hair loss

Breast cancer lesson 170: Tis the season to wear winter hats

It seems only fitting that my hair should be entering its ‘elfin’ phase as the season of advent begins. Anyone who knows me well knows that Christmas is my favourite time of year, so I am delighted that I don’t just have hair, but I also look the part. It isn’t yet in need of a cut, but for the first time in a long time, I don’t look like a sick person. And, you know what? That’s a great feeling.

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People keep asking me whether I am going to go back to the basic bob I sported for a good six years. The answer? Absolutely not. While I think I need a little more up top so that Duncan stops calling me ‘boy’, I don’t think it will be too long before I am declaring my hairdo an official style. I would never have taken the risk and cut it this short had I not been forced into it. But, now I don’t think I’ll ever grow it long again. Wash and wear is something everyone should try!

It may sound strange, but when I look in the mirror and see my nearly-cropped-but-not-quite hair, I see a side to me I actually quite like. It’s a side of me that’s strong. It’s a side of me that knows how to fight. It’s a side of me that isn’t afraid to face the opposition in front of me. It’s still a little vulnerable and sensitive, but it’s a face that says if I can take on death, I can take on anything. And, now that I am firmly rooted back in the real life, it’s a face of which I need to be reminded.

There is another plus side to having short hair, however, that I hadn’t fully appreciated until now and the beginnings of what I call winter. With less than an inch on my head, even the hot flushes can’t stop me from feeling the cold. That’s why this weekend, I stepped out in my first ever winter hat that isn’t a bobble hat or knitted beret. Yes, with no pom pom in sight, it was just me and a winter cloche-style number. It’s not a hairloss hat. It’s a high street hat that I have the confidence to wear because of hair loss. Because, let’s face it, if you can rock bald, no other headwear will ever really raise an eyebrow!

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The furry addition to my wardrobe is yet to make it off the coat hook, but I am excited to have progressed from tea cosy to something with shape!

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I appreciate this isn’t particularly cancer-related, but after having had so much fun with Breast Cancer Care’s Headstrong service and enjoyed a summer season of head wear, I felt winter needed its moment in the spotlight. I am still in my summer scarf and coat, so hat wearing does constitute news in my book.

Talking of Breast Cancer Care, I have just enjoyed my first ever carol service in London – and what a wonderful service it was! Candlelight, beautiful singing, lovely speeches and even a tasty mulled wine and mince pie. It was on my brighter life list and I am delighted to have ticked it off!

Thank you to this amazing charity for the most magical start to advent I have ever had!

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Breast cancer lesson number 164: Here’s to a little thing called progress

Now, if my email inbox is anything to go by – particularly following my brief appearance on the BBC 10 O’clock news on Monday night – I’m overdue an update. The one thing I didn’t think about when the TV crew came round insisting that I drink copious amounts of tea (oh, yes, they got the measure of me pretty quickly), was that the last time I posted a picture of myself publicly, I had very little hair. Now, however, while still short and not yet what you’d call a style, there is something resembling hair on my head. And, on Monday night, it feels like the whole world got a quick look.

To track my journey from bald chemo shine to, hopefully, a nice pixie crop and beyond (although I think I may be short forever now), I have been taking photos on the 18th of every month to celebrate being a month further away from my last poisoning on 18 July.

Here’s me in August (still bald with only the smallest amount of fluff and no eyebrows or lashes):

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Here’s me in September (with something darker than chicken fluff and a few stray eyebrows and lashes)

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And here’s me just a week ago (with what I can only describe as a silky carpet of hair in a colour yet to be fully determined – plus eyelashes and a disorganised eyebrow).

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I am delighted to report that Susie the wig is tucked away, the hairloss hats are waiting to be packed up into my cancer capsule (see lesson 158 to find out more) and I even got to towel-dry my hair the other day. If that isn’t progress, then I don’t know what is!

And that’s not all. Also deserving of a mention in these post-active treatment headlines is the exciting news that I today applied my first bit of mascara. Yes, it was hardly noticeable to anyone but me (and only because I applied it), but to me, it was yet another step away from the life that cancer tried to control. And, I am back to my pre-surgery, pre-Christmas 2011 weight. Every teeny weeny bit of progress gives me a reason to smile. And I am keen to do a lot of smiling over the coming weeks and months.

Of course, there’s still a way to go with the hair (any winter hat recommendations would be gratefully received), the hot flushes (the return to work means I am frequently sweating through my clothes on the tube), the sleep patterns (although the cold helps), the tiredness (am not sure it is fatigue but the yawning is constant) and the peripheral neuropathy (these weird hands and feet sensations are a little troublesome). I also still feel like I’m on a timer, trying to squeeze everything into my life before my sand runs through. But, I’m getting there – and that’s all that matters.

And, I’m ready for my next challenge. A trip to the swimming pool tomorrow…

Wish me luck!

Breast cancer lesson number 86: The secret to smooth summer legs

Ok, so I appreciate the title to this blog is a little misleading. While I do have the secret, it does involve a few rounds of toxic drugs, so it is a bit of a hardcore way to solve an everyday problem.

That said, if you’ve got to endure chemotherapy, you’ve got to celebrate those perks. One whole summer with beach-ready legs is a good side effect – just a shame I won’t leaving the country to find sandy beach on which to air them. Chemo, there aren’t many things I thank you for (especially not the ulcerated tongue that is currently making it difficult to talk). But, I thank you for this.

Interestingly, unlike the dramatic overnight hair loss I experienced with my hair, my legs have been a little quieter in their elimination of stumble. Imagine my surprise this morning then, when I discovered their silky smoothness. The great thing is, I tend to be a bit slack with my hair routine over the winter, and now I can be just as slack with amazing results. I have heard that chemo does wonders for the skin. I am now starting to believe it.

The secret to keeping your eyebrow hair and nostril hair while on chemo is one I would be keen to discover. While I have embraced by baby-like baldness and my hair-free thighs, my eyebrows have started to thin in a noticeable way and losing my nostril hair means I don’t need a hot meal to make my nose run!

Chemo, let’s make a deal. You can keep my leg hair and my armpit hair (and pretty much all my body hair), but in return would you please return my head and nostril hair and my eyebrows. If not, can you make sure we have a hot summer so I can make the most of the hair loss while it lasts. Thank you.

Breast cancer lesson number 83: Dare to bare!

Today I conducted an experiment on behalf of every woman currently grappling with the physical effects of cancer. I left my hats and my ‘fake’ hair at home, threw caution to wind and started out on my commute across the capital with my bald head in full view.

For me, it was bold (or bald). London, however, with its preoccupied commuters and eclectic fashion sense has a great way of looking in the opposite direction. With the exception of a few pitying stares and a couple of double takes, I was just another person navigating the crowds to get to my destination. I didn’t want a seat. I didn’t want a hand. I just wanted to blend in. And, that’s exactly what I did.

While I do think a ‘new boob on board’ badge may have helped me avoid the elbows of those fighting for a bit of personal space, it was a fairly pleasant experience (as much as a commute across London at rush hour will ever be). It also reminded me that most people have so much to think about, that the potential plight of a stranger across the carriage really doesn’t register.

So, my advice to all you lovely ladies currently without lovely locks is dare to bare! Bald can be beautiful and pretty liberating. I shall leave you with the words of Larry David (slightly amended in itals): “Anyone can be confident with a full head of hair. But a confident bald man (or woman fighting cancer) – there’s your diamond in the rough.”

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

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

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

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

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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

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

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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).

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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!

Breast cancer lesson number 63: You can be hair free and carefree

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Ok, so hair free may be a slight exaggeration, but as far as I am concerned, a number two with a couple of bald patches is pretty much there. While I am not sure it is right that I should have less hair than my fiancée, I have to say, I like my head shape and, as haircuts go, it was pretty exhilarating. Who needs wig Suzie when GI Jackie is in town?!

Sitting in the hairdresser’s chair (not sure I should have chosen lunch hour at Canary Wharf but never mind), I didn’t feel at all sad. Funny as it may sound, I felt privileged to have the chance to experiment and liberated at the prospect. Four weeks ago, I couldn’t imagine having a pixie-shaped do, and I loved it. One month on, and all I could think about as the locks fell was how lucky I am to a) have a head shape that doesn’t resemble an egg and b) have so many wonderful friends and family all willing me on.

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How did I prepare for my exciting turn in the salon? As well as a nice glass of wine last night to toast my old locks, I plucked my eyebrows. Now it may sound strange to be voluntarily attacking the hair that doesn’t want to fall out (yet). But, my view was that if my head was going to look a little naked, I best make an effort everywhere else. Why the leg can’t fall out first is beyond me!

This morning, after examining my bald patch, applying some eye makeup and adding a headtie, I met up with Duncan and headed for the clippers. My hairdresser was amazing. He tucked me away at the back of the salon and cut my pixie down to size (first with scissors and then clippers) before washing and oiling my head. It felt like a proper appointment. I even got time for a cup of tea. And, the best bit? It was free! I do think the lady sat opposite actually thought I was making a conscious style decision as I laughed through the whole thing. Her facial expression first had a hint of pity and then a hint of confusion (or maybe just fear). It felt good – and a little naughty.

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Surprisingly happy with the new look (and the fact that I will be saving loads in shampoo and conditioner), I left Suzie in her bag and opted for a fun blue hat. On the train on the way to work, I found myself fascinated by the lack of hair demonstrated by other passengers (style choices I might add). I also had a burning desire to whip off my hat and join in. One thing I love about London is that nobody cares. They’d probably just think I was channeling my inner Jessie J.

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The hat didn’t last long (lovely as it is, it just feels wrong wearing it indoors). My office were quick to embrace the new look and share in the excitement of the day. After that, it was au naturel all the way. Yes, people had a good look. But, the truth is, I don’t look ill. I just look like I’m making a rather bold fashion statement.

How do I feel now? I couldn’t be happier. I took control. I no longer have to watch the strands fall. Cancer can’t take what isn’t there and just knowing that makes me feel empowered. Plus the feeling of a light breeze on my head is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It soothes me in a way I can’t articulate. I’d say try it, but that might be a bit extreme, so you’re probably safer taking my word for it.

Today I was strong. I looked cancer in the eye and I took charge. I also discovered that hair is over-rated. It isn’t a part of who I am. It’s just a little nice-to-have. I will miss it, but I know I’ll be a better person for having lost it.

Coco Chanel once said: ‘a woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life’. It’s only now I truly understand the meaning of that phrase.

All I can say is, if it’s coming off, take it off. It may not be a haircut I’ll ever choose again, but it’s probably the best haircut I will ever have – and the one you will probably always remember.

Breast cancer lesson number 62: How to bear losing your hair

Today was supposed to be a quiet day. Working at home with just a cup of tea for company, the day was there to be filled with sunshine and strategic thinking. Turns out cancer had other ideas. Today is a day I will never forget.

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I thought hair loss would be a gradual thing. There is, however, nothing gradual about scratching your head while pondering over a paragraph of text, only to be greeted by a clump of the stuff. And we certainly won’t be dwelling on what happened when I went to the toilet.

I thought I would find it amusing in some way. After all, while I had started to think it might never happen, I knew deep down it always would. I thought I was prepared for the emotions that came with it. But, the truth is, you can never really prepare for something like this. When hair you have known and loved is no longer on your head, but in your hand, there’s only one thing to do – have a good old cry.

As soon as the tears subsided, it was time to get practical. My hair (or what’s left of it) is too short to donate (if you’re about to go through this and have more than 17cm of hair, I would urge you to follow in the footsteps of this inspiring young woman Connie, who has just donated some bunches to charity). But, given I am not one to sit around waiting for something to happen (and I certainly don’t want to clog up the sink), I have already made my decision. It’s time to take back the control. It’s coming off, at 12.20pm tomorrow!

So, what started out as a quiet day at home is now the last day pixie and I will be together for quite some time. I think the hardest part is knowing that my hair may never be the same again. I’m not afraid to lose it (although there are a few marks on my head I am not particularly excited to see). I’m just worried that what grows back may be a new version of me that I may not like straight away. It may be better. It will probably be different. It’s an adjustment I never thought I’d have to make. And, now I am staring at a spring/summer season of baldness, part of me wishes I could just grab it from the sink and stick it back on. I’ve done the scarf shopping. I just didn’t really think I’d need to wear the scarf.

Every side effect that suddenly appears is a rather harsh reminder that, while on active treatment, you can’t get comfortable. You have to be prepared. Because, if you’re not, something will creep up and try to steal your happiness when you least expect it.

Tomorrow is head shaving day. Tomorrow I lose a little bit more of myself to cancer. Tomorrow is the day I may also be introducing my alter ego Suzie to the world (or not, so will be packing some fabric-based alternatives just in case).

Of one thing I am certain. With a trip to the office scheduled for the afternoon, tomorrow is going to be interesting! Wish me luck.

Think Duncan and I might be raising a glass to my mousey locks tonight! 

Breast cancer lesson number 57: How to keep your hair when all about you are losing theirs

Cancer opens doors to rooms within hospitals that you would never know existed. Tucked away in the Orthopaedic Centre, with a corridor for a waiting room, the Orthotist’s office is one such place.

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Such was the secretive way in which this appointment was booked in the first place – the man who left a message on my phone requested I come to ‘patient appliances’ for a chat – I wasn’t even sure it existed myself. Why should an NHS wig referral appointment be surrounded by such mystery? And should a wig really be categorised as an ‘appliance’? Most appliances I know come with a plug, not shampooing instructions.

Sat next to a man with a walking stick, I started to imagine what might happen behind the appointment room door. And, I am rather amused to report that I will actually never know. This is not because I missed the appointment, but because my session happened with a wig fitter in the end, not the elusive ‘Orthotist’, in what I can only describe as ‘the wig cupboard’ next door.

The wig cupboard was like a hairy version on Narnia. Packed away in this little room were piles and piles of acrylic beauties waiting for their turn on my head. Having parked myself in the hairdresser-like chair, it hit me that I hadn’t really considered what style I might like to replace the little pixie to which I am now rather attached. Of course, Duncan requested a long, brunette style. (Not sure now is the time to request an upgrade that is not even close to my original colour or length, but you’ve got to admire him for trying!).

I needn’t have worried. A quick flick through the catalogue (NHS wigs may be free, but they are actually provided by a private company, so are great quality), was drawn to a pixie-equivalent cut in a spring honey colour. Her name is Suzie and I think I like her! She only needs washing once a month (with Johnson’s baby shampoo) and, apart from the fact she is very hot when combined with my full head of hair and a wig cap, I think we might just get along nicely.

I love the fact all wigs come with a personality. My head was turned by Faith, and I thought Sylvia would be worth a go, but Hayley, Kirsty and Linda didn’t get a look in. Maybe Suzie should become my new alter ego, not just my bald-headed disguise?

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Just for Duncan, I did try Brunette Scully for size (I am a bit shallow though as I dumped her without even asking her name). I am not sure the dark-haired look is for me, but am happy to experiment over the coming months. If you have any suggestions (pink, blue or otherwise) please do post here. I am only planning on going through this hair loss chemo thing once, so I may as well make the most of it.

So here is Suzie. Blink and you might not think she is anything other than a slightly longer version of my current cut. I need to play with the styling, but she’s pretty convincing for a bit of acrylic.

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I’m not worried about losing my hair (although I think I would be slightly alarmed if it starting coming off in the middle of town). I’m planning on embracing my baldness and making every day a mini-makeover day, with scarves and hats to match. But, for that one day when I might just want to look in the mirror and escape the thought of the chemotherapy drugs running through my body, there’s Suzie. And just knowing I have an alter ego to rely on makes me smile.

The big question is, will Duncan know the difference when he returns home from work this evening?

Breast cancer lesson number 41: The injecting is worth it

Eight has always been my lucky number. And, I am delighted to report, it seems to be not just lucky in life, but lucky in producing life. That’s right, the surgeon and embryologist have managed to extract eight eggs. By lunchtime tomorrow, we should find out how many of these eggs have been turned into embryos. There’s a one in 20 chance it will fail, so let’s hope the odds are in our favour this time after so much bad cancer-related luck.

The egg collection procedure (or what I saw of it) is nothing to fear. First, you arrive in your cubicle, get into a gown, foam slippers and a trendy mesh cap. Then you answer lots of questions, confirm consent and, in my case, pop a quick suppository in (it was either me or the anaesthetist doing this and I could tell by the look on his face that he’d rather it was me doing the honours). I obliged as he was the magic anaesthetist who’d managed to extract blood from me just a week ago.

The procedure room itself is the first theatre-like room I have ever seen (usually I get knocked out in a room nearby so I don’t get to see the monitors, team and sets of scrubs). Due to the fact it’s the first time I have been without my bra and corset for an extended period, they let me position myself on the bed, before attaching heart monitors, oxygen and a cannula. After a little gentle persuasion, the team took enough blood out for themselves and the oncologists so I avoided two blood tests today – and further bruising on my sore-looking left arm. Right arm was off limits as this second band shows.

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The last thing I remember is a syringe worth of happy relaxing juice and a further syringe of general anaesthetic. After that, they stuck a needle in my ovaries, extracted the eggs and fed me a nice cocktail of morphine and paracetamol. I was back in my cubicle with a packet of biscuits and a nice cup of tea in no time and, am now back home, back in the corset and rejoicing in the fact stage two is pretty much done. Just have to drink three litres of liquid a day (tea doesn’t count sadly) to flush my system – and wait for that embryo call.

You’d think after all this ovarian stimulation, my body might get a day off. Sadly, the oncologist I met in the morning had other ideas. My ovaries may have been swollen with eggs today for baby-making brilliance but, as of tomorrow morning, they’re going to be shut down completely until August (part of fertility back-up plan part two). Tomorrow morning, a lovely nurse at the hospital will be popping an implant under my tummy skin to release a drug called Zoladex. This clever drug (released over the next four weeks, after which I will need another implant) is designed to send me into a fake menopause. Chemotherapy can’t kill something it thinks is already dead. While I can’t say going through the menopause twice (first time at 32 at the same time as chemo) is particularly attractive (just imagine the combined side effects), if someone gives you the chance to protect you’re ovaries, you’ve got to take it. I will be well-versed in hot flushes when the menopause happens for real, that’s for sure.

As well as putting my body through five Zoladex implants, there was one further drug-related revelation in oncology. It seems that because of the fact the cancer had spread beyond the breast and into tissue surrounding the lymph nodes, I will be taking the anti-oestrogen drug for 10 years rather than five. This means that the end of treatment will be 2024 at the earliest! The good news? We should be able to come off it to try for children before the 10 years is up. Sounds a bit like extreme family planning to me.

With the eggs out, the countdown to chemo is now on. April 2 is D-day (or destruction day) and 31 March the day when the PICC line goes in (meaning four months without blood test needles). Stage three is in sight at last.

So, let’s hope we get those embryos in the freezer and let’s hope cancer doesn’t take another chunk out of my femininity. Having taken my boob, it’s already got its eyes on my hair!