Three words to guide and inspire through 2017

This is my last day of retreat in the hills. Tomorrow morning will see me on the drive along a winding mountainside road before descending to the main road and then strangely ascending to the capital. From there, and after a little exploration, the long journey back to Africa will begin.

I am having some difficulty concentrating, as the cloud formations on the hillside are changing constantly, the little blue tanagers are flitting about in the avocado tree. Two exquisitely coloured humming birds continue to tantalise with their brief appearances, hovering for a few seconds, yet not long enough for me to be able to capture their bottle green plumage or quivering wings on my camera. (Fortunately, this excellent site has images which show how beautiful these little birds are).

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Image credit – Ray Wilson Photography

I am compelled to pause and take in these sights and sounds while I can. Yet, resist and concentrate I must. There are three words in my mind and they are urging me to capture and share them. The three words of 2016 have served me well, “reorient, nurture and crystalize” but they are ready to step back. A three word mantra for 2017 has taken shape and is waiting to lead the way ahead.

The past year has seen enormous change for me individually, not to mention in the wider world. My three words are fiercely personal to me, and I trust them to help to move me forward.

My first word for 2017 is emerge. The past months have seen me living life very quietly and low key. There has been a stillness on this blog while I process and work through my way forward. This has been a time for nurturing and healing. I feel that the time is now right for life to be breathed into this quiet and for me to emerge and find my space again. I want to regain and rebuild my confidence in this new place. I want to seek out like minds and souls with whom I can grow. It feels as if the gecko has been in hiding under some rocks and it is in need of some sun and fresh air to breathe, just like this giant turtle which I saw the other day. (This photograph is one I took, part of a story waiting to be told in the coming days.)

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My second word relates to the new environment I find myself in. Africa! Now that I have been through this major reorientation, I have been working to settle and crystalize in the later part of 2016. Now it is time to explore. I have a new city to explore, and people to meet. A new country to find out about and many neighbouring countries to get to know. I wish to explore my new surroundings with curiosity and humility, and maintain that sense of wonder and respect. We learn something new every day, but must keep our eyes and minds open to be able to do so fully.

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A photo from my explorations in the past week

My third word is intend, and aims to keep me focused and ensure that I live intentionally. The health blips of 2016 need to taken seriously and I need to be vigilant and deliberate about my health and wellbeing. The new environment brings with it a new diet, and different surroundings and, more particularly, rather cold swimming pools! I need to ensure that I am proactive in keeping active and finding the happy place for my mind, soul and body. There is a great deal of discussion about mindfulness and I have found that this has been a practice which is of great benefit to me. I want to strengthen this in the coming year and beyond, and embed it into my routines. Intend also reminds me to value time and resources. These are finite. The five sticky plan (which I still use and love) is one technique which reminds me not to squander precious free time. Most of all, intend is an additional prompt to maintain integrity in everything I do.

 

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Cactus in the late afternoon sun

So, there is my 2017 three word mantra – “emerge, explore and intend”. May these words guide me well, and inspire me through the year in the face of challenges, opportunities, laughter and tears. Whatever is in my path will be faced, whether difficult or easy. What is changeable is how I navigate the way forward, and I trust in my mantra to enable me to embrace this with strength, courage and enthusiasm.

May 2017 be kind, inspiring and enabling to you all.

A personal review of 2016 through the lens of the 3 word mantra

As I sit in these emerald hills, on retreat, I have much to occupy my mind and my body in the coming days. This is a time of replenishment, to build energy and health after a year of immense change. This is a time for reflection over the past months, and a time to focus on the coming year. It is a time to open my eyes to see what is new and extraordinary around me, and a time to close my eyes in rest and meditative thought. It is a time to pick up the pen and notebook and shake off months of silence. A time to pause and lift up my camera when I see a new type of bird or flower. These are days to walk in the hills, listen to the roar of the waterfall and marvel at the lava rocks. To sit in a hammock and doze. There is much to do on retreat.

This is a fitting time to look back over the year and where it has taken me, through the lens of my 2016 three word mantra “reorient, nurture and crystalize”. I have, in past years, reflected back on the mantra from which I am moving on, and shared the new set of three words at the same time. This year, I find that I am separating these and as the days of 2016 draw to a close I share a review of the words while still refining the words I will choose for 2017. They will be revealed when they are ready, as early into the new year as possible.

Reorient

At the end of 2015, I had already experienced a great shift but I knew that there would have to be even more significant change ahead. I knew that this was likely to involve a new job and possibly a relocation. Furthermore, I knew that I had to recalibrate my inner compass. This was apparent in the choice of my first word “reorient”. I had no idea of the massive changes ahead, ones which have been needed and exciting, but demanding physically, mentally and emotionally. I had no idea that as the mid point of the year approached, I would be leaving Myanmar, my home, my colleagues and friends and my familiar surroundings. It did not for a moment occur to me that I would also leave the continent which had been my home for the past 16 years. Leave Asia? Impossible! But that is what happened. In the early hours of a June morning, just before daylight, I was on my way to Yangon airport with too much luggage and a little dog, with a ticket to Africa in my hand, a yellow fever certificate, a thick folder full of canine export/import documentation and a contract for a new and inspiring position a day’s travel away. The transition has been rapid, with little time for adjustment or recuperation before launching into the new life where I have had so much to learn.

Reorientation has been such an apt word. I have truly been going through a process of reorientation mentally, physically and professionally. I had not realised how “Asia-centric” I had become. My compass has been firmly set in Asia. I know how far it is to Europe, to Australia and other parts of Asia. I know how much the time differences are, and I know how long it takes to get to these places. Living in Africa has shaken my compass. I cannot get my mind to understand that I am only one or two hours ahead of UK time now, depending on the time of year, yet the journey is so long. How can it be that the flight to Amsterdam takes seven or eight hours, yet I do not need to change my watch? This is reorientation I could not have imagined. It has been challenging, but revitalising to realise that such a shift is underway.

Nurture

My second word has been “nurture”. This has been important, because with such great change comes mental and physical exhaustion in a new and unfamiliar place. It is important to nurture the soul and find like minds, to nurture my professional and personal growth, and to nurture my health. I feel as if I have been transplanted, and need to be nurtured and looked after in order to thrive. This has been more difficult, and I have work still to do here. The journeys of the year have been demanding, and in a post cancer and “not getting any younger” life, there have been health blips. I also need to nurture my creative side, which has been neglected. In that, there could be a suggestion for the coming three word mantra.

Crystalize

The final word of 2016 has been “crystalize”, a beautiful word which mirrors “reorient”. After change and tumult, there needs to be a settling into the new. All aspects of my new life must take shape and crystalize into a firm shape so that I can truly settle. This has also complemented “thrive” in that it is important to be deliberate and intentional as I settle. I brought few, but a few possessions from my Asian, and especially Burmese life into Africa. Now I have a little creative writing corner in my African home which is distinctly Burmese in character.

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I am working on finding creative spaces, similar to the writing group, the book club, and photography group which were important aspects to my life in Myanmar. This process of crystallization will take time, but is underway.

This year has been one of journey. I have travelled a greater distance than ever before, in every sense. I have tales to tell of these journeys and stepping foot on new continents. But for now, through the lens of my three words, this is my personal review of 2016.

This has been a tumultuous year globally, and I cannot begin to relate this to the changes in my own world. While the year has been kinder to me than most of recent years, this has not been the case for many close to me, and certainly not a global trend. I am thankful for 2016, yet appreciate and understand that this is not the case more broadly. I wish for kindness and humility across the world in the coming year.

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As the sun sets on the outgoing year, let us all pledge to do what each of us can to make 2017 a good year.

How does one dress for a Dragonfruit Reunion?

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating. And that’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew here. We all know that dragonfruit hold a special place in my creative heart, but there was a striking coincidence in the sight of the fruit in front of me. And therein lies the whole reason behind my choice to come here for this retreat. A dragonfruit reunion and retreat.

Something unexpected, and very special came from the publication of the Dragonfruit Anthology in 2014. Not only was this the first time I had my writing published in a proper book, but furthermore the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, and the connection with the Editor and other contributing writers provided a real sense of team and shared achievement.

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We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our Editor towards the result of producing a collection of our stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in a country where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. Our nationalities, situations and stories varied enormously, but we were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates. It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead up to the publication.

Just after we received our writer’s copies of the anthology, I received an email from one of the other writers. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. And indeed, I had read her tale of hurtling through the streets of Hanoi in the throes of labor on the back of a motorbike towards the hospital, and the (safe) arrival of her daughter. She had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon! “Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day” she emailed. And indeed we did. Yet, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would probably not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club. A wonderful connection, thanks to our Dragonfruit Anthology.

Fast forward by two years, to May this year. As it turned out we were both preparing to leave Myanmar as changes approached. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America. For Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure as she told me about it.

“You should come to the lodge,” she said to me. “It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come”.

What a fascinating thought, but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is not close. It is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning, that  this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than 5 continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than 2 continents in any year in the past). How many grandmothers are able to do that? What a temptation…

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So here I am, in a beautiful lodge, nestling in the hills of Ecuador, sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

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I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing 2016 to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

If it had not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I simply would not be here now in this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but  I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are  to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, dragonfruit!

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Retreat

If there is something I have learned over the past years, it is this. I thrive in retreat. I embrace being in nature and far from crowds, madding or otherwise. I don’t need entertainment or sophisticated surroundings. I can sit and listen to the river flowing, the breeze in the trees and the sounds of critters and birds about their daily work. I have learned that this is important for my wellbeing and in fact is the most effective way to replenish energy and refresh my body and soul.

This year has been intense. Globally, we have seen and felt shockwaves we could never have believed, and we have heard the anguish of those affected by hate and conflict. The year has been one of enormous change for me personally, and one which has been healthy in many ways but its intensity has left me drained and spent. I need to face the coming year with energy and renewed enthusiasm. And for that I have again retreated, and ventured far to do so.

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This means that the silence of the past weeks on this space is being gently lifted as I put together reflections and share with you some details of this retreat. I am working on the three words for the coming year and catching up with the past months. The Feisty Blue Gecko has been but resting and is ready to emerge refreshed.

To set the tone and provide a taste of what is to come, I share now a picture of my new neighbour, a sweet little blueish bird the likes of which I have never seen before, who was busy eyeing up this avocado while managing to pose for me.

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My eyes are open, my ears are listening and my mind is letting go of the intensity of the past months. Let the revitalisation begin.

No Seven Year Itch

This is my 7th cancerversary. And I am beyond happy to be here to type those words.

If there’s something I have learned these past years about cancerversaries, it is this. They are pretty much all the same but they are all different too. Each year, similar emotions are stirred. The memory of those words “highly suspicious of cancer” never fades, nor does the memory of feeling petrified. Petrified in its most pure sense, being frozen by fear, immobile, terrified and numb. The feeling of loss, that comes when faced with mortality. The knowledge that things can never return to they way they were before diagnosis. Yet, in seeming contradiction, I have found each cancerversary different. Some I have marked in quiet reflection and thankfulness. Some more analytical than others, and some more intense than others. None, not one has been celebratory. October is brimming with memories and landmark days as well as being compounded with the irony of Breast Cancer Awareness Month so I am surrounded by reminders both in my own head as well as all around me.

October also marks the time of the Big Check. Usually I roll up at Counter No 2 of my familiar Bangkok hospital, am greeted like a long lost friend and find myself on a conveyor belt of blood draws, scans, x-ray, mammo and vitals before seeing my dream team who unravel the mysteries held in the various tests. That’s usually when the tears start, while sitting waiting to wrap up the final paperwork and leave the hospital. An overwhelmingly emotional mix of relief, grief, release of tension as I find myself connected, sometimes a little less directly than others, with NED, No Evidence of Disease.

This year is very different. There is no seven year itch which leads to a rupture in the long relationship with my wonderful team in Bangkok. The reality is that I am no longer an hour’s flight from this team which has looked after me so well for so many years. I am now on Africa soil and would need to find a new dream team in the region. I had considered returning for one final Big Check in October but the unexpected health hiccup in August meant that was unrealistic and a long haul trip unwise. However, the extra time in the UK meant that was able to hurriedly arrange a check up. This was far less detailed than the Bangkok checks, protocols being very different and incorporated mammogram and bloodwork. And no tumour markers. We know these are controversial, and not considered reliable. I know that, yet the yearly or twice yearly marker check is one I cling to as I find reassurance in stable results. It has been strange starting my story at the beginning with new specialists and support teams. It was unsettling not to have a physical examination. I almost feel that I need to go through the intensity of so many tests to be able to breathe when I come out the other side, always knowing that breathing is a luxury and not guaranteed. This year, my bloodwork was fine. Kidney and liver functions and the other key bloodwork all normal. Slightly anaemic, unsurprisingly given the bleed just beforehand. And the mammo was also unremarkable. All reassuring and welcome news delivered over the phone just a few hours before I boarded my flight to return to Africa. I had half guessed this though. The mammo had been carried out a few days earlier, and the oncologist had my phone number and knew I was leaving the country. I knew that if there was something worrisome, then I would have received a call much earlier. Though my heart did stop when her PA called me with the opening words “unfortunately…” This was not related to the tests, thank goodness, but to difficulty in getting me a replenishment of Femara before I departed! So there was no moment when I was shooed out of Dr W’s door to be banished until the next round of checks. No release of  tension, nor tears. Perhaps the seven year point coincides with this new landscape and brings a new perspective even to the Big Checks.

So with the Big Check behind me, friendship maintained with NED, how do I mark this seven year cancerversary? I always have something to say, being a “remember-the-date” kind of girl and October 2 with its cancerversary status is one firmly etched in my mind. This morning Facebook welcome me with a swathe of reminders about the previous posts I have written on this day over the past years. Last year my Big Checks fell on the same day and date as the diagnosis six years previously and I focused on the similarities and differences of those appointments.  The previous year marked five years after diagnosis, a time scale which is widely held to be a magical milestone but which is far more complex. At four years, I was in a contemplative mood with few words but a great deal of thinking and remembering, noting that this was “a day of recognition, quiet reflection and gratitude for a a present which is precious and fragile“. On the third cancerversary I wrote about the line in the sand which you cross when you hear the cancer words. That line which marks the time before and the time after. At the two year point, I dwelt on what I had lost and what I had gained, much of it intangible and psychological. All of it real and intense.

But the very first cancerversary is one which retains its own particular character. That one year mark was an important one, especially given that I did not think I would see Christmas beyond diagnosis, let alone a whole year. Life had changed beyond recognition and I wanted to tell cancer a few things. So I wrote a letter to cancer. I re-read it this morning and realise that in fact, much of this sentiment holds true years later, so I have decided to share the letter again.

October 2 2010

Dear Cancer

It is a year since you came into my life and it’s about time I told you what I really think.

You were uninvited.  And unwanted.  And unexpected.  You have changed my life beyond belief and it really will never be the same again.

I had no choice about your unwelcome arrival, you didn’t give me any chance to opt in our out.  You were just there.

The first time I realised you might be there I remember a terrible fear. It was late September and I remember thinking that I would not see that Christmas.  The thought of you kept me awake at night, my mind veering between hope that there was another medical reason for your symptoms, and sheer terror that indeed you were the cause.  I admit I had never really thought that you would try and invade my life, after all you have not troubled our family before and I naively thought that you preferred certain genetic and family traits.  So when I was told that you were there I was shocked and surprised.  And terrified.

You are such a destructive force and that meant I had to endure destructive treatments.   For my survival I was trapped in an overwhelming battle between massively destructive powers. I had to lose parts of myself to cut you out of my body. My body hosted a long and violent battle between you and the toxic chemotherapy and the rays of radiotherapy as they sought out any trace you might have hidden as a seed for the future.  I know that I was left sick, exhausted and very weak but that was worth every ounce of suffering to know I tried everything in the hands of the powerful team I have to banish you.

While this has taken me through a horrible journey, when I have had numerous side effects, lost my hair, caught pneumonia, lost much of the use of my left arm and generally felt very ill, it has brought me some special things too.  The relationships with those near and dear have grown and strengthened and we have cherished time which we might otherwise have squandered.  While it was my body which you invaded, you touched the lives of many beside me with your heavy dark hand.  I have had to face up to some horrible and unpleasant procedures and been able to find a strength and resilience that I had no idea I possessed.  I have connected with many other women all around the world whose lives you have also invaded and we have shared the most private of details from the terrifying through to the hilarious.  We have laughed at your expense, even though we acknowledge that you have had possibly the bigger laugh.  Time will tell if you have the last one.  While I value and treasure these factors which I found through you, don’t get any ideas that this might endear me to you.  No, I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO LIKE YOU!  I get your point and I will continue to do everything possible to keep you as far from me as possible.

I am still frightened of you because you are such a destructive and determined force. You are also horribly sneaky and I know how powerful you are.  I know that I have always to be vigilant because I don’t know when or where or how you might try another attack on me.

I resent you because I am no longer able to think of the future without worrying about you coming back.  I resent you because I now live my life through what I call the “cancer lens”.  Even if I don’t need to take you into account in what I do, you have changed the way I see everything. You could say that instead of seeing life through rose tinted spectacles, I see through pink breast cancer spectacles.  I might not particularly like it, but I recognise, accept and live with it.

So I will be keeping a very keen eye open for any attempts you make to sneak back into my life.  And trust me, if you do try any comeback, you will be treated to exactly the same welcome.

Yours candidly

One Feisty Blue Gecko

This makes me think of the French expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” which translates along the lines of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Indeed they do. The landscape is new yet somewhat familiar in certain elements. The perspex plates which cause both physical and emotional discomfort in mammogram machines, the needles and skilled fingers which try to find blood in reticent veins and the anxious waiting all easily cross continents. Yet, the team now looking after me, and the systems and procedures are very new as is the African soil, the flowers and the birdsong.

Indeed in these times, there is always something to take us back to that which truly counts. The dry season which was underway when I arrived in Africa has given way to a short rainy season. It is less humid, and far less warm than Yangon but the thunderstorms which light up the skies are reassuringly constant in their dramatic nature. The lightning reveals the silhouettes of a thousand hills and causes electricity lines to blow. In the fresh post rain air this morning, I spotted on the rain-sodden grass an unexpected splash of colour. There in the middle of the grass was a brand new flower. As if placed there for this day of note.

A perfect, timely reminder to cherish the past and embrace the new.

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Reorientation, seeking to crystalize

On seeking a place to call home

How many bedrooms does this home have?

Is it close to some shops and a handy bus stop?

Does it sit without squeeze in my budget?

Does the kitchen have space to roast garlic?

 

But perhaps it is not those things which truly count,

not what I most want to know

when seeking a place to call home.

 

Perhaps, what I really wish to ask

would be…

 

If I’m permitted to hang art on the walls?

Memories, photographs, pictures.

Can the power points provide strength for all moods of music?

Is there space for bookshelves and too many books?

 

Can I sleep soundly at night, undisturbed by harsh sounds?

Can I hear birdsong when the sun is thinking to rise?

Does the sunlight shine softly into the rooms?

Are there smiles or frowns in the air?

 

How many shades of green can be seen through the windows?

How many paces to a blossoming jacaranda?

Does the breeze whisper gentle, welcoming words?

Will a frangipani cutting thrive here?

 

 

Is there a space to sit quietly with a large mug of tea?

Is there a sense that I can really be me?

Is it a house or is it a home?

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Disorientation

And so the sun sets on another week, and I find myself in a different continent.

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Under an African sky – in front of my eyes

I returned to Africa a week ago after an unexpected, and unwelcome reason for extension to my stay in Scotland. I should have returned two weeks earlier, after a short visit but things always take a surprise turn in that post diagnosis cancer world. I am fine, no nasty cancer surprises but I can attribute what happened directly to cancer.

So what happened, that warranted hospital admission and being unable to return for two whole weeks? A nosebleed, that’s what. Yes, a nosebleed. And one I blame unequivocally on cancer!

It started fairly innocently just before I had an optician’s appointment. One of a series of things to be done, while on home leave. The bleed would not stop, and reluctantly I had to cancel the optician. I pinched my nose, and waited patiently as the time for another appointment approached. The bleeding continued and worsened. I called the medical practice and was advised that I should go the Accident and Emergency Unit at the local hospital where they would be able to deal with the bleeding. The last thing I wanted to do, but with my history and being on blood thinners this was the correct and only course of action.

Treatment was not pleasant or nice, and for something as trivial-sounding as a nosebleed it was frightening to see how quickly a situation can become worrying. I was admitted to hospital and with the various procedures the bleeding was eventually staunched. I was allowed home the following day, with a strict set of instructions. No hot showers, no exertion, no flying or travel and the worst? NO TEA! That was a serious struggle. I have never craved tea so much in my life! But heat or exertion can re-start the bleeding and that is not a risk to be taken, so no tea and no immediate return to Africa.

How can I blame cancer? Quite easily in fact, the nose bone is quite clearly connected to the cancer bone in my case. Blood thinners were the cause of the nosebleed, and those blood thinners are a consequence of the Pulmonary Embolism I had, which was attributed to Tamoxifen. PE is a relatively rare but dangerous side effect of Tamoxifen. And of course,Tamoxifen is prescribed following hormone receptive cancer diagnosis. Thanks, cancer!

The sides and afters of cancer and its treatments continue to rumble on and we are reminded that even at times of NED (No Evidence of Disease) we exist with vulnerability and fragility.

I am enormously thankful that this medical hiccup has been dealt with relatively easily, but my confidence has again been damaged. I am approaching 7 years from diagnosis and am in pretty good health overall. Yet the fallout from cancer, while it might not be visible or evident apart from to me, is not to be underestimated. Life is fragile, precious and unpredictable. At the hospital, the ENT specialist advised me to be cautious and not to trust my body as it has let me down before. Interesting words from a doctor, validating anxieties and vigilance.

So I am pleased to have returned to my new life in Africa, though being in three continents in as many months has proved disorienting briefly. It is good to be able to look ahead with no immediate plans of long distance travel and to concentrate on my reorientation. My three word mantra for the year powerfully reminding me of my focus for the year. The time is right to seek to crystalize and settle now and I have a very clear reminder of my middle word – nurture – timely and so pertinent.

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I returned home yesterday late afternoon as the sun was sinking in the sky and I was treated to a spectacular sunset. And I was present in every sense to witness and appreciate it. With no thanks to cancer!