What it really feels like three years on from diagnosis day

I remember it like it was yesterday. 

I remember the quiet waiting room. I remember half reading Bridget Jones Diary and wondering whether I'd be back at work in time to make a meeting. I remember the face of the nurse who called me in. I remember the face of the young consultant before and after she broke the news. I remember struggling to get a mobile signal. I remember weeping down the phone to my parents hundreds of miles away on their way to a funeral. I remember the blur of a mammogram. I remember the stunned silence from my partner and a good friend. I remember the kind nurse who made me tea and let me sit in her office to escape the faces looking at me as I broke before their eyes. 

I remember. 

I will never forget. 

But, three years on from that day, I am not the person who sat in that chair wondering whether she would live to see another Christmas or ever walk down the aisle. 

Diagnosis day is quite unlike any other day I will ever experience. It wasn't the day that changed me. But it was, in many ways, the day that saved me. It saved me from an early death before I'd even got started.

It saved me from a life of just doing and never really seeing or living. 

It was the day I realised just how fragile life is and how easily that life can be taken away. 

Three years on, however, I don't dwell on what did happen, but on the life I was gifted back as a result of that diagnosis – a life filled with sunshine, friendship, charity, kindness and gratitude. And, most importantly, a life filled with hope.

It is only by nearly losing my life that I realised I have everything to live for. 

So today, I reflect, but I am not sad. 

I am grateful. Grateful for the people who bring light into my days and my years. Grateful for the sunsets I never thought I'd see. Grateful for a body that is stronger than I ever imagined it could be. Grateful for a brilliant family who will do anything to support me. Grateful for the fact, I can get up, run along the Thames listening to podcasts and inch closer to our marathon wedding charity fundraiser. 

I am grateful for what is rather than what could be.

So, make any milestone days in your life, days when you reflect on the bits that make you smile. The bits that you will be able to cling onto when you're lying in a hospital bed wondering when it was that time slipped away.

Bank happiness and you'll always be able to make a withdrawal.

Life in a list: the 10-minute list

There is something that occupies our every day, that steals our hours and gives us another excuse to not achieve our dreams. It's called dead time.

Just think about the last time you ran for the bus, arriving at the bus stop just in time to see it pulling away (I frequently overestimate my ability to make it down the road quickly). What about when you arrive at the post office only to find your ticket puts you number 25 in the queue (after all the UK loves queuing so much it now hands out tickets to mark the occasion). Or the time you realise the doctor has only called their 9.15am appointment and it's 10am. Oh and let's not forget the occasions you miscalculate dinner timings are are left watching the pot never boil. 

Of course, you could mourn your lot, kick yourself for not exercising enough or generally look a bit mean (or audibly huff). 

Or, you could get productive.

It's amazing what can be achieved in a often-discarded piece of dead time. Trouble is, without writing down how to use it when the opportunity arises, you could find yourself plotting and planning until it's time to move on.

In 10 minutes, I have emailed friends, written thank you notes that make me smile, completed my physio exercises (admittedly I have also received some odd looks) and actually read the industry articles that otherwise gather dust on my desk. I've listened to my headspace app, practised a bit of mindfulness, made an overdue call, planned a blog and read the first chapter of the book I promised I read. 

10 minutes is all it takes to make me realise that something is possible. 10 minutes is all I need to get started and stop procrastinating. 10 minutes is actually a good chunk of time if you use it wisely.

I have also discovered the Blinkist app, which I love! This clever, time-saving tool, accepts that we don't have the time or the bookshelves to surround ourselves in the greatest personal, professional and inspirational life thinking. So, it distils down both popular and topical thinking into a series of short digestible blinks that give you the gist - or motivate you to buy and devour the book linked to it. You probably need about 15 minutes in fairness. But there's nothing like a quick hit of inspiration to spur you on the greater things.

I should probably add that I do relax. But, nearly losing my life made me fear the dead time. And now it's not dead at all. Or, more accurately, it's only dead if I let it. 

So, if you're prepared to face the embarrassment of doing a few squats on a train platform or perfecting the art of writing while standing up, then get writing that list. 

I have mine tucked away in a notebook I carry with me as a quick reminder.

Who knows, you might find yourself rejoicing at news of a train delay or extra long queue at the GP surgery.

Life lesson number nine: It’s not what happens to us that defines us; it’s how we choose to respond

If you haven’t heard the heading before, then you haven’t heard of Viktor Frankl and his utterly moving book called Man’s search for meaning.

Before you rush out to grab a copy, I should start by saying it isn’t easy reading. What it is, is one man’s account of why, when you put a group of strangers into a concentration camp during the Holocaust, only some of those strangers survive. 

It’s not always the strongest that make it through. It’s the ones with hope and a reason to live. 

And, while bad things can – and do – happen, they need not define you. You always have a choice about how you respond. 

Cancer taught me this lesson. But, it was a lady interviewing me about my experiences who showed me that this lesson is one that Viktor tried hard to share with the world. And it’s one I heard again only last week when a man was talking about breaking his neck in an accident many years ago. (I love the fact TED has a clip of Viktor speaking on their site because, I think Viktor, were he alive today, could have taught us a lot about finding meaning in our over-commercialised world.) 

So it was an absolute delight to hear legendary Bob Wilson, co-founder of the brilliant charity Willow, use that phrase to describe me when I was lucky enough to be interviewed on BBC Radio Five in December about my upcoming marathon wedding.

I say that I am the sum of my imperfections. By this, I don’t mean the physical scarring or the rearranged body parts. I mean the bits that life didn’t get right first time. It’s because of those imperfections that I have been forced to look in the mirror and really see whether I like the person looking back. It’s because of those imperfections that I know that while I’m sensitive, I am also strong. It’s because of those imperfections that I try and fill every day with a little bit of meaning.

I didn’t let cancer define me. I chose to make serious illness a force for good. 

I haven't changed my job or my career. I've changed my attitude.

I thought I didn't have time. Now I make time. Sometimes the last thing I feel like after a long day at work is writing a charity blog or drumming up support or cash for a volunteering event, but I can guarantee it's the meaningful and purpose-driven acts that feature most in the gratitude diary I write every night.

In some ways, you could say I am one of the lucky ones. I didn't need to find a cause. My cause crept up behind me and then hit me over the head.

Knowing just how important having a little bit of meaning woven into the fabric of every day is one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned. And it's a lesson I want to share with the world.

I started this year with one clear aim: to make it meaningful. I learned back in 2013 that a life without meaning is no life at all. But, this year, I really want to make it count. And the wedding is a big part of that.

If finding meaning makes your day, tweet me about it (@jackie8 #makeitmeaningful). 

Success isn’t a nice life, it’s a meaningful one. I know Viktor would agree. 

So, let’s go be successful! Starting now…

Happiness hacks #10: Say thank you - every day

I thought today would be remembered as the day that I came back from injury to run my first 10k race in eight months. 

But, while heading out on a wet Sunday morning in January to face a few challenging hills and test out your newly-rehabbed legs is a pretty memorable way to spend the say, it’s not the race that will forever stick in my mind. 

It’s the volunteers.

It’s one thing to get up early on a Sunday and run. It’s quite another to head out even earlier to put up signs and then stand in an oversized high vis jacket on one of those hills just to make sure each and every runner finds their way.

As I reflect back on my rather laboured performance on this challenging course, I think not of the hill that wanted to take out my lungs or the 6km point (which I was convinced was 7km), but of the selfless people standing in rain doing their bit.

Because of those soggy high vis jackets and wet hair, I conquered a ‘back-from-injury’ demon today. 

And, for that, I will be eternally grateful.

These volunteers, however, didn’t just stand there dripping. They clapped. They smiled. They looked concerned. They offered encouragement. They were kind. And, they gave me the confidence to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could call myself a runner once more.

And, so I thanked them. I thanked the man who looked more drenched than me – for just being there. I thanked the lady with the brilliant smile. I thanked the man who handed me a much-needed cup of water. I thanked anyone in high vis in Greenwich Park. 

And it felt really good.  This currency called kindness makes us all millionaires. 

So, I encourage you to thank the next person you see that makes you thankful.  

I didn’t imagine it would take a run to get me thinking about thanking. But, I’m glad it did. I shall try harder to thank people as often as I can. 

So to race volunteers everywhere, I thank you. I thank you for the early mornings and the soaked clothes. I thank you for your energy, your time and your commitment. I thank you for your kindness and your willingness to help. 

And, I thank you for the opportunities you offer others and the gifts you share every day just by existing.

Happiness hacks #9: Make it easy

January is the month for good intentions. 

Question is, which of those those 'good-idea-at-the-time' presents will make it through? Will your brand new juicer see more than one carrot? Will your new running trainers actually leave the house? Has the wearable you vowed would make you smash your daily steps target made its way out of the packaging? 

I confess, even though my running trainers and wearable are in constant use, I do have a juicer in hibernation from about 2010 (taking 30 mins to dismantle, clean the pulp off its million bits and reassemble was a bit too much for the morning routine).

The juicer haunts me to this day and it is the reason my partner joked with me when I requested a cheap exercise bike this Christmas to help me get to our wedding marathon start line (which you can read all about here in case you missed it) in one piece. 

To show my commitment, I decided that if we are going to get a bike, it would have to be impossible not to use. 

So, it's now a trip hazard in the living room. You basically have to mount it just to get in.

Why so obstructive you ask? If I've learned anything in my 35 years it is that if you want people people to do something, you have to make it easy to do. 

I understand the beauty of order (as you will have read in a previous post). But I also understand the beauty of convenience. I know right now, if I make a nice home for it, or pack it away when it's not in use, it will gather dust in some forgotten corner - and my legs won't get any stronger.

Everything should have its place, but if there is a chance you might find an excuse instead of finding an item, that place has to be visible and, as is the case with the bike, conveniently inconvenient. 

I am certainly not alone in my thinking. I was listening to a Ted Radio Hour (love these) podcast this morning all about nudging. A behavioural economist was discussing the fact that pension contributions have increased significantly just by asking people to opt out rather than in. 

After all, the easy route (the one that doesn't involve excessive form filling), will always win. 

Another was discussing something called 'the last mile'. He talks about breakthrough vaccines that don't saves lives they could because people do not know or choose to use them. 

You don't become the world's ice cream maker by having the world's best maker on your counter. You have to use it. (The getting good part, of course, is entirely in your hands.) 

We none of us want appliances and gadgets clogging up our cupboards and our lives, so I think we owe it to ourselves to find a way to make what we have work for us.

So, liberate those cupboards, get those gadgets on display, make ice cream in your ice cream maker, get in a stew over your slow cooker and wear your wearable to bed.

If there's a will, there really is a way! 

Oh, and never buy a really complicated juicer, even if it claims to core and slice your apple. There is no position in the kitchen that would make this more convenient. 

Let's turn good intentions into brilliant habits that make it through the year!