Monday, 13 December 2010

Winter Wonderland


Mik’s rap describes the mood and the mindset – I am going in for constant checking. When I feel tired I seem to find more lumps and suspicious bumps that have gone by the following day. But at the moment I am healthy, as far as I know. Not sure how I do know. One of the symptoms of ovarian cancer is “bloating,” and I now eat so many sprouts and pans of curly kale that I am bloated a lot of the time. Just wind I say to myself reassuringly. I have an “incisional” hernia too, created by the surgeon’s knife, and that causes some strange aches and pains too.

My eyebrows are back, in fact they came back suddenly in Venice as if two insects had blown in across the Lagoon and stuck to my face. They are thicker than they used to be, perfect dark bows. My hair is also coming back, “gamine” people say, and more pepper and salt before.

This is by far the best time of year for me, cold, which in London is easier to manage than hot, you have an excuse to eat mince pies and cream, and there is nothing immediately ahead but parties, lunches, mulled wine and fairy lights.

There have only been two downers so far this month. A letter marked NHS, which fills me with more foreboding than a bank statement. It was long and detailed and referred to my complaint about the district nurses who didn’t call at the beginning of October. I was waiting, they didn’t turn up and I got no help from what the letter calls their “referral service,” i.e. their call centre, called Harmony – or rather I now see from the letter, “Harmoni,” which is even dafter.

The letter does show that they have made a thorough investigation into what happened. Only one person denies anything, but then apologises. This is certainly much better than the response I received to my complaint about my treatment on the Victor Bonney Ward at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital back in May. I am still smarting from that letter, which implied that I had made everything up because nothing had been written down in their book at the time. They also dismissed my comments because I had not brought them up with my cancer support nurse, although I had no idea I was supposed to do that. They spoke to her after my complaint apparently, but she has never mentioned any of it to me, which is a bit embarrassing.

My other recent problem was Tescos. Set off there with a pile of their hard earned coupons, only to find that the best one could only be used on line. Last time I tried that their whole system had gone into meltdown, they couldn’t even send me my new password. I also noticed it is for £7.50 and there is a £5.00 delivery fee. Even with my bad maths I could see there was not much point in that one.

Today I found that the shop near me doesn’t have many of the items listed on the coupons. I was told to go to a bigger store. Two of the other coupons wouldn’t go through, one because it was just out of date, the other because he hadn’t rung the item up properly. I then made the mistake of asking for a wine box, which he couldn’t open. While all that was going on I was aware of an angry looking young man with metal in his face, who looked like a bouncer but who seemed to be in charge, staring at me in annoyance as an irate queue forming behind me. It’s that unpleasant feeling when you know someone thinks you’re a trouble maker.

I did come back with a crate of mulled wine. Had trouble finding it though and for some reason they sent a young Muslim lad to help me locate it. He had no idea what it was and told me rather accusingly that he wouldn’t know where it was because he doesn’t drink. I expect he will be in charge of their wines and spirits the next time I go in.

Two small blips because I am living in a winter wonder land. Last week I was in south west France, visiting Conner Middelmann-Whitney, who runs an anti-cancer cookery course in Toulouse.

As I am slightly unbalanced at the moment, or I was at the time, I didn’t think how long I was going to impose on her when I made the arrangements, but I arrived on Wednesday and didn’t leave her home till the Saturday, and she took me to visit a spa, for the Daily Telegraph’s Spa Spy section on their Wellbeing Page.

She said it wasn’t a long trip, but it seemed quite far to me, through the snow up into the Pyrenees. She didn’t complain and was such a lovely hostess.

It was a fascinating trip for me – I got the chance to live in the French countryside for a few days, in a beautiful house decorated for Christmas, with a real family. She has three children, the oldest is 13, and they are all tri-lingual.

I read to them in the evening from Dr Seuss. I love that Green Eggs and Ham thing, with the lovely little rodent skipping about, and I was able to lie on a sofa, wrapped in a blanket watching the children sitting at a table quietly doing their homework by lamp light. It reminded me of a scene from an Ibsen play, where people sit at a table, getting on with something, before something else happens.

During one meal, the oldest boy, who was very good looking and intelligent, asked me, “What was Prussia?” I love it when children say things like that. It’s so fresh and makes you think carefully about what you actually know. I remember a little boy in a restaurant saying to his father out of the blue, “Daddy, where is Poland?”

There was also an ancient ginger cat called Paddy. I was a bit worried when I saw his bed in the garage as it was below freezing, but when I first met the children, I realised that Paddy was with them, completely wrapped in a shawl.

He wasn’t very well, and after I left they took him to the vet. He was found to have hepatitis and an old bullet lodged near his spine. Cat’s all have their own stories.

The first evening I was there we went out in the dark to a local farm house, to collect a large bag of organic chickens, actually they were hens, something we don’t eat in England now. It was rather unsettling to see their heads and bluish-pink wattles inside the bag. They have the same expression dead as when they’re alive.

One day we went into the local village where they have a market. Conner knows all the suppliers. The cheese seller had twelve kinds of Roquefort, and next to him a man was selling acorn fed ham from the Basque country. Not so delightful perhaps that they also farm donkeys in the area, for sausage meat.

One evening we collected two of the children from the home of some neighbours. She is Swiss he is German. Their house was large and open plan, overlooking a valley. It reminded me of a house I visited in the 1960s, when everyone was excited about seeing The Sound of Music.

They had a bushy Christmas tree going up to the ceiling and a large wooden crib on display for the children. A party was about to begin, a “Raclette evening,” not sure what that is, a cross between roulette and a wine and cheese party perhaps, but you wouldn’t have known it was a party at all, as the guests sat very quietly speaking in low voices. Apparently that is the Swiss way.

I was interested to hear that the Swiss lady had had cancer, while she was expecting their first child. Her chemo had been delayed until she gave birth – how ghastly is that? He works for the local aerospace industry where they make the Airbus. The French government are cutting back on the project and sacking many of their foreign workers, mainly British, German and Swiss and sending them home. They are not allowed to do this under EU law, but get away with it somehow. The couple might lose their grand house if his job goes. Almost every one I meet seems to be struggling in some way. I wonder if people always went through such traumas in middle age?

I loved Conner’s cookery class, with its interesting collection of ladies from all over the developed world. The spa, at Ax les Thermes, was rather strange, but fun. Not often you get the chance to run about in the snow in your swim suit, or jump out of the snow into a really warm thermal bath.

It was pleasing to see the local men in their tiny Speedos. Apparently they have to wear these by law, probably brought in at the request of Mme Sarkozi.They are not allowed to wear baggy boxer shorts in swimming pools, as they are deemed street clothes.

Ax became a well known spa at the time of the Crusades, and French doctors still send their patients there for three week stints, free of charge. I was surprised when a German friend of mine was packed off to the Saxon forest for a few weeks R & R after she broke her nose. Now where exactly is the NHS equivalent?

Since I’ve been back I’ve been buying some of the healthy foods that Conner recommended, including walnut oil and a delicious cherry concentrate which you add to juice. Despite that, I’ve somehow got a cold – and a large lunch party looming up!

Zest for Life The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet

By Conner Middelmann-Whitney published by Matador £12.95

(25percent of all royalties go to Maggie’s Cancer Support Centres)

Nutrelan Cookery School: Four hour’s tuition for 45 €, including lunch with wine, recipes to take away and on-line support.

E – mail Phone (33 5) 06 76 96 99 00


  1. I've joined this site for the sole reason of saying, "here's to us both and everyone else on a similar journey". I greatly admire the strength and courage of your blog and I will keep returning. Someone needs to say it how it is publicly for the rest of us. Good luck with your incisional hernia; mine - ever larger - is waiting for its repair! Thanks for the recommendation of ZEST FOR LIFE it brings at lot of things together into a useful book.

  2. Hi Jane,

    Great post and thanks for mentioning that Maggie's is benefitting from Zest for Life.

    We'd be more than happy to have you join a nutrition session at Maggie's London if you'd be interested.

    Best wishes,

  3. Yes, I would really like to do that, thanks!
    I have been in and talked about it - I hope I can join you in January. Can you e mail me when the next course is starting?

  4. Apricot - why don't you get the thing fixed?
    Can't your GP get you a referral ?

  5. Hi Jane, It would be nice to think it could be fixed - permanently - but it seems things are not as simple or predictable as that - not to mention recovery being a bit like hysterectomy II. Yes, I'm waiting for my slot ... I'm on a list. After mid February they will have missed their target. But of course targets no longer exist. At least there is a friendly secretary to ring but hey its Yorkshire not London. You know there's lots of evidence and recommendations that mid-line incisions are to be avoided if incisional hernias are also to be avoided, but perhaps they are too convenient for cancer.