Is time a healer for grief … can we overcome the cards we are dealt …

Yes, and why, well in a few days, that significant date for me comes around again, the 21st September.

Rewind to five years ago today, I lost my best friend, my mother to the Big C.  A short battle to this awful disease and I was so lucky to be in a position, that I could be her carerer and go on the journey but it was a loss.  I miss her and hope that I can make her proud and I often hear myself say ‘I am my mother’s daughter’.

Five years ago suddenly, I was without parents but what I did gain, was my ‘freedom’, I could be myself and for that I am grateful.

Then four years ago today, I went to the Rug Company Party and met my soul mate, Hubert Phipps. 

The Rug Company Party … Chelsea Focus

In reality it wasn’t when I met him, as I had in fact known him for over 40 years.  In fact, my mother had spent many years trying to set him up with girls but never did she think ‘me’.  Well, I have not looked back on the last four years and I hope that I will have many more years ahead.

My man aka Hubert Phipps

Then, three years ago today, I celebrated the end of my own treatment on my own Big C journey.  This came out of the blue and just 8 weeks after getting together with Hubert and I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him and my amazing friends, especially my hospital companion, Anoushka Faisca.

After my chemo still had radiotherapy and jabs but the hardest part was over

In the last five years, I have realised that you have to live in the moment and that saying I lived by ‘saving for a rainy day’ needed to be parked.   Firstly, I had to have a change of career and no longer plan weddings as too much stress and now loving doing consultancy in a ‘team’, within charities doing events and fundraising.   I have Pamela Deakin and Henny Cochrane to thank for their support and keeping me busy, so thank you.

Grief is something that can hit you at any point and the reality that you have had a near death experience if you can call it that, is something you need to process and each day is different.   I still blame my lack of concentration to do my filing at home as ‘chemo brain’, not sure how long I can milk that one for though?    I know that I am in a great space now and I believe that through my voluntary work at Maggie’s and the Royal Marsden Chelsea that I have learnt to talk, listen and support.


Why, am I writing this blog, well I wanted to share where I have come and that over the past five years I have achieved a lot and sharing can give people encouragement to continue to strive.   I have overcome my fear of water and learnt to snorkel, maybe not a big deal to many of you, but a huge achievement.

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Sarah Ducker and Henley Literary Festival and Mental Health

This year sees me as an individual sponsoring Charlie Hart & Beth Lynch at this year’s Henley Literary Festival on Sunday 29th September.

Previously, SJD Events Limited would have sponsored this event and over the past eleven years, I have sponsored many amazing authors, as shown below:

2018 – Kate Humble
2017 – Sir Chris Bonnington
2016 – Harry Parker
2015 – Lieutenant General Sir Barney White Spunner and Virginia McKenna
2014 – Princess Michael of Kent
2013 – Sir Major Michael Parker.
2012 – Sir John Major.
2011 – Craig Brown with Simon Russell Beale and Eleanor Bron. And, An Audience with Wilbur Smith .
2010 – Melvyn Bragg.
2009 – Ben Fogle and James Cracknel.
2008 – Pre-launch evening at The River and Rowing Museum.

At the end of 2018, I took the decision to close the business (SJD Events Ltd) as I had taken a career change and it made sense.

Over the past five years, I have been doing consultancy work in the charity sector for fundraising and events in the Military Sector. During this time, I have been fortunate enough to work on some amazing projects with Combat Stress, Coming Home (Haig Housing), There But Not There (Remembered) and Walking With The Wounded.

After my own life changing experiences, with the loss of my father over 15 years ago, the loss of my mother almost five years ago and my own first hand ill health to cancer three years ago, life does change.

Mental Health is something that can touch us all in many different forms and we all have to find the release that works for us. In my case, I enjoy giving back and volunteering at the Royal Marsden Chelsea which saved my life. I also enjoy my garden and walking in the countryside whether walking my sisters dogs or just walking by the river or getting lost in the woods, it’s the fresh air and been at one with nature. Also, I am lucky enough to have a soul mate in that a childhood friend came into my life four years ago and has become my rock and I am very happy as we now embark on a new chapter of our lives.

So, when Harriet of Henley Literary Festival approached me to be involved with the forthcoming festival for 2019, I explained as I always do, that I was looking for someone to sponsor that has an association with my work and mental health was the perfect match. At the moment, I am consulting at Walking With The Wounded a charity that supports Veterans who have served to transition into the community and a lot more (http://www.wwtw.org.uk) and I can’t wait to hear Charlie Hart on his book Skymeadow and Beth Lynch on her book Where the Hornbeams Grow.

There will be others at the festival touching on Mental Health, such as Bryony Gordon who has been very influential over the past few years sharing with everyone her own personal journey.

We all have a personal journey and sometimes it’s not as simple as black and white, it can also be a roller coaster at times but something I have learnt, that sharing is an amazing platform. Whether you talk to a stranger or you write it down and post it. I believe that saying it out loud is the first step to addressing it.

Below is just a little taster of the authors I am going to be sponsoring and if you want to check out Henley Literary Festival, please visit http://www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk

Charlie Hart – Skymeadow: Notes from an English Gardener

In Skymeadow, Charlie seamlessly weaves together his own memoir with that of his garden. The result is a lyrical and incisive story of mental health at an all-time low, the healing powers of digging and, ultimately, a celebration of nature.

Charlie is a gardener and author who writes and speaks about the way in which gardens and nature can rest the mind and heal the soul.

He has written for a wide range of publications including: The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian gardening blog, The Scotsman, Sainsbury’s Magazine, Suffolk Magazine and many other journals and publications.

Beth Lynch – Where the Hornbeams Grow

Image from the Cambridge Independent

WHERE THE HORNBEAM GROWS is a memoir about carrying a garden inwardly through loss, dislocation and relocation, about finding a sense of wellbeing in a green place of your own, and about the limits of paradise in a peopled world. It is a powerful exploration by a dazzling new literary voice of how, in nurturing a corner of the natural world, we ourselves are nurtured.

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Knowing when to let go … almost five years on

So, rewind to September 2014 when my mother passed away after a short illness to the Big C. My first time on the front line of being the carer and I learnt a lot as I cared over the 4 months.

Then, my sister suggested I visit Maggie’s as she had a friend who was involved and I found that the support this charity offered was amazing and it gave me the encouragement to get back in the driving seat. So, in the April 2015, I decided to look for a voluntary role and started with Coming Home, managed by a now dear friend, Henny Cochrane.

Working through the issues I was experiencing from grief to emptiness, this helped me, as when you are working with injured Veterans it puts life into perspective and I am grateful to Henny for believing in me.

Going on in the background was a nightmare probate but I am not dwelling on the past now and that went on for four years, which gave additional stress to both my sister and I. I salute my executors as they kept us sane, well they did keep me sane, as there were times when I was ready to throw the towel in and walk away.

Then in December 2015, I was hit with, you have stage 4, breast cancer. Thanks to the NHS and the amazing team at the Royal Marsden Chelsea, I am cancer free and my extensive treatment went to plan and all I do is take a pill daily. Not that you are ever free after a life changing experience and my lifestyle has changed and I think hand on heart that I am a better person.

I have continued to volunteer at the Royal Marsden Chelsea, something I have shared a number of times and met some amazing people and I hope that I have helped patients on their journey. I have worked on a number of contracts in the military charity sector and have loved the distraction of been a team player.

In 2018, I was approached by Maggie’s to act as the Chairman for the BADA Gala Dinner having been chosen as the charity of the year and pull off the event, which is on the 21st March. Once again it was a ‘team’ with Richard, Sandra, Caroline and from Maggie’s it was Rebecca, Angela and Lydia.

During the last few years, I have been sorting in my head the loss of my mother and it never gets easier. I cannot count the times I have cried in the loo or shouted in the car, bloody hell why me and what about supporting me, I do not have either parent. But I had my friends and my rock aka Hubert Phipps, who came into my life in September 2015 even though he had been in the background all my life.

When my Mum died and her estate was sorted, I got the flat on the end of the family home and initially it worked well as my sister and I could support each other, as she herself was going through a tough time with a divorce with two young kids. However, over the years our relationship strained as I stayed in a time warp and didn’t really want to move on, the family home was my safe heaven, it was where our parents had made us feel safe. With time though, I have realised that its ok now, I can move on and start afresh. I know that my Mum wouldn’t want me to dwell on the past and be held back, that much I do know and I am reminded by friends such as Anoushka Faischa.

So, last year my sister started to remind me September 2019 was de-day to move on, start afresh and in an ideal world she was looking to ask us to move on earlier, in April / May.

She had moved on and was trying to make a new business and needed the flat for her five-year plan. To me September 2019 was a long way away but it wasn’t but I was ready. I hosted Christmas day in the flat this year, which was very special to me, well I had to use the hot trolley and it was our extended family. It was as this time that we had seen a house and the seed was sowed, I was ready as it was on my terms.

Thank goodness this house didn’t materialise but it gave me the kick up the arse. Now I can happily say we (Hubert and I) have found our new dream home and just waiting for the bump in the road which I am assured is normal with house purchases, as we start afresh, building new memories together.

It’s time to say goodbye to the family home but nobody can take away the memories I have, they never go and the new place is not far away. The strange think is that both Hubert and I grew up locally and finding our new home was the cherry on the top, though no River and no railway line its now wildlife noises. We have been referenced by the estate agent to the vendor, as a middle-aged couple from London – cheek but they did add no children so look forward to meeting the neighbours and putting their minds at ease.

Once the offer had been accepted, we kept it to ourselves and the other weekend we went through the flat and container and I realised that I didn’t really have much from my childhood other than memories as the stuff was just stuff. And what I love about Hubert who also didn’t have a huge amount of stuff having sold his home, is that it is just that, stuff and it was now about new beginnings. Though I will add that the hot trolley, very 70’s is moving with me even if it has to be in the garage.

The moral of the story is, you will know when you are ready to move on from a safe haven and take the plunge into a new adventure. Don’t get me wrong, my flat in London is a safe haven and again I have friend Anoushka to thank for that. I am so pleased that my mum got to see it and visit and she knew it was my home.

But now, I am ready to take stock of my life and get on with new beginnings as I feel liberated, a bit like I did when I was bald after chemo, not sure if you will understand that comparison.

As I post this, we are waiting to exchange after a small delay on our new home and it’s all about looking forward and not living in the past so, Mr Phipps you better be worried, new chapters ahead.

So, please listen to your body and your gut and do things on your terms on your time scales, don’t be pressured. Telling my sister last weekend was a huge relief and now I hope we can re-kindle the bond of sisters.

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January challenges – a Triathlon with team ‘You Me and Big C’ and volunteering

So, rewind a few months when I met Deborah and Lauren at the book launch of ‘F*** You Cancer’ at Henley Literary Festival and it was at this time that I realised I was part of what they called the Big C Club.

These ladies were inspirational and sometimes when I read all the different social media I now follow, I realise it’s not scary to be in the club and that there is a huge family out their to lift you on a dark day and celebrate on a good day. I am one of the lucky ones who have come out the other side and now am a Cancer survivor who just has to pop a pill every day for the next 7 years.

One thing that is very evident after cancer is that you do change and maybe after hearing Deborah and Lauren it was then that it hit home. Most of the changes I like, I have learnt to say no, well almost. However, their were a few little niggles, just little changes (well big in my head) were all normal having had a life changing experience.

For me and those who know me, I am/was one of the most organised people and that is what I prided myself in. However, over the last few years my organising of my own admin / life has been much to be desired and only a few weeks ago, I had a huge melt down and threw all my paperwork to the ground. All over my car permit and thank goodness my experience at the council was not traumatic or it may have been a lot worse. What I have noticed is that my concentration span and lack of interest is what concerns me and some days I can literally stare into space and do nothing. However, when I am working or volunteering you would never know this. So, friends and family said slow down and dedicate a day to your affairs so that’s my new year’s resolution.

tri january

So, what has that got to do with the 15km triathlon I signed up for #TriJan and Team You Me and Big C. Well, I am always looking for a challenge and so I agreed to do the 15km swim, cycle and run. My adaptation of this challenge was walking as I can’t run and as I already do an average of 3 to 5 km’s a day that is proving easy. The cycling I took to spinning in my capsule and that will be achieved in another 30 minute session. The swimming well, OMG, I hate water and not a strong swimmer so I bit the bullet and today my friend got me a pass and off I went to Chelsea Harbour and tackled the pool. I have to confess I may not complete that element of the challenge as that was 45 minutes swimming, which was 55 lengths and it was only 1.2 km – eek. Does it count I cycled in water?

So my body shape has changed and I don’t always like what I see in the mirror. The joys of getting old and of course menopause suck, but I have my health and that is what counts So, I listen to my body and adapt my lifestyle so, cut out red wine, don’t drink like I used too and I don’t eat as much red meat. I haven’t managed to cut out sugar and I salute those who have the will power.

One thing that I have also learnt recently is that ‘talking’ and ‘sharing’ is key to feeling good and that sometimes talking to a stranger can be just the therapy one requires.   Though I have been known and certainly before Christmas I spent long dog walks talking to them and in the past have spoken at length to babies – umm is this so they can’t answer back.  No, they are good listeners and that is also key.

walks in the country

At the end of last year, I took on the role of overseeing the volunteers for Meet & Greet at the Royal Marsden Chelsea and this is still a big part of my recovery. I love my Friday mornings at Wallace Wing reception and my Thursday afternoon’s in outpatients and covering other roles when required. After almost 18 months of volunteering, I feel like part of the furniture and I have made some good friends. One thing that I didn’t notice when I was on my journey back in 2015/2016 was the power of a smile or been shown where to go as the hospital is a rabbit warren and recently I have been really touched by cards, presents from patients I have touched. From a simply thank you for showing them where to go, a thank you for a smile to a box of chocolates which is quickly given to the nurses and a card . Then, and I am only human is when someone says thank you for your support during a patients journey who didn’t make it, it really means a lot. Volunteering gives me a great feeling and I feel honoured to be able to offer my services to the Royal Marsden and anyone reading this with a few spare hours a week should really consider volunteering.

I am also the chair on a committee for the Maggie’s, charity of year event for BADA in March and raising funds for the new Maggie’s at the Royal Marsden Sutton, opening later this year. This is different, as we have been hitting a brick wall on sponsorship due to the present economic climate but the show must go on and ‘The Secret Garden’ will be a huge success on Thursday 21st March, well I am involved, right.

So what is next, to keep being positive, get all my affairs into line and enjoy life, taking each day as it comes.

furry friends

Thank you to all my friends and family for your continued support and especially to my rock, Hubert, the little people and my fury friends.

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Getting a Wake Up Call

I am writing this article as I think I have just had a bit of a wakeup call.

What do I mean?

Nobody officially told me that my body would change after my Cancer treatment or that I would never really be the same again – eek and I thought I was doing so well.

So, lets rewind four months when I decided to stop all supplements. I had got sucked into different types of supplements and what benefits they offered and then I just decided NO, I would just take my tamoxifen.

However, not sure it was such a good idea, as I then started to suffer from severe reflux and then managed to be constipated for over 16 days. Anyway, after numerous visits to the doctors we are finally getting over this and now awaiting an endoscopy. Let’s hope they get to the bottom of it because if nothing else, I now listen to my body and something is certainly going on.

Two weeks ago, on the last day of the Henley Literary Festival, I went and heard Deborah James and Lauren Mahon talking about their BBC Radio Five Live show, You Me and the Big C. They were also discussing the book written by Deborah, F*** You Cancer. It was following this talk that I realised you never leave the Cancer Club, you just leave the hospital and the treatment and nurses, but the journey is not over and it’s the road to recovery now.

I thought maybe wrongly that after my treatment, life would get back on track and it would be the same as it was four years ago. But sadly, it’s not, cancer changes you both mentally and physically and I may have only now just realised this. Not only has my body changed thanks to menopause but I don’t have the vroom, vroom, like I did.

In this journey, one good thing is that I have found the love of my life and I am certainly not ready to leave that behind. I’m not going anywhere but several friends have told me that should the Big C come back, that it will have been my own doing – scary.

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Over the past few weeks Hubert has been asking me to ‘slow down’ and what do I do, I do the opposite. Well a leopard never changes its spots but, I did hit a wall and having had two good night’s sleep realise, I don’t have to stop just go in fourth gear rather than fifth.
Someone the other day asked me why do I keep my hair short and not grow it like it was. Umm like it was, well that is not the same Sarah. I am about the new Sarah, in fact I felt absolutely liberated when I was bald, so keeping my hair short is a reminder that I am who I am – I don’t expect people to understand.

So why this blog and what do I mean when I say a wakeup call.

When I had treatment, I didn’t change my life style, or my diet and I came out the other side. So, why now two years later am I questioning myself. I have cut down in fact almost no alcohol at all, well red wine for sure and I don’t drink like I did and a couple of glasses of wine a week is max.

Exercise, I walk about 3 to 4 miles at least 4 times a week. I tried boot camp in the summer, but I am not sure my body was ready for that so, I reverted to spinning in a capsule but in the last few weeks have put it on hold but heading back on Saturday.

Why well I am listening to my body and right now its saying ‘slow down’ not something I do and whereas I am good at preaching it, implementing isn’t that easy.

For those of you who know me, I am a doer and don’t really know the word ‘no’.

For those friends reading this and going through menopause you will know that it sucks and then for those of you who have had breast cancer you will know our medication brings on the menopause. In fact, for the next 8 years I am pumped with as many hormones as 9 months pregnant women.

So, now I understand why I am all over the place it’s the hormones! Well that is what I am putting down the tears and mood swings too.

People say why don’t you ‘relax’ but its not that easy. When I go away, I can read a book a day but at home there is always a distraction.

I need to listen to my body and let it take me through the next step of the journey and when the body says sleep, sleep and not feel guilty.

I worked during my treatment for a charity for injured soldiers and that got me through the treatment as I had a distraction and a goal, and it was thanks to my colleague, Henny Cochrane that I came out the other side. Now I volunteer at the Royal Marsden Chelsea, where I give back to the place that saved my life and whereas again people think it is strange that I want to surround myself with Cancer, I am in it and hope my journey can inspire others. I am also an Ambassador for Maggie’s and presently working on the BADA event for next March, where we are aiming to raise money for the new Maggie’s Centre at Royal Marsden Sutton. And then, I am working alongside Henny again and doing some consultancy work for Remembered and There but Not There, a campaign for Armistice.

Sometimes writing down how I feel helps and then I feel I don’t need to publish but maybe in this instance I will publish.

The courage and admiration I have for Deborah and Lauren and many others who have shared their stories, I didn’t let cancer define me, but it changed me, and I think for the better.

Stand Up To Cancer is this Friday, so please support however you can as sadly the statistics are now that 1 in 5 of us will be affected by this disease.

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When you realise you are not fit …

So, I think I am healthy, I am not obese, well maybe I carry a few extra pounds but hey what you expect when you get over 40 as our metabolism slows down.

In fact, since I had cancer two years ago, I have changed my lifestyle and whereas I still go out, I don’t drink like I did, in fact at the moment, I am almost dry.

I walk, at least 3 or 4 days a week and I can walk up to 4 or so miles but that doesn’t make me fit.  I play tennis for a couple of hours a week but again that doesn’t mean I am using all the right muscles.

I put it down to one of the joys of being 48 years old,  menopause and then add tamoxifen which I have for another 8 years and you have a middle age spread, swelling thanks to removal of some of my lymph nodes and as a result I don’t always feel great.  By that I mean, I don’t always fit into my dresses and tops which can be somewhat depressing.

So, I decided about two months ago, it was time to take this in hand and change my mind set.   I tried a slender tone after my Manual Lymphatic Drainage therapist left the hospital but that wasn’t going to make a huge difference.   So, I joined Isagenix and combine some of their products into my lifestyle and certainly have seen a difference.  But then, two weeks ago I was in my local Sainsbury’s and bumped into Basil, who was my personal trainer from David Lloyd over 15 years ago and I realised this was a sign.   A sign to what you may ask?  ‘BOOT CAMP’.

On Tuesday morning at 8.15am, I was undergoing my first session in the garden and oh dear lord I am unfit.

Ok, I had a frozen shoulder as a result of my breast cancer and the lymph nodes being removed and maybe not doing all the exercises.  But, my motto is ‘no pain no gain’ and I will get back all the movement and I will wake up my shoulders etc. and as a result my posture will improve as I have overcompensated using other parts of my upper body.

Then, came the abdominal exercises and umm, what can I say other than – OMG.  I have now found my pelvic and stomach muscles again and it has been laziness on my part so watch this space.   I now walk along the street pulling in my stomach and clenching my bum!

My legs which I thought to be a power house, well it was a question of stretching and opening up the glutes and all of this was in the comfort of my garden.

I have signed up to three months and so I hope the sun continues to shine and my aim is to feeling good about myself resulting in kicking the middle spread into touch.

Now that I have chosen to take on this challenge I need to ensure it is a ‘fun’ journey otherwise will I last …. watch this space.

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Volunteering a year on …

I have now been volunteering at the Royal Marsden Chelsea for just over a year and still loving it.   By that I mean, I enjoy it as it is my way of saying thank you and giving back.  Some of the volunteers have been helping for over 15 years, so I hope I can commit for a few more years.

I think I have done most of the roles that a volunteer can do here, but still like Meet & Greet the best.  Working alongside Karen who is the receptionist, we assist patients to make their Marsden experience stress free and to give them peace of mind that they are in a safe environment and you will hear ‘its home from home’.   More recently I have been doing reception on a Wednesday and Friday and have been happy to help.  Then, on a Thursday you can find me in Outpatients as the water monitor.  Occasionally you may see me in the shop and in fact got snapped for the Friends website.

me at RMH shop

And, then you may see as a trolley dolly on the wards or in the medical day unit serving coffee.

Over the last few weeks, I have been touched by some of the patients, from those who have come up to me and said thank you and given me a box of chocolates or a card, to finding that over a chat it transpired the patient had trained to be a hair dresser in her earlier years and only trained at Phyllis Earle in Dover Street, my family hairdressing school in the 60’s.

I suppose now that I am in remission, I forget just how the staff at the hospital when I came to appointments were part of my personal journey so, when people come up and say thank you it is really touching.

Only the other day, I only had a £10 and the café had no change but two people behind me was a gentleman who it transpired I had taken under my wing the first day of his wife’s treatment and he bought my coffee – I was so touched.    There have been many special moments over the past 15 months and I have forged relationships with many patients and become part of their journey, and nothing is better than having that moment when you hear there are also in remission and all is ok and we share a hug.   Boundaries go out of the window at times like this.

Some days I leave drained and other days on a high and I do have friends who ask ‘why’ do I volunteer at the Royal Marsden is it not depressing.  Well yes and no, I am human so I do shed a tear some days but when I was 16, I had a career valuation and one of the top jobs it stated for me was working in a cancer hospital.    So, maybe now I am finding my vocation having realised that the wedding planning was too stressful and fundraising for charities was better suited to me.  One thing is for sure that I really do enjoy helping people, following in my mother’s footsteps.

Alongside my volunteering at the Royal Marsden Chelsea, I am chairing the committee for the BADA fundraiser dinner next March for Maggie’ (http://www.badafair.com/charity-gala/charity-gala-evening.html ) .  Maggie’s is another very worthy cause that supports patients with cancer by offering them a safe haven in the form of a centre, attached to many of the NHS hospitals throughout the UK.

If you want to give back you don’t have to give up as much time as me but if you have a couple of hours once a week or just once a month then please do consider volunteering, it’s really rewarding.

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