MANY people LIVE with cancer. It isn’t free of cancer, or death. It’s upkeep, its appointments, but in-between you live.
The advice I could give to others going through this is to block out negativity, focus on your loved ones and being as normal as possible, don’t try and force new ideas onto them and find time for you.
You are useless if you go down. You have to have time out and it’s a good idea to let people know you don’t want to talk about cancer all of the time (or people REALLY will)
Remember cancer isn’t personal, it doesn’t ‘only happen to the good ones’, you don’t have to be defined by this, in fact there can be positives to come out of it.
Strengthening your bond with your loved one
Seeing the wonderful side of humanity in the nurses, doctors and others around you that offer help.
The strength that you can find within you will stay with you forever. You learn compassion and empathy for others and a deeper understanding of whats important.
I had no experience of cancer before Ross and no real understanding of the impact it has, now I know that people’s lives get shook up and rung out and I want to help.
My approach isn’t for everyone though, I’m pretty straight talking, no bullshit and will not have negative chitter chatter. Say to yourself everyday “I will work this out” and get on with you day.
I have been thoroughly changed by Ross’s cancer diagnosis and I am not the person I was 3 years ago. I have seen and learnt things that will stay with me now forever and I am very strong.
As a carer, or someone close to someone with cancer, I am on your side, I am holding your hand, I alright there with you, I know, I KNOW and you are not alone.
Sending strength and love to all.
Please come and say hello via Twitter; @hollymatthews, Instagram; @hollymatthews84, My Facebook page; I am Holly Matthews, or my YouTube; HollyMatthewsonline
Anxiety is something that touches the lives of all of us who go through a cancer journey. It begins with getting your head round a diagnosis and the anxious feelings that accompany coming to terms with impending treatment you don’t want to be having. It continues with the stress of waiting for the results of scans that show how successful your treatment has been. To me this was nothing compared to the anxiety produced by feelings emerging after I had gone into remission. Feelings that I had bottled up in order to face the situation I found myself in and to be strong for my husband, child and family. Feelings that would rise up unexpectedly when life didn’t quite go to plan.
Yet, throughout this challenging time there was one thing that was guaranteed to lift me out of this, even if only for a short time: art. Ever since I can remember there is nothing I have enjoyed more than sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper and capturing whatever is in my head. As a child I would sit and draw what I had seen in nature. I drew so much that I became quite skilled at it. As a teenager, my love of doodling got me through some tricky years when I needed to escape from the world. I carried on as an adult, not always being able to find the time to put paintbrush or pencil to paper but enjoying every moment when I did.
And of course most recently, I used art to get me through some very tricky moments after being diagnosed with non Hodgkin lymphoma last year. I sat in my hospital bed wondering how on earth I would get my head round having to have chemotherapy in a few days’ time. A friend had thoughtfully brought me in a sketch pad and pencils and I spent many hours drawing pictures of my baby son, who I only saw at evening visiting time. It didn’t take away the difficulty of the situation, but it took me away to another place, and my anxiety lifted.
Once at home, undergoing treatment and then moving into remission, I didn’t find it so easy to make time to create artworks. Apart from looking after my own health, my son was my priority and the only real time I had for myself was when he napped. The only way round this I could find was giving myself fifteen minutes each day to draw. This was enough and slowly, as each day passed, ideas in my head for paintings came to life. At this time of day, apart from needing to sleep myself, I felt a real need to switch my mind off and art helped me to do this. To me, it has always felt like a kind of meditation. By focussing on representing what I am drawing on a page, it is almost as if I am switching off a part of my brain. Objects become shapes and curves and worries become distant memories.The act of being creative not only reduces anxiety but also makes me feel that I am moving on to a new place in my life, something so necessary after what I have been through.
Art therapy can be valuable in dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings that need to emerge. I recently attended an art therapy taster session organised by the charity Victoria’s Promise for our women’s cancer network. We were encouraged to create a picture showing what the group meant to us. Mine depicted rays of sunshine surrounded by flowers. I felt this was representative of the way the group was supporting me and the other ladies in moving forward in life positively. After looking more closely at a swirl I had drawn in the centre of the picture, I realised that it represented a cancer cell, present as a reminder of the anxiety that I was still going through as I moved forward in life. I had not expected this exercise to be so revealing in such a simple way.
I do not believe that there are people who are incapable of being creative. We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves. It is possible to learn how to draw through various techniques which involve seeing what you are drawing as a collection of lines or shapes rather than familiar objects. Many people are told when they are young that they cannot draw or produce a good piece of artwork, which leads to a feeling of inadequacy. Adult colouring books have made art accessible to everyone, however, and are especially popular, perhaps because focusing on details in a picture and choosing colours to fill in the shapes can be so relaxing and therapeutic.
In the spirit of art and creativity helping to overcome anxiety, I am planning a charity art exhibition together with SamSpaces. This will not only raise money but also awareness of the journey that cancer can take us on, whether that be during or post treatment. We are planning to exhibit work by artists whose lives have been touched by cancer, whether as a patient or as a supporter, friend or relative. A section of the exhibition will be devoted to work by those who do not consider themselves to be artists, but have expressed through art what they are going through. If you are interested in participating, please email Sam or comment here……. Watch this space for more information!
‘Mindfulness is an integrative, mind body based approach that helps people to manage their thoughts and feelings.’
Mental Health Foundation
In an effort to stay ‘mindful’ of the influx of information out there about this very topic, I have decided to get straight to the point and perhaps be a little more pro active with this particular blog!
On looking online at the mountains of research there is on mindfulness as a recovery tool, I felt totally overwhelmed, I literally didn’t know where to start, so in an effort to save you guys the same (ever so mild!) panic attack, which of course would completely defeat the point, I thought I would blog a list of the mindful apps/books and courses that one can dip in and out of but that can also genuinely aid healing and recovery, especially after cancer treatment, without requiring a trip to a monastery in deepest darkest Tibet!
I’m going to dive in with the mobile option! I have to admit that when it comes to mindfulness apps, there are a lot out there! I could write a list an arms length but the one that has totally rocked it for me and actually has me practicing for three minutes at least, every night, is Calm: Meditation techniques for stress reduction.
I love the choice of scenes that fill your screen and their matching soothing sound affects. I have been known to simply have that playing in the background while working – this lot have ‘calm’ down!
The choice of meditations are inspiring and very practical, such as nine seven day programmes on topics such as managing stress or seven days of gratitude as well as a selection of times for various individual meditations on themes including loving kindness or deep sleep. There is also a kids option too (which my nearly six year old loves, though I cant promise that she keeps still through them!) Some are guided while others are not, but I have found this app to be the most affective in keeping me in a mindful routine.
Mindfulness is a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, of doing something for yourself
I did this eight week course four years ago and loved it. I had to commute from Surrey to Fulham but it was worth the journey, even while undergoing seven weeks of radiotherapy! It is a very thorough course, exploring all the different forms of mindful practice and the theory and study behind it all. I loved finishing every two hour class with a mindful exercise, mostly lying down under blankets and listening to Caroline Hoffman, the leader of the course, guide us through body scans.
The homework is the key to the effectiveness of the course. They say it takes thirty two days to form a new habit so you are encouraged to practice every day and are given the appropriate CD’s and reading to help you. I found the homework a real distraction while waiting for my daily radiotherapy and it helped me feel less anxious and give the exercises a really realistic framework to practice them in.
We explored mindful eating, mindful walking, sitting and even speaking. From a post cancer point of view, it was the perfect course for me at that time, as everyone there had been affected by cancer so making for a very bonding and sharing environment.
My only negative feedback of a mindful course like this was that it merely felt I had scratched the surface of mindfulness and I felt like I needed to do another course to explore some of the themes more fully.
‘I love my clients and the process of teaching mindfulness – although, in reality, there is no ‘teacher’ and we discover the ‘learning’ together.’
– Gill Johnson, Mindful Elephant
For those based more around the Surrey area, there is a fantastic mindfulness course based in Godalming called Mindful Elephant (chosen because the name was quirky and memorable!)
Gill Johnson is a mindfulness teacher and facilitator for MBSR/MBCT group courses for the general public, schools, hospitals and workplaces. After a chronic pain condition Gill found herself attracted to the work of the famous Jon Kabat-Zinn and discovered links that helped her deal with her own physical pain. She started to share them with hospital patients as a volunteer and she found the improvements so dramatic that she enrolled on a training course.
Making mindfulness accessible to everybody is something Gill feels very passionately about and she is involved in a number of other initiatives though as she admits, it is difficult to keep up with the ever evolving research that is coming out of the rapidly growing area.
NEWS FLASH! Gill is offering a •• discount •• to any Samspace readers who might like to enrol on her course starting OCTOBER 12th so if you are interested please feel free to contact Gill; www.mindfulelephant.com
Tel: 07785 921 950
‘It is a real honour to hold a safe space and offer guidance for people to explore mindfulness’
I came across Shelila and her amazing Lollipop Wellbeing a few years ago, through social media. Sheila has a huge presence on twitter and runs courses in the Manchester area and occasionally Brighton. Her tips and posts on social media are a brilliant way of continuing a mindful approach to life while not on a course or afterwards.
Sheila set up Lollipop to provide accessible support for people who want to reduce stress and improve their wellbeing when it saved her life after approaching burnout from work related stress. For those who are not local she provides as many free resources as possible via her website including audio meditations and a monthly practice plan combining ideas for mindful living.
Shelia’s main focus within her mindful teaching is around self kindness, which of course, is something we are all in a little need of! Her recent blog ‘Everyday Mindfulness’ will resonate with a lot of us; http://www.everyday-mindfulness.org/growing-fearless-mindfulness-public-speaking-and-performance-anxiety/
Sheila discovered the self kindness area of mindfulness by accident. The more she deepened her practice the more it helped her with things like anxiety, grief and self criticism. When she attended a Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course after experiencing a lot of stress at work and in her personal life, she realised she wanted to teach because it felt like paying it forward. She is now a Breathwork associate as well as a Mindfulness teacher and as well as being a qualified personal coach working one to one with clients too, she is incredible active.
Believe it not, I was given this book my (very mindful) mum in law! I love the title!
Written by the man himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn, this explores all the ways we can include mindfulness in our lives, whether we be a beginner or professional! It maps out the ways of cultivating a more personal mindful frame of mind where we can appreciate each moment at a time and help make moments for rich and full.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is also the founding director of the renowned Stress Reduction Clinic and Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in various venues around the world and has written a zillion books on it all (but this one, in my opinion, is one of the easiest reads!)
BOOK – Mindfulness; A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in A Frantic World
‘This is precisely focused to help ordinary people boost their happiness and confidence levels whilst also reducing anxiety, stress and irritability.’
Another good read, this book gives a fantastic background to all things Mindful with a focus on more mindful based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) This means that the practice is more about doing a little every day for there to be any sort of effect and they help you out with a little CD in the back of the book to guide you through setting out a new mindful routine. It is a great one to have to hand if doing any mindfulness courses.
It is specifically for people who just want to include mindful practice in their daily life for their own wellbeing rather than for depression or a specific problem and it is recommended by the UK’s very own National Institute of Clinical Excellence – in other words, it works!!
A mindfulness course may not be your thing but if getting creative is, have a go at this. Easy to find, easy to do and perfect at helping you tune into that tiny, undiscovered space that might be waiting for liberation (and a little clarity!)
There are umpteen colouring books on the market at the moment. I have seen a huge selection at supermarkets as well as bookshops such as Waterstones but whether you sit down and do it for five minutes or an hour, alone or with your child, it is a very easy and effective way of getting some space and mindful time into your day.
There is so much out there on this topic but I hope these ideas may be useful. I have to admit that I do not always find it easy to come back to my breathe and focus on the now but I have also learnt that the practice of mindfulness is exactly that, practice. It doesn’t need to be hours and hours every day but whether you prefer to find encouragement alone with an app or with a group in a class, it is definitely having a positive impact on many of us on many levels and if we can connect with that breathe on a regular basis and oxygenate our bodies and minds, healing has no limits.
“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment. We also gain immediate access to our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn