Thursday, 26 January 2012

G is for Gratitude...

After a year of private healthcare which often involved experiencing the kind of hospital cuisine that NHS patients can only dream of,  I seem to have fallen back to earth with an abrupt bump. My insurers have decided not to fund the current drugs that I'm on, namely capecitabine and lapatinib - because they know that there's the risk that I'll be on them for the long term. I'm hoping that this will certainly be the case and that this current chemo and targeted therapy combi will keep those pesky cancer cells at bay for a while. I'm not keen to use up the arsenal of drugs too quickly, especially since I know that there isn't exactly a bottomless pit available when it comes to treatments for metastatic cancer. So with this knowledge at the forefront of my mind, I'm still juicing with a passion. I'm still taking the chinese herbal drugs, the aspirin and the turmeric. Who knows what such an eclectic cocktail of herbs and spices is actually doing to my insides ? Still no matter, let's call it an insurance policy that I hope I'll never have to call on. Regarding the hardcore drugs that my insurers won't fund, in this instance I've been lucky. I have the good old NHS to fall back on and will switch to this beloved, often maligned national institution once my current prescription ends.

But the other day I had to go to Guy's to sign some consent papers and I walked into what I can only describe as the busy mayhem of an early morning NHS clinic. The waiting room, which felt like one large refectory, had none of the complimentary teas and coffees on display which I had previously took for granted in the world of corporate waiting lounges. Neither did it have the glossy escapism magazines that often seduced me. Instead I saw a ticket dispenser where patients took numbered bits of paper as if they were taking part in a lottery. I saw more cancer patients in one room than I'd probably ever seen in my lifetime. Young, old, white, black, asian, fat, thin, short, bald, hirsute, male and female: there was an example to fit every demographic of the current population of Great Britain. I still find it strange that the mention of the word 'cancer' seems to make so many people uncomfortable - especially when (going by the numbers of patients in the waiting room) way too many of us seem to be afflicted with this disease.

But I waited and watched and watched and waited and by the time I was called in to see my doctor (the very same that I saw as a private patient) I began to feel much more grateful. Grateful that I live in a country where I can move so seamlessly between private and public care. Grateful that I live in a country where we don't yet have a two-tiered health system - where I can see the very same consultant oncologist on the NHS that I saw as a private patient. Grateful that regardless of class, creed or colour, the NHS offers free healthcare to all. Sitting in that waiting room watching a man with a wooden cane shuffle uneasily forward to speak to the receptionist, I began to feel a touch of guilt. Because what I've always felt when I walk into a private hospital and I use the designer creams and drink the posh herbal teas, is the feeling that this 'luxury' should be available to everyone. When you've been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, usually after having grafted your way through life and by dutifully paying your taxes and national insurance payments in the process, being pampered with posh grub and perfumed creams should be a given, not a privilege for the select few. Just as I was mulling over this communist manifesto in my head and starting to feel more and more like the main man himself, I was called in to see my doctor. We talked about the side-effects of the drugs, the fact that my white blood cell count is a bit on the low side at the moment and the hope that we both have that this disease will become a chronic illness that I can live with rather than one that will finish me off. Regardless of how much I like my doctor and the fact that we can start off talking about cancer and end up gossiping about fashion and childcare and the frustration of family members (namely partners and over-protective mothers), I always realise that nothing brings me down to earth more abruptly then a trip to see my oncologist. And of course, this is what you would expect. Because it doesn't matter how much make-up I'm wearing, or how healthy I might look or just how pink the shoes that I chose to wear might be, when I'm sitting among the masses in an oncology clinic looking at the motley crue of patients waiting to see their respective doctors, all I can think of is the obvious. I'm sitting in a waiting room with a room full of cancer patients. Cancer patients. How the hell did I get here ?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining...

I realise that with so much going on at the moment, what with the return to work after a two year hiatus, my sessions with the revolutionary new radiotherapy treatment that is called Cyberknife, and last but definitely not least, the coming-of-age of my no longer baby boy's second birthday, I've been neglecting that oh-so-important aspect of myself, that being the ever changing appearance of my hair.

My hair. Could there be less of a reason to write a cancer blog ? While I currently still grapple with the next phase of my new normal which involves taking a mammoth supply of 17 tablets a day (yep, you heard me. 17 !),  I realise that perhaps moments spent wondering about the condition of my follicles might not be the most enlightened way to spend my time. I have to shamelessly admit that I take great pleasure in getting caught out on tube, train or bus at different times of the day with said pills in hand. Nothing delights me more than to watch my fellow previously-stony-faced fellow commuters watch in amazement as I guzzle down 5 hefty tablets in quick-fire succession. I can't imagine what they think they might be for. Is it cold turkey, a heroin substitute or just a remedy for a mild form of heartburn ? I find it wholly entertaining just observing their confused expressions.

But as you know, I returned back to work recently and as we all know, human beings are very visual creatures. Especially the females among us. No matter that I've returned back to work after having had my cleavage split into two, no matter that I've spent the last year trying to recover from a cocktail of poisons, no matter that I'm still in treatment. What is the main thing that folk focus on ?  My hair, dear reader. My hair. I thought that I might have at least been thrown that often overused phrase that awaits the cancer patient on her sojourn back to the real world;  the 'My, don't you look well !' utterance. But the reality was, I didn't. I have dark shadows under my eyes, still nearly there eyebrows and hands that look as though they had spent the last month washing crude oil off North Sea seagulls. But being the sweeties that they are, they overlooked these minor details. So after a mixture of welcome back greetings ranging from barely there hellos (from peeps who probably felt too uncomfortable to say little else) to humungus full-on bear hugs (which I found soooo sweet that I felt myself close to tears on way too many occasions), I can proudly report that on no fewer than three occasions, I received not just great compliments about my new haircut, but repeated ones (and boy, there is nothing like a compliment uttered not once, but twice by the same person for you to realise that for just once in your life, you might have got one thing right that day). First up was my editor who practically exclaimed when she saw me to tell me how much she was loving the new hairstyle. A great start considering that I was only in for that morning (something called being on a phased return) and was feeling very conscious about being the new 'part-timer' in the office. The next, and I consider this to be my biggest coup of all - the resident fashion stylist greets me with a massive hug and tells me how much she's loving that silver streak out front. When I tell her that none of it was intentional, she just keeps grinning while still admiring my hair - the way fashion folk do when they see something that they think is 'on trend' and are just happy to be the first ones to witness it. And then of course there's the writer who I've renamed the 'cancer journalist', since in the time that I've been away, every feature that I've read about cancer since my diagnosis has been penned by him. He loves my hair too. Grreat ! Perhaps not so great that I've spent in excess of £100 on wigs trying to look like my former self. But it seems as if my former self was so off-trend I'm surprised I didn't get marched home with my P45 in hand.

So there you have it. A new looking me sans afro has emerged post-chemo to eclipse the old me. The greatest thing about being back, bar the reassuringly formulaic canteen grub, is not the frothy cappuccinos (even though I missed them terribly while I was away) but the frothy chat. And there's nothing like working on a glossy magazine to remind you that beyond the diagnosis of cancer, beyond the chemo, there are a whole lot of folk out there who take the business of looking good very seriously indeed. And at times like this, I absolutely love them for it.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Happy New Year !

It seems fitting that I should decide to post just in time to wish you all a happy new year.

After a two week break from blogging to make space for a myriad of scans, doc consultations, last minute present buying and a few journeys up and down on the motorway to see family and friends, my latest new year's resolution almost definitely includes a visit to this address more often. And boy, what a rollercoaster of a year it has been ! From being diagnosed with metastatic cancer, to the race for blood tests and scans before starting a pretty caustic combination of chemo and targeted therapy, then straight into major, major surgery and then some complications involving a plastic bag, a leaky wound and a 3am trip to A & E, and then... not content that this should be more than enough for any woman to experience, let alone one who has just become a mother of a baby who spent the first month of his life fighting for breath in a neo-natal unit.... I get diagnosed with cancer again ! Just five months after the operation. I think it was Woody Allen who coined that famous saying... 'Want to make God laugh ? tell him about your plans' and well, in my case, he surely must have been splitting his sides.

But I digress. Since self-pity is not one of my strong points and an activity in which I refuse to allow myself to wallow, I'm going to focus on the good things that have already happened this year. Yes, dear reader, the good things. Because there have already been some good things this year, such as my return to work. 'Work ?' I hear you say, who enjoys going back to the grind after a two week binge fest of stuffing, turkey and copious amounts of champagne ? (well, perhaps it was more like sparkling wine this year since we're all on a recession session at the mo). Well actually, after not just a two week break, but listen up folks, A TWO YEAR one, I found myself this morning casually sauntering into an office that I waved goodbye to when I was about three stone heavier and a whole lot more hirsute. Would I have had the courage to do this if I hadn't been faced with all the challenges of last year ? Probably not. I may well have wasted much time wondering what my colleagues were really thinking of me, or whether my stand-in did a much better job while I was away. But today, I walked in, sat down, switched on my computer and calmly reclaimed a part of my life that I really had begun to think had vanished as quickly as, well part of my sternum had all those months ago.

And while I felt dog-tired after only a few hours there and also felt a touch guilty for being able to casually scroll through my backlog of e-mails while sipping on a cup of tea when I knew that only a few miles away, my partner would be at home wrestling with a tantrumy toddler, it felt good to feel like me again. My new hair, which is still a very close crop, a kind of Grace Jones look without the quiff or the attitude, brought me a whole host of compliments despite the fact that it really wasn't of my own doing. Of course, I made sure that I piled on a bit of slap before venturing out of the house, mostly to cover up the fact that the current course of oral chemo tablets have made my face and hands just a touch patchy in places. But a more interesting revelation, was just how much I'd forgotten while I'd been away. My journey from train station to workplace involved taking a few wrong exits, a trip to the wrong floor which almost found me making a beeline for the editor-in-chief's office, and a momentary panicky lapse of memory when I realised that I couldn't quite remember where the toilets were. But fortunately, despite the fact that the chemo probably didn't help matters, I'm pleased to say that my memory for such things returned pretty quickly. And the most brilliant thing to happen, beyond having had a lovely Christmas and an eventful New Year to relay to my familiar work colleagues, was just how little I thought about Cancerland for a change. And the luxury of being able to lose oneself in an activity or a conversation however small, is far more therapeutic than any spa treatment that I've ever indulged in. Of course, I know. It's only been a day. Ask me how I'll feel after a year's worth of morning commutes and office politics, and I'll tell you. But not until Jan 3rd, 2013.