Kindness of strangers

It heartens me that when you share your vulnerability, it breaks down social barriers and builds connections.

I went to Waitrose today to buy tea, coffee, pasta, baked beans, loo roll and all those goods I thought it would be useful to have in the coming weeks. The cashiers are always friendly at my Waitrose, and today, on seeing the vast pile of cat food and cat litter trundling down the conveyor belt, my cashier asked me how many cats I have.  Oh, just the one, I explained, but I’ll be in hospital this week so I’m stocking up. There was an immediate kindness in her eyes, she reached across to hold my hand, and she asked,

“Are you ok?”

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer last week” It is still helping to say that, helping to make it real.

She told me the story of her own cancer treatment 15 yrs ago, and joked how her consultant recognises her now, not by her face, but by her scar. She was reassuring and kind. These small moments are so wonderful, I treasure every one of them.



Today I did one of my favourite things and went for a walk on Hampstead Heath. I’ve seen this bridge so many times (it’s in the grounds of Kenwood House) and for the first time I realised it’s a fake. A cosmetic bridge; looks good but takes you nowhere.


Being outside, and walking, cycling or running has always been when I do some of my best thinking. As I walked over Parliament Hill this morning, I had a really moment of gratitude. If I was ever to get cancer, this time in my life could not be better. I am physically fit and strong, my emotional resilience is high, I have wonderful friends, family and colleagues, my career is in a good place, I have a beautiful home and live in a place I adore. I love the life I live. I’m as well placed as I ever could be to face this cancer, face this chapter.

And unlike the bridge, I want this chapter to take me somewhere. No idea where, but I’m up for growing, learning and changing.
Then this afternoon, one of my other favourite things, a get together with my girlfriends. We went to see David Bowie’s Lazarus. What the **** was that all about? Cleverly staged, wonderful songs, great performances, but we all concluded only real Bowie fans would get it.
We talked over dinner. I think I rather hogged the conversation, but my chums indulged me. Talk turned to how breast cancer is not so unusual, currently one in eight women will be diagnosed with it . I joked that I was happy to “take one for the team”. Humour is definitely an important part of the armoury.

Lionel keeps me company

Today I had my MRI scan, a fairly routine part of the diagnostic tests to see if there was more cancer than the lump in my right breast.

When my consultant told me I’d need an MRI the panic set in. I’d had one in 2013 and it was an awful experience. On a skiing holiday I had a bad fall and really wrenched my right shoulder. It was the first day of the holiday, and there were a couple of doctors in my group who assured me it was a muscular strain, so I dosed up on ibuprofen and continued skiing all week. I got home, and still couldn’t raise my arm to clean my teeth so I got it investigated, which involved an x-ray and MRI as they suspected I’d torn ligaments or tendons. Turns out I’d broken my arm.

I was not prepared for that first MRI in 2013. I didn’t realise I’d be in the scanning tube with the banging magnets, akin to the sound of roadworks, for 45 minutes. It’s sensory overload and the adrenaline kicks in and I learnt what claustrophobia is.

So, I prepared for today’s MRI. Practised mindfulness. Practised controlling my breathing. Fortunately it’s a shorter tube, and you’re only in it for 25 minutes. And you’re face down, which, bizarrely, I found easier.

The reality was surreal and hilarious. The radiographer was kind and patient. He put a cannula in my arm for the intravenous dye which will flood in to my breasts half way through the MRI. He then realised I still had my gown on, so had to take the cannula out so I could take the gown off. I suspect I had distracted him with my nervous jabbering.

Suitably hooked up, I then lie face down and drop my boobs in to a raised tray with two holes in it, my arms overhead and my face resting in one of those cushions like you get on massage tables. The radiographer pops some headphones on me and leaves the room.

Then the whole table clunks and starts moving backwards in to the tube, my boobs dangle in an undignified manner, the magnets start their banging, and over the headphones comes Lionel Richie singing You Are My Destiny. I nearly burst out laughing.



On the way back to work I walked through Green Park to get my head straight. I was so pleased with how I got through the MRI, but the adrenaline was still coursing through me.  It was cold, and the park looked wonderful.


D day

Today was Diagnosis Day. Today I learned what I feared, but what I expected. I have breast cancer. Typing that is hard, saying it is worse.

The clinic at The Whittington was much busier than before. There was also a flipping tube strike today, so appointments were running late. Friends and family had offered to join me, but I’d had nearly two weeks for the shock of 28th December to subside and I knew I’d prefer to go to the appointment on my own. I’ve done some research and had my notebook ready to take notes, and all my questions prepared. Professional Alison kicked in.

I entered a surreal new world. In the busy clinic, there were lots of women, many wearing  turbans, hats and wigs. The atmosphere was palpable. Anxiety. Fear. Panic. How many other women there were getting their results today?
Bargain Hunt played on the wall mounted television as I waited. Not much of a distraction, but suitably bland and uncontentious.

In between all of this it becomes clear I will miss a critical meeting at work. Fortunately, my amazing work colleagues are all set to pick up for me. I text and email. Life goes on.

I met my consultant, Professor Vaidya. He told me in a straightforward way that I have breast cancer. I didn’t need to write that down. I’d remember that.

Then he’s talking about radiotherapy, and a new clinical trial, and surgery, and I need another ultrasound to check my lymph nodes today. So off I go to Imaging to get my pizza bleeper and wait for another scan.

The doctor shows me on the screen what he can see – I’m not at all squeamish (comes from having a mum who was a nurse) and I like to see and understand what is going on in my body. He’s happy that my lymph nodes look clear. Phew. This matters, because if cancer spreads from the breast it goes to lymph nodes first.

So, back to the clinic and I met my breast care nurse, Elizabeth. She seems kind and well informed. She gave me a folder of information and pack of leaflets. Wow, I really am part of a process. I’m not unique, they’re telling women everyday that they have breast cancer and this is what happens. I take comfort from that. They know what they’re doing. I’m in good hands.

Then she says something that rocks me to my core. “I’ll be your nurse for the next five years”

The reality of my new normal hit me when she said that. I’m in a new tribe now. I have a new world view.

Then a moment that was funny and surreal – I think I’ll be grabbing on to these moments in the coming months. My professor asked if his medical students could examine me as apparently my breast cancer has presented in an unusual way. It feels like a benign lump, and there are no other symptoms, and it did not show on the initial mammogram. So, they file in to the room and they’re all encouraged to have a good look and feel of my boob.

Me, to the fresh faced, respectful students;  “It’s fine, please go ahead, have a feel, it will help your training”

One of the students; “Sorry if my hands are cold”

Professor to the students; “Now come on, you need to use both hands, right around there, to feel it. You see, many clinicians would not realise this was cancerous. No dimpling of the skin, no dents.”

Now I understand why my GP was so reassuring.


Finally I can leave the hospital. I phone my family. The hardest phone calls of my life. I text and email friends and work colleagues, friends text and call me. It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. But I’m also relieved. I’ve known since December 28th that I have cancer, I knew as I lay there looking at those ceiling tiles having that biopsy and the doctor made small talk. I’m relieved because now I know what I am dealing with. Now we can get on with it and get rid of those pesky cells that have gone crazy in my poor boob.