Thursday, 13 May 2021

Ovarian cancer tests

I heard on the news today that long term tests for ovarian cancer haven't resulted in any decrease in deaths from the disease.

This topic is close to my heart, and one that I've written about before, because of my brush with cancer 7 years ago. I noticed a lump by my right hip bone but it didn't hurt, so I went along to my GP just because it was unusual. To my astonishment, she booked me in to see a consultant the following week, plus blood tests etc.

When I got the phone call from the hospital to say that the appointment was with the Gynaeocological Oncology Unit, I was terrified. And well, it got worse from there - endless blood tests and scans later, I was told I had to have a radical hysterectomy and, because the tumour was so big, they couldn't do keyhole but would have to basically unzip me (not any medical term, to my knowledge), and recovery would be at least 12 weeks.

You can probably imagine how I felt. But thankfully having taken the tumour out and done biopsies, it was found to be abnormal cells rather than cancerous so I had check ups for 5 years and now have the all clear.

But imagine if I hadn't gone along for that check up. Well, I wouldn't be here now. Survival rates for ovarian cancer are low because it's not often detected early on.

As a nurse friend said, if I was bigger than I am, I probably wouldn't have noticed it. If I'd seen another GP who hadn't thought it was urgent, I might not be here now. So many ifs and buts - life is full of them. And they form such a part of writing, too.

So often when writing - and reading fiction - we may get to the end of a chapter, or a scene and think - What's going to happen next? What if she hadn't met X outside the tube on a rainy evening? What if she'd got the bus home? What if I hadn't been sitting in a friend's house when Pip had walked in? If I hadn't gone to that writers' evening, I would never have met the dear friend that looked after me when recovering from my hysterectomy. If I hadn't noticed a certain person's dog I would never have sent him a message.....

Life is so full of strange What Ifs. But to bring this full circle, if you have any worries about anything unusual going on in your body, please go and see your GP. Covid tends to have knocked cancer and many other diseases out of the limelight. But it could be the difference between being here - and not.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

A break and an old marriage

Last week I was able to get away for four nights in a caravan in West Cornwall and my, what a brilliant time we had. The weather wasn’t perfect, as it’s still pretty cold but we had some glorious sun, managed to dodge most of the rain and had some of the best walks I’ve had for ages.

The friend I went with hadn’t read for 5 years and so I took a book she liked the sound of - and she read the whole thing in a few days. And loved it! So I was delighted to be able to share my love of that particular book with her - and now she’s reading again…for a book lover like me, that means so much.

It was so good to have a change of scene, even if only for four days, and it gave me a bit of headspace which I badly needed.

On a different topic, yesterday my youngest brother sent over a digitised version of our parents’ wedding. There’s no sound, but it doesn’t need it. The pictures of my parents, so young and happy, are so touching to see. The way my dad puts his arm protectively round his tiny bride (he was 6’ 4” and mum was 5’ so she really was tiny, and so beautiful. Very like the Queen at the same age). The way my mum dips her head when she talks - she still does that now and it’s so characteristic of her, and yet I’d never really been aware of it until now.

The way Dad laughs hugely with his best mate, Ian, his best man, on the lawn outside the marquee. The easy way Dad picked up her train when they were walking through the garden. The shared glances between my mum and dad that say more than words ever could.I'm so glad Ben found it and has been able to digitise and share it. It's a piece of real magic that I will treasure.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Equality for all

The recent conviction of Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd is welcome news to many Americans, and may be a step forward in race relations - maybe not. I would like to think so. What made me sad was wondering why there was such segregation in the first place. It got me thinking of my first job in London.

All this is background to the daughter, Jess, in my novel Hunger, though she doesn't have a stint in London. Well, she may in another book - but I digress. I was 18 or 19, anorexic and desperate to find a job in London to pay the rent so I went to an employment agency called Brook Street Bureau, where I was attended to by a bored girl who had little interest in me. She was pregnant, I remember, and wouldn't let me smoke. (This is so dated it makes me laugh, thinking of it.)

She got me a job as a filing clerk at Saatchi & Saatchi Garland Compton, as it was in those days, and I can't even remember what we filed but i know it was boring. I made friends with a girl a bit older than me, called Donna, and she was a good friend. She was engaged and later married her fiance and I was invited to the wedding, which took place the other side of London where I was living - out near Crystal Palace, I think. I know it was the other end of the Number 12 bus route, and seemed to take forever to get there.

When I got to the huge hall where the wedding and party afterwards took place, it was frantically busy, and I knew no one. However, everyone was so friendly, and made me welcome, made sure I had somewhere to sit and something to eat and I remember feeling very at home there. This was unusual as being anorexic makes you feel like a stranger on a different planet, but I remember their kindness and warmth, 40+ years on.

As I trundled back on the bus that evening, I can remember reflecting on what a lovely bunch of people they were, welcoming me into their gathering as if I were part of the family, and I hope that Donna, who will doubtless be a grandmother by now, is living happily with her large family by now.

The only thing I was aware of was being stared at for a minute when I arrived. I was used to that. It's like when someone dies - no one knows what to say. 'Why are you so thin?' isn't the greatest conversation opener. But no one mentioned my size. (Though they did ply me with food.)

Looking back over the event that is still the best wedding I've ever been to, I thought, 'Oh, come to think of it, I was the only white person there. Was that it? But no, surely not.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

A huge void

Most of us have lost someone dear to us, and that thought has been very much in the minds of everyone following the death of Prince Philip. Regardless what anyone may think of the monarchy, I think of her as someone who has lost someone she spent nearly all her life with. I know what it felt like when I lost Pip, but to magnify that sensation a hundred times over - well, I can only say that I have an inkling of what the Queen is going through.

As I seem to like writing about difficult topics, I decided to tackle loss in my novel, HUNGER as well. I remember, shortly after Pip died, I was having a walk with my friend Anna, who was telling me about a friend of hers (are you following?) whose husband had left her. I thought, 'Well, at least my grief is pure and simple. It's agonising but it's straightforward. And I know that I was utterly and completely loved. Whereas in cases like Anna's friend, it's so much more complicated. Which means it's much worse to try and live with all the ensuring emotions - grief, anger, jealousy, lack of confidence, hatred, to name but a few.'

All of this is rich fodder for the writer, of course. So the circumstances in HUNGER are very different to the ones I found myself in. But grief is grief, and there are no clear cut paths through it. Everyone has to find their own way, as I discovered.

When a dearly beloved dog dies - well that is just as bad as losing a person. Moll had to be put to sleep but that wasn't a choice I found difficult to make. I will not see any animal I love suffer, so it is their welfare that comes first. Pure and simple. But again, I chose to tackle dog problems differently in my novel because it might help other people - and also, of course, it's a more interesting read.

Much has been written about grief, and I read a huge amount after Pip died. It was such a horrible time that I wanted to move the process on as quickly as possible. It gnaws away at you like a greedy monster. It moves in, leaving room for little else. Getting out of bed was a major achievement, let alone walking Moll, or getting through the day. A dear friend who was nursing in ICU the day before Pip died gave me some wonderful advice. Her son had died young so she spoke from experience. "The sooner you can accept what's happened, the sooner you can move on," she said. "Otherwise the grief is so much more difficult, and lasts much longer."

I'm sure the poor Queen needs no advice, for she will be living with the rawest of grief for a while to come. But friends and family - and the nation - can provide some comfort for a life so well lived.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021


On one of my many trips to the hospital to have my eye checked, I was talking to a nurse who asked me what I did. When I said I was a writer, she wanted to know what I wrote, and I said I was editing a novel and writing another one, and of course she wanted to know what they were about.

My novel, HUNGER addresses several issues, but the main one is anorexia. I still have some of my diaries from those days and I regret to say they are incredibly boring for they are obsessed with weight (or the lack of it) and food (or the lack of it), low mood, lack of confidence - they really don't make uplifting reading.

But this nurse said, "Oh, we really need books about that sort of thing. I know so many mothers who have anorexic daughters. My late husband was an alcoholic and it's the same principle. I would love to read it, and I'd tell my friends to buy it too."

As you can imagine, that was very confidence boosting, and this morning I was having a dog walk/meeting with another writer friend who is a mother to two sons. We were discussing Jess, the daughter in my novel, and the lack of communication that often occurs between teenagers and their parents, and I suddenly remembered a time when I was working in London and hadn't seen my parents for a while. I would get the bus from Victoria to Exeter, and one of my parents would pick me up from the bus station.

As I said, I hadn't been home for a while and my Dad came to meet me, ushered me into the car and when we were sitting down, he said, "What have you DONE to yourself?" I was mortified, seeing it as a criticism, and didn't know what to say. We sat in silence for the 45 minute trip home, which was agonising. I didn't know how to break the silence, and fled to the safety of my room as soon as we got to the house.

Looking back, of course, my poor father must have seen his only precious daughter looking like skin and bone (literally) and was utterly horrified and terrified. Not only because he had no idea why I was relentlessly starving myself, but maybe more importantly because he couldn't fix it.

Like any problem, when you can't fix it is when it becomes really frightening. Thankfully nowadays there is a lot more awareness of anorexia and other mental health problems, and help is out there, although not as much as we would wish.

The message I want to get across in my novel is that yes, anorexia is a terrifyingly complex disease. It can kill in extreme circumstances. Every individual has their own reasons for developing it, and it is vital to understand these reasons in order to let go of it. But my point is that it is possible.

My lowest weight was below five stone. My organs were in danger of packing up. My hair was falling out. My periods had long since stopped. I was a very ill teenager. But it is possible to recover. In my case, I needed to regain my faith in myself and my abilities. I have been leading a happy and healthy life for decades now but like most with problems, I needed the love and support of my loved ones. And in my case, of course, that includes my dog.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Short but Sweet

My dear Mum moved yesterday into her residential home and I so wish I was there to help things along. However, Lainy is a bit of a loose cannon at the moment and it would have been too much to have an anxious mum, an anxious dog and two hulking great brothers marching around. So I am here and constantly on the phone to my brothers who are doing an amazing job.

As you can imagine, it was very emotional to take her to the home yesterday, but we talked a lot later, and my other brother arrived to help with the massive clear up. It really tugged at me to see them walking round a rapidly emptying house and think of all the times that Mum had there, and to think that we will never see Mum there again, and never stay there ourselves.

As Mum was being taken over there yesterday, a friend and I had to go to B&Q (I couldn't concentrate on writing) and I spotted a catering van outside afterwards. 'Do you fancy a bacon and egg bap?' I said hopefully. So we had our bacon and egg baps in the sunshine, then went to Argal to get a coffee to wash it down with, and this was the view. Which helped towards a difficult day no end.

Mum has asked me not to ring till Saturday. SATURDAY? And it's only Thursday.... but the boys are going to see her later and I've rung and left a message for her and will talk to the boys later. I think it will probably hit us all in a big way soon, like a tsunami, but that's life for you.

And meanwhile, it's a breezy but sunny day and Lainy and I are off to meet my Pen Friend. We started emailing just after the beginning of lockdown and for obvious reasons haven't met. But he doesn't live too far away, so we are meeting half way for a socially distanced walk. And I am very nervous. He has a rescue dog, too, so we won't be short of things to talk about. I only hope the dogs get on, as Lainy can be a bit reactive with new dogs, particularly females.

Life does this, doesn't it? Nothing happens (especially in lockdown) and then life throws loads of Stuff at you and waits to see how you deal with it. As Pip said to me once, "life's easy when things are going well, and you're successful. It's when everything goes wrong, that's when you learn about yourself, and learn to be strong."

Thanks, darling. Boy have I needed strength this year...!

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Tales of the Unexpected Cornish style

I remember reading Tales of the Unexpected (Roald Dahl) many years ago, but also the TV series which is on one of the many channels and has a very distinctive theme song. The Tooth Fairy made the mistake of humming it on a walk recently, and we both had it as earworm for days afterwards.

But life is so full of the unexpected, isn't it? And it often comes all at once. It's been very stressful trying to sort mum out and reassure her, and look after Lainy (you can see she was riveted looking out of my bedroom window up there) and then a friend behaved in a very strange way that was very upsetting.

Just to top things off, one of my best friend's dogs died yesterday which was very sudden and brought back all the memories of losing Moll six months ago. We were due to go on holiday in May - well, we still will, but without our lovely Daisy, so my heart goes out to my lovely friend. It's such a hard time when you lose your best four legged friend. So my thoughts and love to her.

Anyway, our trip to my Mum was well worth doing, and as always, involved books galore, though I'm now panicking that I didn't vet the books I gave her carefully enough. In times of stress (and boy is this a hard time for us all, but her most of all), she likes Large Print and a Happy Ending. Who can blame her? But I have a nasty feeling a few of the ones I selected don't fit into those categories. Well, none of them do, so I'm busy selecting some more from my huge Mum pile in the hallway and will send those by post for when she moves into the care home next week.

Much has been written about the move into care homes, but it hadn't really hit me until I spent time with Mum. She's very good at hiding her feelings, and it wasn't until the carer told me how upset she was that I had to dig a bit deeper. We all hope that this next step will provide her with more friends, more things to do, and an active time for the next chapter of her life. But even so, it's daunting.

Because we have to clear the house by the end of next week, she was very adamant that I should take whatever I want - both my brothers have, and we have a spreadsheet of who wants what so it's fair. But living in in a one bedroom flat, I have no room for furniture, I've got lots of paintings, and so I've ended up asking for the microwave (I know, great inheritance) but Mum said it's too old and she'll give me the money for a new one. AFter that, I have some lovely Mary Rich pottery, and - yes, books....

I came back with The Wind in the Willows, The Good Master, Mary Poppins in the Park, The Ponies of Bunts and Susanna at Boarding School. She also gave me the pick of a bag of books that she's finished reading, so I can wade my way through them. But it got me thinking about comfort reading.

I love Frenchman's Creek, though it's more escapism than comfort as I always cry my eyes out at the end. I also love Fay Weldon's Rhode Island Blues which I haven't read for ages. The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton is a more recent book that I really enjoyed, and too many others to single out. What about yours?