Sunday 28 February 2010

An apology to my parents.

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Thursday 25 February 2010

This old thing?

The list of things at which I am completely crap is depressingly long. Budgeting, running, remembering, cooking, tending to plants, returning phonecalls, buying skirts, turning off hair straighteners, letting spots run their natural course, keeping a straight face when appropriate… and that’s even before I’ve got onto my notoriously appalling timekeeping. But right up there with my inability to be guided by an alarm clock or eat curry without spilling it down my front is my consistent failure to take a compliment gracefully.

‘You look pretty,’ said a visually-challenged girl in the office recently.
‘Eh? Nooo,’ I replied, as though she’d just asked whether I’d be staying late to clean the men’s toilets.
‘You do; that’s a nice dress,’ she said.
‘This?’ I said, tugging at its hem. ‘God, nah, it’s just ASOS. Sale. It was, like, seven quid or something. And it’s ancient, anyway. I’m sure it’s got a bloody great hole in the seam.’ That told her.
‘You do, though,’ she insisted. ‘And the clip in your hair. It’s pretty.’
‘It’s cheap,’ I corrected, before blowing upwards at my fringe. ‘But it’s keeping this mop out of my face, at least.’
She laughed artificially as I made a hasty exit into the loo.

‘Why,’ I thought, mid-wee, ‘couldn’t I just say “thank you, that’s kind” and move on? Why did I have to bring out the old compliment-refuting schtick that invariably makes me look like an awkward, ungrateful twonk?’
‘Because that would have meant that you agreed with her,’ reasoned the other voice in my head. (Not that there is another voice, of course. I meant ‘my conscience’, obviously. Yeah, conscience. Phew.)
‘But disagreeing with her is like suggesting that her opinion means nothing,’ replied Conscience #1.
‘But that’s exactly the point,’ said #2. ‘You disagree. So you can’t just let it go with a nod and a thanks.’ Conscience #2 often wins these debates.

‘How’s it going with you anyway, lovely?’ I said, forcing a more pleasant version of myself to appear as I passed her on the way back to my desk. It was the same logic that assumes that changing an uncomfortable subject erases all knowledge of the topic you were trying to move on from. Which, I suppose, is a bit like believing that your ex-boyfriends simply disappear into the ether the moment your relationship is over. But, hey, these are the disillusions I live by.

In a horrible departure from good post structure, I’m now going to switch subjects entirely (see what I did there?) and show you something I just came across by searching the word ‘compliment’ in this blog.


‘And speaking of my looks, despite always taking pride in my appearance, I’ve spent a lifetime thinking I've always looked just average. Maybe occasionally even good. An 'almost-would' in bloke terms (if hopefully not a '10-to-2-er'). And what a massive waste that is. Because it's not until you're wiping the hair off your pillow, off your sofa, out of your food (hell, even out of your microwave) and then looking in the mirror at a tired, balding woman you just do not recognise that you realise how good you've looked in the past, and never given yourself credit for it. So way down the line, when all of this is over, if you pay me a compliment on how I look, I'm damn well going to take it, thank you very much.’

Hm. Apparently I ought to add ‘coming good on promises’ to that list at the top there, as well.

All of this preamble, however, (and you know how I love a good preamble) brings me to a realisation I had this week: it ain’t just the way I look that I’m incapable of taking a compliment about – it’s the way I write, too.

I believe I’ve mentioned before just how much the comments on this blog mean to me. (And by ‘me’ of course, I mean my family and friends, too, all of whom are in on the how-many-comments-are-you-up-to game.) I check my email roughly twelve million times a day (including the instant I open my eyes) in the hope of finding a new comment to moderate, then sit back and smirk as I wait to see which of my parents will win the who-saw-it-first contest. 

See, I tend to view comments – at least the comments on Alright Tit – as sort of special, internet-specific compliments which, happily, it isn’t necessary to awkwardly shoot down. The people delivering the remarks aren’t there when you read them, which makes comments unlike emails or texts in that the folk writing them aren’t then expecting an immediate reply. And so you press ‘publish’, smile to yourself and accept the comment with a grace you’d never be able to manage if the same person stopped you on the street to tell you how much they liked your shoes. No response necessary. No ‘but they were three quid from Primark’. No ‘but they’re not even real leather’. No uncomfortable shuffling and chiding yourself while you wee. Just ‘publish comment’, ‘your comment has been published’ and that’s it. Done.

But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to find a comeback to each one. (Once a gobby lass…) And so, as soon as I’ve published – or sometimes rejected, in the case of spam – each comment, I sit for a few minutes, drafting the perfect humbled, bashful, self-effacing response in my head. They very rarely ever get posted, of course, and so I instead leave them floating about in the atmosphere, keeping my fingers crossed that the recipient is a dab-hand at telepathy.

Last week was no different. I wrote a preamble-tastic post about the virtual friends I’ve ‘met’ through writing this blog, and how they’re as responsible for helping me through The Bullshit as anyone else. And, as usual, it got a lovely response in the comments section. Lovelier than usual, even. So lovely, in fact, that I didn’t just blush when I read them, but occasionally even cringed. Not because people were being overly gushing or sickly-sweet, but because – much like the ‘you look pretty’ comment – I simply couldn’t agree on one recurring opinion: that what I’m doing here, by writing about what’s going on in my life, somehow makes me an ‘inspiration’.

I’m embarrassed even typing that. I cringed as I hit that full stop, sinking my head right down into my shoulders like a hibernating turtle. Because all I’ve done – all I’m doing – on this blog is simply telling the truth about what’s going on. And, when you think about it, calling that ‘inspirational’ is like saying the same for a newsreader or a court judge or the speaking clock. To my mind, I’m no more inspirational now than I was as a tequila-tanked 16-year-old, dancing to the Spice Girls on a wine-bar table. (Which I never did, of course. That’s just poetic license. Ain’t that right, Conscience #2?) Getting The Bullshit didn’t make me inspirational. Not even coping with treatment for The Bullshit made me inspirational. The idealist in you might want to argue that point, but I’m very insistent that any one of you would have coped just the same. Like I said back around the time of the post I quoted above: ‘There is no ‘how’ here. I’m just coping. There is no good or bad way to do it. You’d cope too.’

I do appreciate, of course, that whether or not this blog is indeed an ‘inspiration’ (and yes, I am going to insist on repeatedly putting that in inverted commas) isn’t for me to judge. Because, I suppose, it’s possible to be inspired by anything. You can be inspired by nail varnish or Hollyoaks or a cheese sandwich. And, I guess, if the likes of the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa or Richard Hammond (haha, gotcha) had the monopoly on inspiration, well, they wouldn’t be inspiring at all. (Speaking of which, I live in abject fear of turning into someone like Richard Hammond or Gail Porter or Heather Mills, notorious only because of a health condition. ‘He pisses me right off,’ I once said to Tills. ‘People only know him because of that sodding accident. And now here he is selling stories about it and getting books out of it and… oh.’)

But back to the point. What I’m trying to say is that – more than simply how difficult it is for me to accept people’s kind assertions – when somebody tells me that I’m an ‘inspiration’ or says that this blog has helped them in some way, it makes me sound a lot more virtuous than I actually am. Because none of those things, I’m afraid to say, were ever done on purpose. I started this blog for selfish reasons – because it gave me something to do, because it answered questions on my behalf, because it helped me – not you.

And so there’s more to my squirming at people’s compliments than simply not wanting to appear cocky or arrogant. There’s the fact that, cancer-conqueror I may be, but things didn’t exactly work out that way because of anything I did. That was just luck. The same kind of luck that got you reading this blog instead of someone else’s. And so I’m no ‘inspiration’. I just calls it like I sees it.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

The mates I’ve never met.

Despite the fact that they make me cry like an X-Factor contestant every time I see them, I keep reading through the acknowledgements in my book. I dare say I could even recite them by heart. (See also: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the entire Beatles back catalogue, series six of Friends.) It’s a daft thing to do – particularly in light of the book being printed this week – yet I still insist on repeatedly poring over those last few pages. I suppose it’s rather like denying yourself a biscuit before you put on your wedding dress – everyone knows it’s way too late to make a difference, but you stubbornly do it anyway.  

If I were still able to make changes to my tributes to those who helped me get the book written (and The Bullshit beaten), I don’t for a moment doubt that I’d be busily scrawling red pen all over those pages. But then I suppose that goes for the whole book, really. Because, much like staring in the mirror, every time you look at it, you’re bound to wish that something was different (unless you’re Kanye West) – which, obviously, is why we have deadlines (and why cosmetic surgery tends to be on the pricey side).

There is something of the wedding guest list about it, though. See, I’ve listed the few folk who played the biggest part in getting me through The Bullshit but, inevitably, as time goes on, that list is going to look rather dated. And where, when you look back at your wedding photos, you might wish you’d invited X instead of Y (ooh, how enigmatic of me), the roll-call of gratitudes after you’ve got through an illness might also begin to look a little lacking (even if it does rock in at four pages).

But – much like I did with my wedding guest list – where my book acknowledgements were concerned, I had to call it as I saw it at the time. And ‘the time’, officially, was July 2009 – the point at which the book ends. Of course, the wider Bullshit story didn’t end there – hell, it still hasn’t ended – but that is the point at which the printed narrative comes to its conclusion. And so there’s no acknowledgement for the likes of Ms and Mr Magic Hands, for example, who’ve done so much for my lymphoedema and fatigue respectively; nor is there a mention of my immediate colleagues who show such animated interest in my writing; nor are there any thanks for the friends who I’ve only seen more of since my active treatment ended. But that’s the way it is.

Every time I read those pages, though, I’m relieved that I’ve said a special thank-you to a more indefinable, web-based collective: you. Yes, you. Because, though I’ve never met a lot of you in person, that’s not to say that I don’t think of you as friends. Yeah, yeah, I know – pass the sick bucket. And you’re right – that is an impossibly wanky thing to say. It makes me sound like some kind of spotty, light-starved, virgin gamer who shuns actual human contact for role-playing online chats about military formations with his Dungeons and Dragons buddies. When obviously I’m way cooler than that. [Frantically deletes Sgt Pepper’s Twitter account.]

And if you thought that was a wanky thing to say, look away now. Because another thing I genuinely believe is that social networking has been as beneficial to my recovery as therapy. [Waves goodbye to remaining credibility.] But I’m serious: Twitter and its ilk have undoubtedly Helped Me Through. Not like a Westlife album played to a coma patient; more like an epidural given to a woman in labour. Yeah, I could have got through it otherwise, but it didn’t half make the ride smoother.

To many people that’s not going to be a popular opinion. Numerous folk with loud media presences (hello, Piers Morgan) make much of the opinion that ‘Twitter is for twits’ or – in the words of my secret husband Dave Grohl – that it’s a ‘waste of time’. (Make that secret ex-husband.) But couldn’t you say that about any form of communication? Some meetings are a waste of time. Some phonecalls are a waste of time. Some emails are a waste of time. So, to me at least, social networking itself isn’t a waste of time. Slagging off social networking is a waste of time… but not half as much as overlooking its potential.

Allow me to explain. When I wrote my first post, I wasn’t consciously starting a blog. I just wrote something because it was cathartic, and because it kept me busy at a time when everyone around me was asking a hundred questions about how I felt. It was honestly never my intention for this blog to become the comparative beast that it has – I had absolutely no idea what blogging might be able to do for me. Sheesh, if you’d have told me two years ago that I’d be bearing my innermost thoughts to strangers on the internet in a way that I’d never be able to manage in conversations with my real-life friends, I’m sure I’d have told you to get knotted. But – again – that’s the way it is. And I don’t regret any of it.

I regularly assert (to blank faces, usually) that there’s something strangely healing about social networking. (A term which I hope you’ll forgive me using in its widest possible sense to also include blogging.) I discovered Facebook while off work following a miscarriage, reconnecting with old friends and nosily losing myself in the stories of ex-classmates at a time when I desperately needed a distraction. And so it followed that I discovered blogging and Twitter when I was diagnosed with cancer; this time distracting myself via communications with people I didn’t know personally, getting my writing out to a wider audience and discovering in an instant what it was that people found interesting or funny or frustrating.

Granted, that isn’t how everyone stumbles across social networking (that would just add fuel to certain tabloid-columnists’ fires that we’re all pyjama-wearing, socially inept saddos looking for a support group), but I don’t doubt that anyone finding themselves in a situation in which they’d rather not be has, at some point, found solace in a blog comment or a wall post or an @ reply.

When I came out of hospital following a successful mastectomy, I broke the news in my Facebook status. Right the way through chemo, I wasn’t just being willed on by the people around my bed, but by an assembly of blog-readers who continually made their presence known with encouraging messages. When my last mammogram came back clear, it wasn’t just my family who celebrated, but the Twitter followers I’d alerted, too.

It’s thanks to social networking that I’m back in touch with my best mate from school. It’s thanks to social networking that I discovered this album. It’s thanks to social networking that I came across some wonderful writers whose words I might not have read otherwise. It’s thanks to social networking that I’m able to see friends’ babies as soon as they’ve been born. It’s thanks to social networking that I learned to employ the rubber-ring trick when I had crippling piles, or found out why my pubes grew back weirdly straight after chemo. And it’s thanks to social networking that I was able to organise a charity auction for my 30th birthday party in which people I did and didn’t know helped me to raise over £10,000 for Breast Cancer Care.

And that’s aside from what social networking has done for me professionally. Were it not for Twitter (and the fortuitous turn of events that led to Stephen Fry saying some hugely flattering things about this blog), right now I’d more than likely still be dragging my manuscript around to nonplussed literary agents – let alone getting excited about being days away from seeing the first copy of my book. A book in which the lead characters are, admittedly, the immediate family and friends who dragged my ample arse kicking and screaming through The Bullshit. But though they’re the ones with the dialogue, I’d be a prize twit(ter) not to admit that I couldn’t have done it without a little help from my virtual friends.

Thursday 11 February 2010

February blows.

I made two new year’s resolutions this January. 1) Read more (oh who am I kidding – read at all). 2) Make more of an effort to phone my friends. The first one I’ve managed, shocking everyone who knows me by finishing a novel in the record time of one month. Yeah, yeah – I know most people can read a book in the space of a day’s loo visits, but for me, finishing a book within 30 days of picking it up is something of an achievement. The daft thing is, I generally write a lot faster than I read. Which probably has a lot to do with my other resolution, too.

See, writing is just my communication of choice. I’d always rather text than speak on the phone. Hell, I’d rather write twelve-page letters than speak on the phone. We had a leak at work recently, during which my phone was out of action, and I made absolutely no attempt to get it reconnected, always preferring to do my business on email. I’m just better at writing than I am at talking, is all. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve maintained that I’m far more impressive in writing than I am in person. That’s not me being self-deprecating; that’s just the truth.

So the second of my resolutions was always going to be a harder one to accomplish. And, predictably, I’ve failed spectacularly. I re-evaluated my promises to myself at the end of January, slapping myself on the wrist that I’d not made even the slightest attempt to speak to any of my mates. ‘I’ll do better in February,’ I told myself. But – totally aside from the fact that, for me, anything before March is like anything before 8am – February, thus far, has sucked ass. And when things suck ass, I’m not just phone-phobic, but pretty-much-any-kind-of-contact-phobic, too. So my failure in sticking to resolution #2 isn’t down to my shitness with telecommunications, but simply shitness itself.

The month began with a hospital-hangover. Having been back to the oncology clinic for the usual checks and tests and reassurances, thereafter followed the usual memories and worries and irrational fears that come with revisiting the site of my cancer treatment. I’d been having headaches, too, and my Bullshit-reminder swiftly had me quietly convinced that they were because of a brain tumour. (In fact, I just needed glasses.) I detest the fact that The Bullshit has turned me into such a hypochondriac, and thus spent a few days moping about my paranoia.

And then a phonecall came. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this,’ said Mum.
‘Oh fuck,’ I thought. ‘Someone’s died. Someone’s lost their job. Someone’s ill.’

I was bang on the money with the latter.
My auntie.
Breast cancer.

Out of fucking nowhere. 
And ain't that just The Bullshit’s way?

My immediate reaction, I’m sorry to admit, was pretty selfish. What does this mean for me? How do I reason with this? Will I cope? How will Dad cope? First his daughter, now his sister – how does a man deal with that? But then, almost instantly, tears fell as I had a sudden vision of my auntie and uncle, gripping onto their kitchen worktops as they tried to process the news they’d just been given. And, fuck, it hurt. Not an emotional hurt, like some wanky pop lyric, but a physical hurt – the kind of dread-filled, sickly, panicked pain that spreads across your chest like it’s been pummelled with a toxic fist. The same pain I hadn’t felt until P and I first tried to deal with the same news ourselves. And then it wasn’t about me any more. It was about my auntie, and what all of this meant for her.

And then I was angry. ‘Just FUCK OFF!’ I shouted, hoping Mum understood that the insult wasn’t directed at her, but at The Bullshit. I wanted to fight it – again, not emotionally, but physically. I wanted to offer it out in front of the school gates. I wanted to smack it clean in the face and cut its eyebrow with my cocktail ring. I wanted to push it against a wall with infuriated arms like they do in the soaps, as though it were some offensive, rowdy drinker in the Queen Vic. (‘Jast FAHK ORF!’)

This time, The Bullshit wasn’t just a tumour inside of me – or inside of anyone else. Now, it had taken on a tangible personality of evil and of spite and of disrespect. And I wanted to roll up my sleeves and brutally rip it apart like a lion tearing into a zebra. I wanted to viciously torture and maim and murder it for having the defiant, malicious, despicable gall to trespass on my family’s lovely world. Again. A-fucking-gain.

You might have subconsciously put That News down to us being ‘one of those families’ with the kind of hereditary genes that mean we’ve had to deal with cancer before. But we haven’t. This isn’t a heritage of illness that we’ve had several branches of a family tree to get used to. We are a family – a lovely, normal family – who, prior to my diagnosis, knew blissfully little about The Bullshit. And since that diagnosis, we’ve just about got our heads around reasoning with the freak chance of it having happened to me. But now this?

So no, we are not ‘one of those families’.
By and large, we’re a healthy family. A lovely, normal, healthy family.
And yet this bastard thing seems intent on picking on us.

And we’ve had enough.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

The skin I’m in.

I was back at the hospital last week and, on the bus prior to my appointment, I went through the usual rigmarole of wrapping a scarf around my neck and pulling up my collar in an attempt to disguise the hair I’ve grown. I didn’t ought to feel so guilty for looking well whenever I enter a place in which most people are quite obviously the opposite. Because, hell, I was one of those people myself not so long ago. So I’ve done my time; I’ve paid my dues. But it still doesn’t stop me feeling like I’m strutting through a fat camp in skinny jeans.

‘It’s really growing, isn’t it?’ people will say. And yeah, it is. But now that I’ve got my fringe back (to a point where it’s made me realise that it was that which I missed more than the length), I’d like my hair to stop being an ongoing project. Which is why, this weekend, I shall be asking my hairdresser to no longer worry about shaping it into a style that it can grow into, but instead to give it a damn good cut that suits the length it currently is. Because that, at long (or short) last, is how I want my hair to be. Case closed.

Unfortunately, though, I can’t quite say the same for the rest of me. Because everything from my fringe down remains an ongoing project – and I suspect it will for some time. The hair image was easy enough to sort out. The body image, however, is going to take more than a few trips to a stylist to rectify.

I’m continually making excuses for my body. In the last week alone, I’ve used the Cancer Defence with a gym instructor to explain my pitiful fitness levels, whined to an oncologist about Tamoxifen’s effect on my (painfully slow) weight-loss progress, and apologised to my husband for continually insisting on bra-on sex. (Speaking of Tamoxifen, some furious Googling on the subject revealed that some women get so fed up with its effects that they stop taking it altogether. I mean, fuck, it’s pissing me off too – but I’d rather be fat and alive than thin and dead.) Now, I know all of that stuff shouldn’t matter in light of the altogether more substantial picture of The Bullshit but, hey, it does. The thing is, I may look 30 – but I sure as shit don’t feel it.

At the risk of wading knee-deep into TMI territory, it’s now 18 months since I had a period. The combination of chemotherapy and Tamoxifen often calls a halt to the reds’ home fixtures for a while but, more often than not, hormones return to their normal monthly function within half a year of finishing chemo. But mine, however, haven’t. I can’t say I’m bothered about it, either. I’ve never exactly relished the process of menstruation and, as far as I’m concerned, no periods = no oestrogen to morph its evil way into another tumour. My doctors have said much the same. They’ve been testing my hormone levels since my active treatment ended, ready to pounce whenever my ovaries get back to work with monthly injections of Zoladex designed to make them redundant again. (Kinda like medical treatment for the recession era.) And every time I’ve been back for my three-monthly check-ups so far, my doctors have questioned my periods’ whereabouts, as though they were a misplaced set of keys or a missing earring.

‘Have they showed up yet?’ asked the doctor last week.
‘Still nothing,’ I said.
‘Not even a hint of their return?’
‘Not a peep.’
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Then, judging on your latest test results, I think we can say that you’re almost certainly in the menopause.’
While it had never been confirmed, I’d long assumed as much myself, and so what surprised me more was actually hearing it said by a doctor for the first time. Previously it’s been very much ‘your periods will most likely return’ and ‘keep an eye out for them’, but not now. Now it was ‘almost certainly’ the menopause. Meh.

Again, in light of that Bigger Picture, it’s not exactly a massive deal. Consider what the menopause actually means. It’s the process of hanging a ‘closing down’ sign in the shop-front of your reproductive system, right? And given that P and I boarded up our shop – let’s call it Woolworths – so long ago that we’re not just over it but are now browsing the aisles of the Tesco Metro that replaced it, you could say that learning I’m actually in the menopause is, as P put it, ‘almost even good news’. Granted, if we’d been told that I was 20 years too early for the menopause two years ago, say, we’d have been devastated. But now? I’ll say it again: meh.

‘So that’ll be another reason why it’s so difficult to lose weight,’ added my doctor.
(Not so meh.)
‘Bugger,’ I said. ‘So it’s a double whammy, then, of that and the Tamoxifen?’
‘I’m afraid so. But it 
will come off,’ she reasoned.
‘Just not half as fast as it would otherwise.’
‘I’m afraid not, no. Your metabolism will have slowed right down.’
‘You’re not kidding,’ I said. ‘I’ve lost six pounds in two months. That’s rubbish.’ (I stopped short of adding, 'I mean, bloody hell, you can shit six pounds!')
‘But it’s going in the right direction,’ she said. ‘And in the grand scheme--’
‘I know, I know,’ I interrupted. ‘Not a massive deal.’
will come off,’ she said again.

Just like the people who commented on the growth of my hair, she’s right. It 
is coming off. But, by heck, I’m not half having to work hard for it. I’m calculating; I’m measuring; I’m weighing by the micro-milligram anything it’s possible to swallow. Sheesh, I’ve got so damn good at correctly guessing food weights by sight that if You Bet! were still on telly, I’d have not just won my challenge, but raised £1000 for charity and forced Keith Chegwin into a gunk-tank forfeit weeks ago. It’s painful progress. (Almost as painful as watching an episode of You Bet!, come to think.)

The menopause stuff explains a lot more than just my disappointing diet, though. And I don’t know whether it’s because my memory of puberty is fresher than most menopausal women, but it sort of feels like I’ve been here before. Because the menopause is as much of a ‘change’ as puberty, right? Which probably explains why I’m feeling much the same now as I did back then – skin changes, growing pains, blushing at the slightest hint of embarrassment – except with 18 more years on the clock. P must be out of his mind, poor sod, living with a stroppy 12 year old one day and a moody 60 year old the next.

But that, I’m afraid, is how it’s going to be. And so I’m going to have to accept – just as I did as a teenager – that this is the body I’m in. It’s not the fittest, it’s not the healthiest, and it’s not the slimmest. But it’s what I’ve got. So I can count calories and faff with my hair all I want. But one thing I can’t change is The Change.