Wednesday 31 December 2008

And never brought to mind.

As a person who's generally happiest when life is unexcitedly plodding along, I've always wondered how people cope with huge matters of fate-dealt chance that completely alter the course of their lives. Particularly famous people. Not your Katonas or Goodys or Houghtons; more the Presleys, Monroes and McCartneys of the world. Surely it's impossible to go from being ordinary theatre-worker Elvis Aaron to being crowned the King of Rock 'n' Roll without at least a little freak-out along the way? Marilyn went from spraying aeroplane parts to being recognised as an international sex symbol – then overdosed on barbituates. Macca went from being a 'shit-kicker from Liverpool' to half of the best songwriting duo of all time – then wrote the Frog Chorus. 

And while I'm far from being a talented singer/songwriter/actor/whatever (I purposely began a new paragraph there to separate myself from that lot), I can't help but think that my life-change – from happy-go-lucky, image-conscious twentysomething to balding, bloated cancer patient in six months – is along similar, freak-out-inducing lines (albeit without the global superstardom). So what's my freak-out going to be? Will I even have one? Have I had it already? (Shit, it's the kitten, isn't it? How very rock 'n' roll.) My point, though, is this: how can you ever reason with something as massive as The Bullshit? If I were to write my life story, how many chapters would it warrant? I don't want to be defined by having had breast cancer, but at the same time it is a pretty fucking big deal, so I do want people to know that I got through it. And while we're at it, I'd like a reward for getting through it, too. I appreciate how selfish and egotistical that sounds, but frankly I'm past caring. When people climb Everest or sprint quickly or jump high or give a brilliant movie performance, they get something in return. Well this is my Everest, and if I have to make my own medal from tin foil and leftover Christmas ribbon, so be it. I just can't get my head around the fact that you can go through all of this and be expected to carry on again as normal, with nothing to show for your experience.

I'll make no bones about it: I'm struggling to deal with The Bullshit as much now as I was mid-chemo. I may have got my head around the physical effects and the things I need to do in response to them (nothing, mostly – radio is making me more exhausted by the day), but the myriad mental matters are tying me in knots. Mid-sprout during my Christmas dinner, I found myself this close to throwing down my knife and fork, chucking my plate at the wall (like they do in the soaps) and screaming 'what the hell are we doing?' at P and my folks. In that moment, I could not believe that, regardless of what had happened this year, there we were, eating turkey and wearing paper hats. (My suspicion that a paper hat would substitute nicely for a headscarf was quickly quashed – from the shoulders up, I looked like a novelty eggcup.) The simple act of 'getting on with it' sometimes seems so preposterous in light of having been diagnosed with breast cancer, and every now and then I find myself irrationally angry with the rest of the world for going about its business as normal. EVERYTHING has changed for me, so why is everyone else carrying on as though nothing has happened?

Part of me wants to have a word with myself. 'For fuck's sake, you've got cancer. So what?' And admittedly, most of the time (this blog excepted) I'm pretty flippant about having breast cancer, preferring instead to make glib jokes, trivialise it and avoid giving it the grim respect it craves by smiling my way through as much as possible. But the other half of me appreciates – and is completely panicked by – the weight of this shitty episode, and wants to do something equally absurd in response. I sometimes feel like I'm perched on top of a volcano, and that at some point I'm going to do a Cameron Frye and completely flip out. I think it'd be only fair. Something as momentous as breast cancer in your twenties deserves a flip-out as big as Jacko's skin-colour-change (though I, too, am a fair bit paler now than I once was) or Britney's head-shave (insert obvious joke here). Drug dependency is out – I've had enough drugs to last me a lifetime this past few months – and I dare say I've already gone down the Elvis-inspired weight-gain route (Operation Elfin begins in earnest tomorrow). So maybe now's the time to get the tattoo, then? I guess at least that would be flip-out and reward in equal measure. 

I hope you'll forgive all this open-ended reflection, particularly after a week-long blog break (since The Tit is the closest thing I've got to work at the moment, I figured I'd grant myself some annual leave). Frankly, I blame new year, and the enforced analysis of the previous 12 months that it encourages. If you count out my brother's wedding, The Seldom Seen Kid, adopting Sgt Pepper, being at the American Idol final and getting an iPhone, there's very little I want to remember about 2008, ta very much. It's been an utter motherfucker of a year (I'd call it a cunt, but I promised Dad I'd never say that again), and I'm so anxious to get going on a new one that I'm playing party-pooper tonight and sleeping through midnight. (It's the same twisted logic you use when you're a kid, when going to bed early somehow means your birthday will arrive sooner.) 

I do have a few resolutions, though, and one of them is blog-based. Next year, I'd like Alright Tit to go from being about living with The Bullshit, to being about wrestling my way out of it. I'm done with breast cancer. Done with it and what it's done to me, the way it's made me look, the issues it's made me confront, the effect it's had on my life and the lives of my family and friends. Never before have I needed a new start as much as I do now. From this point on, Alright Tit is about getting over breast cancer, rather than getting through it.

Happy new year, all. Here's to 2009.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Radio Ga Ga.

I'm starting to wonder whether The Bullshit is just one big stunt designed to embarrass the arse off me. I'm half expecting a film crew to walk into my living room with a very shouty Ashton Kutcher who'll announce that it's all been an elaborate, made-for-TV hoax and that I have, indeed, been Punk'd. It is all quite ridiculous though, don't you think? The missing nipple, the baldness, the geriatric tiredness, the tattoos, the topless radiation treatment, the sunburn, the YMCA... and now The Birdie Song (last week's New Embarrassing Side-Effect #3). Oh, how I wish I could tell you I was kidding. 

By way of explaining the addition of yet more cheesy disco routines to my cancer treatment, it's fair to say that the novelty of radiotherapy-as-pretty-cool has well and truly worn off. In fact, it's started to wind me up to Grinch-like levels. (It's still a rave compared to chemotherapy, mind, but I hope the fact that it's bad enough to whinge about further emphasises just what a motherfucker chemo was.) I'd somehow managed to get away with its annoying effects after one week but, after the second, the radio-targeted cross-section of my body had become burned, painful, itchy and achy. It was starting to give my left arm jip, too, to the point where my fingers repeatedly swelled up like one of those giant foam hands you get at the baseball or in the audience on Gladiators (New Embarrassing Side-Effect #1). And so to the lymphoedema clinic, where they fitted me for the best, hi-tech, swelling-solving device that contemporary medical science has to offer: a glove. And not even a nice-looking glove, either (NES-E #2). It's cut-off-your-circulation tight, skin coloured (well, it is if you're Nancy Dell'Olio) and fingerless, with messy-looking seams on the outside. Frankly it makes me look like a reject from the Michael Jackson school of disguises. But even that isn't credibility-destroying enough for the nurses in the clinic, who've also taught me some daily physiotherapy exercises that are basically tantamount to doing the Birdie Song. Half of it's done sitting down, the rest lying on the floor. So actually I suppose it's more of a Birdie Song/Oops Upside Ya Head hybrid. Just bring on Agadoo and let's be done with it. 

The absurdity doesn't stop there. There's the sunburnt skin, too. Actually, that I had accounted for, but not the swelling. It's a good job bra-wearing is too painful at the moment, because my left boob is now so swollen that it's easily a cup size bigger than my right. There's no way I'd be able to squeeze it in there. Not that even the squeezing would be possible, now that my saline implant is hardening with every treatment. Remember when you were a kid and couldn't be arsed to put the lid back on the Play-Doh, so it went hard overnight? That's kind of what my left tit feels like. Gorgeous, huh?

Along the way, I've kept forgetting the still-unfathomable fact that all this began with a tumour in my boob. My lovely boob. One of the few parts of my body that I always said I wouldn't change (just like I always said that alopecia was among my biggest fears – seems you don't have to be careful what you wish for; more what you're afraid of). I especially wouldn't have wanted to change my left boob, though – that was always my favourite. (I just re-read that post, by the way, and had a little cry.) But that was six months ago – now it's a huge, round lump of hardened, red Play-Doh, without even the crowning glory of a nipple. A tiny part of me wishes that I'd let it have its day – a page-three photoshoot, some topless sunbathing, a cheeky chavvy flash on someone's shoulders in the crowd of an Oasis gig. (I fear now it's more a case of 'get your top on for the lads'.) It's only ever had what I consider a modest number of public outings – a number that won't be increasing, and not just because there's a ring on my finger.

I wonder what I'd do in the future sex-wise if I weren't married. I'm intrigued to know what single, Bullshit-befallen women do when they're recovered and having fun and ready to get back on the horse (ooer). Because how do you broach the subject? 'Single fabulous F, 5'7", GSOH, nipple a bit on the dodgy side, WLTM understanding man who won't scarper at the sight of her tits'? Seriously though, the I've-had-a-mastectomy line is something of a turn-off, no? Or is it the ultimate test of a man, to see whether or not he's bothered by it? Does it make you a bra-on girl for evermore? Should you even mention it beforehand, or just crack on and see whether he notices? 

At this stage of my reconstruction, there's no hiding the fact. As I've mentioned before, there's currently a Toffee Penny-shaped circle where my nipple should be (enjoy your Quality Street this Christmas, eh?). Hardly the stuff that wet dreams are made of, I'm sure you'll agree. And, as I discovered in radio last week – when Pepsi & Shirlie became Bucks Fizz thanks to the addition of two male nurses in the treatment room – P's not the only one who has to look me in the nipple and keep a straight face. So far, all but two of the medical professionals I've seen have been women, and the two men I've seen have been considerably older than me. But last week, all of a sudden, there were two lads my age charged with the task of radiating my bust (and neck and shoulder and armpit, but I'm less bothered about those bits), and I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of me and my bizarre bosom. (Help! I'm running out of tit-terms!)

Not that the opinion of other men should matter, of course. Luckily, all I need to concern myself with is whether or not P can stand the sight of a naked new-me, and experience would suggest that it's not a problem. But of course that didn't stop me worrying about it all weekend. And so yesterday, I decided to test the water with the radio boys, and do my best to judge whether I completely grossed them out. Since I've now begun a daily routine of strutting in, all headscarf and lip gloss, and indulging in a morning mini-flirt with the boy on reception, I decided to extend it a bit further down the corridor and try my luck in the treatment room, too. Radio Boy 1 was Play-Doh in my hands: one highly unoriginal comment about being topless in a dark room, and we were bang into the banter. Radio Boy 2 proved harder to break. I threw everything at it, from the local drinking holes to their Christmas-party scandal, but nothing doing. And just when I gave up and resorted to my usual inane gossip-column chatter – this time about Rihanna and how I'm making her my hair muse – I finally got my answer. Radio Boy 2 is, indeed, appalled by the sight of my tits. But it turns out that not even Rihanna is his thing. He much prefers Chris Brown. So I'm happy to admit defeat on those grounds. And anyway, much like my status quo on the nipple front, one out of two ain't bad.

Thursday 18 December 2008

And in the end...

I thought therapy was going to be a giggle. A good excuse to talk about myself for an hour without having to worry about the effect on whoever's listening. An opportunity to go to a hospital appointment where I don't get stripped, prodded, drawn on and examined. And, if I'm totally honest, I thought it'd end up being a bit of a pantomime, in which I'd play the part of screw-up cancer patient, be made to talk about my parents and end up strutting out after two sessions with my nose in the air, declaring that I'm above such wanky nonsense. Simple, right? Oh no it isn't. (Did I really just use a pantomime pun?) As it turns out, Brain Training isn't quite the cakewalk I'd anticipated.

Even the waiting room is an endurance test. Actually, it's less a room, more a corner of a corridor that's so small you pretty much brush knees with whoever's sitting opposite you. It's the kind of closeness that forces conversation, however much you might rather stare at your Converse. And, in the psychiatric department of a cancer hospital, there's only really one topic up for discussion. Both of the women in there with me this week were cancer old-hats, dealing with the recurrence of cancers they'd already had within the last five years. Twice in five years? Shit, some folk just can't catch a break.

Which is half the reason behind me pursuing the Brain Training in the first place. In short, I was worried about what would happen next. Once I've checked off beating cancer on my to-do list, then what? After such a monumental bump in the road, what follows? Or at least that's what I thought I was worried about. And I'd have gone on thinking that was the problem, had I not met Mr Marbles. He's the Columbo of therapy. He leads me off in one direction, and just when I think I've spewed forth everything I have to offer, he plays the 'just one more thing' card and yanks out the real issue quicker than you can say trenchcoat (or corduroy slacks). So there I am, having a guilt-free whinge about not knowing what to do next when he turns school careers advisor on me and asks where I'd like to be in six months, a year, two years and five years. I talked about the fun I'm going to have at Glastonbury, the pubs I'm looking forward to meeting my mates in, the funky haircut I want, the work I'm anxious to get back into, the holidays I'm going to plan, the house I'd like to buy, the book I intend to write and the butterfly-like change from being the girl who has cancer into the girl who beat cancer. Or, better yet, the girl. (Is it still okay to call yourself a girl when you're 30?) And there it is. Case closed. My concern wasn't my ability to make a life-plan (that exercise was proof enough that my arrangement-making skills are as good as ever), but that cancer forces might conspire to cut short the plans I do make. By the end of my quick-fire life-planning with Mr Marbles, I'd burst into tears. 'Forget all that,' I told him. 'In five years, I just want to still be here.'

The trouble with cancer (ha, that should be the title of my book) is that, as soon as you're diagnosed, everyone's talking about your chance of survival. And, as though the diagnosis weren't frightening enough, the five and ten-year survival rates make for pretty grim reading. (Despite the size and spread of my cancer, my number was 'about 70%', thanks to my age and the most kick-ass cancer treatment NHS money can buy.) But then the whirlwind of drugs and hospital visits begins, and everyone suddenly stops talking about your chance of survival, opting instead for the can-do attitude of when rather than if. And you get swept along with it. Frankly, you've got no other choice: everything becomes about putting one foot in front of the other, and five-year survival seems light years away when you're more concerned with getting through the next 24 hours. But now that the chemo horrors have thankfully come to an end, and I'm squinting in the face of the disco lights at the end of the tunnel, I've been back to worrying about that 30%-ish chance of not being around to stick a middle finger up to the statistics.

I don't often get angry. I like to think I'm pretty que sera sera (if you brush aside refereeing decisions, misplaced apostrophes, X Factor single releases and the BBC's insistence on wheeling out Heather Small to sing at sporting ceremonies). When it comes to the big issues, my feathers aren't all that easy to ruffle. But the fact that I've had to confront how long I've got left at the age of 29 is a pretty fucking difficult pill to swallow. It's unfair and it's painful and not just for me. And, for those very reasons, I've done my darndest to avoid talking about it. But better out than in, I guess. Like Mr Marbles said, I've always spoken of breast cancer as an equal battle of body and mind. I've been brutally honest about the physical issues that The Bullshit has thrown up, so why not apply the same principle to the mental issues? Hell, I've spoken about my bowel movements and my missing nipple, so why not my mortality? Well, because I'm British. And we just don't talk about death, do we?

Death is the ultimate unmentionable. It's the elephant in the room that we're all tip-toeing around. It's what you immediately think of upon being told you have cancer (well, with me it was hair first, death second). And yet, as soon as the diagnosis is done with, nobody mentions it again. The reason I've not previously said all of the above – and below – is that I don't want to upset my family (now, I'm hoping that some kind of relief will come from the fact that I've finally spoken – nay, blogged – about it). To bring it down to crude basics, if I die, I die – I'd not have to deal with it any more than that. Which is why it's more difficult for your family and friends to have to think about. And why, for me at least, it's harder to consider the death of someone I love than it is to consider dying myself. But if that's the case, so be it. There's not a damn thing I can do about it, other than to keep doing what I'm doing. What will be, will be.

The strange thing is, I've often thought that having cancer has felt a bit like experiencing all the best bits of dying, without me actually having to pop my clogs. ('The best bits of dying'... sheesh, I don't half have a dark sense of humour.) And, always keen to find a bright side to these things, I actually reckon that makes me lucky. I've smelled the flowers at my own funeral. When someone dies, they don't always get to know how loved they were. But I've been left in no doubt. I've been told 'I love you' more often than I ever expected to hear it. It's still not made me pleased I got cancer, mind, but without it I wouldn't have appreciated the number of terrific people in my life. The beyond-compare best mates who've walked every step with me. The marvellous mates who've made their presence known. The friends-of-friends and their kind words. Even the total strangers who've restored my faith in the man on the street (bloke outside KFC, count yourself out of that). And my family. (Lordy, this is reading like an Oscar acceptance speech.) Actually, I've learned nothing about my family. Never in my wonderful life have I been in any doubt about their magnificence. They have, of course, been peerless in their love and support, and I'd fight to the death anyone who said they were anything short of perfect.

It's not often you get to look back on your life (so far) in this way. And while on one hand the realisation of how good I've got it means that I have more to lose, on the other hand it gives me so much more to fight for. When I put it in terms of the happy, fulfilled life I've led even before I've hit 30, the issue of 'the end' somehow seems a bit less scary. Not that I plan on letting the five-year (hell, even 50-year) survival stats get in my way. There's a lot left on my to-do list. I've got to see Derby County win the Premiership, for one. I've got festivals to get drunk at, books to write, houses to decorate, a husband to grow old with and a blonde wig ready and waiting for my octogenarian years. Old fashioned it may be, but I dare say it'll look a heck of a lot more hip than a blue rinse.

Friday 12 December 2008

Wig out.

I kinda like radiotherapy so far; it's been pretty cool. (Actually it's been pretty scorching, but up to now the sunburn it's given me is no worse than I managed on honeymoon, when I singed the right side of my face – with perfect precision, I might add – while my iPod distracted me from the factor 30.) And yeah, the side effects are going to build to the point where I'll probably come to regret that first sentence but, for the moment at least, radio is nothing I can't handle. Plus it's thrown up a very interesting discovery, but more of that later. 

The treatment room where I'm having my radiotherapy is just down the corridor from the techno-tastic Starship Enterprise recording studio where I had my planning appointment, but looks much the same: space-age and hi-tech, but in a very 1980s way. It's silvery-grey with Commodore-esque computer screens and seemingly unattached keyboards in every corner, with bright strip lighting that occasionally dims to darkness. I was half expecting Five Star to walk in and re-film the System Addict video. The radio girls on my shift (let's call them Pepsi & Shirlie) have clearly caught onto the 80s theme, too – four treatments in and so far their stereo has played Eurythmics, New Order and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. After shouting out numbers over the sound of the music and drawing on me with felt pen, they leave me alone in the room to let the radioactive waves do their work, all the while watching me on CCTV as I lie still, half way through the YMCA, humming along to Now That's What I Call The 1980s.

When Pepsi & Shirlie come back, we fill our 30-second conversation window with utter fluff, as they unstrap me from the leather bed (don't get excited) and move the machines back to a position where I won't headbutt them on the way out. I like Pepsi & Shirlie. They're young, spritely, up for a giggle and constantly taking the piss out of each other. But my relationship with them is weird. It's not like chemo, where you've got all day to natter with the nurses. With radio, you're not in there long enough for a proper chat, so instead you end up with scattered nuggets of random information about each other. What I know about Pepsi & Shirlie so far is that they like to ask about the weather, that Shirlie's going ice skating this week, that Pepsi prefers Gary but thinks Jason's been looking hot recently, and that they both use their later shifts as an excuse to go late-night shopping. And in return, they know that my kitten scratched the hell out of my left hand when I tried to wet-wipe her, that I'd bought and wrapped all my Christmas presents by mid-November, that I agree on the Gary/Jason front and that I've ditched my wig in favour of headscarves.

That's right, people. I'm scrapping the syrup. Or at least for the most part. You might think this an odd decision, particularly in light of my last post, but if I've learned one thing from having cancer it's that you can't always trust your opinions (hell, I've gone from animal-hater to cat-owner in the space of six months). It was all a bit of an accident, really, but by Monday it was clear that my wig needed washing (it only needs doing every three weeks, but then takes 24 to 48 hours to dry), so I had no choice but to go without it for the day. And, as I was pleasantly surprised to discover, I felt far less self-conscious wearing a headscarf than I ever had in my wig.

Actually I fibbed a bit back there. I did have a choice other than the headscarf: Wig 2 (AKA Erika). You might remember that some months back, mid-tantrum about losing my hair, I decided that wig-slaggery was the only way forward; that if I had to wear a wig, I'd employ a New Wig Army of different styles to suit my moods. As it happens, I soon came to hate Wig 2 even more than I hated Wig 1 and, to this point, it's had a grand total of three public outings, thanks to it being waaay too old-fashioned for a lass of 29. Wig 1's not much better, mind (I'm yet to see a contemporary, cutting-edge wig style for anyone under 50), but it became Default Wig when I realised that, actually, I just wasn't brave enough to defy my cancer-denying disguise and flip the bird to the world with my different wig-looks. What I wanted was to appear as though I'd just had a new haircut (albeit one that didn't suit me), and for people to see me without seeing The Bullshit. But that's brought its fair share of problems too.

I don't think I've ever communicated just how much I've loathed wearing a wig. (See, loathed. In bold and everything.) I hate that wig every bit as much as I hate the cancer that necessitated it. Aside from the fact that it's hugely unflattering, it's also itchy, annoying, I'm constantly aware of it, it embarrasses me and, frankly, in certain lights it's a bit on the ginger side. It's like carrying Geri Halliwell around on my head all day. And imagine having to prop her up on your bathroom windowsill every evening, where she'll freak you out when you get up in the night and be the first in-focus thing you see every morning. I've even stopped closing our bathroom door in the hope that the kitten might find it and claw it to pieces while I'm out.

And that's just the beginning of my reasons for relegating the wig. For another thing, it's shot to shit. Seriously, £200 and it's coming to pieces after six months. I've had 12 quid Primark shoes that have lasted longer. And while, on some level, it looks slightly more natural the messier it gets, it's lost that hair-like feeling (now it's gone, gone, gone) and feels less like living locks and more like someone's taken a can of hairspray and a cigarette lighter to a bale of hay. And then there's all the fiddling. Pulling the fringe forward to make it look more like the kind of hairstyle I'd wear, then pushing it back again when it tickles my bald eyelids. Taking every opportunity to push a furtive finger through the mesh to scratch the top of my head. Yanking it down at the back so it sits straight, then having to tuck in the label so it doesn't stick out at the back of my neck (yes, my hair has a label). Using loo visits as an excuse to whip the thing off and fan myself with it while I'm having a wee. Enough. I'm done with it.

Part of the reason I took the wig route in the first place was that I still wanted to feel desired. You may recall, early on in my wig-wearing days, how chuffed I was when a man in the street checked me out. Five months on, I've even lost the desire to be desired, which is saying something given the fit boy on reception in radiotherapy. But oddly – when you consider the obvious, cancer-cards-on-the-table effects – there are vanity reasons behind the headscarf-wearing, too. For one, I'm soon going to have short enough (or should that be long enough?) hair to be able to go without a wig or headscarf anyway. And since I've had long locks all my life, I've got to learn to stop hiding behind my hair. (Translation: before I unveil my newborn-baby-chic hairdo, I need to get people used to seeing my moon face.) Then there's the paranoia it'll spare me: I'd rather people came to the cancer conclusion after thinking, 'That girl's wearing a headscarf' than 'Do you reckon that's a wig?'. What I said earlier this week hasn't changed. I still hate people having to see me like this (and by people I mean my friends and family, not your average punter on the street). But still, no matter how much eyeliner I apply or hair I pretend to have, the paranoia is always there. Are they wondering what I look like with no hair? Can they see the redness around my eyes? Is my wig further down on the left than the right? It's exhausting. So I'm giving up the ghost (well, except for special occasions, perhaps: weddings, parties, posh restaurants, the football...). I'm coming out of the cancer closet. And, to paraphrase George Michael, the game that I'm giving away just isn't worth playing. Freedom! 

Monday 8 December 2008

The Incredibles.

So then, sex. (Thought that'd get your attention.) And, more specifically, the wig on/wig off question. Oh come on, don't be coy. Of course you've thought about it. I did nothing but think about it, once the wig-wearing reality had set in. Don't be fooled, here. It's not like P and I are having loads of sex at the moment. Cancer doesn't really allow much room/energy/desire for sex, and even simply knowing that The Bullshit is in your life kind of kills your mojo. But the wig-or-no-wig issue has been something I have, on occasion, had to call into question since my barnet did a bunk, and it's something I thought about once more the other night while watching The Sopranos (yes, again).

Remember Svetlana, the one-legged, chain-smoking Russian home help? And remember the episode where she has sex with Tony on the sofa, while her prosthetic leg rests against the wall? Well it got me thinking about what's worse: having sex with a woman without her prosthetic leg, or without her wig? Clearly having no leg is far, far worse than losing your hair through chemo (the medical world is a bit behind in the growing-a-new-limb stakes) but, thinking short-term, I'm tempted to conclude that most people would find a wigless partner more of a turn-off. Because, let's be honest, did you really spend your last shag looking at your other half's legs? 

I'm lucky. Fortunately P is only interested in wig-off mode. And for more than just sex. The moment we get home and our front door closes behind us, he's quick to whip off the syrup, despite the not-so-hot nature of what's underneath it. I'm still surprised by this. Not surprised that I'm married to a man so wonderful that he prefers his wife au naturel, but surprised that anyone can possibly prefer to look at me in the way that cancer intended. Since chemo ended, I've been busy convincing myself that the worst is over. But is it? Because, as much as I've trivialised it here, among the worst parts of The Bullshit for me has been – and continues to be – having to let other people see me like this.

I really wish I could have done a Kylie and fucked off to France for the duration of my treatment. Granted, with the paparazzi intrusion and all, she had more reason to turn recluse than I have, but that's not to say that I don't want to shut myself away any more than she did. And I'll be honest, I'm no Catherine Zeta-Jones in even my finest moments, but I am the kind of girl who only ever wants to be seen at her best, and not just looks-wise. I've cancelled many a night out after a bad day at work that's left me narked, or a bad hair day that's left me curly. (Curly! Ha! What a wonderful problem to have.) So now that The Bullshit has washed its hands of my appearance, leaving me bald, bloated, blotchy and with a hefty dose of the blues, it takes hours of persuading – not to mention preening – myself before I'm game enough to even head out of the door. 

And yes, the worst of the treatment is over (at least I hope it is – phase three of The Bullshit begins this afternoon with my first radiotherapy session). But the worst of this kind of agony is far from finished, as P and I were forced to discover last week on our lovely break in the Lakes. Because, no matter how far up the motorway you drive, and however little space you leave in your suitcase, cancer still finds a way to come with you. Don't get me wrong, we had a wonderful week (the scenery/snow/sloe gin/Sopranos combo is a winner), but it was a bit like coming off a fast-moving treadmill that you know you've got to jump back on as soon as you've caught your breath. It did give us a breather, but it was a breather that forced us to think about the life that was still waiting for us 300 miles south, steadfastly refusing to go away. It was brilliant to step out of survival mode for a few days but, by Friday night, the tormenting thought of what was yet to come loomed large over the Lake District. It's like I told Mr Marbles: The Bullshit is every bit as much a mental battle as it is a physical one, and the seemingly endless, miserable anguish is unquestionably as difficult as enduring the horrors of chemo, or the heart-stopping bombshell of the diagnosis (hell, the diagnosis is a carnival compared to what follows). The medical world may know how to kill off a tumour, but it doesn't know how to rebuild the self-esteem that the tumour-busting treatment ruined in the process. So coming to terms with the magnitude of breast cancer, and the way it's changed your life, body and personality beyond recognition, is an absurdly difficult task. And it's bound to overwhelm you every now and then, leaving you and your husband weeping into each other's dressing gowns in a hotel room in the hills, utterly unimpressed by the spectacular sunset that's competing for your attention.

After the gut-wrenching, hideous heartache of the previous night, the following evening we dolled ourselves up (or, at least, P slept for two hours while I applied my disguise), ordered some champagne and headed down for one of those amazing, drawn-out, drunken dinners where you talk for hours on end, completely ignoring the rest of the room. It was the first time we'd dared review the story so far. We talked about the play-fight we had that came to a sudden halt once P grabbed hold of a lump in my left boob. We talked about changing everyone's lives forever as P made that impossible phonecall to my Dad with news of my diagnosis. The first time I looked down after my mastectomy to see the alien circle of skin where my nipple once was. The way none of us knew what to do, how to react or where to put ourselves when I fell so ill after the first chemo. The look on my brother and sister-in-law's faces when they saw how the second chemo was affecting me. The first time P had to unblock the toilet of masses of thick, blonde hair. The tantrum I threw at Tills when trying on my first wig. The helplessness of my father-in-law, and the chicken broth that he wished was a cure. The people who've been so fantastic and supportive, and those who've suddenly disappeared. And the way I used to refuse to even fetch a paper without first straightening my hair, and how ludicrous that seems now that my looks and self-confidence have sunk to their lowest. It's only when you break it down like that, daringly pausing to remember the enormity of what you've been through, that you appreciate how completely bloody incredible you've been to endure everything you have. After six months like that, P and I ought to have been throwing ourselves off Scafell Pike, let alone crying into each other's arms before ordering room service. 

Monday 1 December 2008

You won't like me when I'm angry.

A couple of nights ago, P and I were on the way home from our friends' wedding, feeling suitably heartwarmed yet pretty knackered (ie, a definite wig-off moment) and P needed to nip out of the car for something or other (okay, a KFC). So we pulled up on a double yellow line, blocking a driveway (get us; proper badass criminals) and P jumped out for some late-night chicken. While he was in there, a bloke came along and gestured through the car window that he needed us to move back a bit. I opened the door and told him no problem, we'd have done it by the time he got to his car, then sat stunned in the passenger seat as he moved a step closer for a better view of me, looked amused, pointed a finger at my head and said, 'You've got no hair.' And what do you say to that, eh? The man was right; I've got no hair. (Actually, I do have a wee bit of wispy hair now, but it's certainly not enough to see in the dark, nor is it prominent enough to stop me looking like the dying, mask-less Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.) But, hair or no hair, I didn't need him to remind me of my situation, thank you very much, particularly after such a lovely night.

I'm upset about this odd exchange, of course, but for more reasons other than the tactless tit saying what he did. For starters, I missed an open-goal chance to use a retort I've been practising since I first started losing my hair. I'm not proud to admit it, but I've been mentally preparing myself for this perfect play-the-cancer-card moment for months now (or one like it – in my head it normally involves me overhearing someone whispering about my wig). What I should have done outside KFC was stare back very seriously, giving him my best ill-person face, then nod sagely and say, 'That's because I've got cancer.' With careful, drawn-out emphasis on the word cancer. And slightly raised eyebrows. Just to make him feel really bad. But instead I frowned, looked at myself in the wing mirror (I don't know why; it's not like I had to check whether he was lying) and said, 'Er. Yeah.' Talk about a missed opportunity. I might have even got a boneless bucket out of the bastard. 

I'm kicking myself for another reason, too. Because, at the point at which a random bloke on the street chose to point and stare at my chemo-created baldness, I was enjoying a blissful, not-thinking-about-cancer moment. Not that I knew I was enjoying it, mind. To me it was just a moment. I didn't realise how blissful it had been until the words 'you've got no hair' were said. And that's what's got my goat. The dickhead ruined my moment. Granted, there have been thankfully more of these such moments over the past week or so (and I'm hoping there'll be more still, now P and I have escaped up to the Lakes) and that's unquestionably a Good Thing. Or, at least, mostly a Good Thing. Because you can't stay in those moments forever. At some point you inevitably find yourself back in the reality. And it's a tricky see-saw to negotiate: I'm pleased to have some Bullshit-free moments again, but it hits pretty hard when you snap back out of them, and it's difficult to manage when you can't predict when they'll start wringing out your tear ducts like a wet flannel. 

Over the past few months I've got used to having good weeks and bad weeks. And, in neat little units of one week, it's an emotional ride I can handle. But recently I've not known from one moment to the next whether I'm going to feel happy or upset or frustrated or angry or worried or tearful or whatever else. It's a bit like having PMS all the time, only without the periods. And I'm wary of it getting the better of me. I've always had trouble with temperamental people – I like to know how I'm going to find someone. There are a lot of personality traits I can overlook, but that gamble of whether someone's going to be super-chirpy or drag-everyone-else-down miserable is something I'm just not interested in being around. I've always harboured a secret desire to drop valium in the water supply to even out everyone's moods and see if it would make the world a better place. Actually the only thing stopping me resorting to valium is that I'm not sure whether you can take it with Tamoxifen. That's the hormone therapy I started today, by the way. The very same I'll be taking each day for the next five years. (On another point, I'd love to meet the person who added the word 'therapy' to all these cancer treatments. Fluffy robes and essential oils they ain't.) To put it bluntly, Tamoxifen = menopause. And menopause = moody. Along with all kinds of other gorgeous side-effects, of course: weak bones, weight gain, hot flushes and dryness in places you could do without being so desert-like. But each of those things I can do something about (particularly the last one – a couple of months back I had a lube-tip from the unlikeliest of sources, and didn't realise how grateful I was for it until now). The mood-swing stuff, though, is something I'm just going to have to get used to. At the same time as making sure it doesn't impact too much on my nearest and dearest – God knows they've had enough to put up with. (That letting-it-affect-my-family thing started and ended this week, by the way, on the phone to my old man. One second we were talking about London traffic, the next I was having a mini-breakdown about not being able to go to the hospital so often once radiotherapy is over.)

All that said, I'm not going to give myself too much of a hard time about this one (Mr Marbles, if you're reading, consider that a breakthrough). Because, actually, in this situation more than most, emotions just aren't that easy to separate. So I reckon it's okay to feel several conflicting things at one time without staring down the barrel of multiple personality disorder. It's okay to feel angry that you're spending so much time at the hospital, yet worried about one day not seeing your doctors so often. It's okay to appreciate the seriousness of radiotherapy, yet find the YMCA position hilarious. It's okay to want to spend a lifetime in the Lakes with nobody other than your husband, yet feel disappointed that you won't have kids of your own to share it with. It's okay to be completely repulsed by your own appearance, yet still be thankful you don't look like Amy Winehouse. It's okay to feel ecstatic that the worst part of your treatment is over, yet pissed off that there's still more to come. It's okay to forget about having cancer for one wonderful minute, yet find yourself angry when that moment has passed. And it's okay to accept that your hormone therapy might make you a little unpredictable, yet still try hard to keep your mood swings under wraps. That said, if some arsewipe tries smirking at my slaphead again, I can't be held responsible for my angry actions, so help me Tamoxifen.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

To boldly go.

Something weird happened yesterday. Either I had my radiotherapy planning appointment or I was abducted by aliens. And no, for once I'm not talking about one of my trippy dreams. (Although, while we're onto trippy dreams, I had a corker the other night. All the cats in the neighbourhood were having a mini civil-war-style dispute and Sgt Pepper – being the highest-ranked in the local cat army – decided that the only way forward would be to get a human involved. So she woke me up in the middle of the night, wearing glasses for some reason, and asked me – yes, asked me – to come out into the garden and help her sort out the feline feud. Turns out, I'm quite the peacemaker.)

But back to the weird. (Well, weirder.) For an actually-pretty-serious hospital appointment, I found this one the most entertaining yet. It was like a cross between Star Trek and the 'Cartman Gets an Anal Probe' episode of South Park. Except instead of a satellite up my arse, I've been left with three very questionable-looking tattoos on my chest. I'd tell you that they're preferable to an anal probe but actually I'm not so sure, given that I now look like someone's been playing dot-to-dot in my cleavage with a blue biro. The rest of the planning appointment was much more space-age, thankfully. You gown up and lie topless on a black leather bed (not as S&M as it sounds, I assure you) in the middle of a huge, futuristic room that looks like it ought to be a recording studio on the Starship Enterprise. Then the radiographer versions of Captain Kirk and Uhura come out from behind the mixing desk to press buttons on a bunch of different computers that whirr around your body before fixing you into the unnatural position (again, not in a kinky way) that you've got to stay in for the next 50 minutes, and for each subsequent radiotherapy session. And who'd have thought that years of cheesy discos could prepare you for such an event? Because, until the end of January, for 20 minutes every weekday, you'll be able to find me on a hospital bed doing a stationary version of the YMCA. Actually it's more like the YM. Y with the left arm, M with the right. (And it's a good job; I've always found C and A to be the trickier parts of the dance.)

So there you are, like a spare member of the Village People, unable to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation because the Enterprise crew have warned you not to move. And considering the intricate, no-margin-for-error measuring they're having to do to make sure the rays will always target the right area, I guess it's fair enough. It was all rulers, angles and trigonometry, with all kinds of crew members looking serious, shouting out numbers and talking to each other in a complicated, technical language (Klingon, perhaps?). Now don't get me wrong, they're very lovely, but the radiotherapy staff are completely different to the chemo crowd. The 'therapy' part of each treatment kids you into thinking that the two must somehow be linked, when actually they're at opposite ends of the cancer stratosphere. In chemo, you can have a bit of a giggle with the nurses while they're hooking you up to your drip (the smile's soon wiped off your face by the time you get home, mind). But radiotherapy seems to be that bit more serious – more of an exact science – so joking about with the staff (while you're lying on the bed, at least) is a bit like knocking the back of Steve Davis's snooker cue when he's about to pot the black for the world championship.

Now I think about it, maybe all this business with permanent biro dots isn't actually as necessary as they'd have you believe? Maybe it's just the radiographers' concession to having a laugh in the office? Because, really, how serious can you be about a medical practice that requires you to be tattooed? If I'd known about that convenient little loophole, I could have used it as a teenager. 'Look, Mum, I know you don't approve of my body art, but I can explain. The medical community made me do it.' Not that I'd have chosen blue dots as a teenager, mind. But then, 'I heart Gary Barlow' might have sent the radiotherapy waves all skew-whiff.

Anyway, after the acid-trip of hospital appointments, we're finally all systems go for the radiotherapy to start a week on Monday. And, this Friday aside, I don't have to go back to the hospital until then. Result or what? I fear I'll get withdrawal symptoms and start showing up there out of habit, but fortunately P and I are taking our chance to escape for a few days and are heading up to the cold weather of the Lakes so I can test out the head-warming capabilities of my wig. (Sgt Pepper's staying with my folks. Dad revealed on the phone last night that Mum's planning to 'spoil that cat so much she won't want to go back home'. Consider yourself rumbled, Ma.) And get this – before our mini-break, I'm even getting the chance to dust off my gladrags to go to an awards do with work. I know! An actual night out! (Is it just me, or are things beginning to look up?) Thankfully there's still one dress in my wardrobe I can fit into. Quite a busty little number, as it goes. I'm secretly hoping someone will pull me to one side and say, 'Excuse me, love, you've got a biro mark in your cleavage.'

Saturday 22 November 2008

I got my head checked.

Well, I've done it. I've crossed the line. Turned to the dark side. I am now a woman in therapy. Actually, they don't call it 'therapy' at my hospital. It's 'counselling'. But since I'm not fond of either of those words, I'm going to call it Brain Training instead. A bit like on the Nintendo DS, but they don't make you do maths, count syllables or draw kangaroos.

And what are you supposed to wear to your Brain Training debut? What kind of outfit is chic but cancer-comfy, straight-talking but not straight-laced and shows personality but doesn't scream crazy? (A polo neck/floral dress/black opaques/flat boots combo, apparently.) And when you get there, are you supposed to smile at your counsellor – sorry, Brain Trainer – or look sullen and traumatised? Are you allowed to make jokes? Is it okay to cry? Clearly, I went into this with very little knowledge of therapy. The little I do know I've learned from Tony Soprano, and I'm not convinced he's the best example of how to act. (Actually I've watched so much Sopranos this week that I had to stop myself asking for Dr Melfi at reception.)

Even after Thursday's session, I'm still not sure how much I know about therapy. But now, at least, I don't think it really matters. Because what is there to know, other than whether or not you like it, and whether or not you think it can do you any good? As it goes, I'm sold already. Not that I wasn't trying to talk myself out of it in the waiting room, mind. At that point, the slightest excuse would have done: I was having a bad wig day, I didn't have any tissues, my chipped nails would give the wrong impression. In the end I took my mind off doing a runner by reading the posters in the waiting room and, just as I spotted one calling for patients to judge a poetry competition and not-so-surreptitiously balanced on my chair to take a photo of the contact details (ie, just as I reached new lows of spoddy and uncool), in walked my counsellor. Let's call him Mr Marbles, since it's his job to find them.

Mr Marbles steadfastly ignored my pleasantries about what kind of week he'd had as we walked along the oddly familiar corridor to his office (can you call it an office if it's got a coffee table instead of a desk, table lamps instead of strip lighting, a box of tissues and a cushion on the chair?). My corridor-induced déja vu suddenly made sense when I heard the instantly recognisable sound of Crap FM coming from the cupboard-like room several doors down. A sneaky look as I walked by left me surprised to discover that the figure in there, surrounded by boxes of grey syrups and tapping their feet to Destiny's Child, was not, in fact, Wig Man, but an equally bored-looking and lacking-in-job-satisfaction Wig Woman. I giggled on my way into the Brain Training room, then stopped when I realised it might make me look too jovial and unworthy of free NHS therapy. 

And then – at the risk of depriving you of the good stuff – the next thing I knew it was 50 minutes later, I had a handful of crumpled tissues, redder eyes than I went in with and was listening to Mr Marbles read out the notes he'd written throughout the seemingly lightning-speed session. By heck, you don't half get going when someone gives you the opportunity to talk about yourself. Poor sod could hardly get a peep in. When I finally gave him the chance to speak, though, every single thing he said was another word to further convince me that the Brain Training is a good idea. Just like everyone else I've encountered at the hospital, Mr Marbles is great. Again, I felt that now-familiar, wonderful, uber-professional mix of total understanding and a means-business determination to help. He's sensible and serious, but not to the point of being unable to crack a smile (particularly at mention of my keeping-occupied-by-adopting-a-kitten tactic and the 'can't come out, I'm washing my hair' gag. I'll say it again: why do I always turn into such a goon when I'm around medical professionals?). He puts you at immediate ease, doesn't pass judgement and never lets his face give away what he's thinking. Plus he wears corduroy slacks. Of course he wears corduroy slacks. I'd have been disappointed if he didn't wear corduroy slacks.

Despite my initial 'go ahead, therapise me' attitude (a bit like sitting in a comedy club, arms folded, thinking 'come on then, funny boy, make me laugh'), I was very quick to open up to Mr Marbles. Maybe it was the firm handshake, the reassuring voice, or the fact that he didn't once tilt his head or treat me like a sympathy-worthy cancer patient. Either way, I started the session with ruler-straight posture and my handbag perched on my lap (clearly I wanted him to meet me and my Marc Jacobs) and ended it with casually crossed legs and my spine comfortably moulded to the back of the chair.

We spoke about survival instincts and concerns and expectations and outlooks and fears. I talked endlessly, sobbed and apologised a fair bit. He nodded, scribbled notes in an orange file and revealed that the best-known way to feel instantly better is to make sure your husband buys you a pair of Louboutins. (He also identified humour as one of my coping strategies. I fear it's more sarcasm.) The whole coping-strategy shiz is a funny one, though. Not least because the words 'coping strategy' sound like something David Brent would say. But, semantics aside, I reckon that, in a roundabout way, I'd already realised that I had a few coping strategies up my sleeve. I'd just been calling them 'projects', is all. (Yep, we're back to the old blogging/baking/kitten equation.)

Naturally, that conversation backed me into a better-tell-him-about-the-blog corner. And so I did. I told him how often I posted, the kind of things I blog about, what writing it has meant to me, how it's helped my family and friends understand my experience of breast cancer and how it's made me realise that I want to keep writing, even when The Bullshit is a distant memory. (I didn't call it The Bullshit, by the way. Probably best to save the expletives until session three or four.) Mr Marbles asked how people had responded to the blog, whether I'd ever re-read it from the beginning (I haven't) and how I think it'd make me feel if I were reading, as opposed to writing, it. I started to worry that he'd ask for the web address, too, but (a) I'm sure that'd be against some sort of Counsellor's Code and (b) after spending all day listening to people's neuroses, the last thing he'll want to do when he gets home is read 60,000 words of the same. He's got telly to watch and wine to drink and slacks to iron. I'm still paranoid that he's on here somewhere, though, reading about the constipation and the pubes-as-eyelashes and preparing to have me committed. Shit, what if he leaves a comment? Right, I'm heading straight to my blog settings. There's a gadget that enforces background checks on anonymous commenters, right?

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Fade out.

I've been thinking more about when it is that I'll finally have my Nicole Kidman moment. You know, the punching-the-air-in-relieved-celebration thing. Not that I'm comparing having breast cancer to being married to Tom Cruise, of course. The Bullshit must be a cake-walk compared to that. But at least she had the chance to celebrate a divorce.

Whether or not it's really the conclusion, the goal I'm aiming for is getting the last bit of surgery out of the way in April – it's the time at which I'll finally begin to feel like my healthy old self again plus, the way I see it, surgery is how all of this started, so that's how it ought to finish. My breast cancer road began with the removal of my left boob, and my finish-line medal is the chance to get it back for good. Of course the reality, however, is that reconstructive surgery isn't actually the end. In fact there is no 'end' to speak of. And it's really frustrating to realise that there's never going to be a clearly defined finale to punctuate this period of my life. Especially as you know how much I like to punctuate. 

If you count out the surgery, it all starts and ends so differently (and by 'ends' I mean 'fizzles out'). Life-changing and heartbreaking and terrifying and shocking and dark and disastrous as the moment is, there's a ceremony around being told that you have breast cancer. There's a sombre appointment in a specialist's office with all manner of people on hand to answer your questions, hand you a tissue and bring you a cup of tea. You make the hardest phonecalls of your life, and break the hearts of your parents. You quickly get hold of your closest friends and hurriedly sort things out with your employers. You send a hundred emails breaking the same devastating news or, in my case, kill two birds with one group email instead (I've kept the email I sent, and can't help but shake my head and laugh patronisingly at it. The ill-prepared, misinformed, cancer's-messing-with-the-wrong-girl tone makes me cringe at how stupidly ignorant I was). You get sent cards, flowers, chocolates, books, toiletries, DVDs, magazines, poems, soft toys (if cancer has an upside, surely this is it). You have a seemingly endless stream of visitors. You become the topic of conversation in the offices and pubs and kitchens and inboxes and Facebook walls that you're suddenly absent from. And it's the weirdest thing. Nothing is more disconcerting. But there's no doubting that it all marks a definite, no-question, breast-cancer-begins-here starting point.

So, by that token, isn't it only fair to have a breast-cancer-ends-here moment? A moment when you can make happier calls and send I'm-free emails and get more flowers and receive celebratory 'you beat The Bullshit' cards? Well yes, that would be fair. But we've already established that nothing about cancer is fair. Cancer is an attention-seeking, party-pooping bitch of a ruiner. It takes over. It takes your hair, your confidence, your social life, your immune system, your figure (the least it could do is make you thin, for fuck's sake), your energy, your tastebuds, your sense of smell, your sex life. And just when you think it's pissed on your chips as much as it possibly can, it takes away your chance to celebrate the end of it all. 

The problem is this: once you've had cancer, no medical professional will ever say the words 'cancer free' to you. You're too much of a risk, and they'd be opening themselves up to a world of trouble if it turned out that the cancer was sneakily plotting a return, as it often does. Thus, the 'all clear' is a bit of a myth. That's why the word 'remission' comes in so handy. And so, pitifully few cancer journeys end neatly with a concern-free CT scan or a clear set of test results or a finish-it-off bit of surgery, as I'm pretending mine will. There's a lifetime of tablets, appointments, tests, scans, mammograms. And while it's hugely comforting that the NHS doesn't just spit you back out as soon as you've had the necessary treatment, it does seem like a case of once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient.

I like a clear finish, not a fade-out (it's the reason I've always preferred Please Please Me to Love Me Do). I appreciate a wrap-up; a good, old-fashioned full stop. Loose ends don't sit well with me. (About eight years ago, I failed to tie up a situation and, to this day, my subconscious is still beating me round the head about it by insisting that it often features in my dreams.) But this fade-out is, I concede, another thing that I've got no control over. I can't create a false conclusion to all this just to satisfy my need for closure. I suppose some things just aren't meant to reach a proper conclusion (hell, there's never a final episode of Coronation Street and that's never bothered me). So maybe celebrating the 'end' of The Bullshit as I've known it will be something I get to do every day, with each opportunity I have to do something simple yet emancipatory that the past miserable months haven't allowed me. I'm still determined to punctuate the passing of these strange few months, mind. But I guess the chapter will have to finish with ... instead of .

Thursday 13 November 2008

One step beyond.

I do like an excuse for a celebration, and here's a corker for you: CHEMO IS OVER. Feel free to break into applause. 

Actually, the celebrations only lasted as long as Friday evening, when P and I counted down the last milliletres of drugs running through my drip, said our emotional goodbyes to the nurses (after plying them with fairy cakes) and bid a final, fond fuck-off to the chemo room. When we got back to the car, we allowed ourselves five minutes of exhausted tears (as opposed to worried tears or downhearted tears or frightened tears – just as eskimos have their numerous types of snow, cancer patients have their numerous types of crying) before taking a detour on the way home to pick up Sgt Pepper, adding a nice full stop to the end of our chemo nightmare. (Told you I should have named her after a punctuation mark.)

But as celebrations go, that was about it. And I can't help feeling that it's all a bit lacking. Granted, I've hardly been up to raising my arms in joy since Friday; I have, inevitably, been a bit on the rubbish side (to put it mildly) and doing congas round the flat isn't all that simple when you're out-on-your-arse ill and feeling like you've been victim to a gangland kneecapping. I look like it, too. You bruise like a peach when you're on chemo and, thanks to the addition of an eager-to-clamber-up-for-a-cuddle kitten, the bruises and scratches make it look like I've spent the past week self-harming.

As rites of passage go, I appreciate that finishing my course of chemo is about as big a milestone as I'm going to achieve, and celebrating the occasion by a week (so far) of enforced illness doesn't, I'm sure you'll agree, quite hit the spot. But I wonder whether, if I were well enough, I'd be marking the occasion anyway? Because, really, how do you go about punctuating the end of the no-question worst five months of your life? Plant a tree? Unveil a plaque? Throw a party? Run naked down Oxford Street? (Which, incidentally, Lil said she'd do if I ever got a pet. Time to get your kit off, love.) Me, Busby, Tills, Weeza and the boys let off a few fireworks in the back garden the night before my final chemo, which I think was a fitting ceremony. Or at least it was until my normally-volume-challenged neighbour (the one who sat in her garden and held court about her chafing nipples all summer long) cut the festivities short by pulling out the sleeping-baby excuse. I wish I'd have been quick enough to retaliate because I'm pretty certain that, in Excuses Top Trumps, cancer beats baby.

I've questioned whether or not it's even appropriate to mark the end of a shitty few months when there are numerous other battles to take on in the probably-similarly-shitty period ahead. But I reckon a small hooray can't be out of the question – after all, what kind of joyless existence would it be if you couldn't pat yourself on the back for completing a course of potentially life-saving treatment? It's a good job I said 'small' there, given the meagre few hours of smugness chemo allowed me before turning my body to bilge and my mind to mud for the last time. Not that the tiny nature of my celebration is the only issue – I suspect that, even without the chemo-ills, I'd have been reluctant to revel for long. It's partly to do with a deviously party-pooping, sadist part of my makeup (that black eyeliner's a bitch), and partly to do with the fact that I've finally asked my consultant to refer me to a counsellor. And, me being me, I've already cut the end-of-chemo celebrations short and set to worrying about that instead, even before I've made the appointment. 

Why can't I just enjoy the moment, even for a short while? Why am I so intent on peering round the corner to anticipate the next shit-pie that's hurtling towards me? Why can't I pause for a minute and bask in the glorious achievement of having seen off an almost impossibly traumatic, utterly exhausting, immune-system-destroying, tumour-killing, total motherfucker of a course of chemo? Because, God knows, now's my time to lap it up. Instead, though, I've brushed all of that aside in favour of fretting about another issue altogether, and forcing my husband to stay up til 2.30am so we can chew it over.

As you know, one of the main reasons (the main reason?) I've asked for a therapy referral (ick, that word still gives me the shudders) is that I'm worrying about the process of moving into a life of remission; specifically, a life that's very different from the one I left behind when I heard the words 'signs consistent with breast cancer'. As a quick catch-up ('previously on Alright Tit', if you will), one of my main concerns stems from the fact that, pre-Bullshit, everything for P and I was geared towards having a baby. But now, thanks to the cancer-creating effects of oestrogen on my body, everything is geared towards us not having a baby. As you'll know from previous posts, it's not as though P and I had never before been forced to consider a childless life: with a number of hormone issues, two miscarriages and a fertility history that reads like a comedy of errors, it's something we've given more thought to than most. But now, knowing that the no-kids issue is no longer an 'if', it's created another hurdle for us to negotiate, and I'm worrying about what to do next. It's time I learned to stop panicking when faced with situations that weren't part of my Grand Life Plan. Because, hell, if getting breast cancer can't teach me that it's impossible to map out your life, it looks like I need to find another way to get a kick up the arse. But, tell me, how are you supposed to communicate that kind of stuff to a therapist? 'Hi, my name's L and I'm a fret-aholic. Would you mind booting me up the jacksie?'

The no-kids issue bothers me for more reasons than never having a baby of our own, though. In all truth, I've never felt that maternal, ticking-clock urge to have kids that you read about in women's magazines. It was always more something I knew I wanted someday, and figured I ought to set about doing once I'd got married. In the same way that I always like to have a project on the go (blogging, baking, kitten... you know the way I work), having a baby would have been something else – albeit infinitely more significant – that I could happily throw myself into, like planning a wedding or moving house. (You're probably thinking that, with this attitude, I was never fit to be a parent anyway.) And so, with no kids on the horizon, what's in store for me? I'm not worried about whether or not I'll be content and fulfilled in the future – once the health stuff and the work stuff fall into place, I've got all the right ingredients in front of me (perfect husband + unbeatable family + wonderful friends = a very happy life). It's more a case of worrying that, if P and I aren't going to have kids, then what, exactly, are we going to do? What's in the Grand Life Plan now? (This, by the way, is precisely the reason nobody's ever arranged a surprise party for me – the shock of not having been involved in the planning would finish me off.) And if you think that I'm alone in this kind of introspection, think again. Because, in our 2.30am chew-over-athon, P revealed that he's been having much the same thoughts (match made in heaven or what?).

At about 1.45am, over a bag of Malteasers, it hit us that the no-kids issue isn't just going to affect us, but our friends and family too. We're in that happy stage of our lives where the people around us are endlessly announcing engagements, weddings, pregnancies and christenings, and P and I are very good at the business of being impossibly interested, enthusiastic and delighted on their behalves. Not because we're trying to be, but because we genuinely are. (Yeah, we're lovely like that. We should hire ourselves out. Rent-A-Reaction.) But what we don't want to happen, now there's no kids on the table, is for people to be anxiously anticipating how we're going to react to their news, or for them to feel they've got to water down their joy because of us. Yes, with every pregnancy that's announced there'll be a wistful window into what could have been. Yes, it's going to hurt. And yes, we'll probably shed a few tears over it behind closed doors. But we're not the kind of people who'll piss on anyone's fireworks (hear that, next-door neighbour?) with the unfortunate reality of our situation. Instead, we want to prep ourselves for the inevitable, and be ready at a moment's notice to dish out all the right hand-shakes, back-slaps, hugs and congratulations whenever they're necessary. So, in true plan-the-arse-off-it style, we set to making a mental list of all the friends and family we're expecting to announce baby news over the next few years, and in what order. Crazy it may be, but it makes us feel better for the moment. And actually, it's quite a fun game. Twenty quid says you're making the same list now.

I wish I could tell you that our worrying stopped there, at the impending few years. But you know me better than that by now, so I might as well admit to us also fretting about future dinner-party situations, when we'll have nothing to add to the birthing/childcare/latest toys/tuition fees conversations. (Sheesh, if I'm ever at a dinner party like that, shoot me.) Our point is, just as some people are defined by their children, we don't want to be defined by not having had them. We never want to hear the words 'you wouldn't understand until you'd had kids' (actually, we never want to hear them again, thank you). We don't want to be the first to leave that dinner party (probably because of the appalling conversation) and for the hosts to turn back to their table after we've walked out of the door and say, 'L and P. Lovely couple,' and then, with a faux-sympathetic, saccharine head-tilt, 'Couldn't have kids. Shame.' This, I guess, is my long-winded way of saying that we don't ever want anyone to feel sorry for us. Because there's nothing to feel sorry for. Yes, life's thrown us a few hum-dingers and no, things haven't panned out quite the way we'd expected, but that's no reason for anyone's pity. If anything, people ought to be envious. Because, while I appreciate this isn't a competition, I don't know of anybody with a happier relationship than P and I. And, kids or no kids, that's quite the lucky break. 

So much for worrying about how to communicate all that to a therapist, eh? Maybe I should save myself the weekly visits and just email over my blog posts, then ask my counsellor to respond in the comments? Hang on, that's pretty much what I'm already doing, no? I think I'd better dial it down on the self-analysis. You'll be demanding an hourly rate before long.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Hero worship.

Well I didn't get a kitten, but I did get a bigger boob. The RSPCA Cat Woman (thankfully no PVC) came round to check out the flat and gave me the go-ahead to pick up Sgt Pepper (I didn't tell her about Miss Ellie), but the little tyke's gone and got a cold so the vet's got to hang onto her for a couple of days while she has medical treatment. (And yes, I do see the irony in me choosing a sick cat, thank you very much.) But, after Tuesday's hospital visit for the final part of my implant inflation, it might not be altogether a bad thing that I didn't have a kitten crawling all over me and my painful left boob. And if you believe that, you've not been reading this blog long enough. In truth, the kitten – just like the baking and the blogging – has been a cheerful distraction from just how panicked, worried and want-to-run-away scared I am about the next chemo. And now she's not able to come home yet, I'm back to fretting and crying uncontrollably. So that 'might not altogether be a bad thing' line is, of course, a load of toot. I'd much rather be crying about a kitten having jumped on my sore tit than the prospect of another horrific chemo, and the reality of the damage it's done to me so far, physically and emotionally. 

But back to business. The falsie is actually more tender than painful now, and no bloody wonder considering what it's been put through. To compensate for the implant-shrinking effects of radiotherapy, Smiley Surgeon inflated it to a size slightly larger than my right one. Not to the point where anyone other than me, P and Smiley Surgeon (the only other man allowed to mess with my boobs) would notice, mind, but it still feels like I've got a bowling ball stuffed down the left side of my T-shirt. I'm starting to understand the gravity-defying, fixed-in-place busts of the Strictly dancers. No matter how much you jump up and down (and even in my weak state, I've given it a go), fake tits just don't jiggle around like normal ones. They're quite the feat of engineering, I tells ya. That said, it's going to be weird in the future when my right boob goes south and my left one stays perky. Sod it, I'll just have to treat myself to another bit of surgery. Then, if nothing else, I'll at least have a perfect pair to show for this ordeal.  

I've learned, though, that this implant won't be sticking around for much longer and, to be honest, I'm glad. As brilliant as it is to have a lovely round boob and a killer cleavage again, it's not at all comfortable. I can feel the plastic edge of the implant underneath my skin, and the valve attached to it that Smiley Surgeon uses for inflation doesn't just dig in, but can be easily located by an ugly-looking bruise. But thankfully all of that will be a thing of the past when I have my next lot of surgery. What I hadn't realised was that, at the same time as creating a new nipple, Smiley Surgeon will also replace the plastic boob with the Gold Standard of falsies: a silicone implant. (Maybe I'll contact Max Clifford and see whether he can get me a few quid for a Jordan-esque story. 'My New Boob: Revealed! Exclusively in OK! Magazine.') A while back, Smiley Surgeon gave me a silicone implant to hold and I loved it. Smooth and malleable and, well, boob-like, it's a bit like transparent Silly Putty or Play-Doh (sadly without the gorgeous smell). I can't wait. The meantime-implant isn't without its uses, though – it's stretching the skin around my boob enough for it to easily accommodate the A-list implant next April.

I was hoping it could all be done a bit sooner than that, actually (it looks like Barbados will have to wait – besides, I only want to show off my bikini'd bust when it's at its most fabulous), but apparently I'm underestimating the effects of radiotherapy and how long it'll take for me to recover from it. Yet again, Smiley Surgeon was quick to sit me down and stress just how much strain it's going to put on my body at a time when it'll be battered from months of chemo. I'm starting to think that he knows my mind as well as my tits because, tattooed dots aside, I've not given radiotherapy much thought. Well, it can't be as bad as chemo, so what is there really to think about? Lots, as it turns out. Smiley Surgeon has clearly been trying to make me realise this for the last three or four appointments I've had with him but, frankly, I've just not had the space in my head to deal with it. But with my final chemo tomorrow and radiotherapy not far off, I finally took in all the things he was saying about how tired, queasy and sore it was going to make me feel, and how it was going to take a fair few weeks of getting over before I'd be surgery-ready again.

I adore Smiley Surgeon. (But I'm guessing that, with eight mentions over four paragraphs, you'd already figured that out.) I'm so eager to please that I save my best brave face for my appointments with him, I look up to him as though he were a rock star and I hang on every last word he says. I love him. Not like that. It's not a crush. I'm much more goofy than flirty when I'm around him – actually, I'm an embarrassing suck-up. And anyway, the love's not just reserved for Smiley Surgeon, but also for his sidekick, Always-Right Cancer Nurse. Batman and Robin have got nothing on these two – they're incredible. So often, medical professionals know all the facts of a condition, but lack the emotional understanding of how to deal with their patients. Not these two. They're the perfect mix of matter-of-fact and empathetic, and they always – always – hit the right note.

Something P and I particularly love about them is the fact that they'd got the pair of us sussed from the very beginning. We come as a team, P and I, and Smiley Surgeon and Always-Right Cancer Nurse were quick to recognise it. Just as often as P gets asked how I am, people ask me how he is. It's wonderfully thoughtful of people to ask, but also a bit problematic. It's another question that neither of us can bring ourselves to answer truthfully. Nobody could ever know the extent of how almost-impossibly difficult all of this is for P and I. And for that reason, it's utterly heartbreaking for us to have to consider how dreadful the other is feeling. It's just too much to bear. So, however selfish it seems, it's easier for P and I to see this as something we're feeling, fighting and dealing with not individually, but as a couple. It's the only way we can get through it. And that's something that Smiley Surgeon and Always-Right Cancer Nurse understand completely. They always ask how we are. The you in 'how did you find the last chemo?' is collective. When there's a decision to make, they ask what both of us think about it. And how can you not fall in love with people like that?

But, all of that aside, there's a bigger reason for my adulation. These people saved my life! So tell me, just how are you supposed to act around the woman who held your hand while you shouted, sobbed and screamed at her about your difficult-to-believe diagnosis, and the man who found the tumour in the first place and swiftly removed it from your body before it had the chance to do any more damage? Every time Smiley Surgeon shakes my hand, I want to grab him and hug him instead. With every bit of advice he gives me, I want to reply with an eloquent response that lets him know just how brilliant I think he is. I want to make him dinner and bake him cakes and write him poems and nominate him for awards and commission a statue of him and shout from the rooftops of London about what a bloody marvellous genius of a man he is. But even I know that none of that's appropriate (well, perhaps apart from the cake-baking). So until I find a better way to express my gratitude, I'm going to keep acting goofy and sucking up and grinning like an idiot at every appointment. Maybe he'll start calling me Smiley Patient. 

Monday 3 November 2008

Lonely hearts club.

As I've told you before, and as more than one person has said to me this past week, I don't do things by halves. Since I began my baking mission just over a week ago, I've averaged 1.25 cakes a day. And since making the previously mentioned completely-out-of-character decision at around the same time, I've gone online-shopping-crazy and bought everything possible (and then some) to prepare myself, P and the flat for the arrival of the completely-out-of-character secret. But since I'm a bit rubbish at keeping secrets, I might as well let you in on this: tomorrow – all being well – I'm going to collect my new kitten, Sgt Pepper. 

That distant thud you may have just heard is the sound of my stunned mates collectively falling off their wheelie chairs. They're all pulling themselves back up to their desks now, convincing themselves that I must be yanking their chain. But I'm not. As of tomorrow, I will be a pet owner. 

I think I'd better clarify a few things. First and foremost, don't be fooled into thinking that I'm now an 'animal person'. I still think there are far more worthy charities than the local donkey sanctuary, I still especially hate dogs (sorry Ant) and I'm still going to struggle to raise an 'aah' when forced to look at pet photos. Let me say this again: I. Am. Not. An. Animal. Person. It's like that thing so many people tell me about kids: they love their own, but hate everyone else's. And that's how it's going to be with me and Sgt Pepper. She's ace. She's pretty and inquisitive and super-chilled and I'm excited to the point of losing sleep about having her come to live with us. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to feel the same way about your pet, right? Or any other animal, for that matter.

So why the sudden decision to get a kitten? In short, this being-ill-at-home lark is so bloody lonely and boring that even I, Chief Animal Hater, am getting a pet. It's largely Tills's fault. She recently gave a home to an RSPCA rescue kitten and the damn thing won me over. It was the first animal ever to show a favourable interest in me (and vice versa), and it got me thinking how great it would be to have some company while I'm spending all this time in the flat on my own. (And beyond, of course – a cat's not just for Christmas. Or cancer.) When we got home from Tills & Si's, I even found myself feeling a bit sad that there wasn't a kitten waiting for me, and P made the fatal error of saying he 'wouldn't say no' if I decided to adopt one of my own. So it's kind of his fault, too.

I didn't ought to be so apologetic about it, really. The truth is, I'm can't-stop-grinning excited about it all. The bowls and beds and litter tray and scratching post are all in position (and all complementary to the décor – sheesh, I've not changed that much), and the Sainsbury's order has been amended to include all the things a soon-to-be-spoiled kitten needs. Even Mum, Deputy Chief Animal Hater, has been sucked in and has bought Sgt Pepper a catnip dragonfly toy. 

My family are equally as baffled by all of this as my friends. The last they knew of me caring for an animal was Miss Ellie, the goldfish I used to stir around in its bowl with a wooden spoon. (And before you report me to the RSPCA, I was two.) But they're all on board for this reason: already, even before bringing her home, this kitten has made me happy. Planning her arrival has been something I've cheerfully sank my teeth into, and it's taken my mind off The Bullshit in a week when I'd otherwise have been terrified about it. Like P said, 'Whatever makes you smile this much can't be a bad thing.'

I hope that's enough to explain my way out of the kitten-decision. I'd not normally feel the need to justify myself this way, but don't doubt how much this is going to baffle my mates. To them, this is such an about-turn that I fear they'll be expecting a totally different girl to walk into the pub next spring. They'll be checking my bag to see if I still carry around a pen to correct any punctuation, spelling or grammar errors I see (affirmative). Anyway, I'm hoping that the Beatles-referencing name will make them realise that, kitten aside, I'm still me. Besides, Sgt Pepper is a far better name than Apostrophe. 

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Something changed.

Right now I should be sitting in the stalls of the Savoy Theatre with my mate Leaks, overhead-clapping along to the Take That musical. Instead, I'm flat out on my sofa in my pyjamas, feeling like I've been hit by a truck and having spent a decent portion of the day with my head down the toilet.

It's entirely my own fault, of course (and not just for buying tickets to see the World's Cheesiest Musical). Earlier this morning, I told Dad that I was feeling 'pretty chirpy' because I was 'finally getting to spend time away from the flat tonight'. Idiot. Will I never learn? You'd think I'd know by now that The Bullshit eavesdrops on all my conversations and uses the gleaned information against me. ('So you think you're having fun tonight, do you? We'll see about that.')

Understatement alert: cancer is really starting to piss me off. Now, not only does it owe me several months of my life, but tickets to the Take That musical. Which (sod's law) will have finished its run by the time I'm well enough to go again. I tell you what, Bullshit, fix me up with a meet-and-greet with the real Take That and we'll call it quits, eh? (Well, I've exhausted the hell out of the Dave Grohl appeals; might as well try a new tack.) I've had quite enough of cancer thinking it can waltz in and muck up my plans. And actually, it's not just my plans that it's changing, but me as well. Lately I've caught myself making decisions and doing things that Old Me would have barfed at the thought of. Maybe that's the reason I puked so much today.

Pre-sickness, I made a phonecall that put the wheels in motion to do something so completely out of character that I reckon my friends will be far more shocked by it than they were by my breast cancer news. I'll not ruin the surprise for them now (besides, it might not come off, plus I'm still a little freaked out by it myself) but suffice to say, it's something I said I'd never do. But then, so is getting a tattoo. And yet, here I am, collecting images of the nicest-looking star designs I've seen in a neat little folder on my desktop. Which, I have to say, freaks me out even more. Neither of these very un-me things can even be blamed on the spur of the moment. I'm actively thinking them through, doing my research, planning the arse off them (actually, the forward planning offers a small glimpse of the Old Me). And that's not even the end of it – New Me has even started baking. Old Me was happy to tell anyone who'd listen that the kitchen was purely P's territory; New Me is emailing her mates for icing recipes and sending her husband to work with a different Tupperware (Tupperware!) of cakes every morning. What have I become?

Cancer changes you. That much we know. But are these things my way of proving this fact to the world? Are they borne out of sheer boredom? Or are they really just subconscious decisions that, while surprising, are probably pretty inevitable given the life-threatening-illness shizzle? Because, while thinking too hard about the New Me stuff does, as I say, freak me out a little, I have to admit that all of these new things feel perfectly natural to me. My life is different now, I've accepted that.

That's not to say that I'm happy with it, mind. I'm actually pretty fucking angry about it and, if I'm honest, really bloody panicky about what kind of life is waiting for me once I've stamped on The Bullshit with a killer heel. The life I'll be going back to isn't the one I left behind. I'm not really sure what it'll be, but it's definitely not the life I'd carefully mapped out for myself (and don't underestimate my mapping-out abilities – pre-Bullshit, I'd done my darndest to life-plan the whole shebang and, both professionally and personally, it got me a long way). Which is precisely why, when I next see my consultant at the hospital, New Me will be doing yet another previously sworn-off thing and finally taking him up on his offer of seeing a counsellor. Old Me tuts and rolls her eyes. New Me wonders whether it's appropriate to bake your therapist a cake.