I've always wished I had the kind of local that you could walk into, know everyone at the bar and order 'the usual'. I fear the closest I've ever come is sharing a bag of crisps and the latest on my love life with my favourite old fellas at the golf-club bar I once served behind, having gained a handful of wonderful octogenarian friends by always making sure their bitter was served in a pint jug. (Giving a picky OAP a straight glass, I discovered, was tantamount to giving a nut-allergy sufferer a Snickers bar.) But, last week, I think I finally got the Cheers-like local of my dreams. Except the building is less a public house than a hospital, the regulars are less overweight self-medicators than over-worked medical staff, and my usual isn't so much a G&T as a strip to the waist and a flash of my boobs.
With P away on business, Tills came along instead, remarking how funny it was that I didn't have to check in at reception desks any more. And while treating hospital clinics like an office I've worked in for years could be seen as rather tragic, in fact it's a thing I enjoy. In I stroll, impossibly chirpy, offering a nod of acknowledgement to the fellow patients I've seen before and skipping the usual formalities with receptionists to talk trashy gossip instead of appointment times. Doctors usher me in with 'hi Lisa' instead of 'Mrs Lynch please', greeting me in a manner that suggests we're about to catch up over a brew and biscuits, not discuss the scab on my left nipple.
'So nice to see you! I'm just looking at your breasts...' began Smiley Surgeon, in an opening line I'll never get used to (nor learn to stifle my sniggers upon hearing). '...and the symmetry is looking much better than last time.' I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that my stupid tits seemed to be rectifying themselves size-wise, rather than allowing me the glory of an immediate NHS boob-job. 'And wow, your nipple is healing really well,' he continued, promising to refer me to the nipple-tattooing nurse for an appointment in a few weeks' time. He's not wrong about the nupple – having now shrunk down to less grape-like levels (mostly as a result of my incessant scab-picking – squeezing spots has got nothing on the satisfaction of this, I tells ya), it's now looking pretty damn good. So good, in fact, that I've been known on occasion to inflict on P a game of Spot The Falsie whenever my nipples are visible through a bra-less top.
Not everyone's so impressed with my new tit, mind you. Following a rather surreal conversation with Always Right Cancer Nurse about my post-treatment sex life and the best lubes on the market (so long Mizz 'position of the fortnight', hello Woman's Own problem page), she asked whether I'd be open to letting a recently diagnosed woman have a look at my surgery-sculpted bust. And since I'm so nonchalant about unbuttoning my shirt these days that I fear I'd remove my bra for the Sainsbury's delivery man if he asked nicely enough, I agreed. My nonchalance speaks volumes about how proud I am of the boob Smiley Surgeon has created for me. Having loved and lost a much-valued left'un, I never imagined I'd be so pleased with its replacement, and so I'm as keen to boast about my new baby as any first-time mother. But when I walked confidently into the next consulting room, I was as unprepared for the look on the poor woman's face as she was for the sight of my tit.
Was that the same terrified look I'd had in my eyes upon getting a similar world-changing diagnosis? I suspect so. She looked like she'd been hit by a train. Frightened, haunted, confused. Her tiny frame couldn't hold the weight of the worries she had to carry, just as her eyes couldn't hold back the tears she was consciously trying to hide from her elderly mother. In her fifties and happily meandering through life until a week previous, she was due to undergo the same type of mastectomy with pre-reconstruction that I had (an LD-flap, fact-fans) and yet, with the gravity of the news she was still failing to compute, couldn't get her head around what she'd find beneath her gown when she awoke from the op. And while my almost-finished result is, admittedly, quite different to the the immediate post-surgery sight she'll be discovering any day now, Always Right Cancer Nurse figured that seeing Smiley Surgeon's second-to-none needlework would, in part at least, put her mind at rest.
But when I removed my vest and stood half-naked before her, she recoiled in horror. Literally. She took an instinctive step away from me, covering her mouth with her hands. Eventually, she leaned forward ever so slightly without moving her feet, her index finger covering her lips, as though she were inspecting a newly laid cat shit on her pristine carpet. 'Christ, woman. It's not that bad,' I thought, offended at her horrified reaction to my beautiful breast. 'I have to say, it doesn't look the same as your other one,' she said. Which was the moment at which I realised how far away from reality her expectations were. 'Well, no,' I replied, trying to remain as upbeat as I could. 'But you'd never be able to tell through my clothes. It's just that the new nipple looks pretty different to my old one. But even that's going to be tattooed.' She inspected further, still a yard or two away. 'So – hang on – what happened to your old nipple?,' she enquired. 'Um. It went,' I answered gingerly, looking over to Always Right Cancer Nurse in doubt about what to say next. She explained that the nipple has to be removed in order for the surgeon to work inside the breast, and that the replacement nipple she was looking at had been created with skin from my back. 'Coof,' she exhaled, correcting her posture and visibly shaking. 'There's just so much to take in.'
I grabbed her hand, telling her not to worry, then quickly realising what a pointless reassurance that was. 'Look,' I continued. 'You're right. There's more to take in right now than you can possibly get your head around, but soon, when you've had your surgery and your treatment has begun, I promise you'll feel a bit better because things will then be in hand. You'll be taking steps to make all this better. And it WILL get better,' I assured her, rather forcefully. 'Oh, the treatment,' she said, rolling her eyes. 'Did you lose your hair?' For a second, I couldn't understand her question. 'Isn't it bloody obvious I've lost my hair?,' I thought, then remembering that, in fact, I do have some hair now and that, to her, I was just a young lass with a short crop. I broke the news. 'I can't lose it,' she said. 'I just can't.' Hers was almost the same length that mine had been when I was in her shoes. 'Did you buy a wig?' I nodded. 'And a headscarf?' I nodded again, as she looked fit to puke. 'But, look, it's grown back,' I said, tugging at a few short strands. 'And I've had it cut and coloured since, too.' She looked up and curiously inspected my head, with a defeated expression that said, 'But I don't want to look like that.' 'Nor do I, love,' I told her, subliminally.
As I pulled my vest over my head, she went on to ask about the timescale of hair loss, how it felt to wear a wig and whether I kept my headscarf on in bed. Those odd little details that you must. know. now. despite the crash-course in medical terminology, despite the bigger issues at hand, despite the realisation that you've got a life-threatening condition. (I remember obsessing over the minutiae of how to draw on eyebrows, whether false eyelashes could look real, and how to ensure my husband never saw my bald head.) 'And chemo,' asked the woman, bringing up the subject I hoped she'd avoid. 'Were you very ill?' I looked over at Always Right Cancer Nurse again, at a loss for what to say. How do you answer a question like that? ARCN chipped in. 'Chemo wasn't quite as bad as you'd expected it to be, was it, Lisa?' Uncomfortable pause. I wanted to answer, 'No, it was a damn fucking sight worse,' but held back for the sake of the chemotherapy novice before me.
I was confused as to why Always Right Cancer Nurse had said that. Granted, I was hardly going to reel off the horrors of the hallucinations, the constipation, the bone aches or the looks on my parents' faces as I swore my way through barf after barf. But nor did I think it right to polish the turd that is chemotherapy. After all, I'd been sternly warned about how the treatment might affect my health and, while all the leaflets in the world couldn't have properly prepared me, at least I had some understanding that it was going to be pretty bloody shitty, thank you very much.
But then it dawned on me. For the first time I realised that, actually, I'd always made a point of playing down the effects of chemo to Smiley Surgeon and Always Right Cancer Nurse. I hadn't lied about it per se, I'd just never given them the full picture. And, having only ever seen them in my chemo 'good weeks', I could get away with it, too. Not just get away with it – I could pretend otherwise. So I'd tell them nothing more than that I'd had a turbulent couple of weeks, but that everything was fine now. No details. Just vagaries. I guess, too, that in those 'good weeks', I just didn't want to dredge it all up again. I was enjoying feeling more like a human being. Plus, of course, there's the suck-up in me who clearly put impressing my two favourite medical professionals before telling the not-so-impressive truth, wanting them to think I was some sort of super-patient for remaining so positive throughout something so utterly shitty; and batting away breast cancer as though it were dirt on my shoulder.
But just as I couldn't pretend to the woman before me that chemo was a treatment carnival, nor can I expect to forever keep up the star-pupil pretence with Smiley Surgeon and Always Right Cancer Nurse. Because, much as I'd like the world to see me the way they see me, that can't be the case. And not just because I've detailed the ins (and outs) of my constipated bowels on this blog. But also because, rather excitingly, Alright Tit is now going to become the basis for a book – The C Word (And Other Expletives) – to be published by Arrow at Random House next spring. (And since that revelation is as surprising to me as the breast cancer was in the first place, I'll spare you any boasting about the details and instead direct you here.) I'm not going to flatter myself that the likes of Smiley Surgeon have the time, or indeed the inclination, to read the ramblings of a twentysomething cancer patient (that'd be like working in a chicken-plucking factory and coming home to a KFC bargain bucket) but, hey, it's better to be prepared. Plus, it's six months until my next appointment with them, which I'm hoping is enough time to hone my story. Or emigrate.
Which reminds me – there's a tale I was always too embarrassed to mention, but now seems relevant. (Are you sitting comfortably?) On the way to my pre-mastectomy injection of radioactive dye for Smiley Surgeon to determine whether the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, he commented on my attitude so far. 'We were talking about you earlier today,' he said in the lift, gesturing to Always Right Cancer Nurse. 'And we're so impressed with how you've handled all this.' I blushed, as he continued: 'I sometimes wish I could be more like you.' Nobody's ever said anything like that to me before, and I'm not too proud to admit that I'm welling up even now at someone I hold in such sky-high esteem giving me such a wonderful compliment. But I hope that goes some way to explaining why I chose to play down my experience of chemo to the Terrific Two. It's like admitting to your parents that you're having sex. They think the sun shines out of your backside, and you're not keen to ruin their illusion. (For the record, Mum and Dad, I remain a 29-year-old virgin.)
In the end, in fairness to the newly diagnosed woman in the consulting room, I plumped for a more enigmatic answer to Always Right Cancer Nurse's question. 'I'm not going to lie to you,' I half-lied. 'At times, chemo was a bitch. So I'm not sure about it being worse or better than I'd imagined. It was just very different to what I'd expected. But then the experience of chemo is utterly different for everybody,' I answered, still gripping her tiny hands. 'Of course it's not always easy. In fact at times it's really bloody difficult. But, shit, it works. It did for me, and it will for you.' She hugged me, as I grimaced nervously over her shoulder, hoping that I'd said the right thing.
Always Right Cancer Nurse winked in my direction. The unnecessary swearing was for her benefit. I figured I'd better start slipping in a few expletives now, just in case she ever reads my book, and realises what a potty-mouthed, toilet-humour-obsessed geezerbird I really am. On second thought, perhaps publishing under a pseudonym would be a better idea?