The Big C – A Personal Story

The Big C – A Personal Story

Twelve years ago my mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer and told to make the most of the next six months.  She was just shy of her 60th birthday and in cancer years this was considered to be young.

My husband and I had just celebrated our marriage with a big party on the Thames.  My mother had been the life and soul and looked incredible.   She certainly didn't look like someone with just six months to live, but then again how do any of us know what that looks like?

There are not words to describe the way it feels when one of your immediate family is dealt such a cruel blow.  It is a complete body punch as you are left reeling from the enormity of the news. You struggle to find the right words, how and why are the most obvious and the most immediate as you try to process the facts, followed by what next?  Your heart and your brain fight it out for supremacy.  It is a time to be strong and to offer support and encouragement in an effort to allay the fears of those around you but panic, fear and incoherence make you weak.

The news hit our family really hard of course.  I am not exaggerating when I say my mother is the lynchpin of our family. My father's career had taken him around the world for the majority of each year. My mother remained in the UK with us, believing a life of endless travelling was not the right upbringing for my sister and I.  As a result she held the fort at home, looking after us alone whilst managing a job of her own, until such a time as we both left for university then she upped sticks and traveled with my father. At the time of her diagnosis they had both returned to the UK to prepare for an early retirement.

My mother's reaction to her situation was stoic.  A long career as a practice manager for a local GP's surgery had forced her to face personal tragedy on a daily basis and she was not ignorant in the face of her symptoms.  There was no internet search involved.  The diagnosis did not surprise her she said.  She had noticed a significant change in her body and it was that alone that had spurred her to seek a consultation.

The results of her tests were quick to come back, along, with an immediate course of action, namely to remove the cancerous section of her colon and start a course of chemotherapy, all of this was, however, couched under the umbrella of Stage 3 cancer and a less than optimistic outlook.

My mother may have crumbled when in front of the consultant and undoubtedly she had dark moments of her own but she never exposed her fear to us.  My children were 6 and 2 and my sister had just given birth to twins.  She was determined to see her grandchildren grow up and was unwavering in her determination to fight this head on.

A date was set for the operation and an appointment made with a local wig maker who specialised in real hair wigs.  I always admire those ladies that wear their cancer baldness so bravely but am sure that first decision to step out into the world without hair is not an easy one.  My mother's hair was her crowning glory and the thought of losing it seemed to upset her more than the prospect of the operation itself.  Baldness and scarves were not for her, the wig was a necessity.

It's funny but looking back my sister and I assumed roles of support for my mother and the "job of the hair" fell firmly in my camp.  Like her, my hair is a big part of me, not because it is dramatic or different in anyway, in fact it is the complete opposite, fine and prone to kinks, it needs daily love and attention, just like my mother's.  Thus, the wig couldn't be just any old wig it needed to be the "perfect" wig and bugger the cost.

We spent a lovely morning (if that is possible) with the wig maker, deciding on the style and colour.  Her advice was not to go for a wig that looked like her existing hairstyle because it would draw more attention to the fact she was wearing one, so she encouraged my mother to be different with a shorter style, although the colour was almost identical.  She was wonderful and looking back she took away some of my mother's fear of being exposed.  She was upbeat and positive, she didn't say it would be fine because clearly it wouldn't, but she was measured and reassuring.  The value of the role of all of these people in The Big C process cannot be underestimated.

Perhaps what many will think is the most unusual part of this jigsaw is that my father returned to work.  My sister and I were initially outraged.  My mother fought his corner.  If she wasn't around there was no way he could retire.   He wouldn't cope.  They had discussed it and he was not retiring, not now.  It was not up for debate and non-negotiable.  To this day I can recall the horrified reactions of everyone when they found out, but my mother batted the comments away.  How dare they?  Who were they to judge?  Was this their cancer or crisis?  No it wasn't, so quite frankly they could keep their opinions to themselves.

The night before my mother's operation was the longest of my life and probably of my mother's too.  Our arrival at the hospital the next morning was shrouded in fear. The ward was full of very sick people.  The pre-operation room reeked of desperation.  What is the point of trying to be upbeat when the faces of those around you shout fear straight back at you?  Never in my life have I wanted to cry so much as I did that day.  Saying goodbye to my mother as she was wheeled away to the theatre is a memory that stays with me to this day.  "See you when you come back" I said.  "I might not see you again"  is what my subconscious said.

My mother was under the care of the NHS and despite having been through a major operation I wasn't allowed to see her until the correct visiting hours the next day, but a voice mail reassured me that the operation had gone smoothly and she was recovering.  What they didn't tell us at that stage was that the cancer had spread to her liver. This is not uncommon in bowel cancer but we had not been warned of this or even contemplated this outcome.

So what next?  Well after such major surgery there is no possibility of further surgery for three months so my mother was discharged and instructed to commence her chemotherapy.  Between all of us and her friends we followed the advice and took her for her bi-weekly chemo sessions, whilst my parents sought the expertise of a consultant for the next stage.  The decision was made that as soon as she was deemed well enough she would undergo another operation on her liver. Apparently, your liver is the only organ that can regenerate and regrow.  The proposal was to remove two thirds of her liver but there were huge risks.  My mother decided she had everything to live for and nothing to lose.  She agreed to another round of surgery and a date was booked for when she finished her chemo.

By some miracle my mother is a survivor.  She defied the odds and remains to this day the lynchpin of our family, just with a very large scar - the Mercedes scar as it is fondly known. A third of us will be diagnosed with cancer and in our family alone, my mother aside, my father and father-in-law have survived a battle with cancer and my husband's mother sadly lost her life to cancer at 50.  I am humbled every day by the stories of the survivors and of those that care for those afflicted by this terrible disease, but it is important as my mother reminds us all daily, to live our lives with hope not fear and face our battles when they come, if they do.






The Wonders Of The Barre!

The Wonders Of The Barre!

If you want to tackle your bingo wings, saddlebags and the dreaded pooch then maybe barre classes are what you need. Don't panic if you are rhythmically challenged, even though the origins are in ballet, you don't need to be a budding Darcy Bussell to benefit from the wonders of the barre.

I became hooked nearly two years ago after looking for something different to add to my exercise repertoire.  I had been a devotee of Pilates for 15 years and wanted to maintain a programme that focused on my core to combat a persistent lower back problem, but also incorporated more in the way of strengthening and toning.

I had always had strong legs from years of running, walking and climbing the four flights of stairs in our house on an endless basis but an old injury had left me with weak glute muscles and my arms lacked any definition.  Spurred on by the New Year and the opening of a new Barre studio in our area I signed up for a taster and have been a fan ever since.

Each workout targets the major muscle groups over the course of an hour with a view to improving your posture and alignment. Your own bodyweight is used to provide resistance with the occasional use of hand weights, exercise bands and a soft exercise ball.

Divided into four bursts of 15 minutes, the first section raises your heart rate with leg lifts, lunges and arm raises.  This is followed by a mat based series of planks, push ups and tricep dips.

After this it is time to move to the barre for a lower body section that targets your thighs and glutes.  Typical exercises include a diamond waterski which involves putting your heels together to form a V shape with your toes touching the wall, holding the barre with arms outstretched and shoulder width apart, you then lean back and slice into the wall at an angle in slow precise movements.

A forearm foldover with your head on the barre is not an opportunity to have a quick 40 winks but instead with the supporting leg bent, the other is at a right angle behind you, an exercise ball firmly squeezed between your thigh and your butt as you alternate between flexing and pointing your foot towards the ceiling.

All the exercises use isometric movements "up an inch, down an inch" to isolate specific muscles with the emphasis on the hold at the end of the movement which is "where the change happens".   In my case this usually involves shaking like a bowl of Jell-O but according to the instructor it is good to embrace the shakes as this shows that your muscles are feeling it.

The class concludes with a section devoted to your abs, many of which are traditional exercises, but some of which use a strap over the barre to work your shoulders and lats simultaneously.  The focus is all on strengthening and toning the smaller muscle groups, it is not about weight loss.  Generally it is said that you will notice a difference within 4-5 classes and for a significant change in your body the optimum number of classes is 4 per week. For me 3 classes a week is my limit in terms of time availability but like all exercise that you enjoy it is easily addictive.

I think what I love about barre classes is that you can do it at your own pace and level, there is always a moderated version of an exercise if you find one particularly tough.  Also because of this it is an exercise routine that crosses all ages and there are no boundaries.  My class has an age range of 18-60 year olds and everyone is encouraged to challenge their own body but within their own boundaries not those of the people around them.

I have the tightest hamstrings in the world after years of not stretching properly after a run and still cannot do a standing split without holding onto the barre for support.  But it is not about learning to be a ballerina it is about focusing your mind and connecting your body so that it is better able to cope with everyday life and the constant strain we put it under.

There are many studios in London dedicated to just barre classes and I attend Barrecore, which is local to me, but many gyms are also beginning to include barre classes in their repertoire too, so if you haven't tried it yet and fancy something different do give it a go.

Since taking it up I have certainly noticed a difference. I can happily report that my butt is firmer and more lifted.  My range of movement has increased giving me more flexibility and a nagging shoulder pain from carrying heavy tote bags for years, has disappeared as my upper body has become stronger.    Yes I still have my bug bears about my aging body but at 49 I am still under 9 stone and can generally fit into a size 10.  More important though if I feel better about myself I look better and that is half the battle with getting older.



Treating Teen Acne & Products That Work

Teenage acne is the scourge of the young as they mature and go through puberty.  My teenagers hit puberty simultaneously.  My daughter was 10 and my son 14.  It was hell.  We lived in a cauldron of permanent hormonal angst as they both adapted to the emotional and physical changes that puberty forces.  Acne was the biggest challenge of all.

Unfortunately, acne is a common condition that affects most people at some point in their lives.  In fact according to the NHS around 80% of 11-30 year olds will suffer from acne.  It is claimed that genes also have a large part to play, so if your parents had it, it's likely you will too.  Ironically, neither of my parents suffered but I went through a brief spotty period when I was 16 before going onto suffer adult acne in my 30's (coincidentally perhaps), during the period of my divorce.

Of the two, the latter episode was the worst.  As a teenager it is expected you will fall victim to the occasional bout of zits as your hormones start raging but less so as an adult.  Whatever your age it is debilitating but my own experience did equip me with the appropriate empathy to deal with my teenagers' distress.  I knew how self-conscious they felt so didn't brush their complaints and tears aside, but instead decided to tackle it head on and avoid the paper bag syndrome setting in.

  • The GP

Our GP is always my first port of call.  Pharmacists can advise on various over the counter treatments but the GP is best for giving the all important medical opinion or a referral to a specialist should that be necessary.  For mild cases, they can also prescribe a course of antibiotics to combat any bacterial infection. In fact my daughter was prescribed Differin a topical antibiotic which really helped in the initial stages.  Also I found that by taking them both to a professional they listened carefully to the advice their were given on the importance of keeping their skin healthy, which made my job easier.

Medical advice is to resist the temptation to clean your skin too much as this can over-stimulate the sebaceous glands into producing more oil which in turn will block the pores if it is not washed away, trapping bacteria and creating a breeding ground for more spots.  It is important, however, not to abandon cleaning your skin completely and developing a good skin care regime early was an important step for both my teenagers.  As a parent you don't want to make your child feel embarrassed about their skin but acknowledging there is a problem sooner rather than later and agreeing on finding a solution, is much better in the long run.

  • A Good Skin Care Regime 

My son plays a lot of sport so is frequently sweaty and dirty and on occasions just doesn't have time to wash properly after practices. Dermalogica does a great introductory kit with trial sizes aimed at teenagers and young adults called Clear Start but he wanted something that he could use easily and quickly whilst showering.  Recommended by dermatologists, Cetaphil is his preferred cleanser.  Gentle and non-abrasive he uses it daily and always has some in his sports bag for use after matches.

Of the two, however, my daughter suffered the most and her situation was made worse by the fact that she suffers from atopic eczema.  For her using a cleanser that required washing her face with water was overly drying, particularly as we live in a hard water area.  Also at just 10 she needed something uncomplicated and straightforward as we didn't want cleaning her face to seem like a chore, so we looked at lotions which she could simply apply on a cotton pad, the challenge was to find the right one.

There are hundreds of cleansing products to choose from and we worked our way through a fair few.  At times I felt truly despondent and was convinced that we would never find anything that would work on her skin.  She was the first to go through puberty and that was tough as she was very much alone among her peers with her skin issues.  She felt totally isolated and desperate at times and her self-esteem took a real knock.  It was also hard for us to remain upbeat and positive when at times it was truly hard to look at her once beautiful skin erupting in such a way.

Sleepovers and school trips away became my personal agony as I fretted about whether she would return even worse than when she left.  On one occasion, the morning after a sleepover she called me from her friend's bathroom crying and asking me to pick her up immediately as she had woken up with the most gargantuan spot on her nose and felt mortified at having to face her friend's family over breakfast.   School trips with 4-5 nights away were absolute torture as with little time to herself and the emphasis on non-stop activity, there was no time to spend on her skin.

Dermatologists won't see children under 16 so we were left with the topical antibiotic for the worst eruptions and the never ending quest for the perfect cleanser.  To say that I became fixated would be an understatement.  Then we discovered the wonders of Micellar water, which cleanses the skin without the need for rinsing and is so gentle that it is perfect for sensitive skins such as hers.  Most of the leading skin care brands have a Micellar water in their range  but our favourite is  Dr Andrew Weil for Origins Mega Mushroom Skin Relief.  At £27.50 it is definitely at the upper end of the price spectrum but it is worth every penny.  It is not only gentle but it also combats any redness, which if you have eczema is extremely beneficial.  There was a real difference in her skin after about one month.

It is a natural misconception that if you have spots you shouldn't apply moisturiser, but all skin needs to be kept hydrated.  If your skin is overly dry, it will over-compensate by producing more sebum which will lead to more breakouts and this was true of both my teenagers' experiences but more so with my daughter because of her eczema. The challenge was to find a moisturiser that wouldn't clog pores and lead to more breakouts. My son simply supplemented his skin care routine with the Cetaphil moisturiser but for my daughter I needed to find something that would treat her eczema but not aggravate her acne.

Odylique is an organic skin care range developed by a lady called Margaret in a quest to make something to treat her own sensitive, dry skin.  The result is a range of products made simply from the finest natural and organic ingredients free from any chemical irritants.  The Repair Lotion is a staunch favourite in our house.  Of all the creams I had tried on my daughter's skin, this was a life saver.  At its worst her skin was so angry and itchy, with inflamed peeling areas, which combined with the acne was distressing for her and yet this managed to calm her eczema, completely healing the scaly areas, yet not irritate her acne and it did it quickly.  Her eczema has not flared up to that extent since and she has not looked back.  On a daily basis she now moisturises using E45 but always turns to the Repair Lotion at the slightest itch.

  • Spot Treatment

A good skincare routine made all the difference to my teenagers but there is no getting away from the spots and pimples completely.  The flare ups needed to be treated and having something on hand to apply at night to calm any inflammation and reduce redness was an important part of tackling the problem, as well as my nagging them not to pick!   Odylique Spot On Serum is packed with both anti-bacterial and calming ingredients, such as Lavender and Aloe Vera and when applied overnight it really made a difference in terms of reducing the redness and the discomfort of breakouts.

  • Sunscreen

I like many others am guilty of thinking that a good blast of sunshine will clear up spots and can remember frequently sitting in the sun as a 16 yr old praying for a miracle, but the fact is the reverse is true. Apart from promoting increased sweating which will clog pores, the sun dries out skin and makes the appearance of spots more likely.  Nowadays it is unusual for people if not wearing a full sunscreen, not to be wearing a moisturiser with SPF at the very least.

Over the years, I have come to dread the summer as until recently I hadn't found a sunscreen that didn't make my daughter's skin ten times worse and as a redhead going without was not an option for her. Most of the high street brands and even the organic products were too thick and sat on her skin like a layer of lard.   This summer, however, we had a breakthrough with La Roche-Posay and its ultra light 50+ fluid which gave her the right level protection without clogging her skin.  I am not quite sure how we missed it before as I have been a fan of their sun products for a while.


Over the years I have spoken to many skin specialists, read numerous advice posts on the internet and bought lots of products for my teenagers to try, as not surprisingly a large part of finding the right product is down to trial and error.  Ironically, both my teenagers seem to have emerged at the same time again with the worst behind them and I am crossing my fingers that remains the case, particularly for my daughter as she really suffered.  In fact she came home from school at the end of last week and said her friends had commented on how good her skin looked.  For her this was beyond exciting but it was also tinged with sadness as she said it made her realise that it must have been bad before!  Of course she still has flare-ups a couple of days before her period, that's to be expected but it is nothing in comparison to having it 24/7 for more than 3 years.

This is my first-hand advice on treating acne and what worked best for my teens. This is not a sponsored post and all opinions on these products are completely my own.

Please share any advice you may have from your own teen years or if you have teenagers in the house that have been through a similar situation.



Teenage Girls Dressing Appropriately

Teenage Girls Dressing Appropriately

What is an appropriate way for your teenage daughter to dress?  My 13 year old is quite clear that for her age it means not wearing tiny crop tops and refers to those that do as ridiculous and asking for trouble.  My son on the other hand at 17+ likes a girl in a crop top, but thinks at his sister's age it is too young.  It's clearly a fine line.

Over the summer a couple of innocent events and conversations with my kids have brought this issue to the fore and made me think not only about the messages our young girls give off with the the way they dress but also about how we as parents manage it.

An end of term school trip to France for my daughter highlighted "skimpy dressing" as an issue.  The Madame in charge of the trip stipulated at a parents pre-trip meeting that the girls should not wear any tops resembling a bra or "short shorts" which caused a great deal of mirth amongst some parents as they pointed out that early July in Southern France would almost certainly be hot so shorts would be a good option for the girls surely. Madame, however, was unswerving in her views and drew a line across her own legs to indicate what length of shorts would be acceptable.   Not "short shorts" meant to the knee, not above and absolutely no bottoms on display.

Lucky for me with a pale redhead for a daughter I spend my life in the lead up to summer seeking clothes that will keep her cool whilst simultaneously cover as much of her skin as possible to avoid sunburn, so I sat there feeling quietly smug that I already had the acceptable shorts nailed and that Madame would be happy.

My daughter however returned from the trip with stories of girls that flouted the rules and appeared at breakfast wearing the shortest of crop tops and the shortest of shorts. Each day they were told to change or stay behind, until the last day when maybe worn down by their persistence (we have all been there) they just let them get on with it.

On a different note, my son attended a party over the summer at which a girl in his group befriended some boys unknown to them and got herself into a situation my son felt uncomfortable with.  As a result, he intervened and took her home in a cab but the post party analysis amongst her girlfriends in particular raised her style of dress as an issue.

When we asked our son his view he said "That's what they all wear!"  He is right of course,  it is the fashion inspired by celebrities to show off your perfect torso.....and really shouldn't indicate anything other than a nod to a trend and a desire to show you look after yourself.

It is tough for our teenage girls growing up in a technology saturated world which with the endless obsession of posting picture perfect selfies, exposes them to a more mature way of dressing earlier than perhaps than they otherwise would.

All teenagers need to be allowed to experiment with clothes and make mistakes in order to develop their own sense of style and individuality, this is a normal part of growing up.  However, there need to be certain parameters that also allow for change as they grow and mature. What is appropriate for a 17 yr old is different to a 13 yr old and what one parent thinks is acceptable another will think is tarty and wholly inappropriate. It is a moral minefield but as parents we have a responsibility to reflect on our changing world and set the tone which will guide them.

Personally I don't like to see very young girls in skimpy clothing and I count myself lucky that my daughter as a redhead needs to cover up more than most in the summer and is naturally bashful so doesn't like to draw attention to herself.  I am not saying she goes out in a nun's habit, she loves clothes and we regularly hit Oxford Street for some R&R, but if in Topshop rather than gravitate to the racks of "barely there" clothes, she will head down to the vintage section to seek out something a bit quirky to mix with a pair of skinnies and trainers and she does wear "short shorts", just not with a minuscule top.

Ultimately it all comes down to age appropriate clothing and some parental guidance.  My daughter's instagram and snap chat feed is full of pictures of some girls in her school year dressing in what she deems as inappropriate clothing.    It is one thing wanting to look nice and to wear the latest fashion but quite another promoting your sexuality, particularly at too young an age.  The line is a fine one for sure and as parents the moral compass is in our hands.


What are your views on teenage girls dressing appropriately? Please let me know in the comments below.