The ridiculous writing challenge

A friend asked me a while ago whether I’d heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s an international event that involves writing a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in the month of November. I’ve thought about doing it many times, and have always concluded that I’m too busy. I told her I was familiar with it, and she said she thought we should do it. My initial reaction was to protest that I had cancer and a newborn, but both of those things were true for her too, so I said I’d think about it.

It was a truly ridiculous idea, given the circumstances. I quite regularly have meltdowns where I cry on Paul’s shoulder about not being able to cope with it all; the cancer, the toddler, the baby, the poorly sister, the much-too-crowded life. I ran the idea past him and I saw the fear in his eyes. More meltdowns. Less sleep. And the constant tap tap tapping of my fingers on the keyboard when he’s trying to relax in the evenings. He told me not to put too much pressure on myself. And I knew it was good advice.

I decided I wouldn’t do it. I could always do it next year, couldn’t I? I’ve written two novels in the past, and each one took me a good eighteen months or so to get down on paper, so I knew what was involved. But then, every now and again, my brain would go back to it, and remind me that it would be a pretty incredible achievement, and a way to make something good out of this dreadful year. To make it the year I had Elodie and wrote a novel in a month, rather than just the year I had cancer and my sister had a stroke.

On Halloween, the final day of deliberation, I decided to give it a try. I don’t like saying I’m going to do something and then not managing to do it (which is why it took me so many years to give up smoking), so I was nervous. And it’s been really tough, so far, but I’m pretty stubborn. Some evenings, I’ve sat down to write my daily words after the kids have gone to bed and we’ve cooked and eaten dinner, and I haven’t been able to keep my eyes open for long enough to get through them. Some days, I’ve glanced over what I wrote the day before and not recognised any of it. Redrafting is going to be interesting (perhaps I’ll do that in January).

My decision to take on the challenge was so last-minute that I didn’t have time to think much about plot. So I decided to take the age-old advice and write about what I know: cancer. My novel is provisionally titled I Wanted You To Know, and it’s told in letters between a mother and daughter who both do battle with breast cancer as young women.

Because this is a huge challenge for me, and because I’ll never run a marathon, I’m taking the opportunity to try to raise some money for Mummy’s Star, a charity which supported me following my diagnosis. If you can spare the cash, I’d be so grateful if you’d sponsor me. I’m in the final few days and I know this will give me the push I need to complete it on time. And please feel free to share this post far and wide, too. Thank you.

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The oophorectomy

Because I tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, I decided a while ago that I would have further surgery to remove my breasts and my ovaries after finishing chemo. I have roughly a 50% chance of getting breast cancer again, and up to a 30% chance of developing ovarian cancer, and I don’t much like those odds. So as chemo was coming to an end, I had various conversations with my oncologist and breast surgeons about the plan for my remaining treatment.

My oncologist was in favour of me finishing chemo, having radiotherapy and waiting a year or so before undergoing the preventative surgeries. He felt that having a lumpectomy, giving birth and having chemotherapy were quite enough for one body for one year. And he was right. But I wanted to get on with things, and if I had the surgeries straight away, I could avoid having radiotherapy, so I pushed for that.

Getting a consultation to see the gynaecologists about having my oophorectomy (removal of ovaries) was easier said than done. They hadn’t been involved in my case so far, and despite my oncologist asking them to see me as soon as possible, they kept telling me on the phone that it was being treated as a routine appointment, and they had a backlog, and they’d see me in December. In the end, my oncologist stepped in and they offered me an appointment in two days’ time. And then the operation itself very shortly afterwards.

With less than a week to go until the surgery, I took Joseph to a friend’s third birthday party. It was a small gathering at their house, and Joseph was a bit subdued, which I put down to shyness. After a while, another little boy his age turned up and started to play with a train track, and Joseph went over to join him. And then he vomited, very suddenly, over his clothes and mine, and over every piece of the train track. My friend and her sister kindly sorted us out with spare clothes and we went home.

That evening, my parents came round for dinner and we planned out the next couple of weeks. What with childcare, and visits to Rach, and appointments my parents had back at home, everyone was pretty much accounted for at all times, and we were banking on Joseph being well enough to go to nursery. But the next day, he was sick all over me, and the day after that, all over the sofa. And then he started doing what he likes to call ‘wee wee poos’. It was clear that he wouldn’t be going to nursery for a few days. And then my brother-in-law got ill, and then my dad, and then Paul. We called in reinforcements in the shape of Paul’s mum. She’s the equivalent of three people in terms of helpfulness.

It was a miserable few days. Elodie doesn’t poo very often, and when she does, it usually results in a full outfit change. Every day, there were poo, urine and vomit-stained sheets and clothes to wash. One load after another. But against all the odds, I managed to avoid the bug. When the day of my surgery arrived, a not-very-well Paul drove me to the hospital. I had to be there for 11.30am, but I was told the doctors wouldn’t come round until at least 12.30pm, so I went downstairs to see Rach for a bit. It was the first time we’d both been in the same hospital for treatment. I sent my parents a message to say I was at the hospital and with Rachel, and Dad replied saying it was nice that I had my big sister with me. And it was.

I spent most of the afternoon trying to read in an armchair on a cold ward. There was a problem with the heating, and I was wearing a thin hospital gown and paper underwear. I was fifth on the list. I watched as the women were taken down to theatre, one by one. And then, at 4.30pm, it was my turn. I walked down the corridors with a nurse by my side and my pillow in my arms. I confirmed my name and date of birth for the hundredth time, and then I was led into theatre and I laid down on the bed.

Since some of my lymph nodes were removed, I’m not supposed to have anything done to my right arm. I’d told a nurse this earlier, and she’d drawn an arrow on my left wrist. There was something pleasing about the simplicity of this system, like when I’d had my lumpectomy and they’d drawn a big cross above the right breast to ensure they didn’t cut the wrong one. But in theatre, they couldn’t get a cannula into my left arm after several attempts, so they had to switch to my right. Before I was even knocked out, I felt a bit battered.

I woke up in recovery and was quickly wheeled back to a ward. The day ward I’d come from had closed, so I was taken to a different one, and it was quickly decided that I’d be staying overnight. I felt sick and sore, with terrible pain in my shoulders. I’d been warned about that, and I was glad, since it seems like such an unlikely symptom. It’s something to do with the gas they pump you up with when they do keyhole surgery.

Paul came to visit me that evening, but I was very sleepy. I slept on and off, waking up in pain every few hours. At 1am, I went to the toilet and when I got back to bed, I threw up a couple of times. I remember thinking about how much worse it’s going to be when I have my next operation, which is a much bigger one. But by morning, the nausea had passed, and I managed to eat breakfast. By lunchtime, I was home.

I’m not allowed to lift the children for at least a week, which is difficult. Joseph forgets and asks me to pick him up all the time. And when Paul’s busy doing something else, and Elodie is crying, I feel useless. This morning, Joseph came up to see me in bed and brought his doctor’s kit. He checked my heart with his stethoscope, cut off all my fingers with his scissors and told me I was fine. And despite ongoing pain, it felt really good to be back with my family.

The weekends away

I’ve spent the past two weekends away, courtesy of two great charities. The first one was a spa weekend at Ragdale Hall with Paul, a wonderful gift from the Willow Foundation, who organise special days for seriously ill people under forty. I chose a relaxing couple of days with Paul over a short break with the whole family, and I’m glad I did. Over the past few months, we’ve had almost no time together, what with endless appointments, visits to see Rach, and the chaotic newborn/toddler combination. It felt like a real privilege to be together, with nothing to do. And the kids had a great time with my parents.

The second was a residential Breast Cancer Care event in Bristol. Me and about forty-five other women with breast cancer. It was powerful, emotional and exhausting. On the first day, a small group of us lay on the floor and laughed until we cried in a laughter yoga workshop. And on the second, a different group sat in the same room and cried as we talked about our relationships and our new-found hatred of our bodies.

The women I met there were some of the kindest, strongest and most incredible people I’ve come across, and I’ve got cancer to thank for that, since that was our common denominator. I met a woman who is facing this illness for a second time, one who had a different cancer in her teens and two whose teenage children had really struggled with their diagnoses. Many of them, like me, are raising a young family. Some haven’t had children yet, and don’t know whether they’ll be able to. All of them have been through some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment, and not one of them was self-pitying. It was truly inspiring.

However, I think it all hit me a little harder than I’d realised. A few days after I got home, my dad came over in the morning to take Joseph to nursery. He often does this so that I don’t have to get myself and both the kids up and dressed by 7.30am. That morning, for the first time, Joseph refused to go with him, and after many minutes of failed persuasion, I left Dad looking after Elodie and took him in myself. On the way, in the car, I told him that I was going to go to hospital soon, and there would be different people taking him to nursery, and that he had to go with them and not make a fuss. ‘I won’t make a fuss,’ he said, in a quiet voice.

When we arrived, he cried and cried, refusing to let go of me. I felt wretched. Driving home, I started crying myself, and I didn’t stop all morning. In the shower, feeding Elodie, answering the door to the postman. It felt like I might never stop. And I realised that, as a result of my sister’s stroke, I’ve spent a lot of time pushing my feelings about my own illness to one side. The weekend had brought them out, and I’m glad it did. When I picked Joseph up that evening, one of the wonderful women who look after him told me that he’d been fine after a short while. ‘He was angry,’ she said. ‘Not upset.’ I’m angry too, sometimes.

The following morning, Joseph was in bed with me. ‘You know that if you’re angry or worried or upset about anything, you can tell me, don’t you?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said. He paused. ‘I’m worried, Mummy.’ I took a deep breath and asked what about. ‘I don’t want Elodie’s chair to be there, I want it to be over here.’ Then last night, he woke up in the early hours and said there were slugs in his bed. I don’t know how much of his behaviour is linked to my cancer, and Rachel’s stroke, and how much is normal for a three-year-old. And I’ll never know. I’m starting to accept that.