Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bearded Lady

A while ago I was offered some advice by a fellow Lady of Advertising Who's Been Through Breast Cancer.

When your hair starts to return, you'll go through a period where your facial hair, or body hair, will just rocket in terms of how fast it grows.

I was articulate, as always. It was over a glass of wine, for goodness sake.

She laughed. And then started to tell me again.

Honestly, there was a point when I felt like I was worried it wouldn't stop. My facial hair was suddenly really noticeable, to me at least, and I worried it wouldn't calm down!

Did it calm down? I was suddenly all seriousness. And trying to remain serious while I scanned her upper lip and jawline for stubble marks.

Then recently I read this post by B, who seems to be expressing her own fears of becoming a bearded lady.

Seems like maybe this is a normal stage of post-radio, post-chemo hair regrowth. And my own experience is proving no exception. Suddnely, the back of my cheeks, where my jawline meets my hairline (now that I have one) are getting downier by the day.

I wondered whether it might also be exarcerbated by the cold weather - where I used to winter it out in England under the insulation of my long hair, I no longer have that privilege. So like an anorexic's extra thick arm hair compensating for a lack of fat to keep them warm, my downy cheeks are compensating for warmth from another source.

But whatever the reason lets hope it stops. And soon, too.

Or else I'll end up looking like the lady above.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

How does it feel?

85 Geysers and our shadows, originally uploaded by annemariew.

It's been eight days since radiotherapy ended.

So how are you? How does it feel?

I actually feel bloody great most of the time. But when I stop to think about what leftovers and after effects I can still point to, the list is longer than it feels:

1. A tender right boob. It's easing up but it still feels like a ripe fruit ready to burst.

2. A very sore nipple. My right nipple seems to be permanently alert. I hope it calms down or else I am destined for a lifetime of embarrassing moments in T-shirts. The pigmentation of my right nipple also looks very strange post-rads. The top layer of cells have peeled, so the main area is paler than it usually is, but with an extra dark pigmentation rimming it. I now remember seeing nipples like this in a book I was given by the breast surgeon right at the beginning of the process and assuming the strange looking nipples were down to some sort of reconstruction surgery. Yet it seems it's just a radiation nip-tan. Rather than a surgical nip-tuck.

3. Peeling skin. My armpit has calmed down, but the bottom side of my boob (the area that got 'boosted' for a week) is still peeling. Nice.

4. A square of radiation burn. It's fading but I can still see the reddish outline of the radiation area. Something I will be doing my best to hide from the sun in a couple of weeks time, or else I will be in real trouble.

5. Obviously, the lumpectomy scar and the lymph node partial excision scar should get a mention.

6. The hard nodule of my portocath under its own personal scar on the left side of my chest. Watching people squirm as I make them feel it is still my favourite party trick and ALMOST a good argument for keeping it in there...

7. My short short short yet growing hair.

8. The fact that while most of my armpit hair has been growing healthily (to my annoyance...) since I came off chemo, the bottom half of my right armpit hair patch just isn't there. This area fall within the radiotherapy zone, so it hasn't had a chance to grow yet. It's the weirdest thing, looking at a half-hairy armpit. That's side has been left hairy for the moment given the ban on using razors. I shall be breaking that soon. Beach holidays and hairy armpits they do not mix.

9. My right ankle is still prone to twinges and I'm still not really able to wear heels, three months on from falling down the stairs on a particularly mongy chemo day. I'm starting to break myself in gently with the odd outing in low heels - but I can't seem to take more than a couple of hours before my achilles starts to quake...

10. Back to hair regrowth. There's a certain area of my anatomy which is regrowing quite healthily, in most places. I just have a disturbing lack of regrowth in the MIDDLE of this zone. So all the bits that I spend time and energy 'dealing with' are going great guns but there's a bloody great big darien gap in the middle. I'm hoping that, in time, it will fill out. Otherwise I will be left with a bald patch for life, which is a very disturbing thought. I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that all that hair removal over the years has made the roots on the sides more resilient, and the poor roots in the centre have never been put under stress until chemo. Poor things - they didn't know what had hit them and they still don't believe it's safe to come out.

But I can jog up stairs; eat slightly out of date cheese and not spend the next 48 hours in pain; catch a regular cold and just snotter along with the rest of them without turning febrile; travel on the train without having to hold on with both hands and beg people with my eyes for their seats; have as much natural yoghurt as I like; book nights out with people without having to deliver a caveat of 'only if I feel ok'.

So the external tell-tale signs may still be there, but I'm feeling increasingly normal on the inside.

Friday, October 26, 2007

How fast is normal?

I've forgotten how fast life can move. I've been crawling through life at a snail's pace of late, for forgiveable reasons, but it's only when you get back up to speed you start to realise quite how slow you were going.

In the last 24 hours I've rattled out a massive tender document with no spelling mistakes and some pretty pictures. It's just been picked up by the courier company so this is the first chance I've had to breathe in that time.

After starting to work on the document yesterday lunchtimes (well, I started on Wednesday but that would not make for a neat 24 hr timeline), I worked til eight, raced home to wait for the Tesco's guy to deliver my food, got very hungry as I waited which led to giving in to pizza from the freezerm, did another hour's work, crashed in bed around 11.30, dragged myself up at 8 this morning, had a fight with someone on the way to work (since when did it become perfectly normal to start yelling at people through your car window... would the penis in his saab have done that to me as a pedestrian? Twat...), recommenced the bloody tender document, briefed the studio, sourced images, checked showreels, ordered DVDs, spoke to the boss, answered emails, wrote case studies, checked facts, phoned R every now and again to check Welsh phrases (don't ask), cycled to Leather Lane, met some friends for lunch, ate falafel, cycled back, more document work, sent couriers, copychecked pages, played a move of internet scrabble, organised a night out at a musical next week, collated printed copies of the document, briefed the binding, wrote a letter, exchanged emails about grand plans that might, might just make life a whole heap better, sorted some DVD covers, put everything in a great big jiffy bag, lovingly sealed it shut and thrust it into the sweaty waiting hands of a courier.

Two months ago, all of that could have easily have taken a week. We should have had longer to prep but the prospect didn't respond on a key question until Wednesday.

And the worst bit of it? I was due at my dermatologist's clinic at the hospital yesterday at 5pm for a procedure to remove the slightly dubious but increasingly hard to find mole on my right breast (radiotherapy shrunk it). I complete forgot about it. The first thing I heard of it was when she called my mobile at 5.15pm, politely wondering where I was.

And yes, I'm only operating at this speed because I can - my energy is returning - which in itself feels like a very good thing. But is this how I want to live my life? Not at this speed, no.

Not so fast that I forget to keep simple appointments.

But there are things I can do to slow down 'normal' and one of the many things accomplished today puts us one step closer to that. So hurrah for that.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Caught in the act

Tonight, out with friends, inevitably two of us end up visiting the Ladies together.

At one point, for no particular reason other than maybe I just haven't shown my tits to anyone all week (R is away, and radiotherapy is over: they have been hermitlike by comparison) I lift up my shirt and thumb open my bra to show her my burns from radiotherapy.

At this precise point someone walks in the door.

I'm red-faced, humiliated, stumbling through excuses and explanations that she doesn't even want to stay and hear.

What's more, when we get back out to the bar, it's clear that the woman who walked in on my display of flesh was sat at the table next to us. Through sheer coincidence, this table happened to know a guy we were with - professionally speaking. She was one of his clients. He is a barrister.

I just flashed my friend's client.

Oh joy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Gaping Void

I love spending an idle hour clicking through on interesting links and letting them lead me all over the place. Usually though I leave these session realising I have just wasted a full hour with nothing much to show for it.

This time round however I have discovered a gem.

In the course of work (yes, really) I was reading an ad planner's blog. Can't even remember who or what agency they were at, but essentially all planners blog. It is an unwritten rule of the modern advertising industry.

This one including an image which I liked, and nicked to use as my wallpaper of the week. You can see why I warmed to it:

Then, through an idle moment of link following and wild goose surfing, I saw another, similar cartoon and followed that to it's source - the blog by the original cartoonist, and ex-copywriter ex-NYer now working in the wine trade in SA.

His cartoons are brilliant. His insights are poignant, painful, honest and cynical, and always laugh out loud funny.

Go see.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The fall and rise of my hair

Here, in all it's glory, is the progress-report-in-pictures on my hair.

A topic of much discussion and consternation over recent months, you'll be glad to know I've kept the shots limited to chronicling the hair on my head.

The Beginning:

I was searching for a photo that would have been taken around the time of the tumour taking hold - unbeknownst to me of course. This shot is from our office Christmas Party in Dublin so it was mid-December 2006 (this year we're going to Barcelona - tumour free I hope). If I look a little out of it, blame the Guinness...

The Chop:

May 07 - The haircut to start me on my way. Post lumpectomy and pre-chemo. Short and practical, less actual length to lose when it goes. Now it's starting to grow again loads of people are telling me they preferred this haircut to my long hair. However, I'm think I'm a definitely died-in-the-wool long hair girl. Especially now I've been through losing it all. When I finally get my hair long again, it will be a sweet, sweet day.

Re-reading that last line makes me feel really vain. It's not vanity though, it's a part of your own self-image, which when removed, does start to pick at the seams of how you think of yourself. And maybe it's a little bit of vanity too, it cannot be denied.

The Bald Patch:

Three weeks after chemo one, watching it widen on a daily basis, it starts to go. I remember I felt ready for being bald. But I had not prepared myself for the physical act of losing it. That was far more difficult than I expected, and I can only compare it to when blood flows freshly from a cut and you feel physically shocked when you look at it. Hair loss on this scale is not natural, and the mind finds it hard to deal with. Especially when it gets so bad you have to hoover the bed every day.

The Shave:

Late May 2007. Giving in to the fast approaching reality of baldness, the irony of this shaven head is that it looked, for a little while, intentional. People who knew me but didn't know my recent diagnosis were not sure how to react. People who didn't know me assumed I was some left wing bohemian with lesbian tendences or a right wing skinhead. (It got worse - people who were under six and stupid shop assistants thought I was a man.)

The Plucky Chemo Victim Look:

This was taken in August 2007. I was at the lowest ebb physically speaking and it shows in my puffed up face and straggly baldness. It was about this point that I fell down the stairs, nearly breaking an ankle and appearing on national TV in the process. Not a good luck for the cameras.

The Alien:

September 2007. Playing around with the computer effects on Photo Booth, I get the Roswell alien makeover. Somehow, an altered form of reality seems far more attractive when chronicling your own freakishness.

The Fuzz:

Late September 2007 with baby chick fuzz emerging. I have hair, I have hair! Everyone I show it to is not as excited as me. Some people can't even see it, which is not very encouraging but reflects quite how finely tuned I have become to the inner workings of my scalp. To me, half a millimetre of fuzz feels almost like being Rapunzel.

The Second Coming:

Early October 2007. The hair is not discernibly longer, but it's gaining ground. My head looks darker and it feels thicker to the touch. Another 'batch' of hair has pushed through underneath the first layer of fuzz and the whiteness of my scalp is starting to get covered up.

Turning up the Volume:

Mid October 2007. Look at the light catching the rim of hair around my head. Rather than just having a 2-d patch on my scalp, you can actually see the volume. Admittedly it's only 7mm long or so, but every millimetre counts.

The Parting Shot:

Late October 2007. In this shot you can just about see that the hair is much thicker. It's over a cm long by my estimation (I am so close to using my desk ruler to certify this but that does just feel rather pathetic) and you can see how the hair pattern is beginning to emerge with a natural parting thing starting to happen at the front area. R ruffled my head the other day and was actually found to exclaim how long it's getting. And he usually just spends his time teasing me about how ginger (not true) / grey (too true) / curly (not sure yet) it is.

I've decided I'll do another hair update when I have my first haircut. I am sure that the power of charting my hair loss/growth is in displaying the shots together, not on intermittent posts. I'm thinking of formatting the whole thing as some sort of electronic flicker book...

But given the scary fact that hair grows at the rate of about half an inch a month, this may be a little while yet.

Here's another scary fact for you - My mother announced to me this weekend that she read somewhere that chemotherapy doses are worked out by establishing how much of that particular flavour poison it would take to kill you, and then only giving you 95% of it.

A fact that screams Daily Mail, so I'm not sure I believe it, but there were times when it felt very credible indeed.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hand Relief

This month has gone breast cancer mad as products vie for tie-ins with the whole pink ribbon thing...

Not that I wish to be critical. Every penny raised is undeniably worth it.

But do we have to raise money with a product actually called 'Hand Relief'?!

The start of Life After Breast Cancer

No more chemo, no more rads. No more lying on the radiation bench.

A few hours later, my last radiotherapy appointment behind me, and I feel miles better.

The emotional rollercoaster I've subjected R to over the last few days is showing itself for what it really is - the paranoid bleatings of someone who's life is slowly returning to normal and is freaking out when not everything immediately rights itself overnight.

I do believe some things will get back to normal. And some things will change forever. And one way or the other, they will work themselves out into a new everyday reality. I just hope I have the patience to deal with it with a little more dignity than I have done of late.

So everybody is asking me what happens now, medically speaking....

I have to see my oncologist at some point soon to check my recovery from the side effects of treatment.

I'm having my dodgy looking mole lopped off next Thursday to see if that is indeed a basal cell carcinoma.

I have to see the breast surgeon for another clinical and an ultrasound at some point soon to give me the formal all-clear.

And then, I hope, I will only get called back once a year, every April, for an annual mammogram to check for signs of reoccurrence.

So it's never really over, per se. But it is the start of life after breast cancer.

And that, for now, is enough for me.

Paranoia creeps

The trouble with having your fears proved right at some point in the past is that it ends up feeding your natural paranoia until it becomes all consuming.

This is true of health worries and more.

I had lunch recently with someone I know through work, who used to be a state nurse before she traded it in for a university place followed by a lifetime of advertising (she is officially the nicest person in advertising I know - maybe all advertisers should be made to do good work before joining the ego train and this world would be a better place, but I digress).

Anyway she compared it to the paranoia she would feel when her children were young. They had a rash - it could be meningitis. They had a cough - it was leukemia. The slightest ailment led her down the path of the "it's a one in a million chance but it could be.... (insert life threatening disease here)". For her, it was an intellectual paranoia. For me, it's more emotional. Any health issue takes me right back to the day of diagnosis with breast cancer and sends me spinning into freefall again. I'm not sure it will ever go away but maybe, just maybe, it will subside or I'll learn to be more flippant about it.

And as life is getting back to normal I find myself getting paranoid about other things. Whether to sign up to a 2 year mortgage or a 3 year mortgage leads me to questions about the future and my plans. Ideas for a photographic project and exhibition are welcomed by everyone I float them on but I'm left wondering whether I should focus on me and us first. Get back on track with the lives we had before this happened. I R & I had some great plans and they were hopelessly derailed. Now that we're emerging from the rubble we need to put some new ones in place. But what? And where? There are so many things left undone and in limbo since I got ill that we're now going through the sometimes painful process of trying to reassemble everything, reassessing what we want to do, and when we want to do it.

And in the meantime I am ridiculously insecure, seeking reassurance at every point, forcing compliments and pleasantries from people in the vain attempt at bolstering my self-esteem. And then the compliment rings hollow and I get paranoid about being paranoid (how's that for a self-fulfilling road to disaster?).

I miss, as one of my employers once tactfully described it, "being untroubled by self-doubt". Other people called it cocky, but I don't care. It got me through life without being wracked by worry.

So, off I cycle now to one last zap.

It's over.

But it's not yet done.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The death of the Mullet and feeling raw

No posts for a while so an apology is in order.

In reality, it's because life has been very busy. Which is kind of a good thing. It wears me out a little from time to time but it means things are returning to normal slowly and thats all good.

The weekend passed in a blur of activity. Apart from Friday night where I vetoed the badminton plans in favour of a bit of good old fashioned sitting on the sofa. I was wiped out from a long and busy week, so we vegged out in front of comedy on Friday and played badminton on saturday afternoon instead (three solid hours of it - so hardly a restful alternative but I learnt how to serve backhand and R learnt how to smash, so our beginner status is slowly being shaken out of us).

Saturday evening brought a friend's party - a fun affair - with a few faces I haven't seen since the friend's wedding back in May. The date of the wedding was almost exactlyt three weeks after my first chemo, when I felt relatively invincible about the whole thing, and while I still had most of my hair, it was around then it started rapidly falling out. It was strange to be talking to these people about everything in the past tense, looking back at the last five-six months and all that's happened, knowing that last time we met it was all ahead of me and I was sat in the same spot, pulling out my hair to demonstrate my quirky chemo side-effects. Weird.

As for my current hair, it's getting there. Slowly. The other day I wrapped a towel around my head when I got out of the shower - more out of habit than necessity - and left it on for too long by mistake. When I removed it, I noticed that a clump of hair on the side of my head was sticking out at a rakish angle. I smoothed it down. It sprang back up. I was overjoyed. I had hair which was long enough to stick out! Okay, so it's barely a centimetre long, but it felt good. Give it another month and I'll be able to stick a little wax in there to mess it up and it will finally start looking like an intentional haircut.

Sunday brought a chilled out day at home with some chores to catch up on, followed by meeting a friend in Hoxton for some food. R and I whiled away the cafe minutes waiting for said friend to turn up by spotting what we call Shoreditch Twats. Boys in uber-skinny jeans with asymmettical fringes. White girls with afros and stripey legwarmers. At least they've confined the fashion-conscious mullet to the scrapheap - time was, you couldn't walk within a mile of Brick Lane without bumping into one of them. Now they seem noticeable in their absence.

Monday? Work like a maniac, race home to give the bike to R so he can go out and keep an appointment for something, head over to play Badminton in Battersea. The next morning, I stand in front of the bathroom mirror before taking a shower and take the daily look at how my boob is doing.

It's still very red. And the area where the rash was emerging has calmed down, but is noticeably more freckly and pigmented than it's opposite number on my left hand side. Then, under my boob I see a small streak of what looks like grey dirt. Given I'm still plastering it in smears of aqueous cream twice daily and I got very sweaty at badminton last night I assume, amazed at my grunginess, that it's just a mix of sweaty creamy residue. I drag a finger across it to remove it.

It removes it alright and I'm left with a shiny pink new patch of skin. The grey mucky streak was simply the top layer of my epidermis and I've just inadvertently skinned myself. Bugger. I jump in the shower before I can do myself any more damage but show it to the breast nurse later that day when I'm being zapped. She gives me some strange gel pads to alleviate the rawness and try and prevent it from getting any worse.

The pads are clear, made of mainly water and agar jelly, and feel wonderfully cool when you first apply them. Unfortunately, they take a bit of practice. I was struggling to place it correctly on my boob in the office loo, and just as I pulled my bra down over the top to secure it, gravity took over and the gel pad fell with a splash into the loo. Thankfully they had given me two (and if anyone from work should be reading this rest assured that I did remove the offending gel pad from the loo with the loo brush and place it in the bin- we have a history of floods due to blocked loos and I don't wish to be blamed for it).

The best bit about the pads is the fact that you can refrigerate them with a drop or two of water to refresh their cooling properties. My lucky lucky boob, it's bliss. For about 10 seconds until my body warms up the pad again.

Last night the skin in my armpit started to show the strain as well. Tiny worms of skin are dropping off to reveal another patch of raw pink skin.

I'm starting to fall apart - but there are now only two treatments to go - so I just need to hold on and get through those and then within a week or two my skin should start to slowly heal.

And then? And then?

Then beckons a two week holiday on the beaches of South West India, my friend. Hurrah.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Spawning a monster

The idea I had for paying tribute to the people of this process is developing. The photography / portrait / exhibition thing.

Instead of talking about my emotional well being this morning, my counsellor and I spent 30 minutes discussing the logistics and intentions behind this project.

And we ended the session with a date in the diary for next week. I'm putting my proposed idea down on paper and coming in to meet the Customer Affairs guy for The Harley Street Clinic, the Marketing Manager for Macmillan, and my counsellor, so we can thrash out the idea together. Once I'm back in the office I bounce ideas off my Creative Director, who is well connected in the arts and photography world (and could be of some very real help in making this happen), and he's agreed to come with me to the meeting.

This is real. It could happen. Things are moving forward. They are gaining momentum.

The monster may yet live...

Forgiving the enemy within

My mood is up.

I feel like chanting down my radiotherapy appointments, as if they were some sort of New Year's Eve countdown to midnight.

Five-four-three-two-one to go! And those are only the 'booster' sessions which just focus on the immediate area of the original tumour site.

So the upper centre quadrant of my boob area will get a much deserved rest - it is now increasingly painful and visibly sore. The whole boob is squared off with the red tint of slowly burning skin, but the upper central area is now starting to come up in a prominent rash, especially noticeable immediately after zapping. This is starting to itch, and the aloe vera gel they give you does very little to counter this.

So today, lying back there on the bench, as the machine makes one last circle of my breast, I find myself reassuring my boob in my head.

It's the last time for the full beam. The last time.

Even so, my nipple feels it and complains (subject as it is to a double dose - it sits just where the beams cross).

Sharp, but still bearable pains stab me, somewhere inside my nipple. When I sit up from the bench, gravity takes its toll and nerves jangle inside my breast.

Last time, last time, I whisper in my head, placating the boob.

When I started this process my body had betrayed me. Overnight, my boob had become the enemy within. The bad apple.

I'd whip it out for all sorts of men and women in white coats but felt very differenly about it than I had done before.

Now radiotherapy has made the villain of the piece all vulnerable, it's brought out my protective instincts. I want to nurture the boob back to health. I find myself cradling it when driving or sitting at my desk.

It needs my support, in more ways than one.

Boob, you are forgiven. One one condition.

Never, never, never, EVER put me through this again.

I'm tough but fair.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Are we there yet?

I'm nearly at the end of my treatment.

It feels weird - not the anticpatory elation I was expecting. More the sort of feeling you get after a very very long journey, with delays and cancellations along the way, where you haven't slept in 36 hours and you're just on that last leg home, forcing your eyelids to stay open in case you miss your stop and knowing that when you get home, you won't have any energy left to open your post, or say hello to the cat, or even make yourself a cup of tea. Nope, you know that at the end of the whole, exhausting, journey, you'll simply be grateful to curl up in bed and sleep straight through the next day.

That's what it feels like.

And I may have only 3 blasts of radiation left on the whole breast, and a further 5 'booster' sessions left to go on the core lumpectomy area, but after that I need to get my portocath removed in a small surgical procedure, have a dodgy looking but ever-shrinking mole excised in another local anaesthetic procedure, and wait at least several weeks before the soreness and violently sunburnt looking boob of mine calms down. Plus they'll be wanting me to see my oncologist again, and the Breast Surgeon, and do scans. So even after the daily doses of radiation stop, I'll still be fiddling about with minor procedures and appointments.

In the meantime, I lurch from day to day with mounting exhaustion again. The highs of coming off chemo have been buttoned back down with the rigour of the radiotherapy schedule taking its toll and exacerbated by a shitty winter cold that I have picked up. Thank god I wasn't going through chemo during the winter months - half the office is snivelling and snottering with one thing or another.

So I'm asking my boss to borrow a couple of days holiday allowance from next year's batch so that we can go on holiday for two weeks instead of one. I figure I could make better use of the time off now than in the New Year - to properly recuperate.

And, quite frankly, we've spotted a deal to Kerela where it will cost us merely £20 more to stay an extra week. How's that for value for money?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Hollywood's not for me...

Last week I had a long chat with a friend of mine who lives in Turkey, in a small village where I once spent several months of my life exploring bad relationships and good kebabs. Bikinis are worn more frequently over there than they are in drizzly London, and as she was clearly driving when I called, I asked her what she was up to.

"I've just been for a Hollywood"

I searched my memory banks for when I lived over there. A Hollywood? Was it some sort of fast food joint? However good the kebabs were in the tiny village I called home for a while, we used to lust after the guilty pleasures of a McDonalds whenever we hit the big city down the coast. Maybe 'Hollywood' was some sort of home-grown Turkish McDonalds that I had conveniently erased from my memory over the years.

Nope, she was referring to a type of bikini wax. The type where it ALL comes off.

"You should get one - they're great" she said.

I pointed out that I had enjoyed the dubious benefits of an involuntary 'Hollywood' courtesy of chemo for the last five months. And what's more I really had not enjoyed it all that much.

Yes, there is a certain ease of upkeep. And possibly it could be argued to be more hygienic, not that I would like to think I was ever that unhygienic without it. But whatever the benefits are, I could not get used to not having any hair down there. It's been years since I looked like that and the juxtaposition of a 34 year old body with a pubic area that looks pre-pubescent is just too disturbing to put into words.

Now that the hair is no longer just growing back on my head, I no longer have to worry about this. But go get a bikini wax done specially to repeat the whole experience?

No thank you.

Something old, something new

Yesterday I did something old with something new.

I washed my hair with a newly purchased bottle of J&J's baby shampoo.

I haven't washed my hair for 5 months. Mainly because there wasn't any to wash.

When it was patchy and getting balder by the day I would simply put an extra big blob of facial cleanser into my hand and just wash my scalp along with my face. Then when it had pretty much all fallen out I just washed my face and sort of rinsed my head. Your hair is ultra sensitive, so using chemicals in your treatment of it is deemed foolhardy. Likewise the newly aired scalp actually went through a sort of cradle cap phase when it initially all fell out.

Then the hair started to grow. And I re-introduced the facial cleanser routine.

Then one night, probably after badminton, I ran my fingers through it (well, stroked my baby fuzziness) and smelt a faint dirty hair smell.

I've never been so over-joyed to smell a whiff of dirty hair.

(I had hair! There was enough of it to get smelly! Crack open the shampoo and lets party!)

So I had to do something about it. But chemically loaded standard shampoos are dangerous for new hair. Dying it is also a no-no.

The Pantene and the Tresemme bottles in my bathroom, gathering dust since early May, are redundant for now. So it's baby shampoo for me from now on.

No more tears, as they say...

Breast Gangsta

I've completely stolen this from another, and brilliant, blog about one woman's experience of breast cancer (thank you Bette) but this is how my blog would read if I was younger, blacker, and more of a rapper...

It's brilliant. It makes me so much more street than I ever could be.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Reality Check

Yesterday, after Radiotherapy at Harley Street, I made my way up to hilly Hampstead to the Royal Free hospital.

For the uninitiated, and non-Londonders, Harley Street is the preserve of private healthcare, with clinical facilities disguised as smart Georgian townhouses. The Royal Free is a large NHS-run hospital, funded by public money and a huge, sprawling, lino-floored, wide-corridored, teeming with all walks-of-life operation with rips in the seats and no magazines to read while you're waiting. Harley Street Clinic's waiting rooms are always full of Country Life magazines which still carry a portrait of some aristo's shiny young daughter, pearl necklace almost hidden beneath her cashmere cardigan, a tradition left over from the days of real debutantes.

I was in the non-private Royal Free to privately see a dermatoligist. So after 10 minutes of waiting in the public area, I decided to offer my healthcare authorisation codes to the guy manning the dermatology clinic's reception desk.

"Do you need these codes? They're from my healthcare provider and they are to cover any of the costs of today's appointment."

The guy looked blank and then the penny dropped.

"You're a private patient? If you're private you're in the wrong place. You need to go round the corner to the Lyndhurst Rooms and wait there."

Confused, I hoisted up my bags and coat and wandered round the corner and found a door marked 'The Lyndhurst Rooms'.

I walked in to a different world. The lighting changed from fluorescent tubes to soft, muted lighting. The walls were wallpapered in some shade of apricot. The chairs did not have rips in them. There were flowers in vases. There was a water cooler. And there were copies of Country Life in the magazine rack.

Isn't it bizarre that essentially all private medicine comes down to is a more comfortable environment to wait in? You see the same experts, get access to (mostly) the same drugs, but as long as you have a comfy chair, a water cooler, and subdued lighting, you're on private.

Having said all that, I picked up one of the few non-Country Life magazines I could find. It was an issue of Wallpaper magazine. I leafed through the features, looking at the uber-design freaks and style pieces with a mounting sense of unease. There was something not quite right about it. Then I saw the cover date. It was an issue of Wallpaper dated Oct 1997. It was ten years old! No wonder the magazine's styling looked slightly off.

So having been feeling guilty all morning for benefitting from my work private healthcare scheme, I suddenly felt slightly short-changed.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

All the names for God

I had mused, during my balder days, as to whether or not I should just give R a marker pen and get him to draw something on my head.

Preferably hair.

Then the other day, when waltzing out of the machine room and back through the waiting room, I see a woman waiting for her turn. She is completely bald but looks like she is wearing a flesh coloured skull cap with funky patterns all over it.

I focus properly and realise it's not a cap. It's her naked scalp, decorated with swirls and writing, in some sort of black ink. Surely not permanent marker pen?

I turn on my heel and march back towards her, plonking myself down in the seat next to her.

"Your head's fab, what is it? I mean, how did you do it?"

(I'm particularly articulate when impressed).

"It's a semi-permanent vegetable ink, like a henna tattoo."

"Cool" say I, "and what are all the symbols and words about?"

"It's all the names for God. I think we need as much help as we can get so we may as well ask him ten different ways."


When people bring up the G word I generally smile politely and back away gently, trying not to make any sudden movements. Talk of God makes me nervous because it usually leads to someone trying to persuade you there is one.

But this woman wasn't trying to convert me. She was simply sat there, bald as a coot, quietly challenging everyone's pre-conceptions about what she should look like. I myself remember ranting against the wig thing, feeling it would be weird to cover up my medical baldness and pretend everything was normal. And shaving my head in the early hair loss stages brought a feeling of control.

This woman is definitely in control. And if I saw her walking towards me, I'd know there was absolutely nothing normal about what she was going through.

Lets face it, whatever gets you through something like this earns its validity based entirely on results. If it works for her, then let her paint her head with religious symbols and names of deities.

At least it suits our modern multi-faith society...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Hair we go again

It's late. I can't come up with a better hair pun than that.

Just realised my hair has been growing since mid August and I have not yet posted an update pic. So here it is. The hair regrowth in sepia. Not because it has come out ginger, but because taking the shot in colour mode using the laptop camera means the flash bounce off my scalp is more noticeable and actually gives you an impression of less hair than there really is.

The sepia actually does the amount of hair I've got justice.

I know this sounds like I'm splitting hairs (ker-ching, hair pun no 2), but these things matter when you've been without it for so long.

I think it will be another couple of months until it looks like an intentional haircut, and a year before it's any kind of a decent length, but it's on it's way.

Everyone who has ever helped me get well

In the style of Tracey Emin's tent, here are all the people that ever helped me through this breast cancer malarkey. Medically speaking this is. I realise that if I widened the net to include non-medical help, I'd be here forever (thankfully). And I also realise the list below represents only those who I can put a face or a name to. There are many more behind the scenes.

But this, if I were to do it, would be the starting point for approaching the photography portrait project idea.

1. Dr Salim - My GP, who confirmed I wasn't imagining the lump and referred me to....
2. Professor Mokbel - Breast Surgeon extraordinaire
3. The radiologist - said to be one of the finest in the country, I now can't remember his name, but it was in the room with him where I first knew it had to be cancer. His tone of voice changed subtly and it clicked. Not sure whether I am grateful to him for this or not in retrospect.
4. Anne Anderson - Breast Care Nurse at the Princess Grace who I cried at for about two hours straight after diagnosis. And she let Rich eat her sandwiches.
5. Dr Alison Jones - My oncologist and downright decent, straight-talking, no-nonsense lady
6. Clare - My Breast Care Nurse at Harley Street. A stalwart of care and concern throughout the hideousness of chemo and beyond.
7. The Look Good Feel Better Ladies - Looking back this was a ridiculous time to attend the group that tried to show you how to LGFB when you've got no hair (I still had hair) but it was meeting other patients there that was so significant
8. Dr Aubrey Bristow - great surgeon, terrible conversationalist. Good thing we don't pay him for the latter, but I still get compliments on how neat my port scar is. Better be nice about him as he may yet be removing it, so he could still wreak som damage if he wanted to.
9. Kirsten Watkins - The oncology nurse who looked after me personally on all but one of my chemos. Lovely smiley kiwi lady.
10. All the other oncology nurses including the funny camp French guy, and the cuddly little Indonesian lady, and the laughing, bosomy black woman.
11. The quiet Asian doctor who gently took care of me when I had an inflamed oesophagus from the steroids (after chemo 1), and again when I contracted the throat infection (after chemo 2).
12. Rita, the practice nurse at my GP's surgery - who was responsible for gently administering the Neulasta injection after every chemo. She is also a great gossip and another shoulder to cry on. There's been a few...
13. The Macmillan reflexology therapists - one with mad black hair and one with mad red hair.
14. The paramedic on his bike who waltzed in with the cameras after I fell down the stairs. The one that called me "a fighter" on national TV.
15. The paramedics in the ambulance that took me to St Thomas's.
16. The A&E doctor at St Thomas's who saw me with my ankle. Unfortunately he's also the one responsible for making me believe, for almost 24 hrs, that I might have cancer of the ankle. However silly that seems now, it was hard to decide if this guy helped enough to warrant inclusion on the list. In the end he just made it, if only for making me realise that I have to get used to the panic that will accompany any little ailment from now on.
17. The female doctor on the ward in Weymouth Street who saw me at some ungodly hour for blood tests and x-rays when I contracted the chest infection after chemo 6.
18. Dr Kathryn Piggott - my radiotherapist and cut from the same cloth as Dr Jones. Razor sharp, down to earth, great woman.
19. Rosa at Macmillan – Rosa takes the bookings for all the therapy and manages everyone's time and involvement. She pesters you if you DON'T take up their offers of free stuff.
20. Maureen, the Macmillan Psychologist, who has listened to me for one hour already, and will probably listen for many more.
21. The rest of the gang at Macmillan. They are all lovely, warm women, most of whom do this just out of the goodness of their heart. I remember being slightly confused at the effusiveness with which one introduced herself to me when accompanying me from the LGFB group to Weymouth Street. It was early days for me and I had that Londoner internal mistrusting reaction of 'If you're not to be treating me, why are you so keen to get to know me?'. There seemed no need. Now I'm at the arse end of the process, I see what role they play and how important they are. I met that same woman again the other day, and to see a familiar face to greet in the corridor makes all the difference between a cold, clinical hospital experience and a place which feels more like you're visiting a friend's house, or walking down a corridor in the office.
22. Myriad Radiotherapy Nurses – Some of their names I know, some of them I don't. Bronwyn, Scott, Tiffany, the little blonde one, the slighter more mature one that was excited about going to eat at The Fat Duck in Bray on Friday, the strawberry blonde who has a birthday one day after mine, and so on.
23. The Pharmacist at Harley Street - I never previously gave Pharmacists much credit for their work with patients but being at the receiving end of a LOT of drugs this summer, I now realise how vital their role is. Sometimes specialists would make mistakes and leave out certain prescriptions but a chat with this lady soon sorted it all out. And she's another corridor face that greets me to help it feel a more familiar place.
24. The reception team at Harley Street. They've covered for me when I've had to store my bike in the corridor when I've forgotten my keys, and they knew me by name after just a few appointments. And one of them came and found me at 7.45am one morning when I was sitting in the wrong waiting room wondering where everyone was. No mean feat considering it was up several flights of stairs and he was the only one on duty down there at the time.

There are more, and I've bound to have forgotten some vital contributor to what has been a long and gruelling process. But this is a start to going some way to recognising the help I've had, and the help they also give to thousands of other women, and very occasionally, a few unfortunate men as well.