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No More Cancer!

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My sister just called this morning to say her final operation to remove pre-cancerous cells from her breast was successful – she is now cancer free!

A few months ago, my younger sister received a breast cancer diagnosis and underwent an operation to remove a small lump. With her permission, I wrote an article How can I be grateful when my life sucks? for the Centre for Holistic Health’s newsletter, detailing her experience of receiving a cancer diagnosis and how she coped with the despair, anger and fear this brought on.

At the time of writing, she was going through chemo, had lost her hair, felt sick from the treatments and still had another operation to face. As of today, she is cancer free, the chemo is over and her hair is already starting to grow back!

Thanks to everyone who read the article and wished her well. She truly feels that having the article out there and knowing her experience helped others gave some meaning and personal growth to an otherwise terrifying experience.

Friday Flashback: Saving Stella

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Hamish is an extremely elderly, pure white cat, he rubbed his white fur all over my legs as Biffo’s Aunty asked us if we wanted a drink. I said yes expecting tea, at strongest, builders tea. I got a blue plastic beaker, decorated with Greek figurines, filled with vodka and perhaps, only perhaps, the slightest sniff of tonic waved somewhere nearby. Ye Gods! Rocket fuel. Not to be rude I (very slowly) drank the beaker of pure Smirnoff while Aunty provided a feast of cheese and onion crisps and Tunnocks Teacakes. You can’t beat a Tunnocks in my humble opinion, the taste, the texture…

Anyway, I learned many things tonight… Aunty claims never to have travelled far, but I disagree. In the early 1950’s one of her relatives was dying of TB. This relative had two daughters, one was 17, the other only 6 or so. With no one to care for the girls, someone offered to marry the 17-year-old, I am told this was lucky for her. Can you imagine? Your mother is dying, you’re 17 and someone, anyone offers to marry you and that’s lucky?? The youngest, Stella, was ‘sent out’ to a family in Morpeth, miles and miles away and up the coast of Northumberland.

Aunty, who was recently married herself, couldn’t stand it. She went to see her dying relative who grieved for her daughters, who she would never see grown. Aunty explained how she wanted to help, but she lived in a small flat above a chip shop and couldn’t legally have a child in that flat.

She had never travelled. Transport was difficult in the 50’s from Wallsend to rural Morpeth. But Aunty found her way on busses and trains. And she went, she found the place where Stella had been ‘sent out’ and knocked on the door and when it was answered said ‘I’m here for Stella!’ She thought she would have a fight on her hands, as if finding the place where Stella was housed, wasn’t fight enough. But no one fought. Stella was told to get her hat and coat and handed over. Still afraid that they might change their minds, or perhaps that this was all to easy, Aunty whispered into Stella’s ear ‘grab my hand and run!’ and they did, they ran and ran and no one stopped them. They got on the train, and then the bus and then another bus and finally they got off on Wallsend High Street and little Stella, in her hat and coat, told every stranger on the street ‘ I’m back! I’m back!’ And when Aunty got home, she told her husband, ‘I got Stella, she’s staying with us’ and that’s what happened.

Aunty took Stella to see her dying mother who’s last act was to stretch out her arms one last time to her your daughter. That was the last time Stella saw her mother.

No she couldn’t have Stella in the flat above the chip shop, so she went to the council and fought for a council house where she could have Stella. And she got it.

Aunty claims she has not travelled. I disagree, I would say she has travelled far. Finding her way to a strangers door in the middle of no where and busting a young relative out of foster care. Fighting with the council for a home enough to raise her in. Taking Stella to see her dying mother, who raised her arms to her child one last time and raising Stella as her own child… Aunty has travelled further than most of us.

How can I be grateful when my life sucks?

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‘Keep a positive attitude’, ‘what you resist persists’, ‘where thoughts go, energy flows’, ‘put gratitude in your attitude’… I could go on but you get the idea, and ideally I agree, but how can we be positive when life has just dealt us a cruel blow? Perhaps it’s the loss of a job or home, the failure of a relationship or that last round of IVF, the death of someone we love. Or receiving a life threatening diagnosis. How can we keep our mind on what is good when we are facing a major challenge that demands our attention? How can we have gratitude when life truly sucks?

About a month ago the phone rang early in the morning. My mother answered and I knew it was trouble. All I could hear her saying was ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…’ her voice laced with shock and sadness. I got up and sat next to her on the stairs, wondering who she was talking to. ‘Do you want to talk to Heather?’ She asked the caller, the phone was passed to me. ‘Hello’, said the shaky voice of my younger sister. ‘I’ve got cancer’. Cancer? She’s only 40! Married only a few years with a young daughter. How could she possibly have cancer? My mind raced, unable to process the news.

My sister has never smoked, eats well, is slim and very active running several times a week; the model of health. She explained over the next ten minutes how she had discovered a small lump in her breast a month or two before. How she had been fobbed off by two doctors but feeling there was something wrong, pressed for further tests. Several biopsies were taken and all confirmed the lump was in fact cancerous, not the benign cyst she was repeatedly reassured it was. ‘I’m frightened, Heather, I’m frightened’ her voice shaking the words down the phone ‘I’ve got cancer, CANCER!’ I was stunned. And mad.

I’ve been a self-development junkie for years. I subscribe to all the email lists; I’ve read all the books and watched all the films. I’ve laughingly said that I could teach seminars on the Law of Attraction, the idea that we attract people, situations and events to us based on our vibrational alignment, or put simply, we get more of what we think about. I’ve often thought how I would love to put all these years of study to good use and now I could, but not the way I wanted to. Mental note to self: Be careful what you wish for…

‘First’, I said, ‘let’s take the sting out of this word Cancer. It’s just a word and unfortunately, it’s a very loaded word, it strikes fear into us and that’s just rubbish! Cancer, cancer, cancer! Perhaps receiving a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence at one point in time, but not anymore. Not today. And not for you.’ I told her she would be absolutely fine, and I meant it and I believed it. ‘But I can’t stop thinking about it’ she said. My sister is very aware of the Law of Attraction herself, and she was afraid that by her constant dwelling on the cancer and her fears about it, that she would attract more of that to her. Or as Mike Dooley puts it, that her thoughts would  become things. So, how do we stop thinking about the bad stuff and get more of the good stuff?

Typical Law of Attraction advice would be; gratitude. Be grateful for what you do have. ‘But how can I be grateful for anything when I have cancer?’ My sister wailed. A very good question. One I have struggled with myself. This Law of Attraction stuff is all good in theory, that we have to stay positive and focus on what we want not what we don’t want, but what many of the great luminaries out there don’t seem to be able to tell you is HOW.

How do you focus on what you want when a big hairy, fanged monster like cancer is chasing you? I think telling someone to be grateful when something terribly frightening, painful, and unwanted has happened is just plain cruel. For me, grateful is another very loaded word, and faced with a crisis, grateful might as well simper in on the coat tails of supplication with its begging bowl.

But how about appreciation?

What can you appreciate in your life right now? Can you appreciate a walk in the park, a new pair of jeans, a glass of wine, a bar of chocolate, watching your favourite TV show? Yes, I am keeping it deliberately small because when we try to appreciate our partner or vocation in times of crisis, we might immediately feel unsupported, so leave them out and think small.

The purpose of distracting ourselves is not to be in denial about what’s happened. We know it’s happened, we’ve acknowledged it, but sometimes, we just can’t process right away, the grief is too much, the shock too great and we need to be soothed. And we need to take our mind out of its maddening spiral into despair because we can’t do anything to help ourselves from this place.

‘First, we need to get real’, I said. ‘Is there anything you must consider in order to take positive action here?’ For example, if you’ve just lost your job, you need to take action and find another one or start a business. ‘Is there anything you can achieve by thinking about cancer?’ No. ‘Are there any positive benefits to considering it in any way?’ No. Then the next step is to stop.


·    Acknowledge what’s happened
·    If you can take positive action to help yourself, do it right away
·    If not, distract yourself with appreciation

I shared with my sister a couple of tools I had picked up and used successfully myself when my monkey mind was cruising full speed ahead on the wrong road to despair-ville. ‘First’, I said; ‘as soon as you catch yourself thinking the frightening thoughts, STOP. Imagine a big stop sign in your mind’s eye. Make it big and bright with flashing lights. Then have some screen savers lined up and switch lanes.’ Screen savers, an idea I got from Dr. Srikumar Rao, are nice little mental images that you thought up in advance. Remember your favourite holiday moment, or some other occasion that was just great. Don’t have any nice memories? Make it up. Have a mental image of something you would like to happen in the future. Know that you will immediately switch to these thoughts when you notice yourself ruminating over the fearful things. ‘But I feel so bad because sometimes it takes me forever to realize I’m doing it!’ My sister said. Yes, that’s very true, so the last thing is to appreciate yourself for following these two steps, no matter how long it takes.

You did it, you stopped yourself, congratulate yourself.

1.    Use the stop sign
2.    Switch to a screen saver – anything you can appreciate
3.    Appreciate yourself for doing it

Her doctors in France where she lives were quick to take action and she was admitted to hospital within weeks and the lump was removed. Even though they removed significantly more tissue around the small 1.4cm lump, they found abnormal cells at the edge. She has just got through the second of four rounds of chemotherapy. Since starting the chemo, she has had intermittent symptoms: felt sick, had a mouth full of ulcers, days she couldn’t get out of bed and her hair is dropping out. She has bought a wig and a couple of head scarves, one gray and one shocking pink.

My sister still faces another operation to remove more breast tissue when the chemo is over. Then there is the radio therapy and the drug therapy. She will make a full and complete recovery. She is using the stop sign and the screen savers of happy thoughts and it’s working for her just like it worked for me. By deliberately focusing on things that made her happy for her screen savers, she has begun appreciating what she already has in her life a lot more. Grateful is bit of a stretch right now, but appreciation she can do.

My memory was virtually Zero…

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It’s now about 700 somethings, no idea what: ram, bits, MB, who knows? But it is better than nothing, or zero, take your pick, and it means my little (almost given up for dead and thrown through the window in a fit of rage) computer, is now usable again.  Hurrah!

Gremlins are in the machine again, I’m sure of it. Hijacked then hacked!

For a long time now, my little ASUS Eee laptop has mournfully displayed an ‘out of virtual memory’ error message when ever I tried to do, well, absolutely anything with it.

Why on Earth would I have such a teeny tiny laptop you ask? For travel and general skulking in cafes. Not wanting to cart my heavy and at purchase, expensive mac around, I opted for this little option, about the size of a good book, really handbag sized, and preloaded with skype and a stripped down version of MS office (MS Works?) for my travels a few years back. And of course those new fangled tablet thingies came out right after my purchase, but I digress.

Anyhoo, after breaking a loaner laptop (it really wasn’t my fault) I was forced to deal with this memory issue on the ASUS Eee.

I at first believed that my little laptop was infested with viruses so I attempted to download Microsoft Essentials virus protection which first required I remove the old anti-virus software. SCARY! And wouldn’t you know, the MS Essentials would not update leaving my dinky laptop in danger. Why? Zero virtual memory.

Now I am not the most technical of people when it comes to fixing computers (although I did successfully manage to change the battery on my IPod with the help of Youtube), but necessity being the mother of invention, I scoured the internet for solutions until I cam across this:


just scroll down to the section entitled “How do I fix Low Virtual Memory problems?” and follow the instructions. If you have a ‘normal’  laptop of course, which I don’t, naturally. So I couldn’t find ‘properties’ using their step by step guide. Instead, I had to root around my files like a good old rummage in a dusty attic. However, I prevailed, found the setting that needed to be changed and no wonder I had no virtual memory – it was set to zero! More evidence of Gremlin activity if you ask me. It has been changed. I now have virtual memory. Microsoft Security Essentials has successfully updated and is now running a complete scan of my little computer. I am virus free AND my dinky laptop actually works!

Ahhhh! I am utterly joyful. So joyful in fact that I may have to scamper off to the shops and buy a bottle of wine and a big fat CAKE  in order to celebrate my glorious achievement over technology. And it’s only Monday! As you know, Happy Tuesday here on Chicken Road is the day we traditionally imbibe the fruit of the vine, but today’s victory must be marked; preferably with a nice bottle of Shiraz.

It will help my anticipated shock when the lap top repair quotes come in for the other broken laptop that I didn’t break really…

Friday Flashback – The Haunting of ‘The Club’

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There is a building in Edinburgh where a basilisk prowls the halls, where spectres lurk and doctoral students shirk. Sorry, this Friday Flashback is not about the worlds largest reclining buddha or a mighty pyramid but something more precious and ephemeral; The Club. A place, a time and a group of people. The place was Edinburgh University, the time 2007-2012 and the people were The Club and shall remain nameless to preserve their anonymity and protect them against potential prosecution or worse, academic disgrace.

Our club was room 6.12 and perilously close to the lair of the basilisk. The basilisk was fearsome and could smell dead rats in the kitchen at 50 feet and yet trixy, luring the best of us into her chambers with no more than a beckoning finger or worse – chocolate. Most club members were retained in 6.12 but there were other members scattered along the hall of the 6th floor. The sixth floor… a level of genius, some say madness, of struggle against ones inner demons, where titans clashed, sherry sloshed, battles waged and writing was done. Or at least thought about. No, agonized over. Horribly and tortuously. One club member would write a sentence and then take all day to meticulously pick it apart word for word. Another examined prayer and song expressed through the roaring of lions and the trumpeting of elephants. Yet another would pick through people’s garbage and statistically, objectively, record it. And me? I wrote about a mole, from the moles perspective naturally. The only thing I picked at was a bag of bacon crispies.


We shared many things in the club; our hopes, dark secrets, theories of about society, sugar donuts, and Baileys on a Friday afternoon. We zealously debated topics from religion to recycling, banking to self harm, civil society to sex, museums to adoption, and space… No, not the final frontier, but THE space, the space between the hands.

You see our concern was of a haunting. Not the physical haunting of a place, but a haunting of the imagination. Under the influence of another club member, I purchased a book, a book about a ghost, a book I shall not name because the book itself is complete and utter nonsense, and despite this, or perhaps because of it, the ideas triggered by the book took form. At first it was confusion over the nonsensical nature of it, which lapsed into jovial recitation of its most preposterous sentences which grew, twisting and writhing like pipe smoke, into references to which only club members were privy. We made sense out of nonsense. Fashioned form from smoke and mirrors, manifesting a ‘thing’ from the ether. A secret language imbued with meaning, and ‘the thing’ into a bond, as real as rope.

Ok, Ok it wasn’t all sober intellectual conversation, there was also conversation over spirits. Gin to be exact. Bombay Sapphire to be utterly precise. Well usually, although we could be persuaded to imbibe a little Hendrix on occasion. We patronised various haunts


with Blind Poets and Under the Stairs and on occasion, sitting on a street corner outside No 56, and even an Old Bell.

Sadly, the writing is finished. The lions no longer roar, the rubbish has been collected and the Mole is dead. A breath in another universe blew on a

fuzzy dandelion  and like the seeds we have scattered to the far corners of the globe, some of us further than others. The Club as a time and a place has diminished, a mere spectre haunting the halls of memory. But ‘the thing’ remains, as real as rope.

And the basilisk? Rest assured, the basilisk still prowls the halls as trixy and treacherous as ever. And long may it continue…

Friday Flashback

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Tynemouth Priory

I’ve been thinking about my past… No, it’s not deep and sordid, but it is interesting. I’ll have to sort though all those old photos of my travels currently in a shoe box under my bed and show you some. Highlights? Taj Mahal, Sphinx, Mayan Pyramids, Egyptian Pyramids, worlds longest reclining Buddha and to many castles to count. But I do like a good castle, especially a ruin that I can clamber around.

One of my favourites is the Priory in Tynemouth, the chapel of which dates back to the Thirteenth Century and the site itself is thought to have been occupied since Roman times. It has a moat which I was convinced used to be filled with crocodiles, a gatehouse and Keep with portcullis (for all that boiling oil) a well (for wishes) and a graveyard in the middle.

These days the only way in is through the box office and a hefty fee, but it didn’t always used to be that way. The Priory perches on the edge of cliff, overlooking the River Tyne and the North Sea. Bits of it have fallen into the sea over the years which is why they way I used to sneak into the back with my friends is now gone.

The sure footed among us could clamber up the cliff face and get into one of the old ruined windows. They’ve either been enclosed to prevent cliff side assaults by nimble kids or fallen into the sea altogether. Shame, there’s something quite magical about sneaking into an old ruin….