Chemo#5

Horse meat. That’s what has been getting me through. Well, horse meat and my knitting friend.

Okay, I’m not talking about the accidental eating of horse. I’ve already done that.

A few years ago I was tricked into having horse meat. I was on a story about a ski resort in Western Ukraine. At the end of filming we had a meal with the people who ran the place.

On the table there was a traditional spread. Vodka, pickles and slices of pure pork fat. Along with the more usual things including salads, bread and a selection of cold meat.

I was tempted by what I’d been told was a local delicacy. I popped a piece of red meat into my mouth. Ham, I thought or maybe cured beef. No, it was raw horse meat. It didn’t taste of much and was incredibly chewy. Then I was told what it was. Eugh! Everyone else found it hilarious.

So how exactly does the horse meat help?

This week has been tough emotionally. Not so much sobbing, but lots of stray tears. They seem to surface so often but I’ve learnt that I can kinda stop them by thinking about something totally different.

I’m finding that focusing on horse meat is working for me. I imagine it red, raw and ready to be disguised as beef. It’s my way of interrupting my cancery concerns. I don’t always want to deny the tears but there are times when I just don’t want to cry.

Like during a trip to see a musical a few days ago. It was a big family outing with mum, my aunts Judy, Rose and Juliet and my cousin Marie. It was a happy occasion. But let’s just say that when there was a sad song, I thought a lot about horse burgers.

As for my knitting friend, that was Sally. She came to keep me company for chemo#5. Not going on your own to hospital makes it so much less stressful. Sally is my oldest friend; we’ve known each other since we were about five. She’s a nurse but that doesn’t mean that hospital visits are any easier for her. We just hoped it wouldn’t be a traumatic day like one of her previous trips.

She saw me soon after my big cancer operation last year. I’d come close to death and was recovering in intensive care. As if that wasn’t bad enough, just before she arrived I had some kind of a scare. The doctors thought I might have had a stroke. I’d come round not knowing where I was and unable to use my left arm. Sally was only able to see me for a few minutes as I had to go off for a brain scan. I was seriously ill; it must have been shocking to see me like that.

This time thankfully it was all very different. I felt strong and alive as we walked into hospital together. We went along the corridor painted with dolphins which leads to the chemo cocktail bar.

The drugs sent me straight  to sleep in the pink reclining chair. It’s lovely to have someone by your side who doesn’t mind just sitting there for hours. I was totally out of it but I knew that I had a friend there if something went wrong.

Thanks to the PICC line, it was all so easy. I barely noticed as the toxic liquid slipped into my veins. The only big scary needles belonged to Sally. I was in such a deep slumber that once the treatment was over I had to sleep for another hour afterwards.

Chemo#5 was wonderfully uneventful. There was no drama and by the time I came round Sally had finished her knitting.

Smells like…

The other day I had a big cancer flash-back. I was stopped in my tracks by a strong smell. Straight away it made me feel very sick.

This wasn’t a disgusting smell. It was actually what most people would consider to be quite nice and Christmassy.

It was a waft of cinnamon and it was coming from a bakery.

For me, this is the smell of chemotherapy.

It was just before Christmas, almost 11 years ago now, when I was first diagnosed. After surgery I spent what seemed like far too much time in the hospital’s chemo unit. The treatment took twice as long as it did this year. Luckily there’s a lovely café. Based in the glass roofed waiting area, it has an inviting aroma of freshly ground coffee beans and warm pastries with a hint of cinnamon.

I was told that it was best to avoid my favourite foods as they could become forever associated with chemo. It meant that if I had all the things that I shouldn’t really eat, then afterwards I wouldn’t want them. It was my kind of diet!

I began with a cinnamon swirl from the café. I experimented with other cakes and chocolate too. And I tried really hard. Despite my best efforts, once the chemo was over, the only naughty thing that I hated was the cinnamon pastries.

When I was treated again a few months ago, the cafe and the smell were pretty much the same. This time I stayed away from the pastries. Even so, cinnamon remains the most evocative reminder of my fight with cancer.

It’s not just this spicy scent of Christmas that I have a problem with. For a long time I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee. These days though I don’t find it too bad. I have a mug of proper coffee next to my laptop as I write this.

Of course, after all I’ve been through, I continue to despise that distinctive hospital smell.

During the first lot of chemo I also became very sensitive to herbs. It was thanks to eating a cheese and basil sandwich during my first ever session of chemo. After that I found the smell of all herbs far too strong to stomach.

So it was very unfortunate that when I moved abroad soon after cancer treatment I chose to live in places that loved dill and I mean they absolutely adored it. In Russia and Ukraine it seemed to be on everything. I even once found some stray dill on a fruit salad in a cafe!

At Besarabska, the most famous market in Kiev, the smell of dill was overwhelming. The roof of the indoor market kept the cold out and the smell of the devil herb in. If that wasn’t bad enough, as soon as you walked in, some of the old lady stall holders would thrust bunches of herbs at you, ‘young girl, try my delcious dill’ they would try to tempt me.

Euuugh, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to willingly eat that herb again.

Just like with food, there’s the potential that your perfume too could provoke bad memories. Almost as soon as I found out about the my illness I stopped wearing my favourite scent.

When I ended up in intensive care after the operation, I was so sick that I could barely move or even focus my eyes. All that seemed to work well was my nose. My sense of smell became heightened. It was strange how it was suddenly so incredibly powerful.

I was aware of everything. Shampoo, soap and hand cream. But especially perfume. I had to ask my family and friends to stop wearing it when they visited. I was so aware of almost every smell. Mostly it made me want to throw up. As I got better, my sense of smell started to go back to normal.

Now that the whole cancery ordeal is over, one of the things I’ve done to celebrate is to buy a new bottle of my favourite perfume. I love wearing it again.

It’s a sweet reminder that I’ve beaten cancer twice. This is the happy smell of success.

Hair today but not long now

Well it’s still here. Mostly.

My hair is now falling out ever so slightly. It’s hard to work out if this is normal and or down to the evil chemo drugs. I know it’s really the later but I’m trying to pretend otherwise.

Just because I lost it all once before it doesn’t make the prospect of this happening all over again any easier.

Through a fog of chemo pain and tiredness I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair. We’ve been through a lot together. I’ve realised that it’s the bad hair days that mean the world to me. And some of them were truly horrific!

It was ten years ago that it last fell out thanks to cancer. Back then, inspired that I had a second chance at life I came up with a list of things I wanted to do once I was better. It was my list for living.

One of the things was to live abroad. Not long after my treatment ended I set out on my big adventure. I was still bald, so me and my wig moved to Moscow to work at the BBC bureau.

A few months and an inch of re-growth later and I ditched the wig. I unveiled my brand new hair at a New Year’s Eve party.

The temperature that night in the Russian capital was about -30. You can see why I’m already well-practised at having a freezing cold head.

Also on the list was working as a foreign correspondent. I was doing just that in Estonia when I thought that my hair was long enough for its first cut.

A friend was helping me translate. Unfortunately she didn’t know how to say, please don’t make it a mullet.

I was beginning to understand that bad hair dos were part of the experience although it couldn’t prepare me for my next hair don’t.

A year or so later and I’d been working like crazy covering the mass protests of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as the BBC’s Kiev correspondent when I decided as a treat to get my hair dyed for the first time since it’d fallen.

I went in for subtle highlights. I left with bright orange hair.

There was no time to have it corrected properly because a big story broke while I was still in the salon. I had to leave before it was even dry. A few days later and still in shock I got it toned down.

It was with trepidation I got my hair cut and coloured in all sorts of places. It was never quite that awful again although I have blanked out an encounter with a hairdresser in Kosovo who had a very liberal attitude when it came to peroxide.

Now I’ve had to have my long hair cut short. It’s an attempt to stop it all falling out. Apparently it was putting pressure on the follicles. I got it chopped at the hairdressers in the village.

All those memories from my foreign adventure were left in a heap on the floor. I picked up some of locks and stuffed them into an old envelope.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them but I didn’t want them all to be just swept away.

I have to do everything I can to encourage it not to fall out. That means I have to avoid washing and brushing it too much. Then maybe I’ll only lose some of it.

So I’ve got a short bob now. I’m getting used to another hairstyle that I didn’t want. But I’m not sad. This symbolises another important stage in my life – beating cancer again.