Street Art, Life, Love and Death

London Hearts – Borough Market, 2018

Who owns the images on the street? On our urban walls? When does graffiti become street art or art? Earlier this year whilst in London with the children we stumbled upon an uplifting piece that I immediately connected to. I think this is street art; apparently graffiti is done for other graffiti artists whereas street art is for a wider audience. Like many others we were compelled to have our photos taken with this happy mural. A bright and hopeful backdrop for many a picture of loved ones. Past and present.

Later when looking through my phone shots for suitable images for my blog, the above street art image popped out at me. It made me instantly smile. It felt right for the start of the blog. I don’t want all the chat about cancer to be depressing and melancholy. I want it to connect to you and others. There is a genuine out pouring of real love that happens with a serious cancer diagnosis. Or at least that has been the experience I have been lucky enough to have.

“I want people to be closer, more expressive and have real conversations with each other rather than a life masked or filtered through social media and conformity. “

I appreciate the irony as I write this on a blog and refer to it on social media, but what I try to do is to be honest and unvarnished. Sometimes this isn’t possible as I have to keep something for myself, sometimes it is unfair on my children, family or close friends to share everything, often it is just so raw I can’t even go there in my head, never mind on paper or in conversation. But I try to be as real as possible, and when I am, great things happen; to me and others. People around me are making life changing decisions, they are saying f**k it and embracing or planning for changes. What I love about this, is people talk to me about it in a way they didn’t always before.

A plethora of people have contributed to the creative process of this blog. From the small bits of encouragement with off the cuff comments about the style of my text messages or whatsApps, sharing of poems and the site, with significant and time consuming gifts like pro-bono executive coaching, logo design, help and confidence with publishing the blog. In the beginning, when I was toying with the idea, I hadn’t realised it was live. At least not until I started getting comments and followers from sincere and real people that I had never met! I then had to take the plunge and not look back.

So I am left with the dilemma of whether I should contact the artist, I’m not sure if I’m asking for permission, because I don’t know if I need it. But I’d like to thank him for his inspiration and mood changing role of his work. It’s a manners thing.

I went to a talk on writing at The Guardian a couple of months ago and met this great woman who was going to start a blog about street art. A weird coincidence. I asked her what she thought. Her view was that the artists liked the publicity and as I took the picture it was OK to use it. I described the art to see if she knew the artist, she thought it might be an artist from New York. He’s apparently fond of hearts and travels the world spray painting them. I looked him up – I didn’t think it was his.

With some light google effort I relatively easily found out who’s work it was. I also found that other works I had photographed and been inspired by were also his. Another weird coincidence. I also saw on closer examination that the work was signed and like many things in life, hiding in plain sight!

Portrait of Shakespeare, Bankside, London 2016

The work above was created by James Cochran (aka Jimmy C). The ‘London Hearts’ is one of his ‘drip paintings’ or ‘aerosol pointillism’. It is dedicated to the 8 people who lost their lives in the London Bridge terror attack in June 2017. James talks about the response of love in dark times. It was painted in Spring 2018, when I got my cancer diagnosis. This made it even more poignant and I was glad I’d included it. Those people didn’t invite terrorism into their lives in the same way that I hadn’t invited metastatic breast cancer into mine. I decided to write to the artist and let him know that he was part of a growing tribe of people who encouraged me to keep going, to keep telling my story and to hope that it will be longer than the Triple Negative Breast Cancer prognosis stats suggest.

I’ll let you know what he says…

I do believe that art shifts you, heals you, makes you think in different ways. There is a lot of it in and around the hospitals I visit and it definitely triggers something different. Not least that the people walking these corridors are worthy of some break from the monotony and blandness of endless hospital corridors and appointments.

Cornelia Parker – Still Life with Reflection, 2004

I am not sure what this ceiling installation is trying to tell you? Each piece of silver, or likely silver plate, is reflected in a flattered version of itself. Is this the juxtaposition between the multi dimensional us and the one dimensional us? Or was it more tongue in cheek? As the owner of one boob and one flat chest I couldn’t help but think it was ironic in a clinic with people who’d had breast surgery. It gave me something to think and laugh inside about whilst waiting for yet another consultant.

Again I looked this piece up and the artist, Cornelia Parker was interested in the captive audience of waiting rooms where ‘time and reality are suspended’ (so true) and was influenced by tromp l’oeil. This is a technique often used on ceilings to ‘deceive the eye’ into seeing something three dimensional. She has done some similar pieces, more recently, one of a series of ‘alter ego’ works in 2010.

So just goes to show we draw our own meaning from art and our experiences regardless of the artists intent. For me art does trigger or jolt me to think in different ways, to make connections and uncover insights that I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t seen it or created it. I am grateful for the rich and vibrant art scene we have in this country and am delighted that I can stumble upon it on the street and in hospitals.

Look out for it on your travels this week. Let us know if you find any interesting bits?

Written on 26th September 2019 (to post later because I knew these last few days would be tough, and they are).
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Here we go again (Poem 15)

Here we go again

I have paused.
I feel calm for a moment.
The train is taking me,
I am not driving it.
Momentum is someone else’s

En route to do one final test,
Timely hoop jumping will surely bring eligibility?
The adrenalin and cortisol are slowing for a rest,
They are exhausting friends of mine who fuel my agility.

Looking out across the fields, pondering the probability,
Only days before the open label I will see and know,
Recalling the last manic journey to only get placebo,
Some feel deceived;
I felt relieved,
A reason for disease progression,
A known price for future science to learn the lesson.

Whilst mostly strong, I’m aware of my growing fragility,
The cancer has had time to take hold.
I’m tired, aching and a little uncomfortable; affecting my ability,
The cumulative chemo effects, I’m told.

Once again I feel like I’m in a race,
Obstacles to go around, this time for the last space,
When I reach the finish line, it will once again begin,
New hospital, new journey, new side effects within.

I want to be hopeful, but can’t escape the reality of Triple Negative morbidity
Is giving over my body and life for a bigger cause the ultimate act of humility?

2nd October 2019

The meaning of a logo

Have you ever noticed that when a news item becomes a bit more serious or drawn out it gets a logo on the BBC? The global economic downturn had one, the US Elections, the referendum etc. Brexit has had several, a made up name and it even got a dictionary entry!  I’m clearly not that newsworthy, but as I am now about to enter into my 18th month of cancer treatment I thought it was time The Cancer Gap got a logo.  So here it is.

The beady eyed of you will have noticed it at the top of the search bar or on social media.

I could have asked or paid one of my design colleagues or contacts to do this, but I thought I’d ask my friend who is teaching herself design.  She loved working on something real.  Or so she told me.  She explored a few options and together we came up with this.  She even dragged her IT husband into the task.  This is just one of many examples I have of people in my community going above and beyond to help and to contribute somehow.

I thought I’d do this update now as its pretty slow getting all the eligibility scans in place for the trial protocol.  It is only when I’m through this that they can confirm that I will be put on the trial.  

Distinct marque

For those of your following previous posts, the tiny maggot sized and coloured piece of me that was extracted with a punch biopsy a week or so ago turned out to be malignant.  So that distinct shape, wasn’t scar tissue, fat necrosis or my paranoia, it was a mass of cancer cells that have grown from some microscopic cancer being left behind. This is why you always want clear margins, the bigger the better.  Mine weren’t clear. Ever. So this is not a surprise. 

I first felt the lump as a pin head (that’s when they thought I was a bit hyper vigilant or even paranoid) and now its the size of a sweetcorn kernel and is a adenocarcinoma (a cancer tumour made of glandular cells).  They’ve sliced this little tiny maggot up into slithers like a cucumber into tiny rounds and put it on slides.  They have tested it for hormone receptors.  It has none.  No targets for treatment.  So as well as being a grade 3 tumour, it has 2 out of the 3 markers it needs to be classed as ‘triple negative’.  The HER2 status (the third marker) takes another week or so and I’m sure it will be negative again.  So it is the same Triple Negative Breast Cancer.  This cancer can sometimes mutate to be HER2 positive, so we have to go through this motion.  Once my tumour has finished its little trip around the labs of the south west of the UK, it (or another piece from one of the other tumours) will be put in some formalin and flown to the US or Switzerland.  Whilst my body is pretty much grounded, little chopped off bits of me are able to travel passport and insurance free.

Invasive breast cancer is tricky.  It starts small and undetectable and then eventually the cells join up to cause a lump you can actually feel.  A lot of breast cancers are ‘ductal carcinomas in situ’ or DCIS and never become invasive.  These are more like a boiled egg still in its shell, easier to cut around and remove. Whereas invasive cancer is more like scrambled or powdered war time egg or a Jackson Pollock painting. 

A pathology slide showing different types of breast cancer
(Image from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre)

One of those little microscopic bits has grown into something that is still not traceable on a ultrasound. I even sharpie-ed up the spot beforehand.  The sonographer felt it with her hand, but the scan didn’t show it.  The PET-CT and CT scans didn’t show it either as there is so much other activity going on around this place from the surgery, scar tissue and radioactivity damage.  My surgeon said he always prefers physical examination for this kind of local reoccurrence.  

‘Once again, the grope test wins over tech then, but I guess you can’t say that’. 

My response to the surgeon.

Well, that got a little side tracked from talking about logos, but at least you are up to speed.

Tune into your intuition

If I could sign off with one thing it is this: don’t delay if you have symptoms or lumps you are not sure of.  Don’t be paranoid, but get to know your body.  You are so often the best judge of any changes or suspicious activity.  Tune into your intuition. 

I already have the mastectomy scars branding me a ‘breast cancer victim’.  However, a little lump, like a logo could be a recognisable symbol of early cancer or re-occurrence.  Its distinctive design, this time of cells, the malignant or benign deciding factor.  

Either way, for me, it is always better to know and to act.

Isn’t it all a distraction until we die?

I have been distracting myself quite nicely this week by filling my time with productive ‘busy-ness’. I often do this when I don’t want to think about big things. It drives my husband crazy.  Watching telly and reading books are tricky as my mind wanders easily and there also seems to be someone dying of cancer or being diagnosed with it on every channel or page.  I guess that’s representative as 1 in 2 of us will get cancer and 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.  It’s still annoying when you are trying to get away from cancer for a bit.

I can’t wait for next month and breast cancer awareness! It’s always annoyed me even before I had breast cancer – all those pink ribbons and decorated bras. Granted the awareness job cannot be denied – 5,000 people will be diagnosed next month. However, that pale pink ribbon seems a bit pathetic when it’s the second most common cause of cancer death in UK women.  That accounts for about 11,500 deaths a year.  So roughly 31 women died of breast cancer yesterday, today, tomorrow and the next day. 

When you spend time with women or being a woman on chemo for life, fighting the spread of breast cancer, dealing with lymphoedema, mastectomy nerve damage, one or no boobs, skin mets bursting out of their chest, a dainty pink ribbon seems a bit trite. It has become a ‘thing’ in its own right and I wonder whether people see beyond knowing what it stands for?

God, there’s two weeks to go and it’s already winding me up. I’ve also got to get through the Macmillan Coffee mornings. Last year I was invited to several and most people didn’t know I had cancer. At least this year I’m out and proud, maybe I’ll go in sequins and represent cancer pride? I’m clearly not proud to have cancer, but I am proud that I am still here smiling (mostly). I am not going to hide my cancer (diagnosis) in any closet. I am also proud of my friends and family for all their support and ability to hold themselves together (around me at least). 

So apart from turning out cupboards and tidying sheds (can’t blame the steroids anymore) I’ve also been doing some ‘nice’ things. 

I’ve always had a bit of a creative side. I like painting, design and making things. I’ve resisted getting back into painting for fear of what might end up on the canvas.  I thought the anger (which is only recently making an appearance) might spill out through the end of my paint brushes creating a disturbing legacy of my inner mind. Stuff obviously needed to come out though, which is why I think the poems turned up in my life at the beginning of this year. 

Last month I signed up for a last minute art course at our local art place.  I saw it on social media late one evening and thought ‘I fancy doing that’.  Often this would be accompanied by ‘one day’, but I’m more of a ‘now’ person than ever before (for obvious reasons).  It’s very liberating.

If there is something you love doing or think you’d like to have a go at, do it. Don’t wait. 

The course was in geli plate printing. You use a silicone plate a bit like a giant slice of posh grown up jelly dessert or quince jelly on the side of a cheese board. You use this instead of a press or a screen to make a monotype print. I have never done this before, but I did textile design and screen printing at school and I absolutely loved it. I still have my work in the loft somewhere (that’s next for the turn out). I assumed the course was for a couple of hours. It was actually for a day. Husband was very accommodating, so all worked out brilliantly.

The course was absorbing, fun and very therapeutic as no one on the course knew me or that I had advanced cancer. The technique was also very conducive to my state of mind as it allowed me to be totally captive to something else with little room for the busy mind to race.  The teacher taught us a 3/3/3 principle which was the number of seconds you have to put the paint on, arrange your relief material (leaves in this case) and print. Then peel off and print again. Then more paint and go again. It was fast. Fast process, fast results. The total opposite of treating cancer. No time to think. Perfect for my anxious cancer obsessed mind. 

So since the day I spent covered in paint and immersed in creating prints at high speed, I have bought my own press and had a go at home.  Aside from the resulting prints (which are of mixed quality and success) the actual process was so engaging and cathartic that I’ll be trying it again. 

It got me thinking much more deeply about art and creativity. 

We tend to judge art on the end result and not the enjoyment of the process. The thing, not the experience. I genuinely like experiencing and trying new things. I get a thrill from learning to do something different, from the learning itself. It’s a cliche, but I guess we could all learn to enjoy the ride and not focus solely on the destination. After all, we are all going to end up in the same place.  The ride differentiates us. 

Statistic from Breast Cancer Care and Cancer Research websites.

Honour and Accept (Poem 13)

Aching from deep within. My outer shell maimed,
Cancer popping up here and there, treatment effects becoming evident inside,
Emotional and physiological damage emerging as short term side effects subside,
Honouring my body’s journey rather than the future cancer has claimed.


Internal chemical warfare, breast amputation and nuclear burning,
Uncovering bad news and medical options is a skill I’m learning,
Despite the collateral damage, my body’s response is worth respecting,
But in order to move forward my mind needs to be accepting.

17th August 2019

Back in the Nook (Poem 12)

Path seemed clear for a moment; nothing is the same forever,
Now hot spots and uncertainty, cloud the route to sever.
More prodding, scanning, talking and results to endure,
Scans for clarity bring more amiguity and no hope of a cure.

Leaving the craziness. It’s calm, warm and still, back in the nook,
I’m enveloped in love. Held tight, so many emotions can let go,
Breathing in deep to my soul, exhaling from down low,
Wrapped in 15 years shared rollercoaster and the future cancer took,

Bodies morphed, trying not to sob,
Moving from daily doing to stopping and being.
Whilst accepting so much, it’s still a shock from which I’m reeling,
Unknown timeline, but a future I know cancer will rob,

Still and simple. Opened up, yet held tight,
Nestled in the nook. This is my safe place.
Lying here, in the truth; still a break from the inevitable race,
Are the scans revealing my future? Is there more blight?

17th August 2019

Searching for Hot Spots

The next three days are a bit full on as we try to get more information to make a decision on treatment options beyond immunotherapy.  I have several scans, bloods, oncologist appointments to review my final cycle of chemo, scan results and immunotherapy (or placebo) treatment.

Today I’m having a PET-CT scan. Although it is one of the most informative and caught my secondary tumour early, this is my least favourite scan experience.  Out of all the treatment and investigations I have had this is always one of the loneliest with way too much time to think.

Firstly, let me tell you (as best I can) what a PET is and then what it is like. It stands for Positron Emission Tomography and it is medical imaging technique that uses a radioactive isotope (Oh Joy, and this is my 4th in just over a year) attached to a biological molecule (often glucose labelled with radioactive fluorine). This is called FDG for short because the chemical name is very long and I have forgotten it. This lovely cocktail is used to produce a 3D map of functional processes in the body.

You have to fast for 6+ hours for it, so the cells using glucose use the FDG not other stuff you have eaten. I nearly screwed this up today as I ate a fruit pastel in my mum’s car on the way to the station, fortunately I realised (only after sucking the sugar off) and spat it out the window (class). The kids thought this was hilarious, not sure my Mum was that impressed with my manners or my forgetfulness. Anyway, I breathed a sigh of relief when my blood sugar levels were 4.8% and in the normal range they’d expect for someone who hadn’t eaten since before 7am. I had visions of this ridiculously small amount of sugar being fast tracked to any remaining pesky cancer cells and ruining the scan. Think I was a bit neurotic this morning.

It takes about 60-90 mins for the cells in the body to uptake the FDG. The clever scanning machine then detects radiation emitted by the fluorine isotope and produces a map to reflect glucose use in the body. With me so far? In a nutshell, the more glucose used the more an area shows up ‘hot’. Cancer cells are rapidly dividing cells so tend to be hot spots. Other areas of high glucose activity are the heart and areas of historic or recent trauma (surgery sites, radiotherapy damage etc).

We are looking for rogue cancer cells in other parts of my body as well as a detailed look at what is going on in and around the lymph nodes in my axilla (armpit to you and I) as this is the site of my secondary tumour. Chemo is a systemic treatment so it should have reached parts other treatments cannot (to coin a phrase). That said triple negative cancer cells are pesky, aggressive, unpredictable little so and so’s and have a habit of popping up when and where you least expect them. They can also develop resistance to chemo. I am hoping we can get this PET-CT result in tomorrow’s appointment as I’m keen to know what we might do next to out fox this disease.

The clever radiographers combine a CT (structure and anatomy) with the PET (info about how the tissues function metabolically). The pic below sort of explains this.

It is a bit like google maps combining the map view with a satellite or street view.

So whilst PET-CT is kind of the best at spotting cancer cells on the move or hiding in new places, its not my favourite scan to have. That got me thinking (3 hours on your own not moving does this) about my top 5 scans! So here they are for a bit of informative fun.

  1. CT scan – quick efficient and contrast dye can go through my port
  2. MRI scan – noisy and long, but if you do yoga breathing it’s ok. Contrast dye can also go through port.
  3. Bone scan – radioactive injection through cannula can be tricky and the 3hr wait for it to do its job can be a pain if you don’t plan for it (I normally meet someone for lunch!!). But the scan itself very close to your body, but it is quick and you don’t  have to keep away from people.  Everyone is in the room with you so you don’t feel isolated. 
  4. Ultra sound – this is pretty easy and painless, but it comes in at number 4 as I question its accuracy in measuring invasive cancers. I’ve had a tumour that has supposedly shrunk by 50 and 40%. This gave my oncologist, surgeon and family false hope. Instead of removing a 24mm tumour the reality was 96 mm of live cancer and no clear margins (so probably more still there). I don’t trust ultra sounds much!
  5. PET-CT – the lonely scan or the leper scan. As soon as they give you the radioactive tracer injection (which can take ages due to cannula issues) the clock is ticking. They take you to a small room where you have to sit completely still for 60-90 mins. You then have another 30 mins in the scanner and have to keep away from people for several hours afterwards. Pregnant women and young children are a no no. Members of staff back away from you as their Geiger counters start clicking at you. 

I’ve just remembered mammogram! Now that was genuine pain, having a tumour squashed between two plates and scanned. That would be number 6. Bone density tomorrow – no idea what that entails.

This image is like a tick list of scans I’ve had! 

Turns out PET scans at this big teaching hospital aren’t as lonely as the (very posh) place I had my previous scans. All the people are lovely and most of the patients are in bays together rather than tiny cell like rooms with sci-fi loud speakers. This space is rather comically called the ‘Hot Waiting Area’ and we have our own ‘hot’ toilet. They let you read here too (unless they are scanning your brain) so that’s a good way to pass the time.  I’m also writing this.

The hot area was full of glowing patients waiting to be scanned, so I ended up on a trolley in a freezing cold recovery room from 12.45 til 15.15. It was quiet, but cold. They had a backlog of patients so once my cannula was in (second attempt) I waited a while before getting the radioactive cocktail. The pic below shows the (presumably) lead casing the injection comes in to stop the staff being exposed to too much radiation. Blimey I’m going to be glowing like the Ready Break boy when I get out of here.

During the wait I can’t help worry about next treatment steps, if its spread any where else. If so what this means for prognosis, continuation on the trial etc etc. I haven’t had my latest CT scan results yet either (that’s tomorrow after bloods and a bone density scan). Had to break out a second metal free scan outfit this week!

The PET-CT Scan itself is fine. They come and collect me about 15.15 ask me to use the ‘hot toilet’ and then I get in the scanner. They wrap me up in a weighted cover and blanket so I don’t move my arms and then whiz me gently up and down on the scanner for about 30 mins. In complete silence. Quite soothing, but way too much time to think – as if the 2.5 hours in a room on your own hasn’t sent you into neurosis.

Once off the scanner you are reminded that you mustn’t have prolonged contact with small children or pregnant women for a few hours. Tricky as a mother of two and travelling home on a crowded tube and train in the school summer holidays.

Before leaving the centre, I have a hot cup of tea from a styrene cup to try and get warm, two free biscuits and my packed lunch. It’s gone 4pm and I’m starving and a bit spaced out. It’s now pouring with rain and my metal free outfit is soaked through. I’m hoping the PET-CT results will be ready for my appointment tomorrow, but let’s see.

This post is a bit technical, but I thought it would be useful for people going through or supporting others having a PET-CT scans.