chemotherapy and hair loss

Breast cancer lesson 176: a cancer diagnosis brings clouds, but it doesn’t have to block out the sun

There is something quite sobering about reading back over my diary from last year (I only write a line a day but, in some cases, that’s enough to conjure up some pretty strong images) and reflecting on the entry for 21 February 2014.

Sitting down to write last night’s entry (I cooked for friends, so it was more about wine and a cake that accidentally resembled a boob than it was morphine and NHS mash) I knew it would be a world away from this: ‘Short in terms of length, but long in terms of getting the cancer cut out of me. Boob off, tummy out, boob on. Humour can get you through a lot.’ (Ok, slightly more than a line, but you get the picture.)

You could say it was the most memorable day of 2014. But, with the quantities of general anaesthetic involved, it was also among the most forgettable. One year on, I think of it as the day I lost a boob and found myself, the day that reminded me of just how fragile we humans are and a day that taught me that life is too short to spend it among the clouds, when there is blue sky all around.

The cloud metaphor for me is a strong one and one that I saw neatly captured on a mindfulness animation the other day (I am doing a mindfulness course currently, but that’s a whole other story). Imagine a bright, clear blue sky, a sky that is calm and uplifting (sounds like a good sky to me). Then imagine that sky filling with clouds (of the light and fluffy and grey and stormy kind). These clouds represent our thoughts, helping to block out the blue sky with imaginings that are often far worse than the reality that follows. The secret in life is to remember that thoughts are just clouds. They drift in and out, they don’t last forever and, while you may look at them and see them as colouring your day, your mind can (just like a plane climbing through the sky) break through that blanket of grey and find the blue sky again (it’s always there, but our thoughts often make it harder to find). A cancer diagnosis will always bring with clouds, but it doesn’t gave to spell a change in the weather.

newhair

It’s hard not to see the blue sky when you’re celebrating a year being cancer-free! How to mark such a significant first anniversary? With another first of course. This time in the form of my first haircut since the pre-chemo pixie. Goodbye natural but Frodo-like locks and hello beginnings of something I might one day refer to as a style.

This is where is was before the chop:

IMG_1714

And this is the ultimate aim:

AFI FEST 2011 Presented By Audi - "My Week With Marilyn" Special Screening - Red Carpet

Bit more hair, bit less forehead required!

The experience itself was lovely. Conditioner (my hair rarely needs washing let alone conditioning now), a hair brush being passed through my short little locks and the feeling of someone else taking charge of my wild look was a real treat.

But that’s not all. Friday was dinner and laughs with a great friend (something I am doing more of now after reconnecting with lots of people last year). And, Saturday was a day in the kitchen surrounded by proving bread, homemade pesto and a white chocolate bombe.

cake

These last few days have been a celebration of the things I love to do, my way of thanking my body for surviving eight hours on the slab and coming out smiling – and thanking some of those around me for coming along for the ride. And the great thing is, my stomach is flat enough to not feel guilty about having a second slice of cake for dessert.

So, whatever you’re doing today, I invite you to look for the blue sky (difficult in the UK, I know). Acknowledge those clouds, but acknowledge that they don’t have to define a day, but can actually make the blue sky even more vibrant.

Breast cancer lesson number 77: What happened when the wig went to town (with me in tow)

Today, I introduced Suzie to the world (for anyone not familiar with my furry wiggy friend, you can find out all about her in lesson number 57).

Image

Suzie did well. I am not sure we will make the best of friends (although I am trying) and I doubt very much that she will be accompanying me on many adventures over the coming months, but for her ability to make me blend in and mask the fact I have toxic drugs flowing through my bloodstream, she does deserve a gold star (or maybe just a nice brush!).

It’s amazing what a bit of acrylic can do to make you feel quite self-conscious. Strangely, while you could argue she makes me look more ‘like myself’ than I have done in weeks, I have never felt less so. I guess ‘like myself’ is now what lies beneath, not the pixie cut I left behind on the salon floor a fortnight ago.

When I’m in my wig, I feel like I am pretending to be someone I’m not and I am afraid of being found out. This is not helped by the fact Suzie doesn’t actually move naturally and makes me look a bit like a Wallace and Gromit extra than a real well-coiffed person. I feel like the hair is an act, when the hats and the baldness are now part of who I am. Suzie is also like a hot hairy shower cap (although I am told she’s pretty convincing) and, quite frankly, who wants to walk about town in one of those?!

To try and get used to Suzie, I tested her out on the nurses at the cancer day unit first thing (I had planned to put back-up hats in my bag, but left them on the sofa, so it was hair or no hair). It felt like a safe environment given 80% of the hair in there is probably acrylic. The nurse flushing my PICC line didn’t even blink, but I am not sure she recognised me, even though we laughed all the way through my blood test last week (when I was sporting a blue hat).

I am delighted to report I kept my hair on throughout the dressing change and the following journey into town (although at one point I had a burning desire to whip it off). I did nearly dislodge her once when taking off my scarf and I looked a bit like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards by the time I got to my front door (thanks wind), but she did hold her own. And, for that, I will be forever grateful to the lovely Suzie.

Back home and back to bald and I couldn’t be happier (never thought I’d ever say that)! Even Duncan is starting to come round to the idea of me having less hair than him. They say blondes have more fun. I am starting to disagree.

While writing this post, I typed ‘bald quotes’ into Google (as you do!) and just have to share the quote that popped up when I did: ‘experience is the comb we receive after we’ve lost our hair’. I say bring on the comb, because my hair’s coming back…

Breast cancer lesson number 74: What to wear when you’ve got no hair

As much as I love my new nude maintenance-free do, it has forced me to develop a rather unhealthy obsession with the weather forecast (you should be impressed that I have written more than 70 blog posts and not mentioned this very British subject). After all, this is England, the land of unpredictable weather. And, while I appreciate there are much more challenging climates, as someone who is known to burn when it’s cloudy in February, I have to be careful not to expose my baldie look to England’s elements all too often.

In an attempt to keep my head warm (and not burnt), I have surrounded myself in a various assortment of hats and scarves (still haven’t made it out in Suzie yet) to match my mood and my colour preferences. I am not sure whether London thinks I’m trying out multiple personalities, making a style statement or just perfecting my ‘ill’ look. Whatever the onlookers think, as long as I’m comfortable, having fun and feeling confident, that’s all that matters.

So, here’s me trying out a few new looks. This is the closest I will ever get to a fashion show, so please indulge me.

1) Meet Carrie. She’s my favourite.
Great for: work, play and everything in between (but maybe not pilates or sleeping). This one will probably be worn when the hair comes back

Image

 

2) You can’t beat a T-shirt for the head
Great for: daywear and sports and for head shape appreciation

 Image

Image

Image

 

3) A scarf a day makes your cares drift away
Great for: hot summer days and elaborate knot-tying experiments

Image

Image

 

4) Should the English sun make an appearance, I am prepared! 
Great for: the great outdoors

Image

Image

Image

Image

5) Just because everyone needs to feel like they’ve stepped out of a Poirot movie at one time in their life
Great for: special occasions

Image

6) It gets cold at night
Great for: bedtime and lazy Sunday afternoons 

Image

If you hair is clinging on for dear life, all I can say is, have a play. And, if it’s not, it might be about time you dusted off your summer hats to see whether you’re making the most of your head shape. For the first time in my life, I know I am.

Enjoy! 

 

Breast cancer lesson number 73: Cancer strips away the things we think define us and, in so doing, shows us who we really are

It seems rather appropriate that, while everyone is chomping on the last of their Easter chocolate, my head should start to resemble that of a spring chicken.

Since the number two head shave, the darkish brown (even the odd black) spiky strands have disappeared, only to be replaced by what I can only describe as a bit of blonde baby fluff and a lot of baldness. It’s not shiny, I now have less hair than all the babies I have met in the last few weeks (I just wish they could talk so we could share tips) and Duncan still insists I move seamlessly from the sleep cap to the day headwear, so he doesn’t have to experience the ‘ill look’ too often. For him, it makes my invisible illness visible. For me, it’s a sign the drugs are working.

With the quickest haircare routine ever, I am still finding the whole hairloss side of treatment quite liberating. So, I have decided it is perfect timing to share my no make-up selfie with the world. I appreciate I am about a month or so behind, but having already donated a good few pounds to breast cancer charities recently, I didn’t really feel the need to yank on my hair to speed up the process. This, for me, is the true face of cancer. It can’t be masked with make-up. It’s a face that suggests that I’m fighting, but that won’t ever give away quite how much. It’s a face that looks well, but, in truth, it’s not a face I ever thought I’d see (especially not in my early 30s).

Image

I am lucky in that I have never been defined by my looks. I am also lucky in many ways that cancer has chosen to give me a glimpse of a life without hair to show me just how little any of this image stuff really matters. I never thought I’d say this, but I am more comfortable in my own skin now that I can see a lot more of it.

Throughout my childhood, I was teased for having the wrong straw-like hair, the wrong complexion, the wrong waist and hip measurements and a raised birthmark on my neck that made people point and stare. I felt out of place in my gym kit, out of place in my leotard or swimming costume and without a real place in life. I used to envy all the girls with their beautifully braided hair, flat stomachs, fashionable clothes and string of admirers. I used to dream of waking up as someone people would want to be. Now, I couldn’t dream of being anyone else.

Strange as it may seem, cancer has made me take one long hard look in the mirror and come away smiling. Cancer strips away the things we think define us and, in so doing, shows us who we really are. Cancer hasn’t made me stronger or happier, but it has let me see just how strong and happy I really am.

I no longer search for beauty in a perfectly-styled hairdo or glossy lips. I look for beauty behind the eyes. Anyone can paint on a vision of happiness or hide away under a layer of foundation. But beautiful people can laugh and smile without seeking the reassurance of others or the support that comes with a brightly-coloured lipstick.

So maybe, just maybe, you might like to ditch the make-up on more than one occasion this year. You don’t have to post it on Facebook and you don’t have to donate money every time you leave the mascara at home. But, you might just surprise yourself and discover that your real beauty doesn’t come from a tube of tinted moisturiser. It’s been there all along waiting for you to stop covering it up.

Thank you cancer, for making me feel beautiful. And, I hope that by reading this, you might learn to love the skin you’re in – hairless or otherwise!