Sunday, 22 May 2011

A Dynasty Gown, with no Crystals...

Well, the liver RFA procedure (I'm not sure why it isn't called an operation since you have to undergo a general anaesthetic, but anyway...) has been done. I'm now back at home after a brief spell in hospital which involved not having to cook for myself, my partner or baby A, two sky movies that I'd always wanted to see, my own bathroom and a very interesting looking kimono-style hospital gown (more about this later). If I just ignored the nurses who kept wanting to take my blood pressure, I could easily pretend to myself that I'd just snuck away for a few nights to some spa hotel in town. It was only the absence of alcohol and the complete woozy, stoned, been-knocked-down-by-a-lorry feeling that I had after coming around from the anaesthetic that firmly reminded me exactly where I was. 

I'll admit that I felt quite nervous at the prospect of being knocked out for more than an hour while some complete strangers fiddled around with my internal squidgy bits, but everyone was super nice - even when one of the medical secretaries came running in in a panic in the morning to tell me that my insurance company hadn't agreed to pay the anaesthetist. She asked me to sign a sheet of paper which stated that if they didn't pay, I would. 


I asked how much. 

£600 was the reply. 

Double Hmmm. 

By now, nothing that my insurance company does or doesn't do no longer surprises me. I half expect one day to turn up to the chemo lounge to receive my regular herceptin dose only to be told that my insurance company have found some loophole which means that they no longer have to fund it. Or maybe I'll order a tea the next time I'm there and be informed that 'refreshments' are no longer included in my policy. Given the potentially stressful nature of any operation or 'procedure', you'd think you'd be able to rest assured that the man who will be responsible for keeping you alive throughout the whole ordeal, would at least be on someone's payroll ? Thankfully a quick phone-call sorted it all out and I was free to concentrate on more pressing matters, like whether they would they be able to find a decent vein in my post-chemo arm.

To cut a long story short, the procedure went well. The needle went in fine, the anaesthetic stung like hell (as the anaesthetist predicted) but after they asked me what I'd dream about, to which I replied, 'food' (nil by mouth since the early hours was taking its toll), I floated off in an instant. In what felt like minutes later, I was awake feeling extremely hungover and dehydrated. I felt wooziness like I'd never felt before. But apart from the plasters on my stomach, you'd never have thought that I'd just had a couple of tumours cooked from the inside. While I''m here I have to 'give props' (as the kids would say) to the magnificent style gowns that you get given to wear in the operating theatre. Influenced partly by Yohji Yamamoto (very famous Japanese fashion designer for all the non-fashionistas out there), partly by Blake Carrington in Dynasty, it had a nifty cross-over neckline, low slung half-wraparound tie at the waist and lots of open pockets and slits where surgeons could get stuck in without you having to be in a state of undress. To top it all, it is made from a gorgeous cornflower blue felt fabric and when the nurses attached a piece of hosing to it, it cosily warmed you up from the inside. It felt fab and I'm sure Blake would have been envious. So fab, that I was quite reluctant to part company with it. But fortunately for me, I have another op looming on the horizon. And I'll remember to take a photograph of it next time, especially for you. 

Monday, 16 May 2011

Q is for Quality of Life...

It's official. I will be going to Madrid after all. I now have my operation dates; this week for the liver RFA and then the chest surgery will take place about three weeks after. The chest op will come later because after lots of to-ing and fro-ing and boring my poor surgeon's secretary with what-ifs, and should-is, I have decided to postpone the sternum-ectomy until I get back from Madrid. I have thought long and hard about this, really I have. Both my oncologist and surgeon think that it will make no difference if I have the surgery a week after the liver op or three weeks later. I'm still on herceptin, a drug which, according to my oncologist, is just as strong and effective as any hardcore chemo. My response to the chemotherapy has been very good, which means that if it is still circulating throughout my body (which apparently it does for about 4 - 6 weeks afterwards), then it's hopefully still kicking the cancer's butt as I write. And more importantly, I feel much better. I'm eating more, going for walks every day and starting to feel more human again. 

I've also taken the plunge and decided to turn my silver grey hairs into a vivid shade of blonde. Now that my hair's a bit longer, I figured that if I went for the peroxide, it would look intentional and not as if I'd just taken a giant leap into middle age. As it happened, the result was not so blonde as a shade of rusty orange. Luckily for me, with my hair being so short, I could shave it off and start again. Against my dark skin, I'm told that my silver/golden spikes look trendy. But apart from not having to worry about what a Spanish heatwave might do to my wig, my hairstyle is not my main concern right now.

Feeling good about delaying my operation is.

All in all I thought about what I needed right now. I came to the conclusion that a week away from Cancerland (even if it sadly won't be a one-way ticket just yet) was what both my mind and body could do with. As is often the case, the much-looked-forward-to trip could be a disaster. I could end up over-worked, over-stressed and over-tired. I might end up hating the hotel, the people and most significantly, myself for making such an indulgent decision when I should be focussing solely on my health. But, as my sister says when I tell her of my dilemma, 'go and enjoy yourself - your life can't be all about the cancer. you've got to have quality of life.'

Quality of life; that misnomer of a term;. Why do we expect the two words to go together ? I first heard this term uttered in cancer's presence when I was having surgery for my mastectomy, all those years ago. I shared a ward with a chain-smoking girl who had verbal diarrhoea. She told me, in between rushing out to get her next nicotine hit, that after her first mastectomy, her family rallied around, she ate well and she had a boyfriend. When she was diagnosed the second time around, she told no-one. Only her sister came to visit her in hospital and she spent her days smoking like a chimney. Now all she cared about, she told me, was quality of life. I remember thinking how defeatist she sounded. As if she'd already given up. For this reason, every time I hear the term, it has a negative effect on me.  

But now I'm considering it again. I think about what my quality of life has been like since I've been diagnosed. I've been a sick patient, a tired mum, an irritable partner and a frustrated daughter. I've felt the loneliness of motherhood and cancer, all in the same year. Somewhere along the line I can't really remember who I was anymore. I have a lot of fun with baby A but it's a different kind of fun to the hedonistic freedom that you experience with your friends. And with so much maternity and sick leave already taken, my career seems like a lifetime away. So I'm going to Madrid because I want to, because I can and because my gut instinct tells me that it's the right thing to do.  It's the one choice that the cancer can't dictate and while I'll be careful about how many sangrias I sup on, I'm going to damn make sure that I party hard with the Madrilenos (well for at least one night anyway...)

Just before I make my decision to go, I get cold feet and call my surgeon's secretary again. His response is all I need. He tells me that if he thought for just one second that delaying matters would jeopardise my health, he wouldn't let me go. Now we all know that doctors are not gods, but sometimes just one comment like this, can make us feel safer, more secure and protected. Suddenly I feel like the heroine in a Mills and Boon novel. Not that I'm an avid reader of these early examples of chick lit, but my mum is and she tells me that the heros are always dashing, influential and masterful. Having only met my surgeon twice, I'm not sure whether he fits the first or third description. But my daydreams are interrupted by the sound of a key in a lock followed by the urgent cries of baby A. And I'm suddenly brought back to reality.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Just brows-ing

While I'm awaiting dates for surgery,  I've decided to go all girlie for a while and talk about brows-ing. Nope, no typos here. I'm not talking about the activity that spontaneously occurs when you've got a free afternoon and you decide to hit the shops for a bit of retail therapy.

Brows-ing is the pursuit undertaken when you've noticed how non-existent your previously taken for granted average-looking eyebrows have become, which then leads you to start noticing the hirsute abundance of others'.

Now I can honestly say that when it comes to important facial features, eyebrows have never really been very high up on my one-to-ten scale. We all notice someone who has huge, expressive eyes, or better still, a smile that just seems to light up their entire face. Personally, I'm a sucker for big noses. But brows ?  Aren't they just an aesthetic addition to the human face ? Designed to make us look a little less scary to each other and therefore more willing to go forth and probably multiply ?  Apparently not. One look at my often consulted (sometimes unreliable) font of information, wikipedia, tells me that brows once upon a time performed the evolutionary function of keeping pesky insects and dirt away from our eyes. But now that we're no longer hunting wildebeest on the Savannahs, what exactly is the point of them ?

I'm guessing that most make-up artists would tell me that in modern times, they serve to beautifully frame a woman's eyes. Which is why, I suppose most of the women deemed to be the most beautiful goddesses of our time seem to have thick, lustrous ones, not the single, harsh,pencilled lines that I remember growing up with in the eighties. Now that my own have more or less vanished, I find that the addition of a wig just seems to accentuate the fact that I am have much less hair down below (wait, not that far down - well actually now that you come to mention it...).

But anyway... this is why I took the opportunity to pay a visit to my nearest Bobbi Brown make-up counter. After explaining my predicament, the girl on the counter swiftly patted on some dark-grey coloured eyeshadow, followed by a brush of something else, followed by some more powder. Her face looked tense and deep in concentration. I began to feel more like an artist's model than a regular girl who had just walked in off the street. This got me thinking about famous 'browless' women. Having an absence of eyebrows hadn't affected Mona Lisa's illustrous albeit short model career. Though granted, she was around a good few hundred years ago and I acknowledge the fact that trends have obviously moved on since then...

When she'd finished, the make-up girl showed me the finished result. She'd given me thick, generous almost jet black wedges, with not a trace of patchy hair or asymmetry in sight. My brows had never looked so healthy. My brows had never looked so scary. But so, what's new ?  By now, I'm used to 'almost' there hair. While I thanked her, she gave me a leaflet advertising their full face consultations and I left, promising to return. On the tube home I started to contemplate my new hobby - my growing pre-occupation with hair and beauty. In my pre-chemo life I'd been a life-long tomboy who'd lived in jeans and wore at most, a bit of lipstick and some eyeliner. I'd often sneer at women who seemed to live for the latest hairstyle and snarled my way through conversations about weaves, wigs and whether it was better to be born beautiful or intelligent (brains always won out every time). Now here I was getting excited over powders, brows and blushers. My bedroom is overrun with synthetic hair and before I leave the house, I always make sure that I'm wearing a full face of make-up in case I run into someone I know. What can I put my transformation down to ? a new found chemo-induced insecurity, or simply the self-absorption that comes with worrying too much about how one now looks to the outside world ?  Maybe it's a mixture of both. Whatever the reason, this much I know - my new found hobby is an expensive one.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

How To Make A Statement...

Spring is in the air and all around me seems to grow and flourish. 

Including my own hair.

One day I had a sparsely covered shiny pate, the next i have what looks like silver grey spikes emerging from my scalp. I first started going grey in my early twenties, but it was only confined to a patch and barely noticeable. Decades later, the greys multiplied and threatened to colonise my entire head. But I managed to beat them back with a dose of killer dye and continued to keep them in check with constant monitoring. Hmmm, does this sound familiar ? 

Anyway, I have for the past couple of days been braving the general public and stepping out sans wig or headwrap, after being reassured by my family and a few friends that it looked 'do-able'. Even though I was worried that you could see my scalp and that I looked so, well, grey. But as my sister put it, 'your face looks young but your hair is grey. Everyone will think that you've done it intentionally. It will look like you're making a statement.' 

Statement hair. Another deja vous. This is what my friend R called my latest afro wig due to its voluminous size. I'm not sure in my present state that I can carry off 'statement' hair. Most of the time, due to the lingering side-effects from the chemo and the present day ones from the Herceptin, I feel about ninety years old. I may have disguised this by making an effort with my make-up and wearing some brightly coloured shoes and accessories but there's no getting away from the fact that the Spring has firmly gone out of my step at the moment - even if it might still be in the air. 

I'm also reconsidering the afro wig. I gave it another outing when my sister and her husband came round. I was expecting to hear the same positive sentiments uttered by my partner, mother and friend only a few weeks ago, but (and she is not the kind of gal to mince her words), she just looked at it and said... nothing for a while. And then she whispered, 'it's huge ! You look like Chaka Khan !'

Hmmm. Usually my self-confidence is not so low that it only takes one negative response to change my entire outlook. The problem is, I agreed with her. When I wore my statement afro, it had felt huge but I was so determined to step out of my comfort zone that I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. Now here was my sister echoing my sentiments. I groaned at the thought of having to source yet another afro wig and then having to undertake the ordeal of finding someone to cut it. I just don't have the energy, even if I would currently kill for a new 'hair' style right now. Which brings me to my current state. My new silver-grey shaved head looks... interesting. Especially when it's worn with silver eyeshadow and pink shoes. Whenever I catch sight of my reflection on my travels, I think it makes me look futuristic. Of course, I'd much rather resemble Alek Wek or Amber Rose, but supermodel material I am not. Wearing a shaved head as a woman still unnerves some people. Perhaps because it seems to be giving the ultimate two finger salute to feminity. I've had some encouraging comments so far, as well as some silences. But the silver sci-fi look will have to do for now until I come up with a better idea...

The Definition of Coping

As the date for my operation approaches and the thought of major surgery starts to become more and more of a reality, I start to wonder what I should be doing to...

a) get my body prepared for the onslaught of anaesthetics and invasive surgery


b) get my mind prepared to deal with the emotional rollercoaster that I'm sure will ensue after all the surgeries have been completed.

Well, the answer to a is relatively easy. With my current diet of lashings of green tea, tons of fruit and veg, nuts, pulses and a rather challenging daily juiced concoction of broccoli sprouts and lightly steamed broccoli, if there was ever an award for culinary abstinence, I'd be a deadringer for it by now.

But the answer to b is not quite so simple. Every week during consultations with doctors or chats with friends, I get told how well I'm coping. At first I just assumed that they were mistaking my numbness over the whole thing for a kind of fearlessness that I'm not sure even exists in anyone. Then I started to consider the term, 'coping'. What does it really mean ? I always took it to mean being able to deal with what life throws at you. But now, after having had to cope with first a critically ill baby at birth and then months later being told I have cancer again, I'm not so sure. To say that someone is coping well often implies that they have a choice as to whether they choose to sink or swim. Do you collapse in a heap on the floor at the news that you're being made redundant or do you swiftly put on your coat, jump in your car and head straight to the nearest jobcentre ? If you have hungry mouths to feed, one might say that you'll be more inclined to do the latter, not because you want to, but simply out of an innate moral or parental duty, you feel as though you really have no choice. Does that make you a stronger,  more resilient person, or simply a more practical one ?

Perhaps what matters most is the packaging. For example, I'm not scared of needles but after having one too many painful jabs in rapid sucession, I admit to now feeling apprehensive every time I know I need to have an injection. But I don't like to express this. So instead of howling like a baby whenever I see the needle, I imagine myself on the most beautiful beach I've ever been to, bathing in a warm, crystalline sea. This gives the impression that I'm calmly and serenely enduring the ordeal. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't. But if on the other hand, I choose to cry, tremble and demand to be given a local anaesthetic every time I see the needle being prepared, this could work in my favour by releasing some of the stress being experienced, which in turn might help me to relax . And yet, to the outside world, I would be seen as 'coping badly' or falling apart.

Personally, I'm not sure whether I'm coping well or badly. I'm just getting on with life. I feel that I have to because I have a baby who depends on me for everything and because of this I have less time to think about my own problems. I don't complain too much about side effects and I try to keep up with the world of news and current affairs so that I can talk about something other than cancer if someone calls me. In this respect, my rational self seems to have overpowered my emotional self. And to the outside world this translates as someone who is coping well. But I still have days when I can't see bright colours anymore, only dark shades of grey. Only these are the days when I don't answer the phone.

Some of us are better at expressing ourselves emotionally, others tend to lean more to pragmatism. Neither approach is right or wrong, it's just a different way of dealing with something that we can't control. And yet an overly emotional person is often the one who is seen as 'out of control. It's an attribute invariably used to describe women and seems to go hand-in-hand with other adjectives; the words hysterical and irrational spring to mind.

I think that I'll continue with my rational self, because that's all I know and it works most of the time. I'm not sure how it looks to the outside world, but it seems to get me through scan after consultation after scan. Unless one day I decide to do a Thelma and Louise and call time on my crazy adventures in Cancerland, I will go through what I have to because my current will to survive is infinitely stronger than my will to die. And I think this is what ultimately drives us all as we navigate our way through the trials and tribulations of life.