Tuesday 23 June 2009

Gone to Glasto...

If you need me in the meantime, though, I'll more than likely be propping up the Cider Bus. Which is pretty tame, really – especially when you consider that I spent last year's Glasto in a hospital bed, off my tits (sorry, tit) on morphine.

No rain dances, now...

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Happy new year.

One year ago today, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Even 12 months down the line – after the heartbreak and the surgery and the all-too-real treatment – I remain every bit as freaked out by that fact as I was upon hearing it. What, me? Breast cancer? Are you sure? It still feels as though I’m talking about someone else – some poor sod I’ve read about in a first-person magazine feature, or heard about in an eavesdropped conversation on the bus. It still hasn’t sunk in. It may never sink in.

Today, however, has been an altogether happier June 17th. In a spookily cyclical turn of events, I have again received a rather massive piece of hospital news; the kind that inflicts tears upon those who’ve so far heard it. But this time, however, it’s for rather more celebratory reasons…

My mammogram is clear.

Poetic or what? I feel like I ought to be taking a bow or something. Punching the air or clipping my heels or screaming from the rooftops or running topless up my street. But since it’s all bit overwhelming right now, I’ve just had a little sob instead. Not out of sadness, you understand. It was a euphoric, relieved little sob. The kind of sob that encourages your husband to kiss your forehead, buy you a lottery ticket and bake you a cake. (Ahh.)

Not expecting my test results to come through until some time next week, I’d been nervous about marking the passing of today. I mean, hell, how do you mark your first cancer anniversary? Or, indeed, the first anniversary of any shit-uation that life chucks at you? I half expected to get up this morning and find my Bullshit birthday on the TV news, hear it being talked about by London cabbies or see it plastered across newspaper placards and magazine covers. (Apparently cancer’s given me an ego the size of Brazil.) Because it is, after all, The Biggest Thing That’s Ever Happened. (Better make that the whole of South America.)

There’s been rather a lot of contact from my family and friends this week, love them. I haven’t banged on about my Bullshit birthday to them even half as much as I would my normal birthday, but everyone’s still silently made it known that they’re aware of its place on the calendar. (And with little over two months to go to my 30th, you can expect that little onslaught to begin, ooh, tomorrow. Come August you’ll be begging me to talk about cancer.)
My mate Ali gave me a pat on the back – literal, not metaphorical – and told me that I ought to mark the day by reflecting on how well I’ve done to get through my first year of a life interrupted by The Bullshit. Mum said I ought to feel proud and allow myself a horn-blow about all the things I’ve achieved. Dad said I’d done brilliantly, congratulating me in much the same way he did when seeing my A-level results (well, two of them anyway). My brother Jamie said I should compare how bleak the picture was this time last year with the altogether rosier outlook of today and hold my head high. And you know what? They're right.

Because, by 'eck, there were times over the last year when I didn't think I'd get this far. Times when I didn't think I could get this far. And the odd time when, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't even want to. But, bugger me, I have. And yes, I know it's not the end of the road. There’s plenty more to do. (Nipple Phase Two, for starters.) Because as much as the more hardcore phase of my Bullshit experience has tied itself up in a neat 365 days, the bigger battle lasts a lifetime. (After my diagnosis, someone told me to ‘expect to write off the next year’. I may track her down for a palm reading.)

But sod all of that now. Today isn’t for worrying about what comes next, nor is it for mourning the life-changes that cancer has inflicted upon me. God knows I’ve given The Bullshit more than enough of my tears. No, today is for popping corks, feeling chuffed, moving on and partying like it’s June 18th. Today is for saying ‘fair game’ and shaking hands with my opponent, while sneakily smirking at the scoreline that’s in my favour. Today is for looking ahead to a summer – nay, lifetime – of happier memories. (First stop: Glastonbury.) Today is for raising a glass (or six) to all of the brilliant buggers who’ve helped get me this far (that means you). Today is for rising above all the crap stuff, and for celebrating the better things that have come out of my Bullshit year. Today is year zero. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me – and I’m feeling good. 

I can’t guarantee I will be in the morning, mind. Cheers!

Sunday 14 June 2009

Relax? Don't do it.

In the midst of teenage, pre-results exam anxiety, I used to have a recurring dream about going to collect my grades. I’d get up at quarter to sparrow-fart on results day, pass up on breakfast thanks to being too nervous, fail to wait for the mate who was calling for me on the way to school and instead hurriedly head there myself, early and apprehensive, where I’d lean against the huge, locked wooden double doors in order to be the first one through when the headmaster opened them. But whenever I did get inside, one of three things would happen. I’d either wait at the front of the queue as the headmaster rifled through envelopes only to reveal that my results were missing; he’d open the doors and announce to the crowd of tetchy teens (and the cool, do-I-look-bovvered kids smoking at the back) that the exam board were late in sending our grades through; or I’d be handed my envelope, take myself off to a quiet corner to open it and discover that it was empty. I never dreamt about getting bad grades – only ever about having to wait longer for them.

It doesn’t take a straight-A rocket scientist, then, to deduce that, in my world, waiting for your fate is far worse than getting it – however crappy it may be. ‘Well, no news is good news,’ people will say. ‘No it sodding isn’t,’ I’ll think. Those people are crazy. No news is a damn chuffing sight worse than bad news. Because at least with bad news you can react to it, be practical, just do something – whether it’s making plans or smashing windows – in response. But in the meantime, what the bleeding hell are you supposed to do but fret and flap and clog up London’s sewerage system with your worries? 

‘Oh, just be calm,’ said the technician as I zipped up my dress after last week’s mammogram. ‘Try to relax.’ I turned green, bursting out of the seams of my frock. ‘Relax?’ I roared. ‘RELAX?!’ (I fear I became Brian Blessed for a moment.) ‘How can I possibly relax? The last time I had one of these things,’ I said, disdainfully gesturing to the machine that had just squashed my right breast like a stress ball, ‘…it wasn’t supposed to be a big deal, and I ended up with BREAST CANCER. I’m assuming it says that on your clipboard there?’ I think she actually found my reaction funny, and sneaked out a little half-grin, demonstrably not believing that I was every bit as serious as the illness I’d been diagnosed with. 

My last mammogram was done at Smiley Surgeon’s clinic, mere minutes before my diagnosis. I hadn’t even realised I’d be having one that day – as far as I was concerned, I was just going to the hospital to get the results of a ‘routine biopsy’ on my ‘cyst’. And, given that I’d paid for that consultation in order to have it eight weeks sooner than I would have done on the NHS, it could all be done – the test, the results, the lot – in one day. By the time I’d re-dressed after my mammogram, the x-ray scans were already being printed out. And so, with this as my only melon-squeezing experience, I was optimistic that I’d know again this time – despite being in a different hospital – whether anything was awry on the day of my mammogram. 

‘I’ll level with you,’ I said to the technician as I unhooked my bra before she set the machine working. ‘I’m really bloody frightened about this.’ She half-grinned, in what was clearly her default reaction to everything. ‘And so I really want you to tell me if you see anything untoward,’ I pleaded. ‘I can’t do that,’ she said. ‘I can’t say anything; I’m not allowed. You have to wait to hear from the doctors.’ Tears fell from my eyes onto the edge of the machine before me. ‘And how long is that going to be?’ I whimpered. ‘I’d say two to three weeks. They’ll write to you. Or call. Sometimes they call.’ I’m assuming ‘sometimes’ translates to ‘if there’s a problem’.

I continued to cry as the machine did its thing, both from the pain of my flattened bust, and the pain of a protracted wait for my results. ‘Okay, good,’ said the technician as the whirring eventually ground to a halt. My head spun round in her direction. Was that ‘good’ as in there’s nothing showing up, or good as in we’re done? I daren’t ask, for fear of the same I’m-not-telling-you reaction, and fear that my increasingly wounded-child-spliced-with-the-Incredible-Hulk demeanour would have seen me grab hold of her head and ram it between the same metal plates that had just turned my right tit to mincemeat. 

And so now, we wait.



I’m holding it together as best I can, keeping as busy as my tiredness allows, and pretending I can ignore every sound from my phone or rattle of the letterbox. I’m trying to change any subject that relates to The Bullshit, push all negative thought to the back of my mind and work through all the anxiety-calming Q&A tactics Mr Marbles taught me to use whenever my worries find a way of surfacing. (Is this a rational thought? Do I have any reason to believe it’s true? Can I back it up?) The trouble with that, though, is that my mind sometimes likes to play smartarse and think it’s too clever for that kind of therapy malarkey. ‘Well, yes actually,’ it’ll say, sarcastically. ‘That worry is rational and, yes, you do have reason to believe it and, yes, you can even back it up – hell, the last time you assumed your boobs were cancer-free, it came back to bite you on the ass good and proper, so screw Marbles and his calming tactics and keep tucking into those biscuits.’

But rational thought, of course, isn’t necessarily about making yourself feel better. Because, ultimately, you’ve got to deal in fact. And so people can say ‘you’ll be okay’ and ‘there won’t be a problem’ and ‘I just know it’ll be fine’ as much as they want, but do they really know that everything’s going to be okay? Can they really feel it in their water? Of course not. No more than I can or the doctors can or The Piss-Taking God Of Cancer Fuck-Ups can. And so much of my focus at the moment is going into nodding politely whenever somebody does say something like that, and biting my lip to stop myself launching into a monologue about how I have to be open to receiving bad news, how I’m trying to prepare myself for the worst and how I’d hate to say I told you so if I got the kind of diagnosis that would satisfy nothing but my fondness for symmetry.

The shit truth here is that there’s not a single sodding thing I can do about those unknown results either way. If there’s cancer in my right boob (having had everything scooped out of the left, there was no reason to scan that side), then I’m just going to have to scream a few expletives, accept it, hitch up my skirt and wade through the swamp of whatever treatment they can give me for a second time. And if there isn’t any sign of further Bullshit – and if I can somehow pester the arse off the mammography department into letting me know my results within the next 10 days – then it’s going to be one hell of a Glastonbury. But whatever those results do say, there’s one grade I can count on in the meantime, and that’s an A+ in worrying. And as for my grades in being calm/relaxed? I’d say F/U was pretty appropriate, wouldn’t you?

Friday 5 June 2009

The long and short of it.

Okay, so the last Barnet Bulletin was supposed to be the final one. But this, I’m afraid to say, ain’t over. (Well, it kind of is – this is less an update than an essay-long moan.) I wish it was over – frankly I’m sick of talking about my hair, just as I’m sick of cursing at it, crying about it, buying useless products for it, trying every chuffing morning and night to just. do. something – anything – with the sodding stuff. It won’t sit straight. It won’t even sit curly. It’s too long to do a Natalie Portman, but too short to do an Agyness Deyn. I’ve tried running my straighteners through it, but I end up looking like Basil Brush. I’ve tried leaving it curly, but I end up looking like Susan Boyle. I’ve tried greasing it up with gloopy straightening creams, but I end up looking like Danny Zuko. I honestly think I looked better bald.

Almost a year ago, when I was a long-haired, cat-hating, anti-tattoo kind of girl, I wrote the following. (Ignore the context though please. I was an idiot back then, obviously.)

‘My hair is my everything… My hair is where I carry all of my confidence; the top line in my personal appearance. Anyone who knows me will tell you what a pain in the arse I am when it comes to my hair. Nobody's even allowed to touch it without prior warning, I'm always that conscious of it being nothing less than the best it can be.’

‘My hair is where I carry all of my confidence.’ How astute that was. Because now, with little better than an unruly, furry swimming cap covering my scalp, I’ve got nothing in which I can carry my confidence. I’ve frantically been trying to find something else to trade off. Figure? I wish. Face? Not as long as my eyelashes remain stunted by chemo. Height? Fine until you cripple yourself walking home from the tube in six-inch wedges. So what else is there? People don’t take one look at you and think, ‘Well she’s got a glittering personality.’ And so I’ve settled on an unusual combination of smell (thank you, Calvin Klein) and my handbag (Marc Jacobs is more than worthy of being the carrier of my little-remaining confidence). But, nice as my perfume is and proudly as I carry my tote, they fall pretty short of the mark, no? Personal ads aren’t filled with blokes looking for a woman with musk-scented pheromones and good taste in leather. It’s a damn good job I’m married, and have a husband who appreciates my contempt for my hair and yet always tells me I look ‘cute’. That ought to be enough. But it isn’t.

I’m still conscious of my hair being ‘nothing less than the best it can be’. Overly-conscious. Because, of course, it’s a bloody long way off its best. ‘Have patience,’ said Dad when I whinged about it for the 450,865,986th time this week. The ‘pah’ wouldn’t come out of my mouth. I’ve done nothing but be patient. Patient throughout five months of chemo. Patient throughout six weeks of radiotherapy. Patient about waiting for the first bits of bumfluff to reappear from my balding head. Patient about hanging on for the requisite amount of time before getting it coloured. I’ve paid my dues. Patience can kiss my ass. Because, in all that time of being an oh-so-patient patient, all I’ve been waiting for is a normal life – with normal hair. Actually, I’ve pretty much got the first part. And yes, of course that’s the most important thing. (Lovely locks mean nothing without a healthy body to back them up.) But, dammit, I. Want. My. Hair. Back! ‘No, no, you’re right. Fair enough,’ said Dad, when my eyes bulged out of their sockets at the sound of his suggestion.

Post-treatment, I’ve done everything I can to get my body well. I’ve started being more active, I’ve given myself time out when I need it, I’ve looked after my wounds, I’ve taken all the right pills, I’ve eaten greens and berries like they’re about to be rationed. (I’m currently on a ludicrous pre-Glasto diet regime. Endless fruit and veg + green tea = all kinds of boring, but vital campervan calories to play with.) But what’s the right thing to do for my hair? How can I make that well again? 

The simple fact is, it’s making me miserable. It might sound daft, given what I’ve been through, but I shed tears about it regularly. And I’m angry that I do. I’m furious that it’s pissing on my chips at a time when everything else is going right right right. I’m feeling healthier than I have in the best part of a year. I’ve got a happy, hectic summer of fun lined up. I’m going to be Cool Auntie Lisa to Tills’s baby. (Yay Tills and Si!) I’m back working in a job I adore. I’m writing my book, ferfuckssake! I don’t want to be miserable. I want to be relieved and content and as carefree as my hospital schedule allows. I want to bask in the glory of everything finally coming up roses. And I’m really bloody pissed off that it’s something as seemingly trivial as the stuff on my head – rather than in my head – that’s raining on my glorious parade.

My LA-based mate Ant is the one who takes most of the brunt, since she’s the only person who’s been able to understand just how low I’ve been feeling about all of this. Everyone else thinks I’m just being dramatic, batting it off in a ‘how can you be worried about your hair when you’ve had cancer to contend with’ fashion. ‘But this hair is cancer!’ I want to scream. ‘It’s a daily fucking reminder of what it’s done to me!’ But instead I shrug, nodding helplessly to their ‘it’ll grow’ suggestions and ‘but it suits you’ compliments, just as I did when they tried to reassure me that I was ‘nearly there’ when I had two chemo cycles left to endure.

It’s no coincidence, then, that I’ve just booked a trip to visit Ant. She read my mind when I told her about the flights. ‘Have you considered getting extensions while you’re here?’ Have I? Shit, I’ve done nothing but fantasise about having beautiful locks sewn in, swishing my new hair around, having something to play with and smile about and not use as an excuse to avoid socialising with my mates or having my photograph taken. I’m salivating at the thought. Hair extensions are my porn. Ant was talking to Mena Suvari the other day – fabulous friend to the stars that she is – and got onto the subject of extensions. ‘I told her about you,’ she said, ‘And she’s going to give me the number of her stylist.’ So not only could I have my hair extended, but I could have it done by an A-list stylist. Sold.

Or am I? Because throwing a giant, alopecia-shaped spanner in the works is the advice I’ve taken from a number of different sources. ‘It can pull the hair permanently from your head,’ one said. ‘Hair is really weak after chemo, so you can’t risk losing the hair that’s grown back,’ said another. I headed to the usual cancer messageboards for more and discovered, rather comfortingly, that I’m not alone in cursing my regrowth. ‘I just can’t wait any more!’ declared one woman of her impossible-to-manage locks. ‘I thought they would grow out faster than this… I just don’t know how I’m meant to style it,’ said another of her post-chemo frizz. It’s a common problem. Even Kylie arguably looked better at this point than she did a matter of weeks later.

‘You’ll do what you want anyway,’ said Mum, immediately after a lesson in the dangers of hair extensions. ‘Just like you did with the tattoo.’ (I fear that may haunt me for the rest of my life – it's the one time I’ve ever knowingly done something my folks would rather I hadn’t. Frankly it’s the sign of rather a crap rebel that I’ve only started upsetting my folks now I’m pushing 30. Next stop, then: nipple piercing.) ‘But you’re not appreciating just how miserable this is making me,’ I protested, to a repeat of the ‘you’ll do what you want’ mantra. But will I do what I want?

What I want is to have my hair extended. I’ve even been in touch with a specialist hair company to see whether I’m suitable for a new scheme they’re running to provide extensions to confidence-low cancer patients. (Hello, by the way, if you’re reading this. I will return your call soon, I promise. Just as soon as I’ve taken a straw poll in this comments section as to whether I should go ahead.) But should I do it at the risk of losing my hair again? And is that risk really real? Is it worth hanging in there just a bit longer to see if another month’s growth makes a difference? It’s bloody confusing. I’m all tangled up. I just wish I had hair I could say the same for.

I’m pretty embarrassed to have filled so much space with this stuff. The balance of paragraphs is all wrong here. This post shouldn’t be about how unhappy my hair is making me. It should be about how wonderful my new normal life is. How much I love walking into an office three times a week. How I can’t even pretend to be cool about the book stuff because I’m just so completely jump-up-and-down, shout-from-the-rooftops excited about it all. How I’ve become obsessed with the weather forecast and have mentally planned a Glastonbury outfit for every conceivable change in climate. How I love being able to fill my diary with lovely things to look forward to. (Actually, one day I’m going to force that kind of cheerful post on you. Hold onto your stomachs – it’s going to be more feelgood and sickly-sweet than a Disney version of The Sound of Music performed by fluffy kittens. You’ll be begging for a return to my blow-by-blow bowel movements.)

The thing is, if you take my hair out of the equation, life is G-R-E-A-T. In fact, life is so great now that it’s freaking me out a bit. Just as I can’t get over the stupid, stupid hair that’s taking me into my new life, I also can’t get over the utterly brilliant weirdness of not talking about cancer all the time. I feel like I ought to be telling the guy I buy my morning bagel from where I’ve been over the last year (although I’m sure that with the crap hair and all, he probably just thinks I’m a different person altogether – and he might be right). I even sat in a features meeting the other day and, when talk turned to the beauty pages and mentions of hair-straightening treatments, I thought ‘right, here’s my chance to get a cancer mention in’ (as though it were an unspoken elephant in the room) and launched into a wholly unnecessary monologue about how annoyingly crap my chemo curls were – right in the middle of something that should have been normal and cancer-free. Everyone looked nervous and laughed politely. ‘But it looks lovely!’ they said. ‘No it sodding doesn’t,’ I said. ‘It looks like my hair fell out.’ (To her credit, my boss stepped in with, ‘You can’t tell her; she won’t listen.’ I’m pleased she knows me well enough not to bother with the pleasantries I don’t know how to handle.) Cue more polite tittering. Because you can’t roll your eyes and tut at the girl who’s had cancer, can you?

I’m sure there’s an argument here that this continual whingeing about my post-chemo hair is a way of hanging onto cancer in some way, like a weird illness version of Stockholm syndrome. Because, I’ll admit, I’d almost forgotten how to live a life that isn’t dominated by The Bullshit, and the thought of doing something different does, in an odd way, worry me somewhat. But since that’s all a bit deep for a Friday night, I’ll swerve that theory and instead suggest that the issue is more that – at least when my clothes are on – my hair is the one physical thing that remains from my Bullshit experience. It’s my cancer hangover. And in the same way that you want to disappear under a duvet the morning after the night before, there’s still a part of me that wants to do the same every time I wake up, thanks to the shame of my miserable, meantime hairdo. And you know what? If my life weren’t so bloody brilliant otherwise, I just might.