Yvette Cowles

Writer, Performer, Speaker and Dance Teacher

Fun, Friendships And A Fulfilling Life

In Bronnie Ware’s excellent book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (published by Hay House), she says that the regret that topped the list of those nearing the end of their life is ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

How many of us stick at doing something we don’t enjoy because we can’t imagine being able to afford not to, or because we’ve become so demoralised in our current job that we don’t have the confidence to look elsewhere, or because we’re waiting to pay off the mortgage/be made redundant/retire? Rather than follow our heart, we play safe.

Life is short and time is precious.  When you have a potentially life-limiting illness you are only too aware of that.  As Ware, a former nurse in palliative care, points out ‘Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.‘ ‘But health isn’t the only factor; redundancy, bereavement, divorce and other circumstances can also shake the foundations of our very existence, force us to reassess our lives and bring about major changes. But why wait for a crisis to reappraise your life?

Last weekend I met up with Fiona McIntosh, a friend and former colleague of mine from my days at HarperCollins Publishers, whom I haven’t seen for several years. In that time circumstances have led to dramatic changes in both our lives: Fiona, a former Publicity Director, has retrained as a Pilates practitioner and now runs the Santosha Studio in Chippenham, while I have swapped book marketing for dance teaching, writing and performing.  Change has not always been easy, but we are both a million times happier now than in our former lives because we are doing something that we love, motivated by a desire to use our experiences and skills to help others.

Fiona had invited me to teach a Dance Yourself Happy workshop at the studio and it was great fun.  We danced, we laughed, we sang – what could be better?   I took an excellent class with Fiona too and spent a great evening catching up with her and her bloke, Andrew.  Fiona and I discovered that we have even more in common now than we did back in our HarperCollins days.  Roll on our next get-together!

Having a laugh and Dancing Ourselves Happy at the Santosha Studio

Having a laugh and Dancing Ourselves Happy at the Santosha Studio

Talking of reunions, on the Sunday I taught a belly dance workshop to the Sahara Sisters, a super-friendly and committed group of local dancers, whom I used to teach quite regularly when I lived in Stroud.   I haven’t been back since I moved to London. So it was lovely to stay and catch up with the group’s leader, Rachel Terry, who now runs The Citadel Hall, the Sisters’ impressive new home (as well as a successful venue for many other activities and events).  During the class we worked hard on a Mahmoud Reda inspired choreography but still had plenty of time for a laugh and a chinwag too. It was lovely to be back.

Post workshop posing with the Sahara Sisters

Post workshop posing with the Sahara Sisters

Continuing my sojourn in the South West, I then went to visit my very good friends,  Jo Wise and John Gosler,  who have recently relocated to Bristol.  It was my first visit and I’ve really missed them.  The move has been a huge adjustment after a lifetime spent in London, and not without its challenges, but it also brings with it a lovely house, a new city to explore and exciting new  opportunities.

According to Bronnie Ware, another Top Five regret is ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’  Talking about the people she had looked after in their final days, she says that ‘many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved.’  

I certainly don’t intend to make that mistake!  This weekend I’m off to Leicester for  Gothla UKEurope’s premier festival of Gothic Belly Dance, to teach, perform, take classes – and reconnect with some more old friends.  No one knows the value of friends more than I  do; my belly dance buddies have kept me sane (well, almost) through the darkest and most difficult of times. And I hope that they would say the same of me. As the old saying goes ‘To have a friend and to be a friend is what makes life worthwhile.’

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I Can See Clearly Now The Rain Is Gone

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Sounds rather optimistic, doesn’t it?  Life seems anything but clear at the moment, and as for the rain, well, it may be July but so far there hasn’t been much evidence of it making way for some much-needed sunshine.

However, ‘Yr wyf yn obeithiol’ – I am an optimist.  Summer is on its way. And I look forward to Wales pulling off a historic win against Portugal tonight.  No doubt everyone in the ‘Sing With Us’ cancer choir I have joined will be rooting for them too, not least because Tenovus Cancer Care, the world-leading charity behind the  project, is very proud of its Welsh roots.  They’ve been offering #TogetherStronger wristbands for a suggested donation of £1 – a great way of helping cancer patients and their loved ones while showing support for the Welsh team.  What’s more, Tenovus is receiving 50% of the profits from the Manic Street Preachers’ Euro 2016 Welsh anthem.

Tenovus flyer

My involvement is as a cancer patient at the Royal Marsden Hospital.  Tenovus has joined forces with the Marsden and the Centre for Performance Science (a partnership between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music)  to run the ‘Sing With Us’ research project, which looks at how singing in choirs can affect mental health, wellbeing, quality of life and social support in people who are affected by cancer.

We had our first get-together last Wednesday.  Around 40 carers, patients and hospital staff all assembled in St Luke’s Church Hall in Chelsea.  Few of us knew much about singing.  (My last experience of a choir was singing The Dream of Gerontius  as a member of the St Albans High School Choral Society when I was 16 so it’s fair to say that I am more than a little rusty.)

However, this choir is designed to be inclusive. Not sure whether you’re a soprano or alto?  Then sit somewhere in the middle so you can pick and choose. Don’t know how to read music?  No matter, they have colour-coded sheets and an online resource where you can listen to each part individually. Not confident that you can hold a tune?  It really doesn’t matter.  The aim is get together, forget your problems and sing uplifting songs such as ‘I Can See Clearly Now’.  And thanks to the skill, encouragement and enthusiasm of choir leader, Nina Lainville-Richardson,  we were singing  three-part harmonies by the end of the first session!

Apparently, recent research conducted by Tenovus and the Royal College of Music found that ‘singing in a choir for just one hour boosts levels of immune proteins in people affected by cancer, reduces stress levels and improves mood, which in turn could have a positive impact on overall health.’

I regular blog about the ways in which dance is good for you.  There are people in choirs up and down the country who will testify to the benefits of singing. Getting together to sing and/or dance seems to me to be a great recipe for a happy and healthy life.  Aside from the health benefits, both dance classes and choirs provide a great way of combatting loneliness, a problem that, according to the Mental Health Foundation affects 1 in 10 of us.  I hope that the research project that I’m involved in will provide further evidence of this and lead to more people reaping the benefits.  And why not?  Yr wyf yn obeithiol!

The Big C & Me – final episode tonight

Tonight is the last episode of The Big C & Me, the BBC1 series that charts the lives of nine people with cancer from that life-changing moment of diagnosis, through treatment and life at home, to whatever lies beyond. Combining observational film-making and fixed-rig cameras in hospitals, The Big C & Me enters the world of the cancer patient in 2016.  This final episode follows the stories of  Katy, Mark and Steve, and as with the previous programmes is both heartbreaking and uplifting.  Essential viewing.

The previous two episodes are still available on iPlayer.

The Open University has compiled a range of very helpful resources on cancer care.  Click here to order your free booklet.

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Celebrating the End of an Era at the Rosie

The Changing of the Guard at the Rosie

The Changing of the Guard at the Rosie

Yesterday I went to the Rosemary Branch in Islington for a very special occasion; an ‘Epic End of Era’ party for Cecilia Darker and Cleo Sylvestre, the two charismatic and creative grandes dames who founded that little jewel of a theatre 20 years ago.

In that time they have put on a vast array of different productions – plays, monologues, musical theatre, opera, pantos and so much more – and really supported and championed artists, performers and directors, whether starting out or seasoned professionals.  They embraced every project with unrivalled warmth, passion and commitment. Certainly there would have been no Sequins On My Balcony without them.

When I started working on my one woman show (about the trials and triumphs of a breast-free belly dancer) I was a performance rookie.  It’s true that I’d been performing belly dance for a number of years, but beyond that and the ordeal of regular elocution exams in an effort to cure a childhood stammer, I had zero experience.  Nada, niente, bugger all. This was immediately obvious to Peta Lily, a hugely talented performer and director, who – probably in a moment of weakness – had agreed to work with me.  The fact that she managed to knock me into shape is a real testament to her skills and prowess.  I remember her once asking me ‘Yvette, do you think you could manage to walk across the stage and talk at the same time?’ Not without huge difficulty, it seemed. But thanks to my determination to master every challenge she flung my way and her refusal to give up on me, we got there in the end.

I was developing the show with the vague idea of performing it sometime in the future.  Friends asking me when to expect the ‘world premiere’ were quickly told  ‘Oh, not for a while yet. There’s still so much work to be done!’  The idea of actually showing it to anybody was way too terrifying. I would probably still be fobbing them off had a good friend of mine not decided to take matters into her own hands and book a date at the Rosie for my scratch performance. I nearly passed out when she told me (and that hadn’t happened since my second cancer diagnosis).

Whatever my own anxieties and self-doubt, Cec and Cleo never doubted me.  They really nurtured and supported me through the whole event, offering encouragement, advice, free rehearsal space  – and cake. Together with Bryony Thompson, their  super-capable theatre manager who could turn her hand to anything, they couldn’t have made it easier for me.  Thanks to the three of them, that initial performance was one of the best experiences of my life, not to mention the springboard to an exciting new chapter.

Now, after 20 years, a new chapter is beginning for them. They are passing on the baton to Scarlett and Genevieve of Unattended Items and will now be free to relax, holiday, pursue different interests and focus on new projects.  I can’t wait to see what unfolds. Their future plans are bound be to be as fun, entertaining and full of sparkle as they are.

In the meantime, thank you so much, Cec and Cleo, for 20 years of fabulousness.

Talking About Cancer: Free Online Course

Yellow roses - the perfect way to lift spirits and wish someone good health & well-being

Yellow roses – the perfect way to lift spirits and wish someone good health & well-being

A number of people have been in touch since the screening of BBC1’s The Big C & Me.  Some have cancer themselves, some are caring for people with cancer and others don’t have any direct experience but are aware of friends and acquaintances going through treatment.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, it is not easy to know what to say.  You may be worried about saying the wrong thing.  It may make you feel awkward.  So I was delighted to find out about this new online course available from www.futurelearn.com led by experts and Cancer Awareness Trainers from Cancer Research UK. I have just signed up for the three week course.  If you want to feel more confident and informed about the subject you might be interested in doing the same.

After all, as the course synopsis points out:

1 in 2 people will develop cancer in their lifetime, and at Cancer Research UK we think it’s essential to get people talking about the disease. This course will give you the tips, tools and confidence to have simple, effective conversations that could help save lives.

It’s free and requires only 1 hour per week.  So why not join me?

Click here to enrol.

 

 

 

Why 25% of People with Cancer Don’t Exercise

On BBC Breakfast this morning they announced that, according to a recent survey carried out by Macmillan Cancer Support25% of people with cancer don’t exercise, even though there are proven health benefits for doing so.

A spokesperson for the charity said that often this was due to feelings of low self-esteem and body image following surgical procedures such as mastectomies.

I think that is such a shame.  As anyone who has read my blog before will know,  I passionately believe in the healing power of dance; I’m living proof of the difference it can make to your physical and emotional wellbeing.  Belly dance has really been a life saver for me over the years; it is restored my confidence and self-worth, reconnected me with my body when I felt ugly and disfigured – and helped me to regain mobility after breast surgery.  I can honestly say that I am more comfortable in my body now after a double mastectomy than I was before I was first diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago, and that I put down to dancing.

It is because I know from personal experience how life-changing dance can be, that the weekly Dance Yourself Happy classes that I run at Cancerkin with cancer patients are so important to me.

The classes combine a wide range of dance and music styles such as belly dance, African, Indian, seventies disco and anything else uplifting, with laughter yoga.  We dance and laugh and support each other.  It’s certainly the highlight of my week.

This brief clip will give you a flavour:

In this clip some of the wonderful women who attend my Dance Yourself Happy classes at Cancerkin Breast Cancer Charity in North London, share their feelings about what dance means to them:

According to Janette, ‘I used to be very fearful because of everything I’d been through, but since I’ve come to the dance class I’ve got my confidence back. Now I go out there and tell others ‘You’ve got to live!’  

Sara says ‘When I opened the door to your class I reopened the door in my life to happiness and to movement and music.’ 

How lovely is that?   So  many of us close doors in our lives when we undergo trauma and loss. But unlocking those doors or opening new ones can bring back joy into our lives and lead to exciting new possibilities.

Cancer leaves you bruised and battered, both physically and emotionally.  But dance – and movement of any kind – can really help on the road to recovery. There are centres such as Cancerkin, Maggies and The Haven which offer dance and exercise classes specifically aimed at people living with or recovering from cancer in a safe and friendly environment.  Dancing around your living room can be enjoyable and liberating  – I do it a lot! – but dancing with others can foster friendships, build a sense of community and remind you that you are not alone. It’s fun! Sometimes you just need to dare to take that first step.  Who knows where it might take you?

Noel Edmonds, Cancer and Foot in Mouth Syndrome

silence imageWhat shouldn’t you say to someone with cancer? Since the subject arose in the Victoria Derbyshire interview about The Big C & Me, I’ve been giving the matter a great deal of thought. I was busy compiling my ‘Top 10 Unhelpful or Idiotic Remarks’ when Noel Edmonds provided a comment that definitely merits inclusion.

If you don’t know the story, here it is in a nutshell:

  • Edmonds promotes a £2,315 electromagnetic field interface box which he claims ‘tackles cancer’.
  • Cancer sufferer tweets his scepticism about its effectiveness.
  • Edmonds tweets in response ‘Scientific fact – disease is called by negative energy. Is it possible your ill health is caused by your negative attitude?’
  • Twitter goes crazy and Edmonds comes in for a social media roasting.

Now I don’t know whether or not this particular device – which uses low intensity and frequency pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMF) – is beneficial in the treatment of cancer. According to an official statement issued by the company in the wake of the Edmonds debacle, they don’t know for sure either:

Although research using very low frequency and intensity PEMF to help address cancer has produced some promising early results, it is currently in the very early stages and EMPpad does not make the claim that PEMF therapy can prevent cancer.

When you have cancer you will try anything that you think might work. I’ve lost count of how many therapies I’ve tried. Some have been very effective in treating the side-effects of my cancer and benefitted me physically and/or emotionally; none has cured it. But I keep an open mind. Likewise, most of the time I am quite positive and upbeat. I am grateful for the life I lead and certainly don’t have a ‘negative’ attitude to life. Nonetheless, in spite of my best efforts, Cedric the squatter is still in the house.

You really must be careful how you address people who have serious or life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. We are vulnerable. The last thing we need is a public figure like Noel Edmonds suggesting that we, and our ‘negative attitude’, have caused our cancer. It’s far too simplistic, and frankly, it’s insulting. Too many of us already feel shame and see our illness as a sign of weakness. We certainly don’t need anyone else piling on the guilt! Of course, we need to take responsibility for our general health and wellbeing. But, when it comes to cancer, there can be many factors that come into play: age, diet, lifestyle, low immunity, genetic predisposition, occupational and environmental factors, to name but a few. Many, including myself, think that psychological stress and trauma can be a trigger, although the jury’s out as far as the medical profession is concerned. But the fact remains that some factors we can influence, others we cannot.

So Mr Edmonds, if you don’t want to go the way of Mr Blobby and the Crinkley Bottom theme parks, please take note of the wave of criticism levelled at you, get your facts straight and think more carefully before you tweet or pontificate on the subject of cancer. Deal or no deal?

4 Reasons Why The Big C & Me Is Must See TV

Another day, another trip to the Marsden

Another day, another trip to the Marsden

Yesterday was my first visit to the Royal Marsden Hospital since the first programme in the 3-part BBC1 series The Big C & Me was screened. I felt the usual sense of trepidation when I’m getting scan results – it’s when my cancer, aka Cedric the squatter, is particularly vocal and I struggle to shut him up.  Fortunately, everything was stable; panic over for the next couple of months and Cedric shoved back under the stairs.

During the course of a typically long day a number of fellow patients and members of the medical team approached me and shared their thoughts about the programme. It was clear that, although sometimes uncomfortable viewing for them, they also found it honest, thought provoking and powerful.

If you haven’t watched it yet I urge you to do so if you fall into any of the following categories:

1)  Cancer Patient

As a cancer patient, The Big C & Me makes you realise you are not alone. For most people the initial reaction to a cancer diagnosis is ‘Oh God, I’m going to die’ or ‘How long have I got?’ You feel very frightened and isolated; it’s a normal reaction. But as conversations between patients show, once you get beyond that devastating blow to the solar plexus, you find your own way of dealing with it. And it is about finding your own way. We are all individuals, with different concerns, personal circumstances and beliefs, and we each handle cancer in the best way we can. No heroics, no bravery; we just get on with it. After all, the alternative is even less appealing.

I met a lovely woman in Outpatients yesterday, who like me has (as yet) incurable cancer. She found the programme reassuring and said that my story gave her hope. She was heartened by the fact that the drug trial I am on appears to be working and was hoping to be offered something similar. And if that wasn’t an option, as my consultant put it, ‘there are plenty more things left in the cupboard’.  ‘Incurable’ doesn’t mean ‘untreatable’.

Already 50% of us survive for at least 10 years after a cancer diagnosis. As more is discovered about the disease and more breakthroughs are being made, this figure will rise. Here in the UK we are extremely fortunate to have a National Health Service (NHS) and to benefit from the latest research, access to information and support and early diagnosis. I do a lot of fundraising for Just Because, a UK-registered charity that supports women with cancer in Egypt, and because of the culture of fear and prejudice surrounding the disease, many women there are not diagnosed until the cancer is already advanced, often with tragic consequences. So, in very many ways, we have a lot to be thankful for.

2)  Health Professional

If you work in the medical profession the series gives you an invaluable insight into what happens to patients in their daily lives. We may have a life-threatening or chronic medical condition but we are people first and foremost, a fact easily overlooked if you are an overstretched healthcare provider, with a waiting room full of patients and impossible targets to meet.

What’s more, patients are not always easy to deal with. We get irritable and tetchy – mainly because we’re feeling crap and/or we’re scared shitless. (Our relatives can be even worse, complaining and making a scene because in every other way they feel utterly helpless.) Or – and this is a personal favourite of mine – we hold it together spectacularly well at the hospital  –  and then fall apart at home. I’ve become so adept at putting on a brave face that one of the research nurses yesterday told me that she cried when she saw my mini-meltdown on TV. She had no idea that I felt that low.

But, as the programme illustrates so vividly, dear HP, in general you do a brilliant job, and when you do show us kindness and understanding, it can make the whole terrifying experience a million times more bearable.

3) Someone Supporting a Cancer Patient

If you are supporting a loved one through cancer it will help you to understand what we are going through and how you can help.

One woman I met yesterday who was undergoing chemo said that she had instructed her sons to watch it as prior to that they refused to talk to her about it. Afterwards, she felt able to start that conversation with them and talk through their fears and make them understand hers.

It’s heart-breaking to see someone you love suffering and in pain. (I know it only too well, having supported friends and family members, including my mother, through cancer.) But we need you to stay strong. As a patient having chemo at The Christie mentioned in last week’s programme, you don’t want your best friends blubbing on you; after all, you’re the one with cancer. You don’t want them feeling sorry for you, wringing their hands and saying how unfair life is. You want people to treat you the same as they always did, to have a laugh with you and maintain a sense of normality when everything else seems to be spiralling out of control. (In my case my mum and my fellow belly dancers fulfilled that role brilliantly.)

 4) Someone Not Directly Affected by Cancer

If you are fortunate enough not to be one of the 2.5million of us directly affected by cancer then the series will be a real eye-opener into the day-to-day realities of living with the disease. Don’t speak in hushed tones around us or, worse still, give us a wide berth; just try and put yourselves in our shoes. It’s OK to say that you feel helpless and don’t know what to say but it isn’t OK to bombard us with stories of other people’s cancer experiences, nor offer your own theories as to why we brought cancer on ourselves. You may think that ‘cancer is nature’s way of controlling the population’ but please keep that opinion to yourself; believe me, we really don’t want to know! If in doubt, just keep quiet and become a good listener.

The Big C & Me continues tonight at 9pm on BBC1, when June, Phoebe and Mikey share their cancer stories.

Part 1, following Dominic, Sally and myself is still available on BBC iPlayer.

Confessions of a Self-Help Junkie

As I mentioned in the documentary The Big C & Me, I believe in taking a holistic approach to health and wellbeing.  At its best the NHS is brilliant –  after all, it has kept me alive for the past 20 years – but given the limited manpower and resources, inevitably it focuses on the medical condition rather than the whole person.

I have benefitted enormously over the years from complementary therapies, from acupuncture and shiatsu to aromatherapy and spiritual healing. But I have sometimes taken this enthusiasm to extremes.  After Cancer No 3, when the disease spread to the lymph nodes, bones and lungs, I launched into a self-help frenzy, trying out every therapy imaginable almost simultaneously. This made me even more exhausted and frazzled – hardly the outcome I was after.  So I concluded that I should ease up a bit and focus on what I loved best – belly dancing.  And I’ve never looked back. For me dance is the ultimate medicine for mind, body and soul.

In this clip from my one woman show, Sequins On My Balcony, filmed at the Rosemary Branch last year, I share my cautionary tale…

As you can tell,  I’m passionate about belly dance because it has so many physical and emotional benefits and brings me such joy. Why not try it for yourself? Visit learntobellydancer.org for a teacher in your area.

Don’t Diss the Dance!

A number of people have asked me what on earth I see in belly dance. And, on the face of it, teaching and performing belly dance is not an obvious career choice for a shy middle class girl from North London with a degree in modern languages and promising career in publishing.  But then people do have strange preconceptions of belly dance; I did myself until I received my initiation in  France.

Most people are introduced to it through film – inevitably the dancer is either a femme fatale or harem girl – or the entertainment in their local Turkish restaurant.  I can assure you that neither represents the reality for most dancers.

I was fortunate enough that my first close encounter was while teaching as an English assistant in a secondary school in France.  Many of the students were of North African origin and three girls in particular would regularly invite me back to theirs for mint tea and cake.   When we’d finished stuffing our faces, these girls would put on some music and get up and dance for each other. The others would clap and zaghreet and we would spend hours dancing for the sheer joy of it. It was that sense of sharing and sisterhood that was the key to its appeal.  And that ignited a passion that has never left me.  The movements feel so good to do and can be done by women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Plus you also get to dance in extravagant, jewel-encrusted and sequinned creations that you  probably wouldn’t  wear in daily life.  What’s not to love?

Of course, what starts out as a mere hobby can become an obsession and then even a career. And that doesn’t always go down very well with our nearest and dearest.  But, as you’ll see from this extract from my one woman show, Sequins On My Balcony – which tells the story of how belly dance has helped me through a fair number of trials and tribulations –  it’s a foolish man who tries to come between a belly dancer and her belly dance!  (NB I have to confess that  several inflatable men were harmed in the filming of this video.  Sadly, they are prone to deflation at inopportune moments and clearly not built to last.)

If you do fancy giving belly dance a whirl, why not try out a class in your local area.  Visit learntobellydance.org for details.

 

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