Many happy returns – a European birthday for a change

Many happy returns of the day, is the expression. One I like a great deal since my diagnosis. Already this is my fifth “return of the day” since I heard the words which made me think I would not see another Christmas, never mind another birthday.  There is another story in there which I am also picking up, but for now, I am looking at a birthday policy of “no return” which I have stumbled upon in recent years.birthday bean

In 1999, I travelled on a rare adventure to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had never been out of Europe, save to a short holiday in Tunisia so the thought of a train trip to Asia was a huge step into new territory, literally as well as metaphorically.

In mid July 1999, I flew to Moscow and then caught the Trans Siberian Express.  The rest is history, and was a great part in the shaping of my own history. This was the first time I had travelled to Asia, and to make this all the more meaningful, I ventured into Asia one kilometre at a time, as the train moved forward and spent that magical 40th birthday in Southern China, cycling alongside paddy fields. In 2000 I had started work in Nepal and spent my birthday there, and from then on developed a kind of tradition.  Spend the birthday in Asia, if possible in a new country.  And as a result I have spent every single birthday in the intervening birthdays in Nepal, Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. Cambodia and Malaysia.

asia map

This year looked a little different.  For a start there are important family events which I have to be here for.  No question.  And now for the trivial, but practical.  My bank card expired on 31 July and the new card would be delivered to a UK address. Hmmm. Of course it is possible to get from Asia to Europe and then back again for a birthday in Asia.  Possible yes.  Realistic, less so and sensible –  almost certainly not. I would definitely be booking a birthday trip from the UK.

The only option which looked viable was to book a few days in Istanbul, the cusp of Asia and Europe, and celebrate my birthday there.  I looked at options, and was particularly encouraged by the fact that I could fly direct from Edinburgh. I could also fly back into London and then see family in the Englandy side of the UK.  It all looked good and feasible.  So I then looked at hotel options, initially highly surprised at the ridiculous costs, but managing to find some reasonable options.  Next step is to do the “side-by’side” crab approach to booking.  First the flights, then the hotel, not confirm one nor the other until both appear to be workable.  Fights were available and so was the hotel, so I moved to the next step.  Booking and Paying! Now, if it takes time to search for options, that is nothing compared to the challenge of paying for them online.  Our weak connectivity always brings a challenge and was true to form when I tried to pay for the flights.  The payment process would almost complete, but a dropped connection for a second would bounce me back to the start of the process. After the third attempt, the inevitable happened.  A message appeared advising me that my bank card was not accepted.  My heart sank, as although I knew it was probably due to the repeated attempts at payment, it always stresses me when the card refuses to work.  By this time it was late in the evening and after an extremely expensive phone call resolving the card I decided to call a halt to the long and tedious proceedings and try again the following day.

The following day was Friday 18 July and we woke to the news of MH17, a commercial flight which had been blown out of the sky on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Suddenly, selfishly, the thought of booking flights which were strictly speaking “unnecessary” became very unappealing. I did not make a conscious decision not to book, but I made no move to take forward the planning and confirmation of the previous evening.

My appetite for booking the birthday break had disappeared, and conveniently I was buried under the necessary tasks which have to be done generally before depart on leave. Time ticked on and by the time I arrived in Scotland all I had was a great deal of confusion, far too many ideas and wishes and very few days to plan and book. There were a number of options and my criteria were clear.  Firstly, I wanted to go to a country I have not been to before and secondly I did not want to fly. But translating this into a booking was somewhat more difficult. There were so many options – even Istanbul by train, Budapest, Vienna and Prague.  Riverways in Europe were another option and I have also not been to Portugal, Sweden or Finland and they were also accessible over land and sea.  In my mind, an exotic journey on the Orient Express was what I was hankering after, but that is but a dream.

orient express

 

orient express 2

 

steam train 1

Fantasy aside, amongst the many options, the biggest challenge was in pulling all of the information together and making sense of it.  I really just wanted to go into the International Bookings Office which used to exist in mainline railway stations and find out what was possible, and for them to hand me an exciting ticket. Sadly, these facilities no longer exist and a complicated phone call to London would be the only way forward. With only 48 hours before I wanted to leave, though, many of those options were reducing dramatically as was my will and capacity to organise anything at all complicated.

There was one very simple option which emerged and gathered favour, however, and one which did not need a complicated booking or reservation. And – it was to a country I have not been to before………. If I caught Eurostar (easily bookable online) to Brussels, I could then catch an onward train to Luxembourg which would arrive 3 hours later.  These trains departed hourly and did not need advance booking!  I could leave London in the morning and be in Luxembourg in the afternoon!

Luxembourg city 1

I realised that I knew very little about Luxembourg, but from a quick image search I knew that it would be a good fit, even if not near Asia.  Luxembourg city is highly impressive and looked very appealing.  Before I booked it, however, my attention was drawn by one image on the Visit Luxembourg tourism site and before I knew what had happened I was off on another hunt! I had seen images of beautiful woodland and wanted to spend my birthday, right there!

visit luxembourg berdorf

I soon learned that Luxembourg is a very small country and to get to this village very near the eastern border with Germany, it would take less than an hour. Finally, a decision had been made, tickets were rapidly bought and a characterful guest house booked.

And that is how I came to decide how to spend my first non Asia birthday in 16 years! And that is a tale for the blogging morrow!

lux 2

Between Saturn and an iceberg – there be dragon (fruit) and dreams

Many years ago, I returned from a visit to Poland, clutching a chubby china pot which closed with its own little lid. Painted on its exterior were some stars and a cat. It was too cute to resist and it did not trouble me that I did not understand the meaning of the words beside the artwork. Later, however, I learned that the words described the little pot as “a place to keep my dreams”. How perfect. I have been thinking of this little pot recently, when reflecting about my “wish bucket”, that imaginary receptacle where I keep my dreams and wishes. Maybe in my mind I see it as less of a bucket and more like that little pot, designed especially for me to keep those dreams in. A little like a glass storage jar, but without the airtight lid. No, I don’t want my dreams to be confined. They must be able to seep out, or fly into the air. Perhaps my dreams are being nurtured in a wide-necked glass jar, amongst a pot pourri of treasured thoughts and memories. Easily accessible and ready to be drawn out or added to.

Recently I wrote about some of the dreams and wishes in this wish jar, as think I will now call it. There are a number of weird and wonderful dreams in there, jostling against each other as time and circumstance gently shake the contents:

  • Meet a blogging friend in a new place (repeat as often as possible)
  • Buy a picture/piece of artwork at a gallery opening and watch them put the red sticker on it.
  • Book into the Oriental Bangkok for a weekend.  Or maybe a night.  Or maybe just have afternoon tea there given the price!
  • See a kangaroo in the wild.
  • Visit a country with the letter ‘Z’ in it.
  • See the Aurora Borealis (northern lights)
  • Get funky, colourful nail art on my finger and toenails just for fun, just for once.
  • See the rings on Saturn through an astronomy telescope
  • See some of my writing in print.  In a book, with real paper pages!
  • See an iceberg
  • See a starfish in the sea
  • Sail through the Norwegian Fiords

There are (and always will be) many dreams to realise, but one is shifting and moving to the surface, peeping over the glass rim, ready to be taken in my hands and released into the air. If you look carefully there is one dream which for me is a Particularly Big Dream. It is nestled just after my wish to see the rings on Saturn through a telescope and just before the desire to see an iceberg. That wish is to see some of my writing in print, in a real book with paper pages. This was clear also when I took up the baton in the recent Blog Tour and I wrote (at length) about my writing process.

Last year I saw a call for submissions for an Anthology, seeking narrative non-fiction and memoir from women writers who are, or have been expats in East Asia. How perfect was that? To cut a long story short, and one which the Editor tells here, my tale was selected for inclusion in the Anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. This is a collection of stories exploring the struggles and triumphs of expat life in East Asia by 26 female writers, edited by Shannon Young.  It will be available in paperback and e-book formats on 10 June 2014.You can follow the Facebook page here and read the Editor’s introduction to the book and contributors here.

Soon, I will be able to meet the other women writers through their stories and perhaps in person when the book is launched, as well as the Editor who I have worked with through the fine tuning process. Soon I will be able to pick up that book, leaf through its pages and read my own words. I can’t quite imagine how that will feel.

There will be many more details to share in the coming weeks, with reviews and the cover image, and perhaps my own experience of dragonfruit surprises!

Dragonfruit surprise!

Dragonfruit surprise!

And then I need to nurture the related dream, to produce a book which is all my own work. Something else which is being kept alive in the wish jar.

wishjar

How does one dress to be a writer, I wonder?

After Words

I was astonished by the level of interest and response to my “thanks, but no thanks” rant last week.  I was in part reassured to know that I am not alone in the physical and emotional space and that these “afters” and “sides” of cancer and its treatment are very real and encroaching.  However, at the same time I was saddened and frustrated that so many of us are struggling.  Often silently, because we do not want to appear ungrateful or to upset family, friends and those around us.

From the outset in this cancer experience I have always reminded myself that there are many things which are not in my control, but many which are.  And how I live the cancer deal is one of those in my control.  I would rather be flippant and feisty, and poke fun at cancer than dwell in the doldrums and feel unhappy with my lot.  It just is what it is and I get on with it.  Mostly.

What came across clearly in the comments and conversations prompted by the rant, was the fact that amidst this weariness, we feel compelled to maintain a positive outlook and we feel guilty when we sometimes want to scream and stamp our feet.  Well perhaps not stamp the feet as they hurt too much!  There was a widely shared sense that we do not allow ourselves to have off days, and times of frustration or anguish.

I have been adjusting to these side effects of these meds for some time, and last week reached the point where I lifted my head out of the sand and realised that the pain and discomfort are such that there are many things which physically I can no longer do.  I have had to acknowledge with some resistance, that the break I have booked for next month will be far more physically challenging than I have prepared myself for and that is beyond frustrating.  This is not about inconvenience, this is about debilitating physical effects which are stopping me doing what I have long taken for granted.   For example, one of the favourite parts of my work, visits to our project sites are increasingly difficult – I used to hop on and off of boats, sit on the floor in villages and walk for days in the Himalayas.  Much of that is now too painful, unsafe or, sadly, beyond my capacity now.

That is when I reached that tipping point and this rant took shape.  I feel better for venting, but nothing of course changes the physical deal, the side effects are still there, and I still have difficulty walking. But it is what it is.  I deal with it. I get on with it and adjust as far as possible.  Mostly with a smile, but sometimes, it just gets too much and I weep.  Not often, but sometimes.

These past weeks have been tough ones, and the prospect of more of the same in terms of side effects feels heavy.  But I do work hard to balance this and make the most of what I DO have, and carpe that diem.

Most days I am incredulous that I have been able to realise my dream and ambition to live and work overseas, in such extraordinary places.  I have now been in Asia for 13 years, and am humbled and moved by the incredible experiences I have been through and the wealth of inspiring and amazing people I have known.  I love my life, and I have no significant regrets.  There are of course a heap of things I still would love to do, sitting in my wish bucket.  But, I have so much to be thankful for and if someone called “time” tomorrow, I would not plead for the chance to do that something I have not managed to get round to.

Even as I sit here, looking out onto the lush garden, the wind whispering in the mango tree, frogs croaking as more rains approach, I still have that sense of naïve wonder and fresh enthusiasm at being in such a place.

However, some days it just takes that extra energy and determination to get on with the day to day, and I find that the reserves have run low and it is just out of reach.

It is what it is.

Sometimes even geckoes have to rant.

Image

Re-entry. Accomplished? Kind of……….

Re-entry back into the spheres of life and work has been accomplished.  I guess. At least physically.

re-entry

Re-entry into Asia, Myanmar and Yangon took place on Sunday.  I travelled on the overnight flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok and for once the flight was smooth with minimal turbulence. Towards the end of the flight, and as we were flying over Myanmar (ironically) the pilot advised us that we would be starting our descent into Bangkok shortly.  Almost as an aside he mentioned that there were thunderstorms in the vicinity of Suvarnibhumi Airport so there could be some turbulence. Now thunderstorms and flying as a combination freak me out a little, so I decided to instantly file the information in the large “denial” folder in my mind.

lightning and plane
That worked initially as we started the descent, and I even managed to stay detached when we had a few pretty bumpy encounters with soupy clouds.  Then – BANG! There was a huge ”THWOOOOMP” kind of noise at the window and the cabin lit up as we air-kissed a bolt of lightning.  Inside the cabin there a lot of squeals and exclamations (although I didn’t understand the words as they were mostly in Dutch, I clearly understood what they meant), and great gripping of the arm rests.  The stewardess did not seem as alarmed as we were, and told us that we were safer in the sky than on the ground.  To say that this seemed counter-intuitive is an understatement, as we all know that lightning seeks out the highest point.  Plane.  Sky.  High…………  (I have since consulted Prof Google about this and it seems correct, would you believe?) The following fifteen minutes as we approached the runway lasted at least three hours, but finally we landed safely to an audible and collective exhale of breath. Re-entry into Asia?  Accomplished.

lightning and planes theory

I had over three hours in the airport before my onward flight to Yangon, so collapsed into the secret comfy armchairs near the departure gates for a bit and concentrated on staying awake and not thinking about the stormy sky outside. Finally we departed, the skies had cleared and our short flight was uneventful and pleasant. In no time, I was through arrivals and heading homewards to a waiting cup of tea!  Sunday afternoon was heading into Sunday evening. Re-entry into Myanmar and Yangon?  Accomplished.

The time difference between Yangon and the UK is 5.5 hours at the moment, thanks to British Summer Time. Returning to Asia, I usually find more difficult to adjust to than the travel to Europe as you lose several hours and morning in my corner of the world is late night in the place I have just left.  Thanks to the overnight flight and the intensity of the overall visit, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, so managed to sleep fairly early on the Sunday evening.  Which was fortunate as most folks in the UK would just have gone to bed when it was time for me to get up for work on the Monday morning!  Which I did manage to do.  Although it did require a very deep breath to face my desk which had been abandoned so hurriedly when I left for Scotland a lifetime earlier. Re-entry into work?  Accomplished.  Pretty much.

Overnight on Sunday and Monday, my sleep was broken however, by a sound which I did not recognise.  It was certainly some kind of animal, emitting a noise a bit like a throaty bray of a donkey crossed with a deep quack of a duck.  It was so strange and I was so disoriented that I disturbed hubby to ask what it was!  He was naturally not so amused to be quizzed on wildlife in the small hours but was able to tell me that it was a kind of bullfrog.  This is not the usual “happy party” frog noises I hear during monsoon, and I learned the following day that this is the noise which the Big Frogs make to call for the rains because they have had enough of the oppressive heat and want their monsoon parties to begin.

bullfrog

This seemed to work.  I was not long home on Tuesday evening and had realised that the frogs were silent.  However, in the distance I could hear thunder rattling around and before long it was clear it was heading towards us.  I could feel the air cool and thicken and a wind picked up, agitating the trees as the thunder became louder and the flashes of lightning more persistent.  The rain started abruptly, pounding through the trees and beating against the windows as the storm passed overhead, thunder and lightning simultaneously crashing around.  And then, with no surprise at all, the lights all went out.  The power was gone and I was in the midst of a quadrophonic water symphony, orchestrated by a group of actors including the rain, wind, thunder and of course the lightning conductor.  (ouch!)

Now sometimes power comes back quickly, and other times it doesn’t.  It is just a case of get hold of the torches, blackout bits and pieces and wait and see.  After about an hour the lights flickered back on.  You could hear the collective sigh of relief and blowing out of candles across the neighbourhood, followed by another collective “oh no” as they flickered off again less than a minute later.  Usually that is a good sign.  It means that the power is almost fixed and should come on again soon. All the while, the mugginess and humidity seemed to intensify and the lights stayed off.  And, all the while, the power stayed stubbornly off.  In fact it stayed off all night.  Which meant very little sleep.  Hardly great when combined with jetlag.  Especially unhelpful for productivity or energy throughout a demanding working day.  The power was still off when I headed out to work and was still off late in the afternoon when I phoned home.

Wednesday evening saw writing group, so I was later home than usual that evening. And to be honest, the thought of another night in that discomfort was not pulling me home.  When I did arrive home the lights were on and I could hear music playing!  What a great welcome!  Short-lived unfortunately. Hubby gently broke the news to me that the lock mechanism in the bedroom door had broken and the bedroom (and small attached bathroom were inaccessible)!  My first thought was that my swimming stuff was in there and the morning swim now sabotaged.  Next thought was for my toothbrush!  Then for everything I needed for the next morning to be able to turn up at work.  Isn’t it just typical that the day you can’t access your everything, is the day you have an Important Meeting and need to be looking the part! There was no way that door could be opened though, at that time in the evening and the only choice was to sleep in the spare room, wearing random pieces of laundry and breaking into the spare toothbrush supply from our last visit to Bangkok.  Another sticky and uncomfortable night, though slightly more sleep than the eve. The lack of morning swim though, really did make an impact – it is always amazing just how much more energy it gives getting up an hour and a half earlier for the swim and cycle.

Happily the locksmith arrived early and had removed the whole mechanism and opened the door within minutes.  With a whoop of happiness, I was able to access my appropriate attire for the day and make a start not too much later than usual.  Re-entry into sleep patterns and acclimatisation?  In progress.

So now, thank goodness it is the weekend and the chance to regroup a little.  Saturday morning saw me draw up a very quick five sticky plan to guide the weekend, the first one in a while as this has not been relevant the past few weeks.

IMG_0645

So re-entry has at least physically been accomplished, though it is remarkable how different the landscape looks following our bereavement.  I guess it just takes time for our senses and emotions to readjust.

I fall down. I get up again.

Life is a tapestry indeed, with multi coloured, interwoven threads all feeding into one large, rich image.  Except that sometimes, the colours clash, or one part of the image leaves a strange and unwelcome feeling when viewed.  I don’t need to spell out which parts of the picture I don’t like looking at.

At the moment, there is such a variety in this tapestry.  There is the work thread, taking up a huge space at the moment, the swimming and cycling patch which is steady, firm and strong, the social and online thread which varies depending on how much space the other elements are using.

And there is the creative part.  As well as reading, writing and occasionally scrabbling through the cupboards and brushing the dust off my arty materials I am also part of two structured creative activities.  The first is a writing group where I am learning a great deal.  And realising how difficult this writing lark is!  The second is a Book Club.  Both groups are fairly small, and pretty informal and warm.

The great thing about the Book Club is reading material I might well not otherwise read and learning of new authors and works.  I have just finished reading The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna ( (a wonderful choice by friend and fellow Yangon blogess Becky) in preparation for our meeting this month.

memory-of-love1

Having lived in Asia for so long, it is fascinating to read of a country I know so little of, and in fact a continent I have barely visited.  This book takes us to Sierra Leone with harrowing and exquisite insights into its people and the conflict years and its impact.  This is not going to be a review of the book, there are plenty online and better to read the book yourself rather than listen to my take on it.  No, this is a reflection prompted by a saying which stopped me mid sentence, it resonated so fiercely.  The physical and emotional damage of the conflict combined with resilience and hope are clearly conveyed in everyday conversation.  When someone asks you how you are, perhaps you can’t honestly answer that you are fine, so the reply “I fall down, I get up again” expresses that as much as challenges knock us down, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and keep moving ahead.  If you ask someone how they are and they reply “I fall down.  I stand up again” then they are saying that all things considered they are doing as well as can be expected.

Of course this can apply to life in general, but the sense of resilience, determination and hope shine particularly where the challenges are traumatic such as the armed conflict in Sierra Leone.  Or conflict in any country.  Or trauma and grief at times of bereavement, ill health, accident for example.

Or a cancer diagnosis.

And that is the saying affected me so powerfully.  The path from the point of diagnosis feels a bit like a series of really hard knocks, followed by picking ourselves up.  Sometimes those knocks bowl us right over.  The diagnosis hit must be one of the hardest. Hearing those life-changing “you have cancer” words, however they are articulated knock us flat. As we lie breathless, winded and stunned though, a strange thing happens.  I remember so clearly, when Dr W told me gently and irrevocably “this is highly suspicious of cancer” I was truly felled.  The words echoed round and round in a surreal and cruel mockery. Yet, we pull ourselves to our feet, brush down our crumples and nurse our emotional bruises and ask “what do we do?”  And gingerly take tentative steps forward.

The blows keep coming, knocking us to our knees, making us stumble or completely flooring us.

My pathology report with its “cancer in six lymph nodes” shocker, threw me back to the ground.  It was not any courage that pulled me back to my feet.  It was the fact that I saw no alternative but to focus single-mindedly on gritting my teeth and getting up to push myself through the process of surgery, chemo and then radiation.  I stumbled onwards, tumbling down again and again.  Chemo particularly enjoyed flooring me and trying to gain an upper hand by knocking me further every time.  But I did get up.  Slowly.  Cautiously. Warily.

As time has worn on and the diagnosis date gains distance, the knocks are different and of course, not all cancer knocks.  But as I fall down, I get up again.  Sometimes it is such a burden to drag myself to my feet.  My July embolism was a real side blinder which smashed me to the ground with no warning.  I have had to look all around me, in all directions as I slowly got back up again.  And then the tumour marker results in October took delight in pulling my feet from under me again.  I am back on my feet after that one, but treading warily towards the next bloodwork in January, bracing for another fall in case the markers throw up trouble, yet wishing and willing for the chance to break through this hurdle.  If all is well then I can pick up speed and strength to keep momentum and keep pulling myself up further.

The key thing is that I am not alone.  I am not the only one tumbling as these knocks come, and I know that my knocks are nowhere near as hard as those hitting others.  I am also not alone in getting myself up again.  I am helped to my feet by hubby, by family and friends, by my online friends and by strangers I have never met.

I have learned a great deal from the people of Sierra Leone and their resilience, attitude and strength.  I have also discovered that there are variations on this in both Chinese and Japanese cultures.

fall down2

This expression is one I will hold on to tightly and repeat as a mantra.  I know I will fall down again, many many times I am sure.  But with this thought in mind I know that as I continue to fall, I will continue to get up again, and again, for as long as I can.

I fall down.  I get up again.

Where there is no pink pandemic

As we enter the month of Breast Cancer Awareness it is true that Pinktober might be upon many of us.  However, I would urge us to remember that the world is not an equal place.  I ask myself whether it is a good thing or not that the pink pandemic has not reached all corners of the globe?

I am keenly aware that I am physically and intellectually very distant from the sophisticated marketing and campaigning of the Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  I have yet to see any pink products with my own eyes, and with the exception of pink ribbon postering in the hospital I go to, I could actually remain unaware of the Pink Month.  Except for my online life that is.  I find it a very confusing and conflicting period, both emotionally and intellectually.  I follow the debates.  And I humbly appreciate and value the efforts family and friends put towards many cancer related causes, in my support.

One of the concerns I frequently hear is that there we are past the stage of raising awareness, everyone knows about breast cancer, and that the focus must change.  I respect and acknowledge that, and believe it is true I many contexts.  However, as I have mentioned here, there are still many places where accurate and fair awareness raising are essential.  There are indeed contexts where breast cancer is misunderstood and where the causes and treatments are limited.  I have already described my reaction when my colleague expressed her surprise that I had been diagnosed because I am not a spinster.  Now it is easy to be shocked at this but let’s put things in context a bit.  Cancer is (a far as I understand) a disease which flourishes in the developing world.  Childbirth at an early age and breast feedingare acknowledged to be mitigating risk factors in Breast Cancer vulnerability.  So in a situation where there are few touches of the modern world it would not be surprising to learn that the disease probably appears to be seen more among women who have neither borne children and therefore not breast fed.  In traditional settings, these women would tend to be unmarried. Hence, a spinster disease.

This has prompted me to try and put together some awareness raising activities locally, so that I can at least highlight signs which should be recognised and which should prompt women to seek medical advice.  In this context my starting point will be to talk with women.  Initially women only, though I will seek ways which are appropriate and respectful of raising awareness with men too at some point.  At the very least, I hope that it means that Breast Cancer will be talked about openly in a fairly private and comfortable setting. We will explore together what breast cancer means, starting from what people already know and believe. I expect we will also talk about what kind of treatment options exist.

In order to try and understand the situation more clearly in preparation for this, I have been talking with friends about their experience and understanding of breast cancer.  I have had some fascinating discussions and learned a great deal about beliefs about the cause of breast cancer, who is “susceptible” and treatment options for people diagnosed with breast cancer, and for that matter other cancers too.  I was not prepared for the response, and do bear in mind that I have been in Asia for 11 years in working in some very untouched areas.  From what I have learned, cancer was not openly talked about and the term “cancer” not used until more recent times.  Even today, I hear a number of references to “that kind of illness” and “the serious disease”. When it comes to treatment, traditional remedies are what people trust and feel comfortable with, and indeed are often the only option available.  When exploring this together, I am sure I will learn a great deal more about breast cancer in settings which are off the pink radar.

However, this brings a real dilemma.  By raising awareness and highlighting signs which women should be aware of., this leads on to a greater demand for diagnostics and treatment.  However, high standards of medical treatment and facilities are not readily accessible to many.  Furthermore the costs of treatment is also beyond the reach of a great number of people.  So what does empowerment and awareness achieve if options are very limited, and someone is not able to access the treatment indicated?  Is awareness raising in fact more dangerous because it puts people in a situation in which they are worse off and more afraid?

There is no easy answer to this.  The ideal would be that hand in hand with awareness raising would be a move towards broad access to treatment and care.  I guess that is what we have to strive for.

So while the debate rages around pinkification, I have the aim of sharing a side which does not generally feature in the discussions.  The reality that for many women around the world the need for awareness and treatment is urgent and for whom the debate around pink October has no immediate relevance.

The birthday present

I’m afraid it is time for another small confession.

One of the prompts for my visit to Cambodia was to continue a strange practice which started on my trans-siberian epic journey 12 years ago.  Wait a minute, how many years ago?  Impossible!  Well, however many years ago it was, it sparked the practice of spending my birthdays in Asia.  Over the past 12 years I have spent my birthdays in Nepal (several), Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and of course the one where it started – China.  I have a strange pull to spend the day in a different Asian country each year if possible.  Hence the Cambodia visit.

When I revisit my thoughts from this time last year, I realise how far I really have come.  Last year I spent a quiet and reflective day, and I can see just how much I was still wrapped up in a cancery space emotionally and physically.  I had only just started going “topless” a couple of weeks previously, braving my scalp stubble to the world, and was still suffering from the later stages of shingles.

For the first time since starting to blog, I am going to do something really radical just to highlight how far I have come indeed……..

This is a photo.  Of me.  Last year.  On my birthday.

I am becoming less precious about being anonymous, and while I do not like photos of myself (especially the ones where I have “cancer” stamped clearly on my forehead), I do feel more able to come out from behind my protective barrier.  And one big reason is that I feel able to share a picture from my birthday this year, here in Cambodia.

My day was firmly about living in the present.  None of know what is ahead and with the cancer lens in front of our eyes, fear and anxiety are never far away.  So I grasped the mettle and decided to do something I have long wanted to do and not think of the distant future and what might or might not happen.  I booked myself an “off the beaten track” trip for the day and despite torrential monsoon rain, I had an incredible day, slithering around villages and clambering over temples like an aging, bespectacled female Indiana Jones!

I still have my anxieties, and I still fear the return of cancer.  I know that won’t change and will intensify and fluctuate with scares and checks.  But for today I have discovered that I can live in the immediate, here-and-now present.  And that is the best birthday present possible.