Dancing in Uniform

You may have seen these recent news stories (click on the links):



Different cultures, different countries. Not trying to claim any great credit for the British Way of Life – but it would be heartening to think that at some time in the future, the reaction in the West Bank would be a bit more benign. Or even better, that “patrols” in Hebron ceased to be thought necessary.

I do hope the “top brass” – even as they disciplined the soldiers – at least paused for thought and asked themselves why the young men in the IDF started dancing. Possible answers:

– because they recognised what they shared with the Palestinian party-goers?
– because it was a lot more fun to get involved in the dance than to patrol from the sidelines?
– because they forgot to behave like the soldiers that they really aren’t?
– because they are in the IDF under some duress?


Thrills and Spills

I don’t like the cancer cliches, but it is easy to see how they come about. The latest one to seem relevant is “roller-coaster”. Getting surgery over with was a bit of a relief after the tension and uncertainty of the long run-up. And the first few days afterwards were a time of recovery, when I could see and feel myself getting better. Not to mention the visits and well-wishers – sometimes there was almost a party atmosphere! But now my recovery seems to have reached a plateau. I am up and doing quite a lot, but still restricted and very bruised, and I’m getting bored with doing my physio exercises. Plus, the approach of the next clinic visit is becoming increasingly oppressive: I am once more obsessively trawling articles on the internet, this time attempting to estimate my chances of having cancer in the lymph nodes. The bleakest forecast is around 50:50, but I try to tell myself it probably isn’t as bad as that, as this statistic must include those poor sods whose tumours were grade 4 as well as those who had grade 1 lumps like me (but then again, the grading can change following the investigations they do after surgery). So I here I am counting days down again to an appointment I don’t really want to go to. Don’t think waiting for Christmas; think waiting for crucial exam results – only a bit worse.

I never was an adrenaline junkie. Can’t say I’m enjoying the ride much.

PS Just as I was about to post this, I was much cheered by a phone call from a friend who had bc five years ago. While I am absolutelynotnowaynever going to join any Cancer Club, her support is very, very welcome. She has just spent 20 days climbing in the Pyrenees.

Emergence of the Inner Body Fascist

Yesterday I tried two approaches in the What (Not) to Wear experiment. We had the in-laws round for coffee (no bra, no softie, – no discernible discomfort on their part or mine. Good old in-laws). Then later we went to a barbecue with good friends – me in my bra and softie. Again, no discernible reaction from anybody – but I was uncomfortable. The pressure of the bra straps was sore after a few hours. Also, I was hoping that the fairly discreet top I was wearing would sit better – it had looked a bit off-centre when I was swinging free underneath – but it didn’t really. The softie did not fit too well on my chest because of temporary swelling that wasn’t present in the immediate post-op period. As a consequence, it felt bigger than my boob, and I wasn’t sure I had quite positioned it right. The fabric of my top still seemed a bit skewed to me, though I doubt anybody else noticed.

But, oh dear, the nasty things that emerge from within when I think ahead. My next clinic appointment to get histology results looms (Tuesday 3rd). This in itself has sent me down a bit emotionally: I think I associate the clinic with Bad Things. Unsurprising, since the two visits I have made there have been fairly horrid. I am not at this point really considering the worst news I might come home with (cancer in the lymph nodes, and therefore a recommendation of further surgery, radio, chemo –); I am bothered enough about the likely offer of hormone treatment. Firstly, how will They get it right, since I am neither clearly pre- or post -menopausal? Secondly, will they be able to offer me Tamoxifen, as I had that deep vein thrombosis in pregnancy? Does this mean I might have to settle for a second-best option? And thirdly, how bad are the side effects going to be?

And this is where my inner body fascism shows. I am certainly bothered about the possibility of nausea, body thermostat going haywire, etc. etc; but what I am most bothered about is the thought of getting FAT. Although I don’t regard any of my overweight friends as ill-disciplined, badly educated slobs who don’t know how to look after themselves, what emerges is that this is my view of fat people in general. And I might beat myself up with this stick if it happens to me. Just now, the idea of getting fat is more troubling than the fact that I have lost a breast; maybe since the latter might evoke sympathy and understanding, whereas the former doesn’t. At least not from myself.

I like being slight and on the small side – it is perhaps my main virtue (if that’s what it is), given that I am not beautiful in any classic sense. (And if you do comment on this post, please don’t give me the spiel about “inner beauty”, because I know all that). I am delighted that I am currently actually a bit thinner than daughter number two (who, like her older sister, looks terrific to me). I also don’t want to get over-preoccupied with food the way I did in my brief overweight period in my student years. The anxious binge/starve cycle is no fun at all. Good food is one of life’s chief pleasures.

Of course lots of women put on weight in their fifties,and I might have struggled with weight issues anyway, without all this cancer rubbish. But I will so resent being catapulted into it for my own good.

So much for my militancy about the shape of women’s bodies. Sorry, sisters. 5:2 diet, here we come —

Body Image, Barbies and Bad Jokes (not for the sensitive)

This is a frank post. Read on at your own risk. You have been warned —

The word is that some women suffer from a crisis of body confidence after breast cancer surgery. And I have to admit that with my clothes off, at the moment I am not a pretty picture. I look as if I have been subjected to a major assault (well, I have). But the bruises are already fading, and the scar is – sort of maturing. And I have been thinking quite a lot about my options for presenting myself to the world from now on. These are several. Here goes – in order of conformity to the media image of the ideal woman.

1) Ask for a re-construction. (I rejected the offer of an immediate reconstruction at time of the mastectomy, in order to keep surgery to a minimum). There are pictures on the internet of a reconstruction at various stages, and, to the surgeon’s credit, the end results are pretty good. Seems you need a few operations, though, as they “expand” your skin, insert an implant (or maybe some of your own tissue taken from your back or belly = more pain, more scars), and tattoo on (yes!) nipples/areolae. Also, the pictures I saw were of a woman who had had a double mastectomy, Angelina-style, so ultimately, she had two nice new rather pneumatic-looking and matching boobs. I assume she could choose how big to go, too!

Questions: a) Would the extra surgery be worth it? b) How “natural” would it look? I only need one new boob – and I think anyone would have a hard time matching my remaining (well-loved, well-used) breast, which has been going South for some time now. So I still might look rather lop–sided —

2) Wear a prosthesis. I was given a “softie” – an initial temporary one – before I left hospital the day after surgery, so that, wearing it in a well-fitting bra, I look as if both sides match. And in a few weeks’ time, I will be fitted for a more permanent “chicken fillet”. Then it’s off to M and S, or wherever, to buy some slinky lingerie and a new swimming costume (all with special pockets in to keep the falsie secure). If that’s what it takes to make me feel better.

So, thank you, dear NHS, for these options – and all free at the point of delivery. I am grateful. And maybe I will still take you up on them. But wait a minute. There are more options, if I decide neither to pretend that nothing has happened, nor to conform to the “ideal” of the female body.

3) Forget any prosthesis; customise my bras so that I just have the one cup (neither M and S nor anyone else one seems to have thought of this, so I can’t buy them). Or even go entirely for comfort and dispense with bras altogether (because – has anybody, ever, anywhere, found a really comfortable bra??). And wear clothes and scarves which disguise my profile – including that of said remaining well-loved, well-used, southerly-migrating breast – for the sake of my own confidence, and so as not to scare anybody.

4) Be out and proud – no falsies, no bras, and tight T-shirts if I feel like it. This would be a bit like re-visiting my slightly militant breast-feeding days, when I was not always as discreet as I could have been. I only ever had one negative comment, feeding my older daughter outside Great St Mary’s in Cambridge. And, as an extension of being out and proud, B. and I have discussed the possibilities of me auditioning as a porn star; or baring all as usual on holiday in France; or offering “The Sun” my services as a page 3 girl; or working as a model for life-drawing classes. Now figure out which of these are the Bad Jokes.

I’m feeling quite a lot better, and have been sallying forth to some local social engagements; and so far, I have gone for options 2 and 3. Maybe it’s a bit early for 4. Maybe I’ll never do any of that. But I think there is a real issue here. If breast cancer is as common as they say, there are millions of women walking round the world with only one breast, or maybe none; but you’d never know it. Because there is pressure to collude with the pretence that all women are like Barbie. One quick visit to any naturist campsite – maybe the very best therapy out there – will show you how very far from the truth that is.

Then again, maybe Islamic culture has got it right. Maybe there’d be more freedom in us all hiding our curves (if we have them). There’d be no problem under a burka, would there? And is that another tasteless joke?


“Tensions”(1976) is the title of a book by H.A.Williams – another brilliant but in real life probably very irritating churchman. I first came across his work in the mid-eighties, when I first started to think about the paradoxes we live with, rather than thinking in terms of polar and mutually exclusive opposites. Hate/love, doubt/faith — it’s in the book. I have got to read it again, as in dusting it down in order to check its publication date, I noticed the part about dependence/autonomy, which could be relevant.

I have noticed a tension or paradox in my own recent thinking. On the one hand, I accept the Darwinian take on the pitiless-ness of the natural order, which means that the individual organism (like me) is of little account; on the other, I express outrage that the medical establishment appears to disregard my precious individuality, processes me through a system, and (perhaps) uses me to shore up its own illusions (hitting the target for getting a high percentage of women through the bc screening programme, and hitting the target again for earlier diagnosis, and hitting the target yet again – probably – for high survival rates).

So what value do I put on the individual life? Or do I value it differently when the life is mine (how self-obsessed is that!). I don’t have an answer to my inner contradictions. Maybe that’s the just the nature of paradoxes. We have to live with them. But the final chapter of the annoying* H.A. Williams’ book does suggest a way of resolving tension. It is laughter. And certainly, in a tense group discussion or decision-making scenarios, I have often seen my very skilled husband lighten the mood and bring about some rapprochement with a well-chosen joke. So that’s my justification for humour at difficult times – it releases the tension.

Watch this space for some bad jokes.

*Read his autobiography, “Someday I’ll Find You”(1982), and you’ll see what I mean. Though he also speaks a lot of truth.

Meanwhile, back in the rest of my life —


There can’t be many people who have major surgery one day and complete on the purchase of a house the next —

Our association with Lancaster Co-housing (click on the link above) began much earlier in the year, and our decision in principle to give up the country estate and move towards Lancaster was taken much earlier than that. Lake House Barn is a great place to recuperate in largely good weather, but the transport challenges -in the wint er especially – have seemed increasingly onerous. If the roads aren’t icy, they’re flooded, and even when the sun shines, considerable flexibility is needed to take advantage of what extortionately expensive public transport there is. Hence the reluctant running of two cars. Also, not being eco-warriors, we need all the help we can get if we are to live more sustainably, and LCH is well set up to support the weak-minded like us to do just that (though we are relieved to know that among our new neighbours there are a number of unreformed meat-eaters etc., with whom we can share the occasional braai.)

So after considerable thought and one bad attack of cold feet, at the end of May we finally put in a firm offer to buy a little (very little!) freehold house in association with LCH. It’s on the banks of the Lune, one of 6 in a terrace, a new-build of “Passivhaus” construction, part of an inspirational and award-winning project in which each household has its own space but shares some common facilities. Our particular arrangement is such that we could just shut our doors and keep ourselves to ourselves; but why would we do that, with an art lecturer and a magician living on one side of us, and (for me) fellow-Quakers three doors away? – And with the opportunity (but not the obligation) to eat several communal meals a week prepared by someone else? – And to share all those things we hardly ever need but want to have occasional access to?

By the time the bc diagnosis came, we were on the way to exchange of contracts, and could not see a reason to withdraw given that we are in a position not to leave our current house until it sells, and so can take the move slowly. It may just take us a bit longer than it would have done to get the shelves up and the goods and chattels transferred over (so far, all that we have there are two camping chairs). The challenge here – unchanged – is that we have a huge de-cluttering and downsizing exercise to do, which I am both dreading and anticipating with relish. Also, of course, we will be leaving a number of very good friends in the immediate area. But we are not emigrating – we’re moving about 10 miles – and the warmth and welcome of the intentional community we are joining is somehow humbling. We will without doubt make new friends, as well as keeping and treasuring the old.



To my relief, I found I could move my right arm well enough to play the piano even by day 2 post-surgery. But my concentration was terrible, and even in a well-known piece, I kept losing my place; and my pedalling was shocking although no one had operated on my feet. I am planning to buckle down today and try to practise regularly.

You can hear the soundtrack for my personal annus horribilis on the link above. It’s John Ireland’s “The Towing Path”. I had started learning it before Dad’s death in January. I loved it from the beginning, and it is just so quintessentially English and evokes the slow rural England that Dad so loved. Every time I play it, I still think of him and his shambling walks – always with his flat cap and his stick (long before he really needed it) – along lanes and river banks. Then it sustained me through the Awful Job of the first half of the year – along with my Bach Prelude, which with its rigour and order gave some calming shape to my inner turmoil and anxiety. For several months, I also battled on with Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, too, but for most of this year the mood has not been right, and there were some weeks when I just couldn’t face it (also, technically, I am at my current limits with it).

So back to “The Towing Path” which I have more or less learnt to my satisfaction now, and so played a lot in the days leading up to surgery, when serious practice of Bach (and now Mozart) was beyond me. Its elegaic, peaceful quality was just what I needed, and, I think, will help me as I come to terms with what I’ve lost. Sometimes words just don’t do it.


Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach” (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/dover-beach/) has been going round in my head for several days. I have always thought it quite a patchy poem, with one or two rather weak lines (“Ah love! let us be true to one another”), but also with some absolutely blinding images and a stunning ending. Then I caught on iplayer a BBC4 programme about it which went out on Sunday night (18th) – worth looking at if you are into your Victorians – on which the presenter explained the ebb and flow of the language from cosmic to personal as being part of the poem’s genius. I buy that. Also, it transpires that Arnold was on his honeymoon when he wrote it, so I will let him off the personal references on that count too (and I do hope he cheered up for part of the week!).

It is a bleak poem – strange how finding your bleakness well expressed by another can be such a comfort. But I think that’s how it is. And the part that came back to me first was the ending: the “darkling plain — where ignorant armies clash by night”. People are often said to fight a “brave battle” cancer. I can see why – but to me there’s not much brave about it really – just got to do it one way or the other, and the “battle” seems to me to be cloaked in uncertainty, if not entire ignorance.

Another favourite Victorian of mine is Darwin, who suffered the death of his nine year old daughter Annie (” a dear and good child”) at about the time he was thinking of publishing his “On the Origin of Species”. One of Darwin’s insights was not that nature is cruel, but that it is simply indifferent to the fate of the individual organism. And again, this makes sense to me. I don’t believe I’m either being punished or being cared for by a higher power. It’s just what happens.

I have a lot of affinity with these Victorians, for whom the world was no longer safely encircled by the “Sea of Faith”, because that is a journey I have made and am making. I am also fascinated by Cardinal Newman – also mentioned in the BBC4 programme – who went the other way, seeking a harbour in tradition and authority. Why did he do that?

In fact, today I am not feeling at all bleak – maybe that’s why I can write it down. Had a great visit from two university friends, as well as a continuing stream of messages, and the continued steady care of B; and it’s that, isn’t it – the love and support offered by others – which remains to us. If some privately frame it to themselves as the channelling of the love of God, that’s fine by me. It’s the doing it that counts.

Doctors want women warned of risks and benefits of mammograms as patients unnecessarily diagnosed

Ha – getting into re-blogging now!!

Subject alerts

The Courier Mail August 09, 2013

FOR every woman whose breast cancer death is prevented by mammography screening, three others are unnecessarily diagnosed and treated, says a population health expert.
Professor Alexandra Barratt, of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney’s Medical School, said many women underwent treatment for cancers that might otherwise cause no harm in their lifetimes.
Prof Barratt said while she had no desire to scare women into not having mammograms, she wanted women to have up-to-date information on the risks and benefits of screening.

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“Leaving Alexandria”

The Kindle B gave me for Christmas has really come into its own – easy to read in bed, and I have been enjoying ex-Bishop Richard Holloway’s “Leaving Alexandria”. By his own admission, he is a self-conscious but skilled performer/writer, brilliant, I think, but I bet difficult to live with. He says much that I want to assent to, and which I think is not unrelated to my current experiences. His theme is the (false) certainties of religion, the cruelties these can lead to,and his own uncertainty; and I am up against the (false?) certainties of medical science as they have been presented to me, the cruelties these can lead to, and my own uncertainties.

Generally, post-op is proving at present to be less psychologically tough than pre-op. This is down to the fantastic support and love of B in particular, as well as the kind messages I have had from so many of you. Also probably down to the fact that I am simply busy getting physically better most of the time, and enjoying being pampered. The knowledge that I am categorically forbidden to iron or to vacuum for the next 6 weeks is cheering (though to be honest the ironing basket is used to this level of neglect –). But I am easily tipped into tears, and on and off experience a sense of failure for not holding out against the medical establishment. Almost as if I have been hypocritical in the end. B says that what I did was take an impossible decision, and I think that’s helpful. I’m trying just now not to think about further impossible decisions that may need taking in the future.

The Blog is going public – I am curious to see what happens!