Tuesday, 30 November 2010

I'm so proud of my Dad

During the 2nd World War dad was conscripted to the RAF at aged 18. (He is now 87). He was a Mid Upper Gunner in the Lancaster Bomber and served with 100 Squadron for his 1st tour and 97 Squadron for his second, the Pathfinder Force. He completed 2 tours and went out on 47 missions.  Considering alot of the young brave airmen didn't reach 20 missions, this was an incredible achievement. Can you imagine just how scared those brave young men would've been just before going on a mission .......

Dad was awarded the DFM which was announced in the London Gazette on 15th September 1944. The recommendation for his award dated 16th June 1944 was as follows:-

"This NCO has completed 32 operational sorties, 11 of them with the PFF.  As a gunner in one of the squadron's outstanding crews, he has flown against many heavily defended German targets.  He has at all times displayed great keenness and offensive spirit in his work and by his keen and quick action has several times enabled his pilot successfully to evade fighter attacks.  I strongly recommend that he be awarded the DFM"

2 years ago dad was contacted via 97 Squadron Association by Belgian Historian, Dirk Decuypere who was conducting research for his book, "De Luchtaanvallen Op Kortrijk En Wevelgem" detailing the air raids on his home town of Kortrikjk in Belgium. Once dad had given him all the information he could from his log book and own personal memories, Dirk said he would keep dad informed as to when the book would be published.

On 6th November dad received an invitation to the book launch in Belgium on Friday 26th November.  As mum and dad had never had a passport before (only a visitors' passport which doesn't count) they had to apply as a first application which usually takes 6 weeks! Once Chris got our local MP involved, the whole situation was speeded up somewhat, dad fighting for the country and all that!

We boarded the Eurotunnel to Calais (parked the car on a train as Chris said!) and had a drive through Dunkirk - mum had always wanted to go there. Standing on the beach you just couldn't get the image out of your mind of those poor souls who were trapped on the beaches there during the Second World War and then you could almost picture the little ships sailing in to rescue more than 338,000 British and French soldiers aboard around 700 different vessels - "Operation Dynamo".

It was freezing cold and windy by the way!!

Just as we were passing through the Belgian border it started to snow heavily and I was beginning to think that the shovel in the boot of the car might have to come out!  We made our way (using our brilliant SatNav and Chris's wonderful driving skills)  to our B&B in Ieper (Ypres). Another interesting fact is that dad seems to remember his dad fighting in WW1 in Ypres!

I was so thrilled to have found and booked at such short notice this wonderful hotel! This is just like a picture postcard scene and I love the reflections in the lake. 

The hotel is situated on Menin Road, the former front line during World War I. It breathes history. It has old WW1 trenches, a concrete bunker, several mine craters and a few unexploded shells dotted around!

 Dad gingerly entering the Bunker

 You can't really see the depth of these trenches or get the feel for them from these pictures but when you're there it is totally unimaginable the horrors that went on there *shudders*

A selection of unexploded shells *eeek*

After we had looked round the fascinating grounds of the hotel we visited the beautiful city of Bruges. It was freezing cold and the weather wasn't very kind to us as it decided to snow again quite heavily, so sadly we were unable to take a boat trip along the Canal.

Later that evening we went to the book launch in Marke, just outside of Kortrijk. What an amazing night that was!  We got there early so we could meet up with Dirk before he got "busy". He was absolutely thrilled to see us all as I had been keeping informed about the passport situation which was touch and go up until the Monday 22nd and we needed to go on the Thursday. *Much nail-biting took place*.  You could see tears in his eyes when he met my dad as he was so thankful to him for helping him in his research and genuinely thankful of dad's efforts during the war.

The book presentation was given mostly in Flemish so we didn't understand much of it. Dirk called dad up to the front and presented him with one of the first books. There was a huge round of applause. Dirk was an absolutely amazing host, full of energy and managed to speak to everyone who was there - what an incredible man and it was a real honour to meet him.

Dirk then called up a man whose story was very sad - this is him below (Dirk on the right). During one of the raids of Kortrijk this man was a baby in his mother's arms. When the bomb hit he was blown from his mother's arms and later rescued. Sadly his mother died. This man was actually sitting next to dad and shook his hand when he was presented with his book and wanted dad to sign it for him - how humbling? He thanked dad for bombing them! The Pathfinder Force minimised civilian casualties due to their accuracy in lighting up the targets, the target in Kortijk being the marshalling yards. Kortrijk lost 570 civilians but this could have been so much higher.

The lady below, Jackie Maude, the daughter of Flight Lieutenant Jack Skingley (bomb aimer) who sadly died with the rest of his crew en route to Kortrijk - lost without trace in July 1944. Can you believe that he was in the same Squadron as dad - 97 Squadron. Dad didn't recall her father but she was so happy to meet someone from her dad's squadron. *Cue another emotional moment* 

She was just 2 years old when her father died - that's Jackie in the middle

Next up was a brother and sister whose father was in the Australian Air Force, his plane crashed but he survived! He wasn't well enough to travel to Belgium to receive the book in person but his son received it on his behalf. A proud moment. *Cue more tears*

It turned out that the Lancaster propeller below actually came from their father's plane!

Chris and Dad

Towards the end of the presentation the Mayor of Kortrijk stepped onto the stage with one of his colleagues to demonstrate the Air Raid Sirens (video) which were used during the War. Cue more tears! That was just so moving and when I looked round there wasn't a dry eye in the room - there must have been around 300 people there, some obviously who remember the sirens well but for little old me, it truly was an emotional moment.

Throughout the whole of the evening my dad was asked by various people to sign their copies of  the book and some asked him to sign alongside where his picture appeared in the book too - how amazing - dad seemed to sign as many copies of the book as Dirk did! He really was treated like a hero by the Belgians! I hope that one day soon the book will be translated into English.

The following morning we went to a very emotional Memorial Service for the airmen who lost their lives in the raids on Kortrijk.  The service was delivered in Flemish and English. Jackie was called to lay a wreath beside the memorial in honour of her father - that was the bit that really upset me - it was so moving knowing her father's story. Towards the end of the service the Last Post was played and again there wasn't a dry eye in sight.

The memorial which was designed in the shape of the tail plane of the Lancaster.

After the Memorial Dirk took us around Kortrijk and showed us the marshalling yards which dad bombed. It was certainly a trip down memory lane for him albeit from a different angle!

We then went to the Passchendaele Museum, just outside of Ieper. The museum tells the story of the war in the Ypres Salient with special emphasis on the Battle of Passchendaele 1917. Sadly we got there half an hour before closing so would have liked to have more time there but the highlight was to actually enter a replica of dug-out which was used by the British and gave you a taster of how they had to live underground like moles ... just because there was nothing left above. Breathtaking experience!

Passchendaele Museum

When we were leaving the Museum the gentleman on reception said how sorry he was that we had to rush the experience and whilst chatting with him we told him of the reason for our visit to Belgium, whereupon he told us a story (with tears in his eyes) of when he was about 2 years old his house was bombed and his father rushed to get his trousers on in one hand and pick him up in the other, they both survived but his father lost his trousers! He also shook dad's hand and thanked him!  Everyone we spoke to had their own story to tell.

Our final goal was to be at the Menin Gate in Ieper at 8pm for The Last Post - another emotional and breathtaking experience.  I don't think I will ever get over seeing all those names engraved on the inside of the Gate which was dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives with no known grave.
The names of all the soldiers are written on every inch of space inside this magnificent structure

Last Post at Menin Gate (video)

Ypres by night

So that's our trip to Belgian documented for all to see! We will go back as there is just so much more to see.

I know we are in the grip of a freezing cold winter at the moment but when I think about the temperatures those young airmen had to endure in that aircraft it makes me shiver. Dad said quite often he had a sheet of ice on his chest which had formed from the condensation from his oxygen mask sitting in temperatures exceeding minus 30 degrees! Minus 5 is nothing!

Dad looking very satisfied after a lovely meal in our Hotel.
He made us laugh earlier that evening as he saw a sign outside a Cafe in Ieper which said "free wife". He said he fancied trying it! Mum's filing for divorce after 60 years!
It actually meant free wi fi!

This was certainly a trip which stirred up all sorts of emotions in me and indeed all of us and will certainly be talked about for a good while yet!

Dad, Me and Mum

I'm so proud of my Dad! Motto of 97 Squadron: Achieve Your Aim - how fitting!

P.S. If you ever find yourself in Norwich take a took inside the Cathedral as the 97 Squadron Standard is hanging inside it after the final disbandment of the Squadron on 1st January 1967.

Finally, I have just received this wonderful picture from Dirk which was taken at the Memorial Service in Bissengem. Dad was asked to read the Oath. Very touching.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

I really don't know where the last year has gone but just wanted to share with you my journey over the last year in the hope that I can raise awareness for Breast Cancer. I am so lucky as it was caught so early - I couldn't even feel a lump. It seems an apt time for me to share this with you as October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. So fasten your seatbelts ....

As I think back I first noticed something wasn't quite right in August 2009 and knowing I had a routine doctor's appointment in the September I waited until then before I mentioned that I seemed to have a dimple on my right nipple - it wasn't there all of the time and seemed more prominent (or not!) when I had taken off my bra but then sprung back after a few minutes. When I showed it to my other half, Chris, he just said he thought it might be cellulite! How VERY dare he! *Slap*

When I mentioned this dimple to the nurse whilst having my routine smear test she made me an appointment with one of the lady doctors for the following Tuesday. The doctor gave me a thorough breast examination and said she couldn't feel anything but would arrange for me to have a mammogram just in case there was something going on that couldn't be felt.  I could go on the Friday to Hinchingbrooke, Huntingdon or on the Monday to Addenbrookes, Cambridge. I opted for the Monday appointment as it suited me work-wise.  This was the best decision I made as I believe Addenbrookes has one of the best Breast Clinics in the country and I had the best care.

Chris took me for my appointment on the Monday and as both of us thought that the doctor was just being extra cautious we had no real worries about it.  I was called in for a consultation with one of the Breast Clinic nurses who gave me a thorough breast examination and also said she couldn't feel anything. However, she circled my right nipple with a marker pen and I was given a sheet of paper with information about biopsies on it but one of the nurses who was in the room also whispered to me "you probably won't need to have that done" - I was relieved as I had quickly scanned the bit of paper!

When I was called for the mammogram they went through the procedure with me and I must admit I'd heard horror stories of boobs being squashed to "within an inch of their life" so I was feeling slightly nervous, not what they might find, but actually of the procedure! It was a little uncomfortable but was over very quickly (my right boob was in fact quite uncomfortable afterwards).  After about 20 minutes or so I was called to have an ultrasound done as the mammogram was absolutely clear - they found nothing at all - *relief all round*.

They were giving me an ultrasound as a precaution because of the dimpled nipple which had sprung back out again by the way!  They asked if my other half would like to sit in the room whilst I was having it done. He was quite happy to do this and I got my boobs out AGAIN and laid down whilst they put cold jelly on my boob. Chris sat in the corner watching the procedure on the TV screen. The nice lady who was doing it seemed to take an age going over and over the same spot, she then mentioned something about getting a second opinion and the word "biopsy" was mentioned. I still wasn't too worried as I know the mammogram had shown everything to be okay. Chris mentioned that he was going to pop to the loo so gave me a quick wave and he was gone.

Another doctor came in, this time a man, and he seemed to take an age going over the same spot over and over. Then it was suggested that I should have a biopsy which was done very quickly and painlessly as I was given local anaesthetic - the ultrasound lady was very gentle and told me to expect a sound like a staple gun which is exactly what it did sound like and made me jump! She then said she would like to do another one so I braced myself this time! Afterwards (and after being told how brave I was!), as I was getting dressed there was a knock on the door and a nurse came in looking very concerned and said she was very sorry to have to tell me that my husband had passed out in the corridor and had banged his head! I was taken to a side room where he was recovering. I was given a date to return the following week for the results and paracetamol as I might be a little sore after the biopsies. We then spent the next 2 hours in casualty while he was being checked over - bless!  My file at the hospital is now marked "*BEWARE - HUSBAND FAINTS*"!  Chris, bless him, was more concerned with me as "I had gone through all that" and he was the one who had fainted!  Bless!

I hadn't told my mum and dad of any of these appointments etc. as I didn't want to worry them unnecessarily.

We went along to the Breast Unit at Addenbrookes on Monday 5th October 2009, a date etched in my memory forever.  We were called in by a nurse to a consulting room and still we weren't too worried about the results. We were then joined by Professor Wishart and a Breast Nurse. Professor Wishart broke the news that they had indeed found breast cancer. It was stage 2 invasive lobular cancer and apparently quite hard to detect. The ultrasound barely showed it but the biopsy confirmed the dreaded news.

The rest is a blur as you can imagine but my main concern was "how the hell am I going to tell my parents?". To me, that was worse than getting the diagnosis. Chris and I went to see them the following day to break the news and I made them feel a bit better when I told them about Chris fainting and spending the next 2 hours in casualty. Having a sense of humour is paramount!

I was booked in for Sentinel Lymph Node (SLN) surgery (more on that later) on 29th October but first had to have MRI scan on 15th October to determine the size of the tumour - this was my lowest moment being in the scanner face down with my boobs in baskets (hooked up to a machine with intravenous dye being injected) not knowing how big the tumour was ..... *blots out from memory*

I got the results of  the MRI the following week and was told it was very small - 13mm.  I was given the news, however, that due to the position of it and the size of my boob that I would have to have a mastectomy. I didn't care ... I just wanted this thing OUT of me - the sooner the better!  I was walking around for the next few weeks in a daze with a grey cloud above me. I went back to work in between all the various appointments but had to have the first week off after the initial diagnosis as I had trouble sleeping for some reason!

In the meantime I had a couple of appointments to see a plastic surgeon to discuss reconstruction at the same time as the op. I really didn't think there would be so many decisions to make. I thought it was just like shove in a bit of silicon and wham bam! I won't go into all the options of various body parts being used for reconstruction. It was even intimated that I "grow my own" i.e. if I put on a bit of weight on my tummy they could use that to make a new boob and get a tummy tuck at the same time! Bit drastic! However, I decided that I just wanted the silicon implant but I was told that it had to be expandable silicon as the skin needed to be stretched - this would be done over a period of months after the op by injecting a saline solution into a valve just under the breast, effectively pumping it up to match the other one.

The surgeon who was to perform my reconstruction after the breast surgeon had done "his bit" was absolutely gorgeous! When he wanted to examine me, I couldn't get 'em out fast enough for him - then Chris informed me that it was in fact the cleaner .... (not really!) - but I had a joke with my workmates about that!  I felt like I was in an episode of Nip Tuck as he got out his marker pen and drew all round my boobs with dotted lines. When I left to go home I asked if the ink came off easily as it was showing over my top I was wearing and I was going out that night! - he said it was indelible ink but said it with a wink.

I had the SLN biopsy on 29th (day surgery) had my boob injected with blue dye - I  was radioactive for a while ... I got the results of that the following week when I had some excellent news, it hadn't spread to my lymph nodes, so now I was just awaiting a date for the BIG op. Funny thing about the blue dye was that it turned your wee bright blue for a few days afterwards - it was like having a Blue bloc in the loo!  The operation is a fairly new procedure - your boob is injected with blue dye about 2 hours before the op and then once you're in the operating theatre the surgeon makes an incision under your arm and using a special machine it looks at which node the dye goes to (the Sentinel one) which is then removed and sometimes the nearby ones too. This is all sent off for testing, results due back in a week. Yet another wait for results! It was good news this time! Yay!

I had another few days off from work to recover as arm movement is very restricted after this type of surgery. I was told by my breast surgeon that they undertake to operate within 6 weeks. I had the phone call at work at 4pm on Thursday 19th November asking if I could come in on the Monday 23rd November - eeeek! I had to go in on the Friday for the usual pre-op assessment blood tests etc. So, I said my farewell to my work colleagues as I wouldn't see them until after Christmas. That afternoon was another blur ....

I had the usual pre-op blood tests etc on the Friday and was weighed when I realised that I had actually lost a stone in weight! - I was told not to lose any more and they also wondered why my blood pressure was so high - DERR!!!!

That weekend was a strange one - I was feeling extremely emotional anyway plus my mobile was red-hot with good luck texts from family and friends. I woke up Sunday morning with agonising toothache and rang the emergency dentist. When I told them my symptoms they said I wasn't classed as an "emergency" case. However, I told them I was due to have a mastectomy the following day and got very upset. The dentist that I spoke to was so compassionate. She said they would "move heaven and earth" to make me better and I was to go straightaway to Cambridge. I was in floods of tears by then. One of my good friends from work rang me whilst I was in the waiting room - I had to go outside to take the call and filled her in (excuse the pun!) with what had been happening - she had only phoned to wish me luck for the following day.  The dentist and her assistant were absolutely amazing. My tooth was drilled and a temporary filling done. All pain was gone - woo hoo! On the way home I received a lovely text from my friend who had rang me earlier to say that the good luck fairy she had bought me the previous day hadn't done her f***ing job. It was a really funny and poignant text which made Chris and I both cry.

Once I got home I rang the hospital to let them know the situation as I didn't know if the op could still go ahead. They told me to come in as scheduled at 7am.

After a fitful sleep and nil by mouth we arrived at the hospital. I recounted the story and was told a consultant would be round to see me. In the meantime, I met my gorgeous *swoon* plastic surgeon again and also the surgeon who was doing the mastectomy (Professor Wishart wasn't available). Both were undecided whether to go ahead with the op because of the filling I had had at the dentist as any infection in the body would go straight to the implant. After lots of waiting around and to-ing and fro-ing the top Consultant in the Plastic Surgery Department said that there was no way reconstruction could be done due to the high probability of the implant getting infected.  After Chris and I were left alone I finally decided to just have the mastectomy and have a reconstruction at a later date. They said I could have waited until my tooth had been sorted but I needed to get that nasty thing in my boob out of me!  It was by now around 2pm so I told Chris to go and get himself a coffee and something to eat as I still didn't know what time I was going down.  He had only just left when they came for me so I gave him a quick ring. Both of us were emotional by now and in a way I was pleased he didn't see me go off on the trolley as I think that would have been so much worse for him to see.

An hour and a half later I was back on the ward starving hungry! I had my little handbag with my 2 drains tucked inside which had to be carried around everywhere with me - nice!  I was really surprised that I wasn't in too much discomfort and only ended up taking painkillers for the first day then switched paracetamol. The day after the operation I was weighed by the nurses and blood pressure checked etc. and couldn't believe it when they said "you've lost weight".  Derr! You've just removed my boob! - how much did that weigh in at I wonder? 

My non-boob was all the colours of the rainbow when the bandage came off the following day.  I was allowed to go home on the Wednesday with just 1 drain which the District Nurse removed on the Friday.

Two weeks later we returned to the hospital to get the pathology result. Fantastic news! They had got it all and didn't recommend chemo or radiotherapy. I was prescribed Tamoxifen as the type of cancer I had was hormone receptive and sent on my way.  When we got out of the hospital Chris and I did a "Morecambe & Wise" jump!  I couldn't wait to ring my mum and sent texts to all the rest of my wonderful family and friends who have been absolutely amazing throughout the whole ordeal.

I feel absolutely fine apart from a few hot flushes due to Tamoxifen.

I take my chicken fillet round with me everywhere - in fact I tuck it into my specially made bra (safe a place as any!). Gets a bit hot and sweaty in the summer but hey ho!

I am only now thinking about reconstruction and will probably have it done next year now. I miss showing a bit of cleavage now and again but in the words of Arnie "I'll be back" !  I've had to re-think some of my wardrobe and have HAD to go shopping for new tops - any excuse!

I've met some lovely people along the way but I did make a special friend. She had the same type of cancer I had and we have become "bosom" pals. We were even talking about buying a pack of 2 nipples to share! I said I would post one off to her.

I discovered that having a sense of humour throughout all this helped my family and friends to deal with it and in turn, helped me. I remember joking with my sisters who were going out on their market stalls selling their jewellery in Cambridge during the freezing cold weather we had in December (whilst I was tucked up in the warm)  "make sure you wrap up warm, you'll freeze ya tits off". Ooops too late I already did!

I can now moan about people who used to "get on my tits" as getting on my tit now!

Hope this blog has helped raise awareness. So girls, please check yourselves every month (or ask someone to do it for you *wink*) and if there is ANYTHING at all you're not sure about, go and have it checked - remember, early diagnosis is the key.

And another thing ... visit the dentist regularly!

Wishing everyone reading this a healthy and happy year ahead.