Article · Self-love · Women's issues

Why We Should Celebrate Every Day

An up close photograph of red, orange and blue balloons that have streamers of the same colour attached to them
It’s party time! “Red, Blue && Orange Balloons.” by Knar Bedian used under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s been a while since I realised that emotional well-being is quite a big deal and that I have some control over the flow of things when it comes to it. One of the most rewarding lessons I have learnt since then is to not only take every day as it comes, but to also thoroughly enjoy it.

Now, I can see it already how you could think that I am going to regurgitate the whole “seize the day!” cliché, and while you are partially correct, please hear me out.

Disclaimer: I know firsthand how dealing with a mental health condition makes it hard or impossible to give ourselves a hand up when we’re feeling down. This article does not aim to discredit that, and please do try to get professional help if you are struggling. The strategies I discuss here are what helped me during my lowest times before treatment, after seeking treatment, and still help me today. I hope there’s something here that can benefit everybody.

When going through rough or busy patches in our lives, actively seeking joy tends to take a backseat. We think that because we’re so busy problem solving, that joy is only warranted on special occasions — or at the very least when we’ve solved the problem(s) at hand.

It shouldn’t be this way. Our circumstances aren’t always in our hands, but to a significant extent, how we feel is. Delaying all joy isn’t just miserable and boring, but it also makes solving our problems harder and is a great catalyst to feeling burnt out. And really, how can we be our best selves if we aren’t energised by our own lives? We need our pick-me-ups and dangling carrots until we reach the finish line.

That’s why I think we need to celebrate, and as often as we can. We don’t need to throw daily, whole, one-person parties for ourselves (they’re probably a good idea once in a while, though) but we should acknowledge the good in our lives and treat ourselves by enjoying them as much as we can every day, and being thankful for them.

The special occasion is now, and you deserve to celebrate and feel celebrated now. And this can mean different things to different people, and can shift every day depending on what’s practicable. For me, sometimes it can mean taking the time to end my evening snuggled up in bed with hot chocolate and listening to my favourite poems, even if there’s a looming deadline. Other times it can mean dressing up even if I am staying at home the whole evening and not expecting anyone. Sometimes, my way of celebrating the moment can mean accepting an invite out during a weeknight. No deadline, solitude, nor weeknight can stop me from celebrating the moments I have; they are worth celebrating just because they exist.

When we treat every day like it’s a special occasion and embellish it with the things that make us smile, we feel happier and more worthy, and it becomes easier to deal with the hard times. I am so down with that.

What little things do you do to celebrate your life? Share them in the comments!

Article · Body image and body positivity · Body Positivity · Interviews · Self-love

Interview: Surviving Breast Cancer at 27

Breast cancer is an illness often associated with older women and although 8 out of 10 cases of breast cancer are those of women aged 50 and over, young women can also be affected. Lauren Bash, the vice-president of Fighting Pretty, a charity dedicated to helping women going through the illness to regain confidence and feel beautiful during or after their battle with it, speaks to me from across the pond about her own battle with the illness. The now healthy 30-year-old recalls what it was like to be diagnosed with breast cancer and having to fight it at the tender-age of 27, and talks about why she is now giving back.

A pink breast cancer ribbon painted against a black background made by paint but not fully covering the light-brown/beige surface (paper) on which it is painted
Owning it in pink.

“It felt like my world was crashing down around me,” Bash says, recalling the moment she received her diagnosis. A month earlier, Bash says that she felt a “pea-sized ball” on the lower left-side of her left breast but waited until she had her annual gynaecology appointment to address it with her doctor. The doctor sent her to get a sonogram which revealed a 10cm lump which spanned from her nipple to the wall of her chest.  At that stage, she says, the lump was still suspected to be benign. “They thought it was just Fibroadenoma,” she says.  Despite the doctor’s suspicions, an MRI was still ordered and was followed by a biopsy which revealed the result that changed her life. “I had DCIS in my left breast,” Bash says. Two days before her best-friend’s wedding and four months before her own, Bash’s diagnosis could not come at a more difficult time: “I had to give a speech [at her best-friend’s wedding] and act like nothing was wrong after finding out I had breast cancer at 27 years old.”

The diagnosis also brought back unease from the past for Bash.“I watched my mum suffer through her surgery just a few years earlier, but I never imagined at the time that I would have to endure what she did,” she says. Bash says that until this day, the shock of her diagnosis feels surreal.

The then young bride-to-be went on with her treatment which consisted of a bilateral mastectomy, and this did not come without its struggles. “My breasts were my prized possessions, so to lose them almost felt like losing an arm or a leg. They made me feel sexy and confident,” she says, “it is hard to face this at any age, but when you are 27 with hopes to start a family someday with your husband, it makes you question if you will ever have the self-confidence to do that.”  The big up-side, she says, is that she did not require chemo therapy or radiation and after having the mastectomy, her treatment was complete and she was declared cancer-free soon after. She was given the all-clear over 18 months ago.

Although breast cancer is no longer a part of Bash’s anatomy, being the vice-president of Fighting Pretty still makes it a big part of her life. She says that she felt that the only way she was going to get through the trauma the illness brought was if she helped other women who also went through or are going through the same thing: “by making other women feel strong, I was going to become stronger and be able to cope with what I had just been through.” She also says that meeting women who also went through the breast cancer is “very therapeutic”, and until this day she maintains ties with women she met who also survived the illness.

These days, Bash sees every day as a blessing and won’t let a day go by without making the most of it. “Sometimes it takes such a devastating experience to realise what a good life you have,” she says.  Bash also says that she isn’t going to let the way her body changed hold her back, and even though she has hang-ups sometimes, she strives to keep moving forward. “I survived by removing my breasts, and that’s all that matters,” she says, “I look at the scars that replaced them [her breasts], it reminds me of how strong I am and what a fighter I am.”   When feeling down, Bash says she she looks to what she calls her “support system” to bring her back up. Someone who she credits for sticking around throughout her battle is her husband: “my husband has supported everything I’ve done to survive and doesn’t physically look at me any differently.”

So if you’re a young woman and you think you have breast cancer symptoms, what do you do? Bash stressed that seeing a doctor ASAP is important and says: “if something doesn’t feel right, do something about it.  Don’t wait and see what happens.” And if you already have Breast cancer, Bash says that support is available: “know that you are not alone. There are support groups and resources out there for you.”

If you want to know more about Fighting Pretty or to contribute by sending a donation or a Pretty Package, or just want to know how to get in touch, visit: http://www.fightingpretty.org.

Article · Features

Feature: Britain’s Invisible Faces of HIV

According to the National Aids Trust (NAT), the number of children under-18 estimated to be living with HIV in the UK is around 1,200 and as treatments and awareness continue to improve, this number continues to see a decline. However, because silence persists about this invisible HIV-positive community, the stigma still remains. I investigate just what it is that is keeping paediatric HIV a silent taboo.

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Although it is true children make only a tiny proportion of those living with the virus in the UK, HIV can still be as – if not more – destructive  for them as it is for the most at-risk groups – men who have sex with men and heterosexual, UK-based Black Africans – to whom the majority of HIV-awareness campaigns are targeted. Darshan Baskaran, a cell biologist and PhD student researching HIV says: “the only thing I am aware of [in terms of differences between the effect of HIV in children and adults] is that the progression to Aids may be quicker in children because they have a young immune system.”

For children currently living with the virus in this country, the most likely way they contracted it was through mother-to-child transmission, according to Abi Carter, the participation officer of the Children’s HIV Association (CHIVA).

“Most of the children we work with were born in the 90s,” she says, and says that they don’t work with as many younger children in the organisation thanks to the relatively new introduction of routine testing of HIV in pregnant mothers which has kept mother-to-child transmission of the virus under control in recent years.  Carter adds that these days, only around one per cent of all babies born in a year to HIV-positive mothers will carry the virus.

But despite the reality that today you can don a red-ribbon in public without attracting scornful stares, at large, attitudes towards HIV and Aids and those affected by it are far from friendly. Ideas that HIV is a death sentence reserved for the promiscuous, poor and marginalised still cloud British society, and children are not exempt from these stigmas.

Although it is uncommon for children living with the virus to have contracted it sexually, many have been subject to bullying and mistreatment due to the idea that they may have contracted it that way: “we have lots of examples of young people whose statuses have been made public and they would be called ‘slags’,” Carter says.

Because many HIV-positive children are only told about their statuses when they are older, by the time they find out, Carter says, many of them would have already internalised the stigmas attached to the illness: “a lot of them are in complete denial, they don’t want to know that this has happened.” And the mothers of these children are not spared of this suffering either; they often end up shouldering the guilt that comes with both passing the virus onto their children – which may have happened unknowingly –  and not telling them at an early age that they have been infected.

Although charity organisations like CHIVA try to create safe spaces for children where stigma is curbed as much as possible, children cannot be completely sheltered from it. “We advocate that they [the children] are told from an early age about it [their HIV status]…we advocate that it’s always named,” Carter says. But she says that children are told that their status has to be kept a secret because of the stigma they could face: “a school contacted us when the HIV-status of a child became public; they were worried about the parents’ reaction.”

The misconceptions that Carter says some children and their parents have about interacting with HIV-positive people are the kind that HIV-awareness campaigns have tried to debunk time and time again. No, you can’t get HIV from sharing food with HIV-positive people, or from swimming with them, and you won’t get it from hugging or kissing them either.

But stigma and the inevitable bout of ignorance attached to it seem to not just be limited to people’s conversations. A 20-year-old Politics student who just goes by the name “Georgia” thinks that classes like her year seven sex-education class have had a part to play as well: “they taught us that it [HIV] was really easy to catch and that it would ruin our lives, and that we wouldn’t be able to live a normal life, which is completely untrue!”

She also says that she thinks that she and the other children probably left class that day with the idea that even being around someone HIV-positive would have somehow put them at risk of contracting the virus.  She later learned, however, that HIV was not the end-all she thought it was after talking to her mother, whose close friend was living with  the virus.

After that class, she says, the word “Aids” became an insult: “I remember after this [the class] there were a few of the popular boys who if they didn’t like something, they would say it was ‘Aids’, like, ‘the class is Aids’…it was just a big joke.” Georgia also says that at that time, the thought that children could contract HIV was unimaginable, unless they had been sexually-active. But now, she says, she knows that’s not true because she took it upon herself to do some research. “It should have been taught then,” she says.

So what exactly can be done to break the silence on paediatric HIV? And how can we help those who have been affected?  “Kids need to feel like they are not alone, like they’re not the only people in the country going through this,” says Carter. She also adds: “we need the people to raise awareness for themselves. The rates of HIV are increasing among the heterosexual White population.”

Georgia also thinks that awareness is key and says: “I think there needs to be a lot more awareness, especially about the fact that it is not just contracted sexually, and I think people need to know that it is no longer a death sentence.”

If you would like more information on CHIVA or paediatric HIV, visit their website  at: http://www.chiva.org.uk