This week has seen plenty more pre-bedtime freakery, and all of my own making. The other night, when rolling on my lavender pulse-point stick (I kid you not), I was examining my face in the mirror and discovered some blackheads on my cheek. Nothing unusual, right? But I somehow convinced myself that they were a sign that my cancer had spread, and that I now had it in my face, too (is there such a thing as face cancer?). I've been warned to expect this kind of paranoia and I can't ever see it improving (my GP is going to be sick of the sight of me, and she'll bloody well have to lump it) but worrying that blackheads = cancer is bordering on the ludicrous. I can see that now, of course, but at the time I managed to whip myself into a panicked frenzy that resulted in P having to lift me away from the mirror and physically put me in bed with tight sheets tucked around me like a mental patient.
Then last night, while changing into my pyjamas, I caught sight of my mutilated boob and balding head in the mirror and, boy, did it ruin my mood (not to mention my carefully choreographed pre-bed routine). While I allow myself the occasional sob about it, I try not to get too bogged down with fretting about the way I look. There's not a damn thing I can do about it, after all. But last night I really let it get me down, and revealed to P how unattractive, freakish and undesired I felt. What I hadn't bargained for – and couldn't understand – was my comment hurting P's feelings, and him taking it so personally. And so, in my grumpy tiredness, I got the hump about it and stormed off to hide under the duvet, ignoring the one piece of marriage advice my Dad offered us in his speech at our wedding: never go to bed on a bad word.
Dad's right, of course (I don't call him Yoda for nothing). Rather than discussing why P was upset by me revealing how hideous I felt, I instead got angrier and angrier as I lay alone in bed. Why the hell should it upset him? I'm the one suffering here – he looks as handsome as ever while I'm busy being beaten with the ugly stick. But of course it upsets him, and not just because I don't look like I used to. Let's just reverse the roles for a minute: if this were me watching P go through this, it'd be equally difficult for me to see him suffer from the physical effects as it would be to stand by, helpless, as he takes such a massive hit to his confidence and self esteem. This whole experience can be so isolating sometimes that you forget it's affecting other people too, and rowing with your husband is a horribly harsh way to be reminded that you're not alone. But it's better to be angry together while cuddling in bed than it is to be angry in separate rooms. And so that's what we did. P told me how angry he was that The Bullshit is impossible to reason with, and I told him how angry I was about it coming along at a time when I had the most to lose: the plans we had for our future, the twentysomething fun I was busy having, and the looks I'd never appreciated.
Thank God all of my many, many gripes don't ever come along at once. One day I'll feel aggrieved about having so little energy all the time, another I'll be fed up of missing out on the career and social life I so treasure, next I'll be pissed off that I can't taste my tea, then I'll be cross that my parents are having to give up so much of their time to sort me out at a stage in their lives when they ought to be finally enjoying some freedom. But yesterday's anger was mostly directed elsewhere. I was angry (still am angry) that my body has been ruined by this fucking disease, and I'm constantly worried about other people's reactions to it. Even way in the future, when I'm in remission and my hair's grown back and I've had the last part of my reconstruction, will people stare at my scars on the beach when I'm in my bikini? And later today, when my in-laws arrive to stay with us for a few days (we've given my folks this chemo session off – it's time they went a whole six weeks without having to hold a sick bowl), will they be horrified by the change since they last saw me? When they were here in July, I was just one chemo in and still had all my hair. Man, are they in for a shock.
It's a shitty state of affairs, worrying about whether or not your appearance might upset people. And worse when you don't have the energy to do very much about it. I know from my conversations with Smiley Surgeon that a common initial reaction to being told you have cancer is, 'What will it do to the way I look?'. But you're encouraged not to think about it too much, and instead to concentrate on your treatment schedule, keeping free from infection and staying as mentally strong as you can. But isn't having confidence in the way you look part of that mental strength? There's no way to avoid thinking about what you look like when it's there in the mirror, staring you in the face every sodding day. Which is why, of all the help I've been offered on various leaflets and websites from numerous different cancer charities, I've only paid attention to one: the one that confronts the appearance issue. I reckon I've dealt with everything else pretty well. I don't need a support group – I'm as positive and practical as I can be, and I'm keeping my mind active too. I don't need a 'cancer buddy' to share my experience with – it's not everyone's way, but I find it much more helpful to fight my own fight and concentrate only on me. I don't even need to attend one of the many headscarf-tying classes out there – as you know, I've taken the wig option and, besides, I've tried hundreds of headscarves and there's no escaping the fact that I look like a fortune teller. What I do need is someone to show me how I can make the best of what I've been left with, and send me back out into the world feeling confident and beautiful. And that's exactly what I got earlier on yesterday, thanks to a charity called Look Good, Feel Better.
Yesterday's hospital visit was much nicer than the kind I'm used to (and at a much posher hospital that's left me with serious chemo-envy). I was met at the door by a representative from the charity (who did a double-take that had 'but you're so young' written all over it) and ushered into a small conference room with six other women, each of whom gave me the same look. Not surprising, considering I was the youngest there by a long chalk. (I almost felt a bit of a fraud, actually, like Marla Singer in Fight Club, pretending to be a cancer patient just to pick up a few make-up tips. Thankfully the wig and a brilliantly timed hot flush gave me away.) The idea behind Look Good, Feel Better is that they run small workshops for women with cancer, offering tips on making the best of what you've got, looks wise. They give each participant a bag full of make-up and skin care goodies – all donated from the beauty industry – with different products to suit your skin tone (they'd clearly run out of 'transparent' so gave me 'fair' instead), then teach you all the tricks that'll fool people into thinking you're a normal, healthy person. Looking after your skin when it's at its most sensitive, drawing on eyebrows when yours have done a bunk, evening out your skin tone and covering up the blotchy red bits, making your eyes stand out when you haven't got eyelashes to rely on, hiding the dark circles... all the seemingly surface-skimming things that women with cancer really want to know but often feel daft asking about, considering the weight of the 'serious stuff' we're supposed to be focusing on instead. Now that's my kind of charity.
And yes, beneath the slap and the wig is the same old self-conscious me that cries at the sight of her body in the mirror. But knowing that it's possible to work a bit of make-up magic to make yourself feel even temporarily terrific is worth its weight in gold eyeshadow. I've never been much of a make-up connoisseur (up until yesterday I had a pathetic little out-of-date collection) and putting it on has always been less personal-pamper treat, more can't-escape chore, like brushing my teeth or shaving my legs. But from now on I'm not going to have a skanky little make-up bag, but instead a fabulous, super-organised make-up drawer (sorry P, your football socks will have to find a new home). I'm going to enjoy the process of glamming it up, and sod it if it makes me even later for everything than I normally am. At least when I get there I'll look okay.
I'm even taking steps to make my wonky bust look good and feel better. Gone are the days of mismatched bras and washing-day knickers; I'm having an underwear revolution. In preparation for my implant-inflation in a couple of weeks (and the ceremonial burning of my heinous mastectomy bra), I've spent an unhealthy amount in an online underwear spree (only sassy, sexy sets will do), the first of which arrived this morning. And, despite the current unevenness in the boob department, I've put it on anyway (it defies the 'sassy, sexy' mantra, but I've shoved my prosthesis in the cup and am staying still so it doesn't creep out the top of my bra). And yes, I know none of this will change what's beneath the gorgeous underwear or the beautiful make-up, but if it stops me sobbing when I change into my pyjamas tonight, it'll be money well spent.