Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Lump - part 2

Sometimes, I am an absolute tit.

I was going to write a post about going back to the breast clinic, and finding out that everything's totally normal, and WHOOPEEE FOR ME!

But a few seconds after I'd tweeted that my news was good, a lady replied saying, "I wish mine was."

This lady has breast cancer. She went on to explain, kindly, that she had already had chemo and is facing a round of radiotherapy.

And here I was, dancing around, getting my healthy baps out and giving myself an extra big cheer. Nobber. Nobber. Nobber.

This made me think more carefully about my time in the clinic, and about the other ladies waiting with me. As I had lots of tests pencilled in, I was there for hours, and got settled in with a very bad book and an enormous bag of rice cakes. One by one we were led away into a room to have our breasts fondled, and one by one we came back, awaiting the next round. I'd noticed that the woman next to me had been gone for a while, and I'd assumed that she'd already slipped out unnoticed. But a little while later, out of the corner of my eye I saw her return, red eyed. She sat down next to me and turned to her friend. "It's cancer." she said. Her friend let out a creaking noise.

I looked away.

90% of breast lumps are not cancerous. But there were 20 people in that clinic. Which meant that, statistically speaking, my neighbour was probably not the only one to be diagnosed that day.

I imagined that the 'other' person in the room was going to me. I forced myself to live the moment of telling, the moment the doctor revealed the bad news, in my head. I thought about how I would react, what I would say. I imagined the terror of telling my children. And my ex husband. And of course, like the complete twat I am, I started to cry too.

The lady who had just been diagnosed turned and gave me a sympathetic look. I felt like a dick.

I was lucky, of course. This time, at least. But 50,000 people, mostly women, are fighting breast cancer every year. So all that trauma - the telling everyone, the coming to terms with it, the treatment, the emotional sledgehammering, the issues with work...not to mention your sodding health - is happening right now. In fact, more than 130 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every day. But...78% of breast cancer sufferers survive, and there's a strong desire to make this 100% by 2050.

So. If you don't mind me being matron for a moment:

  • Check your breasts regularly. Up-to-the-minute guidance is here: If you find a lump, don't worry - it is most likely to be benign. But DO have it checked.
  • If you are offered a mammogram, take it with open arms. Well, arms above your head, anyway (mammogram joke). People told me some mammo stories that made me jumpy, but I can honestly say that it didn't hurt at all. 
  • If you find a lump, don't imagine yourself dying, like I did. It just makes you look like a nob. Just get to your GP and let him or her cop a feel.
  • There is a wealth of information on breast cancer out there on the internet, but don't over-Google. You might do what I did and assume the worst. Leave it to the NHS; my experience was that they were swift, knowledgeable and caring.

Last time I went to the clinic, they were selling knitted tits. This time, it was knitted cupcakes, in support of Macmillan's World's Biggest Coffee Morning.  I bought a knitted cake, although if I'm honest, I'd have preferred a knitted tit.

And here it is. Glittery and everything. It could actually be a tit if you squinted at it in the half light.

Good luck to everyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer this week. That's 520 people already. I am with you, as are all the women in the country. As for the rest of us - let's get knitting, or baking, or running, or spreading the word.... or something.

Because we all know someone who's lived or died with breast cancer.

It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Give your boobs the once over. This month and every month.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Lump

Until about a month ago, I had been ignoring the lump in my breast. I pretended it wasn't there. Or I justified it; 90% of lumps are cysts. It's a cyst. Just a cyst. Sometimes I spoke harshly to it. "FUCK OFF! I HAVEN'T GOT TIME FOR YOU!"

But it was resolute. It stayed. And so, after Googling the absolute arse out of it, I went to the GP.

My GP is a lady. It is odd, but not unpleasant, having a lady wobble your tits about. In fact, if the surroundings had been a bit more conducive, I might have got a bit too comfortable. But as it was, I just looked out of the window, and wished I was elsewhere.

She was lovely, and sensitive, and said it was probably nothing, and certainly probably very likely not to be Cancer. I liked that she'd said 'Cancer'. It's now out in the open, and makes it a shed load easier to both vocalise and think about.

The Government line is that breast clinics have to see you within two weeks of referral. Where I live, it's like a sort of triage appointment, when they decide if you properly might have Cancer, or if you've just got lumpy tits.

The waiting room for the breast clinic is one of the most remarkable places. The appointments were running late, so it was choc-a-bloc with women. All sorts of women; young, old, middling. Some in work-attire, some in joggers. Some on their own, some with mothers and daughters - and one girl with her entire circle of friends around her. The sense of camaraderie or... togetherness, was palpable. I liked it. If I hadn't been so effing worried, I might have stayed all day.

I got called in by a lovely nurse ("So, so sorry for the delay") and did the usual drill for the young, male doctor. Questions answered, top off, bra off.

It's a very strange thing having a man you've never met before feel your tits - in such depth. Imagine the scene. The nurse is standing up by the wall, smiling at you. You are sitting on the trolley, legs dangling, naked from the waist up. A man is crouching in front of you, squashing and touching and squeezing every bit of your mammaries that he can lay his hands on. And yet, you're talking about the weather, your children, the fact that you've had a cold since July, what music you like. You can't look at the man, because somehow that would create intimacy, so you look at the wall on the left. And when he's focusing on the left breast, you look at the wall on the right.

I will probably never see this man again, this man who has fondled my breasts so rigorously.

Clothes on, and more talking. More vocalising the word 'Cancer'. "I don't think it's cancer," he said, "but just to cross the T's and dot the I's, we'll get you in for a mammogram, a scan and a biopsy."

"GOOD-O!" I shouted, suddenly, it seemed, one of The Famous Five.

And I was pleased, in part. Pleased that the ball was rolling, and that at least I was now in the system. I felt looked after. I felt like I'd fallen off the high wire, only to be caught in the safety net. And by that, I don't mean that I felt well - I just felt like I had handed the weight of responsibility for my own health over to these doctors and nurses. And that was comforting.

So, on Tuesday, I'm off again to the breast clinic to have my already, frankly, tiny breasts squeezed and sliced. I have told a handful of people, and they have all offered to come with me. They are very kind, but I feel that there is enough support there - in the wonderful NHS staff of course, and all the ladies in that waiting room who share the same worries as me.


Follow me on Twitter: @secretdivorcee

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Cutting Tax Credits - What it Means to me

Dear Mr Cameron,

You and your party have been brilliant at supporting me and my children over the past few years. As a single parent, I have drawn on the wonderful NHS many times (brain injury, cut to the face, lump in breast, plus numerous trips to the dentist and trolley-loads of contraceptive pills) - thanks for that. We’ve been regular visitors to the library, to try to satisfy my younger son’s reading habit. As a single parent, I get a 25% reduction off my council tax. My children’s schooling is rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted (but actually, I think it’s outstanding). And that’s all brilliant.

But by far the greatest help that I have received from the Government since being a single parent are Tax Credits. And you have just cut them. So now I’ll be about £1000 worse off every year.

I heard you on the radio today, saying that you have cut them because you want to encourage people into work. I don’t understand. I work. I work bloody hard at my job. And then I come home, and work bloody hard at being a mum.

I’m have pretty average responsibilities at work, and am on a pretty average wage. I work school hours. And all of this is by choice. Yes, I am one of your simpering scroungers who chooses not to earn more money. I choose to work locally, and I choose to be home very soon after my boys come home from school. I choose not to have a job which will call me away.


It’s to do with family values, Mr Cameron. I think the Tories were belting on about them not so long ago. In fact, in 2009, you said that they were the key to building a responsible society.

As a teenager, I had absent parents. I remember letting myself into my house with my key, and making Findus Crispy Pancakes with oven chips. You probably don’t know what Crispy Pancakes are; all you need to know is - they’re not crispy, and they’re not pancakes.

My Mum arrived home at 6pm, well after The Wombles had finished. And my Dad - well, sometimes I was in bed when he got back from work.  Parental absence like this is not good for a child. Did you know that, statistically, a teenage pregnancy is most likely to happen in that hour, or hour and a half, between the children getting home from school, and the parent coming in from work?

There are all sorts of reasons why I want to be there for my children. As teenagers, they need me just as much as they did when they were little. They are going through so many changes, and I want to be there to support them. And the Government should support me in this. Because it is in your interest for me to raise two bright, motivated, happy and healthy men.

Why then, are you cutting my Child Tax Credits, and forcing me to work longer hours? Why are you insisting that I become an absent parent? A parent already stressed and guilt-ridden about working too much, forgetting appointments and arriving late? Surely you can see that, by closing down your support, you are undermining all the hard work that I have put in over the past few years. By cutting tax credits, you are dismantling my family values, not supporting me in building them.

“The goal of welfare reform should be to reward hard work and protect the vulnerable.” So says your 2015 manifesto. Well I work bloody hard. And now I’m vulnerable.

You haven’t thought this through, Mr Cameron. And neither have your chums who voted ‘yes’ today.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The importance of telling people that they matter

I can’t remember exactly when I realised that I needed to tell people what they meant to me. It may have been triggered by my Dad’s stroke, a day of near-loss. The day after, I remember thinking: I almost didn’t tell him how much I love him. He almost died without hearing it from me.

And so, when he was sufficiently recovered, I picked up the phone and dialled his number. I knew that, as a Yorkshireman, he would be excruciatingly embarrassed. But I hoped that, when the call had finished, he would be left with a warmth, a sense of achievement perhaps, as a parent, and of love.

As it happened, his stroke had made him surprisingly receptive to touchy-feeliness, and he not only soaked up my compliments (how much I loved him, how much I appreciate what he does for me, what he means to me), but also handed them back to me in good measure. The phone call brought us closer together and we have both never forgotten it.

I left it too late for my Granny. It was only when she was in the dark depths of dementia that I realised I had never told her how important she had been in my life. How she had been my female role model. How her kindness and humour had, in part, formed me. But mostly, just to say thank you. I missed telling her, a bit like missing a bus – the difference being that there were no more buses due.

So from then, I have tried to tell people when they have enriched my life. This has meant that I’ve written many thank you letters, or emails, to customer service employees when they’ve done a great job. (I also complain too, by the way, when they haven’t – I’m not a bleedin’ saint.) It occasionally means that I approach strangers in the street if they’re wearing something that’s made me smile – a great hat, perhaps. Or some wonderful shoes.

And it also took me to an awkward place today, with my GP. I’d only seen this lady once before. It was when Tween seemingly wasn’t improving after his head injury. I had given up work to care for him, and we were all very low. Dr G was the first, and the only, medical professional to say, “He will get better.” Her words gave us hope. That little phrase turned my life up from a 3 to an 8; she made us smile again. And she was right, too – he did get better.

I saw her again today about a ‘lady issue’, which she handled kindly and professionally. She was late, her computer wasn’t working, and she was obviously stretched. And yet the voice in my head was saying, “You’ve got to tell her. DO IT DO IT DO IT.” So just as I was getting my stuff together, I blurted out something along the lines of, “youweretheonlyonetotellusandyoumadeahugedifference, andhedidgetbetterandsomeofthatI’msureisdowntoyou.” She smiled and told me it was a lovely thing to hear on a Saturday morning.

And suddenly I couldn’t talk anymore, because I was crying.

I gave her an apologetic smile, and left. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

An Open Begging Letter to Banksy

Dear Banksy,

I need to be upfront with you. This is purely a begging letter for tickets to Dismaland. I know it won't work, but if there's the tiniest chance that you'll see how dismal my life has been over the last few months, I thought you might take pity, and shower me with free tickets to the exhibition.

My run of dismality started three months ago, when my youngest son ran into an iron bar. His brain leeched a bit through his skull and that meant that, rather selfishly, it's taken him a long time to recover. I had to give up work temporarily which was a bit of a bother, as I'm a single parent.

A few weeks ago, I decided to take both my boys to Wales, camping. A bit of a treat. On the first night, my eldest son was hit in the face by flying stones, so we spent a jolly night in Haverfordwest A&E, waiting for him to be glued back together.

There was a lot of blood, and therefore a lot of washing.

My step mother died a year ago, my Dad has a brain tumour, and my partner had his hip replaced at the weekend.
And today, I took my boys to the Orthodontics department at the local hospital, where we were greeted by this.


We have tried to get tickets to Dismaland but have so far failed. I've got a feeling it would cheer us all up immensely.

And so, I wondered... is there anything you could do to sort of... shoe horn us in?

Here's hoping.


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

How not to be a cool mum of teenagers

I always thought I would be a cool mum.  My rock solid foundation for this is:

a) I've met Steven Spielberg
b) I've met Rhydian
c) I've had a letter from the Queen about stamps

and d), the trump card: I can fly a plane. Yes, just like Carol Vorderman. But not in tight white trousers.

I mean, really - can there be anyone cooler?

Apparently, there can. According to my children, if there was a Cool Chart, I would be at minus infinity. It appears that my cool 'pilot points' are swiftly cancelled out by my inability to stop myself whooping loudly when excited. And by adding the suffix 'ie' to both my sons' names. And by far the worst - forcing them to explain what their teenage speak means, and then using it in public. Example:

Teenagers: *mutter mutter mutter* BAY *mutter mutter mutter*
Me: Oh, hello! That sounds like an interesting conversation. What does B-A-Y mean? Bay tree? Bay Watch?
Teenagers: *mutter effoff mutter* It's BAE, not BAY.
Teenagers: *stare*
Me: Well, anyway *shuffles uncomfortably* what does it mean?
Teenagers, looking sideways at each other: It means Before Anyone Else.
Me: Oh, super! So you're my BAEs? You really are! *sings* You're my BAEs, my lovely son BAEs, fa-la-la...*attempts to give them both a kiss*
Teenagers, escaping: OH MY GOD MUM YOU ARE SO UNCOOL!

I'm also an enthusiastic fan of regional accents. As I grew up in Birmingham, the Brummie is always a good one to bring out, as is the Sheffield, plus the West Country. Til the age of about 10, this vaguely amused the kids - or at least they pretended to laugh - but now, when I bring out my 'Brummie', eyes roll and the stock phrase comes out.


This has confused me. I didn't think that putting on a funny accent was racist. But now my children, who are from an uberly politically correct world, have put me at a vague unease. So I now do fewer accents, and when they come out, they are only whispered. To the cat.

I can control the accents (to a point), but one thing I have no control over is crying when watching a film. Or the telly. Or hearing a sad piece of music. If we're in the cinema, and something sad happens, I can see them physically tense up next to me. I try to stop the tears and the sniffling and, sometimes, the choking sobs, but the more I try, the worse it becomes.

Occasionally they have moved seats to be rid of me. Taking the sodding popcorn with them.

Other uncool elements to my parenting: forcing them to text me when they're out and about; turning the WiFi off at 10pm and not letting them play Call of Duty; not upgrading their phones (because I can't afford it); inviting myself on trips to Alton Towers with them.

I understand what's happening. They are pulling at the elastic. They don't really need me anymore. Or rather, they don't want me. I am the boring authority figure, who doesn't understand what they are saying, who forces them to bed at a reasonable time, who was never young and who just doesn't understand.

I, on the other hand, can see them slipping away from me, and am trying to suppress the panic that is rising up inside me. Perhaps it is more pronounced because I am a single parent? Who knows. But I recognise that this is all part of them growing up, and getting on. I've got to gradually let go of the controls and give them more space. More responsibility. Freedom to cock up and find ways to get out of tight scrapes.

In the hope that, one day, they might laugh again at my jokes. Or say, "Hey mum - tell us about the time you met Rhydian. That's such a great story!" Or even, if I'm very lucky, ask for the 'Brummie' to be let out of its drawer.

And then the fun began...

Monday, 17 August 2015

Going glamping as a single parent - and enjoying it

It's bloody scary taking your kids away on holiday when you're a single parent. The weight of responsibility, which normally sits in balance on your shoulders, suddenly becomes crushing when you realise you are taking them to a place with none of your usual comfort blankets or safety nets.

So, for the last three years, I have taken Teen and Tween to the same place. It's a campsite in South Wales. A really special place, with only five pitches for tents, and four yurts.  Each pitch has a covered kitchen area - better equipped that my kitchen at home - and a place for a camp fire.
Our camp kitchen
Oh, and each yurt has a compost loo (you can see it in the background) which they refer to as 'en suite'. When you're falling into the nettles frantically trying to reach it in the night, I wouldn't necessarily call it an 'en suite'. But still, it's a hell of a lot better than making the trek up to the shower block at 4am with your middle-aged pelvic floor sagging under the weight of half a bottle of wine and some left over limoncello you found in the bottom of your bag.

The owners of the campsite have become friends. From the start, they were welcoming and warm, never asked about my personal situation, but always ready to help. As bushcraft experts, they encouraged my boys to have a go at fire building, den-making and knife work, while I looked on with half a brain's interest - the other half wondering how the eff I was going to make dinner without a grill.

Both boys loved making fires. At first, I was concerned that I had raised two startlingly large pyromaniacs, but no - they weren't interested in watching the fire, necessarily; it was more about building the fire structure properly, and the challenge of lighting it without firelighters. Sitting around a campfire in the dark is magical. We made popcorn on a makeshift grill thing. We told stories. And of course, we toasted many, many marshmallows.
Our roaring campfire

This year, we ordered a lobster from the owner's son, who worked with a fisherman some mornings. I'd never had lobster before; it's bloody expensive (£16 for a smallish one) and I'd heard it was fiddly to eat; in previous years a ridiculous luxury I couldn't afford. This year - it was still a ridiculous luxury I couldn't afford, but I ordered one anyway. Bollocks to it.

Lobster evening came. I left the boys constructing the Jenga fire, and went to collect the little fella. He was brought out of his tank, and cleanly 'dispatched' outside the toilet block (that's a knife through the head to you and me), goggle-eyed children (and adults) stopping to stare. I'm a meat eater, and I think it's important to know where our food comes from - but even I was a bit squeamish when his legs and claws were still pumping even after he'd been sliced in two.

We cooked it on the campfire (claws still opening and shutting) and, after ten minutes, we sat down to our king's feast.

After a lot of fannying about with nutcrackers and some resorting to the blunt end of the axe, I reckon we got less than a sausage amount of meat from the poor creature. It was a good job I'd cooked A LOT of potatoes. And I wondered to myself - is it all a bit 'Emperor's New Clothes'? I mean, it was tasty and all, but I'd have just as soon as had a couple of Gregg's sausage rolls for a fraction of the price.
Me, basking the Welsh sunshine on the beach

Anyway, we can now say that we've eaten - and cooked - lobster. And the experience - from live animal to meat in our stomachs in thirty minutes - was very Bear Grylls. Eye opening too, and probably more so to me (a product of Findus Crispy Pancakes and Lean Cuisine) than to the boys.

But it's not all campfires and carnivores. The site is close to White Sands - a beautiful bay near St David's, where surf is almost always 'up'. The boys love it, so I don my South Wales Summer Weather Gear, and watch with extreme trepidation, occasionally shrieking at them to stay in their depth.

One of these days, the stress of wrapping them in cotton wool is going to kill me.

And talking of stress, we did have an 'incident' this year which almost pushed my heart out of its ribcage. The boys had hooked up with some other (lovely) children and were playing Kick the Can in the dark one night. (Kick the Can is a bit like Ackee 1, 2, 3 to all those 80's parents. Ackee 1, 2, 3 is a bit like Hide and Seek to everyone else.)  Anyway, stones were thrown as decoys and one hit Teen just above the eye. Tween ran down to our yurt with the line, "MUM! J IS BLEEDING AND WE CAN'T STOP IT!"

Cue abandonment of everything sane and start running in vague direction of bleeding son, in total darkness, without a torch.

Head injury info in Welsh, anyone?
When I eventually reached Teen, at the top of the campsite, he was being looked after by other parents and had the most ENORMOUS zombie/mummy-type bandage around his head. Fuck, I thought, another sodding head injury. I fucking hate you, God of head injuries. Go and piss on someone else's family for a while.

What followed was a blur of loveliness from the adults ('are you on your own?' 'let me phone the hospital' 'I'll come with you') and a five hour wait in Haverfordwest A&E department. At 4.30am, after a ten minute gluing-together session, Teen, Tween, a lovely lady called Alice who I'd met 6 hours before, and me, drove back through the misty darkness together with the window open to keep me awake.

Although the weight of responsibility is sometimes crippling when you're a loan parent, when the shit hits the fan, people will help you. And you don't have to ask; there are good people out there - total strangers - who will see that you're struggling and will gladly offer what they can. So don't let that fear cripple you, as it sometimes does to me. Have faith that it will be ok. Because it will.

I booked an afternoon's kayaking. As Tween is twelve, I had to do it, too. And I was dreading it. What if I fell in and couldn't get back in the boat? What if I crashed into the rocks and died? What if? What if?

What a tit. Honestly - I had the best time. And actually, as the boys had been kayaking in sodding Turkey with my ex two weeks before (unbeknownst to be until afterwards), I think I enjoyed it more than them. I felt powerful, and in control. Mostly. We kayaked through gulleys and into caves. The sky was blue and the sea was azure. I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that I was unconsciously and loudly whooping, and making Tween in particular horribly embarrassed. He wouldn't talk to me for a while which upset me for a bit.

And then I thought, 'fuck it'. And whooped some more.

Holidays like this, where you live in each other's pockets, can be tricky. We got on each other's nerves. I felt ganged up on at times. They felt barked at occasionally. But we had some glorious times, too. Fabulous sunsets. Amazing starlit nights (including THREE shooting stars). Made new friends. Heard some wonderful stories. Played an awful lot of cards.

I've already booked for next year.