Tuesday 12 August 2008

Sob story.

It's funny what makes you cry. I was inconsolable when Vera died on Coronation Street, but more interested in spilling popcorn than tears while watching Titanic, Braveheart and Watership Down. (But sit me in front of Billy Elliot and you'd better be wearing waterproofs.) When Michael Vaughan retired as England cricket captain, I got as choked as he did while watching his press conference, but no amount of Gareth Southgate/Chris Waddle/Stuart Pearce missed penalties could get me watery-eyed. (Actually, I fear that's more to do with learning from experience.) So it's odd, then, that losing a terrifying, tennis-ball-sized clump of hair could see me so stoic, but a few cross words with my Dad and I'm in tears for the rest of the day.

This morning I made the decision to wash my hair. It had been well over a week since the last time it saw any shampoo (and gents, that's equivalent to about a month in woman terms) and I knew it had to be done sooner or later – they recommend leaving it alone for a few days before your next chemo, and this looked like my last chance. So I ran a bath, lit a few candles, put on some chirpy tunes (thank you, Bluetones) and set to it. I stuck to all the hair-care rules (super-gentle massaging, pH balanced shampoo, lukewarm water, no rubbing with the towel) and so far, so good. I even allowed myself to think for a second that I'd got away with it (when will I learn?). But when it came to the drying (low temperature, slow speed, wide-tooth comb, yadda yadda), that's where it all unravelled. Literally.

Even when drying without the necessary combing (if I left my hair to dry on its own I'd end up looking like Gene Wilder, and that's worse than bald), hairs were flying right off my head. Run a comb through it, and they were coming out even easier. Call me a fool, but for as long as I've got hair I want it to look as good as it can, so I carried on, drying and combing as little as I could get away with. But still it thinned and thinned, covering my back, my shoulders, the floor, the bedspread and filling my baggy bra (at least if I lose my prosthesis, I've got a plan B). It was e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Imagining P's reaction to our new bedroom carpet, I set about scooping it up and, despite having watched it all fall out, I couldn't get over the amount I collected (hence posting the above photo, and the fact that the hairball is now sitting on our bathroom shelf so I can show it to P). A couple of days ago I could get away with running a comb through it. Now I can barely stand in a breeze. Mum was right – losing my hair is going to be even more traumatic than losing my boob.

All that said, it didn't make me cry. I sat and stared blankly at myself in the mirror for a good 20 minutes, but no tears. I must have been having a brave moment (and just because I've used the 'b' word, doesn't mean you can too, right?). But when, later that afternoon, I spoke to my Dad and he made some minor comment about my hands-free kit and my ability to hear the road, I completely lost it.

You know those stupid, niggling worries that you sit on for a while, then in the heat of the moment they pour out of your mouth all at once, at Vicky Pollard speed? It usually kicks off with the words 'And another thing...' (or 'yeah but, no but...'). Well that's exactly what happened today. What I wanted to say to Dad was that he and Mum have been incredible from day one, that no-one could have done more for me than they have, and that I can't imagine how difficult it must be for them to watch their daughter go through this... but could they perhaps remember that while The Bullshit may be having many effects on me, it hasn't robbed me of my ability to make good decisions or look after myself in the way my doctors have advised.

But, of course, it didn't come out like that.

It was more along the lines of: 'And you need to realise that [sniff] I'm not a little girl any more and [snort] I'm doing all the right things and [splutter] the symptoms are not my fault, you know... [whimper] the acne's not caused by drinking ginger beer and the piles aren't down to my diet [sob] they're because of the BLOODY TOXIC CHEMICALS in me [snivel] and you need to trust me to look after myself!' Dad told me that I was right, that he was sorry, that he trusts me and that parental instinct sometimes makes he and Mum say the wrong thing. And, of course, that made me feel even worse. Those things needed to be said (maybe not in the way they came out), but saying them didn't make me feel any better. Because nobody deserves to be on the end of my criticism less than my Dad. I've never known a person that I want to be more like. (You'd say the same if you met him.) My folks aren't just parents. They're my best friends. And, as much as I might sometimes want to tell them to do things differently, I should instead shut my trap for once and be grateful for the millions of things they've done so brilliantly.

None of us knows the right way to handle this. Cancer doesn't come with a manual. Every symptom and every emotion feels so different for each bloody unlucky sod who's living with this shitty disease, so who knows the best way to play it? As for me, I can handle the diagnosis and the surgery and the chemo and the illness. But difficult conversations with my family? I'm sorry, but that's where I draw the line. Let's call it the hair that broke the cancer patient's back.

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