Toast Didn’t Kill My Mum

It’s rare that I write a blog post directly in response to things I see on my Twitter feed. A lot happens in the news every day, and there are many people, far more qualified than me, who write articles informing us, explaining things to us, and offering up their opinions on the various things happening in the world.

However, I’ve decided to make an exception this week, because I am fed up of seeing articles pop up telling me that if I eat a certain food, it could lead to cancer.

My Mum had cancer. My Mum died from cancer. Mum was a normal weight, she didn’t have the ‘cancer gene’, she never smoked, never got drunk, ate relatively healthily (she was fairly convinced chocolate could cure all of life’s problems, but balanced it out with all the other major food groups so it was all good), she exercised, wasn’t overly sleep-deprived the majority of the time, she never used sun beds, rarely got sunburned (not content with suncream, we went one-step further in our family and wore long-sleeved tops when it was particularly hot (ginger genes!)), she never used drugs, in fact I don’t think pre-cancer she was even on any prescriptions bar an inhaler. She still developed cancer aged 49. It still came back aged 51. She still died aged 53.

Mum was obviously unlucky, and I’m not saying that all of the science linking various cancers to various lifestyle factors is wrong – far from it. There are clear links between sun damage and skin cancer, alcohol and liver cancer, smoking and lung cancer etc. (for more on scientifically proven links, check out the cancer research ‘causes’ page). Most weeks Mum, a palliative medicine consultant, would come home from work and tell us smoking horror stories – I think if any of us had ever come home with a whiff of smoke on us, she would probably have temporarily disowned us.

That being said, there are some, quite frankly, bizarre claims flying around at the moment, and they’re just not helpful.

The three I’ve seen this week are: burned toast can cause cancer, potatoes can cause cancer, and toothpaste can cause cancer. All have some scientific link between food item (for the purposes of this blog, toothpaste is a food), and cancer. None have proven the link in humans.

There are so many food controversies surrounding cancer; often the same food is listed as a cure and a cause, depending on the study. It’s just not helpful.

Perhaps there is a very, very small link between an ingredient in toothpaste and cancer (in rats) – but I’d go out on a limb and say that it’s probably more damaging to your health to never clean your teeth, than to use a blob of toothpaste twice a day. (After all, unhealthy gums has been linked to heart disease, so we’re clearly all stuffed either way, and might as well die with nice teeth than no teeth!).

We’re all going to die of something at some point. As someone said to me on Twitter the other day: life causes cancer. None of us are going to live forever. Every single one of us is going to die at some point, of something, or in the words of John Cleese: ‘life is a terminal disease’.

Mum died, arguably, before her time, and I clearly remember asking her once she was diagnosed as terminal whether she was angry that it was happening. Her response? God had given her so many days, and she’d lived those days to the full. (She was religious, but change ‘God’ for ‘life’, or the religious figure of your choice, and it still works). She was definitely stronger and more dignified than I think I’d be in that situation – I think I’d be annoyed, upset, and pretty angry – but Mum was right, she really did live every day to the full.

Which would you rather – surviving until 103 but never really living, being scared of everything you touch (and never having crispy potatoes or slightly over-done hot-cross buns), or dying at 53 having lived a full and happy life? I know which one I’d choose.

Until there is solid evidence that burning your toast, cleaning your teeth, and having some gravy-drowned roast potatoes with your Sunday dinner causes cancer, I suggest you take these articles (and any others with equally tenuous links) with a pinch of salt and carry on living your life. Life is short – make sure you live it, don’t just survive it.

Featured: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/naomibarrow/toast-cancer-risk_b_14420240.html

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Is it getting easier, or am I just numb?

There have been a few things that have happened in the past few weeks which would normally trigger off ‘missing Mum’ alarm bells. They range in size, from those that would have knocked me for a few days, to ones which are just a bit tricky.

Things like:

  • Christmas (without Mum)
  • New Year (oh look, you have to survive another year without your Mum)
  • Getting a new phone (my old one was inherited from Mum, but there’s only so many times you can apologise to the person on the other end of the phone for the fact that your alarm is going off (while on the phone) and you can’t switch it off because your phone has frozen… before a new one becomes a bit necessary. I have mitigated it slightly by putting my favourite picture of us as my background, so I’ve still got Mum in my pocket)
  • Feeling ill (my flatmate and I had a discussion last night over which of my meds it might be a good idea to take, whether NHS 111 might be a good plan (nah, they’ll either tell me to go to bed or to A&E, and I don’t feel like going to A&E) and eventually concluded that heat packs, gaviscon and sleeping tablets with a ‘maybe it will be better tomorrow?’ would be a good plan)
  • An exam (who knows how that went as I’m currently a person of no brain and not really well enough to do much at all never mind take an exam, but I couldn’t postpone it again, and the invigilator said that I’ve aged well, so I feel like I won a little bit)
  • Upcoming appointments that I’m not feeling too fab about (Mum’s are good people to text ‘arghhhhhhhhhh’ to).
  • Feeling like generally, with my health, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going, and what to believe (Mum was always fairly blunt, if I walked in looking like I was dying she would tell me)
  • My mental health being a knob (seriously, as a twenty-something year old it’s hard enough to navigate life and try to keep yourself alive without your head attempting to kill you)
  • New year new diet crap (which she would have healthily laughed at and torn apart whereas every time ‘veganuary’ and ‘a researcher has decided that breakfast is bad for you’, I wish I was well enough to join in)

However, despite all these things, the ‘missing Mum’ part of my brain appears to have disappeared (along with the rest of my brain, arguably).

It’s not that Mum doesn’t ever enter my head, but when she does, at the moment, it’s in a much more clinical sense, with all of the emotion removed. It’s not that she never enters conversation, either, because she does (most recently this evening, with the exam invigilator), but when she does, and people say they’re sorry, I normally meet it with a bit of a shrug and an ‘it’s life’, where it might previously have set off cartwheels in my head.

I’m not sure if it is actually getting any easier, or if I’m just numb.

A lot of things, or perhaps everything, is pretty numb right now. It’s not as bad as it might sound – I’d rather be numb than distressed. I often end up in a weird depression-anxiety battle, with depression pulling at me to do nothing, and anxiety screaming at me to do everything; at least when I’m this low the battle pauses because anxiety gives in. So with everything being a bit numbed, it’s hard to know whether grief is lessening, whether it’s becoming the ‘new normal’, or whether depression is just smothering it.

For now I’m just going to keep plodding along, because I’m not really sure what else I can do.

Let’s Talk About Grief

Death is part of life, but it’s also difficult, and on the whole, crap.

It might not be that bad for the person dying – they might have been ill for a long time or might be ready to die. But for those left behind it’s usually rubbish and leaves them living with grief in some form. (If there isn’t anyone left behind then that is also crap, because nobody should be alone at the end of their life, so whichever way you look at it, death is rubbish).

Despite this, grief is something rarely discussed. It’s a bit odd, because while some subjects are becoming less taboo and more talked about, which is brilliant, grief appears to be lagging behind.

I’m not entirely sure why this is. It might be because those working to break down stigma – being more open, sharing their stories, talking about difficult subjects – tend to be slightly younger and maybe haven’t yet reached an age where grief is a feature in their lives. (I appreciate this is a huge generalisation and stereotype and there are older people also doing some brilliant work).

Whatever the reason, grief isn’t hugely talked about

This year seems to have contained more celebrity deaths than any other in my memory. A lot of people are blaming 2016 but it’s more likely to be that they were all a similar age and life happens. The fact that so many people are blaming 2016, instead of seeing death as part of life, further illustrates how afraid people seem to be to see death as something unavoidable that happens to everyone. It can be far easier to blame the concept of an evil year, than to face up to our own mortality.

Mum had excellent end of life care. She worked in palliative medicine all her life, so she knew what she was doing, but she died where she wanted (at home), pain-free, next to Dad, and I can’t think of a better death than that. Mum knew what she wanted, Mum and Dad discussed it, and her wishes were made known to all of the people looking after her. I’m absolutely convinced that Mum wouldn’t have had a ‘good death’, without having these conversations frankly, honestly, and in enough time for her wishes to be carried out.

Since Mum died, I’ve blogged about grief a little, and heard from people all over the world, of all ages, who are going through a similar thing. The fact that I have heard from the variety of people I have, shows that there is a lack of conversation surrounding grief, because if my blog attracts these people (and I’m just one little person typing from my bedroom, onto a blog that I put no money into advertising), then people are clearly hunting out the ‘I get it’ of another grieving person.

I’ve found that when it comes to grief, so many people don’t know what to say or do with me. As many of my friends know – I’m as blunt as they come at times – I certainly don’t expect anyone to do and say, or not do and not say, anything at all, but I still feel like there can be a wall between me and other people sometimes. Weirdly, the people I’ve found most at loss of what to say have probably been services, some people in services are brilliant, but others blame things on grief that aren’t grief-related, ignore grief at times when it’s probably worth bearing in mind, and trot out generic lines which aren’t at all helpful. I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve spoken to other one-parent people my age who have found the same thing.

If there’s anything that comes from all of these celebrity deaths, I hope it’s that we can open up conversations around death, dying and grief. It’s something that I never really thought about until Mum became ill, but since her illness and death, it’s something I’ve realised is massively important. It’s important to have conversations with your loved ones about what you’d all want at the end of your life, it’s important to keep talking to your grieving friends, and it’s important to keep talking to others if you find that you are grieving yourself.

Happy Christmas

xmasHappy Christmas to you all with so much love from me and my blog.

I hope that you all have a lovely day wherever you are – whether it be alone or with family and friends, and whether you celebrate Christmas or not. I hope that you can be as happy as little me in this picture, and that if you’re not feeling that way , then your day is peaceful at the very least.

Christmas can be a tricky time when coping with loss, it can highlight the fact that someone is missing, I know I miss Mum a lot, so be kind to yourselves if you can.

I’ve donated to our Martin House fund in Mum’s memory this year because I can’t exactly get her a present. You’re more than welcome to do the same which you can do here.

If you’re feeling lonely, Sarah Millican is running her #joinin hashtag on Twitter again this year. The Samaritans line is always open, Blurt’s peer support group is there, and Beat have kept their helpline open again this year if you need someone to talk to.

This is to those of you for whom Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas.

This is to those of you for whom Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas.

I’m sorry that you are hurting.

I know that the ‘merry’ in ‘merry Christmas’ can feel as though it is mocking you.

When the whole world feels as though it is laughing, smiling, and celebrating, but those are the last things you feel like doing.

Crowded rooms can feel the emptiest.

Hugs can feel like they’re not quite tight enough, not quite long enough; never quite reaching you.

You smile but it doesn’t reach your eyes, and your own laugh seems distant and far away.

The pressure to be perfect can press down on your chest until you can no longer breathe and the number of people around can make your head spin. Occasionally you feel your mask slipping and you have to run to a bathroom and fix it before anybody sees.

Everybody wants to know what you’ve been doing all year and what your future plans are. That can be hard to answer when you’ve spent so much of the year in doctors appointments, hospital visits, and counselling sessions. It’s hard when your test results are medical rather than academic, when so many of your peers are patients or services users not students or colleagues.

It’s okay if your biggest achievement this year is survival. Fighting against the crap in your head, the illness that is determined to infiltrate your body, or the general difficulties that life insists on constantly throwing your way, is huge. It’s hard, brave, and courageous to continue to get up and dressed every day (or most days), when circumstances seem determined to destroy you.

Maybe you’ve lost someone this year. They might have died, or might have just exited your life. Maybe you lost someone last year, or the year before. Time doesn’t heal it, it just gives you longer to attempt to get used to it. Sometimes it makes it harder because the longer they’re gone, the more they’ve missed. Christmas can feel like it’s shining a light on the space that they’ve left behind.

It’s okay to miss them. It’s okay to grieve for them. The fact that they have exited your life doesn’t mean that you have to erase their existence entirely.

Be kind to yourself this Christmas. Let yourself have some time off. It’s absolutely okay to cry if you need to. If you want to laugh, then laugh – nothing in your life cancels out your right to feel happy. Let people in; if you can, and if you want to. Let them hug you. Let them be at the end of the phone. Let them text you. Let them listen. Let them be there.

Maybe you’re feeling just fine. If so, then please: try to be considerate this Christmas. Please understand that not everyone will be happy, not everyone will want to share copious amounts of food, not everyone will be able to manage being around large groups of people.

Christmas is only one day, but it can be incredibly stressful for those of us who don’t feel able to tackle it. Mental illness, physical illness, or other things, can all affect people’s ability to ‘Christmas’, and more often than not, we’re not trying to be difficult, we just can’t do it.

I hope that you all have a peaceful Christmas this year. I hope that it’s as stress-free as possible. I hope that you get a little time with your family or friends and that it’s as enjoyable as it can be.

I’ll leave you with some Winnie the Pooh wisdom:

“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“And freezing.”
“Is it?”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
― A.A. Milne

Charities and Campaigns You Could Consider This Christmas

This blog post is a little late, but life has been getting on top of my lately and I’m a bit behind with everything! Christmas is a time when lots of people consider giving to charity, which is absolutely wonderful. I thought I’d do a little post with a few suggestions of places you could donate to.

Presents for the elderly in hospital
I know that York Hospital are currently accepting present donations for the 15433766_1087563644689637_4144773404954213601_nelderly who are in hospital over the Christmas period (here is the press article). I imagine that other hospitals are doing similar (if you don’t live in York). We bought a few boxes of chocolates and gift sets the other night and we’re going to drop them off later this week. It’s not something that costs very much but it can make the world of difference to someone in hospital over Christmas. (Update: gift collection at York Hospital has been halted due to an overwhelming response, but I imagine there are many other places who would appreciate gift donations!).

Martin House
We are still currently collecting for Martin House, to replace the lights in the corridor of the children’s bedrooms in memory of Mum. If you’d like to donate to this fund, you can do so here.

Yorkshire Cancer Research
We are leading the YCR collection this Christmas. They’re encouraging people to share treasured memories and donate in memory of a loved one. You can see more on their campaign here and here. I’ve also included the letter I wrote to lead this campaign below.

Whatever you’re doing this Christmas, I hope you all have a peaceful time with your family and friends, and that it is as stress-free as possible for you all. Xxx

The YCR letter:
I used to love Christmas. Mum would start the preparations in October half term with baking the cake. It would fill the house with wonderful smells, marking the transition from summer to winter. The cake baking would closely be followed by weekends spent cooking mincemeat, baking and freezing batches of mince pies and the odd Christmassy pudding.

We used to alternate our Christmases – one at home, one with Mum’s family. Years at Mum’s family’s house were a little quieter, we would often pop in on other relations over the festive period, but Christmas day itself would just be me, my brothers, my parents, my Grandad, Aunt and Uncle. Years at home were a little more chaotic – Mum was usually ‘on call’ (she was a consultant in palliative medicine, or end of life care to you and me), so she would often be on the phone to hospitals or hospices and would occasionally have to pop out. The house would always be full, often reaching 20 people by Christmas day – rarely would there have been under ten people in the house over the whole festive period.

The last time we had that many people in the house was for Mum’s funeral.

Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2012. She found it early, had a lumpectomy followed by preventative chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Spring 2013, she was given the ‘all clear’ and started on Tamoxifen, a drug developed by Yorkshire Cancer Research, which helped to keep her in remission. Unfortunately, Mum’s cancer came back. In February 2014, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer; she died in October 2015 aged 53.

Mum asked for money given at her funeral to go to Yorkshire Cancer Research. I knew that Mother’s Day this year was going to be difficult, so I knew that I needed to do something positive. That’s when I set up ‘Memories about Mums’ – a way of fundraising for YCR, but also a space for those of us who are motherless to share our memories and celebrate our Mum’s lives.

Living without Mum is hard; I miss her every day. I miss texting her, seeing her dance around the kitchen whilst cooking or baking, and spinning on the spinny chair in her office – distracting her from whatever work she was trying to do. Mum has helped make me the person I am today. She was always busy, always up to something, often helping other people, and that’s something that I will always look up to.

The festive period doesn’t make that grief any easier. Nobody teaches you how to cope with grief – there’s no guidebook or manual to get you through it. One of the things that helps me, though, is to direct that grief into something positive, whether it be writing, fundraising or helping others. The blogs I write won’t bring Mum back but might help someone else in the same position, and any money I raise won’t bring Mum back, but will fund vital research which could prevent others in Yorkshire from also having to have Christmases without their Mum.

It would be lovely, if this Christmas, we could extend ‘Memories about Mums’, and share memories of all the loved ones who won’t be with us this Christmas, whether that be through a donation in their memory, or a donation of the amount you would have spent on a Christmas present for them.

Together, we can help to tackle cancer in Yorkshire.

Wallowing

You know that episode of Gilmore Girls after Rory breaks up with Dean and Lorelai is begging her to wallow but Rory just wants to stay super busy and then at the end she decides she needs to wallow?

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That’s how I feel about grief right now.

For a while everyone says ‘well it’s so soon’ and ‘you’re still experiencing the first of everything’ and ‘you’ve bounced back quickly’ and stuff like that and then grief just settles into this sort of monotony and everyone (including me!) goes on with their lives not forgetting but not really remembering either in quite the same way.

It almost feels as though for a year everyone’s been telling me to slow down/step back/be sad/whatever but all I’ve wanted to do is to get on/move forward/learn how to live again without the unpredictableness of cancer (because however unpredictable grief can be I can guarantee it’s still more predictable than terminal cancer).

It’s been working, too. There have been moments/days/the occasional weekend when I’ve cried more than others. It’s definitely not all been an upwards trajectory of ‘feeling better’, more a steady meander into ‘okayish’ via a few potholes and the odd massive dip… but on the whole I have been slowly beginning to feel a bit more ‘me’ again – dipping my toe into old hobbies, finally meeting up with friends I haven’t seen in yonks, allowing myself to smile and laugh again.

At the moment, it feels as though things are sliding. In truth, things began to slide and I didn’t realise, then I ignored them, then I pretended to ignore them, and it’s only been the past few weeks that I’ve been a little more forced to stop ignoring them.

Right now there is so much in the world that is making me so sad (and occasionally angry). Every day I seem to see or hear something that makes me feel as though I’m breaking all over again. Often it’s things in the news, or on my social media feeds, but sometimes it’s a song or a smell or a memory. All of a sudden I’m wanting to cry all of the time (again), and finding it harder to leave the house than I have done in months (except for work… the majority of the time work seems to break that particular spell), and I’m struggling to come up for air.

I want to be doing projects and organising things. I want to want to go out and do stuff. I want to want to get dressed. I want to want to jump in the car and go to places… but I don’t. I’m permanently exhausted.

I’m trying to limit my use of some social media sites/apps right now. I’m trying to be kinder and softer towards myself – surrounding myself with blankets/teddies/heat packs. I’m trying to get to bed on time, trying to let myself wear my new fluffy PJs (my old ones were at least 6/7 years old and it’s only taken a few months of almost flashing every time I stand for me to force myself to buy some new ones with some elastic that works…) and let myself sleep in the new bedding I finally persuaded myself to buy. I’m trying to give myself the hug that Mum would have given me.

I will get the me of a few months ago back again, I hope. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know I have some amazingly lovely and wonderful people by my side to help me get there. For now, until I get there, I might just need to let myself ‘be’.

(PS. If you haven’t seen Gilmore Girls then I don’t even know what to say other than please go and get yourself a Netflix subscription and watch every episode ever made back to back. It’s important, I promise).


We’re currently fundraising in memory of Mum, one year on.
Here is where you can donate to Mum’s ‘one year on’fundraising page online.
If you’d like to donate via your phone, please text ‘FOYO53’ followed by £1, £2, £3, £4, £5 or £10 to 70070.

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