Venice, part III

Vogalonga 2014 is a bright, sunny morning and promises to reach 29 degrees. We meet in the hotel lobby with those of the team who are staying in the Hotel with us. We are given bags of food by the hotel in lieu of breakfast. I suspect there will not be many people at breakfast as we have almost taken over the hotel. It is horribly early. We have to leave at 6.20 and walk the couple of kilometres to the boatyard where we will pick up our rented dragon boat. I am not feeling on top form. I have been feeling very tired and put it down to the heat but I am feeling particularly lacking in energy this morning. Everyone sets off at a spanking pace and I am soon trailing behind. Again, it is a twisty journey to get there and, as I don’t know where we are going, I need to keep up. Team mates realise I am left behind and wait for me but I can tell there is a lot of nervous energy around our group. When we round the corner to the boat yard, there are already teams waiting to collect their boats but we are so early, we have to wait for staff to arrive and unlock. Once inside, there is a flurry of people rushing to the toilets as they will be scarce along the route. After extra bags have been stowed away, we go outside to put on buoyancy aids and collect our paddles. The paddles are different weights to those we use but we can still use them. Lots of sunblock is applied, crotch straps tightened and then we are off to get on the boat, all clutching bags of food. Somewhat alarmingly, the pontoon is constructed of large, empty water bottles and walking along them seems extremely precarious. I am never the most sure-footed person but this looks precisely the recipe to topple me (as Master Mason calls it). I am not the only one feeling it as we creep along in single file. Then I see that in order to get into our boat, we have to climb across another. Hmmm. I know how incredibly easy it is to capsize a boat which, together with my ungainliness, makes for an uncomfortable few moments as I scramble across, aided by my lovely team members. I am paddling with Ms Marsden who has got in first. At this point we discover the boat is a different size to the one we use as when I sit down, it feels as though Ms Marsden is going to pop out like a cork. We agree to sit separately and on opposite sides to balance the boat.

And then we are off, paddling away across the lagoon and down a canal to take us down the Grand Canal to the start line at St Mark’s. The light at this time of the morning is exquisite and the air is relatively cool. I am told by our helm that I do not need to paddle if I don’t feel up to it. This is one of the things I like about our team. I always feel taken care of and that my health is always taken seriously. But mostly that my team mates care and want the best for me whilst encouraging me to push myself. I can tell that several people thought I would not be on that boat and, over the last day or so, people have been speaking to me telling me I will be on the boat and that they need me there. So, here I am on this glorious morning, paddling out into the lagoon and down a smaller canal into the Grand Canal and to the start at St Mark’s. I think there are over 2000 boats entered into the Vogalonga so it is inevitable there will be some traffic jams.

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Not only are we on time for the start of the event but we are slightly ahead and already moving well by the time we hear the cannon roar to signal the start. Did I mention we have to paddle 30km? In old money, this is 18 miles which is quite a distance and when we first thought of it, we puffed out our cheeks and drew our breath in sharply (not at the same time, obviously) because it seemed quite daunting. But here we are, on the water, paddling away with enough food to feed an army. There is good natured banter on the way round and our progress is pretty good. Before too long we are at the 10km mark and it is time for some people to nip out and have a wee.071 072

Unfortunately, we also run aground at this point and people have to get out, sinking into the soft mud as they help us re-float. Getting back in without capsizing the boat is tricky but it makes me laugh when someone calls the silt ‘Quicksand’ which actually makes people squawk in fear. Eventually we are all back in and it is when paddling across the lagoon that our first incident occurs. Suddenly, what I can only describe as a girlie shriek emits from the middle of the boat. I have been sitting with my eyes shut so it takes me a few seconds to realise what is happening. A fish has landed in the boat, whether by its own devices or whether it has been scooped up by one of the paddles. Two of our regular Raging Dragons paddlers, Redmunds and Mr Ling, both shriek like girls. They may deny it now but there is a lot of panic and squealing from the pair of them, even when it is pointed out it is just a fish. A sizeable one, Ms Key grabs it and throws it back over the side where it swims off, relieved to be away from all the fuss.

Further along, as we begin to hit clumps of boats – and there are all sorts – conversation becomes possible and Mrs Cheong randomly calls out “Sexy!” and “Sexy man!” to different groups. There are people from everywhere, including some other cancer survivor teams. We try saying “Hello” in a variety of languages. Whole boats are singing and slapping their paddles on the top of their boats in time and some people are dancing. 063 087 077Even the dogs are enjoying the day. Mrs Cheong has a special fascination for the gladiator on his paddle board. So I reproduce these photographs strictly for her enjoyment. 090 089

As we queue to get down the Grand Canal, at points we are stopped by Police boats who are trying valiantly to make some order to the vast deluge of boats. Further down, waiting to get into the Grand Canal, there are frogmen in orange wetsuits trying to direct us from the water. We only encounter one boat where the temperament is less than joyful. A woman half shouts at us “This is not a race! Wait your turn!” as we try to find water and not crash into other boats. A few feet along, one of her crew snaps and shouts “Wait your turn, pushing along in your big ship!” and takes his oar which he launches at Mrs Cheong. All I can really do is roll my eyes at these grown ups. Really? Yes, it’s not a race. Is this why you are so upset we are ahead of you? Does trying to whack one of our team really solve anything? Perhaps he was grumpy he didn’t make her ‘sexy’ list. Leaving the grumps behind, we paddle on to the finish line at St Marks where we are thrilled to hear all our names called out over the loudspeaker. Medals are thrown to us in plastic bags and we then begin the long paddle back to the boatyard. Everyone is feeling pretty high on the experience. As we get near the boatyard, an ambulance races past creating a large wake. For one moment, it seems possible we will capsize, so close to the end of our watery journey but the team power up and we paddle through it. When we make the boatyard, it is with sighs of relief and also “are you shitting me?” expressions (particularly from me). This time, tying up the boat we have to cross 2 other boats before we can make the wobbly plastic-bottle pontoon. My trusty team mate Mr Ling is on hand to help me gently and encouragingly to cross the boats and get onto the pontoon. I am sincerely grateful for the kindness he repeatedly shows me, even though I am unsteady and ungainly at times. On the pontoon, other team members are there to take my hand and help me off. As I reach the more solid pontoon, I suddenly cannot breathe. I am not aware of feeling particularly anxious but my breath is hard to come by and it takes some moments before I can get it under control. Mrs Cheong is there, of course, mothering me and helping me to a seat, asking where my puffer is. But I am not asthmatic so there is no puffer to help. The breathlessness subsides and we do a cool down routine before going into our huddle where we try to take in the enormous challenge we have just completed. I think it will take some time for it to sink in.

We wander back to the hotel and shower. Some people are leaving that evening, some early in the morning and some, including us, the next evening. I am starting to be a little concerned about my breathing which makes walking around tricky. There are, obviously, lots of bridges in Venice so the climbing over them is taking its toll on me. But more of that later. Competing in the Vogalonga has been an amazing experience for so many reasons. To have shared it with other cancer survivors and team mates who have all been there to lean on has been incredible. The route itself is beautiful yet challenging and we met some fabulous people on our journey. It will take time to process everything that has happened but it will be an event I will never forget.


No Ben, just Jerry

Tuesday of this week is a difficult day. As I am getting dressed, a man calls about my dishwasher. It has been playing up for some time, deciding it will not wash things properly on some occasions and on others, doing a sterling job. Putting a dishwasher cleaner in, it is found out, however, and we know it is not getting up to the right temperature. Time for a new dishwasher. I do the research and then find the model I want online. I order it and get a confirmation of both purchase and delivery. Half way into my trousers, the man calls to talk to me about my dishwasher. He waxes lyrical about what a fabulous model it is and tells me about all its features, how many place settings it can accommodate and how the delivery men are built like tanks and can move anything. This leads him into a fairly lengthy reminiscence of the fact that his parents have an American style fridge-freezer but that he does not. He is saving up for one. Well done. He eventually gets round to the ‘good news’ that we can have all our repairs done AND if it cannot be repaired, they will buy me a new machine. Jolly good. But it comes at a cost. I thought it might. We already have one year’s warranty on the machine. He says that will only cover if we have a bad machine. Bad machine? He also advises me not to take a baseball bat to the machine if it doesn’t work. This is not something I was planning to do but if he will give me his address, I will take one round to him. Eventually I persuade him that really, I am not going to take out insurance to cover something I am already insured for. I feel him slump.

Once dressed, I am off hot foot to the dentist. Some time ago I broke a tooth and my new dentist is going to fit something to cover it. Today I am prepared for her to take an impression of my tooth but not for the preparation she has to do. This involves a very painful injection into the muscle at the side of my jaw followed by a lot of drilling. I am hoping this will not leave me like a drooling fool. After this I then have the impression made which is something I hate. I am always concerned they will not be able to get the impression out and I will be stuck, gagging, while it fills my mouth. But hurrah! She can remove it, leaving me with green stuff all round my mouth. Mr Mason has come to meet me at the dentist’s surgery and we then set off for our friend Jerry’s funeral. It involves catching tubes and buses and I have not a clue where we are going so have to rely on Mr Mason who is not known for his route planning.

Sitting on the bus, 2 young men get on and sit behind me. One of them has a beautiful waxed moustache which I am longing to take a photograph of but feel shy. Their conversation revolves around which bands they like (“I’m not listening to metal any more. I’m into punk now”) and who is the best tattoo artist. The waxed moustache young man has a favourite and he does appear to be covered in them. With his moustache and slim frame, there is something very dandy-ish about him. He gets off the bus and goes straight into a tattoo parlour and I wonder if he is going to get another tattoo or just have a cup of tea with his favourite artist.

Of course, having worried about being late for Jerry’s funeral, we arrive with heaps of time to spare and sit in the garden of the crematorium reading our books and watching people arrive. Jerry has survived cancer several times before but this time it gets him good and proper. Mr Mason has known Jerry since 1971 and they still used to reminisce about their fabled World Tour which involved 4 of them driving through Europe and down to Italy one summer, the driver only having passed his test the week before. I first met Jerry in 1979 so we have a good few years of friendship between us and I know he has many friends but I am not prepared for the numbers who arrive for his funeral. It looks as though a couple of coach loads have disembarked and then people just keep arriving. There are so many, someone from the crematorium has to conduct a kind of crowd control to get people moved back so there is some room for the hearse to arrive. And still people keep arriving. Image

The service is very much Jerry. Some friends get up to speak about him and tell stories and it is as though he is sitting at the back with a pint in his hand, listening with a smile on his face. How he would have liked a gathering like this. We leave the chapel to the sounds of the Radetzky March and after some milling around, we find our way out and onto another bus. We are pleased to see the service for Jerry has been in such a top class establishment.


I was not aware there was a Cemetary of the Year award but there you are. This one won one. At the wake, we struggle through the crowds and I manage to find a seat where I chat to 2 lovely men from Hastings. They show me a photograph of their static caravan. There is a display of photographs of Jerry through the ages and with his many friends and there is a lot of laughter and remembering going on. As usual, pain and fatigue overwhelm me and we decide to head home, knowing that we have 3 buses to catch. On the way to the bus stop, I stop and buy some necessary restorative chocolate to see me home. Everyone on the bus behaves beautifully and we manage to synchronise ourselves so that we catch one bus seamlessly after another. I cannot claim credit for this. Standing at the bus stop, we see the most beautiful sunset.


It seems a fitting end to a difficult day. Jerry was a very good friend, a funny, intelligent man and he will be much missed by us and by hundreds of his friends. Real friends, not the Facebook kind. It was a pleasure to know you, Jerry, and we will really miss you and your dry wit. Wherever you are, I hope both the craic and the beer are good.


How it all began…

When I began writing this blog, I went back to the very beginning of my story and started to write in detail about what happened. I think I should probably have started this blog a year ago, when I was first diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer. In case you have never heard of it, IBC is fairly rare (around 2% of women with breast cancer have this type) and aggressive. It moves fast and is not detected by a lump but by changes in the breast which can be diagnosed as an infection or insect bite.

But it’s too late to go all that way back. So much has happened in the last year and no doubt bits of the story will emerge. You’ll have to catch me up. I’ve met some fabulous people on the way and some really annoying ones. I’ve seen lovely healthcare professionals and some I would not recommend to my worst enemy. People I didn’t expect to step up did in a spectacular way and other friends I thought would be solidly behind me disappeared like mist.

It’s a strange old disease, cancer. It’s all consuming and a bit like having the most horrible full-time job in the world but its also great to see doctors and nurses working at their best and to see the bravery and humour of other patients.

I don’t have any particular aims with this blog other than to catalogue my thoughts and activities for my own amusement and if anyone else wants to read it, then that’s all good. I have a Facebook blog which has been running since the very beginning but think it’s time to move into something more general. Everyone is tired of the cancer. I’m tired of it and yet don’t feel up to getting back to work yet. Too much of me hurts.

But my brain is working, albeit with a shocking memory loss. Chemotherapy does awful things to your brain and I can’t remember so many things, including people’s names and the names of ordinary household things. It will all come back, or so I’m told.

Do I feel miserable and depressed about the cancer? No, not at all. It’s a bugger, that’s for sure, but I’m optimistic by nature and know more than ever that life is for living so I’m going to do just that. In my own way.

Welcome to my world!