Friday, 30 January 2009

The past tense.

This week I did an interview for der Westen. Not only was it hugely flattering to answer their brilliantly canny questions about my blog, but it gave me the chance to (almost) live out a fantasy by pretending it was the Guardian Weekend's Q&A, only without having to cross out the real interviewee's answers and scribble my own beside them. Which I definitely don't do. No, definitely not. One of the questions, though, was this: are there any issues you don't/wouldn't blog about? To which I answered no. Well, not just 'no' – I'm not a one-word-answer kind of girl. It was a 'no, but...' answer. The 'but' being private times with P, family-only moments, my doctors' names, that kind of thing. But in terms of subjects being off-limits blog-wise, there sure aren't many, as this post (and definitely this post) will attest. But last night I realised that, actually, there's something I haven't been saying. And I'm not sure why. Perhaps because I thought it'd blow over, or fear it's a bit pathetic, or because it's something I've been secretly viewing as some kind of failure (as the Columbo of therapy sneakily extracted from me yesterday morning).

I may have told you a fib the other day. (I'm now anticipating those spots on my tongue that Mum always said were the cause of telling lies. In which case I fear I've fabricated my entire life story, if the volume of spots on my tongue during chemo were anything to go by.) I didn't mean to tell you a fib. It wasn't consciously done. (Pleeease let me go out to play?) What I told you was that I didn't think I'd ever had a panic attack. And, at the time, I didn't think I had. To me, a panic attack meant palpitations, tunnel vision, dizziness, sweating, difficult breathing and sending yourself to bed. And nothing less. Only if you could check off everything on that list could you say you'd had a panic attack. And whether or not you or I believe that to be true, what's certainly the case is that I've been having some pretty unpleasant panicky moments. Moments that overwhelm me, make me shiver and reduce me to tears in the rare times that I'm not keeping myself busy.

The busy thing is key. For an inherently lazy lass, I'm always busy; even when I'm not. Even if I'm on my arse (which, let's be honest, is most of the time), I'm always doing something. Blogging, writing, emailing, Facebooking, tweeting, making lists. (Current favourite: SS30th guest list. Seven months in advance of the do. Excited? Moi?) My mind exhausts me. It's continually active and burns up an unfeasible amount of energy – if it were a person it'd be as lean as Madonna. (I fear my body's more Maradona.) It's an occupied state I like to keep myself in, purely because – in light of all the panicky stuff – I can't afford not to be busy. Which is precisely how I've been since radiotherapy ended.

I used to love doing nothing. I've spent many a happy hour lying on my back, happy with my thoughts. I once lived on my own, too, and loved every second (until some Evertonian moved in and removed all the red clothes from my wardrobe – not that it stopped me marrying him, mind). I was always good on my own. Perfectly happy in my own company, doing sod all. But now I'm never doing sod all, nor am I ever on my own (at the risk of sounding like Liz Jones, I consider Sgt Pepper company). I'm never silent unless I'm asleep (another time when the panic gets to me). And even when I am silent, my mind's plugging away at something or other. There's always a song in my head (currently playing: Coldplay, Rule The World).

The trouble is, though, the more you sit on the shit stuff by staying distracted, the more it'll come back to bite you on the ass. The anxiety remains, bubbling under the surface, forcing its way out like angry steam from a boiling pan in 101 unhelpful 'what ifs'. What if the cancer comes back? What if the treatment hasn't worked? What if there's another tumour I didn't know about? What if there are cancer cells I'm not aware of? What if I've only got a short time left? Which is how I ended up in such a state this evening. 

Today has been a red X on my calendar for months now: the day on which the end of my active treatment would be neatly bookended with a visit to the consultant (Curly Professor's Glamorous Assistant, for those of you who've been here for a while). In my wildest dreams (and I'm just the kind of idiot who believes their wildest dreams), I was going to walk out of today's appointment having heard a joyous clasp of hands and a sentence that began, 'Well, your treatment was a resounding success' and perhaps even the word 'remission'. Idiot indeed. Instead, the information I've been left with – along with a sledgehammer of a reminder of how serious my diagnosis is (was?) – goes something like this:

- The gift of 'remission' is at least five years away. Five years. After the London Olympics. After the next General Election. Christ, Miley Cyrus will have done a stint in rehab, made a sex tape, squeezed out an illegitimate baby and written her memoirs by the time I'm in remission. My daily Tamoxifen is considered active treatment – thus I can't be moved from red to amber alert until such a time as I've stopped taking it.

- I begged for a CT scan. (Honestly, begged. I don't like being reduced to this, and it wasn't pretty.) I'd assumed that a clear CT scan would be the little bit of closure God knows I've earned after the last few months. Turns out it won't tell me a sodding thing. If there are random cancer cells floating about my veins or organs or wherever else the little fuckers get to, a CT scan won't pick them up.

- Even if a future CT scan picked up on a recurrence of my breast cancer, it wouldn't affect the outcome. Because if there ever is a relapse of The Bullshit, there's not a damn thing they can do to cure it. They could manage it, and hopefully slow its progress, but never cure it.

So here I am in my dressing gown on a Friday night, having cried all I've got to cry and watched or listened as my husband and parents do the same. Here we are again, back in the dark beginning. If only this were just a disease that you discover, get upset about, treat, then get over. Someone once told me that, upon her diagnosis, her consultant said, 'I don't want to frighten you, but you need to understand that your life will never be the same again.' And here we all were, gunning for the finish-line of the end of treatment, eager to get back to the lovely life we all once knew. But of course we can't. Life has changed. And of course there's no finish line. Cancer doesn't end neatly. I realise now that when I got my diagnosis, I had no idea what it meant. Of course cancer doesn't finish just like that. We've only just reached the second half. (And yes, I know that with five years of Tamoxifen, the second half is considerably longer than the first, but I was never any good at maths and, stuff it, it's my analogy.)

Stage three breast cancer doesn't leave you with a short haircut, several scars, a missing nipple and a false boob. Stage three breast cancer leaves you with a lifetime of uncertainty, a loss of naivety that never alters. And while it's really fucking upsetting right now, we've got to find a way to work with it. Normal life must resume. A new kind of normal, granted, but normal nonetheless. So, after several miserable hours at the hospital and several subsequent miserable phonecalls, P and I came home and folded the washing. And you can't get much more normal than that.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Ladette to lady.

For much of my life, my Dad has made it his mission to get me to be 'more ladylike'. (Buy a girl a Derby County season ticket at nine, and what do you expect?) First it was my accent. (Ditto.) Then my insistence on wearing trousers to school instead of a skirt. (That all changed during assembly one day when some little tosser enquired at considerable volume, 'Oi, are you a transvestite?') Next it was my swearing. (He's since admitted defeat on that front.) And then my binge-drinking. (Kind of a mixed message when your Dad works in brewing and buys you four cans of Red Stripe for your 15th birthday.)

I was never a total tomboy. Just tomboy-ish when it suited me. It was a conscious – and pretty successful – decision to get boys to like me. Being 'one of the lads' was my Way In. Liking football was my USP. (An old boyfriend often talks about the first night he came back to my place and how, as he was unbuttoning his shirt, he turned around to find me checking FA Cup scores on Teletext.) But, after finally reaching a new ladylike low in the week in which I discovered that my legs are in danger of getting hairier than my husband's, and revealed on Twitter that I once peed into a Pringles tube at Glastonbury (classy, eh?), I fear it's time I took my old man's advice. 

And so I write this from my loo seat, with legs apart and blinds closed. It's where I've spent much of today, actually – the suggestion from the radiotherapy staff that my symptoms would peak seven to 10 days after treatment had finished was, again, bang on the money. I reckon my skin is just past its worst now, but I've been feeling a bit on the groggy side and wound up with my head down the loo earlier on today. (A little tip: when doctors say, 'You might find that...' what they actually mean is, 'This is a dead cert.' Derren Brown has got nothing on the staff at my hospital, I tells ya.) But fortunately, this current toilet trip is more out of choice than necessity. And the legs-akimbo stuff is nothing kinky, I assure you (hell, I'm not that good at multi-tasking). Instead, I'm waiting the 10 to 12 minutes recommended by Veet while the Straight Pube Phenomenon becomes a thing of the past. 

I'd forgotten what a palaver personal grooming was. With all the hairlessness and pyjama-wearing of the past few months, getting dolled up has been something of a rarity. Not that I'm dusting off my gladrags tonight – I'm preening for a night in with P. He's been away this weekend and, what with getting back late last night and leaving for work early this morning, tonight will be the first he's properly seen of me for a few days. And since I'm keen to avoid looking like an extra from the Thriller video and instead unearth the fairly presentable girl who's hiding in here somewhere, the practice of prettifying is something of a must.

I suspect radiotherapy did most of the damage. If you'll excuse the sweeping generalisations, fellas, I fear 28 sessions of radiation has helped me acquire a few more typically male traits (or helped me lose a few typically female ones). For starters, I have a new reluctance to dance at discos. As predicted a few weeks back, I've become pretty good at doing the YMCA. So good, in fact, that it's time to announce my retirement from the dance. Sad as it may be, I suspect the world just isn't ready for my perfectly honed routine, YMCA Jedi Master that I am. (Come to think of it, 'Young man, I was once in your shoes' sounds a bit like something Yoda would say, don't you think? 'Once in your shoes, I was.') But if I'm a Jedi Master in the YMCA, I'm a Jedi Grand Master when it comes to parallel parking. Six weeks' practice of reversing into hospital bays, and I can squeeze my Astra into a pram-sized spot faster than you can say En-Ra-Ha. And it's taken a good month and a half, but I've also perfected the art of leaving the flat within 30 minutes of waking up. Alarm, phonecall from P to follow up on the alarm, shower, aqueous cream, clean teeth while cream is drying, put on clothes abandoned on bedroom floor, pull on the boots that don't require socks, tie my headscarf on my way out of the door – job's a good'un.

It's not necessarily that I feel like a man. But nor do I feel particularly womanly. And I sure as hell can't remember what it's like to feel sexy. (The one thing that always made me feel flirty and feminine was my hair. Well, my hair and my boobs. And when both of those are shot to shit, what else have I got to work with?) I doubt I'll be causing any sharp intakes of breath by telling you that cancer is basically a sex-free zone. The mere mention of the word is the ultimate moment-killer (not to mention its effects on your appearance) and with the added, menopause-inducing effects of Tamoxifen, it's no huge surprise that I feel the way I do.

I wonder, though, whether my fall from femininity has less to do with my lack of oestrogen, and more to do with the simple fact that I'm just out of practice when it comes to being a girl? Cancer does not a woman make. Nor a man, for that matter. When you're in the throes of The Bullshit, you're neither man nor woman – you're a being. A being with one function: survive. There's just no space for anything else. Not shaving your legs or waxing your bikini line. Not spraying yourself with perfume. Not choosing a pair of earrings in the morning. Sheesh, not even putting on deodorant (it was banned during radiotherapy).

But now that my active treatment is over, there's suddenly some newly vacated room in my brain for face masks and moisturiser and nail varnish and bronzer. So I guess P's return from his weekend away couldn't have come at a better time in my cancer schedule (after chemotherapy and radiotherapy comes beauty therapy). And since one of my new year's resolutions was to look hot by the time I hit 30 – and stay that way – that gives me exactly seven months to re-learn all the stuff I forgot over the same amount of time. Better get started, then.

And so, in my quest to regain my girly self and make my husband fancy me, my bathroom currently looks like that Mel-Gibson-in-tights scene from What Women Want (I'm back on the sofa now, away from the devastation). The place has been beauty-bombed: tweezers abandoned on the side of the sink, chunks of my ankles in the bath, blood on my white towels, fake tan up the walls, pink hair removal cream smeared on the side of the cabinet and peeling flakes of radiated skin all over the floor. Actually, that's just reminded me about a kid at school who used to eat his peeling skin (he was friends with the transvestite-comment boy – go figure). I seem to remember he ate grass, insects and banana skins, too. And I'm the one who got cancer.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

From despair to where?

On millennium night, I had a party in my folks' house. I invited a bunch of mates, bought in enough booze to render a small country unconscious until the next millennium, made a playlist (man, I make a mean playlist), pulled on a posh frock and backed up my computer files before the bug had a chance to swallow them. We had a stonking night – whiskey-drinking contests, people snogging in cupboards, singing into beer bottles, breakdancing on the kitchen floor... all the tomfoolery and idiocy and sheer drunken daftness you can possibly squeeze in before midnight. For me, the year 2000 was a Big Deal. A potential history-making, sci-fi moment in which the world could change irrevocably and the millennium bug would cause chaos on the streets as people hoarded loo rolls and emptied their accounts at high-street cash points, then watched mayhem unfold on TV while eating stockpiled baked beans. (I love a good drama, me.) I'd been planning my midnight-moment for weeks prior to new year's eve. I'd set aside champagne and glasses for everyone, figured out where we'd all stand when the clock hit 12, bought fireworks and party poppers, sussed out who I wanted to kiss at midnight, synchronised the living-room clocks with Big Ben and cued up REM's It's The End Of The World As We Know It on the stereo. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... anticlimax.

That's kind of how I'm feeling now. One mastectomy, five months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiotherapy, and I'm done. My active cancer treatment (if you count out the last bit of surgery and five years of Tamoxifen) is over. Finished. And I swear I just saw a tumbleweed roll past my bedroom window.

The other day, I was sitting on the sofa with Mum, reading my blog comments. 'I can't believe all this has happened,' she said. 'I know, it's ace, right? All these people I've never met being so nice to me – I don't know what to do with it,' I replied. Mum looked puzzled. 'Well yes, that is lovely, but I didn't mean that,' she explained. 'I meant all of this. Breast cancer. I can't believe it's happened to you.' As it goes, neither can I. It's almost eight months since my diagnosis, seven months since my mastectomy, six months since chemo began and six weeks since my first radiotherapy session. Eight whole months of talking and worrying and crying and obsessing and blogging about cancer. (Forget bridezillas and baby-bores – I represent the cancer-consumed.) All that time to compute the situation, and the reality that I've. got. breast. cancer. still hasn't sunk in. Or it hadn't until Sunday night when, on the eve of my final treatment, I had a panic attack. At least I think I did. I'm not certain I've had one before. Not a panic attack, as such. I've certainly been known to panic. And, if you count the boyfriend who got a public slap after cheating on me, I guess you could say I've attacked, too. Just never at the same time.

I feel like a hostage who's just been released. Eight months of being held captive, and I'm not sure whether I should be deliriously happy that it's over or really fucking angry that it happened in the first place. I'm furiously flitting between hyperactive, party-seeking emancipation and disbelieving, panic-stricken remembrance of the whole hideous ordeal. But mostly I'm numb. Weepy and exhausted and numb. Has the reality of having breast cancer really only just hit me? It feels like I've been thrown straight back into that same black hole I found myself lost in at the beginning, in that awful, helpless time between diagnosis and treatment when there's nothing to do but read frightening things on the internet and try to convince yourself that you're not going to die. And there's the panic. So much panic. When a bomb drops in the centre of your universe and you've got no idea what's coming next, permission to freak out is granted. And on Sunday night I had that same gut-wrenching, pulse-racing, heart-sinking, colour-draining, future-fearing feeling I had back in June. (If cancer ever needs a Pepsi-inspired slogan, I'm happy to hand that sentence over.)

Nothing is worse than the unknown. The wait for my biopsy results was worse than hearing the diagnosis. The fear of what my surgeon would find was worse than discovering how far the cancer had spread. The anxiety of my hair falling out was worse than seeing myself bald. The night-before-chemo terror was worse than being wired up to the drugs. And now I can't help but wonder whether the so-called freedom of being released from cancer treatment might be worse than the treatment itself? Whether not knowing if the cancer will return is worse than finding it? (A wonderful, Bullshit-beating woman emailed this week to say how she 'missed and loathed the treatment in equal measure'. How right she is.)

I want this to be an uplifting story. I want to pick myself up, dust myself down and get on with whatever it is I've got to get on with now. So does everyone around me – whatever they say, I'm sure I can sense their frustration that I'm not quite well enough (physically or mentally, I guess) to bounce back into life as we all knew it. And fair enough – while I've talked and worried and cried and obsessed and blogged about The Bullshit for almost eight months, they're the ones who've had to hear it all. They must be as sick of it as I am. I bet they feel like they're on the receiving end of a proud parent's single topic of conversation. ('Yes, your baby is cute. Yes, definitely the cleverest baby I've seen. Yes, quite amazing how she can gurgle so loudly.') But even more than I want this to be an uplifting story, I want it to be an honest story. And the honest truth is, at the end of treatment there's as much to mourn as there is to celebrate.

I'm not getting over the flu, here. I'm getting over a disease that has hugely affected my life – my appearance, my relationships, my future and my outlook – and left me in a huge pool of doubt about what happens next. There's a terrific Macmillan-run online cancer support community that I discovered recently, called What Now? To the untrained, unaffected-by-cancer ear, that's just a simple, snappy, easy-to-remember title, probably thought up by focus-group volunteers in a charity office's back room, on the promise of travel expenses and good biscuits. But I beg to differ. That title has to have been thought up by someone cannier. Someone who's experienced all of the future-fearing feelings I've talked about here. To anyone who's walked in my size 7s (spot the Louboutins hint), calling a cancer support community What Now? is brilliant, heart-of-the-truth genius. Forget lip-smacking, thirst-quenching, ace-tasting, motivating, good-buzzing, cool-talking, high-walking, fast-living, ever-giving, cool-fizzing Pepsi – What Now? is the sharpest bit of marketing I reckon I've ever seen.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The final countdown.

Well crikey, that was a brilliantly busy couple of blog days. And not just on a followers/hits/Stephen Fry (Stephen Fry!!) front, either. It's been an education. Without all of that excitement, I wouldn't have known about the Straight Pube Phenomenon.

In all truth, it's a while since I paid any attention to my bikini line. Largely because I haven't had to (Lessons In Cancer #1: at least some of the hair-loss stuff is a blessing). Frankly, it's been so long since I looked south of my belly button that I wouldn't have been surprised to find that my oestrogen-suppressing drugs had gifted me a cock and balls. And while, thankfully, that's not the case, I wasn't any less alarmed to discover that my pubes are growing back unusually straight. (Too much information? Sheesh, I've not even started.) 'Now there's a thing,' I thought, slightly baffled by the down-there development but nonetheless determined to remove the lot of them as soon as I get the chance (translation: as soon as I can stop staring at them). And I thought little else of it... until yesterday.

Lessons In Cancer #2: I'm not alone! According to the more loose-lipped amongst you who've emailed over the last couple of days (and thank you), the Straight Pube Phenomenon is yet another of those unspoken cancer consequences, like the sunken eyes or lost fingernails or crippling piles (speaking of which, it turns out aqueous cream is good for more than radiotherapy burns). Nobody had previously mentioned the weird leg-hair regrowth, either. Remember when you were a kid, and your Mum used to say that if you started shaving your legs, the hair would grow back faster, thicker and darker? Fallacy. Just like traffic wardens and the 'I've started so I'll finish' myth. What your Mum meant was that your leg hair will grow back faster, thicker and darker if you've lost it through chemo. And, frankly, that would have been a far better hair-removal discouragement for the 13-year-old me to hear. Mums fib about the chocolate = spots thing, too. She and I had blamed my teenage acne on everything from a bad diet and pollution to trashy make-up and trashier break-ups. Turns out it was all down to that pesky oestrogen stuff (oestrogen's a bastard, ain't it?) because, since taking Tamoxifen, my skin's never looked better. (Advice for teenagers: eat crap and epilate.)

It's been quite the week of revelations, actually. For starters, the female half of Dollar (better click back here if the 1980s radiotherapy reference is lost on you) told me this morning that – drumroll please – I'm her favourite patient. Hoorah! It's an accolade I've been working hard to achieve for some time, actually (hell, how many other patients lie back on the treatment bed singing along to The Four Tops?), and it's a comment that's bought the radiotherapy staff a barrage of cupcakes at my final treatment session on Monday (that's right, people – 27 down, a measly one to go). I've mentioned before what an utter suck-up I am around health professionals, and it seems I'm not becoming any less embarrassing the more I visit the hospital. I reckon I've turned into the annoying, brown-nosing patient that all the other patients hate. And I (not so) secretly love it. Maybe I'll go all-out on the milking-it front on Monday and turn up in a T-shirt with 'FAVOURITE PATIENT' emblazoned on the front (and 'CANCER BITCH' on the back, just for good measure). But anyway, what's a bit of ass-kissing between friends? These people are potentially saving my life – the least I can do is bake a few cupcakes and give them a blast of Reach Out (I'll Be There).

On a less-rewarding revelation front, my radiated skin has been giving me a bit of jip lately (read: waking me up in the night thanks to being so. bloody. sore.) and I've been seeing the radiotherapy nurse about it a couple of times a week. And, love her, she's throwing everything at it – two types of cream, sleeping pills, wet flannels – in the hope of taking some of the pain and heat out of the area. Frankly, you could fry eggs on my tit at the moment. And probably grill a couple of sausages under my armpit. So I've been given some cool gel pads to stick onto my skin whenever it feels too hot. It's basically tantamount to taking the orangey bit out of the middle of a Jaffa Cake and pressing it against your boob (which, in altogether different circumstances, might be a bit of a laugh, actually). My temporary implant has taken quite a hit thanks to the radiotherapy, too. For one, it's really shrunk. Not quite to post-mastectomy levels, but it's definitely smaller. (I keep thinking about the nurse who changed my dressings the day after my mastectomy, and the reassuring comment that all modest-busted women should hear: 'Listen to me, darlin'. You be glad your titties weren't all that big to begin with. My husband says any more than a mouthful is a waste.') As well as the shrinking, it's hardened and flipped over so the valve is now sitting at the bottom and digging into my ribcage (here's where the cushioning of the extra pounds comes in handy). And thanks to all of that, it feels pretty gross, too. Kind of like touching a boob through one of those solid, gravity-defying padded bras, but less lacy and more, well, Jaffa Cakey. Even the cat won't lean on it, and she's always snuggling up on my chest. (In fact here she is right now – say hello, Sgt Pepper. Christ, I've turned into one of those people who speaks for their pet, haven't I? Next thing you know I'll be signing cards 'love L&P & Sgt Pepper' and creating her a blog of her own. Screw the hair loss. This is what cancer does to you.)

The biggest surprise of all this week, however, was learning from the nurse that the symptoms of radiotherapy – soreness, redness, exhaustion and all – don't peak until seven to ten days after treatment has finished. 'Oh no, my love,' she told me. 'You'll get much worse before you get better.' So that's something to look forward to, then. I'd just assumed I'd be well on my way to feeling more normal by the time I see Smiley Surgeon at the beginning of next month to set the date for my operation (it's got to be done quickly, but can't be done before my skin has fully healed). But it turns out he'll be seeing my skin at its worst, and I'm keen to get this op over with. In shameless truth, I'm pissed off about more than just the potential delaying of the surgery date. I'm pissed off that the low-cut dress I've bought to wear at my mate Jonze's wedding in a couple of weeks might now be unsuitable, dammit. What is it with all this impatience, eh? You'd think that after all this time I'd be able to wait a mere couple of months before getting out my cleavage again. Still, with the fuzzy head, leg hair, hanging-on-for-dear-life nails, dodgy pubes and shrinking, puce-coloured left tit, I suspect it'll be a while before I can start getting too hung up on vanity.

Monday, 12 January 2009

When the chips are down.

I think my headscarf just got me off a parking ticket. Today's radiotherapy overran by about, ooh, three weeks, and by the time I got back to the car, there was a traffic warden tapping away on his ticket machine, licking his lips and circling my Astra like a hungry bird of prey. You know how parking attendants always tell you they've already started making out your ticket and can't possibly stop, even though you're back now? Well, THEY LIE. This dude stopped. And scarpered. And I swear it's because of the headscarf. 

It's the second time my headscarf's got me preferential treatment today. This morning, in the packed radiotherapy waiting room, a woman gave up her seat for me. 'Oh here, love,' she smiled. 'You have it – I'm not a patient.' And on the way back from the hospital last week in a minor traffic jam on Chelsea Embankment, I managed to silence a very shouty, road-raged woman who was shrieking abuse at anyone in her path from the windows of her MX5. When our cars aligned, I looked calmly in her direction and said, 'Just what have you got to moan about, lady?' And, by 'eck, it felt good. 

Grateful as I am for such minor cancer upsides, there's a moral question here, no? While I don't think anyone's going to deny a cancer patient taking advantage of some assistance whenever they can, at what point does assistance become milking it? When it comes to playing the cancer card, what are the rules?

This isn't exclusively a cancer game, of course. There's a range of suits in this deck: cancer, health, age, sex... And it's perfectly acceptable, is it not, to play the pregnancy card – whether for a seat on the tube or a free upgrade on the train. So, by that token, is the cancer excuse fair game? (I'll see your stomach cramps and raise you a bald head.)

I'll give up my poker face – breast cancer is an excuse I've been known to use on occasion. But not half as much as I could have done. Or even as much as I'd like to have done. I'm a long way off getting comfy on the moral high ground, here. While I believe that the cancer card should be reserved only for mischief purposes on special occasions, like a pair of red heels you keep for big nights out, I sure as eggs is eggs wouldn't begrudge anyone using it whenever they bloody well wanted. While I'm not suggesting that cancer should be a get-out-of-jail-free card that excuses you from murder, robbery, abuse or buying Sting albums, I reckon the odd dish-washing swerve, tea-making dodge and remote-control hog are more than acceptable, given the circumstances. (A word to the wise, though – cancer cards don't wash with Seetickets. I wasn't well enough to make it to a pre-booked gig last year, but no amount of breast cancer could persuade them to refund my ticket. Bastards.)

On a slightly more serious mischief front, I've often wondered what I'd do if I got pulled over for speeding. There's every chance I will, given the insufficient time I leave myself to get to the hospital every morning (who am I kidding – the insufficient time I leave myself to get anywhere). And there's no doubt about it – with no cleavage card to my disposal, hell yeah, I'd dig deep for the cancer cop-out. And I'd be willing to wager that you'd do the same. (Ooh, this'd be a corking topic for Who Me?, wouldn't it? Anyone remember that programme? It was one of those typically 1980s, made-for-schools shows that made you question your moral integrity while your teacher read the newspaper for half an hour. I can't find it on t'internet though –someone please tell me I haven't dreamt it.)

Think of me what you will, but I reckon I've paid my dues. I've served my time, done the stretch of torturous treatment and got The Bullshit on my permanent record. I've earned it – that card is mine to play. Cancer doesn't exactly come with benefits. Your consultant doesn't set the ball rolling with, 'Well, I'm afraid you've got cancer. But hey, at least the Sainsbury's delivery man will carry your groceries through to the kitchen.' And while nothing about using your illness-induced trump card makes you feel good, isn't it worse to miss the opportunity? I've done nothing but kick myself about KFC-gate and not fronting up to my neighbour on bonfire night and, when reliving those moments in my head, not once do I wuss out like I did at the time. 

P's not so quick to play the cancer card. Not that he hasn't thought about it, mind. Some lass pissed him off last week with vocal, reasonless whingeing about the weather or her waistline or a bad hair day or somesuch, and he told me how much he'd wanted to grab her by the neck and say, 'Shut the fuck up, woman. Do you know what I've been going through?' When something like cancer muscles in on your life, you don't half find yourself low on patience for other people's dubious gripes (especially those on TV – Celebrity Big Brother housemates, this means you). So I'd even go so far as to say that I think it's okay for someone to play the cancer card on your behalf. (Within reason, like – I don't want you to go missing a deadline tomorrow and blaming it on me.) Having cancelled two holidays and countless other days out last year because of me, my folks booked themselves a well-deserved, pre-Christmas long weekend abroad. At check-in, they could see that the flight had been overbooked and the attendant was busy bumping people off the plane. 'What will we do if they try to stop us getting on?,' asked Mum. 'That woman will hear exactly what kind of year I've had,' replied my old man. And good on him.

Don't get me wrong – I and everyone around me will, of course, be mightily relieved when such a time comes that we don't have a cancer card to play. And no amount of headscarf-wearing benefits can trump having my hair back, so I'm hardly going to keep up a cancer pretence just to get off the odd parking fine. I'm perfectly prepared – nay, happy – to go back to the dish-washing, litter-tray-scooping, standing-on-the-tube ways of the healthy public. (And frankly, cancer's in danger of making me an even lazier sod than I am already.)

While it's certainly more black than comedy, I do hope this blog goes to show that alongside The Bullshit's oceans of crap lies a small island of dark humour. And, as long as there are tentative laughs to be had and mischief to be made, I'm happy to lay my cancer cards on the table and get in on the action. Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


Well I don't know about you, Winehouse, but I say yes, yes, yes. Step aside, Lohan. Out of the way, Moss. Your time is up, Williams. Search my bag and save me a room in The Priory; I'm on a one-way ticket to self-improvement.

Like I said last year, 2009 is the year of Sorting Shit Out. Seriously, check the Chinese zodiac. (Do you like how I said 'last year' back then? See, it's all just a bad memory.) This is the year when I'll be able to once again pick up a hairdryer, go bra shopping, have more sex, pay attention to my bikini line, get off my steroid-swelled arse and generally execute a Houdini-like escape from the evil grip of The Bullshit. Ta-dah!

Right now, I don't look great. Actually that's somewhat generous. I look like the long-lost sister of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And it's time to do something about it. I appreciate that it'll take a fair bit of doing, which is why I've kicked off early, before the final whistle of my surgery and the end of my active treatment. I'm realistic about the timeframe, too – I know I'm not going to wake up from my op with the looks and figure of Selma Blair (Hair Muse #2). Hell, I've not just got hair to grow, but weight to shift, a left tit to transform, eyelashes to sprout and eyebrows to fill (though I guess if all else fails I could always go the Mutya Buena route – do you reckon they're included in her tally of 14 tattoos?). So the plan is this: screw my 20s, I'm writing them off. Instead, I'm going to make damn sure I look super-hot in preparation for my 30s, just in time to flaunt the New Me at My Super Sweet 30th. (Your Tit Needs You part 1: After hearing from an ex-boss that his wife did something similar, I'm shamelessly ripping off their idea and will be turning my SS30th into a charity fundraiser. So, eight months in advance of the bash, I'm already on the hunt for a London venue and some fan-fucking-tastic things to auction off. I'm talking big stuff, please – event tickets, backstage passes, signed memorabilia, once-in-a-lifetime prizes... you name it, I'm after it. Drop me an email if you can help, and I'll make sure there's an invite and some good karma in the post.) 

But back to Operation Elfin. The issue here is that cancer is forcing me into an image change. Just as bouncing back to the life I had pre-Bullshit is unrealistic, so is the thought that I'll have my long blonde locks back within six months. So image change it is. And, if you're interested in following me on my journey from cancer-patient George Dawes to picture-of-health Gwyneth Paltrow (circa Sliding Doors), I'm afraid there's something you're going to have to see. Hold tight, now.

Christ, have I really just done that? [Blink.] Yep, looks like it. Fuck. Right, well, that's me (and P in the background there). I'd love to be able to tell you that the girl in the photographs is someone else, but it ain't. It's me. That said, even I view those photos as though I'm looking at some other poor sod. When P and I downloaded them, I shook my head and said, 'Cor, that's sad, isn't it?' And yes, it is sad. But those photos were taken on 1 January and, believe me, they're far better better images than the ones I could have shown you on 1 December. Still, have a word with yourself if you think you're having a bad hair day, eh?

The purpose of that horror show isn't just to satisfy your curiosity about what I've been keeping under my hat (or headscarf) all this time, but instead to chart the progress of my regrowth in a monthly Barnet Bulletin. Right now, as you can see, the trouble is less length, more coverage. And since Wikipedia tells me that human hair grows at a rate of 0.4mm per day, I reckon the most I'm looking at is a Posh pixie crop by the time I hit Glastonbury (and in Posh's colour, too – for those of you who hadn't seen the Old Me, my hair was never this dark, even beneath the highlights). But of course, if I'm going to carry off hair like Rihanna/Selma/Gwyneth/Posh, I'm going to need the frame to suit it. So as well as the hair-spurt mission, I'm also on a shrink-down health-kick to shift the 16lbs (shock! horror!) that cancer so kindly gifted me (my fitness DVD will be in the shops next Christmas). I'm thinking of the unwanted bulk as a bit like baby weight, but without actually having had to squeeze one out. And, if you think about it, it's not all that far off, really: the nine months of suffering, the removal of a funny-shaped lump from my body, the sleepless nights, even the mothering – albeit kitten rather than baby. (And correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think five-month-old babies are generally known to scale the drapes and perch on top of the curtain rail, like mini daredevil recruits for Fathers 4 Justice.) Still, baby weight/cancer weight, potato/potahtoe (ooh, jacket potato...) – whatever you want to call it, it's on the way out. 

Health-wise I'm still a long way off jogging round the park (hell, even jogging to the loo). Radiotherapy continues to take its toll, and the exhaustion is reminding me of the time at uni when I had one too many late nights, snogged one too many smelly boys and ended up with glandular fever. It's utterly knackering – debilitating, even – and, in many ways, I'll be glad when it's over. But as much as it's kicking me up the arse when I'm not there, I don't half love having somewhere to go every day, and a brilliant bunch of people to see it through with. It's like going into the office – I chirp a cheery hello to the (still fit) boy on reception, say 'good morning' to the other 11 o'clock regulars in the waiting room, then enjoy a bit of banter with the radio staff. And, for the last couple of weeks, it's been my favourite lass and lad in the radio room (from Pepsi & Shirlie to Bucks Fizz, and now Dollar – what's next, UB40?). I love Dollar (seriously, this is getting daft) – they always let me in on the department in-jokes and the three of us have a right good giggle every morning (plus I think I've gained a few favouritism points after slipping them some golden gossip nuggets from my LA-reporter mate Ant). I've only got nine treatments left, and I'm going to miss the arses off those two when I finish. Do you think it's acceptable to befriend them on Facebook? Or is the cupcake-baking option a better display of gratitude? On second thoughts I'd better not, if they end up anything like the diet-friendly cake I baked last week. Citrus omelette, anyone?

- - -

Your Tit Needs You part 2

I was chatting with one half of Dollar today (heck, that makes him David Van Day, right?) about the hideousness of my chemo experience, and the comparative carnival that radiotherapy has been. Just as some people's treatment means that their reaction to chemo won't be half as bad as mine was, he was telling me that it works exactly the same for radiotherapy – some folk have a horribly torrid time of it, while others get off lightly like I have, with just the painful skin, swelling and tiredness. DVD was saying how sick he is of society's blanket approach to cancer, and that I'm a good example of how different it is for everyone affected by it. As he went on to say, there's no rhyme or reason to this disease. Without wanting to put the shits up you, it can strike whoever it wants, whenever it wants, with no symptoms or warning, and no way of knowing how it'll affect you – physically or mentally – until you're busy battling it. And, tricky as the subject matter may be, it was nice for me to hear someone who hasn't had cancer describe it like that, and to know that the 'blanket approach' pisses them off as much as it does me. DVD knows about my blog, and I got the sense that he wanted me to reiterate this point on his behalf. So here I am, doing it again, and asking you to help me do it some more.

This is where you come in. I'm working on something, in tandem with Alright Tit, that will hopefully open more people's eyes to the shitty, painful, heartbreaking and sometimes humorous reality of the c-word (no, Dad, not the rude one) – and not just from my perspective. I'm collecting quotes from anyone affected by cancer – whether you've had it yourself or know someone who has, whether you work in a hospital or at a charity, whether you cry at the Cancer Research ads on TV, whether you've Raced for Life, whether you're a Kylie fan, whether you've read this or other cancer books/blogs/whatever... or even whether you know nothing at all about it. I'm looking to gather quotes that are as honest and no-holds-barred as I hope this blog is. Quotes about diagnoses, people's responses to them, family and friends' reactions, angry moments, embarrassing side effects of treatment, hair loss, wigs, headscarves, doctors, relationships, marriages, sex, cancer-affected appearances, the missing tastebuds, the cravings, the tantrums, the helpful things people have done, the people who've gone MIA, the bravery you've witnessed, the recoveries, end-of-treatment celebrations, survival, death, the highs, the lows, the things that make you wince or smile or grit your teeth or want to tear out what's left of your hair in sheer bloody frustration. Everyone's got a story, whether they've had a cancer diagnosis – of any sort – or not. So whatever you've got to say, I'd love to hear it. As long as it's honest. I'll get the ball rolling, shall I?

On the day of my diagnosis but before I'd been told, I knew something was up when the nurse doing my mammogram didn't stop banging on about how fabulous my shoes were. They weren't. They were 12 quid in the Dorothy Perkins sale, the buckle was broken and I'd scuffed the hell out of them on tube escalators. I knew she was blowing smoke up my ass; I knew I had breast cancer. (I've since thrown away the shoes.)
Once I'd broken the news to my family and friends, there was a small, conceited, ego-driven part of me that – I'm not proud to admit – loved being the subject of gossip; loved the thought of being talked about over pints of bitter and G&Ts. I wanted to know exactly who was talking about me, who to, what they were saying, and what people's reactions were. A couple of years ago, when I heard that a friend of mine had been diagnosed with cancer, I cried. I wondered whether people were doing the same about me. I still do, if I'm totally honest. 

I'll never again eat cous cous. I had it for lunch before my first chemo, and it was all I could see in my first post-chemo puke. 

One of the experts I met on one of my many distressing wig-fitting appointments commented on my then-thinning hair and how, if I wore a thick headband, I could probably get away without wearing a wig for a couple of weeks yet. 'No I bloody can't,' I spat. 'I look like fucking Mo Mowlam.' Enforced wig wearing, I think you'll agree, did not make me a nice person. As it goes, I'd kill to have that thinning hair now. 

I'd tell you again about the time I broke down when trying on hospital-appropriate pyjamas in M&S or the day when my chemo-constipation got so bad that I screamed out from the loo in excruciated pain for P to bring me the olive oil, but I dare say those things were hard enough to read about the first time and, besides, I'm sure you've got the picture by now. So, in the words of the Manic Street Preachers: this is my truth, tell me yours. 

Send me an email, leave a comment, direct me to your blog (oh, and do let me know your name and location, and whether you're happy for them to be published) and please PLEASE pass on this link to anyone and everyone you know who may have their own quote to add. Sheesh, it's all favours on here today, isn't it? Well, fair's fair – I showed you my slaphead, now it's your turn...