Monday, 31 October 2011

5 Things to do for a Cancer Patient...

Somewhere back in time I promised to write an antidote to my semi-rant about things not to say to a cancer patient. Well, that time has come. I wanted to write about the things that you should say to someone with cancer but after thinking about it, I realised that I'm not really a 'should of' kind of person. By this, I mean that something doesn't suddenly happen when you get diagnosed with the big C. You don't suddenly turn into the same kind of person as Reg sitting opposite you who was diagnosed with bowel cancer last month. Maybe Reg really likes it when people give him a hug every time they see him and ask him how he's feeling. This doesn't mean that I will. To state the bleeding obvious as usual... my point is that we're all different. And just because I've been diagnosed with cancer, it doesn't mean that I've suddenly become all homogenous. So, following on from this logic, I'm thinking that instead of telling you what to say perhaps I could just suggest how to act, based on how other people have acted towards me. To all my fellow cancer buddies who read these suggestions and disagree, please feel free to contradict me. In my pre-cancer life I loved a heated debate. Four months of hardcore chemo has kind of robbed me of that vital energy needed to disagree and then construct an even better argument in response, but I'm still the same 'ole cantankerous me underneath it all. So, are you ready ?

Five Things To Do For a Cancer Patient 

Offer Specific Help  
Are you an expert cook, love to drive or a brilliant cake maker ?  Do you have a special knowledge about nutrition, masage or reiki ? Can you knit, sew or make fabulous home-made cards ? Y'see, to date, I've had a cake especially made for me by someone I never knew could bake, a compilation of chill-out music put together for me by a friend who loves music, a couple of wigs bought for me by friends who love grooming, some software uploaded onto my computer by a friend who's a computer geek, jewellery made for me by someone who does it as a hobby and i've been referred to an expert acupuncturist by an osteopath friend. All of this from peeps with special talents or knowledge that I knew nothing about. As anyone will tell you who's ever had a really delicious meal cooked for them, there's really nothing better than receiving something that's been made or created especially with you in mind. Nothing. No amount of cash or lottery wins can ever trump this. If there is a better way to say 'I really care about you', please let me know what I've been missing. 

The key is to think about what you do really well. Then do it for the person that you care about. And it doesn't have to be a craft. Maybe you love hanging out with kids. Or are happy to do a bit of cleaning. When you have cancer, the last thing you really want to do is ask someone for help. Why ? Well, for most of us our self-esteem is already kind of low. We've been told that we've got this horrible disease that no-one else wants and we have no idea how the hell we got it. We just know that everyone else looks healthy and we're not. We blame ourselves for all those burgers and fries that we gobbled down in our teenage years. We wish that we'd eaten less dairy products. We wondered whether we should have eaten more veg and spent less time vegging out on the sofa. We're also usually experiencing too much trauma to think about whether you might be better emptying the bins or picking up some shopping. In short, we're not in control even if we look as though we might be. So do something and don't worry whether the person doesn't appreciate it at first. In time they will. 

Act Normally  
I know it's hard. One day you had a friend who did all the things that you did, the next you're sitting next to a person who's telling you that they've been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. All kinds of stuff is going through your head - like maybe it could happen to you one day. As the evolutionary psychologists keep reminding us, we may have abandoned the savannahs for cosy nights in front of the tv but you just can't take the homo erectus out of the human. So when we're faced with a threat what do we do ? Yep, it's flight or fight time. Well sadly they'll always be some folks who'll just take the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat. The experience is just too close to home and way too frightening and they'd rather keep a safe distance with the justification that really they don't what to say or do. But for others with a bit more balls and common sense, your friend with the tumour might just want a bit of your humour and to be reminded that she existed as a person long before her journey into Cancerland. 

Tell her that you're thinking of her 
I know that this isn't everyone's cup of tea but to be honest, I love hearing these words. Even if it's just a short text, or an e-mail sent in a hurry. It always makes me feel much less alone and much more connected to the person who sent it, even if they are thousands of miles from me. I once received an e-mail from a friend who was sitting on a train on the way to Rome. He told me that he just wanted to let me know that he was thinking of me. At the time I was lying on my sofa, tired and achy from my cocktail of chemo and herceptin. It opened up the space for me to tell him how I was feeling and made feel less isolated. For me, it was important to know that people cared. And yes, I know that my partner and my mum and my sisters and my dad and a handful of good friends and family members also really care but to hear it is just, something else. And more importantly, it made me think about them too.

To her rants about doctors, nurses, hospitals, veins, cold caps, chemo and radiotherapy. Listen to how terrible she felt by the time she got off the train. Listen to how her tastebuds have changed, how she can't move her arm properly, how she's thinking of seeing a homeopath, how she's just read a book about healing. Listen while she laughs about what one of the other patients said to her - even if it's boring and you feel tired and uncomfortable and your mind begins to wander. Listen. Because when you're gone she'll be alone with her thoughts and her fears and her uncertainty. And they'll be no-one there to distract her then, or to laugh at her jokes or to sympathise. So just listen. 

Make it about them.
I live in a big, sprawling, anonymous city called London and I think that this sometimes makes folks a little bit, how shall I say, self-absorbed. So for this, I'll forgive them. I'll forgive the friend who rang me up to tell me about his own problems; perhaps in doing so he thought that it might help me to forget about my own. I forgive the friend who called me to blame me about something that had happened in the past. Because really I know that deep down the attack was about her own guilty feelings, not mine. I'll even forgive the friend who never replied to my text when I asked her for a hospital visit on a particularly lonely day, and made sure that she waited until the evening when I was too groggy and tired to receive guests to ask if she should come. I know that this is sounding like I only know a bunch of selfish arseholes, and if I just read this, I'd assume the same thing too. But if I told you that these very same people sent me cards and gifts on a regular basis, checked in regularly to see how I was, turned up with fruit and presents and spent the day or evening chatting and making me laugh, you'd feel confused. The point is that nothing is so simple. We're all too damn complex. And like cancer cells, unfortunately, there really is no black and white. Kind people sometimes say stupid things, intelligent ones act selfishly, caring ones run away. We're not so in control of our emotions as we'd like to think. But if you can't help yourself, if you just don't have the coping skills and have no idea what to do or say next, just focus on the person. Don't make it about you. Just imagine what that person might be feeling and go with it. Don't feel guilty, don't feel pity, just let them lead you this time. 

So there you have it. Yet another top five. Anyone care to expand on this ?

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Better Late Than Never

Ok, I have a confession to make. I feel deeply ashamed. After all the promises that I made in my last post about the wealth of blogging that I'd be doing to celebrate (celebrate?) breast cancer awareness month, I feel embarrassed that it's taken me exactly 20 days to write a follow-up. Why the delay ? Well, what with the cooking, the cleaning (and now that he's getting bigger, stronger and faster) the wrestling of Baby A, I'm currently experiencing a bout of baby-related fatigue. If you ever feel the need to test your levels of endurance and stamina after having completed four months of chemo and undergone a major operation, forget about running marathons, just have a baby instead. Add to the mix a leaky bathroom ceiling which turned into a full-on re-plastering project and a car crash (luckily a minor one) which left me with a case of whiplash and a dodgy back; you'll understand why it's taken me so long to get back to you.

I still found time to see the new SJP rom-com about a mother who juggles motherhood with her career and came away thinking, y'know what ? I still don't know how she does it, really I don't. 'Her' meaning those power-dressing, power-hungry women who manage to hold down a super-exec job while starting up a multi-million pound company from their bedrooms while also juggling three children and keeping their equally power-driven husbands happy. Who are these aliens who do such a great job in making the rest of us feel so inadequate ? And what exactly do they run on ? Is it 100% pure distilled vodka or better still, daily shots of Jamaican Wray and Nephew overproof rum (now that would be something worth trying...). I would love to know the answer. On a postcard alien women. On a postcard please...

But, at least I can console myself that I have one up on them. A super-exec I am definitely not. But at least I can proudly say that not only am I currently juggling a teething toddler, a flat with a crumbling bathroom wall (long, long story best left untold) and an imminent return to work after a two year break,  I also have metastatic breast cancer and can consider my attendance to all those scans, surgeries and visits to the chemo lounge as being the equivalent of holding down a full-time job. Which means that I surely should be up there with the best of them ?  But anyways, let's get to the real reason why I'm blogging today, which is not to have a moan about never having enough hours in the day as a new mum. There are truly enough mummy blogs out there which cover this overtired (excuse the pun) theme in a much more articulate way than I ever could. Let's talk about Ladies.

My long overdue post was going to high five a bevy of inspirational phenomenal women who have in their own small way, made a significant contribution to the understanding and awareness of breast cancer. Since we only have one day until the end of this month and therefore, until the end of breast cancer awareness month, I'm going to have to pretty much condense my high fives into a list of hasty shout outs instead. So here goes...
Set up nine years ago by Marina Raime, a young mixed-race woman who was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, this is an excellent and much needed resource for black and minority ethnic women. Marina spends most of her time campaigning and educating black women about triple negative breast cancer and how to spot early signs of breast cancer.
The brainchild of the very lovely and inspirational Kris Hallenga who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at the tender and unbelievably young age of 23, this funky site is aimed at the 18-30 market and campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer among young people. Coppafeel travels the country popping up at places as diverse as music festivals and tube stations using gimmicks and eye-catching PR stunts to attract publicity and raise awareness.
I should have a blog roll or list or top ten or whatever you call it. Y'know, a list of great fellow blogs. Because there are surely so many of you guys out there writing who never cease to motivate me or make me laugh or better still, educate me about what I should be reading or watching to retain some kind of sanity while dealing with this shitty disease. But I only have time to high five one today and so it's going to be Nicole of myfabulous-boobies. There are few black and minority voices out there in the breast cancer arena and even fewer of us blogging. So it's always encouraging to drop in on her thirty-something world of dating, dealing with her diagnosis and finding love after breast cancer. Always amusing, always heartfelt. Great writing.

So there you have it. I could go on. I should go on but it's late and I have at least two more blog posts to write before my deadline runs out and I hit the first of November and this website turns into a pumpkin (a what ? sorry folks, wrong story - that's how tired I am). See you in the morning...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Pink is the New Black...

Well, it's about that time again. We may not have had the long, lazy days of summer that our Mediterranean friends take for granted each year, but with autumn approaching, I vote that September's colour of choice should be brown. Brown is the colour of crisp, changing leaves and end-of-summer harvests. Brown is the colour of jacket potatoes and hot buttered muffins. Brown is the colour of knee-high boots, thick, chunky jumpers and all things warm and autumnal. But if brown is the colour for September, then what should be the colour for October ?  

Why, it's pink of course. 

Pink ? 

Surely, I hear you ask, with the summer season fading fast we should be getting into darker, more austere tones, not moving on to bubble gum shades of pretty or even prissy pink ?  But of course, for those of us who have been riding that train into Cancerland for far too many years, we know what October brings forth. For October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. And this is the month when you'll find an abundance of this sugar-coated colouring.

Now I have to admit something. I actually love the colour pink. Really I do. I am currently the proud owner of a pair of pink court shoes, I have pink t-shirts, even once bought a pink corduroy skirt and I can even recall being given a pink 'tag' belt by my partner many moons ago - such is my love for this effervescent, saccharine, pop art colour. For someone who has spent most of her life living in jeans and trainers, it might seem strange that I would feel so at home in a shade of colour more favoured by Barbie. But I do.

I guess I like the colour pink because it's bright, optimistic, it cheers me up on a wintry day and it goes well with the darker shades that I tend to wear all year round. It also looks really, really good against dark skin (as Ms Jourdan Dunn is illustrating so well above).

So I'm not too bothered about the colour of the branding, as long as the message is strong. Although I know that many of my metastatic blogger mates would disagree. Some of you out there in blogsville feel that images of smiley, pretty women wearing pink t-shirts and brandishing pink ribbons distracts us from the true reality of breast cancer. Simply - that it's a nasty, nasty disease that kills women. And I can see their point. Because simply put, it does. But the problem is more complex. The eternal dilemma for those who work in the media, is how to raise awareness and keep the advertisers happy while producing images that are shall we say, easy on the eye ? They assume that no-one really cares about the over 60s getting breast cancer (even though this group is the most at risk from this disease) because I guess they assume that it's no big surprise if they do. And they also assume that no-one really wants to see gruesome pictures of ulcerated breasts or emaciated cancer patients on chemo - especially not their advertisers. So, because pretty pictures of women are often used to sell everything from chocolate to cars, it is not surprising that interviews with slim, white, attractive, young breast cancer survivors tend to fill the pages of the glossy women's magazines. And all the better if they are career women who enjoy a middle-class lifestyle because these are precisely the women that the advertisers want to target.  Trust me on this one, I know. I've worked in this business for over 15 years. 

But the real problem with this stereotyping is the perception that it gives to other women who don't fall into this category. I have heard countless black women with breast cancer tell me that before their diagnosis, they always assumed that breast cancer was a 'white woman's disease'. In certain parts of the developing world, breast cancer is seen as the 'rich, white woman's cancer'. It is seen as a disease of affluence. But when we look at the statistics, it seems that we women of colour might be the ones who are most at risk from this distorted perception. In reality, although black women tend to be diagnosed less than white women, we tend to be diagnosed at an earlier age, have more aggressive cancers and are diagnosed when the cancer is at a more advanced stage, making treatment more difficult. Women of West African origin also tend to be diagnosed with what is called triple negative breast cancer. This is breast cancer that doesn't have oestrogen, progesterone or her2 receptors. The only treatment that can be given is chemotherapy. And this naturally limits the number of options they have for subsequent treatments, should they need it. For more information about this, this article is a good starting point.

Now I know that this month is important. It's important because it encourages women to examine their breasts. It informs people to look out for warning signs and symptoms, and it attempts to remove the stigma of breast cancer. But as a marketing brand, it surely needs re-working. And fast, before more women die through ignorance or complacency. So what will my contribution be to this Breast Cancer Awareness month ? What can I do to make a difference ?

Well, I write this blog because it helps me to process what I'm currently going through. And by doing this, I'm hopefully raising awareness to all different kinds of women too. But I don't fundraise and I'm not sure how much I really make a difference to anyone's day-to-day life. But what I've noticed while I've been immersed in cyberspace is that there are lots of fabulous, fantastic women who do make a difference. They put action before thought. They inspire me to get out of my self-absorbed head and write about stuff that might actually inform people. So for Breast Cancer Awareness Month... I'll be mostly flagging up these phenomenal women, looking more at the differences in breast cancer in black and white women, looking at how differently primary and metastatic breast cancer are viewed by public and press and listing the things to say to a cancer patient that might actually help rather than hinder them (thanks Paula for the great idea !).

But firstly, I'd like to give a high five to phenomenal woman, Julia Fikse for her website, Save The Tatas. I only recently discovered this site and subsequently had a series of e-conversations with Julia about race and cancer. What I like about this site is that it's a non-profit making organisation which uses money raised through donations and the sales of its products to fund much needed independent scientific research on cancer - research that one day might help us all to overcome this disease. 50% of their profits over the last six years have been used in this way. For Breast Cancer Awareness month, Julia is kindly giving away this t-shirt

(especially hand-picked by moi) to one lucky person. All you have to do is follow my blog and tell me how you'd rebrand Breast Cancer Awareness Month to include all women - regardless of colour, creed or age.  I'm looking forward to hearing your ideas...