To baldly go

Getting your head shaved is one of those big moments. It’s such a bold statement. You can no longer pretend cancer hasn’t happened. Some people get it done as soon as the treatment starts but I waited as long as possible.

For most of my chemotherapy I wore an ice cold cap which protected the hair follicles by freezing my scalp. It worked pretty well but was so painful that in the end I had to ditch it. Thats when the hair loss began properly.

I didn’t go completely bald. Oh, no. I was left with big freaky tufts of soft fluffy hair. It was a cross between a mullet and a mohican. A mullhican if you like.

Meet the mullhican

I really needed to get it shaved off so it would all regrow at the same length. It’s more than five weeks since the chemo ended. Amazingly my eyelashes and eyebrows have already started to reappear. It won’t be long before my hair also comes back to life.

It was good to be doing something kinda normal again. The last time I visited Daniel Galvin, my hairdressers in London, it was a few days before my massive cancer operation. I had a cut and a bouncy blow dry. I wanted to go into hospital with it looking lovely. I’m sure the surgeons appreciated the effort.

My friend Angela has been cutting my hair ever since I moved back to Britain. When I was abroad I had plenty of bad hair days – it had been “accidentally” dyed orange and subjected to many dodgy styles. Angela helped to nurse my hair back to good health. It was finally in great condition and I really liked how it looked. Now I was getting her to chop it all off.

As Angela set to work, she kept checking that I wanted it all gone. I certainly did.

Here come the clippers

It’s taken me months to feel okay about losing my hair. Compared to what I’ve been through it shouldn’t have been a big deal but it was. It’s bad enough to have to fight a killer disease twice. I didn’t want to have another Sinéad O’Conner. However, I slowly got used to being a skinhead again.

Sitting in the busy salon with my tufty mullhican I wasn’t upset or even embarrassed. I was ready for my new look.

I’d thought I was going to get a baldy head, all smooth and shiny. I was worried that I was going to look awful. Instead Angela gave me a number three all over. I managed to avoid getting a close shave. I’’m really happy at how it turned out.

Hey cancer – look – I still have some hair!!!

Tah dah!

Before the drastic cut, I was scared to touch my hair because it would just fall out in my hands. Strands of the stuff got everywhere. It’s now very very short but it feels thick and strong.

With my real hair sorted it was time to introduce Candice and Raquel. This was their first trip to the hairdressers. I needed Angela to work her magic on my wigs and she couldn’t wait to get her hands on them.

The trouble with wearing a wig is that it can so easily look fake. Like a lump of unnaturally big hair that’s been plonked on your head.

Angela, me and Raquel

After both getting a trim, they looked much better and a whole lot less wig like. Even so, I won’t be wearing them all the time. They’re far too hot and itchy.

I’m so glad to have finally got rid of the fluffy mullhican. It was actually making me appear a lot sicker than I was. I had started to hate what I saw. This was something that cancer had done to me.

I’ve taken back control and now when I look in the mirror I see a new start.

A perfect ten

Dolphins. How I dread those hospital dolphins.

They swim along the corridor on the way to the chemotherapy unit. Even the ceiling has been painted to make it seem as if you’re under the sea. It may look tranquil but just seeing the dolphins made me feel completely drained.

There might as well be a neon sign that says CANCER? COME THIS WAY….

As if that wasn’t bad enough, towards the end of the corridor it starts to slope upwards. It takes every last bit of your energy to walk the last part of it. Mum had come with me. My arm was through hers as we slowly made our way up the corridor.

It’s been a month since my chemo ended. I was there for a final check-up to find out for sure that the toxic treatment had been successful.

This is where I was told I had cancer. More than six months later I was back in the same room and in the same chair. Mum was next to me, also in the same seat as before. I felt so sick that I thought I might have to run out of the room.

However I was so focused on what we were about to be told that I felt compelled to stay. As far as big moments go, this was pretty massive.

If I got the all clear, then I’d be done with the disease, the doctors and the dolphins.

But if I didn’t, then it would mean that those evil chemo cocktails hadn’t worked. We’d have to try again. Jump through more hoops. Worse still, it could suggest that the cancer was terminal and that putting any amount of poison into my veins wouldn’t kill it.

At the hospital there’s a team of people involved in my care. For this appointment I was seeing a consultant who I’ve known for years, ever since the first cancer. She’s never had to break any bad news to me. She is the Good Doctor. Surely this must be a positive sign?

I know that the treatment has already gone really well. All the tumours have been removed and my blood test results are back to normal. But you don’t know what could happen next.

The blood test is known as a CA 125. Basically I needed to get a low number. Anything higher than thirty could mean the cancer had come back.

After chatting for a few minutes it was down to business. My consultant looked at my notes, at my records on the computer screen and then back at me as she said the magic number.

I’d scored a ten. A perfect ten.

The Good Doctor quickly revealed that there was also nothing nasty on my scan. It was a stunning set of results. She brought up a different screen on the computer.

“See, your organs look lovely, don’t they?” I had to take her word for it. All I could make out was a moving black and white image of my insides.

She pointed out various bits and pieces. It was a cross section of a healthy body. My healthy body.

“Hooray! It’s all gone!” The Good Doctor threw her arms in the air. We all grinned and punched the air. My sickness went; it was replaced with pure relief.

That’s it. Finally it’s all over.

The treatment has officially been successful. I won’t have another check-up for months.

After lunch in the hospital canteen, oh yes my celebrations are not always Kylie and cocktails, we got a lift home from the flower girl.

It ended where it all began, outside my house with my friend, Chantal in her big flower van. This is how I started out on my cancer journey when she took me to hospital for what turned out to be a life saving operation.

Back then I had no idea just how hard it would all be or whether I’d even be able to defeat the disease. That’s why I originally called this blog - beating cancer, again, hopefully.

I never realised quite how important the blog would become to me. I’ve been blown away by the love and support that I’ve received. I’ve appreciated every comment even though I may not have been able to reply to all of them.

So, thank you.

I’m now cancer free and there will be no more horrendous treatment but I’m still going to continue with this blog.

I’ve been given another second chance at life. Or maybe that makes it a third chance? Whatever it is, I hope that you’ll be joining me as I blog about life after cancer.

From chemo cocktails to cosmopolitans

Could there be a more perfect way to celebrate?

After so many evil chemo cocktails in hospital, it seemed only right to mark the end of my cancer ordeal with some real drinks in an actual bar.

I know I’ve had a few celebrations already but quite frankly I’m going to be very greedy and I’ll be having a whole load more. Don’t worry though I won’t be writing about every single one!

It’s been a few weeks since my last ever chemotherapy and I finally felt well enough to go out with friends. We arranged to meet at a bar in Chelsea. My long blond WAG wig that I like to call Candice was all ready for an occasion just like this.

This was the first time that I’d worn Candice for a night out.

And what a difference it made. Suddenly I’d gone from almost bald to really blond. Putting on the wig not only transformed the way I looked but somehow made me feel better too, almost like a different person.

Lately I’ve been living in headscarves. I find them easier to wear than wigs although they have a certain cancer chic about them. I think I look more like someone who is sick when I have a headscarf on.  

As me and Candice rocked up at the bar I nervously checked out my reflection in the window next to the entrance. Surprised at what I saw, I smiled back. Something special had happened, I realised that I looked totally normal and I haven’t felt like that for ages.

I knew that both my friends, Kath and Anna were going to be late so I ordered myself something. Seconds later, a man at the bar started to chat me up. Really it was just seconds, my drink hadn’t even been poured!

Wow was that down to me or Candice?! Whatever the reason it was my welcome back to single life in London.

I didn’t have to wait too long for my friends, just enough time for the French banker to give me his number. Normally I would have been happy to stand at the bar but there was no way that I could manage that right now so we found a table.

Drinking Cosmopolitans, Bellini’s and the odd Strawberry Mule, it could have almost been a scene from Sex and the City where the girls meet for drinks and gossip in a glamorous bar.

Only, there were three of us. We were English and this wasn’t New York. Although Kath and I have eaten cupcakes from the Magnolia bakery made famous by the TV series. If that counts…no, thought not.

Anyway that was ten years ago. We were in New York to celebrate me beating cancer the first time round. While we were there we came up with a plan about how I could do some some of the things on my list for living. During chemo I’d come up with this crazy list of things I wanted to do when I was well. Within weeks of that holiday I’d moved to Moscow.

Now here we were celebrating again.

Just like back then we talked about the future and it felt good that I can now get on with living.

Before, the most exciting thing I’ve had to look forward to was my next trip to hospital. The chemo has taken place every three weeks. If that had continued then I should have had another session a few days ago.

Knowing that around this time I’d normally be feeling incredibly ill thanks to the evil chemo cocktail, made the drinks taste even better. Compared to the toxic treatment, the side effects were far more pleasant too.

 

Blue-sky thinking

Now that my treatment has finished the doctors need to make sure that I really really have beaten the stupid cancer so I had to go back to hospital for a scan. I’ll get the results next week.

While I was there something happened which was a bit strange. I started to meditate.

I was sat in a changing room the size of a big cupboard at the imaging unit dressed and ready for my appointment. I’ve had so many scans over the years that I know how to properly tie those pesky medical gowns so that everything is covered.

With its familiar sights, sounds and smells, just being in the hospital was horrible.

I needed to relax. As I waited, I began meditating. I counted my breath in and out, trying to ignore the noise around me.

That was until I heard something which sent my heart racing. An alarm was going off in the next room. The loud bleeping sound meant a patient had stopped breathing, just like I had following surgery. It was a false alarm but it took me straight back to that time when I was so close to death.

I opened my eyes, giving up on the mediation and feeling more stressed than ever. Not long afterwards a man with tattooed arms came and got me. It was time to be scanned.

So why the sudden interest in meditation?  

All my medical treatment is over. Yes, I’ll have check-ups and routine tests but aside from that I’m on my own. I want to do more than just hope it doesn’t come back.

During the chemo I had some less conventional treatments like acupuncture and hypnotherapy. They seemed to help ease the nasty side effects. I thought I’d try some more complimentary methods and last week I went on a course at a holistic centre for people dealing with cancer.

I have to admit that part of me was sceptical however I’m willing to try anything.

Even so, I did smuggle in some sachets of coffee. We’d been told that the menu would be ultra-healthy and there’d be no caffeinated drinks on offer. I thought I might need my own supply and I was right. One of the coffee substitutes was something called Slippery Elm!

Contraband coffee

The course at the Penny Brohn Cancer Care centre took place over three days. Inside the Georgian building it felt like a cross between a hotel and a posh hospital, outside there were acres of landscaped grounds which overlooked a river. With bright blue skies and dazzling sunny weather everyday, it was uplifting just being there.

It was almost like a health spa for cancer fighters.

Based on the edge of Bristol, the place helps people live as well while coping with the impact of the deadly disease. The charity was set up in the 1970’s when eating brown rice was considered by some to be subversive. Since then what they do has become known as the Bristol approach. Now it’s part of an NHS pilot project.

The focus was on mind, body and spirit. It might sound new age and some of it certainly was. The course was led by a couple of healers who spent most of the time barefoot. Right in the centre of the carpeted room there was a collection of lit candles and flowers which were arranged in a bowl of sand.

There was a group of ten of us, all affected by cancer in some way. You’d think that it would’ve been a sad few days but it was inspiring to be with people who’d been through similar experiences.

We sat wrapped in soft baby blue blankets in a circle of comfy chairs. We were given talks and taught relaxation techniques including mediation.

I’m glad that I went. It made me determined to improve my lifestyle. Despite my concerns that it was all going to be far too alternative, it turned out that most of the stuff was common sense.

Essentially it comes down to this. To live well after a cancer diagnosis it’s best to eat healthily, exercise more – a whole lot more, worry less but don’t ignore how you feel, take time out to relax and do things which make you happy.

I’m off now to meet a friend to celebrate the end of my chemo. Coffee and cake may well put in an appearance too.

I’m going to count all that as something that makes me happy.

I am so lucky

Now that my cancer treatment is over it’s time to start celebrating.

One of my friends organised a picnic in Hyde Park in London yesterday evening. Hot sunshine turned into a beautiful sunset as we drank champagne. Then Kylie Minogue sang for us.

It was just a group of friends and Kylie. Oh and tens of thousands of other people.

Okay this was Proms in the Park and we were actually celebrating my friend Louise’s birthday.

It very much reminded me of going to the Olympics. There were plenty of union jacks in the park. Plus this was something I wanted to go to but wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it, coming so soon after having chemotherapy.

Birthday girl Louise is on the left

Louise had invited me along months ago. I was determined that by this weekend I’d be feeling well enough to go. It was good having such a lovely deadline to aim for. Even so we both wondered if the build-up of the toxic chemical cocktails would beat me.

The day before the event I spent about 15 hours in bed to ensure I wouldn’t be exhausted. One of the girls brought a canvas chair for me and I sat for most of the concert.

It was inspiring watching Kylie on stage. She looked stunning as she performed live in front of so many people. As a fellow cancer fighter, she’s been through something similar to me and has come out the other side in style.

However the most important thing was being able to take part in my friend’s birthday celebrations. If it had been just a picnic in the park it would have still been brilliant.

It’s not a proper picnic without some patriotic cakes!

My celebrations actually started a few days ago.

Another of my friends popped over with pink champagne. Well maybe not quite popped over as she lives abroad and has a high powered job which keeps her very busy. While I was going through the cancer nightmare she helped to keep me entertained by texting with amusing tales about that stressful yet very successful life of hers.

And she wasn’t the only one.  I had so many – just thinking about you, hope you’re not feeling too bad – messages which often included a random slice of life. Friends who were up mountains or had just burnt their kid’s cauliflower cheese or were stood outside a petrol station waiting to go live on the BBC news.

Of course, there have been more colourful ones too. Some friends have kept me right up-to-date with their…err…more outrageous exploits!

I’ve loved all of the messages. I may have been incredibly ill for half a year but at least I was able to live vicariously through my friends. Everything was on hold while I focused on killing the cancer. It seemed like I was an outsider, only able to watch what was going on around me but not join in.

I made it!

My friend’s birthday do was the first social thing I’ve been to since my chemo ended. I was completely shattered after last night but glad I made it. After so long on the side lines it’s amazing to finally feel part of normal life again.

Happy Monday

There was a strange man in my bedroom a few days ago. When I say strange, I mean I’d never seen him before. With a laid back attitude, he was tall, tanned and had bleached blond hair. He looked more like a surfer in a smart shirt than a doctor.

The GP had been called as I felt worse than I had since the last lot of chemo. The leg pain, the sleepless nights and being permanently shattered had all got too much. Just thinking was hurting my head. None of the medicine I was taking seemed to work.

It was a locum doctor who turned up. We’d never met but it emerged that we’d been at university together. It made this random meeting in my bedroom seem even more surreal.

He stood next to a pile of magazines which were on the floor next to my bed, all unread. Dr Surf picked up a copy of Health and Fitness. A sporty looking woman smiled out from the front cover.

“This is you,” the GP said pointing at the magazine he was holding. It seemed more of a statement than a question.

“Hardly,” I replied.

I wasn’t exactly a picture of health. My face was still a bit red and puffy from crying with exhaustion earlier. I didn’t have enough energy to even consider drawing on some eyebrows or putting on a wig. What little hair I had left on my head was sticking up exposing my scalp. As for fitness? Pah.

After six months of cancer treatment it’s hard to see yourself as anything other than someone who’s very ill. Having a potentially killer disease takes over your whole life. But the doctor made me realise that I’m more than just a patient. That’s something I’m going to enjoy getting used to.

Anyway he sorted me out with some different painkillers. Since then they’ve been working wonderfully.

I had five hours of uninterrupted sleep last night. Five whole beautiful hours. When I woke up I felt rested and more like my old self. The pain seems to have eased and taken some of the tiredness with it. Most of those chocolate cravings have disappeared too!

Today I managed a tiny walk in the garden. I haven’t done that for weeks. Sunny with a slight chill in the air, it felt like autumn was on its way. It reminded me of that back to school feeling of exciting possibilities ahead.

I was quickly out of breath but I forced myself to go on. I’m determined to be fit once more.

Dr Surf was right. I was once like that sporty girl. Not a cover star mind you but just someone who liked exercise and being healthy. Now I’m feeling more like me I can imagine being that girl again.