Chapter 1

                         BEFORE DIAGNOSIS – SIGNS & SIGNALS

In June, 2005 the culmination of a year-long work project finally took place at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. It had swallowed time and energy like a ravenous beast and at times, both nerve endings and patience were threadbare. On the last night of a four-night run of performances – tired but elated, I gave the usual short speech, which was heartfelt; thanks and gratitude for all the creativity, support, people and spirit that had made this production special…..and it really had been special. I clearly remember thinking, whilst I stood on the stage at that moment, how I had been driven to make it happen
and I had said as much to the audience. I don’t really consider myself a driven person; I’m not an A – type personality that must have the latest technological gadget or earn x amount of money in a year – but I had been driven. A respected colleague, Peter Cox, now an MBE, had said that he would not have considered putting this production on for less than £80,000 – we did it – and we did it with £20,000. Being driven was imperative. Peter was one of the first to offer his congratulations. What struck me as strange though, was that at
this very moment, in front of hundreds of people, I had the thought that something may have been driving me – and that that something might be illness.

It was a shocking thought Maybe it’s because I don’t have much time …..that I was driven to do this? In a heartbeat all of this crowded my exhausted brain –and was suddenly gone. I finished the speech, gratefully received the applause and shared a great sense of warmth and achievement with all who had been a part of it. Later, I remembered thinking this inappropriate thought and put it down to paranoia due to tiredness and the relief of finishing the
project; I rationalised it – and put it from my mind.

It was about a year or so later that I began to feel driven again. I didn’t realise this at the time – it was only later, with hindsight, that I could see the pattern. With the musical production I had had a single focus which could eat up any driving force and still have room left for afters. Without a single focus, the ‘drive’ was disparate and took on an entirely different form:
• I took up yoga; nothing too exhausting – just a video borrowed from my sister which I started to do at home every morning before breakfast. Only fifteen minutes – but fifteen minutes of stretching and oxygenating my body – every day.
• I took to swimming with friends every week – I was the only one in the group that had children still at home and a developing career. Busy women, though they clearly were, my time had more call on it than any of the others and I remember thinking “I don’t really have time for this” but I felt strongly that I had to do it anyway.
• We got a rescue dog – my youngest daughter had wanted a dog for
some time and now that she was 14 I thought we had better get one
before she left home! The result was… that I walked him at least once a day and often, twice a day – again, oxygenating my tissues and keeping metastasis at bay.

Small things – but together, on top of my every-day commitments with work and home, they required large amounts of time and energy on a regular basis. I was driven.

Like many people, I was so caught up in the throes of life that I rarely
thought about my health – just as long as everything kept going to
some acceptable degree. What was the use in worrying? I knew I was
getting older; the inescapable down-hill was more and more palpable. I was 47 and often felt tired, emotional and bewildered. Was this normal? Girlfriends are a great help when wrestling with such questions because we talk. Talking to friends gave me some perspective and reassured me that several of my experiences were definitely part and parcel of life in middle age. At least, middle age in Britain. They sometimes felt the same, they told me. I occasionally read about relevant articles in magazines or heard snippets on “Woman’s Hour” about the struggle with hot flushes and the interminable tiredness, getting fatter, losing elasticity in the skin, flagging libido and becoming depressed – now that was depressing.

However, it is not the same the world over…..I understand that there are African and Asian cultures which banish women when they are menstruating; they have to live outside the tribal boundaries until they are fertile again. That sounds very harsh to our ears but when these women are past child-bearing age, their status within the tribe, changes and they become ‘elders’ –respected members of the community who have far more influence on tribal matters. This new importance – a social promotion, in effect, makes them look forward to the post-menopausal years with out-stretched arms; something
that women in the western world fear so much because of the emphasis given to youth and beauty in our culture. It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that these women usually have no significant adverse symptoms during menopause. Perspective is a wonderful thing and it shows how a positive mind-set or social incentive can influence physical transition and well-being. A very useful tool in the armoury should you need it……and you will.

Many African women look forward to post menopause as it means an elevation in social status – consequently, they have few problems of symptoms associated with menopause and beyond – unlike many western women who feel that the passing of youth equates to a lessening of social and feminine status.

African woman

I will come back to this point later in the book because your
perspective on yourself, your place in the world and in relation to others is key to your ability to heal. Advertisers have a lot to answer for – children wanting breast implants and plastic surgery so that they
conform to an unrealistic media-driven version of what is beautiful. Beauty =power in advertising terms but it is a dangerous, one-dimensional vision. It’s damaging because it erodes the confidence and self-worth of vulnerable young girls in particular. Bulimia and other eating disorders are rife and it is my belief that it is because these ideal images surround us, we are bombarded with them and it leaves many with a feeling of inadequacy that they cannot shake off. They look for an ‘answer’ in all the wrong places.

Our perspective of ourselves is important; what do we think about ourselves and in relation to our immediate environment; family, friends, work and also in relation to the world as a whole? Do we even think about that at all? My feeling is that it could do with some reflection as self-awareness is key to good health.