A new chapter

 

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Me: “I don’t think you children have any idea how much we love you.”

MsDD: “I don’t think we can possibly know that because we’re not parents”

Yoga class

Yoga class

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I’m lying here on the hard parquet floor and wondering what to write tonight. The smell of polish mingles with the faint air of dancers’ glow. I’m a little nauseous. Or am I? The OH, who’s taken this week off, though in truth it’s not going to be a holiday as such, has persuaded me to come along to yoga with him.

He’s been coming every Monday for a couple of years and feels that it does him good. It’s supposed to be be stress-busting and mind-emptying. Supposed to be. I’m not good at emptying my mind. My mind quite often starts the day with a persistent earworm that reflects my subconscious and sets my mood for the rest of the day. The germs of ideas take root. Some of the more constructive ones can lead to blog posts or witty tweets or action-packed emails. Others are darker and ping around my brain multiplying, magnifying until they’re so heavy that they pull me down into gloom.

I’m not thinking deep thoughts tonight, though.  I’m lying here at the end of a session dead pleased that I managed, largely, to do the poses and keep up, that I didn’t make a total fool of myself. I’ve always thought that yoga was a great idea and, let’s face it, it is part of my culture, I suppose, so I’m surprised I don’t jump at the chance to come every week. But it’s yet another thing, isn’t it, when in truth all I’d like to do is curl up on the sofa with a book. Or Twitter.

All that running and rowing at the gym has obviously helped with my core strength and the way I’ve learnt to breathe in my singing lessons feeds into it all. I’m not sure I would have kept up with this class a few years ago before I tied the physical exercise in with the creativity of my soul and learnt the right technique to sing properly. It’s all working together at least then. Good.

I’m thinking about my dog training classes today. How everyone thinks Raffles is cute and pretty but how the people and humandogs in Oscar’s class are happy to have him there with him. He is such a fount of joy, injecting enthusiasm and desire for approval into everything he tries to do. What a pleasure it is to work with him. How soft are his ears; how warm his fur when I burrow down into it with my nose; how wet his ear-cleaning tongue.

I’ve been fasting today and I’m hungry. I’m thinking about that too. I can’t go home and have a cake or some ice cream. Not even a proper cup of tea because the lactose in the milk carries so many calories out of my 500 allocation for today.

I remember being in this hall before, when I was five years old and it looked vaster and my mum had made me a pretty dress of pink satin to come to the wedding of my cousins’ cousin. I wasn’t a bridesmaid, though. I’ve never been a bridesmaid. How I thought it was funny that we were having wedding breakfast in the afternoon and how I was sick on the front step of friends of my parents the following day. Too much rich food. Unlike today.

And now the lights have gone off and I’m lying here deep in relaxation after a long day and downstairs I can hear the thuds and cries of the karate class floating up through the floorboards. The teacher has switched off the lights and we are all lying here, loads of women and two men, in a secure cocoon of darkness yet downstairs some very wound-up people are screaming and hacking at each other with their bare hands. It’s not conducive.

And tomorrow is another meeting of tradespeople. And I’ll go to the gym and come back home and make muffins. And I should have got in touch with my friends over the weekend. And I haven’t done my singing practice today and I’ve no idea what I’m going to blog about tonight.

Oh yes. Yoga’s great for clearing the mind.

 

How’s your mum?

How’s your mum?

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Kind, concerned people have been asking after my mother. Here she is. We all went to see her a couple of weeks ago as part of our family holiday to India.  I think she was actually better this time than when I last went to see her in August, when she seemed fed up and listless and unable to concentrate on anything I was saying for more than a couple of minutes. I get that from other people too, as it goes. We found her still frail but, on seeing her grandchildren, and being reminded who they were – remember that she hasn’t seen either of them in months – she perked up no end.

My mum, though dependent on her hearing aid, often decides she’s prefer not to wear it, which means that the best way of communicating with her is by writing in a notebook. Amazingly, she can still read English. This method has the additional advantage that one can turn leaf back the pages when she she asks the same question again and again. It saves an awful lot of frustration.

For someone who used to talk at us non-stop, she doesn’t seem to say much anymore but conveys a lot of how she feels by gesture and facial expression. She even managed a visual joke about how, one by one, the children and OH looked, and made a comically disgusted face when she looked at me. This effort did wear her out quickly, though.

The Sister in the unit reports that my mum has now settled in well and is no longer the petulant sort who used to repeat again and again that she was hungry then throw her half-eaten food on the floor or tip her drink down herself in protest at being there. She only has a bad mood swing every couple of weeks.

So that’s a relief.

I hate leaving her there though. I am convinced that it’s the right place for her in terms of her cultural makeup but I can’t help wishing I could see her more often. Which is not something I would have said a year ago, if I’m honest.

What if I do?

What if I do?

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It’s not that I’m regretting my decision to be tested for the BRCA1 breast and ovarian cancer gene mutation. Not at all. The BRCA1 mutant appears to lurk somewhere in the family and I see it as a duty to my children and their unborn generations. It’s always better, in my book, to have the information rather than behave like an ostrich and hope it won’t happen.

That’s the rational point of view and I’m sticking to it. It’s science after all, and newish science at that. A few years ago I would simply not have had the option to participate in the research study at ACTREC in Kharghar, India. Taking part seems to be the least I can do to help other families deal with the blight of inherited breast or ovarian cancer. I’m helping my own family too.

Since also having genetic counselling before giving a blood sample at the Royal Marsden this week, though, I’ve had the jitters. You see I really hadn’t appreciated the extent of the increase in risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer if I am carrying the BRCA1 gene mutation. I thought it might be doubled or something.

It turns out that BRCA1 carriers have a 60-90% chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes and a 50% chance of ovarian cancer. This is way, waay, above the risk for the general population. That these figures have shocked me is an understatement. I know there’s no point worrying until I have the results. I might not even be carrying the faulty gene.  If I am, however, what then?

Not having appreciated the degree of increased risk before, I’d thought that I’d manage my risk by being vigilant and taking up the offer of annual mammograms. Apparently, screening for ovarian cancer has been found not to be particularly effective. But, as the genetic counsellor said, this relies upon the screening to pick up a cancer that is already there. It might have started to develop just after the previous screening.

I appreciate that predisposition is not prognosis but the only effective prevention is surgery. A double mastectomy like Angelina Jolie’s, would eliminate the risk of developing breast cancer. In the past I viewed her decision as extreme, though understandable, but it really doesn’t seem that way now. Ironic isn’t it, that I really wouldn’t want to lose  the source of such annoyance and embarrassment to me for most of my adult life.

Prevention of ovarian cancer is keyhole surgery – isn’t it marvellous what they can do now? – to remove ovaries and fallopian tubes. I know my child-bearing years are over, and I’m not bothered about that in the least, but I’d quite like to keep hold of my oestrogen thank you. Archers people will understand that I’d rather be a Lillian (without the fagash) than a Clarriluv. No offence but I’m just not cut out to wear a floral polyester skirt and an anorak. OK. That was pretty offensive.

Given that level of risk, it’s not something one can manage simply by diet, weight management or exercise. I am always so thankful for my lifelong loathing of cigarette smoke. The radical prevention options are frightening but I know what my cousin went through, the anguish of her family.

If you’re an insurance company reading this, know that the whole point of doing this test is to try and predict my risk of getting these cancers with a view to prevention. Just thought I’d put that out there before you refuse me a mortgage or deny a life assurance policy. I already have inherited asthma and my mum has Alzheimer’s and that is heritable, so I believe, so I’m obviously a walking disaster waiting to happen.

Anyway, I’m probably fretting over nothing and we shall just have to wait and see. There are some who feel I should not share this sort of deeply personal feeling in a public blog, and I’m not fishing for sympathy or good wishes or whatever. It’s just that writing about it helps me, and it might help someone else who’s faced with a similar situation.

So, that’s that out of the way and now I can get on with my day.

 

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Postscript:

The test result confirmed that I am carrying neither the BRCA1 nor the BRCA2 mutant genes. I am relieved. No need for further testing. No need for surgery. But a salutary reminder to stay vigilant and live healthily.

The 5:2 diet – how it is for me

The 5:2 diet – how it is for me

 

Fast day breakfast

Fast day breakfast

I’ve always had problems with my weight. Not skinny since my teens, I had gradually put it on over several decades that included two pregnancies and their subsequent stressful fruition, one period of long-term unemployment and plenty of time spent at home, bored, with only food for company. When you’re only 5’1″ tall, every last chocolate and nut cookie, every extra pasta bow shows.

It also shows in my BMI – a notoriously unreliable way of measuring obesity but one, nonetheless, used by the most well-intentioned of kind, slightly patronising practice nurses (“At your age, I wouldn’t worry about it.”)  – and, being short and quite muscular (muscle weighs more than fat) I was borderline obese. My BMI last Christmas was 29.5 while my dress size still varied from 10 to 14. With January and the cold, hard acknowledgement of the morning after, I decided that it was something I could no longer ignore.

Actually I never really ignored it. I just subsumed my stress about my weight, popping zips, rubbing at angry red scars on my skin, covering gaping blouses with strategically-placed sweater sleeves. One day, it all got so much that it could ignore it no longer. A good, long look in a full-length mirror is as brutal a reality as I can imagine.

What to do, though? I’ve exercised regularly at the gym and walked the dog most days and that’s never seemed to shift the weight. My problem is that I have a real lust for food. Not only do I have a sweet tooth and comfort eat, but I truly enjoy cooking and baking and good food.

I dislike dieting, seeing only the incessant fluctuations of dieting friends. I’d done Atkins once and lost 21lb but over the past 10 years most of that has come back again. Of course I know that the key to weight loss is more exercise and fewer calories consumed (isn’t it funny how naturally skinny people never tire of telling you this?) but I needed a quick boost to set me up for small portions in the long term.

Friends had started talking about Dr Michael Mosley’s 5:2 diet. I’d seen some people on this diet turn from pudding-like beings into extraordinarily svelte, glamorous people almost overnight. And how bad could it be? Initially the thought of the fasting was daunting but I read up on it and the fact that one ate normally the other 5 days was appealing.

I liked the spiritual dimension too. As you know I’m not at all religious but have a lot of respect for fasting traditions all over the world such as Lent and Ramadan. My Indian aunts have regular fast days. For me, food calories are so readily available in excessive quantities that it’s good to stop and think sometimes and be thankful for what we have.

So, in case you’re not aware of this diet, the idea is that for two days each week, you eat good, nutritious food up to a limit of 500 calories, (600 for men) and the rest of the time you eat normally. This sharp decrease in your calorie intake for two days of the week is enough to trigger weight loss. That’s the theory, anyway.

I began the diet quite suddenly at the end of January. That’s the thing with this diet: it’s really easy to do and requires no special cookbooks or preparation. You just get on with it. I used the MyFitnessPal app and kitchen scales to help me count the calories, and that in itself threw up some interesting information, such  as exactly how many calories are in even a small quantity of skimmed milk.

A typical fast day menu would be something like:

Breakfast: a one egg omelette (made with a couple of squirts of low-cal oil-spray) OR an apple OR a crisp bread with some no-fat Philly cheese and a little smoked salmon.

Lunch: a packet of Miso soup OR a small Mandarin orange

Mid-afternoon: a pot of Hartleys 10 calorie jelly

Supper: seared tuna (maximum 100g) and stir fry veg OR the OMG chicken noodle laksa from Cook! or a calorie-counted ready meal from Marks and Spencer or Waitrose.

Unlimited black coffee or camomile tea and water throughout the day.

You might be surprised at the inclusion of that ready meal element there. But In my house we already have one veggie and two non-veggies and, while I do actually sometimes prepare three meal alternatives including my own, sometimes you just want to pop something into the microwave. In fact, by supper time, which is about 8pm in our house by the time the OH has come home from work, I invariably remind myself of that old, cruel joke about Elizabeth Taylor shouting “Hurry!” at the microwave.

How many of us are ever truly hungry these days?  It’s a lesson that one can be hungry and get on with life without eating something every half an hour. It’s true that this diet is not without its pain and I do get very hungry but it does serve as a reminder to me how much we take for granted being able to pop a little something into our mouths without thinking and how some people are always this hungry.

How do I manage? Well, I try and make sure that I’m out and about on fast days. At first the prospect of standing around in dog class on Mondays while not being able to indulge in lunchtime tea and cakes was daunting but I’m used to it now. I spend all day in that freezing training hall with the two dogs now, and it’s actually OK. I do find myself becoming quite tired on fast days and the remedy for this is to go to bed earlier than usual. So that in itself is a health benefit.

The new diet coincided with having to travel to India with my mother and every two months after that. It IS difficult to combine the diet with travelling but I find I just ask for an apple or a small orange at the Care facility and they can usually manage that for me. Salutary, though, that an apple is not always available in their local market. How we take our fruit for granted, at all times of the year!

I try not to eat on planes, so fasting while traveling is not as bad as you’d think. I’m only sitting around anyway and if I’m sleepy it makes it easier to rest on an overnight flight. – It’s easy to pop a sachet of Miso soup powder or a small clementine into your carry-on, but do remember to eat it before you land. Many countries have very strict rules about importing food. – Fasting before a flight also helps with the digestive problems that so many of us experience. I’ll say no more on that score but generally, it’s a good idea.

The one time that I find my normal fast day problematic is when I have to do a night shift at my volunteering job, which often coincides with a day when I’ve been fasting. Through experience I’ve decided it’s not a good idea to manage on 500 calories during the day and then expect to be up and alert all night to help some people with truly awful lives and problems. On these occasions I just move my fast day and allow myself the indulgence of a chocolate biscuit, or several, to get me through that 2.30am sleepyness wall.

So how much have I lost? Well, at first the weight dropped off at quite an alarming rate. I’d set myself a daily unrealistically ambitious target of losing 20lb. If I achieved this weight, I’d be able to buy myself that red Melissa Odabash bikini  as a reward. Sadly, I still haven’t bought that particular bikini but, having lost 14-15lb within the first three months, I did go down more than one dress size and felt completely without self-consciousness as I wore two new bikinis by the pool in Sicily in July. And they weren’t the ones with all that padding and “hidden support,” that makes one feel like a beached whale either. During those early weeks, I was mindful of what I ate on the other five days and the consequent drop in overall calories made a real impact.

Suddenly I could run faster and for longer on the treadmill and felt much perkier on non-fast days. It is a pain when all of your clothes are hanging off you, though.

Then I ran into a brick wall. With half a stone still to lose, I stopped and even GAINED weight, fluctuating wildly for a bit. How do I explain this? Well, summer happened. I naturally retain weight in May and September and that, along with hormonal variations and ice cream stopped my weight loss in its tracks.

It’s funny how much I console myself on Monday evenings with the thought of the next day’s breakfast which, at one stage, went from a simple muffin or bagel to scones or a slice of that week’s apple cake and fruit and biscuits. I realised that I was binge-eating the day after the fast day to reward myself emotionally for my previous day’s abstemiousness. Also, fasting while being tempted, Nigella-style, by a roast chicken in the fridge is not a good idea when cooking supper for everyone else. If I’m snacking at cooking time, a piece of raw courgette or pepper is a good nutritious, low-calorie snack. It’s not the same, I know.

My feeling is that one cannot, in fact, eat what one likes for the other 5 days. It simply does not compute and so ice cream and chips and biscuits and cake will have to remain an occasional treat.

I’ve read that most diets don’t work past 6 months and I think this is because the body becomes accustomed to the new routine. In fact, when I’m in India and naturally eating much less overall, including no meat or fish for several days, the weight loss rate does decrease as my body becomes used to coping with far fewer calories.

Among the unusual mental effects of this diet are a mindfulness about what I eat and an unexpected change in tastes: I have had to switch to skimmed milk in my tea on the other 5 days: semi skimmed is unbearably rich for me now and I feel guilty eating chips. Where I once found those low calorie chocolate pot puddings far too watery and insipid to eat, now I find them rich and satisfying, such have my tastes changed.

So now the summer has gone and I’m being sensible again. I’m on holiday soon and I still won’t make that red bikini but the good news is that I am being sensible and my weight has stated to decrease again. Isn’t it funny, though, how a target that seems completely unattainable six months before becomes a burden with which to admonish oneself when one is so close to achieving it?

What next? Well, I’ll see if I can discipline myself down to my ambitious weight target but if not it’s no great tragedy to be carrying a couple of extra pounds, is it? As long as it’s just a couple. I am keen, however, to carry on with a weekly fast day both to maintain the weight, when it stabilises, and to remind me how lucky I am.

By the way, I am aware how much of a trigger this article must be to people raising awareness of inequality and food banks in the UK. Truly, it’s not meant as a provocation.

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