Breast cancer lesson number 60: Get your head in gear (but only with accessories that suit your face shape)

I have a head for hats. This rather exciting discovery, made in a hospital consulting room of all places only a few days ago, is not one I think I would have ever made if it hadn’t been for a bit of chemotherapy-induced hair loss.

I think it’s fair to conclude ­– especially after revealing my current choice of underwear in lesson number 59 – that I am not a fashionable woman. Yes, I have followed some basic styling rules in recent years, I keep to my ‘summer’ colours and now own such things as matching accessories (I even have a copy of the What Not to Wear rulebook somewhere). But, it took me about 26 years to realise that I don’t look good in black and that necklaces aren’t just for special occasions. You wouldn’t believe I used to write a blog for a model!

It will come as no surprise for you to learn then that I have always been pretty unadventurous in the headwear department. Apart from a regular haircut (that has only recently developed into something other than a bob), my head usually gets treated to a bobble hat on Bonfire night and then a series of fluffy numbers throughout the winter months. And, if it’s very lucky, the occasional swimming cap (although I think my open water swimming days might be on hold for some time).

Faced with a spring/summer season of baldness, I jumped at the chance to attend a Headstrong session. Set up by Breast Cancer Care (although I think anyone undergoing cancer treatment can book one), these sessions are designed to help people make confident choices about everything from hats and headbands to scarves and hair accessories. Beyond the odd bit of fake fringe, the emphasis is less on hair (by which I mean wigs), and more on the fabrics and styles to help turn hair loss into a fashion statement.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I loitered in the Cancer Day Unit waiting room. I certainly didn’t expect Breast Cancer Care’s answer to Trinny and Susannah and one of the most enjoyable experiences of my entire cancer journey so far. Armed with a cup of tea (naturally), I sat back in front of the mirror as two wonderful ladies tied knots on and around my head and dressed me in blue florals, leopardprint and velvet bows. We started with headscarves (I got a beautiful pink and white polka dot one with matching grey headtie to take home as a free gift), before moving on to scarves with hidden caps underneath, turbans, berets, beanies, soft hats, sleep caps, baker boy caps, bucket hats and pearl-effect hairbands. We covered all the seasons in about half an hour.

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The whole appointment was an entertaining voyage of discovery. For example, I learned that a wig cap is nothing more than a popsock for your head. I had visions of it being more a like a latex swimming cap, but no! I now know I look like a gnome in a turban and a milk maid in an eyelet scarf. Baker boy caps and bucket hats are a must for the summer and, when I put a Mandy hat on (one of my favourites), I look like an extra in a Poirot movie. Basically, I was just born in the wrong decade. And, it’s amazing what a thin headtie can do to dress a short pixie hairdo.

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With a couple of summer hats and headties on order – to add to my small pile of scarves and soft hats – I think I am ready for SS14. Maybe this will be my summer of style (if we ignore the fact I am highly likely to be bald for most of it).

Please don’t think I am cheating on Suzie (see lesson 57) by stocking up on soft fabrics and straw bucket hats. But part of me just thinks if I’m going to lose the lot, why try and cover it up with an acrylic equivalent (other than for relevant meetings of course)?

So, if you’re about to embark on chemo and would like a whistlestop tour through the wonderful world of scull caps, jersey turbans and faux fur hats, I would book a Headstrong session as soon as you can – and certainly before you start shopping.

Cancer may be going after my hair (or so my hairbrush tells me), but it’s not going to take my confidence with it!

Breast cancer lesson number 42: Make your next appointment a real treat

If my diary is anything to go by, I can tell you now, NHS staff are busy (and I mean busy). Let’s face it, when undergoing active treatment, a week without a trip to the hospital (or a least a series of letters) can seem a bit disconcerting.

Stood waiting for the nurse to puncture me with a giant needle and implant of Zoladex this morning, however, I was hit not by the fact it was my third appointment of the week and it was only Tuesday, but by the fact that it was before 9am and the waiting room was packed. On each warm seat was a patient (or supportive shoulder) with their own story, their own medical history and their own treatment plan. Each one of those patients needed time. But, when you have a waiting room overflowing with people, time is the one thing in short supply.

I am in awe of the NHS. This has nothing to do with the number of needles that have made it under my skin over the last 32 years, the eight general anaesthetic procedures I have now racked up or the phone system that you do occasionally get lost in. This has everything to do with the level of care that I have received – and continue to receive – on a daily basis. It’s the breast care nurse who attended my oncology appointment yesterday just because she wanted to catch up with me. It’s the surgeon who stopped me in the corridor to tell me I was looking well. It’s the student nurse who took me to the toilet seven times in one day on the ward and gave me a wonderful shower when I couldn’t move properly. It’s the receptionist who said how great it was to see me smile. See the NHS as a large, flawed, headline-making system and you miss the point. The NHS is an awe-inspiring service filled with people who give over their lives to make the lives of strangers just that little bit better. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to go and sit in an oncology waiting room. Then, you won’t disagree.

The trouble with cancer (like so many serious and debilitating illnesses), however, is that appointment times and treatment plans are only half the battle. A consultation provides merely a window into the life you are leading and each one is often determined by the way you are feeling when you get up that day. Away from the bright lights, the smell of alcohol wipes and the understanding faces, when it’s just you and the ‘big C’, it’s easy to feel alone and invisible. The experts are working tirelessly to save your life and reassure you at every stage. They can’t be there to help with through daily exercises, to rub oil into your scars or support you as you shape a new life plan.

I am a great believer that the more positive I am when I embark on a new course of treatment, the happier I’ll be both going through – and at the end of – it. That’s why I decided early on that I needed to find a place to go where I could be treated (in a pleasurable way), supported and encouraged to rebuild my body and my life (with not a needle in sight). The good thing about living in London is, it didn’t take me long to find it. It’s called The Haven, and I have just spent the day there exploring the wonders of Qi gong and discovering a few nutritional secrets – and surprises.

Haven by name and haven by nature, the centre is designed to help anyone affected by breast cancer. Here, deciding your treatment plan is less about the size of your tumour and more about whether you’d prefer to try a bit of homeopathy, Shiatsu or craniosacral therapy. Although there are currently three centres, this is a charity with no geographical boundaries. The therapists will skype, call, email or meet in their attempts to reach as many patients as possible. It’s the care that starts when the NHS consultation room door closes.

I learned some interesting things today, not least about blood sugar management. Here are a few fast facts to tease your palate:

1)    Cinnamon mimics insulin (will be sprinkling more liberally in future)
2)    The health benefits of turmeric are only felt by combining it with black pepper
3)    Cooking with lard is not always a bad thing (in fact cooking in lard is considered better than cooking with vegetable oil)
4)    My desire to have eggs with everything could work in my favour
5)    Apparently, try a bit of raw butter and you’ll never go back
6)    Herbs and spices are a girl’s best friend. Not only do they pack meals with great flavours, they’re superb for the body too.
7)    I drink too much tea (and wine)

I came away feeling relaxed, inspired and with a burning desire to eat porridge for breakfast all next week. Talking of food, I can confirm there is actually no fat to be grabbed from my tummy currently (I appreciate this has been engineered, but it still felt good to hear it). The nurse this morning remarked on it and I was enjoying this news until I realised it wasn’t actually a compliment – it was a problem (that was where the giant needle needed to go). Thankfully, my left side stepped up to the table. All I can say to anyone having the Zoladex implant is don’t look at the needle (especially not if you’re not having cream to numb the area)!

Today taught me that it’s healthy to see more than the hospital waiting room. Fill your diary with things that make you smile and appointment times with only positive side effects and you’ll find you’re a lot stronger when it comes to facing the milestone meetings and sharp and increasing-large needles. You’ll feel better and, so too will the team dedicated to helping you get through each treatment stage.

Let the hospital save your life and the Haven (or an equivalent near you) help you get your life back.

NB: In case you’re interested, we got seven embryos. We may never have to use them, but they’re in the freezer for the next decade!