And time goes by

I thought I’d more or less passed all my post breast cancer diagnosis- and treatment-related milestones. But then a few days ago I found myself having to put on a visor halfway through a game of tennis. It was a beautiful sunny morning but it wasn’t because of the sun. It was to stop my hair getting in my eyes.

I hadn’t had to do that since starting chemo in summer 2015. Don’t ask me how I managed it, but I kept playing tennis more or less all the way through chemo (Tennis II). I had eight sessions over 16 weeks. I lost my hair (Learning to live with a wig). I played with a wig on but of course it never grew so my fringe never got in the way.

I finished chemo at the end of November 2015. My hair started to grow back and I stopped wearing my wig just three months later, towards the end of February 2016 (In the end, the wig ditched me). It was very, very short at the time. Now, 16 months on from my last chemo session, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had it cut. Given my experience on the court yesterday, it needs cutting again!

Summer 2015, though? That’s almost two years ago. I finished all the “big” treatments for my breast cancer  – chemo, mastectomy, radiotherapy – over 14 months ago and I still have thoughts every day about whether my cancer will come back. I find it hard to believe that anyone who’s had any kind of cancer that can come back doesn’t. If they exist, I want to know their secret.

But it’s ok. Thinking about something it is not the same as worrying about it. I don’t think you can stop a thought coming into your head. You can, however, decide what to do with that thought. You can dwell on it and let it worry you or you can acknowledge it, process it and send it packing if it’s not helpful. I now regularly do the latter, but it’s taken me a long time to get to this position of strength.

Time does indeed go on. I look back over the half dozen posts I wrote about recurrence last year in the months after my hospital-based treatment ended. I was clearly terrified and was convinced it was only a matter of time before my cancer came back and finished me off. That might still happen, of course. Indeed if I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that I still do expect it to come back at some point. But while I do still think about, I don’t worry about it, at least not in the almost all-consuming, anxiety-filled way I did then.

It’s still hard sometimes. You’ll have been fine for ages then there’ll be a “trigger” of some sort and you’ll be blindsided by a dark thought or a wave of melancholy that seemingly came from nowhere. When that happens, you have to just go with it and remind yourself that it’ll pass and that what you went through was really traumatic so it’s fine still to have big thoughts about it all.

With every little ache or pain I get, my first thought is still that it’s a late side-effect of the various treatments I had, a side-effect of ongoing treatment… or that my cancer’s come back and spread to wherever the pain happens to be. But while you can’t time or measure thoughts, I’m pretty sure these particular ones don’t last longer than a millisecond. If an ache or pain persists, well that’s a different matter; you have to get it checked. When someone suggests booking something for any length of time in advance, my first thought is still whether I’ll continue to be “cancer free” by then. That’s a big improvement on a year ago, though, when my first thought was not whether it would have come back by the time whatever we were planning came round but that it would almost certainly have come back by then. These days, as with the aches and pains, I force myself very quickly to move on and to focus instead on looking forward to whatever it is I’ve just booked. Life is good.

If my cancer comes back, it comes back. John Hurt, the great British actor who died of pancreatic cancer earlier this year, said: “We’re all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly.” We might as well make the most of it while we’re here. So here’s to life and to hair getting in our eyes.

This post is dedicated to the lovely Julie, my friend and tennis opponent from the other day who asked me how I was and in doing so inspired this post.

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“Looking relaxed, happy and hairy”

I never thought I’d take being called hairy as a compliment, but when I posted a photo of myself on Facebook recently and a friend* commented that I was looking “relaxed, happy and hairy”, I had to smile. It’s nearly seven months since I finished the breast cancer chemotherapy treatment that rendered me bald (The great Sugar Loaf uncovering) and now I just look like another greying, short-haired, middle-aged woman.

I’ve already had one haircut and I’m close to needing another. The chemo has made my hair curly and everyone says it looks nice and thick. It really isn’t, though. In fact, the hormone therapy I’m taking causes your hair to thin, so that’s another delight to look forward to.

So am I more dark than grey or more grey than dark? I don’t care either way, but it seems the answer varies depending on who’s doing the looking. I come in after getting the haircut and younger son Finlay looks at me and says “It’s quite dark, isn’t it.” Five minutes later husband Andy appears and, subtle as ever, says “God, it’s really grey!” Go figure.

I still haven’t used a comb or brush. I towel it dry, add some ridiculously expensive “product” and off I go. I love not dying or colouring it.

TMadridhe photo you see here is the one I posted on Facebook. It’s from two weeks ago, in Madrid, and I’m standing outside the flat I lived in when I first went to live there almost 33 years ago. I lived in Madrid for three years in all. I met Andy there. I still have good friends there. I love the place. Andy and I were there a couple of weeks ago for a bit of a treat (If planning a holiday is a clear sign of recovery…). In all the times I’ve been back since living there in the 1980s, I’ve never felt the urge to go and take a look at where I used to live. This time was different, I guess because so much has changed in the past year. The door to the block of flats was open. I could have gone in. I didn’t, of course. Because you can never go back, and that applies as much to early last summer, before breast cancer came on the scene, as it does to September 1983.

Back to the hair. The other day Finlay greeted with me with “Ooh, bed head!” rather than “Morning, mum”. We’re moving on.

*Thanks, Brenda!

One’s changing relationship with one’s wig

Now that my hair has started to grow back post chemo, I can’t wait to ditch my wig.

Since my operation in December I’ve been wearing the wig less and less and now I’m looking forward to the day when, instead of transferring it from my head on to the mannequin’s head where it rests when I’m not wearing it, I assign it to the back of a drawer. It’ll likely be another couple of months, though, before that actually happens.

The wig took some getting used to when I first started wearing it (Learning to live with a wig), but I soon grew to love it. It was liberating. I could throw it on, give it a quick brush and I’d be ready to leave the house. Nobody – other than those I’d told – would know I had cancer. With a wig, I could pretend things were normal. I felt I was in control.

Now, nearly eight months after my diagnosis, seven months after my first chemo session and more than two months after my last, I’m getting a little tired of pretending. More than that, I no longer feel I need to pretend. I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that things are not normal. My breast cancer is now part of who I am and, rather than embrace the wig, I’m starting actively to dislike it. If I’ve been wearing it out – and I do that less and less – I whip it off as soon as I get back home.

My operation on 19 December was the turning point. I could hardly move for three days after the op and disguising my bald head was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t care who saw me bald – I had more important things to think about (Feeling a million times better than this morning, but what a struggle) – and I didn’t wear the wig for the five days I was in the hospital. I never wore the wig at home anyway, except when people visited, so when I came back from hospital and was essentially housebound for a couple of weeks, before I knew it three weeks had gone by with me having worn it only a couple of times. After that it seemed strange putting it on at all.

Since the death of my dad* almost four weeks ago (In Glasgow again, but for the saddest of reasons), I’ve spent a lot of time indoors in Glasgow in the company of close relatives. I didn’t really wear the wig much there either. And those times I did wear it, it inevitably ended up being passed around for all and sundry to try on!

Back home in south London, it used to be that if someone came to visit or knocked at the door, I’d rush to put the wig on. Now I just throw on a beanie hat… or if one isn’t handy, I don’t bother. The window cleaner, delivery men, the electricity meter reader… they’ve all seen me bald, and of course haven’t batted an eyelid. And if I go out for short periods locally – driving the boys to school, popping to the shops, going for a walk on the common or going round to a friend’s house – I just pop on a hat and go. It’s only when I go out for more prolonged periods that I wear the wig.

At this stage, I have a layer of hair on my head that’s around a quarter of an inch long. It looks ok, if you like the Sinead O’Connor look. It’s very, very soft, like a baby’s hair. I’ve been told it’ll soon go fuzzy or wiry and at that point you get it cut and it then grows in thicker. It’s VERY grey, although there’s also some near black in there as well. I don’t remember my hair being that dark. That said, I’d been colouring and/or highlighting it for so long that I’ve forgotten what colour it was originally. My eyelashes and eyebrows have also grown back, the latter really thickly.

When I’ve seen women in the past with hair like mine, I’ve always thought “Oh, there’s someone with cancer”. I now realise it’s more accurate to think that it’s someone who’s had, rather than got, cancer. By the time your hair’s that length, you’re through the chemo and probably also most of the rest of your treatment.

I’ll spend the next few weeks – or perhaps months depending on how it goes – deciding on such things as how to have my new hair styled and whether to have it coloured or leave it grey.

IMG-20160202-WA0009There are other questions to consider, too. What do you do when you go back to work? It could be a bit embarrassing to go from wearing a wig one day to sporting your original hair the next. And what if the wig really is nicer than your own hair?!

I still have plenty of time to think about it all. In the meantime, my niece Shereen has come up with a novel, ultra-Glaswegian alternative to the wig. Very becoming, don’t you think?

*I have a story about my dad and the wig, from my visit to Glasgow last November (I love Glasgow, but it’s not Geneva). I’d got up one morning and it simply did not occur to me to put on the wig or any other head covering. I was happily having breakfast with my mum and dad in the flat they’d been living in for less than a year when I realised this was the first time they’d seen me bald. Bless them, they hadn’t said a word. I apologised for not warning them in advance and explained that I was used to going bareheaded at home, to which my dad replied: “That’s nice, because it means you must feel at home here too.” He was right, of course.