I’M a big kid when it comes to Christmas. I love it.
When we were little, my brother and sister and I lost our minds with excitement decorating our family’s “messy tree”, only to wake up to find Mum had “tidied it up”.
As a grown-up I can’t shake that feeling — if anything, it’s only got worse.
So this year, when I couldn’t go on the annual family trip to pick out a tree, I sent my husband Seb and kids Hugo, 13, and Eloise, 11, with one simple instruction — go big.
They didn’t disappoint. They never do. The tree is massive — so big we had to trim it. It’s totally over the top and a bit wonky but it’s perfect.
With each year that passes, decorating our tree together gets more and more special. It’s not just that it’s Christmas for us, it’s another Christmas we didn’t think I would live to see.
Four years ago, almost to the day, I collapsed in my doctor’s surgery and screamed: “I don’t want to die.”
He had just told me the 6cm tumour they had found in my bowel was, in his professional opinion, cancerous.
Days later the results of a biopsy confirmed it, and I was diagnosed with incurable stage-four bowel cancer at the age of 35.
Back then, I was facing my first major operation to resect the tumour from my bowel. Today, I am recovering from the latest in a long line of ops, and I’m 17 tumours down and counting.
It’s a miracle I am still here. When I was diagnosed with a rare form of bowel cancer, known as a BRAF mutation, on paper I probably had about a year to live, if that.
The five-year survival rate for someone like me is about seven per cent. So I am beyond grateful to still be here.
I’m grateful I got to celebrate my tenth wedding anniversary with the man who regularly picks me up and pieces me back together.
I get to run with my son and dance with my daughter. We’ve baked cakes together (and I am not a baker), we’ve been to Disneyland.
Cancer, and now Covid, has taught me a simple but valuable life lesson, to treasure the simple things that I took for granted before my diagnosis.
Just before my latest operation I had to move out of our home in South West London and in with my parents.
I had to make sure I was Covid-free before going into hospital, and living with the kids, who are essentially walking snot bags, was too risky.
I knew it would be awful being away from them for more than a week, but they are why that operation — and all the others — are so important.
While I found it hard being away from them, I got to spend time with my mum and dad, just us.
We’ve always been close, but having this chance to just sit and talk about my childhood, my grandparents and our past has given me a new strength.
I had hoped to get through the pandemic without needing an operation.
Two sets of scans earlier this year were promising, as they could find no evidence of any active disease.
In layman’s terms I was cancer-free. It’s all thanks to some game-changing drugs that have put my aggressive cancer to sleep.
But I have always known those cells were lurking there, just waiting to wake up. So far they’ve popped up as tumours in my bowel, lungs, liver and lymph nodes — and about a month ago, the lymph nodes were where they reappeared.
Having been able to blast four active nodes with radiotherapy during the first lockdown, this time scans found one near my heart.
I was acutely aware of how lucky I was to be offered a keyhole op to remove it, mid-lockdown, and so I grabbed the chance with both hands.
But it doesn’t matter how many times I turn up at the Royal Marsden hospital in London for an op, each time is as terrifying as the last.
I worry I won’t wake up, I convince myself I won’t see the kids grow up.
This time, as I came to in intensive care, hooked up to drains and in agony, I pinched myself.
I was alive, and in my drug-induced haze, made ten times worse this time by the fact that no one could be there with me to hold my hand, I said a big thank you under my breath.
It’s a thank you that extends to so many people. It starts with my husband and children. While being separated from them was hard, it showed me how robust they are.
It made me realise that if my worst fear is realised, and when I am no longer here, they will be OK. They are strong enough to cope.
My family are everything to me, they are the constant in all of this.
I can’t thank my parents, sister and brother and their families enough. Then there is the team at the Marsden, from the nurses to the support staff, my superhero oncologist and my surgeon.
And the scientists that helped develop the drugs that are now keeping me alive.
Most people manage about nine months on these drugs before they stop working and their cancer outwits the medication.
‘I treasure things I took for granted before my diagnosis’
I’m 16 months in and hoping. That’s what makes me so nervous. I have always known that my response won’t last for ever, and right now my team and I don’t know what comes next.
While on paper I have been cancer free, the reality is my cancer cannot be cured.
It’s only thanks to the drugs I am on that I am still here today.
Just a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see these drugs finally get approved on the NHS.
It was a really important moment for me. I felt so lucky to get the chance to try these drugs and now I’ve been able to play a role in them being given to others.
Four years down the line, many people do assume I am cured. I love dressing up, dancing and I enjoy life, even with cancer in tow.
Bag of nerves
But I can never relax. I’ve been blindsided by my cancer too many times for that. I can never feel secure, and that comes with so many challenges. I never really feel at peace with it, and I don’t think I ever will.
But I suspect that’s probably one of the things that is keeping me alive.
Mentally, physically and emotionally it is exhausting, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Christmas is a time when we all get to reflect on the year just gone, and the one ahead. In the middle of the Covid pandemic with lockdown forcing families apart and leaving many grieving for loved ones, it might not be the one we all hoped for.
But we have it, and we can make the most of it.
I might not have the luxury of many more Christmases, the survival stats pretty much run out after next year, and beyond that is anyone’s guess.
That’s what makes 2021 the most terrifying, and wonderful, year of my life so far.
I’m a bag of nerves already, just at the thought. But with a bit of grit and a lot of luck, I am determined to see Eloise start Year 7 and Hugo start Year 9.
I will fulfil my dream of running the London Marathon in October on the weekend of my 40th birthday, and I will get to decorate another Christmas tree with my kids.
Cancer has taken a lot, but it’s taught me so much, while Covid has only served to reinforce it. And for that, I will always be grateful.
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