Wednesday 26 May 2010


Last Friday I gave a little talk at a charity fundraiser called Bowling For Boobies. Despite having known about the event for a couple of months, I put off writing my speech until the teenage-standard 24 hours previous, as though it were revision for an exam whose existence I was denying. It’s the same logic I apply to packing: if I don’t think about it, it might not need to happen. Which, given that me and P are heading off on holiday tomorrow and there’s an empty suitcase on our spare bed, might not be altogether the best tactic.

Eventually, though, I had to get my ample arse in gear and think about what it was I wanted to say at the event. And what do you talk about at an occasion designed to raise funds for breast cancer charities that’s entitled Bowling For Boobies? The way I saw it, there was only one subject on the table: tits.

When I first read the press release for Bowling For Boobies, I laughed. Not at the event, I hasten to add, but instead at the word ‘boobies’, as though I were some kind of idiot virgin pubescent with a penchant for high-street honeys and pausing all the good bits of Baywatch. But alas, I am not an awkward adolescent, but a 30-year-old woman. Who, given her breast history, ought to be able to sidestep a titter (ha, titter) at the word ‘boobies’. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that after my run-in with The Bullshit, I’d be capable of talking with gravity and seriousness about breasts, and be able to see them in the solemn and humourless light that The Bullshit dictates. But no.

It’s not that I’m unable to talk about the seriousness of breast cancer – I like to think this blog proves otherwise – but more that I can’t help but be childishly entertained and fascinated by the area in which my cancer began to grow. For me, my tits are still every bit as fascinating as they were prior to my diagnosis. They might not be as hot (shit, let’s be honest – without a bra they ain’t hot at all) but beguiling and mesmerising they most certainly remain. And so when it comes to talking about my boobs – rather than the tumour that was in them – I am utterly incapable of avoiding joviality.

No surprise, then, that I got a fair few puzzled looks during my talk. But at a charity event where booze came included in the ticket price, I figured anything too sobering would be ill-advised, and so instead I spoke about what it was really like to have had breast cancer. Not about the treatment or the loss of femininity or the worries about your future. The stuff that doesn’t get talked about. Like how often people stare at your baps.

I’m not kidding. People look at my norks more now than they ever did before cancer. Surreptitiously, though. They’re not usually blatant about it. That said, my mate Sal’s parting shot from our pub visit the other night was: ‘And your tits look amazing, by the way. I hope you don’t mind, but I had a good look.’ (I didn’t.) She’s right, though. Despite the not-hot-without-a-bra comment a couple of paragraphs ago, when these puppies are safely ensconced in a boulder-holder, they’re positively smokin’.

Anyway, back to my point. Now that I’ve become aware of it, I tend to notice people’s surreptitious perk-peeks all. the. time. There’s one woman I know who barely even talks to my face any more, so transfixed is she by my cleavage. I’m not flattering myself here, I should add. I haven't suddenly begun to see myself as Eva Herzigova in the ‘hello boys’ Wonderbra campaign. Because, fabulous as my Smiley-Surgeon-crafted rack may be, I know that the woman in question is more fascinated by what cancer’s done to my tits than the curves that nature – and silicone – have gifted me.

‘So how’s it going?’ she said the other day, with the standard-issue head-tilt. ‘Is there any more treatment to the, er, y’know,’ she added, sneaking a look at my chest.
‘No, no,’ I said, ‘But I’m having another mastectomy soon to reduce the chance of getting cancer in my right side.’
‘Oh,’ she said, glancing down again. ‘Oh... I see.’
‘Too bloody right you see,’ I thought. I’m sure I even let out a little ‘hah!’ on her second perusal, but clearly it wasn’t enough to deter her, because the more we spoke, the more she gave it the Harry Hill eyes. And I wasn’t quite sure what etiquette was required in such a situation. Should I ask her politely to look at my face instead of my tits? Should I fold my arms across my chest to block her line of view? Should I change the subject and make a quick exit? In the end I opted for barefaced confidence. ‘Yep,’ I said, blatantly pointing at my left boob, ‘This one was done last February. So they’re going to have to make this one [now pointing to my right] match. Good job they’re not any bigger, eh, or my surgeon would have his work cut out!’ With hindsight it might not have been the best tactic, given that the poor lass just laughed nervously, backed away as though I were a newly lit firework and hasn’t spoken to me since.

The thing is, what she did was perfectly natural. When it comes to medical stuff, everyone has a natural curiosity – whatever it’s about. When your mate has broken their leg, you want to see the plastercast. When someone you know has had a nose job, you want to see the black eyes. And when a woman’s been unfortunate enough to have cancer mess with her maracas, you’re intrigued to know what it’s done to the way they look. But the difference with The Bullshit is that the patient in question will be less likely to, well, produce the goods. And so curiosity turns to fixation, as though the stuff beneath the shirt of a breast-cancer-patient is as magnetically intriguing as a giant red button that reads ‘do not press’. And fair enough. But, much as I’m proud, entertained and fascinated by them, I prefer to think of my boobs as like Monica’s secret closet in that episode of Friends: however much people might be intrigued by what's inside, the door to this bra is staying well and truly locked. Goodbye, boys.

Friday 21 May 2010

Shades of grey.

‘Dude, you are going to be so proud of me,’ I wrote to my friend Ant. ‘I had a conversation. About POLITICS.’ I knew it was a comment that only Ant would appreciate, given that she and I were the two students on our journalism postgrad who were more interested in the state of Carrie and Big than the state of the nation. We thought of ourselves as the token magazine journalists among a room of super-intelligent, politically-confident, broadsheet-bound folk and, before she moved to LA, we’d regularly work out emergency ways to change conversational subjects from politics, like get-out-of-jail-free cards to rescue each other from potentially twonk-making situations. And so, having hit 30 and had my very first proper chat about my political principles, I knew she’d be as chuffed on my behalf as I felt smug about having finally grown up enough to begin a conversation with something other than who’s at number one.

The thing is, tragic as it may sound, politics is just one of those things that’s pretty much passed me by for the last three decades. Well perhaps not ‘passed me by’ as such; more that I’ve tended to worry more about Coronation Street storylines than policy decisions. (How I ever made it onto that journalism postgrad is beyond me.) And so politics has always been a subject that I’ve been rather uncertain about: uncertain of the way it works, uncertain of my beliefs, uncertain of the appropriate thing to say...

I should add, however, that I haven’t exactly been comfortable with that status quo. As I’ve said before, I like to be in control of what I feel, I like to be ready with an answer, and I like to avoid making myself look like a tit by dithering about my opinions. Since having The Bullshit, however, I’ve had to get used to not always knowing exactly what I think or feel. I’ve felt pissed off about having to spend so much time at the hospital, but longed for it when I wasn’t there. I’ve felt extraordinarily angry about having to wear a wig, but laughed like a drain when Dad tried it on and looked like a 50-year-old Kurt Cobain. I’ve felt pleased to have beaten The Bullshit as much as I am able, but experienced huge pangs of guilt that it doesn’t end that way for everyone. And it’s the same again now with regard to my upcoming surgery: I’m worried about losing my ladybits, the loss of femininity that goes with it, the pain of recovery, and the prospect of a life with no feeling in my boobs… but, at the same time, I simply cannot wait for those things to happen – almost to the point of excitement – because that’ll mean that my chances of a cancer recurrence have sunk like the flushed turd they are.

As Mr Marbles has repeatedly told me, when it comes to cancer in particular, you’re confronted with so many conflicting emotions and opinions that there’s simply no room for the black and white thinking to which I’ve always defaulted. Time and time again, he’s made assurances that it’s okay for me to feel several different things at once. And it’s a mantra I’ve often called into effect. Particularly after a phonecall with my mid-chemo auntie earlier this week.

‘I have news,’ she said. ‘I’ve just had the results of my BRCA testing.’
(To fill you in on the background here, since we discovered that I am carrying the BRCA-2 gene, my family have been plunged into an unfortunate routine of counselling and testing to ascertain which side of the family the gene has come from – and whether they are prepared to find out. And given that, before my auntie’s diagnosis in February, I was the only sorry sod in the family tree to have had breast cancer, we’ve since assumed that the gene must have come from Dad’s side of the family, what with the auntie in question being his sister.)
‘Ah,’ I said tentatively. ‘I hadn’t realised you’d be getting the results this week.’
‘Me neither,’ she said. ‘But it’s good.’
I struggled to imagine what ‘good’ could possibly mean in this situation.
‘I don’t have it,’ she revealed.
‘I don’t have it. I don’t have the BRCA gene.’
‘Are they sure?’ I said, quickly realising that ‘congratulations’ may have been more appropriate.
‘Positive,’ she said.
‘Omigod. That’s amazing,’ I said.

And it is. It’s amazing that, once her treatment is over, she won’t need to consider the cancer-preventing surgery I’m soon to have. It’s amazing that her children and grandchildren no longer need to worry about whether their likelihood of getting The Bullshit is greatly increased. And it’s amazing that my auntie can charge her way through the rest of her treatment, safe in the knowledge that
everything has been done to ensure that this bastard of a disease stands a pitiably feeble chance of making a comeback.

But – cue Marbles’ mantra – with that amazing news came new concerns. The worry that my Mum was now back in the genetic frame as well as Dad. The anxiety about the possibility that the BRCA mutation could have begun in this body in which I sit, and not further down my ancestral DNA. The mystification about how I’d feel if indeed that were the case. (Were it not for the fact that I am the World’s Most Obvious Carbon Copy Of Her Parents, I’d have been calling into question the legitimacy of my genetic lineage.) But also, there emerged a tacit sadness that my auntie had been so bloody unlucky to get breast cancer in the first place, with no decent genetic explanation for its existence.

‘That’s daft though,’ said Jamie when I explained it to him. ‘You should be feeling unlucky that
you’re the one who’s got it; not that she’s got no way to explain her own Bullshit.’
‘I can’t help it though mate,’ I admitted. ‘I know I should be happy for her – and I
am – but also I can’t help but feel just so desperately sad at her shit luck.’
‘Then you’re a nobhead, sis,’ said J, always quick to call a halt to my lower-cased bullshit.

Nobhead I may indeed be, but what I later came to realise was that my attributing such misfortune to my auntie’s reasonless Bullshit suggested that I had unwittingly taken some comfort from the BRCA-centred rationale behind my own diagnosis. Previously I saw it as a chance lightning-strike; now it’s a falling piano that – all being well – I can dodge with a drastic yet utterly worthwhile process of prevention. And I suppose that, in turn, bodes well for the way I’m going to handle my surgery.

So, you see, the thoughts in my head are as messy as a cupboard full of tangled coat hangers. It’s taken me 30 years to realise it, but most emotions just aren’t as easy to separate as political beliefs – not least those to do with cancer. So perhaps I should be emailing Ant on the occasions when I get to grips with my life with The Bullshit, and not when I’ve succeeded in talking about electoral reform over dessert? (Alas, yet another thing I’m undecided about.) But, among all the issues on which I remain uncertain, when it comes to my preventative surgery, there’s one thing I do know: bring it on.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

With a little help...

I’m renowned for always being able to find something to worry about when I really ought to be worry-free. Having no worries to worry about tends to make me worry, which is worrying when you consider that having worries is, of course, far more worrying than having no worries at all. 

Or something.

Recently, though, I’ve been at it again – this time with my friends. There’s no getting away from the fact that I see them quite a bit more since I had The Bullshit, but lately I’ve been fretting about whether that’s only the case because of that diagnosis, and not just down to the natural order of thirtysomething friendships. At the height of my cancer treatment I joked that The Bullshit had made me popular – flowers, chocolates, visitors, cards – but, almost two years past diagnosis, are my friendships still defined by my illness?

It’s difficult to recall exactly how my friendships were pre-Bullshit – like trying to remember what it was like when you could smoke in pubs or pass back to the keeper – but what I do know is that, lovely as they were, they weren’t a patch on the closeness of today. I also know that The Bullshit changed how open my mates and I are with each other (we’re as much each other’s therapists as drinking buddies), and how affectionate we are, too. Even if we’ve seen each other just the day before, we hug like one of us has been on a two-year space mission, and phone conversations, emails and text messages so often finish with ‘love you’, as though we’re hopelessly lovestruck teenagers or closely related by blood.  

It does my mates a disservice that they’ve not often been talked about on this blog, but that’s really because – like my relationships with my husband and family – I only really like to offer up small nuggets for public consumption, rather than making you sick with an entire bargain bucket. But that related-by-blood comment back there isn’t an exaggeration – my close friends are as much my family as those who share my genes. Granted, it was P, Jamie and my folks who heard about my clear MRI result first, but it was my mates who learned the news immediately after – and whose relieved reactions made me realise how I felt about it, too.

Defeatist as it might sound, it wasn’t until hearing the words ‘nothing suspicious’ that I appreciated just how much I’d prepped myself for the alternative. Not just prepped – I’d utterly convinced myself that I had cancer. And so, with my mates’ help, it’s taken me this long to get my head around the fact that, actually, there’s nothing to worry about. (Again, even typing that makes me worry. Something about it seems wrong, or fate-tempting. There’s really nothing to worry about? Are you sure? Surely that in itself is something to worry about, no?)

My friends, however, have been busy snapping me out of it; getting me excited about upcoming holidays and parties, making brilliant plans for our futures and kicking me up the arse about getting more writing done – all the things I wasn’t quite able to imagine while I was busy convincing myself that my days were numbered. It’s completely wonderful – not to mention bloody lucky – and makes me feel as loved as I do on a daily basis by P and my family.

But here’s the worry. Would it be that way if I hadn’t had cancer? Do I see my friends more often because I once couldn’t see them much at all? Do their hugs squeeze me like a stress ball because it’s their way of holding onto me? Do they say they love me because they once had to consider losing me? Are they overcompensating for my illness in the same way I did when anticipating my MRI result?

Whatever the case actually is, there’s an argument to say that, even if the answer to all of those questions is, in fact, ‘yes’, who gives a shit? See, even if it is cancer that’s gifted me a friend-family that I’m as jammy as a dodger to call my own, then fine. I’ll take it. (And you know how reluctant I am to credit The Bullshit with anything positive.) So whether it worries me or not, I can’t help but conclude that I simply didn’t ought to care how that closeness came about. Because if incredible, cava-filled, life-defining, soppy-as-a-Spielberg-happy-ending friendships are what The Bullshit has done for me… then thank you, cancer.

Thursday 6 May 2010

High highs, low lows.

Last weekend was legendary. It began on Friday (as weekends tend to do) with a day off work and a trip up the motorway to my parents’ place in Derby. It was the first time I’d been back home since The C-Word was released and wherever I went, people were quick to congratulate me on becoming an author and say all manner of lovely things that I won’t allow myself to take in.

On Friday afternoon, Mum and I took ourselves off for a mani-pedi in preparation for my friend Weeza’s wedding the following day, and bumped into the bride outside the salon, squealing like teenagers at a Take That concert when we saw her. ‘It’s going to be THE BEST weekend!’ I told Weez, excitedly shaking her manicured hands as she grinned nervously. And I was right.

That evening saw what my parents like to call ‘a few drinks with friends’, but which I like to call a party. ‘Shit, don’t let your Mum hear you saying that,’ said one family-friend while strutting up and down my folks’ hallway in my Louboutins like a pissed four-year-old trying on her mother’s shoes. ‘It’s a gathering, remember – you said so in your book.’ (Mind you, since I gained enough material from that piss-up to write a whole new book, I think we’re safe to stick with my definition.) But whatever you want to call it, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my Mum and Dad, it’s how to put on a bloody good shindig for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Well, I say ‘no reason’. What I actually mean is that this ‘gathering’ began life as an only-a-mother-could-think-it-up excuse to hold a book-signing session in her living room. But I was having none of it. 
‘Mum, I can’t do that; I just can’t,’ I pleaded. ‘I’m going to look like a proper wanker. Can you imagine? It’ll be like “ooh, look at me, I’m home from London and now you have to treat me like a celebrity”. No bloody way. I’m not doing it.’
‘All right, all right,’ she said. ‘But we’re having drinks, whatever. It’s time we did, anyway. There’s a lot of people who haven’t seen you since you’ve been better so we’ll invite a few of them round.’
‘Okay, but no signing sessions, right?’
‘Good,’ I concluded, adopting the kind of I’m-the-boss-now tone that I’d never get away with were it not for The Bullshit. ‘I mean, it’s not on. It’d be like using a Biro as a way of ascertaining who’s bought the book so far.’ (And of course I would never rate my mates on whether or not they’ve bought The C-Word. Nah, I positively JUDGE them. In fact I’m thinking of beginning a Facebook cull this week of all those who’ve not mentioned it.)

And the party didn’t end there. Because not only was Weeza’s wedding the following day, but my mate Ali’s was the day after that. (Again, those of you who’ve read the book won’t need to ask ‘who?’ here. The rest of you I’ve got my eye on.) Miraculously, both nuptials managed to avoid the bank-holiday rain, and were two of the most gloriously celebratory, optimistically springlike and unashamedly romantic weddings I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of. Add to the mix that Al’s wedding coincided with P’s birthday, and I don’t think you’ll find it difficult to imagine that our weekend was one of the all-time greats. There was champagne, there were tears, there were jokes, there were shots. There was inappropriate dancing, gin-fuelled rapping, fiendishly good cake and drunken singing to Lionel Richie. It was, quite simply, magic.

But after every party comes a hangover and, with MRI results somewhere on the horizon, mine hit harder than a Mayweather uppercut. To me, May bank-holiday weekend represents a real turning-point in the year: the start of summer fun; the beginning of a brilliant new season. And this year, as ever, there’s lots to look forward to: getting stuck into some new projects, a holiday at the end of the month, another Glastonbury… a world cup, ferfuckssake! All the right ingredients for a memorable summer are laid out in front of me. But I can’t turn on the gas until I know what’s going on with the results of my scan.

Thus, my life remains on frustrated pause. Actually, pause doesn’t even nearly cut it. Pause is nice; pause is a welcome respite; pause is a Bovril at half-time or using the break in Coronation Street to get a cup of tea and a Kit Kat. This isn’t a Kit Kat, it’s a shit-pie. A suffocating, torturous, tormenting, living fucking nightmare. ‘Are we still on for next week?’ folk will ask. ‘Well, it depends on whether or not I’ve got cancer,’ I think, plumping instead for a more gracious ‘yep’. I’m doing my best to repeat Mr Marbles’ mantra (‘it’s not yet, it’s not yet, it’s not yet’) but with what, let’s be honest, could potentially be another Bullshit diagnosis hurtling my way, what’s a girl – a Virgoan girl, no less – to do but anticipate the outcome?

If it’s clear, I’ve got what will most likely be three months of no-holds-barred fun before I’m back in hospital for my prophylactic mastectomy and oophorectomy. (I do wish there was a snappier way to say that. 'Losing my ladybits', perhaps.) But if it isn’t, what does that mean? Will there be more chemo? Will I have lost my hair by my 31st birthday like I had by my 29th? Will it mean that I can never reach the remission I’m aiming for once a few more years of Tamoxifen are out of the way? What will that mean for P and Jamie and my folks and friends? What will it mean for my blog, for my book, for the writing career I’ve just moved up a gear? Do I really want to write about The Bullshit again? What about the prognosis? Will I therefore be living under the guillotine of a grade-four cancer? How does one manage that? Would I still turn up to work next week? Does it mean I won’t have to reapply for the driving licence I lost? What about our new kitchen? What about all the gig tickets I’ve bought? What about Sgt Pepper? I'll say it again: it's a suffocating, torturous, tormenting, living fucking nightmare.

Granted, these fears are probably multiplied by 1,000 today because I’m stuck indoors with a tummy bug and too much time beneath a duvet to conjure up ‘what ifs’. Or perhaps they’re multiplied because my wonderful weekend has reminded me how much there is to lose. Either way, it all…


Hang on…

What I was about to say then was that it all comes down to this: I don’t want another summer ruined with bad news from a consultant. But, somewhat spookily, at the precise moment I was typing the word ‘way’, my phone rang. (Seriously, the. exact. moment.)

‘Hello, I’m calling from the breast unit,’ said the voice.
I was too stupefied to reply. My stomach hit the floor, as though I’d just swallowed a bowling ball.
‘I work with The Curly Professor, and I’m calling about your MRI scan.’ (Not that she actually said the words ‘Curly Professor’, mind – that would have been weirder even than whatever it was she had to say next.)
‘Oh-kaay,’ I whispered.
‘And I’m pleased to report that gwaku gwaka gwa gwaku gwaka.’ After hearing the words ‘pleased to report’, the rest was an indecipherable muffle, like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons.
‘Omigod,’ I said. ‘Say that again, please?’
‘Certainly,’ she complied. ‘I’m pleased to be able to tell you that there was no sign of anything suspicious on your scan.’
‘On either side?’ I checked.
‘On either side,’ she confirmed.
‘Omigod,’ I repeated. ‘Icanttakeitin. ThatstheBESTNEWSEVER.’
‘Excellent,’ she said. ‘So we’ll see you at your next appointment?’
‘You sure will,’ I said, hanging up the phone before I’d remembered to say goodbye, like they do on TV.

I slapped both forearms onto the kitchen table and cupped my head in my hands. I have never let out a relieved sigh like it. It took away so much of my breath that, by the time the last lungful of liberated carbon dioxide left my mouth, I’d had to stumble my way into the bathroom to throw up. So it looks like the champagne may have to wait a while. Mind you, after a weekend of partying that would put Lindsay Lohan to shame, I dare say that’s not altogether a bad thing.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to summer.