The New CRUK Obesity Campaign

Over the past couple of weeks a few people have asked me my thoughts on the latest ad campaign by Cancer Research UK, highlight obesity as a leading cause of cancer.

A couple of weeks ago Cancer Research UK released new figures showing that excess weight is now fuelling over 4,000 more cases of bowel, kidney, ovarian and liver cancer than those caused by smoking. Its a shocking statistic and I think the national campaign is pretty hard-hitting.

Part of the new campaign is a billboard poster advert showing cigarette packets in which brand names had been replaced by the word obesity. At first glance this looks like an advert for Malboro Lights or Silk Cut but look again and you will see something very different. A direct and harsh message designed to grab the viewers attention.

Cancer Research UK say that by implementing this campaign, they are calling for a change in policy, asking the government to lead the way in providing an environment which makes it easier to maintain a healthy balanced weight. The ambition is for the government to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030, and also to introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food ads on TV and online. I agree with this wholeheartedly, however it has left a bad taste in peoples mouths, with some suggestions the ads are ‘fat-shaming’.

I think the campaign is clear and clever, but I hope it doesn’t lead to people hiding away, feeling ashamed of their weight, and not getting help when it may be needed. There needs to be some guidance as to where people can get help if they need it. We are in a era of body positivity so people shouldn’t be made to feel singled out because of how they look. Male or female, obese or underweight, tall or short, we are all at risk. Over the years I’ve toyed with negative thoughts that somehow its my own fault I have cancer, although I’ve been assured multiple times there is nothing I could’ve done to prevent it, it isn’t nice to play the blame game. No body who gets cancer should ever feel it is their own fault.

Cancer is a complex disease and its not often linked to one particular element, and not only those who smoke or are obese get cancer. I sit here writing this as someone who seemed completely healthy when I was a initially diagnosed as a teenager; I hardly ever drank alcohol (in later years I was always the one who drove on nights our), I had a healthy lifestyle of a busy young adult and I certainly wasn’t over weight. I also have never been a sun worshipper, but I still got melanoma. I know people who have lung cancer who have never smoked in their lives, which just goes to show how there is still so much to learn about cancer. There are so many different forms of cancer that to highlight obesity as a cause for all is completely wrong.

Having said this, I like a message which grabs peoples attention, which makes them sit up and think; and I think the obesity campaign does this well. I’d love for a big campaign like this to support Melanoma UK in the ban on sunbeds, or to highlight just how damaging getting sunburnt can be for our health. It would be great to see the UK follow the lead of Australia and ban the use of commercial sunbeds. Although exposure to UV radiation from the sun or sunbeds are the main risk factors for developing melanoma, they are not the only ones. There are many things that may lead to the development of melanoma, as there are with other cancers.

Thoughts On Food And Cancer

Food and cancer has been a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while, there are so many different opinions floating around about diet and cancer it can be difficult to distinguish key facts.

The key advice I have received about diet and exercise whilst having treatment is to do what works for me individually. Just because some things work for one group of people doesn’t automatically mean they will work for the majority of the population. Each week there are multiple headlines suggesting what we put in our bodies can either help cause or prevent cancer and It’s confusing to say the least.

Since I had my first bowel tumour removed in 2014 I have been conscious to eat more fruit and vegetables and also began going to the gym. There is no set routine so to speak, and some weeks I’m far better than others. I figure walking is as good as anything most of the time, when I feel able. If you’d seen any of my instagram posts you’ll see I also go to the occasional yoga or pilates class. I enjoy it, but it can often be pretty expensive.

I went through a prolonged phase of having home made juices, but I think that phase has passed, at the moment my sleep is far more important than getting up early to squeeze fresh oranges. I don’t want to feel guilty if I eat cake or sweet snacks, it is ludicrous and life is too short! I’m more active now than I have been in previous years, which is great. However, in the winter time I really have to push myself to get up and go. I know its good for my overall wellbeing, but so are rest and sleep. If only there were more hours in the day for extra sleep sessions.

One thing I have discovered is a love of cooking. I used to be all about the home baked cakes, but I’ve extended my repertoire into the dinner field over the past few years. I now often enjoy spending time in the kitchen, or thinking about what meals to make for the week ahead. As it’s winter, I am really enjoying making soups and the one pan curries and stews (I am not a fan of washing up, so one pan meals are great!). Books from instagrammers like Deliciously Ella have allowed me to enjoy cooking simple meals from scratch and I no longer feel like it’s a chore. I got Nicola Graimes book The Part-Time Vegetarian for Christmas last year and it’s proved a real hit.

Ultimately I will do anything if it helps me, but I don’t want to be made to feel like any of this is my fault, or that I somehow got cancer because of lifestyle choices. I’d love to think that doing these things is the ultimate cancer fixer, and my melanoma will be cured if introduce some sort of strict regime, however sadly It won’t. I find it upsetting for people to suggest that I might have done something which would have caused this horrific disease, perhaps I’m feeling a little over sensitive but I’m sure others would say the same. I would urge people to think about their choice of words when discussing this topic. I find social media frustrating because people seem to assume that one particular lifestyle or way of eating should be the same for everyone. We are all different, it is what makes us unique.

Over the past year I have had many conversation with people about the latest food revolutions, but watching a couple of documentary’s about fad diets doesn’t make anyone an expert. Remember when the atkins diet was huge? Some of the most healthy people I know have experienced cancer, it doesn’t discriminate. Everyone from triathlon winners and marathon runners can get cancer, It can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of lifestyle choices.

Eating well is by no means a replacement to chemotherapy and Immunotherapy treatments. I believe in doing these things alongside my treatment regime helps me feel well, support my body and in turn give me more energy to fight this illness, but isn’t a cure. I touched on this in one of my older blog posts, What Having Cancer Has Taught Me.

I know that the reason I am alive today is because I have been on the receiving end of various new cancer treatments, and I’ve had tumours in places where they could be surgically removed. I have no real way of knowing if eating more vegetables has made any difference to how I’ve responded to Pembrolizumab so far. Whilst taking oral targeted therapy drug Vemurafenib I was also training for a half marathon and I really raised the game on my food intake and exercise regime (That half marathon wasn’t going to run itself!) but I still had recurrence of disease and a second bowel tumour removal operation in May 2016. It might have been that I would have responded in exactly the same way, whether or not I’d made conscious changes around what I ate or drank, or what exercise I did. Who knows!

I eat a balanced diet most of the time and I also like a few treats. With a stage 4 diagnosis, it’s really not going to make the situation any better by worrying if I’ve somehow contributed to being unwell.

If it turns out I was wrong, do feel free to say I ate too many cakes in my eulogy.

Maintaining Mental Health

I’ve learnt a lot about the importance of exercise and it’s health benefits over the last few years. This has been most important in terms of my mental health.

I’ve dabbled at being a gym goer from time to time over the years, but it was only really about two and a half years ago, after my first bowel operation that I began going to yoga and pilates classes. Right now I am not really able to exercise in the same way I did 18 months ago, I feel much more fatigued on immunotherapy drug Pembrolizumab than I did when I was taking oral drug Vemurafenib. This is largely due to the frequency of the three week treatment cycles. I often feel too tired and lack the energy to exert myself, however I know that maintaining a good but gentle exercise routine will have huge benefits on my mental state and health as I move forward. In one of my previous posts, What Having Cancer Has Taught Me I wrote about the need to be kind to my body and not expect so much in the weeks post infusion.

Allowing myself to do some gentle exercise such as yoga, or go for a pre-work 5k jog along the Regent’s Canal gives me a short break from thinking about illness, and shows me that my body is capable of fighting back. Doing this is a great form of escapism, I’m trying so hard to concentrate of my breathing I don’t have time to think about anything else! I don’t ever finish an gym session or short jog and wish I hadn’t done it, it is common knowledge that exercise releases endorphins, so it makes me feel good that I am challenging myself.

I’ve been involved with young adult cancer charity Trekstock since Autumn last year. It is through this charity that I took part in RENEW,  a free 12 week exercise programme for young adults affected by cancer. Taking part in this gave me the opportunity to work with a top-level personal trainer and develop a tailor made exercise plan I could easily follow. Over the course of the 12 weeks I received complimentary gym membership to YMCA Club on Tottenham Court Road, and had frequent sessions with a wonderful trainer called Victoria. I decided to start the programme as I had been going to the gym regularly until my most recent bowel operation in May 2016. I had even taken part in a half marathon, but once I’d had the operation felt it I no longer had the motivation to exercise. After all, I’d be exercising for almost two years and I’d still become really unwell again, I felt deflated and wondered why I bothered in the first place. What was the point? It’s wasn’t going to cure me.

Taking part in this programme has taught me how to work with my body, not against it. I know I can’t push it too hard, but I don’t always have to be breaking out in a sweat to make a difference. Mentally it has really helped me to keep a positive outlook. RENEW gave me the confidence to start exercising again, and I’ve since ran a 10k for Cancer Research UK. Being part of the programme was instrumental in my decision to take part in the run and have a new goal to aim for. I am pleased to say I am now back into a semi-regular gym and yoga class routine, often attending a great yoga studio East of Eden in East London. The key to this is that I don’t beat myself up if I don’t have time to go for a few days, its simply not worth it. My body needs rest as sleep as much as it does exercise. The 6am wake up calls just aren’t worth It when I crave sleep.

Even though the routine is often slightly sporadic, keeping up exercise is very important to me, it allows me to have some control over how I feel, and being part of the Trekstock programme has definitely made me feel motivated. For me, It’s not about aesthetic goals at all, I read a quote on Instagram recently that said ‘Don’t miss out on 95% or your life just to weigh 5% less’, I couldn’t agree more. The important part is feeling good within myself.

Cancer has knocked my confidence a thousand times over, especially loosing my hair and my skin becoming overly sensitive. There was a time when this first started happening that I was constantly plagued by thoughts that people around me were looking at me, and they could tell I was unwell. It’s amazing how much a little exercise can help mental wellbeing and motivate me.

Having cancer is mentally draining to say the least, and the frequency of doctors appointments and hospital visits often add to my anxiety. However, I look at life with a ‘glass half full’ attitude, and the programme has really helped me continue this. I know a lot of people who aren’t so positive, which I do find frustrating at times. I could do nothing and laze around all day, and that’s fine occasionally, but it won’t be any good in the long term. I need to focus on the future and expect that I will be on this earth for a long time to come. If not then where does that leave me? I’ll only be negative and undoubtedly feel much worse. I’d encourage everyone to take on the ‘glass half ful attitude’, focus on the good in life rather than dwelling on what is missing.

 

What Having Cancer Has Taught Me

During the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my situation and what I’ve learnt from it. Being unwell has taught me a lot, including some valuable lessons. Of course, I would change this all in a heartbeat if I could, but I can’t turn back time.

Cancer has taught me It’s ok to be upset.

Over the past 11 years I’ve tried my hardest to put a positive spin on things, even when feels like there is no hope and I am loosing control altogether. Over the past couple of years, particularly since starting active treatment, I’ve established that that it is fine have down days. I am often my harshest critic and I have to remind myself of this from time to time. I often have days where I feel very emotional, when I wake up in the middle of the night with bad thoughts running through my head, it leaves me feeling emotional and exhausted.

When I wake up in the mornings there is sometimes a brief few seconds when I’ve forgot about having Melanoma, but that respite is all too brief. I reminded of this almost instantly, and I’m constantly plagued by thoughts of cancer and illness throughout the day, about how unfair and cruel life can be and that I can never turn back time. I know It’s ok to cry and be upset, I spend a lot of time holding it in, sometimes it helps, but I don’t think it will do me any favours in the long run. I often think I have bouts of depression, but figure that its understandable considering what my ‘normal’ is.

Every day I have moments that are constantly preoccupied with thoughts of dying, but then then I do my best to move on. If I didn’t my anxiety levels an my heart rate would be through the roof every hour of the day. No one likes being surrounded by negativity all the time, so I try to keep my distance from it.  It’s awful, yes, but right now it could be much worse and my life is so much more than having cancer.

Cancer has taught me a smile goes a long way.

Having a series of regular appointments for treatment means I’m all too over familiar with Leicester Royal Infirmary’s Oncology Suite. It’s a place I know like the back of my hand, and I hate the way it’s not unusual to me. There is an all too familiar smell in the air; of disinfectant, drugs and school  canteens. I feel like I come away at the end of a treatment day smelling of hospitals. When I go to the gym, I don’t even like putting a wristband on because it reminds me of being a hospital patient.

My appointments in the chemotherapy suite for my Immunotherapy often last all day, literally! Being out of the house for 12-13 hours every time is exhausting. Essentially I have to go to get my bloods done, see my Oncologist, and then as long as my team are happy with my bloods I’m ok to have treatment. Due to cost implications the pharmacy at my hospital make up the immunotherapy drugs in large batches, once all the patients who are receiving Pembrolizumab are ready for treatment. It can be very frustrating having an appointment scheduled for a time that is essentially completely fluid depending on other patients and how well staffed departments are that day. Currently I have Pembrolizumab with the same cycle of about six or seven other patients, so I know I’m not the only one playing the waiting game. Being at the hospital is a stark reminder of reality, and it’s challenging being surrounded by other unwell people all day. The staff are great, but the mood on the ward is often very somber. It’s like we’re all on the waiting list for an exclusive club that we don’t actually want to go in or be part of. There are a lot of unhappy or sad looking faces on the ward. In these circumstances I’ve learnt that a smile goes a long way and can often make the world of difference to me when having treatment. It reminds me I am not on my own.  I’m pretty sure every patient there would be somewhere else given the choice, it isn’t a place we get excited about visiting, there are millions of other places I’d rather be.  I try to smile as much as I can, a joke, an offer of a sweet or a smile back from another patient or nurse makes it all a little less painful.

Cancer has taught me to be kind to my body.

Cancer has taught me I need to be kinder to my body than I perhaps once was. Good food, rest and sleep are all key, especially during a treatment week.  Naturally, this doesn’t always happen, but they really go hand it hand with one another, and the combination often makes me feel so much better. I know I shouldn’t underestimate the power of rest, my body needs It. I try to go to the gym regularly, but have decided not to go in the week after I’ve had treatment. It only makes me more exhausted and it’s not worth it. I’ve had rest week during my last two cycles and I think it works well, going to work is a challenge, but it’s doable, so I don’t need to make any more difficult by going to the gym and meeting friends in the days following. Since trailing this, I’ve felt almost back to normal after about six days and ready and energised for whatever is thrown at me. Being kind to my body, and allowing myself to cut it some slack has been really beneficial. What better excuse to have a lazy week and use the cancer card anyway? I need to try and keep my diet varied and healthy, but sometimes this can be easier said than done. I’ve given up chocolate and fizzy drinks over Easter, just to see if I have the will power. I’ve had my moments but on the whole I’ve cut back which is a great.

Cancer has taught me knowledge is power.

Knowledge is power when it comes to feeling in control of my treatment. More often than not I overhear conversations in the Oncology waiting room with other patients and their familIes who seem as though they aren’t necessary as clued up on their treatment and how it’s going as I am. As the youngest person there by at least 30 years maybe it’s a age thing, or perhaps they don’t quite accept how ill they really are?. I like to know where I stand, and what options might be open to me later down the line so I like to keep abreast of developments in cancer treatment in the media. There have been a few breakthroughs in the treatment of Melanoma over the past few years, with Pembrolizumab being a drug I read about prior to recieving it. I sincerely hope they are more to come. On the flip side, there are the Daily Mail type articles which suggest anything and everything have the ability to give you cancer, or stop you getting it in the first place. I’m all for a fad, from chia seeds to my latest discovery of bitter apricot kernels, I agree that every little helps it if makes me feel like I’m doing my bit to help, including cutting out the sugar, but I know eating broccoli everyday isn’t going to cure me. Nothing will cure me now. Call my a cynic, but if one food such as broccoli really was the elixir of life we’d all be getting it by the shed load on the NHS wouldn’t we? Perhaps an annual broccoli jab?

Cancer has taught me I am a strong person.

The most valuable thing I have learnt since having cancer me that I am stronger that I think. Cancer is a huge part of my life but it’s not everything I am about. It doesn’t define me. I am a sister, daughter and friend; I am an aspiring traveller, dance and theatre enthusiast, brunch lover, keen writer, documentary fan, wannabe chef, and a sometime gym goer. I know that I am not really a good runner (despite my best efforts), I am not an avid fiction reader, cyclist, or confident swimmer (I’ve never really been sporty, it’s the lack of coordination, you won’t catch me doing the London – Paris bike ride) I’m not a coffee drinker, or a master at arts and crafts, I can’t hold a tune and I don’t really have a good sense of direction. I am strong though, and right now that is what counts.