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Gravity, fear and friendship

22 Apr

in the air‘I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till I’m free
Oh, Lord, through the revolution’
Steve Miller, Fly Like an Eagle

in the air 2in air 3 

with canopy IMG_2937     coming in to landlandingOMG .. we really did it!  Niki and I threw ourselves out of a plane and found friendship. I am counting my blessings that Niki stepped up to my twitter cry for help and offered to skydive with me. With the benefit of hindsight I don’t know how I’d have managed without her.

Niki and Dave

Niki and Dave

What can I tell you about Niki? Well clearly she’s amazing.  One of the warmest, bubbliest and most lovely people I’ve ever met.  She has done a series of fundraising challenges, including running the Edinburgh marathon and trekking the Great Wall of China to raise money for Bowel Cancer UK.  She started this after her friend James died of bowel cancer aged 28.  Her remarkable support is a moving reminder that cancer affects more than just the patient.  Having met on twitter (you can find her @nikinom) a year earlier, I felt instantly blessed to have her and her boyfriend Dave with me along with my husband and daughter. What made it easy was that she understood and shared my motivation to take action.  We also shared misgivings about what we were embarking upon.

The whole skydiving experience was incredibly emotional right from the outset.  It was a perfect beautiful sunny day but I was reduced to tears by messages of support from patients and those who have lost loved ones and whose grief is still so raw.  My dear friend Lesley’s comment (Laura’s mum) on this blog quite frankly finished me off but it also made me even more determined.

We can do this!

We CAN do this!

Niki and I met at the airfield which was in a beautiful countryside location just outside Swindon.  We signed all the relevant disclaimer forms and then waited until we were called for training!   The training was brief but we chuckled our way through it, lying on your tummy in a field practising free fall positions is a bit random after all.

Practising my free fall position with Matt

Practising my free fall position with Matt

Niki looking glam!

Niki looking glam!

We laughed as we struggled into our ‘boiler’ suits and at our deeply unflattering hats and eventually just held hands as we climbed to 10,000 feet in a plane that felt too small to be in the air.

Quite frankly everything felt wrong… being in a plane with 5 blokes (the pilot, two tandem partners and two cameramen) telling unrepeatable jokes full of sexual innuendo whilst strapped to one of them and eventually sitting on their knee, with another resting in-between our knees was certainly ‘cosy’.  Add that we were preparing to jump out of a perfectly (well reasonably) good plane as well, then it definitely felt counter-intuitive to all we had learnt about safety during our lifetimes!   Yet my tandem partners repeated checking of my harness and calm words about what was going to happen next were oh so welcome.  As we climbed higher and higher so did the butterflies in my stomach…  Deep breath, tightly hold Niki’s hand and put on presentation face… I can do this, I CAN do this….

Niki jumped first – seeing her terror and hearing her fearful cry of ‘this is so scary’ as she dangled on the edge of the plane in free fall position and then a scream as she fell (was pushed) was mortifying and then it was my turn…. We jumped from 10,000 feet, that’s two miles up – yikes!  You free fall for the first 5,000 feet at 120 miles an hour.  The first few seconds of the free fall were quite frankly horrific to a non-adrenalin junkie wimp like me. The speed and spinning until the instructor gets it all under control was way way outside of my comfort zone.  Actually, for a few seconds I literally felt total panic, but then gave myself a stern talking to and determinedly opened my eyes and controlled my fear.  After all, people had kept telling me, I was going to love it – the least I could do was try.  But most importantly I was doing this for a reason.  I didn’t want to let everyone cheering me on across the twitter waves and my colleagues down.

I suddenly remembered the cameraman and tried to look at the views and smile as if this was what I did all the time. Trust me, it’s tough to smile at those speeds with your cheeks flapping attractively! Then, suddenly, a big jolt and the parachute is open pulling you upwards… unexpected serious feelings of nausea ensued but I controlled it and realised how wonderful it felt that we had slowed so much.  Finally it felt under control. The quiet under the parachute canopy is amazing after the loud noise of the wind at 120 miles per hour and the views were clear and spectacular over beautiful countryside.  If I hadn’t felt nauseous at every turn it would probably even have been enjoyable… It was most certainly awesome.

Never Too Young bowel cancer patients

Never Too Young bowel cancer patients

As we ‘floated’ down from 5,000 feet I talked to my instructor about why I was doing it. I told him about Laura and Lesley all the other young patients and their families I know and care about. I told him that even though this absolutely wasn’t my thing I was proud to be facing my fears and doing something.  That I hoped by taking action and raising funds I could make a difference.  I told him how the stories of loss and grief hurt and how moved and humbled I felt by all the support I’d received.  So many people I care about were on that jump with me.   Poor bloke – he was probably expecting small talk about the view and I’m telling him about death, late diagnosis, grief and why it has to stop.  It’s silly but it makes me well up just thinking about it because as I looked out over the beautiful countryside repressing my fear, I wasn’t alone.

Landing is remarkably controlled but I still felt alarmed as the ground got closer and closer and I couldn’t get my legs up – my face in the pics is comical, my anxiety clear for all to see!

Yah! I did it.

Yah! I did it.

Even though I jumped second we were down first and then I had to wait for Niki.  Bless her she was white as a sheet and I felt terrible guilt having persuaded her to sign up.

Relief...

Relief…

I think it’s fair to say we both felt rather emotional, shell shocked and in disbelief about what we had just done.

Did we really just do that?

Did we really just do that?

As we watched someone else land we realised we’d just done something pretty darn amazing… entirely foolish but amazing…

I so want to tell you I loved every minute of skydiving – I feel a bit of a failure that I didn’t. It was genuinely an amazing experience which will always stay with me, but I can’t claim to have ‘enjoyed’ it in a traditional sense of enjoyment.  However as well as the wonderful donations for Bowel Cancer UK, I have gained a lot.  I have a lovely new friend in Niki and a deep sense of pride that together we faced our fears, held our nerves and took action for younger bowel cancer patients.

Neither Niki nor I longed to go up and do it again straight away as we were told we might, yet I would absolutely do it again in a heartbeat if it would make a real difference and help save lives.

Niki & Deborah

PS

Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me… If you haven’t don’t worry you still can!  Justgiving.com/Deborah-Alsina

If you are  new to my blog and would like to find out why I’m taking action by fundraising for younger bowel cancer patients, do visit Bowel Cancer UK’s Never Too Young campaign website pages or simply read the posts in my blog archives.

Mid Life Crisis?

20 Mar

Image

My closest girlfriend called me the other day to tell me she was worried I was having a mid-life crisis.  She had just heard that I’d signed up to do a skydive and called to talk me out of it – bless her.  My dear friend of 26 years had decided I’d lost the plot finally – maybe she’s right. I mean – why else would you offer yourself up to be thrown out of a plane?

Well I had some reminders recently of why I’m relatively confident about my sanity levels …

Never Too Young

This week Bowel Cancer UK launched a new campaign. ‘Never Too Young’ with the aim of improving the diagnosis, treatment and care of younger (under 50) bowel cancer patients in the UK.  Our campaign film highlights just why this is so important. 

To inform our campaign we conducted research into the experiences of younger patients which we summarised in our Never Too Young report. 

One of the findings that stood out for me was that younger patients are experiencing delays in diagnosis for two main reasons.  Firstly, GP’s are delaying referring people through for diagnostic tests and in fact 42% of women,  compared with ten per cent of men either saw their GP more than five times before being referred to a specialist, or were diagnosed as an emergency before being referred.

Secondly, over half (60%) of patients were not aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer prior to being diagnosed, and were not aware of bowel cancer as a disease younger people could develop. A quarter of people (25%) waited over 6 months to see their doctor as they didn’t realise the significance of their symptoms or felt reluctant to discuss them.  This can have terrible consequences and has for Laura.

Laura was 30 when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.  She had symptoms for nearly two years before she was diagnosed.  Unfortunately, she didn’t understand their significance and was re-assured when her doctor told her that it could not possibly be bowel cancer because she was too young.  The terrible pain in her tummy was put down to painful periods and the bleeding she experienced on and off for two years wasn’t investigated.  Unfortunately when she was finally diagnosed at the age of 30, the disease had already spread to her liver and her lungs and is now in her bones too.

Laura happy on her wedding day

Laura happy on her wedding day

Despite gruelling treatment, on the 1st March, Laura married her fiancée Alan at their dream wedding in Scotland.  Yet instead of going on her honeymoon, she had to go to hospital to start a new round of palliative chemotherapy instead.  Every contact I have with Laura and her lovely Mum Lesley makes me ache, because I can feel their pain and grief, yet they are amazingly supporting our Never Too Young campaign because they want this to stop.  After all, this should not be happening to Laura, to anyone.

Laura and Alan

Laura and Alan

 

Bowel cancer is treatable but early diagnosis makes that much easier.

Finding Solutions

I know that some will think that our focus on younger patients is a ‘red herring’ because the number of people diagnosed only represents 5% (c. 2,100) of the 41,000  diagnosed each  year in the UK.  I strongly disagree.

To me those c.2000 patients, represent, 10,000 patients over 5 years, 20,000 patients over 10 years – and each one has hopes, dreams and family and friends who love them and whom they love.  They deserve the same chance of and have the same right to life as anyone else.  I resolutely refuse to give up on them simply because they are difficult to target or detect.

However I do acknowledge that the solutions are not straight forward.  GPs for example, have an incredibly difficult job to identify those patients they should be referring on for diagnostic tests.   They will see many young people who have symptoms that could be bowel cancer but may only see a few cases (if that) during their career in the under 50s.   They are also under pressure to refer less people through to endoscopy teams who are over-stretched and under-resourced.

We need to find a solution that empowers and enables GPs to make those difficult decisions and build the capacity of our endoscopy units to ensure they can provide high quality services to meet rising demand.   That’s why we are calling for the development of a risk assessment decision aid tool to be developed for GPs around bowel disease, sustained investment in endoscopy services so this is not a barrier to diagnosis and a registry of younger patients to be set up, so we can better understand the epidemiology of cancer.

Information and Support

Our report also highlights gaps in information and support for younger bowel cancer patients. Only 1 in 4 women and just fewer than 1 in 2 men were happy with the levels of support they received.

Isolation and loneliness is felt by many younger bowel cancer patients. Although peer support was identified as a major factor that could have improved treatment more than half of patients felt that they had no-one their age with bowel cancer to talk to.

Younger patients inevitably have different concerns from older patients – many have concerns about how treatment will affect their fertility, their body image and sexual relationships.  Looking after young children is also a major concern for some.

Katie, husband Stuart and children Sophie 4 and Sam 8

Katie, husband Stuart and children Sophie 4 and Sam 8

Katie, 32, a former national junior ice skating champion has been highlighting the issues she is currently facing in her moving blog, as she tries to come to terms with the reality of  having terminal bowel cancer.   Several recent newspaper articles have highlighted her despair at the prospect of leaving her young children of 4 and 8 without a Mum.

Katie now

Katie now

Katie and her family and friends are currently fundraising for Bowel Cancer UK and remarkably despite all that she is going though she is determined to raise awareness and is supporting our  Never Too Young campaign.

I so wish she didn’t have the personal insight about why this is so very important.

The skydive approaches…

So as I told my lovely friend, I’m OK about jumping out of a plane, despite the fact this is not in my job description and I am absolutely not doing this for ‘fun’.  I’m not an adrenalin junky, I’m not into heights and have no personal desire to put my life in the hands of another person whilst hurdling towards the earth and I’m particularly petrified of landing.  Skydiving has NO appeal to me whatsoever BUT if our amazing patient supporters show such determination to raise awareness and funds, how can I not also face my fears and join them.

So as I have said before, if this resonates with you, if this matters to you and you want to be part of ensuring that younger cancer patients have a bright future please support or join Laura, Katie and me.  Please help us raise awareness and funds so Bowel Cancer UK can continue to campaign for younger patients and further develop our information and support services for them.

Or just sponsor me. http://www.justgiving.com/deborah-alsina

You can also donate via Bowel Cancer UK’s website by following this link. 

Thank you in advance for your support.

If you are concerned about any aspect of bowel cancer, Bowel Cancer UK’s information and support line, staffed by specialist nurses can be reached on freephone: 0800 8 40 35 40 or you can email: support@bowelcanceruk.org.uk

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