Saturday 30 May 2009

It wasn't me.

In her forties and before she met P’s eldest brother, my Spanish sister-in-law discovered she had breast cancer. That diagnosis was more than eight years ago and today she’s doing great. Better than great. She’s a breezy, happy, no-messing, fun-seeking, beer-drinking, chain-smoking, newly retired heroine, and she was on brilliant form when we went to visit her and my brother-in-law in Madrid last weekend. ‘You get the hot flushes, yes?’ she said, thrusting a fan into my hand moments after we landed. She winked at me knowingly, smoothly opening her own fan and delicately waving it in front of her face in a single, seamless flick of the wrist. I returned the wink, trying to mimic her super-cool fanning manoeuvre but instead getting one of the prongs caught in my little finger and only extending it to what looked like a lacy, black slice of pizza. I was nervous; the clumsy Jedi Cancer Youngling to her Jedi Cancer Master.

It was a daft moment, really, but in that simple exchange of winks, I knew that she understood everything I’ve felt this past year; all the stuff I’ve kept between me and Mr Marbles; all the feelings I’ve not been able to explain to my family; all the things I’ve not quite managed to describe on this blog. She just got it. No deep conversations, no tears, no confused Spanglish. Just a wink and a smile and a flick of a fan that said, ‘Yep, I know.’ (Or perhaps, ‘The force is strong with you’. Whatever.)

The Spanglish route, however, was admittedly a more fun method of sharing our cancer stories, particularly since our respective Lynch boys have peskily ensured that the best we know of each other’s languages is ‘are you stupid or what?’ (her) and Cariño, he encogido a los niños’ (me). ‘So, cheemoferathy,’ she said, gallantly pronouncing the word better than I dare say I can in my mother tongue. ‘Awful?’ I raised my eyebrows in confirmation. ‘Yep. Hell.’ She agreed. ‘Depression, too, no?’ We bobbed our heads like a pair of nodding dogs after three too many cervezas. ‘And children? Is not possible?’ (Insert obligatory nobody-expects-the-Spanish-inquisition gag here.) I shrugged, trotting out my now-standard line that P and I are happy enough, actually, and that life’s just taken us down a different path, is all. ‘Yes, we are lucky to have these men. I never really want to be a mother anyway,’ she said, as I caught our boys eavesdropping from the other side of the table, each with what looked suspiciously like an adoring glint in their eye. ‘But you are okay,’ she continued, in what I think was a statement rather than a question. ‘When you arrive in the airport, I see your skin and I see your hair and I think, yes, you are fine; you are brave.’ (See, the force is strong with me.) I gave her a cuddle, opting to swerve the mention of my hair and rest my usual routine of inflicting the hairdryer treatment on anyone who dares mention it.

As our conversation went on, though, it became eerily clear how similar our stories were, despite the almost-twenty-year gap in our ages at diagnosis. Left breast? Check. Stage three? Check. Oestrogen receptive? Check. No family history? Check. We talked of finding the lumps we each assumed were cysts; hers in the shower, mine in bed with P. I talked about Smiley Surgeon and his early advice to eat watercress and cherries. She talked about her oncologist and his insistence that she should only eat red meat once in a while, drink a glass of red wine every day, have regular massages and to keep herself stress-free. ‘Ah, that’s my favourite piece of advice,’ I said; though, oddly, it was my local shopkeeper rather than my oncologist who offered it to me. ‘What you need to do, dear,’ she insisted to me and Mum when I first made it the twenty yards to her store after chemo #1, ‘is remove all stress from your life. Work, money, worries, everything. Let everyone else take care of that. You just concentrate on you.’ It’s fortunate that I was in a position to do that. My super-supportive company signed me off immediately, P took all the financial stuff in hand (not altogether a bad thing for a girl with an iTunes-and-handbag habit like mine), and my folks looked after the running of the flat whenever they were here. Everything just got done. The only stress I had was the one the tumour inflicted on me which, frankly, was rather enough worry in the first place. Pre-cancer, however, my sister-in-law and I shared another similarity. Around a year before we happened upon the evil activity beneath our left nipples, we both experienced a pretty rough ride in our jobs – the kind that finds you tetchy and sleep-deprived and makes you row with your husband for forcing you out of bed in the mornings.

‘That kind of stress causes the cancer,’ asserted my sister-in-law. I found myself half-heartedly agreeing out of politeness. She saw straight through me. ‘No, no, it’s true,’ she assured me. ‘My oncologist says it.’ Now I’ve only had a handful of sessions with my oncologist, but there’s no way I can imagine him telling me that stress causes cancer (not unless he’s suddenly started writing headlines for the Daily Mail) no more than I can imagine him telling me to have a G&T every morning or that a diet of chocolate fondue is a fast-track to better health. (Hell, I only squeezed the watercress and cherries advice out of Smiley Surgeon through nagging and eyelash fluttering.) But hers clearly believes it. As does she. And that’s where our stories differ.

It’s funny how a bit of sea can separate two countries’ conclusions about The Bullshit. On this side of the channel, it seems, we’re far more careful about the semantics. Just as ‘no trace of cancer’ is acceptable where ‘cancer free’ isn’t, I’m sure most British-based doctors would tap-dance around the statement that stress ‘causes’ cancer. And, from what I’ve gathered from my sister-in-law, Spanish oncologists place much more emphasis than their British counterparts on lifestyle and stress and attitude and positive thinking – those strange unquantifiables that can’t be measured through a blood test. To my mind, that’s a bloody risky strategy. We’re supposed to be able to control stress, lowering it as we would our cholesterol. So if stress leads to cancer, does that make those of us who have it responsible? If we can't maintain a positive attitude, does that mean we're making things worse?

It’s a funny one, this stress lark. Though I think there’s only a very tenuous medical connection between stress and good health (in that some say it can weaken the immune system), I don’t doubt that it plays a part. I have no basis to back it up but, at the risk of getting all new-age on you (I’m in Glasto training, remember), I’m a big believer in the link between the mental and the physical. Even at a simple level – blushing when you’re embarrassed. Shaking when you’re nervous. Working yourself up to the point of puke on the morning of your driving test. Getting butterflies in your stomach before a first date. But suggesting that stress causes cancer? Sheesh. If that were the case, there’d be a chemo carriage on every underground train.

The problem, I think, is that it’s human nature to search for answers. Why did this happen to me? Is it something I did wrong? What could I have done differently? So attributing stress to cancer might just be a case of finding an answer where there isn’t one. And granted, in occasional moments of rage, I’ve blamed The Bullshit on my getting wound up by everything from shouty bosses to estate agents to bad referees to Kerry Katona. But in reality, I can’t believe that. (Though I do think there’s a direct correlation between my improved health and no longer buying OK! magazine.) I can’t believe it because that would make the cancer my fault. And there are plenty of things I’ll take responsibility for – the pink nail varnish on our white bedlinen, clogging up the Sky+ with episodes of Hollyoaks, having once had a crush on Mick Hucknall – but The Bullshit just ain’t one of them. And tough as it is to come to terms with having nothing to blame it all on but a crappy combination of oestrogen and shit luck, that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. Que sera sera.

Friday 22 May 2009

Where everybody knows your name.

I've always wished I had the kind of local that you could walk into, know everyone at the bar and order 'the usual'. I fear the closest I've ever come is sharing a bag of crisps and the latest on my love life with my favourite old fellas at the golf-club bar I once served behind, having gained a handful of wonderful octogenarian friends by always making sure their bitter was served in a pint jug. (Giving a picky OAP a straight glass, I discovered, was tantamount to giving a nut-allergy sufferer a Snickers bar.) But, last week, I think I finally got the Cheers-like local of my dreams. Except the building is less a public house than a hospital, the regulars are less overweight self-medicators than over-worked medical staff, and my usual isn't so much a G&T as a strip to the waist and a flash of my boobs.

With P away on business, Tills came along instead, remarking how funny it was that I didn't have to check in at reception desks any more. And while treating hospital clinics like an office I've worked in for years could be seen as rather tragic, in fact it's a thing I enjoy. In I stroll, impossibly chirpy, offering a nod of acknowledgement to the fellow patients I've seen before and skipping the usual formalities with receptionists to talk trashy gossip instead of appointment times. Doctors usher me in with 'hi Lisa' instead of 'Mrs Lynch please', greeting me in a manner that suggests we're about to catch up over a brew and biscuits, not discuss the scab on my left nipple.

'So nice to see you! I'm just looking at your breasts...' began Smiley Surgeon, in an opening line I'll never get used to (nor learn to stifle my sniggers upon hearing). '...and the symmetry is looking much better than last time.' I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that my stupid tits seemed to be rectifying themselves size-wise, rather than allowing me the glory of an immediate NHS boob-job. 'And wow, your nipple is healing really well,' he continued, promising to refer me to the nipple-tattooing nurse for an appointment in a few weeks' time. He's not wrong about the nupple – having now shrunk down to less grape-like levels (mostly as a result of my incessant scab-picking – squeezing spots has got nothing on the satisfaction of this, I tells ya), it's now looking pretty damn good. So good, in fact, that I've been known on occasion to inflict on P a game of Spot The Falsie whenever my nipples are visible through a bra-less top.

Not everyone's so impressed with my new tit, mind you. Following a rather surreal conversation with Always Right Cancer Nurse about my post-treatment sex life and the best lubes on the market (so long Mizz 'position of the fortnight', hello Woman's Own problem page), she asked whether I'd be open to letting a recently diagnosed woman have a look at my surgery-sculpted bust. And since I'm so nonchalant about unbuttoning my shirt these days that I fear I'd remove my bra for the Sainsbury's delivery man if he asked nicely enough, I agreed. My nonchalance speaks volumes about how proud I am of the boob Smiley Surgeon has created for me. Having loved and lost a much-valued left'un, I never imagined I'd be so pleased with its replacement, and so I'm as keen to boast about my new baby as any first-time mother. But when I walked confidently into the next consulting room, I was as unprepared for the look on the poor woman's face as she was for the sight of my tit.

Was that the same terrified look I'd had in my eyes upon getting a similar world-changing diagnosis? I suspect so. She looked like she'd been hit by a train. Frightened, haunted, confused. Her tiny frame couldn't hold the weight of the worries she had to carry, just as her eyes couldn't hold back the tears she was consciously trying to hide from her elderly mother. In her fifties and happily meandering through life until a week previous, she was due to undergo the same type of mastectomy with pre-reconstruction that I had (an LD-flap, fact-fans) and yet, with the gravity of the news she was still failing to compute, couldn't get her head around what she'd find beneath her gown when she awoke from the op. And while my almost-finished result is, admittedly, quite different to the the immediate post-surgery sight she'll be discovering any day now, Always Right Cancer Nurse figured that seeing Smiley Surgeon's second-to-none needlework would, in part at least, put her mind at rest.

But when I removed my vest and stood half-naked before her, she recoiled in horror. Literally. She took an instinctive step away from me, covering her mouth with her hands. Eventually, she leaned forward ever so slightly without moving her feet, her index finger covering her lips, as though she were inspecting a newly laid cat shit on her pristine carpet. 'Christ, woman. It's not that bad,' I thought, offended at her horrified reaction to my beautiful breast. 'I have to say, it doesn't look the same as your other one,' she said. Which was the moment at which I realised how far away from reality her expectations were. 'Well, no,' I replied, trying to remain as upbeat as I could. 'But you'd never be able to tell through my clothes. It's just that the new nipple looks pretty different to my old one. But even that's going to be tattooed.' She inspected further, still a yard or two away. 'So – hang on – what happened to your old nipple?,' she enquired. 'Um. It went,' I answered gingerly, looking over to Always Right Cancer Nurse in doubt about what to say next. She explained that the nipple has to be removed in order for the surgeon to work inside the breast, and that the replacement nipple she was looking at had been created with skin from my back. 'Coof,' she exhaled, correcting her posture and visibly shaking. 'There's just so much to take in.'

I grabbed her hand, telling her not to worry, then quickly realising what a pointless reassurance that was. 'Look,' I continued. 'You're right. There's more to take in right now than you can possibly get your head around, but soon, when you've had your surgery and your treatment has begun, I promise you'll feel a bit better because things will then be in hand. You'll be taking steps to make all this better. And it WILL get better,' I assured her, rather forcefully. 'Oh, the treatment,' she said, rolling her eyes. 'Did you lose your hair?' For a second, I couldn't understand her question. 'Isn't it bloody obvious I've lost my hair?,' I thought, then remembering that, in fact, I do have some hair now and that, to her, I was just a young lass with a short crop. I broke the news. 'I can't lose it,' she said. 'I just can't.' Hers was almost the same length that mine had been when I was in her shoes. 'Did you buy a wig?' I nodded. 'And a headscarf?' I nodded again, as she looked fit to puke. 'But, look, it's grown back,' I said, tugging at a few short strands. 'And I've had it cut and coloured since, too.' She looked up and curiously inspected my head, with a defeated expression that said, 'But I don't want to look like that.' 'Nor do I, love,' I told her, subliminally.

As I pulled my vest over my head, she went on to ask about the timescale of hair loss, how it felt to wear a wig and whether I kept my headscarf on in bed. Those odd little details that you must. know. now. despite the crash-course in medical terminology, despite the bigger issues at hand, despite the realisation that you've got a life-threatening condition. (I remember obsessing over the minutiae of how to draw on eyebrows, whether false eyelashes could look real, and how to ensure my husband never saw my bald head.) 'And chemo,' asked the woman, bringing up the subject I hoped she'd avoid. 'Were you very ill?' I looked over at Always Right Cancer Nurse again, at a loss for what to say. How do you answer a question like that? ARCN chipped in. 'Chemo wasn't quite as bad as you'd expected it to be, was it, Lisa?' Uncomfortable pause. I wanted to answer, 'No, it was a damn fucking sight worse,' but held back for the sake of the chemotherapy novice before me.

I was confused as to why Always Right Cancer Nurse had said that. Granted, I was hardly going to reel off the horrors of the hallucinations, the constipation, the bone aches or the looks on my parents' faces as I swore my way through barf after barf. But nor did I think it right to polish the turd that is chemotherapy. After all, I'd been sternly warned about how the treatment might affect my health and, while all the leaflets in the world couldn't have properly prepared me, at least I had some understanding that it was going to be pretty bloody shitty, thank you very much.

But then it dawned on me. For the first time I realised that, actually, I'd always made a point of playing down the effects of chemo to Smiley Surgeon and Always Right Cancer Nurse. I hadn't lied about it per se, I'd just never given them the full picture. And, having only ever seen them in my chemo 'good weeks', I could get away with it, too. Not just get away with it – I could pretend otherwise. So I'd tell them nothing more than that I'd had a turbulent couple of weeks, but that everything was fine now. No details. Just vagaries. I guess, too, that in those 'good weeks', I just didn't want to dredge it all up again. I was enjoying feeling more like a human being. Plus, of course, there's the suck-up in me who clearly put impressing my two favourite medical professionals before telling the not-so-impressive truth, wanting them to think I was some sort of super-patient for remaining so positive throughout something so utterly shitty; and batting away breast cancer as though it were dirt on my shoulder.

But just as I couldn't pretend to the woman before me that chemo was a treatment carnival, nor can I expect to forever keep up the star-pupil pretence with Smiley Surgeon and Always Right Cancer Nurse. Because, much as I'd like the world to see me the way they see me, that can't be the case. And not just because I've detailed the ins (and outs) of my constipated bowels on this blog. But also because, rather excitingly, Alright Tit is now going to become the basis for a book – The C Word (And Other Expletives) – to be published by Arrow at Random House next spring. (And since that revelation is as surprising to me as the breast cancer was in the first place, I'll spare you any boasting about the details and instead direct you here.) I'm not going to flatter myself that the likes of Smiley Surgeon have the time, or indeed the inclination, to read the ramblings of a twentysomething cancer patient (that'd be like working in a chicken-plucking factory and coming home to a KFC bargain bucket) but, hey, it's better to be prepared. Plus, it's six months until my next appointment with them, which I'm hoping is enough time to hone my story. Or emigrate.

Which reminds me – there's a tale I was always too embarrassed to mention, but now seems relevant. (Are you sitting comfortably?) On the way to my pre-mastectomy injection of radioactive dye for Smiley Surgeon to determine whether the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, he commented on my attitude so far. 'We were talking about you earlier today,' he said in the lift, gesturing to Always Right Cancer Nurse. 'And we're so impressed with how you've handled all this.' I blushed, as he continued: 'I sometimes wish I could be more like you.' Nobody's ever said anything like that to me before, and I'm not too proud to admit that I'm welling up even now at someone I hold in such sky-high esteem giving me such a wonderful compliment. But I hope that goes some way to explaining why I chose to play down my experience of chemo to the Terrific Two. It's like admitting to your parents that you're having sex. They think the sun shines out of your backside, and you're not keen to ruin their illusion. (For the record, Mum and Dad, I remain a 29-year-old virgin.)

In the end, in fairness to the newly diagnosed woman in the consulting room, I plumped for a more enigmatic answer to Always Right Cancer Nurse's question. 'I'm not going to lie to you,' I half-lied. 'At times, chemo was a bitch. So I'm not sure about it being worse or better than I'd imagined. It was just very different to what I'd expected. But then the experience of chemo is utterly different for everybody,' I answered, still gripping her tiny hands. 'Of course it's not always easy. In fact at times it's really bloody difficult. But, shit, it works. It did for me, and it will for you.' She hugged me, as I grimaced nervously over her shoulder, hoping that I'd said the right thing.

Always Right Cancer Nurse winked in my direction. The unnecessary swearing was for her benefit. I figured I'd better start slipping in a few expletives now, just in case she ever reads my book, and realises what a potty-mouthed, toilet-humour-obsessed geezerbird I really am. On second thought, perhaps publishing under a pseudonym would be a better idea?

Sunday 17 May 2009

It's different for girls.

At the risk of moaning about my hair when I promised you'd heard the last of it, I'm now onto my fourth colour in three weeks. Just as I once declared myself a wig-slag, it now looks as though I'm heading into tint-slag territory, too. I'd love to tell you I'm enjoying such promiscuity, but in fact it's simply a means to an end. A way of filling the tedious weeks until such a time comes as I'm happy with my lot, hair-wise. And if extending my overdraft to get a new hair colour every time I reach can't-look-myself-in-the-mirror levels is what's needed to keep me ticking over until the next crisis of confidence, then that's what I'm going to have to do. Right now it's dark brown. Which basically means I've spent £300 turning my hair back to its natural colour. (A tip: try to avoid getting cancer in a recession. And another: the grass, it seems, isn't always greener. Though my hair might soon be if I keep mucking about with semi-permanent dyes.)

I like to think of this as the Honda school of grooming: hate something, change something. And since hating my hair so very much is becoming quite a boring pastime, at least I can make it slightly more bearable by varying the hate-levels occasionally with a new tint. But, of course, there's more to all of this than hair dye. It's a confidence issue.

I had resigned myself to the fact that The Bullshit would take away my boob, my hair, my eyebrows, my lashes. Even my hopes for a worry-free, unencumbered future and a year's worth of bra-off sex. But not my confidence – that's another thing they neglected to mention in the leaflets. Not that I ever had heaps of self esteem in the first place. (I've mostly been a lights-off kind of girl.) But all that means is that it took less for me to reach confidence ground zero. Hair-wise, I had a lot to lose. Confidence, not so much. But I can't say that's made it any easier to stomach. (Has Gok Wan ever considered a How To Look Good Bald spin-off, I wonder?)

Perhaps this feeling has been heightened because of my tentative, toe-in-the-water steps back to normal life; because I've started doing a few hours back in the office after an eleven-month hiatus; because I'm back walking the same Soho streets where even people's lunches look pretty. Suddenly, my surroundings have changed. Where for the best part of a year my 'colleagues' have been doctors, virtual social-network friends, my kitten and an impressive assortment of remote controls and pyjama bottoms, I'm now back in the company of the gorgeous girls of London's publishing world. And boy, does it give you inadequacy issues. I feel like the new girl who's moved to Tatler from Therapy Weekly – suddenly my wardrobe is 12 months out of date, my shoes are scuffed from last year's underground-platform squeezes, I'm desperately playing catch-up in the who's-wearing-what game, and I'm baffled by the high street's sudden reliance on shoulder pads. It's amazing how quickly you can forget the stuff you once stayed so diligently on top of. At this rate I'll be spending the summer wearing socks with my sandals and a knotted hankie on my head.

I wore a swimsuit for the first time since my diagnosis recently, when P and I escaped to a country hotel for the night and headed straight for the pool. And, considering this was my new boob's introduction to lycra, the experience was pleasantly non-event-ish. Until, that is, a bikini-clad blonde made her way out of the changing rooms. Up to that point, I'd not allowed my body issues to get in the way of a nice time – not the worries about whether my left tit looked particularly different to my right, the visibility of the scars on my back and under my armpit, nor whether a liberal application of fake tan had done anything to slim down the appearance of my legs. It's a hotel pool, I told myself, not a fashion show (to quote my Dad's default line whenever my pre-match hair-straightening held everyone up on a Saturday afternoon). But the moment Barbie walked into the pool area, all neon orange bathing suit and confident catwalk, I suddenly felt as self-conscious as a spotty, pre-pubescent teen in the Playboy mansion; the pressure of unspoken female competition weighing down on my exposed shoulders. (Mind you, the same woman later faked a loud, unconvincing orgasm in the hotel room next to ours, so perhaps her self-assured swagger wasn't entirely genuine.)

But whether it's because cancer's made me more conscious of my body, because I'm heading back out into the world I used to know, or simply because I've got a crap hairdo is irrelevant. Because, whatever the reason for my confidence dip, it doesn't change the fact that I'm cross with myself for allowing this stuff to bother me so much in the first place. I mean, hell – appearance issues aside – I am an empowered, intelligent, loved, successful, liberated woman with her priorities stacked up in precisely the right order. So why am I still ranking myself against other women in tube-window reflections? It's pretty fucking ridiculous, really. I'm nearly 30, for crying out loud. These things should have long since passed me by, along with cropped tops, snogging boys on park swings and crushes on Gary Barlow (okay, so one of the three still remains). In fact, sod my thirties – I've done chemo, ferfuckssake! All these minor confidence problems should be mere toe-stubbing in comparison to the far-more-important issue of breast cancer. I ought to be walking aloof in my scuffed shoes, proud to have faced something far more life-altering than a bad haircut and lived to tell the tale. 

There's every chance, of course, that you, too, tut when you look in the mirror, that you long to squeeze into last year's skinny jeans or wish you looked more like the girl sitting next to you on the bus. I can't speak for blokes, but for us girls this is pretty everyday stuff, and I'm not for a second suggesting that these issues are cancer-specific. But what I can't decide is whether The Bullshit just holds a magnifying glass to this kind of thing, or whether these are, in fact, the same old worries I had pre-cancer? (Albeit then about longer hair and a natural bust.) There's one fact I can't escape from, though: it might not be the correct or cool or even responsible thing to admit, but cancer to an image-conscious young woman is as much about the effect on your looks as it is the effect on your health. It's why you immediately think 'shit, my hair' instead of 'shit, I could die' upon getting a diagnosis.

You don't love the hair that grows back just because you've once been bald, just as you don't stop tying yourself in knots about the seemingly smaller issues just because you've had to face some altogether mightier ones. Throwing a tantrum about a broken boiler when you've had cancer is strangely comforting. Feeling miserable about the way you look isn't. It's infuriating, pathetic, depressing, energy-wasting and contrary to decades worth of feminist progression. But just as the broken-boiler episode taught me that it's possible to shed as many tears over a few hours without hot water as it is over failing to find a headscarf that suits you, getting worked up about the perfectly acceptable way you look when you've once been hairless and embarrassingly bloated is another lesson in how frustratingly impossible it is to compare your problems against each other.

'I feel like such a twat for allowing this stuff to get to me after everything I've been through,' I sobbed to my friend Ant. 'You can't be thinking like that,' she said, pulling me up with characteristically perfect precision. 'What, so I'm not allowed to talk to you about my bloke issues now just because you've had cancer? For fuck's sake, bird, if that's the deal, this could be the last conversation we ever have.' She's spot on, of course. But normal as it is to get back to worrying about things like the colour or length or style of my hair, the circumference of my ankles or whether my arms look fatter from the front or the back, it's a pretty fucking sorry state of affairs that these things do still matter to me. The important factor, let's not forget, is that the normal life I've spent months longing for has finally begun to resume. It's just really sodding disappointing to discover that, while cancer has changed so many things about me, one thing it hasn't changed is the amount of time I spend worrying about my thighs.

Thursday 7 May 2009

May Barnet Bulletin.

It's funny what people say compared to what they mean. Whether it's 'we must catch up soon' or 'no, darling, your bum looks positively tiny', common courtesy dictates that it's better to avoid offending someone than it is to tell the truth. And it's a bloody good job. Because there's one question I'm just not interested in the truthful answer to at the moment, and it's this: 'how's my hair?'. 

There's a lot to be said for sparing someone's feelings, I think. I once winced from the touchline as a boyfriend's nose exploded at the hands of an opponent's elbow in a Sunday league grudge-match. Running over to help, the manager and I perfected our stories. Having heard the crack from the other side of the pitch, we knew it wasn't going to be pretty, but nevertheless stuck to the script upon seeing a nose that looked more like an ear. 'It's not that bad,' we assured him on the way back to the changing room. And he bought it – until catching his reflection in a car window. 'Not that bad?,' he shrieked. 'I look like Peter fucking Beardsley.' 

Right now, as it goes, I wouldn't mind having hair like Peter Beardsley. He may be no Brad Pitt (I've stopped saying Dave Grohl in these circumstances for fear of a restraining order), but at least the man's got a fringe. And hair-wise, it turns out I miss my fringe more than I miss my length. (The problem is my forehead – just stick a bolt through my neck and let's be done with it.) But still, compared to the not-far-past-bald photograph from the first Barnet Bulletin, even I've got to admit that I've looked worse.

Not that P would have me believe that. He's complimentary to the point of extremes. 'I adore your short hair,' he'll tell me. 'Mind you, I adored your bald head as well.' (With that kind of misplaced kindness, it's no wonder I've got an arse the size of Japan.) And he's not the only one who's been blowing smoke up my ass lately. It's been happening so often, I'm practically farting smoke signals. My doctors tell me they're amazed at how quickly it's growing back. My folks tell me they can't imagine me with long hair. Boys tell me I'm 'rocking it', and that it makes me look cool (and believe me, I'm far from cool – my thumbs are aloft more often than Macca's and I just wrote 'later gator' at the end of an email). Girls tell me it's cute, and more fitting for my age (translation: I was trying too hard with the long blonde 'do). And my brother tells me it's the same haircut he had when he was 17 (cheers, arseface).

But there comes a point when you can't mask the truth any longer (usually when you're introduced to my brother). Whether you're laying eyes on a fast-balding head, a bent-out-of-shape nose or a forehead like a flat-screen TV, at some point you're going to have to face the truth. Which is why this Barnet Bulletin is several days overdue. Right now, there simply does not exist a single decent, current photo of me. (It's saying something that I'm wearing a wig in my Facebook profile picture, and that one of my Twitter profile pics is just a wig on a stand.) And it's not from a lack of trying. I've spent days trying to perfect the right pose, the right angle, the right light, the right tilt of my head to avoid my forehead looking like a helipad. But nada. This hair of mine just ain't behaving in front of a camera. And so the last photo in the Barnet Bulletin series (I figure I've exhausted it long enough) isn't just unflattering, but purposefully unflattering. Consider it admitting defeat. If I can't find a flattering photo of my new barnet, then I've been left with no option but to post this one instead. So please don't feel the need to feed me a load of rhubarb about how I can get away with short hair, how quickly it's grown, or how cute or cool I look. I look like a goon. A ginger goon, at that. (Almost thirty years of trying to disguise my strawberry blonde, and now I'm actively encouraging colourists to bring it back.) Your platitudes are wasted on me. Not even a mother could compliment this face.

Eleven months post-diagnosis, having lost and gained a head of hair, you'd have think I'd have stopped sweating the small stuff about how I look. So much for the zen-like me who would laugh in the face of stray greys, stubborn kinks or rain-induced frizziness. But, oddly, having a hair-mare isn't altogether a bad thing. A couple of weeks ago, our boiler went on the blink. It was only for a matter of hours, and really wasn't a big deal given the glorious spring sunshine outside, but it didn't stop me having a good old-fashioned, stomping-about-the-kitchen, snapping-at-my-husband paddy. Lying back in the bath once it had all been put right, I couldn't help but laugh. Despite having endured the Chemo Months From Hell, and more despairing depths than I care to remember, there was something oddly comforting about having a tantrum over a bit of hot water. So you'll have to take my moaning with a pinch of salt. I might be whingeing endlessly about my hair but, by 'eck, it's good to have hair to whinge about.