When I was a kid (who am I kidding – I’m still a kid), we’d occasionally go on holiday to the kind of Costa del Wherever resorts in which my brother Jamie and I would be ushered into a kids club on Day One (putting to the test our pre-holiday pact not to make friends with any other children), in hotels where there’d always be a family-friendly turn performing Sweet Caroline (waa waa waaa) by the pool in the evenings, and where the most complicated Spanish you’d be expected to learn was ‘Fanta Limon’. That’s not a toffee-nosed summary of our foreign vacations, I hasten to add – those memories are recalled with the utmost love and fondness. Jamie and I adored those holidays (almost as much as our annual fortnights in Sutton on Sea) and would invariably come back with glorious tans, necklaces made of shells and pen-pal sweethearts we’d spend the next twelve months trying to avoid.
One night, with white-shorted legs dangling from a plastic chair as I chewed the straw in my bottle of Coke, I ducked down into my shoulders as that night’s turn – an ageing hypnotist with a creased suit and wonky bow-tie – scanned the audience for participants.
‘Not me, not me, not me,’ I repeated in my head, assuming that if he was any kind of hypnotic entertainer worth his salt, he’d sense my fuck-off vibes and choose someone else instead.
‘You! You in the white shorts! Give her a round of applause,’ he announced.
‘Wanker,’ I thought, not yet knowing what the put-down meant and glaring at him with my own ‘drop dead’ hypno-stare. ‘I’m gonna get you for this,’ I told him subliminally as he declared to the assembled Brits abroad that he’d be making me weightless by lulling me into a sleepy state in which he’d be able to rest me like a plank of wood across two chairs.
‘I don’t think so, mate,’ I thought while he waved a 25-peseta coin on a long chain before my eyes. ‘Don’t give in to it. Don’t give in to it. Don’t give in to it,’ I chanted to myself, in a method that was demonstrably more successful than his, given that I remained cockily conscious in front of him, weight on one hip, while he burned scorn into my eyes with a glower that said ‘give it up you little shit, you’re embarrassing me here’. But instead he cut his losses and I returned victorious to my Coke, as the audience fidgeted with their beermats and the hypnotist chose an altogether more compliant six-year-old boy to demonstrate his trick.
While there was clearly already a burgeoning sceptic in those white shorts, I still credit that experience with me being a lass who has a pessimistic outlook on anything even remotely unconventional in the eyes of proven science. For me, science is king. I don’t really have a God I believe in, I’m distrustful of anyone who tells me they’ve seen a ghost, and I’ve always been something of a cynic when it comes to alternative medicine. In short: if I can’t see it – or tangibly feel it – then I simply don’t believe it. I suppose I’ve just always been very much a mainstream sort of girl, living life in black and white, simplistically judging books by their covers.
About a year ago, however, Mr Marbles suggested that my black-and-white approach was rather a dangerous, depressive way to live, and that grey areas – whether in moods or beliefs – weren’t just healthy, but crucial to a more balanced life. And it’s a notion that’s since remained lodged at the back of my mind. But it’s only really this week that I’ve actually come to consider that Mr Marbles might have been right.
At the risk of sounding like I’ve been to one too many Glastonburys and attributing some unexplained force to my run-in with The Bullshit, there’s no getting around the reality that something significant and life-changing happened to me that not even my beloved science can fully explain. Because the answer to why I got cancer can’t completely be ascribed to mere statistics, bad cells or my genetic makeup. Not even to the oestrogen that fed the tumour. Nope – the Bullshit byline, disappointingly, must be credited to simple shit luck. And you just can’t reason with that – it’s the very definition of a grey area.
So isn’t it time, then, that I opened myself up to the alternative? Not the alternative that I got cancer because I once left a glass ring on my folks’ coffee table and blamed it on my brother, or because meddling fairies planted a lump beneath my left nipple as I slept. The other kind of alternatives. The potential power of hypnosis; the likely advantages of creative visualisation; the supposed benefit of complementary therapies… the new-age books I’d judged by their non-scientific covers. Because perhaps those methods could turn out to be as good a means of getting me further beyond The Bullshit as those which our glorious NHS provided?
Funnily enough, it was science that led me into this wrestling-match with my previously inflexible beliefs. Because amidst the, ooh, twelve thousand consent forms I signed prior to my treatment was a request for patients to participate in upcoming clinical trials and research studies. To me, signing my name on the line was a no-brainer – clinical trials could mean improved treatment and, at that stage as much as now, I was up for getting as much hospital attention as possible. And so since, I’ve been sent the odd questionnaire and had the odd debrief over the phone. Then just before Christmas arrived a rather more intriguing invitation: an acupuncture study.
Without boring you with the details – mainly because at this stage I don’t know them – as I understand it, there has been some research to suggest that acupuncture could aid the general wellbeing of people who’ve received cancer treatment. And so, mindful of Mr Marbles’ attempt to encourage me into more unbiased, open-minded ways, I jumped on board. More form-filling, questionnaires and phone consultations resulted in my first appointment this week, at the unexpectedly marvellous Breast Cancer Haven centre.
‘Ooh heck I’m late,’ I stammered, trying to maintain eye contact with the receptionist despite the impressive architecture around me. ‘Am I too late? I’m so sorry. The traffic…’
‘Lisa?’ she queried.
‘Yes, yes, that’s me, yes.’
‘Don’t worry!’ she laughed. ‘You’re fine for time!’
‘Crikey, yes,’ agreed a man beside her. ‘Please don’t ever worry if you’re running a bit behind. I’m always late.’
‘Oh, okay. Cool,’ I said, taken aback by the casual attitude to punctuality that matched my own.
‘I’m your therapist, by the way,’ he said, offering his hand.
‘Ah, right! I’m Lisa.’
‘Are you okay?’ he asked, still gripping the handshake.
‘Yeah. Yeah, fine,’ I confirmed.
‘Well, yeah, a bit.’
‘Nothing to be nervous about,’ he said, still holding on a little too long.
‘Okay,’ I murmured, wondering whether to pull away.
‘Crikey, your shoulders!’ he suddenly cried, dropping my right hand to pinch either side of my neck.
‘Oof, cor. They’re wound so tight.’
‘Oh?’ I said, suddenly remembering an identical exchange with Ms Magic Hands, the massage therapist charged with keeping under control the lymphoedema that developed as a result of the removal of my lymph nodes. ‘How could they both tell that just from looking at me? Perhaps they really are magic,’ I thought as Mr Magic Hands led me upstairs to a therapy room. ‘Maybe they can hear my thoughts too,’ I wondered, quickly shaking the paranoid monologue out of my head like a rubbish Etch-A-Sketch drawing, just in case.
‘Do you ever have massage?’ he asked, patting a chair for me to sit on.
‘Just for my lymphoedema,’ I confirmed. ‘Did I ought to do something about my shoulders too?’
‘Don’t worry, you can deal with it at the Haven,’ he said. ‘We’ll do something about that.’
Just like that. Not ‘better get it seen to’, not ‘here’s a list of private practitioners’. Just ‘we’ll do something about that.’
‘So, your treatment ended last year,’ he continued.
‘And you’re on Tamoxifen for…?’
‘Another four years.’
‘And the wellbeing issues that have arisen as a result of your cancer…?’ Again – not ‘are there any’ or ‘what are they’. Just a quiet understanding that it was normal to have them.
‘Coof,’ I said, not knowing where to start. He did it for me.
And there it was again: ‘We’ll do something about that.’ His confidence was immediately calming. ‘But not until this study is over, I’m afraid,’ he added. ‘We can’t allow anything to conflict with our results here. But after that, we’ll design a programme for you.’
‘Awesome,’ I said, kicking myself for not having discovered the Haven 18 months ago.
‘Most people fall asleep,’ explained Mr Magic Hands as I lay back on the bed, leggings rolled up to my knees.
‘Well I wont,’ I thought sceptically, momentarily confusing acupuncture with dodgy poolside hypnosis.
I was right, though. I didn’t. But nor was I really awake. It took a while – what with the continual nattering in my brain proving as loud an interruption as the sirens outside – but I was eventually able to zone everything out. And though by that time there wasn’t an awful lot of my appointment left, I did begin to feel… well… different.
‘Did you have any unusual sensations?’ said MMH after removing the needles – not that I could feel him doing it.
‘I did, actually,’ I confirmed. ‘I felt light. And that’s something I’m definitely not used to.’
‘And did you see any colours?’
‘Funny you should mention that,’ I said, as though I were the Christopher Columbus of acupuncture. ‘There were these waves of, I dunno, deep red? Or maybe orange? Is that the right answer?’
‘There is no right answer,’ he said. ‘But that’s… that’s good.’
‘Nice one,’ I said, trying to sit up on the bed but realising that my pace seemed much more leisurely than usual. I wasn’t sluggish or slow so much as relaxed. Properly relaxed. In a way that made me realise that, as much as I might sometimes think I am, I’m never really relaxed.
‘The thing is,’ he added. ‘Acupuncture is difficult to quantify. There is no correct way to feel. Which is why medics find it so difficult to understand.’
I nodded, high on tranquillity.
‘You might feel sleepy for a while,’ he warned, leading me back downstairs to reception.
‘Mm, I am.’
‘And you might want to sit quietly for an hour or so.’
‘Mm, I will.’
‘So feel free to do that here. Help yourself to a cup of tea or read a book from the library,’ he said, pointing to a comfy sofa beside a trickling fountain that definitely wasn’t in my imagination. (‘Are you sure it’s not a bit hippy-ish?’ asked Mum later that day.)
‘You may want to leave it a little while before you drive home,’ he suggested.
‘Mm, I might,’ I said, mercifully low enough on energy not to make some dreadful crack about festival security staff changing their stop-and-search tactics to confiscate acupuncture needles instead of hash.
And so I sat quietly and read my Haven leaflet. And when I’d read that, I moved across to the library (a 10-yard distance that doubtless took me about 20 minutes) and a shelf marked ‘cancer memoirs’. If I hadn’t been so acupuncture-doped, I’d probably have felt quite affronted, assuming – as I had – that I wasn’t just the Columbus of acupuncture, but of cancer memoirs, too. So I checked out the competition. The Breast Cancer Survivors Club. Cutting The Ties That Bind. Living Proof. The Journey. No Less A Woman. Brilliant books they most probably are, but I was sceptical of them. I wasn’t looking for a sobering, heartfelt tome. I wanted something different, something unconventional. And so, of all the books on the shelf, it was only really comic-strip memoir Cancer Vixen that seemed like it might be my cup of Rosie Lee. But then I stopped. And put it back. Because I was doing it again, wasn’t I?