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If I knew then... I found myself asking when I came across a couple of pictures of a 20-something me. Old photos of me are rare. Very few ever passed my neurotic, judgmental and unforgiving criteria (there’s one – yes only one – of a cute toddler and a solitary snap of a sulky teenager). The 20-something me has a bad 80s hair cut and oddly squinty eyes (hangover?), but I feel more kindly than embarrassed as I look back. When that picture was taken, so many things were about to change in my life and I had no idea.
One thing I didn’t know was that I was about to land the job of my dreams. At 27, I went to work at the London Times (Sunday edition). And one thing I now know is that I should have made more of it. I was a working-class kid from the north of England and felt self-conscious and awkward amongst people who I thought intrinsically belonged. Of course, I should have just chilled out and realized I was pretty good at my job instead of fretting that I obviously hadn’t been to the right boarding school. I was probably the only person on the paper that even cared. But it would take many years for me to shake off imposter syndrome.
The next thing that I couldn’t have anticipated was that I was soon to be afflicted by a potentially life-threatening virus. It took nearly three years of doggedly visiting doctors who told me the itching and discomfort were nothing to worry about. When I was eventually correctly diagnosed, it was with stage three cancer. Granted, not stage four but, as my father had died of cancer, I was very scared.
The specific cancer that I had was rare in someone of my age. It was rare at any age, but more common amongst women in their 50s and above. Hence, I was greeted with great excitement and curiosity by the medical community. I was also told that the only recourse was surgery and reconstructive surgery. Fortunately, I was journalist and trained not to take no for an answer. I did my research and with the help of my husband-to-be’s family, we found a doctor who zapped me with a laser. It took a few sessions and was terribly painful, but I came out of the process intact (and the cancer has never returned).
In general, cancers that used typically afflict older people have in the last 30 years become more common in younger people. There’s a growing body of opinion that the causes are “environmental” and may be due to the amount of carcinogenic chemicals we come into contact with, the diets of processed food with only sparse helpings of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables and so on.
I didn’t really think about this at the time though and it was many years before I cleaned up my diet and cleaned out my bathroom cabinet. I now believe that a holistic approach with as much fresh organic food and regular exercise is the key to good health. Then I researched skincare seriously when I started Truth In Aging and was appalled at the amount of harsh and even harmful things that I had been slathering all over my skin for decades.
As any regular reader knows, I am not a purist. If that eye cream is marred by the necessary evil of the preservative I’ll use it if it works. But I try to ensure that the good outweighs the bad and that the good is very good. If I’d known then what I know now, my skin would be amazing. But, hey, accumulating knowledge is what getting older is all about. As Carla Bruni said in a recent issue of Vanity Fair, “wrinkles without wisdom are boring.”
What would you tell your 20-something self with the wisdom you have now? I'd love to hear from you.