Tuesday 26 May 2015

Gone Dark Brown

It's not blonde.
I’m not sure this will be my most profound post ever but I feel an explanation is due for this:

I made a promise and I didn’t keep it. But I have a reason and I think it’s a good one.

Let’s go back to a school trip. I forget where we were headed, but sitting near me on the bus was one of those sweet lads who all the girls love but who never has a girlfriend. I remember his name but will protect his identity by calling him Sam. Goodness knows how we got onto it but in the middle of a conversation between a group of us fifteen year olds, Sam referred to my hair as, ‘mousey’. I was stunned. I’m not sure I’d ever really named the colour of my hair before that but, ‘mousey’? Really? Like those little screechy, smelly runt of a rat type things? Beautiful brunette, you hear, blondes have more fun and all that - and hey! Who needs brain cells if you’re constantly having fun? -  but never ‘mesmerising mousey’ or ‘mouth-wateringly mousey’ - more like ‘matted mousey’, perhaps.

He had a point.
Thankfully I managed to keep my horror to myself but it clearly left its mark. I can’t say I lost too much sleep over it during the ensuing years but it would be fair to say that if anyone ever asked me what my best feature was, it wouldn’t have been the colour of my hair.

So, fast forward, ahem, thirty years to my second lot of baby hair, when it had grown back just enough to potentially push off my wig and cause a scene. I had no choice but to go bare-head. I decided to have my hair coloured because, well, because I could. The result was a fairly dark brown. I liked it because it made my hair which you could measure in millimetres, look a fraction longer. That was in December.

Christmas was a memory, January had slipped by and February was as short as ever. March? March was wonderful, we went skiing in Slovakia, just the family, rearranged from a year before when we couldn’t go for reasons you know too well about. April? Well, April was seeing the beginnings of a fringe at last so finally, I was starting to look less like a rabbit in headlights, or rather, Hello! Here comes Jackie’s face entering the room. And then it was May. The dye was incredible. My hair was still dark brown. Not even a whiff of mouse.

In my post, I said I was going to go blonde because life was too short. I sat down with the hairdresser and discussed this plan. Why? She asked. Because life’s too short, I said. And I want to do something different and the only different I can think of is blonde, dark or red. Red isn’t good for me because it makes my skin look like I’ve just slipped out of intensive care, dark you’ve already done and thank you, isn’t it amazing it’s lasted this long and –

- When did we dye it dark? she asked. December, I said. December? She laughed. That’s not dye. The roots would be this long, and she held out her arms as if she’d just caught a big fish. That’s your natural hair colour.

I nearly fell off the pivoting chair. Rather than wondering whether my hair would grow back straight, in much the same way that straight haired people’s hair inherited the chemo curl, I should have been asking what colour it would be. The only thought I’d given to hair colour was to brace myself for it coming back grey. That seems to happen a lot. I have no aversion to growing old gracefully (as we all know too well, old is, oh so much better than the alternative) but the drugs have already thrust a *challenging* premature menopause upon me and it would have been nice to have been spared the premature grey, thank you. And I had. Not grey. Not even mousey. But rich brown.

Thank you chemo, that was very kind.

I drifted back from hair Utopia to hear the hairdresser saying that as my hair was thus now quite dark, the roots would be difficult, I’d be back ‘having them done’ in four weeks and as a former six monthly visitor to the salon, did I really wish to commit to the time and expense of that?

She’s a great hairdresser but I’m not sure she’ll be vying for sales woman of the year any time soon.

So, what did I do? I went as dark as I could. And actually, for the first time with my ‘new’ hair, I almost quite like it.

And the other promises? I’ve been better with my zzzzs, my prosecco units have been low - apart from last Monday - and *most* evenings I switch my phone off at 9pm. Honest.

Can you forgive me for forgoing the bleach?

Friday 15 May 2015

Did You Watch It?

I’ve just watched The C Word, the dramatisation of Lisa Lynch’s blog, Alrighttit  and subsequent book which she wrote about her fight with cancer. Sheridan Smith expertly and touchingly plays the recently married magazine editor who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the desperately young age of 28 and died of its secondary disease five years later. For two years following her original treatment Lisa hoped she was clear of cancer and her life was well and truly back on track.

Then came the line, ‘And then the music stopped,’ which has stayed with me all week.

Did you watch it?

I was glad I was sitting in the garden, huddled around the fire pit, when it was first aired as I hadn’t decided if I should watch it. I wasn’t sure how much the drama could teach me about the experience of breast cancer but knew its potential for sending me into a big dark hole. I’m very protective about what I watch and read. You may know of my aversion to stats, particularly any that touch on that P word: prognosis. It’s a word I’ve come to hate, tend to leave it out in sentences and pull a face in its place. Fear of stumbling across a rogue stat is a great incentive to keep me away from Planet Google Cancer and when I’m sent links on breakthroughs and innovative therapies, appreciated as they are, I insist my husband trawls through them for danger zones before I read.

Remember Brookside, TFI Friday, Arctic Role, those frozen mousses in plastic pots, (one of) The Eclipse(s), Millennium Eve, Wham! Blind Date, When Harry Met Sally, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (who is EXACTLY the same age as me, even down to the ¾), Bridget Jones Diary and Le Tour coming to Harrogate? There are certain things in our life time which we just have to see, feel, watch or listen to if we want to be fully paid up persons to our generation.

I wondered if The C Word should be added to this list.

I’ll share a secret with you. I was curious that nobody had asked me if I’d watched it. It made me suspicious. I wondered if people thought that perhaps I shouldn’t. Or perhaps I might have watched it and been so traumatised that it shouldn’t be discussed lest I be propelled down into that dark hole I mentioned. Or perhaps they’d been traumatised themselves. Alas, I am not the only one whose life has been touched by cancer. Whatever the reason, the radio silence was quite a pull towards Catch Up TV.

My husband is away and I knew he wouldn’t choose to watch it. In real life he is calm. He isn’t, ‘can be calm,’ or, ‘is quite calm,’ he just IS calm, from his toe nails to the hair on his head. When it comes to TV, he is a wimp. Holby City? Too much blood. Call The Midwife? Why would you want to watch someone scream? The C Word? Why would you want to make yourself cry?

It was Saturday night and the eldest child was doing eleventh hour replacement final pieces for her GCSE Art practical after her original sculpture had snapped only days before its deadline. While I let out a gasp which rocked the house opposite on sight of the photos of the sculpture in too many pieces to count, said daughter, who is her father just a foot smaller and less hairy, simply shrugged and asked how fast we could get hold of a hardboard mask as she’d had an idea. The other daughter was applying false tan and distracting her GCSE taking sister into making Dubsmash clips. Do you know about Dubsmash? It’s an App. No App – ever – will make me laugh more than seeing my children performing Dubsmash videos. If you’ve watched a programme which has sent you down a dark hole, I promise you Dubsmash is your best chance of clambering back out.  

So, the family absent from the living room, I thought I could sneak a peek without anyone else needing to know.

The problem is that I can’t work the television. I never need to switch it on, you see. Like wine and chocolate, TV is a social thing for me, not something I ever do on my own.  So I had to ask the Dubsmasher to load The C Word for me. And thus my cover was rather unglamorously blown but she wrinkled her nose when she saw the title and slunk back to the Dubsmashing and  false tanning on the bath room floor, which fortuitously for her requirements (and my carpet), is one of the few places in our house where you can snatch a whiff of Wi-Fi.

Now I was committed.

The C Word didn’t have the effect I thought it would. Yes I cried, only perhaps for 90% of it, though, and they weren’t particularly tears for me. The operations and treatments were all too familiar, as were the feelings and reactions so frankly and eloquently portrayed, but I wouldn’t say that The C Word brought them all back because they’re all still very front of mind. This isn’t in a wholly negative way, but in a, phew - that was the year that was and hey, this life without treatments lark is much more fun - kind of way. Although I would admit that the trials of the side effects of Tamoxifen also contrive to keep the experience fairly current.

But I did weep for Lisa when she lost her hair. I had forgotten the raw emotion of seeing your identity flushed down the toilet. I’m sure it seems a strange thing to be upset about. Surely it’s the least of your worries, right? Wrong! I have a theory. The implications for you and your loved ones of a cancer diagnosis are too big to taste whole so you have to tackle that enormous universe of uncertainty one atom at a time. Yet your hair is part of a world you do know and understand and however much you try to be grown up about it, it’s way too big a part of your pre-cancer life for you to lose without a great aching lament. It’s a deeply sub-conscious thing but I felt that I couldn’t let my self cry about cancer itself. I rarely have which is quite staggering as I’m a bit of a cry baby really. But I feared taking the crust away from the cancer universe might mean I couldn’t fit it back on again. Unleash the lava from a volcano and it may never stop flowing. Underneath the despair at holding my hair loose in my hands, I think I knew that my grief for my hair would eventually stop. I think Lisa’s writing about this - candid and brutal but also wickedly funny - and Sheridan’s portrayal of her vulnerability during this and other stages of treatment captured this brilliantly.

The rest of the tears were for the touching moments with family and friends and in particular, with Pete, Lisa’s husband. His caring manner and gentle air reminded me of my husband. Yes, I had cancer and yes, I had to undergo more than my fair share of operations and treatments but I was being looked after and showered with cards and gifts and love and help. My husband, like all those closest to someone with a serious illness or disability, was having to look after me, our children, hold down his job and keep his own sanity, as well as handle his own emotions, pretty much single handed. My husband, together with my family and friends, are the principal reason why I managed to keep smiling through cancer. People say you are ‘strong’ and ‘brave’ but if you’re lucky, it’s the people around you who really give you strength and courage. And that is what made me cry the most when watching the drama.

The dark hole? I thought The C Word might unsettle me for a few hours and then I’d get back on with living. But actually, it had the opposite effect. I found it empowering. The similarities between my and Lisa’s lives weren’t lost on me: young (-ish in my case), the writing, the blog, the book, even the dressing smart for chemo – chemo power dressing I used to call it. She was even a Virgo! (That one’s for my Mum).

Much as I ache for Lisa and her family, I’d like the similarities to stop there.

There was nothing Lisa could do when secondaries were silently forming. There’s nothing I could do either but I can give it my best shot to prevent cancer in the ‘other one’ or indeed, any other cancer forming. The C Word was a reminder of my resolve to follow a lifestyle which does its absolute best to repel any further invasion of cancer. As Lisa says, we can’t control it, but I can do my best to make my body a fortress of steel against it.

Yes, I sleep much more than I used to but it’s easy to let it slide. I mustn’t.

My work/ life balance slips into the red zone frequently. I have to address this.

I’m very conscious of how much I drink but I’m aware that summer’s coming and I can’t pretend that the image of prosecco corks popping in the dusk of a balmy British summer’s evening, a little more often than my seven units a week maximum would allow, isn’t appealing. But it isn’t worth it to me. I’d love scientists to decide that alcohol would have no ill effect on my health but they won’t so I need to get over myself.

And then there’s the phone. It’s a stress. And I’d been switching it off at 9pm. Recently, it has crept back into my evenings. I’ve resolved to turn it off again.

And it was a reminder to be bold, proud and alive! Last week I went to the hairdresser and allowed myself to be talked out of having my short hair bleached blonde because it would be too high maintenance. My hairdresser is right of course. But I’d resolved to be bold while my hair grew back into a style which was ‘more me’ and so tomorrow I’m going back to the hairdresser’s.  Hang the cost, forget the time and most of all, sod the commitment. Life, as they say, is too short.

Lisa’s story is tragic. People dying of cancer is tragic. People dying before their parents is particularly tragic. But the sad truth is that sometimes illness will win. In the meantime, we should live our lives positively, pack them with experiences we’d choose while we can, seize the bright side rather than wallowing in regrets and treat our body with respect so that we give ourselves the best chance of longevity and quality of life. You know, I’ve always striven to do this and can’t really attribute it to Lisa’s story. But The C Word was a timely top-up reminder.

RIP Lisa Lynch and all those who have died too young.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Tea and Chemo

I have no problem with the concept of ‘luck’ but I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the word. I feel a little squeamish when people say that someone is ‘so lucky’. It smacks a little of their fortune coming through ill-gotten means, chance perhaps, cutting corners, cheating, even.

There are people in my life who really do seem to have more than their ‘fair share’ of bad luck. They’re the ones we all know, where you raise your eyes to god, the powers-that-be, fate or whatever holds the reins in your life, to just ‘give these people a break’. And difficult times do seem to have a habit of clumping together. But here’s the thing, the people who I consider to ‘deserve a break’, don’t seem to be the ones to describe themselves as unlucky. And vice versa.

And so I wonder if luck is all a matter of perception. I think that happiness lies in rejoicing when the toast falls the right side up rather than lamenting for too long when it falls sticky side down.

Granted, it’s annoying when you have to stop your day to mop up the gooeyness. And that pales into insignificance when compared to dropping a full bottle of milk onto quarry tiles in the kitchen and watching it seep faster than you can mop underneath the fridge, cooker, freezer... You’re not meant to cry over spilt milk, but when I think about it, I’ve come close.

I am always dropping milk bottles and they’re always full and they always smash. But then, I’m also always taking chunks out of plates with a slightly too speedy approach to stacking, bashing my hip on the side of the unit as I rush past the large piece of furniture which has been in the same position in our kitchen for the entire eleven years we’ve occupied the house, and have scars on my forearms to boast my devotion, if a little unfocused, to domesticity. If the toast falls sticky side down in my house, it’s probably more down to the inhabitation of fairies in my brain, and the law of averages, than luck.

When it comes to good luck in my life, I’ve had great deluges of it, for which I almost have to catch my breath. My daughter’s amazing recovery from a stroke could have been very different. I could have lost my arm in that spin drier instead of emerging with a scar and a story to bore my grandchildren and a great many others along the way. And I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be currently free of cancer. I am one of the lucky ones and very mindful of that. Even though the side effects of the drugs can contrive to make you forget it, it’s toast sticky side down to lament for too long.

And then there are the moments of fortune on a smaller scale which are nonetheless as sweet.

Such as when I saw That Tweet.

Call it luck, chance, providence, fate or fortune, I thank my lucky stars I happened to be on Twitter that day, when I happened upon a tweet from an author praising the brilliance and general loveliness of their publisher, Urbane Publications. How happy am I that I was playing around on Twitter when I should have been ironing; that I ever signed up to Twitter in the first place?

For whatever reason, I did notice the tweet, it did pique my interest and it did propel me to the Urbane Publications website. Once there, I started reading about collaboration and team working and proper editing and then I was hooked. A quick look at its list of authors and pending publications and a glance at page 17 of Google to check this too-good-to-be-true, small but perfectly formed and, in my humble opinion, going places press was kosher, and I’d dropped everything to draft my submission letter.

Roll forward a couple of months and the cover for my book is being finalised. I’m beavering away on the content for my copy deadline at the end of June ready for Urbane Publications to publish ‘Tea and Chemo’ in November.

When I was diagnosed with cancer I was swamped with factual information about the little blighter as well as the reasons for the treatments I was to have, together with their side effects. It was illuminating and helped me feel more secure. However there’s a difference between knowing what’s going to happen and knowing how it’s going to feel.

As well as the facts, I wanted an honest account of the experience of cancer. What does it mean to lose your hair? I mean, really mean, emotionally? I wanted to hear it from someone who’d been there, done that and got the hat and wig and scarf to show for it. I wanted a book which would educate me in a softly, softly way. I wanted the author to be an ordinary person who was still enjoying life, who’d got through to the other side, and, crucially, done it without any Super Powers.

My aim is for Tea and Chemo to be that book. With my blog posts as a framework and many more anecdotes added, I hope that it will inform cancer sufferers and their loved ones whilst also making readers smile. It’s useful information served with an empathetic hug, the story around the camp fire or a cup of tea with friends on a lazy afternoon.

Since taking my first steps into the cavernous universe of cancer, I have learnt a little in my non-scientific, better-if-you-give-me-an-analogy kind of way about hormones (your body doesn’t take kindly to you changing their levels), medicine induced water retention (who’d have thought to get rid of water retention, or ‘Herceptin Bum’, you should drink err, water?), Vitamin D, Parabens, free make-up, eyebrow tattoos, Prosecco over white wine, Chemo Brain (it’s for real and it sucks but it gets better), chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, tea therapy (ok, I made that one up) and time (that one’s for real because time really does help you get used to anything – and then you can deal with it).

Tea and Chemo is about sharing what I’ve learnt. It’s an outstretched hand if chemo gives you a mouth full of ulcers, your bones feel like they’ve been squeezed in a vice and you just want to go to bed and wake up when the whole darned cancer thing has been sorted.  I hope it will give you a hug when all your food tastes as though it’s been sprinkled with bicarbonate of soda and stirred with mud. And I hope it will help your loved ones, too.

And I know some chemo secrets. I know that white sauce (sweet, not savoury) and Rich Tea biscuits are the only things which taste as they should in the first two weeks after a dose of chemo, and quite frankly, this is a time in your life when you can eat five bowl-fulls on the trot (I did) and even mash a packet of biscuits guilt-free into the bowl. You see, treatment has its perks.

So, was I lucky to have found Urbane Publications? You bet I was. My experience so far is everything that Urbane Publications promises. I’m working as part of a team with people who know what they’re doing, and who are just as excited as I am about Tea and Chemo’s publication.

Regarding my good fortune in reading That Tweet, I am not allowed to complain about sticky toast on the floor, or even a crate of smashed milk bottles, for a good few years to come.