Monday 24 August 2009

Jump around.

Before my diagnosis, P and I had finally got our heads around occasionally peeling our arses off the sofa and into a gym. We’d found a decent place near to where we live with a pool and a beautician and Sky Sports (serious exercisers that we are), and were enjoying our thrice-weekly visits. Until, that is, The Bullshit came along to press the emergency-stop button on our treadmill, after which P made the rather sensible decision to put our membership on hold for a year. And, within the last couple of weeks, that year expired – so we’re now back in the exercise game (albeit rather slower and with less room to spare in our gym kits).

Despite never having been the kind of girl who enjoys exercise (cardio training to me is skipping to the corner shop for a box of Cadbury’s Fingers), I’m taking a lot of pleasure from my workouts – not just the smugness that comes with being a gym member, but ticking off the calories as I cycle, watching the minutes pass as I swim, and no longer having to worry about 45 minutes’ worth of blow-drying when I get out. But there’s one thing getting in the way: my boobs. (Okay, two things.)

Since P and I have been absent from the gym, it’s been taken over by a new company who’ve made all kinds of welcome changes, from a better colour on the walls of the changing rooms to a limitless supply of towels. One of the main differences, however, is in the gym itself, where TV screens have been added to each treadmill. And it’s a damn good idea, saving you a restricted view of your programme thanks to other joggers’ bobbing heads. The issue, however, is that you can see yourself in its reflection as you jog (or power-walk, in my case) – which might not be a problem if you’re a lithe, Sporty Spice type. But it sure as hell throws up a few issues for the post-mastectomy gym-goers among us, who are suddenly witness to one tit bouncing about like a ping-pong ball in a bingo machine and the other staying rigidly pert, like Nicole Kidman’s botoxed forehead.

Panicking that other people had noticed the strange goings-on in my chest, I quickly hit the ‘cool down’ button (in the hope that it’d do the same for my blushing cheeks) and made a sharp exit. Catching myself in the reflection of vending-machine glass on my way back to the changing room, I stopped, looked around to check I was alone, and did a little bounce on the balls of my feet to generate some movement in my sports bra. And yep – it hadn’t been an illusion. The right one moves like, well, like a boob should, and the left just isn’t playing.

So now I’m even more paranoid about my chest than I was previously – which is rather a mean feat. Does it move like that when I walk down the street? What about when the bus goes over a speed bump? And when the tube pulls to a sudden halt – did I ought to be hanging onto my tits instead of the hand rail? If anything, this discovery has hardened my resolve to speak to Smiley Surgeon about getting my right one ‘done’ to ensure I’ve got a matching pair – in both shape and movement. I know it’s hardly a necessary, life-saving operation, but when you’re as fond of symmetry as I am (it is my life’s dream to live in the kind of symmetrical house I used to draw as a kid), this kind of thing matters more than it might to most people. And besides, the least I’m owed after all this cancer nonsense is a perfect pair, right?

Not that a perfect pair would see a move from my surreptitious dressing routine in the changing room of the gym. Apologies if this applies to you, but what is it with those women who parade around naked, admiring themselves in the mirror? The other day I threw my head back after drying the underneath of my hair, and discovered that the woman combing her locks beside me was starkers; flaunting her perfect tits in my face like a supermodel at fat camp. ‘Oh ferchrissake, I could do without having to look at that,’ I muttered quietly under my breath, wiping unwanted hair mousse down the front of my leggings as I walked away. ‘Some of us haven’t got tits worthy of public attention. It shouldn’t be allowed.’ (And yes, I appreciate that’s a bit like saying that anyone with lovely long hair out to be forced into a pixie-cut now that mine is short and chemo-curled.)

Looking back across the changing room, I realised it was the same woman who’d frowned in my direction as I put my covert-changing plan into effect: pull knickers on underneath the towel, fasten bra over the towel, pull my top over it, then lose the towel in exchange for my leggings. Done. It’s a routine I perfected as a kid, way before I had a fake boob, tattooed nipple and visible surgery scars to worry about. After every PE class at school, our Stalinist teacher would force us to run through a short corridor of showers in a line, with our towels held up over our heads, as she stood on the other side of the shower wall. Leaving us to shower on our own (as other PE teachers allowed) would have been fine – but this, we objected to. So me and my partner-in-crime Weeza, ever keen to do the opposite of whatever this woman asked, would instead bring two towels – leaving our underwear on underneath one that we held in place with our bras (or training-bras, in my case), and carrying the other over our heads to save ourselves both a detention and the shame of playing naked-lemmings with our classmates.

Since then, I’ve been similarly subtle in changing rooms. And not always out of coyness – more out of respect for my fellow changees. Because really, even if I did have a stomach like Scarlett, pins like Paltrow and a booty like Beyonce, who, exactly, would be interested? (Except, perhaps, P.) But of course, these days, coyness is part and parcel of the number that The Bullshit has done on my body. Aside from the steroid-assisted additional pounds (and the difficulty of shifting them while taking menopause-inducing Tamoxifen) and the need to keep my left’un hidden from anyone other than my husband, I’m particularly conscious of the long scar on my back.

Without ruining your lunch with the details of my back-to-front reconstruction (there’s more here if you’re genuinely interested), the scar across my back was a necessary evil in getting my boob back. And, though it’s long and wide and angry-looking, it’s only really when it comes to things like gym changing rooms or buying swimsuits that it becomes a problem – as I discovered in M&S last week while trying to find a bikini for this week’s birthday-break in Spain. Because not only did stringy two-pieces leave my scar on display for all to see, but they really dug into it, too. Having sacrificed some muscle from the area, it’s a weird enough sensation at the best of times, but having lycra forced into it was a bit like someone putting an uninvited finger in your belly button: you don’t know whether to laugh nervously or report them for abuse. ‘Still, it’s not like bikini-buying has ever been a nice experience,’ said a colleague when I told her about how I’d settled on a couple of concealing tankinis after a half-hour changing-room strop. ‘So at least that’s one thing cancer can’t take credit for ruining, eh?’ And she’s got a point.

I once said that, when my hair and boob returned, I would make a point of never again whingeing about them; always being grateful for getting back what I’d lost. But sod all that – I’m just not that zen. Besides, moaning about these things is part and parcel of living a normal life, no? That said, I do hope that one day I’ll be less terrified at the prospect of my towel slipping in the changing room. And maybe, if I spend a bit more time in the gym, I might even learn to love my lop-sided body. But first, I think, I’m going to need to invest in one hell of a sports bra.

Thursday 20 August 2009

What difference does it make?

Something happened recently that I didn’t blog about. Partly because I couldn’t get my head around it; partly because I didn’t know how to write about it. Not that I have been able to process it any better in the meantime, mind you, but if I’m going to stay true to my intention of blogging honestly about anything Bullshit-related, I’ve got no choice but to try.

Much as it felt that way when I was in the midst of it, I wasn’t the only person in my circle to have had to deal with The Bullshit. There was my auntie, for one. Diagnosed with a different type of Bullshit a mere fortnight before I was, she’s been my chemo-buddy, my wig-buddy and my regrowth-buddy, and we’ve understood each other like twin sisters, despite our 50-year age gap. Then there were the people I feel I know but have never met, having only shared conversations via my blog comments or email or Twitter or somesuch, who contacted me as a result of Alright Tit and have invited me through the door of their own encounters with cancer. And there was my friend Gill – a former boss who had been swearing her way through The Bullshit for six months before I found myself doing the same.

‘Guess what? Me too,’ I said to her in an email breaking my news. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, Mac,’ replied Gill, in her characteristic, short-cut-to-the-point way. ‘Well,’ she continued, ‘I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you… it’s a rough ride ahead.’ And boy, was she right.

Gill and I were never meet-for-a-pint mates. We never bought each other birthday presents, we never went shopping together, and she wasn’t at my wedding. We were former colleagues who met up occasionally over noodles to talk music and men and gossip about the better times we’d had in our former workplace. We met when Gill took over editorship of a magazine I was working on, and promoted me to the position of her deputy. Cheeky, sharp-tongued, loud and brassy, Gill wasn’t everyone’s favourite choice for editor and, though she and I worked together in a productive way that surprised us both, I’d be lying if I said that she and I always saw eye to eye – unless, of course, the subject was music… in which case, we’d found in each other a fascinated ally in which to share in each other’s geekery.

With The Bullshit getting in the way of both of our abilities to keep in contact with anyone who wasn’t immediately under our noses, Gill and I had only infrequent contact during our treatment. And, several weeks ago, when sending out invites to my Super Sweet 30th, I learned – two months after the event – that Gill had died.

I would, of course, have been at her funeral. She and I had looked forward to comparing chemo-curls and trying on each other’s wigs once our treatment had finished, and that – fruitless as it may have been – would have been my chance to show her the post-Bullshit, new-look me that we’d talked about revealing to each other. But, alas, I was tragically late.

I sent a letter to her sister after hearing the news. And, of course, it wasn’t easy to write – not just because of the emotion involved, but also in avoiding the usual cancer sympathies that simply wouldn’t have done justice to the unforgettable Gill. I didn’t want to say, for instance, how sorry I was that Gill had ‘lost her battle’ with cancer. Gill shared my opinions on that kind of rhetoric – neither of us liked the implication that cancer was capable of ‘beating’ someone. Cancer, we agreed, isn’t a competition. You don’t choose to tackle it a certain way. You just get on with it in the only way you know how. It isn’t a fight that you win or lose – it’s simply an illness with different outcomes. Some of us are still here after experiencing it; some of us aren’t.

There’s a lot of talk of ‘positive mental attitude’ with regard to cancer which, I can’t help but think, simply points to the hopelessness that surrounds it. A positive attitude doesn’t make chemo work better or double the effectiveness of radiotherapy. What it can do, however, is give you a focus throughout the dark times, satisfy your sense of somehow being in control, and assure the people around you – truthfully or otherwise – that you’re on top of it. But PMA alone is, regrettably, not enough.

I don’t want to sound defeatist here. Nor do I want to deny myself the opportunity to celebrate the fortunate position I now find myself in. I’d love to be able to say with conviction that I kicked cancer’s ass. But, in truth, it kicked mine – to baldness and back. The language of triumph around cancer can be horribly misleading. Because, the reality is, I didn’t beat cancer. I just had the kind of cancer that could be treated, and a brilliant medical team to see to its eradication. My job was simply to allow them to do it; to accept the treatment; to accept the way that treatment would make me look and feel, and to hope for the best.

You might think that my opinion is pretty shitty, that it’s too harsh or that it’s not fair on those concerned. But, I’m afraid, so is cancer. I’m no braver than Gill was. I didn’t fight any harder. I was just really bloody lucky that cancer’s plans for me were different to its tragic intentions for her.

Thursday 13 August 2009

A gift.

As you'll have seen in the below post, the wonderful Happy Sweet Shop ( have donated some stuff for the goody bags for my Super Sweet 30th birthday party. (Y'know, the one that's in aid of Breast Cancer Care. The one with the cupcakes decorated with nipple-shaped icing. The one I've been banging on about since, ooh, 1983.)

Well that's not all. Because, especially for you lovely folk, they've created an exclusive 10% off code. Just enter TWIT0809 at the checkout (valid on UK orders only until 11/09/09).

And there's more. Because if you add my name (real name or Twitter name, apparently) into the comments section when placing your order, they'll also donate 5% of the order to my charity fundraising effort. Come on, now – they're practically guilt-free calories.

Don't say I never give you nuffink.

Saturday 8 August 2009

Wacky races.

Every year at my school, with the Year 11s knee-deep into their GCSEs, the Year 10s would take time out of their studies (or glue sniffing or shoplifting or antenatal classes, whatever) to run Charity Week. During five days of the summer term, it would be their responsibility to arrange a series of events and activities for the rest of the school to participate in – wear-what-you-want days, tuck-shop breaktimes, throwing wet sponges at teachers… plus some disturbing encounter called The Ultimate Experience in which we’d blindfold Year 7s and make them crawl over gym mats covered in tin foil while spooky music played and we squirted them with water guns. (Good job we didn’t have mobile phones then or they’d have been straight onto Childline.)

As part of Charity Week, there would also be performances in the assembly hall during lunch hours. The funny kids did impressions of the teachers, the brainy kids ran quizzes and the starry-eyed kids put on a dance revue, all in return for a 50p entrance fee. Which is precisely how, one rainy lunchtime, I ended up miming to Dizzy by Vic Reeves and the Wonderstuff in front of 100 bewildered 12-year-olds. ‘Hang on,’ I thought, as I clumsily span around on the spot, ‘We’re supposed to be the cool kids in this place. And yet not a single bloody thing about what I'm doing right now is cool.’

From the moment we’re old enough to understand the concept of giving, we’re inexplicably taught that hand-in-hand with charity must go wackiness. According to the Unwritten Rules of Doing Good, in order to raise money, you must first wave goodbye to your street cred. You know the kind of thing I mean… Baked-bean-filled bathtubs. Soap stars in gunk-tanks. Newsreaders recreating Grease. Bucket-carrying students raiding tube commuters in rag week. Wearing your clothes backwards to work. Charity fundraising, it seems, just can’t happen without a hefty helping of ker-ay-zee. And I can’t get my head around it.

In everybody’s favourite episode of The Office (The One With The Dance), Tim famously sits out the sponsored-hopping, fancy-dress approach to Comic Relief fundraising. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says. ‘I’ve got nothing against this sort of thing. It’s all for a good cause. I just don’t want to have to join in with someone else’s idea of wackiness. It’s the wackiness I can’t stand. It’s like if you see someone outside Asda collecting for Cancer Research because they’ve been personally affected by it or whatever, or an old bloke selling poppies… there’s a dignity about that. A real, quiet dignity. And that’s what today’s all about,’ he says, sarcastically, as the rest of the office pin down an accountant and strip him from the waist down in the name of starving kids. ‘Dignity. Always dignity.’

Much like Tim, I tend to have a rather serious aversion to anything wacky. I don’t want to sound like a miserable bastard here. And I do appreciate that, in these strapped-for-cash times, charities have to work even harder to tempt people’s hands into their pockets for donations. But is wackiness really the only way to go about it? Can charity fundraising ever be considered cool?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, in the run-up to my Super Sweet 30th birthday party at which I’ll be asking my nearest and dearest to bring not presents, but instead their wallets, to help me raise money for Breast Cancer Care. And, having done a decent job of un-learning everything I was taught at school, I’m hoping my education in charidee fundraising will go the same way – I'd like my charity bash to be enjoyable rather than excruciating.

I’m well aware that there’s something rather predictable about being diagnosed with cancer and then having a party to raise money for a cancer charity. (Perhaps ‘cool’ would have been to get breast cancer and then raise money for a donkey sanctuary?) But, conventional as it is, there’s no getting away from the fact that it just feels like the right thing to do. Surviving an illness like cancer is an oddly empty, anti-climactic experience, and so I can see why people so often do this kind of thing. Because, hell, what else can you do? You can’t change the fact that you had cancer. You can’t change the fact that anyone else around you might get cancer. You can’t cure the disease or magically shrink tumours. But what you can do is direct your energies – and hopefully some money – towards a cause that’s related to what you’ve been through. And, in this case, that cause is Breast Cancer Care: a charity that provided me with all the info I needed in a way I could understand it at a time when the concept of breast cancer was as unfamiliar to me as Swahili.

All that said, I’m wary of becoming another cancer-survivor cliché. Running marathons, jumping out of planes, posing with huge cheques in the local newspaper. I don’t want to have to live my life to the fullest, living each day as though it were my last. I want to live my life as I would have done before – getting elbowed on the tube, complaining that the Coronation Street writers still haven’t killed off Dev, and not feeling guilty about having wasted a precious day when I find myself still in my pyjamas at 3pm on a Sunday. I want to save up for holidays and go on diets, and look forward to my birthdays. I don’t want to celebrate my 30th birthday because at one point I feared I wouldn’t make it there. I want to celebrate it because it’s as good an excuse as any for a bloody good party. And I want to combine it with a charity fundraiser that’s cool, not cringeworthy.

And so my mates will doubtless be pleased to hear that there won’t be any embarrassing performances on the night, nor will I be running a sponsored disco-dance or insisting that people wear pink. Yes, there’ll be an auction. Yes, there’ll be a raffle. And yes, we’ll be collecting donations on the door. But there’ll also be sweets and cakes and goody bags, with a superstar DJ and a well-stocked bar. I can’t promise that it’ll be an idiocy-free zone (200 people + 2 bars = a fair share of daftness) but what I can guarantee is worthiness without the wackiness. Let’s just call it a sponsored piss-up.

- - - - -

A word of thanks…

While we’re on the subject of cool, I’d like to just take a moment to point you in the direction of some particularly cool places that have helped me in my mission to stuff 200 goody bags with things that my friends won’t abandon in the back seat of a cab on their way home.

First there's Happy Sweet Shop – an online emporium to make Willy Wonka jealous, packed with all the brilliant retro sweets you ruined your milk teeth with as a kid. You can follow them on Twitter here. Do say hello to the lovely Simon. He’s Happy Sweet Shop's Head Sweetmeister and he’s ace.

Then there’s the rather wonderful Purple Dogfish, the web design, development, marketing and print company. Rachael is their Head Of Ideas And Colouring In (isn’t that the best job title ever?), and she offered via Twitter to do something rather special (and top-secret) for the goody bags which I’m more than a little excited about.

Also well worthy of your attention is Coloured Rocks, a frighteningly comprehensive store filled with the kind of gorgeous jewellery that will have you dropping serious ring-size hints to your other half. Their resident PR Genius Paula sorted out a canny little addition to my SS30th goody bags and, incidentally, turns 30 the same week as I do.

I’d also like to introduce you to Miso Funky. The brains behind this cute-as-a-button online store is Claire (or @mooosh, as I’ve come to know her) and she’s very generously provided a raffle prize which I’ll be going out of my way to try to win.

There are, of course, a non-league football stadium’s worth of other people who have helped me to arrange this party – all of whom will get their thanks, too (I’m known to get a bit kissy when I’ve had a few G&Ts, so they can look forward to that). Besides, if I listed them all here I’d have to start a whole new blog.

I do hope you’ll forgive me, reader, for getting all salesy on you just now. I promise not to make a habit of it. I’m just assuming you’d rather I did that in the name of charidee than charge you 50p to watch me mime my way through another novelty-pop record.