O is for…On the Front Line

It has been 1350 days since cancer declared war on my body.

Actually, it’s probably been quite a while longer than that, because it invaded under cover of darkness, so it took a bit of time for me to get the memo. Either way, for 3 years and 8 months we have been on a war footing. Normal service has been suspended while we have mounted defence, and aggressive counter attack with traditional, chemical and nuclear weapons. There have been lengthy battles, heavy losses, and hard-fought victories; a grinding war of attrition, with the occasional time off for good behaviour, all in pursuit of a lasting and permanent ceasefire. But while I’m the Squadron Leader of my own personal battlefield, I’m just one of millions of soldiers, called up against our will, caught up in a larger campaign. The real heroes of this conflict are not the patients – though we occasionally have to screw our courage to the sticking place we’re mainly just doing what we’re told to stay alive. The unsung heroes, as in any war, are the brains behind the operation; the Watts, the Wilkins, and the Widdowsons; the Turings and the clever codebreakers of Bletchley Park*. In this case it is the oncologists locked in a lab, trying to crack cancer’s code, to find the chink in its armour, and develop the superweapons that will see it off for good. Now there may finally be cause for cautious optimism, because oncology might just be on the brink of a breakthrough…

N is for…New York to Hollywood via Washington and Houston: A Brief History of the Breast Cancer Movement


Once upon a time in America, in the late 1960s, a 13 year old girl became an orphan, and ran away to New York City. The girl became an artist’s model, and the artist’s model became an artist. Having travelled to Europe where she circulated amongst the ‘hip and infamous’, she returned to New York, spending the ‘80s variously publishing her memoirs, exhibiting her art, and performing as lead singer in a band. Ultimately she decided to focus on photography, and published a series of self-portraits – Ruins – to critical acclaim. Then, in 1991, on the crest of a wave of professional success, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The artist became an activist, creating provocative drawings and posters to support the emerging breast cancer campaign. In 1993, at the second Breast Cancer National Conference in Washington DC, she was spotted by a New York Times journalist wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with her self-portrait poster ‘Vote For Yourself’. The journalist, Susan Ferraro, wrote the story ‘The Politics of Breast Cancer’, and on 15th August, 1993, the New York Times published it in their Sunday magazine with a photograph of the artist on the cover, accompanied by the headline ‘You Can’t Look Away Anymore’. The artist was Matuschka, and her self-portrait of her mastectomy – ‘Beauty Out Of Damage’ – became one of the most controversial covers in New York Times history. It is, according to ‘Life’ magazine, one of 100 photographs that changed the world…

M is for…The M Word

Once upon a time, in the ancient city of Constantinople, a girl was born to a bear trainer and an actress. The girl worked in a brothel, and as an actress, before travelling through North Africa and eventually settling back in Constantinople as a wool spinner. Here her beauty, wit and amusing character are said to have drawn the attentions of Emperor Justinian who met and fell in love with the girl, and changed the law to enable them to marry. The girl became Theodora, Empress of the Byzantine Empire, presiding over the birth of Constantinople as the most magnificent city in the world. As legend has it Theodora became a powerful political leader and feminist reformer, expanding the rights of women to own property, introducing the death penalty for rape, providing mothers increased rights over their children, and outlawing the killing of a wife who committed adultery. In 548AD Theodora died of breast cancer, at the age of 48, having been the first woman in documented history to be offered a mastectomy…

L is for Lessons From Literature

Ever since I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity I’ve been a big fan of Top 5 lists. You can tell a lot about a person from their Top 5s, but nothing, perhaps, speaks as many volumes about someone as the books that reside on their shelves (or in their e-reader). Be they lifelong companions, formative friends, or fleeting acquaintances, books form the backdrop to our lives – a mirror to the characters we have met, the places we have visited, the knowledge we have sought, and the journeys we have travelled. At minimum they provide a retreat from the harsh and humdrum business of everyday life – reading a book, unlike almost anything else nowadays, isn’t something you can sensibly pursue as a multi-task activity – and at best they transform our understanding of ourselves, of others, and the reality in which we reside. Here then, in a category that can only be considered ‘niche’, my ‘Top 5 lessons from literature while having treatment for cancer’:

K is for Keeping Your Head

I am standing at the bus stop trying not to cry. Again. These last few days have felt like wading underwater, with a weight tied around my ankles that is preventing me breaking the surface. My throat is sore from the insistent lump at the back of it, and tears keep streaming unbidden from my gritty eyes. It feels like a long time since I last slept soundly; I can’t imagine when the next time will be. It feels like a long time since I laughed with pure and unadulterated joy; I can’t imagine when the next time will be. I can’t draw my mind away from sad and morbid thoughts, and I can’t seem to stop listening to sad and morbid music. I don’t even like this music, much less all this misery. This is not me. I don’t even recognise this person I have become. Where have I gone? And how will I ever find my way back?

J is for Judgment

Judgment n

1 the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions

2 an opinion or conclusion

3 a misfortune or calamity viewed as a divine punishment

I is for In Treatment: A Week in the Life

(Just another) Manic Monday

6.45am Chris Evans already, and I was just in the middle of a dream. Not kissing Valentino, but rising resplendently from my wing-back armchair saying “No, Don Corleone, I think you will find it is me giving you an offer you cannot refuse”, and now I’ve been wrenched into waking by The Bangles and everything is ruined.

H is for Hormones – A Feminist Issue

Dear Oestrogen,

It’s over. I know all about you and Breast Cancer. I always had my suspicions and now the doctors have told me everything, so don’t even think about trying to deny it. Apparently all Breast Cancer had to do was flutter her receptors in your direction and next thing you’re catering to her every cell-proliferating whim and TOTALLY SCREWING ME OVER.

Well if you think I’m standing for this then you’re obviously confused about the kind of woman you’ve made me into. This relationship is officially OVER you two-timing, good-for-nothing, cancer-chasing CHEMICAL!!!

Most definitively NOT yours,


G is for Genetic Destiny

What’s your kryptonite? Every superhero has one. That weakness that follows you through your life, returning, recurring, a constant threat that lurks in the shadows, ever present; never quite vanquished. Breast cancer is my kryptonite. My mother was diagnosed when I was 4, she died when I was 9 and I was diagnosed when I was 32. So from being a little girl with a poorly mum, to a teenager growing up without her, to a young(ish) woman in treatment, breast cancer has – to one degree or another – shaped my whole life and made my experience different from the ‘norm’. Two years ago, thanks to the genetics team at Great Ormond Street Hospital and around 40 years of scientific research, I finally found out why…

F is for Facing Your Public

If “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (William Shakespeare), then Cancer has to be one of the more challenging roles in the canon. It’s like auditioning for a cosy rom-com and finding yourself cast in a wartime epic.