health and happiness

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.

Happiness hacks #8: Put everything in its place

If there’s is something more exciting than festive ham, mulled wine, carols and great company at Christmas it’s the annual sort. 

By sort, I don’t just mean the light-touch shove-it-in-a-drawer type sort that constitutes cleaning for the other 11 months of the year. 

By sort, I mean the emptying of drawers and the reordering of cupboards that are one jar away from spilling out onto the floor.

I mean that kind of sort that sends a message to the world that you are ready for the new year. 

Sorting is the perfect hack to go with Life lesson number seven: Life is too short to save anything for best. How many times have you tucked something at the back of a cupboard, only to find that when you discover it again years later it is either out of date or the wrong size? 

I used to think I was one of those people who liked cleaning. But, what I have come to learn is that I like order (which will amuse many of my colleagues) and to know that everything I want to use has a home of its own that makes it easy for me to use it. The jam jar at the bottom of a stack of four, won’t get used. But, don’t stack them at all and give them space on the cupboard base and you’ll find your toast has many more flavours to play with. 

So, whatever you’re doing this new year, why not carve out some time to stop those plates balancing precariously, those spices going stale and those jumpers getting forgotten? Who knows? You might actually enjoy it. 

I should add, that doesn’t mean a deep cleanse of every drawer. Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame) has two great tips: 1) have a messy drawer for the bits that don’t have a proper home and 2) keep one shelf empty so you always feel you have room to expand! 

One tip I want to add is to try and develop the habit of taking one thing from a room when you move to another (that is out of place). We even have a stair basket to carry lost items up the stairs and keep the clutter at bay. 

Enjoy! 

Happiness hacks #7: A habit shared is a habit formed

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that all January’s good intentions are usually just forgotten by February (or by the time you’ve finished your Christmas chocolates).

But, as I have discovered by joining my friend’s healthy eating group (a closed forum on Facebook where we get to declare our healthy eating goals and track our progress - as well as share the moments when the cheese gets the better of us), there is a magic formula:

Resolution + accountability = habit for life (not missed opportunity)

Resolutions aren’t what we all should aspire to make.

It’s habits that change lives.

I admire my friend Rachel hugely for all that she has achieved by turning her love of cooking, decluttering and publishing into something that has brought hope into the lives of those around her – including her own.

Changing the habits of a lifetime is so so hard. I asked Rachel why she started her group, called Tiniest Thai Diet Revolution, and she told me about the fact that putting on three stone over the last decade had made her feel out of control, upset and unhealthy. “I struggled to breathe when I bent over to put on shoes,” admits Rachel. “I felt quite hopeless and I didn’t know what to do about it. All I did know is that I didn’t want to go on a diet. Then, I saw an unflattering (well truthful) photo of myself and decided enough was enough. I put myself on the scales and cried… Then I took control.”

I love Rachel’s honesty and her resolve to change not just her Januarys but her life. 

As the name suggests, Rachel loves Thai food. Having lived in Thailand, she saw at first hand how people eating a natural Thai diet were naturally slim and healthy. So, she started looking back over her old recipes (she’s been cooking since the age of 12) and examined her principles of eating and decided to create a new lifestyle that would enable her to lose weight and live well. It’s a lifestyle she stands by and it’s one that has seen her lose 40 pounds in just nine months. 

Making a conscious decision to change is the first step and it’s one Rachel - who has for years surrounded herself with healthy eating advice – knows well: “I’ve been given lots of advice over the years and I’ve loved reading SO many books on food, healthy eating etc,” adds Rachel. “But, I’ve only ever followed any of it when I’ve made a conscious decision to not just lose weight, but to find a new way of eating not a restrictive diet.” 

Making the decision to change is, however, not the only step. And, that’s where the group and the accountability bit come in. It’s one thing to map your own route and it’s quite another to share that route and encourage others to help you stay on track. 

I am now six weeks in to Rachel’s latest eight-week programme and I have to say, accountability makes everything easier. The emails with simple hacks to help you make more mindful food choices are also great too. 

It’s not the first time Rachel has helped me on a food-based adventure. I will never forget her kindness when she shared a recipe called eggs in purgatory (a Nigella Lawson special) that helped me find my appetite again during chemo. 

Most people I know are not really comfortable in their own skin. Rachel is now and I feel grateful to have shared just a little of her journey. I think before I eat now. I eat more of what my body needs now. And, most importantly, I know that it’s ok to have a treat as long as it’s not a daily ritual. 

While I can’t share all her secrets (you’ll have to join the group for that - next one starts in a week), I will share one of her awesome recipes: Sort of som tam

So, make January the month you make a habit not a resolution. And then, find someone with the same aim to help you make that habit last a lifetime! 

Happy New Year and thanks Rachel for bringing sunshine and som tam into my life. 

Happiness hacks #6: Look up

There's a beautiful scene in the film About Time, where the main character spends the day enjoying every moment rather than racing through each one. 

He looks up at the law courts to admire the architecture. He looks up at the coffee shop barista to show her he cares. He looks up to his friend in a meeting to give him confidence. 

He looks up because he realises that looking up is a gift we can unwrap every day.

Try it today. Look up, live and take it all in. A world of technicolour awaits.

Happiness hacks #5: Carry loose change for that charity bucket

A charity bucket collection taught me a big lesson about kindness.

Earlier this year, I stood in a Breast Cancer Haven T-shirt on a cold evening outside a London tube station shaking a bucket and I watched as people hurried by and looked the other way. 

My bucket was light, but my heart heavy at the thought that people with their fine suits and pristine handbags were so busy rushing to get through the barriers that they had forgotten how important a little bit of kindness can be. 

Standing there, invisible to the steady stream of commuters, was more uncomfortable than delivering a charity speech to a crowd of more than 7,000 festival goers. And that was scary! 

Ask me if I would do it again, however, and I would say absolutely. This has nothing to do with the awkward glances and rolling eyes and everything to do with the Big Issue seller who came to ask me the reason I was standing there. 

He listened to my story. He told me his story. And then, completely unprompted, he emptied the entire contents of his pockets into my bucket. I nearly wept. Friends have since suggested that I should have stopped him. But, for those who understand the happiness that comes with giving, I wasn't going to be the one to deprive him of his moment. 

After my shift had finished, I went to find the seller to thank him again and buy a Big Issue out of my own money in return. He was gone. 

I wrote to the Big Issue to pass on my thanks. Without a name, we couldn't identify him. I have passed that station most days since. I have never seen him again. 

I hope that one day I will be able to return the favour - although, in many ways, I am not sure he would want me to. 

Until that day, I will continue to pay that generosity forward.

I, too, have put my head down and scurried past undetected when faced with a charity bucket collection. Not any more. 

Because of his act of kindness, I carry a pot of change with me everywhere I go. 

This is not just to support the charity asking, but to acknowledge the selfless act of the bucket collector, a symbol of kindness in a society that all too often chooses to look the other way. 

Now, seeing a collector, puts a spring in my step.

I hope that, by carrying a bit of small change in your pocket, it will do the same for you.