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.