Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Born to Dance

I really shouldn't be writing this now - there is so much else I ought to be doing, things from the tediously boring but frighteningly important Paperwork Mountain, but sod it, this is much more fun. 

It's been a crazy few days with hardly a moment to draw breath, but apart from Monday when I thought I must surely be dying, it's all been totally, utterly, completely fabulously brilliant. 

WM and I went off on the course I wanted to do at silly O'Clock on Friday morning. He is so good to me - he drove me to the station, left me on a bench with the luggage, drove back and parked the car, then walked to meet me. If you knew how close we lived to the station you'd realise how pathetically ridiculous it is that I can't walk there without getting puffed out and overwhelmed by joint pain, but I prefer to believe that I'm just a lazy cow with a man who treats me like a princess. 

We managed to get a seat on the rush hour train, and then later on the rush hour tube from Victoria too. Jammy. We fell out of Gloucester Road tube station, and our lovely hotel, The Milennium Bailey's, was directly across the road. The course itself was just around the corner, about 30 paces away, in their sister hotel, The Milennium Gloucester. 

So for the next three days, along with some really inspiring fellow trainees, WM and I were plunged into a super-intensive Public Speaking course. It was so full-on and energetically non-stop, but loads and loads of fun. The trainers managed to break the ice really quickly, and I've never experienced a room of 35 strangers bonding so warmly together so quickly - within no time at all we were a cohesive, supportive family wanting to cheer each other on from the sidelines like we'd known each other for decades. 

I've been a bit shy about admitting it was a public speaking course, to be honest. I've given more speeches to huge rooms of people than I can count, and people always give very warm feedback and it doesn't generally phase me at all. But there is always that little tiny doubting voice in the back of my head that people are just being kind, and because I tend to talk about emotive subjects like my three children and their disabilities or my incurable cancer, of course it's easy to win all the generous sympathy votes in the room. I also always write a script and hold onto it like my life depends on it, reading aloud rather than speaking from the heart. I've always been in awe of those speakers who can just walk on stage and talk with no prompts or cue cards or scripts, now that really is smart. 

Now that I've written a book, the received wisdom these days is that authors would be penniless if they relied on book sales alone for their income, but it's the speaking engagements to talk about the books where you can earn a living. The average sales of a book from a first time author is around 250 copies, which would barely cover all the costs. So I felt I needed proper professional training so that I have the confidence to believe that whatever speech I'm delivering, to whatever type of audience, is just about as good as it can be. 

There were some very impressive people on the course - people who are real movers and shakers, with finely-honed business acumens, running very successful companies in all sorts of fields. Then there was little old me. 

Over the weekend I realised just how far I've come over the past year or two in the self-confidence stakes, and it is so stupidly sad that I had to get cancer to start believing I had any skills or talents that were worth having. I walked into the room, and there were dozens of people all expensively dressed with beautifully toned bodies, and I didn't feel small or insignificant or fat and ugly like I used to feel in similar situations. 

I think a lot of women will understand exactly what I'm saying. I've never had the money to dress like a fashion icon, and even if I had, they just don't make those sort of clothes for people with my body shape. I never quite made five foot tall, and where everybody else's waist are I have a huge, rounded barrel-belly instead. Then my feet have just lost the plot entirely and have spread in every direction - sideways and upwards, so that I can only buy shoes mail-order from specialist "fat-foot" internet sites. Firstly these shoes are not cheap, nor are they sexy, and mostly when they arrive they are far too tight and I can't wear them. So without decent shoes ever, it severely limits the sorts of clothes I can wear even further. I have one pair of ankle boots for winter, and one pair of turquoise sandals for summer, and that's it. Once upon a time I was a shoe-queen, with a selection to rival anyone's. Yes, I hate it, yes, I get mega-embarrassed about it, and yes, I get very insecure and panic-stricken when a pair of shoes begins to wear out in case it's going to be impossible to replace. There, I've said it. Phew. 

When I was a kid and all the way into my early thirties, I was tiny, barely seven stone and with a figure to die for. Each of my pregnancies added more and more inches, and with my six miscarriages that's nine pregnancies in all, and I've never been able to shift any of it. Over time, I developed more and more body image issues, but I've never admitted it until right now this minute, instead, I got very good at putting on a mask and fronting it out. It's a woman thing definitely, that very subtle but very real moment when you can see the flicker of another woman's eyes judging you, and instantly dismissing you as unimportant and insignificant just because you have a different shape. It hurts like hell, it happens all the time and everywhere, and it flourishes and blooms particularly well at the school gate, when you collect your primary-aged schoolchildren every afternoon, standing still, waiting for the bell to ring, but on show to hundreds of pairs of judgemental eyes. 

Every time it happens, a tiny little bit more of your self-esteem dies forever, until you feel that even friends and family are doing you a favour by spending any time with you whatsoever. You feel you have to apologise for even being there, you feel ugly and revolting and disgusting and worthless, to the point where you try to take up as little space on the planet as possible, or just hide away from the world altogether. 

I got very good at brazening it out, and pretending confidence I just didn't have. I doubt even those closest to me have any idea whatsoever of how I really felt. 

So what do you think happened when, diagnosed with cancer, I had a radical mastectomy and went bald for 8 months? This is the incredible bit, because I started to value myself for the first time in 30 years! 

I've got a load of people to thank for that. When I first announced my diagnosis, I was astounded by the tidal wave of love, concern and outrage at the unfairness of it all. Then I started this blog, and before I knew it, it wasn't "my" cancer anymore, it was "our" cancer. People were so supportive, they laughed along with me as I recounted some of the cancer-absurdities that happen, and slowly I realised that actually, the only people that matter don't give a stuff what I look like, they are insightful enough to look beyond the superficial and see who I really am. 

What makes me cross now is why did I waste so many years crucifying myself over things that, quite frankly, just aren't important? Why did it take cancer to open my eyes and realise that I have a load of stuff to offer the world? 

What's really interesting is that now that I don't even worry about what I look like, I must carry myself a lot more confidently in some way, because other women just don't do that eye thing at me anymore. How many millions of women are still tying themselves in depressive knots instead of shining their lights brightly with panache? So so so sad. 

So, back to the course. I loved every last minute of it, and I learnt how to talk from the hip, in fact I can't wait til I'm next asked to make a speech and I can do it without a written script. I think, too, that it has completely and utterly put to bed all those insecurities of old. It was very intense, lots of physical movement, and every session began with dancing on stage to re-energise; my old creaky bones let me down on most of those sessions which was very annoying, because I'm just one of those people who was born to dance. 

The 3 days also had sessions on other book spin-offs I can offer so I'm also really excited by the idea of running seminars, workshops and training courses emanating from the book I've written too. 

It's called "The Special Parent's Handbook" and it's partly telling the story of my family, partly passing on some of the ideas, strategies and tips that I had to learn the hard way, and partly looking at the current statutory services, set up to support and help our children, but which instead, far too often leave them short-changed and abandoned. 

The Special Parent's Handbook covers virtually every aspect of parenting a child who is different, not less. Education, healthcare, and social care, obviously, but also how to negotiate a win-win situation in all the endless meetings, how to build and develop support networks, how to nurture your relationships, how to ensure your other children aren't left out or stigmatised, how to prioritise your own sense of self, and how to ensure your child has a great childhood and can develop into a confident and happy young adult. 

Writing it was hard because there was so much to say on every aspect. I realised I could have turned each chapter subject into at least one book, and choosing which bits to put in and which bits to keep out was very difficult. 

So, I may have incurable cancer, but I now know there are an awful lot of books still inside me waiting to be written. My dream? To create a legacy for my children in two ways. Firstly, wouldn't it be lovely if they do have to cope with losing their mum much too early, that there is money in the bank to help them springboard into adulthood? Best of all, wouldn't it be brilliant if those books help our society to understand much more about the difficulties children like mine face, and how, with just a tiny shift in attitude and understanding, how much more our children will be able to take their full places in society? 

That's the blueprint, anyway, and we'll see what happens along the way. 

The public speaking weekend had a fabulous title "The Ultimate World Class Speaker's Camp", and one of its many catchphrases was "Success happens when preparation meets opportunity". 

Then yesterday, completely out of the blue, an opportunity came knocking which put my voice out to the whole wide world and made the catchphrase take on a whole new meaning!

It was World Cancer Day, and the World Health Organisation have published a very detailed report of a study about the projected worldwide cancer epidemic that is expected in the next 20 or so years, with a call-to-action for Governments to implement public health strategies that may reduce these expected cancers by a half. The report itself ran to 800 pages. 

So what happens? Sensationalist journalists, who probably can't be bothered to read the whole thing, have almost universally twisted the findings and jumped on a bandwagon theme of "Do people with cancer bring it on themselves?". You can imagine the upset that's caused among the cancer community, and it irritated me somewhat, too. So I tweeted just once on the subject yesterday morning, saying:

"According to the National News this morning, it's all my fault I got cancer. Oh, & yours too if you get it. Unhelpful, cruel simplistic tosh".

Well much later on, I got a reply on Twitter from a BBC Journalist inviting me to take part in a BBC World Service Radio discussion programme on that very topic, now, how exciting was that! And here it is, the podcast, if you want to hear it. I'm introduced at minute 38!

So the only possible fly in the ointment is results day on Friday, but even if it's bad news and that spreading cancer is on the march, I'll just have to write all those books even faster than ever! 


  1. Best of luck with the book Yvonne, and the sequels to come!!! I'm sure it will all be a resounding success. On the overweight front, I always said there is more of me to love. Yesterday I saw this great quote that says it all, " I stay a bit overweight because it wouldn't be fair to all the skinny people if I were this attractive, intelligent, funny AND thin! It's a public service really!!" I think I'll adopt this one in future:-) x a

  2. What a lovely concept, I'm only fat so I can offer a public service! Thank you for always being so supportive about everything, and every time I see a robin I always think of you xx

  3. Plenty of robins about at the moment, seeing them on a daily basis!, such a comfort, and I'm delighted they remind you of me and that they are finally showing themselves to you:-) x x

  4. dear Yvonne,

    I so enjoyed and celebrated the happiness and fulfillment you have found. I LOVE reading your posts, but regret I didn't find you sooner. you are such a delightful powerhouse of enthusiasm and gratitude and I so admire your writing, and appreciate both the candor and emotional elements of you vastly big and beautiful life. what a blessing it will be for the parents and families for whom you have written your book. and what joy it will be to exercise those skills you acquired at the public speaking camp. and wow - that invitation from the BBC! thank you so much for the link to the podcast - can't wait for minute 38! if you ever chance to come across the pond to speak, I would love to be in the audience. it fabulous that your WM and you did the camp together.

    I am sending you my most powerful good thoughts for there to be no fly in the ointment with the test results, along with loads of warm hugs to you. I hope you FEEL them!

    much love and light,

    Karen (Sutherland) aka tccomments but my stupid google acct is on the fritz - GRR

  5. Karen, thank you so much for your wonderfully lovely comments. Due to the time difference I woke up some hours after you left them and you have put a smile on my face that will last all day! It's easy being upbeat and positive when I've had a great few days, and the BBC broadcast was the icing on the cake this week. It's also means so much when total strangers reach out and connect with supportive warmth like you have done, sometimes I just feel so blessed and so lucky to live in our exciting times when the internet can bring us all closer to each other and widen our worlds like this. Thank you. Sending you love and hugs too. Yvonne xxx