Monday, 28 March 2011

Cutting Corners...

So I've contacted the new hair stylist. He's a biggie who's worked on film sets, with celebs, on photo-shoots and more. I don't expect him to be cheap, but I'm hoping that he might be amenable to a bit of sympathy-soaked negotiating as I don't have a celeb-style budget to play with.

I call him and we chat about what I originally wanted, what I've ended up with so far and what I'd really like. He sounds real cool and easy-going but his cutting fee is not small and he's talking about blow-drying. Eh ? blow-drying an afro wig ? I've never heard of that one before. I'm tempted to tell him that Trevor S didn't need to blow dry my wig but am conscious that i'm talking to a 'creative' and my many years experience of working with the 'c' crew has taught me how sensitive and fragile their egos can be.

I mention the fact that I'm on chemo at the mo, that I have no hair, that I have no hair, repeat... that I have no... but he's a London boy and his negotiating is as hardline as they come. He tells me how most people who want their wigs cut are only too happy to spend loads of money on the wig, but then quibble over the price of the cut. I'm also tempted to tell him that I'm not one of the those peeps. The cut will cost twice as much as the wig and if I don't like the finished result, I've lost out twice. He starts to quote salon prices. Okay, okay. We agree to pause negotiations until he's seen the wig and a pic of Halle Berry that I've found on the net, then he'll get back to me.

I'm beginning to now appreciate just how wonderful and philanthropic Trevor Sorbie is. What other top hair stylist would give up his busy time and hefty fee to cut an anonymous wig on an anonymous person just because they have cancer ?

The Art of Waiting...

Since last week I've been waiting for the results of my CT scan. This is the last scan that I'll have before my operation, which I think will happen in a month's time.

I've decided that CT machines were probably designed by an engineer who really wanted to be a special effects guy on a Hollywood blockbuster. No, strike that. Maybe he once was a special effects guy, lost his job, decided to retrain, but couldn't let go of his dream. I say this because every time I enter a room where there's a CT scanner, I suddenly feel like I have the lead or supporting role in a 60s science fiction thriller. First there's the control room, which often consists of a glass cubicle, a sea of knobs and buttons and a human being dressed in scrubs staring intently into a monitor. All is white, all is man-made. From the circular white tube with its inner revolving, red flashing lights to the computerised voice that orders you to start and stop breathing, there is nothing like a bit of surreal technology to remind you of how serious your illness is.

I often think this as I lie on the narrow, tissue-covered bed and watch the radiographer insert the canula into my arm. When I feel the warm liquid course through my veins, followed by an intense feeling of warmth and wetness around my tummy and groin area, I think of all the interrogation scenes that I've watched on TV that start like this. As the machine moves across my chest towards my stomach and I try and try to sychronise my breathing (so that it stops and starts at exactly the same time as the strange woman's computerised voice) I wonder what this scan is seeing. Will its results change my life forever ? Will I look back on this day and wonder how blissful ignorance can be ? My mind doesn't stop chattering away like this until the needle is removed from my vein and I'm free to go.

And then there's the waiting.

The other day I watched a film called 'The Bucket List' with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Both are exceptional actors who can often turn a mediocre script into a masterpiece. Yet both were struggling. The film-makers' idea of a cancer patient was someone with a bald head who spent most of his time crouched over a toilet bowl. Where were the anti-nausea drugs ? When films or books depict the experience of cancer, most focus on cliches like hairloss, terminal illness, vomiting and being bed-ridden. No-one mentions the sheer boredom of cancer. The days and weeks of waiting - for results, for scans, for operations, for doctors to see you, for the 'all clear' ... I could go on. I guess it's not easy to portray the experience of waiting. After all, who would pay good money to see this ? But beyond the baldness, here lies the true experience of cancer - but what do I know ? I only have the disease...

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Sex, Wraps and Rock n' roll

I've just realised that I've spent so much time ruminating on random thoughts about cancer that I've neglected the original purpose of this blog - which was to find a decent afro wig. Too many days spent navel-gazing has made me forget my original mission. Am I still bothered though ? Now that spring is in the air, surely something lighter might be more practical ? I'm pretty sure that sunshine and synthetic hair don't mix that well and have visions of myself overheating so much that I end up like Samantha in an episode of Sex and The City during her bout with breast cancer, and pulling off the damn thing in public.

I'm still wearing my headwrap which is ok but if I'm honest, I'm getting a little bored of it. I'm tired of the fact that it keeps unravelling in the most annoying of places. Today it decided to undo itself at the back outside the local vd clinic (yes, vd !). I stopped outside the back entrance to wrap the two long lengths of fabric back into a bun and a few seconds later a shabby looking man stopped, looked at me, stood next to me and decided to peruse their opening hours. Moments later a stern-faced woman emerged and looked at us both suspiciously.

'Can i help you ?' she said eyeing me warily.
 'I'm...I'm  just doing up this' I replied really inarticulately, pointing to my headwrap. Tongue-tiedness is  what you get when you mix a chemo-fried brain with a too-early morning rise.
'Are you both together ?' she persisted ? scanning her eyes from me to my new found companion.
'No !' I reply, getting a little annoyed.
Does she really get many couples arranging to meet outside the sexual health clinic ? Or does she think this is a great place for picking up men ??

Thinking about it now though,  perhaps she was right to be so suspicious. It's not a very usual thing to see - someone trying to wrap metres of fabric around their head while standing outside a sexual health clinic. I decided that it was time for a change, and left reminding myself that I should get back on the case of finding a hair stylist who would be able to cut one of the two wigs that I ordered recently. I've just e-mailed a session stylist who I remember working with a long time ago on a photo-shoot. He's up for cutting my wig, I just need to set up a date and time. Will let you know how I get on...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Power of Stories

My partner once said something to me that has always stuck in my mind. Just before I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time, as a way of dealing with the fear and anxiety of waiting for test results, I decided to immerse myself into the world of cancer literature. I began to read Lance Armstrong's moving autobiography, It's Not About The Bike while on a family holiday in Italy and managed to almost finish it just before I returned to the UK. After diagnosis, I was so desperate for a positive story about stage 4 breast cancer that I spent every evening trawling the internet looking for blogs and books that could give me some hope.  Of course, I also searched frantically for medical treatments and patient accounts that might provide me with the knowledge I'd need to question my doctors. No stone was unturned. I created a folder on my desktop called 'metastatic' and crammed every single positive page and abstract that I came across. After I did this, I borrowed and watched lots of dvds and I made sure that they were all about love in all its scary and complicated forms.

One evening my partner looked up from his laptop and said to me, 'you know, you did exactly the same thing when you were first diagnosed with cancer. You looked for inspiration, information and then escapism, in exactly that order.' The first inspiring book I'd read had been Lance Armstrong's. The information came in the form of lots of oncology abstracts, breast cancer articles and reports. And I've watched many a film and read many a book that has made me laugh, question and cry.

I'd never really considered this before but it's true. This is exactly what I do. I want to focus on one book today though. I'm sure every woman with metastatic breast cancer has come across it. It motivated me to push myself when I was feeling really low and every few weeks or so I think about this author and hope that I'm fortunate enough to also be blessed with her longevity. The book is called Red Devil - To hell with cancer and back, by Katherine Russell Rich and is a raw, riveting account of a young journalist's experience of stage 4 cancer. Her first doctor gave her just 2 years to live. She has survived for 22. Her graphic accounts of each and every painful symptom and procedure doesn't always make for pleasant reading and perhaps is not for the faint-hearted. But the thought of her sheer tenacity and balls in dealing with her diagnosis has often inspired and motivated me to do things that are outside of my own comfort zone.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Dealing With The Green-Eyed Monster

Okay, I admit it. I'm a facebook addict. I'm nowhere as bad as some friends that I know of who religiously check in before having their first cup of coffee in the morning, but I do like to know who is saying, doing and thinking stuff - every day. And I like to cheer on my friends when they share good news about themselves and their lives, really I do. So why is it that I sometimes feel so jealous when I hear about their fabulous trips abroad, their gorgeous new homes and their great new jobs ? Perhaps it's because being on chemo and looking after a young baby has changed my life so much that I can hardly remember having a similar lifestyle to theirs. And sometimes I miss it. I remember the days when it was me getting on a plane in an ever so spontaneous way, without a second thought about nappies, or baby food or self-adminstered injections or anti-nausea tablets. I remember the days when I could go out to a bar and not give a second thought to the fact that I'd just downed half a bottle of wine. I remember the days when the only thing that mattered was doing a good job - regardless of how late I would roll into my flat afterwards with only a takeaway and a dvd for company and feel happy that I was doing what I wanted and when I wanted to without anyone telling me otherwise.

Obviously I wouldn't wish my illness on anyone - least of all my friends. But although I love a girlie get-together and gossip, I have to admit that having this disease not once but twice has aged me. Tremendously. If it was just in a physical way I would understand and probably be able to cope with this better. But it's hard sometimes to be flippant and spontaneous about life with the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. So how to deal with it ? Well (and getting back to 'The Benefits of Breast cancer' post) every day I try to do something that I couldn't do if I was at work, or commuting on a packed train, or busy spending cash on stuff that I don't need. I read the books I never got round to reading, I watch films that I wouldn't normally watch. I spend all day at the park when the sun shines (which is getting more and more these days, yippee!). I think of new recipes to feed to my baby. And I write. And I write and I write. And this convinces my sub-conscious that I'm using this time productively, not idly wasting it lying on the sofa. And it kind of works for while, until I get onto Facebook again and read about another friend's fantastic long haul holiday. But I guess I can always dream of being there too.

Building Bridges

Well I heard back from the building society (see previous Building Blocks post). Since they hurriedly wrote me an apology letter and included a cheque for £50, I'm supposing that maybe I did have a leg to stand on after all.

I feel pleased  that my complaint was acknowledged. Perhaps it wasn't such a great idea to meet a financial adviser while you're strung out on the after-effects of chemo and so tired that you can barely answer their questions, but that's still no reason to be treated as if you already have one foot in the grave. I share my good news with my mum and partner who think it's great that I stood my ground and refused to be a victim. While I don't want to turn into one of those perpetual 'outraged from tunbridge wells' types who will complain about the least thing at the drop of a hat, I think it's good once in a while to remind the big guys at the banks whose money they're actually looking after. What to do with my £50 windfall ? I briefly contemplate -

a) a flutter on the horses

b) a second-hand pair of Jimmy Choo shoes on Ebay

c) part-payment for a new super-duper state of the art food blender (maybe this is way too sensible an option to be including...)

in actual fact, I know what I'll do with it - it will go very safely and predictably into Baby A's new savings account which I've yet to open. Sometimes I'd love to be more extravagant and downright irresponsible, but I guess I'm just too pragmatic a person for my own good.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Benefits of Having Breast Cancer

The benefits of breast cancer ??? Am I crazy to even consider such a premise ?  How can a disease which potentially threatens to take away a woman's breasts and ultimately her life ever have rewards ? (and I don't mean just financial ones...)

Amongst the well-meaning reading matter that I've received since diagnosis (which has invariably included everything from gossip mags to 'embracing uncertainty' self-help books) one book in particular has stood out.
Getting Well Again was written in 1978 by a psychologist and oncologist husband and wife team and is now considered as something of a bible among the mind-body psychotherapists and alternative medicine practitioners. If you can endure the the first couple of chapters, which tend to wallow in the mire of outdated theories surrounding a 'cancer personality', you'll come across an interesting chapter that looks at the benefits of illness.

These benefits include some obvious things like not being at work (or more importantly, not feeling guilty about being at work) and forging closer relationships with loved ones who will often surround you with a lot more love than they previously had. But also included are more significant ideas like learning how to really relax for the first time in your life, how to set goals in the face of a life-threatening illness and how to let go of past hurts and resentments. I know that it's all starting to sound suspiciously like to a self-help book, but in the face of the uncertainty that comes with a diagnosis of cancer, it sometimes feels as though you're having to start from scratch anyway. In my own case, I often wonder how a first-time mother with breast cancer can look at her child and think of their future without feeling anxiety and fear for the possible lack of her own ?  But we can't spend our days always grappling with deep philiosophical questions. Sometimes it's okay to feel smug that you're not part of the rat race at the moment. However weird it may seem, by adopting a 'well at least now I don't have to...' outlook is often a good way of living in the present and keeping those moody blues away from one's door.

So how has having breast cancer benefitted me ? Well, apart from the obvious - which is, I've been able to spend more time at home with my baby and watch him develop every day before my very eyes, I've also realised that every couple of minutes, or hours or days, someone thinks about you. You might not know this, but they do.

The big difference when you're diagnosed with cancer is that instead of being an abstract thought in that person's mind, you actually hear from them. Sometimes it's a phone-call, other times an e-mail, another time it's just a short text. But it's nice. It feels lovely to know that half way around the globe, someone's remembering me. In our increasingly isolated metropolitan lives, it dispels the idea that we're all becoming more and more disconnected from each other.

I always make an effort these days to respond to every text, phone-call and e-mail as soon as possible. This is partly out of respect but mostly because I want the person to know that somewhere, maybe even halfway around the globe, I'm remembering them too.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Back To The Eighties - with jheri curls

Well, I've abandoned the wig. Roughly two weeks after I had it cut. I tried and tried to feel good wearing it but every time I passed a shop window, I'd tentatively glance at my reflection and the woman who looked back at me with the mass of uncontrollable tight curls and mullet-style hairdo did not feel like me at all. In the end I asked my partner to take a few pics of me wearing it. The pictures confirmed my worst hair and beauty fears. The wig looked bad. Real bad.

I showed the pics to my sister. Not one to mince her words, she likened the wig to one that our auntie used to wear back in the day when she was really into jheri curls. 'Back in the day' in this context means back in the early 80s. And I know that designers have spent a lot of time and money trying to convince us otherwise, that really the decade of the 80s was full of fine examples of great style and fabulous fashion, but the memories of shoulder pads, way too much blusher, white stilettos and lots and lots of curl activator still hold firm in my mind.

But my mum likes my wig. So much so that I donate it to her. She seems pretty happy with her new look and I remember that she once too had a jheri curl like her sister and probably feels much more at home with this style than me (ok, i admit it, so I had one too...). Once I do this, it just makes perfect sense. Having cancer shouldn't mean forgetting who you are, or were or settling for something less than what you want. Having a huge amount of control suddenly taken away from you is hard, really hard sometimes. But now I'm beginning to understand why perhaps little things like learning how to replace your eyebrows, or buying a new lipstick or even shaving your head, can make such a big difference to so many cancer patients' lives. It's about reclaiming something back, even if it's only a tiny gesture in comparison to what your body's actually going through.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Time To Feed One's Soul...

Once baby A is safely tucked up in bed and the dishes have been washed, maybe a dvd watched, all I really long to do is jump into a good book. Maybe I would choose one of the classics or a piece of literature that will change the way I view life forever (ambitious expectations I know...). But I find it hard to read sometimes, even harder to form opinions or to be transported away from this world for a while. While I find that keeping busy and doing lots of creative pursuits seems to keep the anxiety and sheer terror of having cancer at bay, I realise that it will often creep up on you, inhabiting your mind, sometimes hijacking your thoughts when you least expect it. It might be the cause of the insomnia that you experience at 4am in the morning, when all around you sleeps, oblivious to the turmoil that churns away within your head. Other times, it's a memory of a time when you thought life would always be  easy. Or an overwhelming feeling of sadness that hits you when you hear a moving piece of music or see a photograph.

How do we overcome these feelings and allow ourselves to move on to a place where our emotions are no longer being held prisoner ?  Well, I think poetry might be a good place to start. To me, it's an intense, compressed version of a novel. Or maybe it's a brief but dense expression of emotion that might tell me why I feel so numb sometimes when I'm having to deal with doctors and other health professionals. I came across this on O (Oprah Winfrey's) magazine's website. It succeeded in making me want to pick up an anthology of poetry and start rediscovering old works. I was so taken by this feature, that I looked up Oprah's favourite poem. It's Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou. I first read this poem as a teenager, when I first began to discover literature by black female writers.

Phenomenal Woman - Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing of my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Truth About Pigskin...

At a visit to see yet another consultant surgeon, I learn some pretty interesting facts:

My tumour most probably had HER2 cells in it 7 years ago (before they started to automatically test for this). If they had known this then, I would have definitely had chemotherapy and herceptin - which would have lessened the chance of the cancer coming back.

My breast reconstruction method (using the back muscle as a way of making a new breast) is now obselete. They realised that there were too many problems with this, in that women complained of back pain and aches after the op. Now they just use a layer of pigskin on top of an implant which apparently is just as effective and creates a very realistic looking breast. Grrrrrrrr

Oligometastates is a state somewhere between primary breast cancer and widespread disease. It is where the spread is confined to only a few sites, thus making it easier to operate or control. This is what I have.

My tumour is very sensitive to chemotherapy - which is obviously a good thing after all the nasty side effects I've had to endure over the past couple of months.

The fact that there are lesions in my liver is an indication of how the cancer might/add spread in future. They think it might recur, but says that there are lots of treatments to try on this.

Lots of information eh ? Some good, some not so good. Ideally I would love to be cured, failing this a very long remission - somewhere between 10 and 20 years (25 plus would be a bonus) would be the next best thing.  No point thinking about what should've happened in the past. The present is all we have.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

In Defence of Denial...

Today was a busy day. After being woken up by my 14th month old baby, I was thrown into the usual early morning routine of changing him, feeding him, dressing him, entertaining him. This was swiftly followed by more cooking, cleaning, washing, laundering, cooking, cleaning, washing...  you get the idea. It felt a bit like groundhog day until I left the house and my mum to babysit and stepped out to the first of two appointments. I'd been referred to see a psychologist. Although my Doc thinks that I'm coping well with the diagnosis, since I've come over all weepy a few times during some of her consultations, she thought it might help for me to have a chat with someone who specialises in providing emotional support to cancer patients.

I was quite looking forward to the appointment. Really I was. Not only am I a big fan of 'you can do it' popular psychology books, it's an area that interests me so much, that every few months or so I think about doing a degree or higher in the subject. But today's appointment makes me think again. The psychologist is a woman in her sixties with a slightly cold, brittle demeanour and her way of asking questions has the effect of making me feel defensive. I find myself tensing up when she asks me how I'm coping. When I say that I keep myself busy, she implies that I'm in denial. She seems to sneer at the idea of being positive and says that it makes no difference to outcome. I counter this by saying that no-one knows this for sure and she insists that research has proved that it doesn't. I feel like telling her about all the sites that I've been on where eminent oncologists, some from the Sloan-Kettering institute have openly declared that being positive is a good thing. I guess their interpretation might be that if you're feeling happy, you're more likely to eat well and exercise, which might help strengthen the immune system.

She asks me some strange questions, mostly about death. I find it all quite macabre. I guess perhaps I should spend my days wondering who will turn up to my funeral, but I really don't have the time or inclination to do this. I'm too busy trying to enjoy my life. I start to wonder why I'm there. Aren't I supposed to feel better after one of these sessions, not more depressed than when I came in ? Eventually the session comes to an end and I leave, knowing that I'll never make another appointment to see her again. Call it denial, call it avoidance but it works for me. If push comes to shove and I end up being read my last rites, I'd rather have it done while I'm stuffing my face with tiramisu and drinking champagne, hopefully while doing a bit of alfresco dining in the middle of the Grand Canyon or somewhere equally as photogenic. I hopefully won't be locked inside an airless room with only a cynical  psychologist and a box of tissues to keep me company.

Doctor, Doctor

Today I had a routine appointment with my oncologist. I dithered over whether i should wear the wig or not. In all honesty, I still feel like a cross between a hopeless fraud and someone who is just walking around experiencing a permanent 'bad hair day'. Both my mother and partner have reassured me that it looks good but with the tight curl pattern and reddish colour of it, I feel a bit like Noddy Holder (see pic). Now that I've shaved my head even lower, I find that the wig (which has almost been cut down to nothing) lets in a lot of draught. On a cold day it can feel as though I'm wearing nothing on my head. I don't mean to sound ungrateful. If anything, I'm more angry at myself for ruining what was a great haircut.

The funny thing is, when I discovered that I had cancer and would need chemotherapy, I told myself that I would never wear a wig. It seemed so false and fake and associated with the shame and embarassment at having cancer. I wanted to be strong and proud and able to talk about my illness. I thought wearing a wig would look like I wanted to pretend I was normal. But now, faced with the prospect of not just looking normal, but looking like a completely different (and albeit more fashionable and stylish) version of myself, I find myself embracing the superficial world of hair and beauty with open arms. Why ?  I guess one reason could be escapism. The time that it takes me frantically surfing the internet to find the perfect afro wig is less time spent looking for a cure for metastatic breast cancer. Which one would you rather search for ? As I continue this journey, I find that I constantly discover things about myself that surprise me.

Anyway... I have a quick check up with my doctor and tell her about my meeting with the chest surgeon. I tell her how elated I felt after I left his office. She agrees and we talk for a while about the recent developments in the study of oligometastatic cancer - which is basically cancer which has spread, but only to a small number of sites. At this stage, there is still the prospect of a cure, although obviously the statistics are much lower the second time around. But who needs statistics anyhow ?  We're human beings not counting machines. My doctor tells me how rational I am when it comes to dealing with my diagnosis. I suppose at this point in time and with a needy toddler at my heels, I can only think in terms of necessity. Perhaps once he's off to nursery, the emotions might come flooding through.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Why Is Breast Cancer More Deadly for Black Women ?????

Surfing the net this evening, I'm struck by the number of images there are of white women with breast cancer compared to black women. While it may be true that in the Western world, more white women are diagnosed each year with breast cancer than black women, according to a recent study, Black British women are often diagnosed at an earlier age with the disease, it is more likely to be triple-negative - which means that their tumours are not oestrogen, progesterone or her2 sensitive and there are therefore fewer treatment options available for them, and it is more likely to be aggressive. They are more likely to die from the disease and at an earlier age. Scary. Most scientists would point to obvious contributing factors like poverty, lack of education and biological differences as reasons behind these sobering facts. I've just keyed in 'black woman' and 'breast cancer' and 'blog' just to see if there might be any like-minded individuals out there in a similar situation to me. There doesn't seem to be much, apart from lots of worrying articles about African-American women being diagnosed at an advanced stage and lots of triple-negative references. I wonder why there are so few resources which cater for us. There is obviously a need. I'd love a website that specialised in afro wigs for alopoecia and chemotherapy-induced hairloss. Not sexy subjects I know, but it might make this journey just a bit easier. I'd like someone to tell me how I make sure my wig stays on my head if I have no hair. I'd like beauty and make-up tips that cover how to deal with patchy eye-brows and skin discolourations. But beyond beauty, I'd really like to connect to a community of women who might have had a similar upbringing and sense of cultural identity as me. I'm sure they must exist out there and will keep on looking until I find some. I'll keep you posted.

Trevor Sorbie cut my hair today !!

So the big day came. Last night I dutifully packed the Vanessa La Jay into my bag and made sure I got an early night in anticipation of My New Hair - a charity funded day which offers cancer patients the chance to have their wig styled by top hairdresser, Trevor Sorbie. I wondered what the day would be like. Would I be the only cancer patient there ?  Would he cut my hair in the same salon as he normally did real hair styling ? Would my wig (which is about a size too big) even stay in place while he did it ?

I make my way to Covent Garden and find his salon at the end of Floral Street. Stepping into the all-white pristine reception area which seems to teem with a variety of very young, very fashionable looking stylists, reminds me of my early years in London. The days when I had dreams of becoming a fashion editor and used to find myself at castings, model agencies and other hang-outs where the seemingly ageless always were. The reception area is filled with a range of different clients. All looked fairly well-heeled. There is a bowl of complimentary fresh fruit and pastries and a couple of very slender looking models who sat next to me talking haircuts and portfolios.

I look around the salon. No-one working there looks under 30. A few minutes later a man in his late fifties turns up. He shakes my hand, introduces himself as Trevor and surprisingly looks a little nervous. Or maybe I mistake his uneasiness for busyness. His eyes dart around his salon and he asks me if I mind being observed by another stylist. I tell him that I have a few friends coming and he says that's fine. We go to a separate room away from the busy salon and I sit down and pull out my wig. I put it on. He remarks on how big it is. He tells me that it reminds him of Diana Ross.

I show him a picture of my old hair. Using this a semi-guide, he cuts the wig into a very round 70s afro shape. I really like it and when my friends M and R turn up, they're amazed at how different I look. I'm pleased with the result but when I get up to go, I suddenly look at my reflection in the mirror and with my skinny body, I think I resemble a lollipop. I ask him if he wouldn't mind cutting a little more off. He does so, but cuts a hell of a lot off. I instantly regret asking him. The wig now looks more natural but much less stylish. If I could have bit my tongue at that point, it would have been in two pieces on the floor.

Outside, M and R agree with me. They preferred the previous version. I feel distraught. A day with the big man and I mess it up by getting too assertive. My wig looks good, but it could've looked amazing. It's a lesson well learnt today. Sometimes it does actually pay to be reserved and taciturn - two adjectives that are normally associated with inability to express oneself. I know that I should post pictures up here, but I'm too shy. I realise that I really love the wig's colour (a hue of tawny brown) and make a decision to order another one in the morning...

Monday, 7 March 2011

It's A Wrap !

So for the while, let's forget about wigs. I'm wigged out. I've done the searches, looked on YouTube for videos showing how to cut them, style them, wash them and wear them. I've now got three wigs on my dressing table and none of them faintly resemble my old afro.

So for now, I want to step back into the world of headwraps. I like headwraps. They can look cool or cultural. They keep my head warm in the winter, and experimenting with different lengths of fabric makes me feel very creative indeed. They also seem to hide a multitude of sins (bad hair day, bald head day, patchy alopoecia day...). Headwraps are worn for religious, cultural, fashionable and functional reasons. And depending on who's wearing them, they can look effortlessly chic or deeply spiritual. They're more often than not, worn by more black and asian women than white. I put this down to the fact that in the western world, a woman's hair is seen as big part of her attraction. Millions are spent on celebrities endorsing hair products and western women seem to spend sizeable amounts of their salaries on their hairdressers. Some would argue, so do black women. And it's true. For those who have weaves and relaxers, all that constant tender loving care soon adds up. But the difference is, if a black woman is having a bad hair day, she can sling on a headwrap, step outside and no-one will bat an eyelid. Not so, if your skin is of a lighter hue. A white woman with a headwrap might be mistaken for a white rasta, or a converted muslim. Or maybe even a cancer patient.

In this respect I think i'm lucky. The day after I decided to shave my head, after I noticed big patches of hair were falling out, I found a bit of stretchy jersey fabric, cut a long rectangular piece and after covering my head, wrapped the reminder into a bun at the nape of my neck. I ventured outside feeling self-conscious. Truth is, no-one batted an eyelid. I got a bit more respect from older muslim men but no funny stares. So, while I'm kind of happy with the wigs, I've decided to sign up for a course in head wrapping. I figure that i need to learn a few more ways of making this style work. In the meantime, I have my wig safely packed for the Trevor Sorbie session tomorrow. Can't wait !!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Baby Talk

I realise that so far I haven't mentioned my darling 13th month old baby very much in this blog. This strikes me as strange considering that he takes up so much of my life. After all, at what time would I really wake up were it not for his 6.45am alarm calls ? How would I manage to arrange my daily routine without his routine of two sleeps throughout the day and mealtimes a few hours later to work around ? When I think of shopping now, I think of baby Gap ahead of TopShop. My handbag contains an emergency baby spoon which lies alongside my mirror and eyeliner. When I enter a supermarket, the baby food section is the first aisle that I'll head for. There isn't an area of life that he doesn't permeate but when it comes to talking or writing about cancer, I'd rather not mention him. Perhaps this is understandable. I'm sure some esteemed psychotherapist out there would explain my reaction as denial and put it down to the fact that I can't bear to think of myself not being around to look after him. Perhaps this is why I pretend that he doesn't really matter that much in cyberspace. Instead I concentrate on frivolous subjects like wigs and beauty. Perhaps this is the way that I deal with having cancer too - by not fixating too much on it and focussing on something more superficial instead. In truth, being on chemo and having to look after a one year old is bloody hard work. And often overwhelming. But he also gives me a reason to carry on. To not give up hope when sometimes the fear and anxiety tries to suffocate me. Since I haven't found a way of merging a mummy blog with a cancer one yet, I'll think I'll concentrate on trying to find a decent wig, write about whatever other issues this throws up along the way, and somehow find a way of reaffirming just how important every day is that I'm alive, well and able to spend precious time with my son.

Girls' Night In...

So my friends R and M came round yesterday to give me the wig that R had bought - just in case the one that I ordered from the web didn't turn up. M also gave me a bone straight 60s-style bob wig that she used to wear. I put it on my head and had trouble recognising myself. I looked like I was about to go to a fancy dress party. They both thought that it really suited me. I guess there's no accounting for taste. I tried on my Vanessa La Jay wig thinking that they'd laugh their heads off. They loved it ! Well, they agreed that I might look as though I'm about to take the stage but argued that if I stepped outside with it on, no-one would probably bat an eyelid. I guess we've got celebrity culture to thank for the fact that it's acceptable to walk down the street looking as if you might be auditioning for the next series of the X factor, but it still felt huuuuge on my head. R also bought round the wig that she'd bought me. I tried it on but it looked way too cheap and way too synthetic. I've decided that I'll take the Vanessa wig with me when I go to meet Trevor Sorbie on Tuesday. R's going to come along too for moral support.

M wants us to all to get dressed up and wear our wigs out for the evening. But I'm worried that we'll be mistaken for hookers and be charged with soliciting. Still, it could be fun. Especially if we do something super-tacky like hiring a limo for the night.

Healthwise, I'm still really tired from the effects of the chemo. We went out for a family day out today and I could barely summon up the energy to go for a walk in the park.  In the end we just went to a cafe and had hot chocolate and chips. Thank god that my mum is here to cook, clean and generally be supergran for the next couple of weeks. I feel bad not contributing too much to the chores but I guess having cancer has to have some benefits doesn't it ?

Friday, 4 March 2011

This Girl Looks Fantastic in The Vanessa La Jay Wig (aka My New Wig)

I would love to look like this in my new wig, but for some reason it's more like Brian May meets Tina Turner at the moment. Badly need some tips methinks...

My Wig Has Arrived !!!

Well, I'm still thinking about the bank meeting yesterday and have decided to make a complaint. I feel very uneasy about what happened and I'm still not sure why this is. Perhaps I'm making way too much out of it or thinking way too much about it but the meeting made me feel as though I had no choice and that I was somehow less of a person because I had cancer, whose rights and feelings could be ignored. 

On an entirely different (and some would argue, much more superficial) subject, my wig has arrived ! I had just finished e-mailing the company that I bought it from online, when the postman rang my buzzer ! I tore open the bag excitedly feeling a little apprehensive as to whether I might be disappointed or not. The colour immediately struck me as a little bit too brown. I've had my hair this colour before in the form of highlights but now that I saw the wig in all its glory, it seemed a little too 'bling'. Telling myself that I'd get used to it in time, I pulled it on, ignoring the instructions to use the two hair combs at the back and front of the wig, to secure it. I looked at myself in the mirror. The afro seemed huge. Masses of cascading curls framed my face which looked even more washed out and uneven from the chemo treatment. The wig seemed to enhance the fact that my eyebrows were thinning and that I had dark shadows under my eyes. They seemed to emphasise the darker shade of my lips now and the fact that my eyes looked more yellow and slightly bloodshot. I felt like a cross between Barbara Streisand and Rick James. I felt much less attractive, and worse still, a fraud. There seemed to be no way that I'd be able to tame the masses of corkscrew curls. I pulled it off, feeling deflated. Who was I kidding ? I was no diva or dancehall queen. I couldn't pull off big hair. I'm too serious a person for that. I'll see what my family think when they return home. 

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Building Blocks

A very strange thing happened today. I had an appointment with a financial adviser at a well-known high street building society. I wanted to open a stocks and shares savings ISA for my 13 month old son. To do this I would have to see a financial adviser beforehand - which, although i already have an independent financial adviser who I'm more than happy with - I agreed to do. I admit to not feeling great. I have a lowish blood count at the moment which makes me feel pretty exhausted most of the time. I don't have much of an appetite due to everything tasting either too sweet, too sickly or too salty, and my hands seem to be permanently too dry and tingly.

Still, I decided to go to the appointment. On top of all of that, I couldn't find my headwrap. I hunted far and wide for it but time was running out and I still couldn't locate it. I decided on wearing a woollen hat as it was a cold day. I always think hats without hair only really suit a small number of women -those with exceptionally pretty faces and/or an unusual quirky style. I also think there's something odd about attending a meeting and wearing a woolly hat for the duration of the time. But I had no choice. I waited for a short while after reaching the building society, then a very fresh faced looking man came out to see me. He didn't shake my hand and seemed quite nervous for the first 5 minutes. He asked me lots of questions about myself and my money (the way people who work for banks often do) and then asked me if I was working at present. I told him that I'd recently been diagnosed with a serious illness and was on sick leave.

Now, why I disclosed that information, I really do not know. I suppose I should blame my chemo brain, or fatigued brain cells for not sticking to the script but i guess I was feeling tired, honest and perhaps I was looking for sympathy. Anyway, I got none. He asked me about the nature of the illness and I told him cancer then I saw him note it down. I then asked him not to put it on my record/application as I had told him something in confidence. But, he said that they had to put it down as it might affect any future applications, and some other waffle which I was too tired to try to decipher. We went through the application, I chose a product then at the end he started to write notes. He asked what kind of cancer I had. I told him breast and he started to write something down. I remember thinking that I had asked him not to write that down but felt too weak to protest. When I got home I started to think about it. It bugged me. Then it bugged me again. And again. The bugging feeling got so bad that I couldn't think of anything else. I started to feel outraged that he'd ignored my request. I started to remember that I had been the customer. I started to get mad and angry. I rang him up. Told him that I had this feeling that wouldn't go away. I wasn't happy with what he'd done and I wanted out of the ISA. After all I hadn't gone there asking for a mortgage, or a loan, or critical illness insurance. He was nice enough, then of course got a little defensive, reminding me in a semi-patronising tone that of course he'd have to include that information about someone with cancer who was looking to open a 5 year bond (i.e. let's face it, you might not be around for that long...). Anyway, I was nice, but firm. Even apologised, then told him I wanted to close the ISA. I got off the phone, still felt violated, told my mum and then my partner who both got mad for me. I've decided to make a complaint. It might sound trivial but when you have cancer, don't you feel bad enough ?  Do you need to go to a bank and be made to feel worse ?  If that information was crucial and he couldn't proceed further without including that information, then why not tell me at the outset ? Anyway, sometimes it can feel as though a) you bought this dreaded disease down on yourself and b) that you're no longer a normal person. Just someone who has cancer and might not be long for this world.

A Very Cool Looking Afro (Wig)

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Are Shaved Heads Sexy On Black Women ?

I think we might we have found the answer in this photograph. This girl rocks ! Wonder if I could pull off such a bold look...

Are Shaved Heads Sexy ???

While I contemplate how I might look wearing a wig, I start to think about the other alternative - showing off my baldness with pride. Right now my scalp still has a few tufts of hair on it and if I want to make it into a viable hairstyle, i'll have to shave it down even more. I shaved it off last year when it started to fall out in patches. Since then it looks as if it might even be growing back in places, but is still quite patchy and uneven. I know that I'm fortunate. There are lots of black women, both ordinary and in the public eye who have shaved heads. I might not look out of place if I walked down the street with a freshly shorn head. But I guess there's a difference between shaved head and bald head - and I'm not quite sure that I can pull the latter off so well. Anyway, I've been surfing the net for a bit of inspiration...

Clever Consulting

Well I saw the thoracic consultant surgeon today. I wore my red headwrap which wasn't quite warm enough for the icy cold weather and it kept riding up above my ears which made me wish that I was perhaps wearing something a bit more sturdy on my head, but it was okay. I felt much more tired on the way there than I expected, but it was good to be out of the house for a change. The consultant I saw is Belgian with a very german-sounding accent. His voice reminded me of watching old black-and-white 50s spy films and this image kept distracting me from what he had to say. The upshot of it is that he can do the operation which would involve whipping out my sternum and replacing it with a mix of goretex and some other material. The operation would take 4 hours, they'd also take out my mammary lymph nodes and a tiny piece of lung. I will feel exactly the way that I do now and if I were his wife, he would advise me to have this procedure done, as we're still at a curative point.

For Real.

I tried not to recoil in horror as he went through the process. Part of me wanted to run away from the room (a feeling that I always get when I'm freaked out - I'm obviously a flight, not fight kind of gal...) and the other part of me just wanted to burst into tears. But something inside me told me not to. This guy was a thoracic surgeon for a good reason. He spoke with an icy kind of precision. No time for emotions. Definitely no time for tears. But I found his coldness refreshingly reassuring. This is not the kind of man who would panic in the operating theatre. Or suffer from shaky hands. In the end, the meeting turned out to be a positive one, and I left his consulting room feeling elated. To celebrate, I'd wanted to pay a visit to the House of Fraser to check out some possible wigs and maybe get my face painted by one of the Mac or Bobbi Brown girls. Unfortunately I was feeling too weak, tired and hungry by the time I emerged from the hospital. I ended up just skipping back home to eat some of my mother's divine chicken soup.

Doctor, Doctor

Today I have an appointment to see a chest/thoracic surgeon. Because I have a tumour that is located in the chest wall and part of the sternum and because of my age, my doctor thinks that I might be a candidate for surgery. She has spoken to two surgeons who apparently have both uhmmed and ahhhed. I guess they're thinking that as it would be a big operation, what's the point going to all this trouble only to have it reoccur again later ? I'm of the 'get rid of it completely' opinion but then again, I know that I'm only a layman.

I'm thinking about how to 'wear' my hair to the appointment. I have a headwrap which I normally wrap into a kind of rosette shape at the back which makes it look quite pretty. It makes me look less like a cancer patient and more perhaps like someone who's having a bad hair day. The good thing about being black and having to wear headwraps is that no-one really bats an eyelid when I go out. So many black women wrap their heads for reasons ranging from religious, cultural or just lifestyle ones. It's certainly one less anxiety to have to deal with.

I've ordered this book through Amazon. It's written by an art director who works at the New York Times and shows headwraps from around the world. I'm really interested in finding out about new ways of wrapping the head and hope that it will give me a bit of inspiration...

I'm still feeling a little weak from the chemo but I reckon a good dose of London smog will probably wake me up a bit. Am looking forward to connecting with the outside world again...

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Curly Wurly...

So here's the wig that my friend R purchased for me. £14.99 from Pak's in Finsbury Park. It isn't quite what I was thinking of when I began my search and is way too corkscrew and silky looking to ever pass for real afro hair but R assures me that most of the amateur stylists that she watches on You Tube (like this one) start off with a very european-looking wig and end up with something that wouldn't look out of place on Macy Gray's head.

I trust her judgement and am looking forward to picking it up at the weekend. I have no idea whether it will fit or not since all wigs seem to come in one size only. It seems a bit strange that I haven't been able to find a wig specialist who knows about afro hair. Last week I was all set to pay Selfridges a visit after reading that they had a wig department. Since M, another friend of mine has very kindly donated £40 to help me get a decent quality wig, I thought it would make sense to try one of the most high profile department stores for this. But when I put in a call beforehand, they told me that their wigs were mainly for old people and that they definitely had no afro versions. Another sales assistant then grabbed the phone and told me to try Shepherd's Bush Market. But to be honest, she may as well have said go to Timbuktu. I just don't have the energy to trek across London right now. Anyway, I'm glad I've got something. It isn't right but it's something to bring along to the Trevor Sorbie session next week.