Friday, 30 October 2009

Clothes and the Pursuit of Happiness

I don’t believe that happiness is a state that descends upon us. Nor can we achieve it through getting married, winning the lottery or eating cakes. I sporadically attempt to acquire happiness by buying new boots. Whilst I do love all my boots I have to acknowledge that they do not love me back. It is two years since I last bought boots so I feel that a fresh pair is due. I’ve got my eye on a lovely sheepskin lined pair in the Natural Shoe Store. Now it’s just a matter of drumming up the cash. I have been proud of my recent frugality but yesterday I went and blew my reserves.

Here’s how it happened. May came over for a computer lesson. Being an artist and a Shaman May has not yet felt the need to commune with modern technology. Like many people, she owns a shiny MacBook from which she sends the odd note on hotmail. To my mind that’s somewhat like buying an Aston Martin and then using it only to go to the shops on a Saturday afternoon. But I suppose there are people who do that too. Before long May was creating folders, downloading photographs and attaching them to emails. Feeling satisfied with ourselves and deserving of a reward, we scooted down to Wagamama at Kensington High Street for some yummy Yaki Soba and tasty chicken and mandarin salad.

Since we were there we popped into TK Maxx, next door to Wagamama. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in to TK Maxx but I can tell you it is a scene that Pieter Bruegel the Elder may have found worthy of study. Dazed shoppers wander amongst hundreds of rails stuffed with undifferentiated garments. Judging by the dishevelled hair dos and mad staring eyes some of those poor souls may have been in there for several weeks, maybe months. Each of them is searching for treasure, a diamond in the dross. They have heard a fable about someone who found a drop dead Yves Saint Laurent suit or a gorgeous Marc Jacobs frock in TK Maxx for £15. But that was long ago in another part of the galaxy, I can assure you. A few moments later May’s and my eyes glazed over. Our heads dropped. We started feverishly working our way through the racks of coats. Then we began to try them on. I pulled on a hideous puce number. “Not bad,” I thought to myself, “I could change the buttons.” Next I came across two rather smart grey gabardine coats by Diesel. One was a size 18, the other a size 8. I am a size 12. “The big one would work with a belt,” I told myself. I looked up and spied Meg looking confused in a checked wool coat with a balloon shaped skirt that barely covered her bum. “That coat is too short,” I advised her. “But the fabric is sooo lovely,” she crooned. “We have to get out of here,” I gasped. May nodded. We held hands and bolted for the stairs, scattering uncomprehending zombie women as we ran.

In order to recover from that traumatic episode we paid a visit to Top Shop. Inside the front door was a table displaying their latest range of lingerie by Kate Moss. I wrote recently about how, since my surgery, I am hesitant to wear underwired bras. Some people assert that underwires restrict the flow of lymph from the breast and thus may be implicated in the development of a tumour. It is my understanding that the lymph from one’s breast drains upward, into the nodes under one’s arm, rather than downward. So I’m not concerned about that. But my breast is still quite tender and I feel instinctively that I don’t want any hard, uncomfortable wires sticking into it. Right there on the table was a set of the most gorgeous underwear in delicate, dusty pink lace. And the bra was wire free. I snapped them up. To complement the new undies, I bought a zappy, deep purple mini-skirt, on sale for £20.

May continued her coat quest in Zara. I found a stylish belt made of pewtery looking beads that will make any old cardi look glamorous.

On a roll, we popped into Uniqlo. Now, I don’t know about you but I have always secretly desired a down coat. More than ever, I now hanker for clothes that are cosy and comfortable. In Uniqulo they have knee length down coats in all sorts of colours for £49.99. That has to be a bargain in anyone’s book. I tried on a shiny black one. Sleek. Then a gunmetal blue. Chic. Finally I took the plunge and donned a white one. It was like stepping into a giant cloud. “I’m having this,” I shouted in ecstasy. “Hmm,” said May, “you look like you’ve joined Abba.”

I love Cos. Their clothes are edgy yet wearable, well made in quality fabrics, yet inexpensive. But I find shopping in their Regent street shop something of a gruelling endurance test. Joy of joys, Cos has now come to Kensington High Street. Here I picked up two absolute classics that I know I will wear for years to come: a grey bias-cut t-shirt and a midnight blue Merino wool crew neck jumper.

After all that shopping I was thoroughly wiped out. I fell asleep at 9 p.m. and awoke at 9 this morning. I guess I can count it as part of my stamina increasing exercise programme

Anyway, I started writing this blogspot about happiness. Within a sentence or two it became a dissertation on clothes. I am satisfied - more than satisfied – I am elated with my new clothes. But I know that they will not make me happy. As I said, happiness cannot be bought, nor acquired nor endowed. Rather, happiness is a way of life that can be built. Over the years I have encountered various tools for building happiness. Here are some of them: gratitude lists; meditation; dancing; writing the daily ‘love’ and ‘fear’ notebook and smiling at strangers. Another well-known tool is to do a random act of kindness each day and not tell anyone about it.

The other day my doorbell rang. It was the postman. He delivered a big package of gorgeous Liz Earle beauty products. There was no note or card, no postmark nor any other sign of whom it was from. I have puzzled over it for days. Questioning my friends has drawn nothing. I can only conclude that I have been on the receiving end on one of those happiness-building acts.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

My First Tattoo

I find tattoos fascinating. I’m intrigued by the idea of submitting to pain in order to create beauty. And I’m baffled by the idea of submitting to pain in order to create some kind of hideous blue splodge or gammily scrawled acronym on one’s arm or likely as not, one’s face. And then having to live with it - forever.

Let’s face it, the good ones are beautiful and the bad ones are moronic. My friend Cindy has a skull tattooed over her entire back. That may strike you as repellent but in fact it is a work of exquisite artistry. In a bikini Cindy is a subversive masterpiece. It takes vision and courage to transform oneself in such a way. Another friend, Lucky, is covered in tattoos. Literally. When I first met Lucky he billed himself as ‘the world’s most tattooed man’ and he was. He even had tattoos inside his lips. Interestingly, he is a very sweet, reticent man. Then, over the years he added more tattoos on top of his tattoos. And more. The last time I saw Lucky he was completely blue.

Most people though, get an innocuous flower or some Chinese writing (why?) tattooed in a discreet spot and then watch it fade, stretch and become irrelevant as the decades roll by.
I have on occasion toyed with the idea of searching the world for the ultimate Zen Tattoo Master who will etch a delicate yet powerful image of a phoenix over my lower back. But I have never had the gumption to actually do it. So I have chosen instead to have no tattoo at all.

Today I’m at the Harley Street Clinic for Radiotherapy planning. This is when they take precise measurements in order to work out exactly how to administer the radiation. Apparently the rays are sent into one’s breast at a very oblique angle so as to penetrate only as deeply as is strictly required. If they simply blasted one front on the radiation would cook one’s heart and petrify the lung. And we don’t want that.

Rather than wait in the boring old waiting room I go into the Macmillan Centre and help myself to a cup of tea. The Macmillan Centre is full of life and fun. People drop in to chat and read the papers. Anna, who runs the centre, gives me a big hug. Sandra comes in, “Don’t forget to book in for massage while you’re having your radiotherapy” she reminds me. Oh bliss. I’m entitled to four one-hour treatments, either Aromatherapy, Massage, Reflexology or Reiki. I honestly think that I will miss this hospital when my treatment ends.

In the basement Diane, a Radiographer, greets me. She hands me a pack of leaflets to add to my extensive collection. These ones are all about radiotherapy and its side effects. There is also a schedule of twenty-five appointments, one every weekday for five weeks. I sign yet more papers exonerating everyone from everything in the event that I peg it on the table. After taking a routine MRSA swab, Diane leads me into one of those lead-lined rooms and asks me to strip to the waist. I assume this means wig and all.

I lie on a bench whilst Diane and her colleague Sam position my limbs and then make pen marks all over my torso. Diane and Sam are both Antipodean. I wonder if the hospitals of Sydney and Auckland are overflowing with British and French medical professionals? The Radiographers shine some green laser beams on me. Diane makes mysterious calculations and calls out the results: 11.4, 109 and so on. Next, Dr Carmel Coulter bustles in. She asks me to confirm which breast they will be irradiating. I appreciate that kind of belt-and-braces approach to safety. Then everyone leaves the room and my body slides into the giant doughnut of the CT scanner. The scans will show the precise shape of my chest and ribcage, where my lungs are and so on.

Scan complete, Diane returns. “I’m just going to spot some ink onto you and then prick it in with a needle,” she informs me. “OK,” I say, “but why?” “The marks will enable us to line up the radiotherapy in exactly the same way every day,” she explains, “They are very small, like tiny blue freckles. But they are permanent.”

I can’t wait to tell Cindy.

About Brows

My hair is still just fuzz. But day-by-day the fuzz grows thicker.

No sign of eyelashes or eyebrows yet, despite diligent daily application of Revitalash. I manage to create an eyelash illusion by smudging a fine dark line of powder along my upper lids. I am amazed at what a difference eyebrows make to one’s appearance. They enliven expression. Without eyebrows one takes on the blank look of a sci-fi Alien. To see a graphic illustration of how important eyebrows are in defining one’s face have a look at the online version of the Times Chemo Chic article. Accompanying the article there is a photo of some show-offy woman with only one eyebrow applied. You can see the difference between the two sides of her face.

I have been smudging them on freehand using L’Oréal Brow & Duo eyeshadow which has a good palette of browns. It is tricky to get them beginning and ending in the right place, arching evenly and at the same height. A small, soft brush and a steady hand are essential.

I recall that Shavata do an eyebrow stencil kit. These are paper squares with cut out shapes that one places on one’s brow to fill in with a pencil or brush. The different shapes are named after the most famous brows of the century: the Kylie; the Liz; the Grace and, of course, the Brooke.

A friend of mine had her eyebrows tattooed on when she had chemo a few years ago. Now she has to have them refreshed every year.

A reader in Australia emails me with a link to a website called Chemo Chicks. After taking a few moments to get over my chagrin I click on and find a marvellous development for the eyebrowless. It’s a mask with cut out eyebrow shapes and an elastic strap to hold it onto one’s face. This means that one has both hands free to expertly apply eyebrows that will be at the same height as one other. Chemo Chicks is based in the USA so ordering the mask before you start chemo would be my tip.

I’ve left it a bit late so will have to persevere with my wobbly brush and powder method.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

New Shoots

Since Nick arrived I’ve been so preoccupied that I haven’t had a chance to keep up-to-date on hair and nail related matters. An inspection shows my right big toenail has started to come away all down one side. This is most disappointing. I had assumed that since the chemo has ended, so would the side effects. Not so, apparently.

I started using the Revitalash last Wednesday night. I‘ve been painting it on in a thin line along my eyelids each night, as per the instructions. I’ve also been feathering little strokes along the line of my eyebrows. So far there is no sign of lash or brow regeneration. As I study my eyes I catch sight of the top of my head in the mirror. It is covered all over with fine white fluff, like baby hair. I’m sure that’s new.

Hallelujah! My hair has started to grow.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Cooking for Chemo

Oh I do feel guilty after not posting anything here for days. I know how you all worry and fret. Obviously I’ve been having fun with Nick. I have missed him a great deal. All my friends have been wonderful. Nonetheless it’s been hard going through all the chemo on my own. I find it immensely comforting just to share meals and watch DVDs with him. And it’s great to have someone to help me water the plants and take out the rubbish.

That said, I was surprised at how distressed I became after Nick arrived. “Compare and despair,” the wise ones say. What they mean is that wanting to be who one is not is a hiding to nothing. Yet that is what I was doing. I managed to put a subtle spin on it by comparing myself not to Cate Blanchett but to myself, six months ago. When Nick met me I had long red hair. I was carefree and healthy. Now I’m bald and sick. I’m tired all the time. I fear that he will see the reality and run away in horror. Oh, strike up the violins.

Nick reassured me. He told me that he thinks I’m beautiful and generally laid it on thick with all the stuff I like to hear. That cheered me up.

There are pros and cons to maintaining a long distance relationship. We don’t get bored or irritable with one another. At the same time there is unfamiliarity after a period of separation.

On Friday Nick and I jumped on the train up to Worcestershire. Eckington Manor Cookery School to be precise. I had heard that they were having a cookery demonstration called Cooking for Chemo. I love going on trains. I love food. To complete the trinity, Eckington Manor Cookery School has a luxury bed & breakfast attached. I was sold.

The whole shaboogle, including the cookery school, the guesthouse and an extensive farm belongs to a woman named Judy Gardiner. She is one of those people who positively fizz and crackle with good energy. I gather that Judy made her fortune by building up a pickle business from her kitchen table into a multi-million pound concern and then selling it off to a big name food conglomerate. It seems that this cookery school-farm operation is her life’s dream. I am always enthused by people who have the courage and imagination to pursue their vision and make it real.

Judy’s daughter, Jane welcomed us and took us to our room in Lower End House. Wow! The guesthouse is a timbered former farmhouse that dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. It has been restored and modernised with immaculate attention to detail. Judy has an eclectic style that marries ancient and modern beautifully. The downstairs sitting room is built around a huge stone fireplace that one can stand inside. My guess is the house must have belonged to a wealthy farmer in its day. And now it does again. The furnishings are pure English Eccentric. There is a brown leather Andrew Martin Chesterfield with a Union Jack painted across the back of it. Above it looms a portrait of Judy’s prize winning Highland bull. Another sofa is covered with needlepoint cushions decorated with dogs. A leather pig footstool lurks nearby waiting to relieve one’s tired tootsies. Our bedroom was simple and luxurious. We occupied one end of the house, under ancient rafters that had been restored and repaired by craftsmen using hand cut joints and wooden pegs instead of bolts and nails. The floorboards were covered with a thick striped rug and the 12th century stone chimney-breast was hung with an enormous flat-screen telly. It felt as stylish as a posh hotel yet as cosy and comfy as my mum’s (minus the spiders).

After a reviving cup of tea we sauntered across the yard to the cookery school. Here we met Judy herself, Dean the chef and Ledan, a nutritionist from Worcestershire Royal Hospital. Nothing about this place failed to impress. The cooking school is state-of-the-art. There are about a dozen workstations, each with an Aga or a high-end gas range. The surfaces are polished stone and the whole room is wired with sound and video. Along with about twenty others we settled down to watch Dean conjour up some of the Cooking for Chemo recipes that he and Ledan had collaborated to devise. First up was a starter of fresh prawns in cream, shallot and mustard sauce with warm, wilted lettuce. As Dean whisked and stirred our mouths began to water. Then, as he artfully arranged the finished demonstration dish we were magically served with the real thing. Some talented genii at the back of the class had cooked it up whilst we were absorbed with watching what Dean was doing.

For the main course Dean whipped up Vietnamese chicken with honey and ginger and jasmine rice. Again, we were all served with a bowlful to sample. Sweet honey mixed with zingy lime and salty fish sauce combined to create a complex yet enlivening flavour.

I should say a bit here about how big a part food has played in my whole cancer saga. Alcohol gave me up over ten years ago. Smoking is generally frowned upon by oncologists and other medical bods. For all sorts of chemo related reasons, sex can be problematic. What with surgery and the physically gruelling regime of chemotherapy, one usually feels too tired to go out dancing. So, for the duration, food is one of the few pleasures available. The problem is that the chemo makes one nauseous and imparts a metallic, cotton-woolly taste to everything. On those mouth-full-of-brillo-pad days I found that spicy foods were the best bet. I don’t mean food rammed full of throat-incinerating chillies. In view of the fact that chemo can cause one’s mouth and throat to become infested with ulcers I would suggest that one steer clear of the Vindaloos for a while. I am talking about skilfully spiced dishes that blend sweet with sharp and salty flavours. Vietnamese and Thai cuisines are perfect examples if one chooses the less fiery dishes. One of my favourite meals was Mee Hoon soup from the Number One Thai Café. It’s a delicate, clear broth served with rice vermicelli, chicken, prawns and crunchy vegetables. Afterwards I would rush home for a few squares of Green & Black’s dark mint chocolate.

Apple fool was served as pudding on the Cooking for Chemo menu. Sharp and sweet apples were mashed into whipped cream and yoghurt. It was not only delicious but also soft and easy on the mouth.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear you ask, “what’s with all this cream and sugar? Where is the broccoli, the raw carrots, the fish and brown rice?” Well, I asked those questions myself. It must be said that this demonstration was not entitled Cooking for Cancer Prevention but Cooking for Chemo. The recipes were devised in consultation with Ledan who is a nutritionist at a large general hospital. I understand that they see many patients who, because of the hideousness of chemo-induced nausea and how awful everything tastes, simply stop eating altogether. That leads to them losing a lot of weight. Tired and demoralised many others live on ready meals and take-aways. They can end up being overweight, yet malnourished. So their primary concern at the hospital is to try to figure out ways that patients eat enough calories to maintain their body weight and also manage to get in the five-a-day essential to basic nutrition. From that perspective the menu fitted the bill. There was loads of cream to fatten one up, protein in the form of chicken and prawns, rice for carbohydrate plus vegetables and fruit. The flavours were sharp and sweet so would be as bearable as anything can be whilst chemo taste buds are in play.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer I was deluged with well-meaning advice about what I must not eat. I fell into a frenzy of food paranoia. I gave up coffee and tea, sugar, dairy products, bread, pasta, all white flour, all biscuits and sweets, white rice and meat. I suspected that I might die if I ate a slice of toast with marmalade. Juicing became a religious ritual. I shopped daily for fresh, organic vegetables. In the midst of an event so life threatening and overwhelming it seemed like one area of my life that I could control. Everything associated with food became stressful and exhausting. One morning, after about two months, I thought “to hell with this.” I marched down to the Electric and ordered eggs, bacon, tomatoes, toast and a nice cup of tea. After that I felt a lot better.

These days I have settled into a way of eating that feels good for me. I have a fresh juice every day. I buy mainly organic fruit and vegetables. I eat a lot of vegetables and whole grains. I substitute every other cup of tea with a herbal tea and use organic milk in my regular cuppa. I prefer fish to meat. But I will also go out for a Chinese. And I have toast with marmalade for breakfast if I feel like it.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

All Kinds of Excitement

My laptop came home from the hospital today. It has a new logic board and a new super drive. I thank Jesus and all his fairies that I had the foresight to buy the Apple Care Protection Racket, so all the repairs and parts are covered. If you ever need Mac repairs I recommend Amsys. They collect and deliver.

I drive around to Mayhem Mansions to return the Macbook that Ted so kindly lent me. Smells of exotic cooking waft down the hallway as Hugo hurls himself in a frenzied attack at my ankles. The place is jumping. In the kitchen I find Muttiah, just returned from a long trip home to Malaysia and now cooking up a tempest: lamb curry, chicken curry, vegetable curry, rice and pappadums. Ted has just got in from work. He is baking a crumble or something. I hear a joyful “yap, yap, yap,” and Chilli bursts onto the scene, closely followed by Iris and Jamie. Jamie is learning lines for his forthcoming starring role in Bedbound at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town.

Lounging on various sofas are Valentina, her husband Tom and Lydia, another acting friend of ours (I mean in the sense that she is an actress, not a stand-in friend). “Thyat’s a lovely nyecklacke,” Valentina says to Iris, “is it Swarovski?” “No, it’s Muttyovski,” replies Iris. Muttiah then shimmies in with two more crystal necklaces and present Valentina and I with one each.

Over dinner Valentina announces: “I am so hyappy. Now that I have my British citizenship I am going to buy a Kyasee Ooltimo* machine and open a beauty salon.” “What’s that?” we all ask. “It is the latest, most scientific machine for giving non-surgical facelifts." Valentina explains, "They devyeloped it for people who have had strokes and then they found that the side of their face that was being treated was looking younger than the other side. It’s true,” she declares, “it’s better than buttocks!” By this time the whole table is fainting with delight at the idea of a machine that can give one a facelift and is better that Botox. Furthermore, that we should know someone who is about to own such a machine. “I’ll be your guinea pig, “ everyone shouts at once. “I need it the most,” hollers Lydia. “Yes, but I’ve been the sickest,” I proclaim. “I was deeply traumatised as a child,” Jamie declares, in a melodramatic tone. Then, so as to deflect attention from our greedy graspiness we ask Valentina about her salon plans. “I want to hyelp people, like abused women,” says Valentina with the magnanimity of Miss World. “What, you want to give them facelifts?” asks Ted. “No,” she explains patiently, “I want to make a network of people who can help them.” I am still a little mystified by this aspect of Valentina’s business plan.

The conversation soon turns to ghosts and psychic mediums. Everyone tries to top one another’s otherworldly experiences. Jamie and Iris, in their endless quest for the ultimate crazy fad that will make their lives complete, have recently attended the Spiritualist Church. There, Iris’s long-deceased mother spoke to her. I am quite impressed to hear it. It has been my experience that psychic mediums are a bunch of hoodwinkers but I am always willing to entertain a different point of view. Especially if it is backed up by direct experience of someone whose word I trust. We imagine what ghosts might be stalking us right at this very moment. “The Murdered Maid of Mayhem Mansions?” Iris suggests. Spooked now, we decide it is time to leave.

Valentina dons a black headscarf gives us a marvellous demonstration of how to extract folding money from people by telling their fortune. It seems that the technique is to simply terrify them into handing over the cash.

“I think Valentina will make a wonderful beautician,” I remark to Iris in the car on the way home. “Yes, she is so lovely and so kind,” agrees Iris. Valentina is such a big presence that I have never really had a proper conversation with her husband Tom. “What does Tom do?” I ask Iris. She thinks hard for a moment or two. “Well,” she finally tells me, “he has got some kind of a, um, ah, job!” Iris and I fall about laughing. It’s a concept that is totally alien to us.

I’m back at home now, rushing to get this finished so that I can go to bed. I am tremendously excited that I’m going to start using the Revitalash eyelash grower tonight. Even better than that, Nick is arriving in the morning.

*It’s called the CACI Ultimate.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Sharing What We're All About

I am pleased to bits about how many people have been in touch since an article on Chemo Chic appeared in the Times last Saturday. Some have paid me compliments. Those I adore, obviously. Others have told me how helpful it is for them to read Chemo Chic whilst going through their own cancer ordeal. That makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile – not a feeling that I’ve experienced often in my life. And many people have told me about their own blogs and websites that they have started after they, or their loved ones, have suffered cancer.

I’m going to try to give you a comprehensive roundup of those because I think they’re all terrific.

First in was Amy. She wrote on the Chemo Chic facebook page about how she had “struggled with the lack of lovely lingerie,” so started her own business called About the Girl. She has some very pretty, feminine styles. Lovely bras are important. Breast cancer batters one’s feminine identity. A mastectomy bra is different to a regular bra. It has no wires and is cut a lot higher to contain the prosthesis. Think about it. I have seen some of the mastectomy bras that are on offer. They look like surgical appliances rather than lingerie. About the Girl stocks a small range of gorgeous lines. The ‘Myosotis’ bra is an elegant item in cream satin trimmed with black lace.

I was very lucky to have been in a position to choose not to have a mastectomy. But I haven’t felt comfortable about wearing an underwired bra since the surgery. I don’t know if I ever will be again. So I will soon be on the lookout for pretty, sexy, non-wired alternatives.

Gill also posted a note on the facebook page. Her business, Butterfly Bras, offers more conservative styles. The ‘Amoena – Carmen’ is a shapely white lace bra. I particularly like the ‘Trulife – Sydney’ for its simple, clean lines. If you live in the West Midlands Gill will come to your house for a proper bra fitting. This seems like a valuable service, after surgery and illness one’s breast size is bound to have changed. I imagine that a bra fitting in the comfort of one’s own home must go a long way towards restoring self-confidence.

Tired now. More tomorrow…

Monday, 19 October 2009

What Facebook is Good For

Here’s a fact, or two. One in nine women will get breast cancer. One in three people will get cancer of some sort. This means that everyone will either suffer from cancer or have a loved one who goes through it. It’s just a part of life these days. And yet there is still an undertone of shame and fear attached to this illness.

I’ve often wondered what facebook is good for. Now I think I’ve figured it out. I started a facebook page called Chemo Chic. The Chemo Chic facebook page does not exist to promote my blog. Rather, I set it up as a place where anyone can go and discuss Chemo Chic stuff: make-up; recipes; wigs; grief; jokes… whatever you like.

There have been some excellent juice recipes posted recently, notably one for green lemonade, delicious, one presumes, with green eggs and ham.

And it’s not just for people who have had cancer, its for families and friends of people who have had cancer. The more we can exchange information and support one another the less shame and fear there will be.

If you’re reading this then please regard yourself as a friend of a person who has had cancer (me). I officially invite you to visit the Chemo Chic facebook page and use it as your own. Just click on the facebook button on the right.

The Price of Beauty

The tube of Revitalash sits tantalisingly on my bathroom windowsill. I’m compulsively drawn to it. I keep fingering it, picking it up and examining it, reading the instruction leaflet and so on. It’s kind of like picking a scab. I will, however, have patience and hold off until Wednesday night.

I notice that the cylinder contains 4.1ml of potion. At £66.95 that works out to £16,329.27 per litre. (Or at the recommended retail price of $150 it is $36,585.37 per litre.)

I wonder what other commodities carry a similar price tag?

Up the Posties

A card arrives in the post. It offers me a 20% discount at Liberty, London’s most elegant department store, plus a £5 voucher. All valid until the 10th of October. Drat this postal strike.

Not so Fast

I am sooooooo tired. Thinking that the chemo is all over and I would be back to normal I booked in several appointments today. First, a committee meeting about a charity event then a surprise birthday lunch for my friend Sumaira and finally the movies with Sheldon.

Having fallen asleep at seven-thirty last night, I jump out of bed at the crack of ten. I make a divine fennel, grape and lime juice, run the juicer parts under the cold tap and hop in the bath. Ten minutes later I hear splashing. It sounds like it’s coming from somewhere quite close by. I ponder for a while on what it might be. I’m hesitant to get out of the bath because last time I did that I slipped and fell, injuring my foot and cracking my head. But finally I feel that I must investigate.

The kitchen sink is overflowing and there’s an inch deep puddle all over the floor. I skip about chucking down every towel and tea towel that I own, empty the bath and then pile the sopping textiles into the tub.

What has become clear to me is that the chemo has not yet left my body. Nor my brain.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Gods Come A-Knocking

Cousin Ben came down to London yesterday. He and Amazon-Rainforest went ice-skating at Queensway then they came over to my place to stay the night. We did a Sainsbury’s swoop to stock up on organic fruit and veg for the Champion juicer.

Amazon-Rainforest is a dainty, elfin child. She reminds me very much of Gaby. My cousin Gaby was something like an angel in this world. I will always miss her.

This morning Ben and A-R went out shopping, leaving me to slumber on. I’ve been up for a full ten minutes when they return at one o’clock in the afternoon. I had the foresight to splash cold water on my face and wrists so I appear fully alert. We head off down to Makan for some tasty Malaysian curry.

Amazon-Rainforest spies a gigantic doll looming up behind a graffiti-bedecked hoarding under the Westway. It turns out that there is an art ‘event’ in full swing. It’s the kind of DIY punk happening that I love. MuTATE Britain is a raggedy collection of what is now known as street art. There are lots of post Banksy stencil pieces. I’m most impressed by the bizarre menagerie of back-to-the-future looking junkyard creatures. These are the works of several different artists, all of whom are handy with a welding torch. There are gigantic vehicles with beastly characteristics: horns, hooves and enormous iron jawbones. There are pole-dancing, amphibious, merman-woman robots. There are exquisite little polished steel dentists-drill-dinasours. I’m quite taken by a gold chandelier adorned with scimitars, pigs and machine guns.

An amiable man attends a rail of clothes, somewhat grandly called Brag boutique. Amongst his gold tiger-face sweatshirts and similar hip street attire I find a highly Chemo Chic item. It’s a jersey all-in-one hood and scarf, one might call it a cowl, in a fetching skull print.

We are replete with curry and culture. It’s time to take Amazon-Rainforest home. A-R and her mum, Sayeeda, spend half their lives in Goa. Right now they are staying with Sayeeda’s parents in Mill Hill. We zoom up the A1. Ben decants the now flaked out Amazon-Rainforest from the car and carries her to their front door whilst I fully recline my seat and settle down for a sixty second power-nap.

Sixty-one seconds later there is an insistent rapping on the window. It’s Nana, Sayeeda’s mum. “Lily,” she says, “it is Diwali. You must come in and have some vegetarian food.” “Oh, Nana,” I protest, “we just ate lunch.” “That doesn’t matter. It is our tradition. If anyone comes to the door, they are like gods. You must come and eat,” she insists. I must say this is probably the most ego-boosting invitation I’ve ever had. In my new magnanimous god-persona I deign to glide indoors to eat some of Nana’s sublime home cooking.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

An Amazing Day

This has been an amazing day. I’ve had so much good feedback and many positive comments about the Times article, from friends and strangers alike. It has been quite confronting for me, especially the photograph. But I think it has achieved its purpose.

Today is the anniversary of my cousin Gaby’s death. Talk about synchronicity.

I have lit a candle for Gabs. Later on my cousin Ben and his daughter Amazon Rainforest will come over and we will all have dinner together.


Chemo Chic Has Arrived

I pop down to the corner shop wearing a cashmere hoodie and no make-up. I pick up five copies of the Times. The owner gives me a big smile. “You look different,” he says, “what have you done?” “I’ve got no hair,” I reply. “You’ve cut your hair?” he asks. “No, it all fell out,” I answer, lifting my hoodie a fraction to show him. “Oh,” he says, “how did that happen?” “I’ve had cancer. The treatment makes your hair fall out.” I reply.

It feels odd but positive to be talking about it so casually, as if it were the weather. But it has taken a long time and a lot of blogging for me to get to the stage where I’m not ashamed to tell strangers that I’ve had cancer. One of the reasons that I started writing Chemo Chic was to try to get past a lot of the secrecy and shame that still haunts this all-too-common illness.

Back at home, I settle down with a nice cup of tea to read the Times. If I have had any qualms about sharing my situation with strangers I’d better get over it pronto. On the cover of the Weekend section there is a full-page photo of me with no hair.

If you can’t get hold of the Times, the article is also on Times Online but without Lizzie Fleetwood Hartnoll’s wonderful photographs.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Big Day for Chemo Chic

Get the Times tomorrow. There will be an article about Chemo Chic in their Weekend section, featuring one of Issy’s fabulous photographs on the cover.

For readers not in the UK, it should be in the Times Online. I will post a link.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

And So the Chemo Ends

So at last, I’m off to Harley Street for my final chemo session. I get up late, as usual, then stagger about getting dressed and making cards for the nurses. I like to print my own photographs as cards for special people.

Nick Skypes: “I just want to tell you that I love you and I hope it all goes well today.” I have to say I’m feeling very emotional.

I have been thinking about an appropriate gift for the nurses. I know that they get inundated with cakes and chocolates. Yet it’s difficult to think of another gift that they all can share. I recall bringing them a bunch of flowers once to cheer up their front desk. They thanked me but the flowers were quickly ‘disappeared’ without ever being unwrapped. I guessed that they must have fallen foul of the no flowers rule that is often in force in intensive care units, chemo units and such places. Apparently flower pollen can cause infections. In the end I’m not imaginative enough to think of any alternative gifts. Paul does a lovely gift box of mini macaroons. Four of each in six different colours. They’re elegant and merely a mouthful. As much a treat for the eyes as for the stomach. If I had the energy I would go up to Harrods and get the Ladurée ones that Iris is always raving on about. But I haven’t. Anyway, the ones from Paul are pretty damned delicious.

Macaroons on board, I pop up to Daunt Books and buy cards to replace all those that I left on the table at home. I don’t admonish myself anymore. It’s just chemo-brain.

The unit is quiet today. I’m thankful for that. I don’t feel like being surrounded by drama on the last day. Nurse Cara does my observations: weight, blood pressure, temperature and oxygen saturation. Nurse Karen looks at my feet. "Crocs n'Socks will soon be on the runways," she observes.

Karen wraps my arm in a heat blanket to aid the manifestation of a vein. The veins in my arm are pretty well worn out at this stage. But I’m truly thankful that at least one of them has held up to the end. I haven’t had to have a central line installed in my chest, as I’ve seen many have. All-in-all, I feel that I have had a pretty easy ride of it with chemotherapy. I have read, heard and seen some real horror stories. It’s been difficult and miserable at times but never intolerable. I haven’t suffered major organ damage, I haven’t been admitted to hospital, I haven’t had to have a blood transfusion, my fingernails have not fallen off. What more can one ask for?

With a few inadequate words of thanks, I hand over the macaroons. With eloquent and gracious words of thanks, nurse Karen accepts them. Then she gives me a big hug. One might get the impression that this is the most beneficent gift that they have ever received. I am sure it is not.

The chemo itself is uneventful. Sandra comes by and gives me a deeply relaxing reflexology treatment. I will miss those. Karen offers me a macaroon. I recline in the big armchair, eating a macaroon and having my feet rubbed. “It doesn’t get much better that this,” I remark. “Well you could have George Clooney bringing you a glass of champagne,” observes Sandra. “You’re right,” I sigh, “I knew there was something missing.”

Finally, the chemo is finished. Nurse Karen unplugs me and it’s time to leave. She hesitates a moment before applying the mini plaster to the spot where she removed the needle. “We just have to be a bit careful,” she says, “sometimes people have gone off and then come rushing back with blood pouring down their arms.” “I’m sure that won’t happen,” I say. “It’s never happened before.” I put on my jacket and hug them all. I will be happy not to have chemotherapy anymore but very sad not to see these nurses. “Goodbye, goodbye,” I have to blink back tears. Then, as I reach for the doorknob, I feel a trickle on my hand. I rip off my jacket and throw it to the floor. Blood is pouring down my arm. I rush back in for a final dose of care and attention. It’s a psychosomatically induced blood spout, I’m certain of it.

My last stop is to see Suzy Cleator. It may be difficult for you to comprehend that one can be genuinely pleased to see an oncologist. But I am. She has become a good friend to me. She is heavily pregnant now and will soon be stopping work, so the end of my chemo treatment is an appropriate moment to hand me over to the new oncologist, Dr Coulter.

Suzy confirms my opinion that I have tolerated the chemotherapy very well. I have to say that that is very much due to her expertise. The weekly regime of Taxol has been a big success. I hand over her card and start to choke up again.

Honoria pops in. She is heavily pregnant too. I will, however, be seeing her again. In two weeks time when I come for radiotherapy ‘planning’.

Suzy raises the subject of Tamoxifen. It’s a hormone therapy that she is recommending that I take every day for the next five years. I shift uneasily. I’ve read and heard all sorts of conflicting things about Tamoxifen, many of them quite scary. Of course I haven’t got any of my facts straight. “I am concerned about the side effects,” I say, in an embarrassed tone. “It is highly recommended for you. Your tumour was oestrogen receptive. So if there’s still any lurking about the Tamoxifen stops it being fed with oestrogen. You can try it, and if you find it too difficult you can decide to stop,” says Suzy. “I’m worried it will cause bone loss,” I reply. “Tamoxifen has a bone protecting effect,” Suzy rejoins. “Oh, I don’t know. Of all the therapies, this is the one that I feel most uncomfortable with,” I say, unconvincingly. Suzy clears her throat, “Of all the treatments for breast cancer, surgery is the most important. The next most important is Tamoxifen. Then chemotherapy, then radiotherapy.” I study the floor. “I think the best thing,” says Suzy with one of her indulgent looks, “is to discuss this after you’ve had the radiotherapy."

She sure has learned how to play me.

I wish both Suzy and Honoria all the best with their births, bid them goodbye and leave.

Then I step out into Harley Street and into my future.

Trendsetting, Chemo Chic Style

Crocs n’Socks is catching on. Yesterday I bumped into my friend Katie who is a top fashion stylist. “That’s a great look,” she said, “where did you get those Crocs?” I beamed with pride and gushed, “I got them at Payless Shoes in Hobart.” “Oh,” replied Katie, looking a touch crestfallen, “They would look better with stripy socks. The Natural Shoe Store has some lovely ones in at the moment.”

I am a great believer in taking expert advice if it is offered, be it from a leading oncologist or a leading fashion stylist. In pre-celebration of my final chemo I stopped by the Natural Shoe Store and purchased two pairs of thick, warm, stripy socks. One pair in lime green and fuchsia, the other in black and grey. For good measure I then paid a visit to No. 242, the Indian shop on Portobello Road to buy a new scarf to go with my fabulous new Bella Freud jumper. “I’ll give you three for £13.50,” the man said. “Ok,” said I.

Thursday Catch Up

A lot has been going on in the last couple of days, only I’ve been too, too tired to blog it all up for you.

Yesterday I had my first appointment to discuss radiotherapy with my new oncologist, Dr Carmel Coulter, another top breast lady I’m told. As I’m trying to be Chemo Chic on all occasions I wore what I thought was a snappy get-up: a black trouser suit; a black jumper by Bella Freud with the words ‘Ginsberg is God’ knitted across the front; my ‘red skulls’ scarf and Crocs n’Socks. “That’s quite a lot of statements you’ve got on,” remarked Dr Coulter. Something tells me she’s a no-shit kind of a lady. I was quite relieved that I hadn’t worn my Bella Freud jumper that has ‘SEX’ knitted across the chest.

Dr Coulter explained the radiotherapy process. Because I’ve had some other health issues in the past she is recommending that I have the standard five-week course of treatment at a lower intensity, rather that the turbo-charged three-week course that was previously under consideration. First I have to go for ‘planning’. This is when they get their microscopes out and measure my breast. They will then figure out exactly how to direct the cancer-busting rays so that they target my breast as much as possible and avoid zapping my heart and lungs. I completely trust that they know what they’re doing.

Then Dr Coulter and I had a small negotiation. I wanted to start the radiotherapy on the 16th of November so that I have maximum holiday time with Nick. She wanted me to start on the 9th so that I have maximum recovery time before I fly to Australia. We settled for the 12th.

Finally I ask: “So why exactly am I having this radiotherapy?” Dr Coulter looked a little puzzled. I could see what she was thinking: surely someone must have told her this before? They have, but I like to be certain. “It’s the most effective way to prevent the cancer recurring in your breast. The chemotherapy is most effective at stopping it coming back in the rest of your body.”

Next I had an appointment with Mr Hadjiminas. Yes, you’ve been missing him too, no doubt. He gave me a thorough examination with his ‘magic hands’ (as good as any Mammogram in my opinion) and examined my scars. “I hear you’ve been doing a lot of writing,” he remarked. Now I’m not generally one to take on board what other people think of me but suddenly I felt very keen indeed to have the good opinion of Mr H. After all, I am going to have to rely on this man for the rest of my life. “Do you approve? Or not?” I asked in a wavering voice. One thing I’ve observed about Mr Hadjiminas is that he is totally deadpan. One cannot tell what he is thinking. He reflected for a moment then said “I think it’s good.” Well that’s a relief.