When I arrived back in Yangon in November 2010, following my diagnosis, surgery and the first two rounds of chemo, I remember sinking into the chair in our living room with a sense of exhaustion and relief. We had spent hardly any time in our new home before our sudden departure and did not know if we would be able to return. But return we did, almost 2 months later and to a very different Yangon. We had left while monsoon was drenching the earth and when we returned, the rains had evaporated, the earth was already dry and the sky clear blue. And our garden was glorious. The rains had nurtured the mature trees, the bamboo, the hibiscus and frangipani and we were surrounded by lush greens of every shade, punctuated by flashes of tropical colour. Our little home has large windows and the greenery outside brought a sense of calm and healing. I had not consciously craved such tranquillity until I found myself overwhelmed by the comfort it brought.

home sweet home 3For some reason, I was taken by a compulsion to plant a banana tree in our garden. I had long wanted to have a banana tree in my garden since living in Asia. That is something you don’t see in many Scottish gardens. I remember friends in Nepal planting a banana tree in their home in the southern plains and I was astounded at how quickly it grew, blossomed and then produced fruit. Now, returning to Yangon I felt an urgency in planting my own banana trees.

Happily, such things are easily done here and in no time there were a number of young banana trees in the garden, keeping the mango tree, the lime tree and the papaya tree company. They grew easily and I kept an eye on their progress as we moved through the gruelling triathlon of treatment, travelling back and forth between Yangon and Bangkok.

home sweet home 1

home sweet home 2

A few weeks ago, I saw a quote on social media which transported me instantly to the time and emotion of that need to plant the banana tree. I realised that there was something subtle and primal within that compulsion. While I was facing my mortality and the demons which accompany these thoughts, something within me was rising above that place. I was investing time and emotion in my own future, in the shape of a banana tree.

tomorrow More than ever I needed to believe in tomorrow.

And I still do. The cycle of growth, the seasons, the rising and the setting of the sun and the moon are things we take for granted but which are at the very essence of our existence. When I wanted to plant those banana trees, this was in the belief and desire of seeing them grow and flourish. That belief in tomorrow.

We still have our banana trees. They produced healthy red bananas the following year and the plants now tower above me. A tropical climate provides rapid results but the same would apply to any growth, whether flora of fauna, rooted in the principle of tomorrow.

Of course I still believe in tomorrow, though I no longer treat it with the same cavalier attitude.  None of us know how many tomorrows we have, and cancer pushes our belief in tomorrow in our face and laughs.  But we can smile back gently and plant our trees while we invest in the belief of all of our tomorrows.

Homo Sapiens?

These days I often find out more about news commentary or updates through my Facebook feed than the traditional news sources. These can be mundane commentaries on American Idol or the Eurovision Song Contest through to the highest profile of news events, natural disasters and tragedies. I learned of the MH17 crash on a kind of slow reveal on my Facebook feed on Friday morning, the day taking on a suddenly very different tone to the one expected. First was a reference to MH17 and expressions of disbelief which drove me to scroll through a night’s worth of newsfeed to learn of the tragic loss of an airliner making its way routinely across the globe from Amsterdam towards Kuala Lumpur. A route which I will be travelling in a week’s time, though my departure point will be Bangkok.

I know that the investigations and time will tell us what was behind this, but for the moment I am working on what is known.  That some incredibly sophisticated surface to air missile or some such weapon appears to have been launched at a commercial airliner and resulted in its destruction along with the loss of the almost 300 lives on board.  I had no idea that there was such weaponry in existence which had the capacity to reach, never mind destroy an airliner at cruising altitude. How naive am I?

The day was heavy, thoughts of this unimaginable event uppermost in our minds and conversations. News that many on board were travelling to Melbourne for AIDS 2014, the 20th international AIDS Conference in Melbourne came at some point in the day.  This was getting a bit more personal now, as many of my friends and colleagues work in this field.  And more than the personal connection, the loss of people dedicated and specialist where these are so needed.  Any life lost is unacceptable but to lose brilliant minds unnecessarily is even more difficult to absorb.

I arrived home last evening, and stepped back online to catch up with any news or progress.  And my heart stopped when I read a post from a very dear friend, who I will meet in the UK next month. He had arrived in Melbourne for the conference and was utterly distraught to find out about the crash when he had arrived. His distress was all the more as he had been given two options for his travel to Melbourne.  He had opted not to fly on Malaysian, but on the other flight.  I have no idea what the reason would be, and often our choices (after cost) are based on flight timings, connections and routes.  It is a choice which he will never forget, I am sure.  And I simply cannot get my head round this. That by some possibly arbitrary quirk, some have lived and others not.  This is just so close to home and I am having trouble processing it.

And the part which is really troubling me is this.  We are homo sapiens. We are the race which has been gifted with intellect.  We deliberate and think.  We study and write. We are able to design and invent.  We are capable of abstract thought.  Quite how engineers and scientists are able to create what they do is always beyond me.  I cannot comprehend how planners and architects can create plans for bridges and houses and that they actually work.  How do physicists know that their theories will work when they are all on paper? It is a mystery to me.  They have brilliant minds which work in a way very different to my own.  And homo sapiens has created some pretty amazing stuff.  The car, telephone, computers, incredible communication technology and of course changed our world and lives through mass transportation.  Such as aeroplanes. Amazing indeed.

genius 2

But what is it in our race that uses brilliant minds to create things which cause destruction, death, pain and fear?  How is possible that minds of genius can be diverted to such destruction? How can this be possible when we live in a world that is unable to ensure that all have access to clean water, or basic health and education services?

How is this possible in a world where we have been spectacularly unable to find a cure for so many illnesses and diseases?  Lethal illnesses including AIDS and cancer? Are we such a wise race after all?


A silly cut finger and fast growing cells

The most inane and banal of incidents can set off a trail into unexpected territory both familiar and unfamiliar…….

Just over a week ago, hubby came home with a gift he had received.  A proper Swiss Army Knife.  Those ones with all the gadgets and tools all artfully contained in the body of the knife.

swiss army knife

These are fascinating little things, and I could not resist having a look and exploring what tricks it would contain.  I gently pulled out a little penknife blade, taking care with my crumbly finger nails which have no capacity to grip. I teased out the little scissors and looked around for some paper to test them on.  Then I pulled out another mystery implement, wondering what it would be. Snap! The small blade which it belonged to flicked open and caught my finger tip, slicing a neat but deep cut into the finger. There is an instant of regret at such a careless action which is rapidly taken over by the need to act.  Thanks to warfarin, this small but deep cut was producing rather a lot of the red stuff and I needed to stanch the flow as quickly as possible.  With my arm elevated and the wound held firm, I finally managed to stem the bleeding and carefully cleaned the damage.

I was very quick to blame cancer for the greatest part of this unfortunate incident.  Residual peripheral neuropathy, thanks to chemotherapy (Taxotere) has brought me numbness in my fingers and toes numb toes.  Numb fingertips cause clumsiness.  It is not a very good idea to explore a Swiss Army Knife with numb fingertips, especially with added crumbly fingernails. Adding warfarin and its blood-thinning qualities adds a frisson of excitement to the mix. That is also directly attributable to cancer and its treatment.  And if I really want to push it,  I can also blame the lack of wisdom in meddling with the knife on the cognitive afters of chemo.

It never fails to amaze me, how much a tiny nick somewhere like the top of the index finger can impact on so many every day actions.  Getting dressed, eating, typing and holding a pen all became awkward and uncomfortable with the damaged finger.

The following day, I struggled through (happily it was a Friday) and was glad to get to the weekend.  I was especially worried that the cut might get infected in this climate, and that it would not heal given its depth.

So I was very surprised that on the Sunday, I noticed that the cut was healing particularly well and cleanly.  By the Monday you could hardly see the cut at all and now there is just a trail of dry skin which marks the scar.

And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?  Fast healing, clean barely visible scar?  All good.  So why did my head turn this into something worrying?  Why did I find it so hard not to associate the rapidity of healing cells with the rapidity of multiplying sinister cells.  How does a good fast growing cell differ from a bad fast growing cell?

It shows how vulnerable we are to those paranoiac thoughts, to those trains of thought that are barely logical or sensible yet take over a rational mind. A mind which is especially fragile in the run up to the next round of regular but scary scans and checks.

This is the story of a tiny cut finger.  This is also the tale of a tiny scared soul, about to pack the fatigued travel bag, braced for whatever is ahead and barely able to contain the fear and anxiety.  The afters and sides of cancer and its treatments indeed continue to wreak havoc on the body way beyond diagnosis.

Yet that is not a fraction of the sabotage it introduces into a sensitive and frightened mind.

shadow selfie blog

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.


Living and dying across cultures

There’s one thing about cancer that is undeniable. And that is that it abruptly confronts you with your mortality. Which is interesting, because many cultures, have so many taboos around death. We don’t talk about it. We remain in denial, about our own deaths, and of those close to us. We use euphemisms when a person dies. We too often avoid the topic. We even hide it from our own minds.

However, when you step over the line in the sand when we learn we have cancer, or if someone close to us is diagnosed, that taboo seems to melt away. Being part of a close cancerhood which includes too many with metastatic cancer, means that the subject of death is always there.

I learned a great deal about death and grieving when my father in law died nine years ago in north eastern India where my husband’s family is from. The family belongs to the “Tamang” ethnic Himalayan hill people and are very devout Buddhists. As a foreigner (and new daughter in law) in such an intense situation there was the potential for a very difficult time. I had no understanding of the rituals, or what would happen and my own cultural block prevented me from asking. This was eased enormously for me, when one of my husband’s aunts took me to one side and passed me “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” and pointed me to the chapters on ritual and belief around death.

As well as being enormously helpful and enabling me to understand and engage as appropriate in the rituals, I learned a great deal from that book as well as from being with the family throughout these rituals. I recount this from my memory of that time and what I have retained from the explanations from family and the book which accompanied me throughout. This is my own understanding and I trust that it is accurate, and am happy to be corrected if I err at all.

I am a complete novice in the teachings of Buddhism, so please be gentle with me if I either over-simplify or misconstrue. It is well known that Buddhism is based on the principle of reincarnation. This is where the way we have acted in this life influences and shapes where we head in the next one. As such the process of death is one of the soul passing to the next life and very important. It is critical that the process is carried out properly.

I felt humbled and privileged to be part of this when my father in law died. I found this process enormously respectful and helpful in that it guides the bereaved through a process where they focus on the transition of their loved on in stages and helped me to understand how differently we deal with death in different contexts.

The time of death is believed to be very traumatic for the soul of the one who has died and there is a transition stage known as “bardo” which the soul passes through. It is very important that Buddhist monks guide the departing soul through this process, with rituals known as the “phowa”. This is intended to help the soul understand that they have died and to support them to gradually come to terms with this. Over these early hours and first days following death there is chanting to comfort the soul, and the family say kind things about their lost one, leaving out their favourite foods and drinks to make sure they feel loved and not distressed. The funeral takes place very soon after death, at a place and time identified by the monks.

The 49 days following death are very important in the Buddhist rituals and beliefs, representing seven periods of seven days each. At each seven day point, rituals will be held in the home, Buddhist monks chanting and carrying out the appropriate “puja” to support the soul on their journey towards their next incarnation or next life. At the third seven day period, that is on the 21st day, an important “puja” is held. At this point the soul moves from the stage where they are newly passed, to that where they are preparing for their next incarnation. While in the first 21 days, the soul is believed to be nearby and moving through this “adjustment” phase, after that it is believed that on one of the next seven day points, the soul will pass to the next life, therefore either at the 28th, 35th or the 42nd day.

When the 49th day comes, it is known that the soul has moved on and there is a major day of rituals and puja, with family and friends coming from far and wide to pay respects and to grieve. It is a painful and highly emotional day, for it is on the 49th day, the family and close ones know that their loved one has moved on and they grieve their loss.


Today marks the 49th day since my father’s death.

Post Script

Strangely I dreamed of my father last night, after I had written this.  Strangely, because this is unusual.  I do not dream often of my father, I never have.  I think of him frequently but rarely dream.  Last night, in my dream, he came to visit us in our home.  He was looking so well, was dressed in his usual everyday “countryside smart but casual” clothes and standing in the garden near our door.  I was pleased to see him standing and walking unaided, and out and about as he had been so frail when I last saw him. Memory was clearly blurring with reality.

He didn’t come into the house, but we stood outside and chatted.  Small talk.  Chit chat.  Nothing of substance, but pleasant and lighthearted.

Writing this post and thoughts of the 49 days perhaps prompted my subconscious to form this dream. Or perhaps not?

What if…………




These are principles which are at my core, which fire my soul more than I care to admit. They underpin all that drives me.

And I am driven by two critical injustices in the world.

There is no cure for cancer.

Access to a good education is out of reach for far too many.

cancer and education

So this very simple statement doing the rounds on Facebook has hit me with breathtaking force and unusually prompted me to stick my head way over the parapet and shout.

What if…………………?

From a Writing Prompt to a spat out Ugly Truth

Sometimes we can be trundling along, just getting on with what we get on with when something stops us abruptly in our tracks.

Two weeks ago, I was preparing for the fortnightly writing group, planning to go along even though I had no writing to share.  I had even confessed to the other writing group folks that I would be a passenger that evening, soaking in their creativity and critiquing in one direction.  Not only had I nothing prepared, I had not had the slightest idea or spark of inspiration. On top of that, I had just returned from Bangkok and the latest round of exhausting tests.  Nope, I was under no illusions that I would be taking anything with me that evening, in the shape of words on a page.

Then I received an email from one of our cosy number, Becky in Burma, in which she mentioned the e-course she was part of and saying that she would probably bring something she had written as one of the exercises.  With her email was an appeal to print a paper copy as that is always easier to share.  Attached to the email was her writing, along with the exercise details.

Of course I had a look at her poem, a heartfelt and powerful piece of writing.  Then I looked at the prompt, and realised that a strange thing was happening.  My mind was whirling and before I knew it, everything around me was strangely disconnected .  Oblivious to my surroundings, I was scribbling away furiously, words pouring out, emotions running amok, struggling to keep back tears.  Within less than fifteen minutes, I put my pen down, dazed, stunned and spent and I looked at what was on the page

Out of absolutely nowhere, and with less than hour to go until our meeting time I suddenly had something to share.  Not a piece of eloquent writing, nor a passage of creative or experimental prose but a page of raw, ugly emotion and truth which had been lurking not so far from the surface, only to be spat out violently.

I have deliberately not edited this in any major way.  I have made a couple of very minor adjustments, but have left it very much as the words formed.  And that is intentional.  The prompt was “What if I were to tell you”?

And clearly I had a lot that I wanted to tell.  Even if I hadn’t realised it.

I posted the words which had crowded in unbidden, as my own very first Poetry Friday. Judging from the many comments and reactions, it seemed to strike a chord. It appears to be not quite a universal truth, but seemingly a widely held one.

As a lay person, I can only speak of how this appears to me. I feel strongly that diagnosis brings what I see as a psychological isolation. The world we enter on hearing the “you have cancer” words frequently forces an unwanted gulf created between those diagnosed and all close and touched by that diagnosis.   And often we want to protect those close to us from the insidious reality.



And it is as difficult to articulate these ugly truths as it is to hear them.