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.


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?



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


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.


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!


Hippo Bird-day!

I always approach birthdays with trepidation. Not because I am uncomfortable about adding another year to my age, but because our family has a strange relationship with birthdays and deathdays as I have written before, and birthdays make me nervous. So it was with great relief that I awoke on 2 August, the day after my birthday, fit and well.

Since my diagnosis, I have also begun a practice of doing something memorable for my birthday, and preferably in a country I have not previously been in. The foundation was set when I spent my 40th birthday in China and following years in Nepal, Thailand, India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. In recent years, I have celebrated my aging in Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, Luxembourg and Portugal. Given my new arrival on African soil, I decided to celebrate this year’s birthday by visiting a nearby national park and hoping for close encounters with African wildlife.

This post will be one of images and memories, with a sprinkling of narrative and description. Fortune smiled warmly on me, and I was able to see many animals and birds. For some reason, the hippos were out in force and I saw too many to count! Some were peeping out of the water, some were wallowing and chatting in groups, and some were wandering. Most were in the company of a white egret. The perfect hippo bird combo to wish me a corny hippo-bird day!

hippo bday 14

I stayed in a Game Lodge, on the border with Tanzania and in the park, and was greeted by baboons as we drove in at sunset.

Hippo bird-day 29

The Lodge’s printed information provided valuable guidance on “How to behave around baboons”.  Just as well as they were very active around the grounds.


On the first morning, I was wide awake, clutching my packed lunch and prepared for a game drive as the sun was rising across the savannah, reflecting on the lake. You just never know what the day will hold and whether the birds and animals will be shy or sociable.

Hippo bird-day 30

There is a small population of elephants, and these are rarely seen so we were lucky to encounter a lone elephant feeding in the trees. We knew he was not alone as we could hear crashing in the undergrowth, trees snapping and shifting of the vegetation. The rest of the herd was shy though, and it was not long before our friend turned and headed towards his friends and out of visibility. A highly promising start to the day.

We continued along the dusty track, pausing to watch velvet monkeys, a group of baboons, fish eagles, impala, bush bucks and we even spotted a very large crocodile hiding in the brush.

Having lived in Asia for so long, I find the African wildlife fascinating, in particular, zebra and giraffe which are so different. We were only a couple of hours into the drive, when we saw a group of zebra in the distance and soon afterwards we spotted a small group of giraffe.

Hippo bird-day 4

As we headed northwards, we encountered more groups of zebra, an increasing number of hippos and

It was nearly lunchtime, when we reached flatter plains and numerous herds of animals – zebra, giraffe, impala and bush bucks. And in the midst of the plains, nestling under a tree in the distance was the king! Watching quietly as zebra grazed nearby, the unmistakable shape of a lion.

hippo bday 15

I could not believe our good fortune. It had been a full morning, driving, watching and taking photographs while counting my blessings and I had not realised that it was well into what would be lunchtime and I was feeling decidedly hungry. There is a designated space for picnicking, under the watch of kingfishers, hippos and supersized thorns so we ate quickly and were soon back on the track.

There was no pressure to spot wildlife on the drive back, and we continued to see a variety of birds and beasts. I was especially drawn by a little rainbow bird, and spellbound when he decided to fly off displaying bright blue plumage.

hippo bday 16

Hippo bird-day 8

We are in the midst of dry season, and the grasslands are clearly parched. There are large areas which are smouldering. A strange place to see herds of zebra, but apparently they feed on the burnt vegetation which provides essential minerals for their diet.

The following day, I decided to take a boat trip onto the lake for a different perspective on the life in the park. As the sun sank in the sky, I joined two other tourists on a small boat and took the waters. We were again gifted by sightings of various birds – snake bird, fish eagle, cormorant and their friends.

The larger creatures too, watched from their comfortable places, including a baby crocodile.

Hippo bird-day 21

And just as the boat drew back towards the jetty, two hippos decided to peep out of the water very close to us, apparently smiling warmly. Our boatman was less convinced of their friendliness, and gently moved back into deeper water. Hippos are the second killers of people in Africa, and he clearly wanted to ensure they were not disturbed or aggravated.

Hippo bird-day 26

As dusk was falling, I returned to the Lodge with a warm glow of happiness. I had been gifted with so many sightings and encounters and was extremely happy with my safari birthday. But my lucky streak was still not over. Through the trees, the driver spotted a group of rare blue monkeys in the trees. They are shy and elusive beings, and did not pause for their portraits to be taken, but I was able to capture their sighting briefly.

Hippo bird-day 27

As I complete another journey around the sun, I again have to pause and reflect on the good things in life, and especially in my life. It has been a truly hippo bird-day!

hippo bday 11

An egret prepares to land on his hippo, creating that hippo bird combination!

And a strong remind to Carpe diem. We just never know what is ahead. For now, a peaceful iconic sunset is the best way to mark that appreciation.

hippo bday 17

First impressions. Some answers, and yet more questions


Red dusty earth and rolling green hills. Hills as far as the eye can see. This is a land of a thousand hills.


A wind ensemble of hitherto unheard birdsong, late afternoon and early morning pan pipe solos and daytime flute melodies. Twittering, tweeting colourful little birds chattering through the afternoon. Tiny chirruping birds, unrelated to the Yangon kingfisher, but sharing the same dress sense and fondness for a shiny blue jacket. Birds dressed for dinner with coat and tails, and a pair of birds with peaked caps airing their private words from the bushes.Sweeping, swooping birds of prey silently keeping a watch from above.

Up hills, down hills all around the city. Hill starts. Hill stops. Hill start ups again.

New flowers, and familiar flowers. Many mornings, different surprise flowers appearing. Occasional sprigs of jacaranda, nasturtiums, sleeping cream-petalled hibiscus and wide awake, boldly smiling pink hibiscus. Geraniums, bougainvillea in red, rusty orange,white and bright purple colours. Miniature flowers with unexpected dandelion clock transformations. Creeping lilac and yellow flowers which open just for one day.

Motorbikes! Everywhere motorbikes. Up and down hills, zigging and zagging through the streets.

Maize and more maize. Baskets of maize on the heads of women. Some baskets of yams or sweet potatoes. Milk urns on the backs of motorbikes.

Nokia phones for radio, music and chit chat.

Teeny tiny butterflies, so petite I cannot see their colour, nor even know for sure that they are indeed butterflies. Super sized ants working in solitude.

Snuggling, sleepy babies hiding from sun and dust under a floating cotton cape, secure on their mothers’ backs.

A three quarter waning moon alongside three bright stars in a night sky that dawns in minutes.

Surrounded by wide, welcoming smiles.

Forty days and forty one nights under an African sky.


Under an African sky

So there are geckoes in Africa. Many. Geckoes and slithery lizards, tree lizards and all manner of little and large reptiles.

As the year continues its march forwards, I am again reassured and guided by my three word mantra.

“Reorient, nurture and crystalize”

I have been moving towards a significant reorientation, and as indicated earlier, this was likely to be personal as well as professional. In my line of work, a change often involves a move to another country. I have now moved not only country, but after sixteen years in Asia, I have moved to a new continent. I now sleep and breathe under an African sky.

In consequence, this means a reorientation of the Feisty Blue Gecko. An alteration to the tag line, and an increasing change in character as I settle under this new sky. A sky where the stars do look different to me with their new orientation below the equator. The constellations are disconcertingly familiar, yet not quite aligned and set out the way I am used to them.

When I started to tell friends of my imminent move, one immediate question was about the blog. Would this cease to exist? With a completely different landscape and many so many different species of flora and fauna, were there even geckoes in Africa? Could the Feisty Blue Gecko possibly relocate from Asia to Africa?

The answer is fairly simple. There are indeed geckoes in Africa, as this little friend reassured me the other evening.


Thus, the Feisty Blue Gecko remains, a constant in a world of change.

So we are undergoing our reorientation, the Feisty Blue Gecko and I. And as we start to get used to our new surroundings, the new phase will gradually crystalize in this new continent.


I am filled with curiosity and have first impressions ready to share about my first days under an African sky.

I wonder…

I wonder…

Do the trees sing in Africa

at the tail end of the day,

as the sun drifts to the west,

dragging the light,

the colour bleeding from the sky in its wake,

causing such rejoicing from the branches?

Does the African kingfisher

wear a smart, shiny cobalt jacket,

slung over his shoulders,

catching the early morning light,

just like his cousin in Yangon?

Does the frangipani blossom

peep shyly up

towards the African sky,

pleading for just a few drops of rain,

in return

promising to release their scent

into the surrounding air?

Does the water lean to the right

when it slips downwards

from an emptying washbowl

just like it does further north

on the other side of the equator ?

Does it rain

at four in the afternoon

in Africa,

flooding lanes,

prompting laughter and annoyance

in equal mix?

I wonder…

What language

do the frogs speak in Africa?

Would they understand

their Burmese friends

as they revel and splash in the mud?

I wonder

so much

about this continent

that I have yet to properly meet.

And soon I will wonder no more.


Yangon, June 2016