‘Brave the shave’, glosses over the loss.

This is a post I have started and not finished many times.  Either events have over taken the post or I can’t bear to transport myself back to the first dalliance with barbaric chemo. But on the cusp of making a decision about new treatment which will likely see me lose my hair again I feel I must revisit it and commit to paper.

I’m not going to write about all the side effects, suffice to say there were many and some still keep coming from that early treatment. It’s also impossible to unravel what was chemo related and what was menopause related. I went from not even being peri-menopausal to post menopausal overnight.

It was like throwing yourself of an oestrogen cliff.

Bone pain, mood swings, night sweats, hot flushes and all sorts of other intimate issues were thrown in the mix with cancer and its treatment. However, the mouth ulcers, bowel issues, blurred vision, chemo brain, neuropathy, hand and foot syndrome and nausea were all less psychologically complex than the hair loss. 

Nothing shouts cancer across a busy playground than a bald head.  It is the icon of cancer patients. It incites pity, cocked heads, patronising conversations, hackneyed platitudes like no other. 

Yet being bald wasn’t actually that bad.  

Going bald was a whole new ball game. All the publicity about ‘braving the shave’ for me  glosses over the loss. 

The cold cap

Rightly or wrongly I decided to try and keep my hair. I endured the cold cap on my first ever chemo back in June 2018. This in itself is an experience! You hair is sprayed all over with cold water, then imagine putting your head in thick rubber swimming hat filled with tubes like the pipes in the inside of your freezer. This is then secured in with a neoprene skull cap and attached to a generator and a water pump. The cap fills with freezing cold water which is then turned to ice on your head. The weight and constriction are intense and that’s before you add in the cold. Wowzers!

As my daughter said ‘Mummy, was it like a really bad ice cream headache?’ ‘kind of’ I managed to reply!

The wonderful nurses at my original hospital managed expectation brilliantly. They said when you think you can’t handle it any more, take a deep breath and wait another 10mins and it will be ok. I did this and it was. Because my head was so numb I stopped feeling anything except the weight of the cap. You have to have it on an hour before and an hour after so I had it on for about 4hrs. Apparently it freezes your hair follicles and stops the chemo getting to you. 

Like most series of chemo I had six three weekly cycles. i started with FEC-T. A cocktail of 4 drugs delivered individually via i/v, interspersed with the steroids, flushes and Piriton. So I only had to endure the cold cap another 5 times. I thought I’d give it a go.

Except my hair started falling out 10 days after my first cycle so it seemed a bit pointless. So a few weeks after I discovered I had cancer I had to deal with the very real reality that I was going to lose my hair. I had yet to tell all my friends and colleagues I had cancer, I hadn’t absorbed it myself. I was still fulfilling work commitments and had not told clients. 

The Gig

A few days later I had to deliver a lecture on Innovation and a facilitated workshop at the London Business School. My friends and family thought I was mad, but I’d worked on winning this piece of work for almost a year and I’d done the prep so I only had to stand up, smile and deliver. This seemed easier than uttering the words ‘I’ve just found out I have advanced breast cancer and I’m on chemotherapy’.

I’d been on chemo for 3 weeks and my blood counts were at their lowest. I was seriously immune compromised. I decided that the train and tube wasn’t going to cut it. It was bad enough being in a room with 80 people. I either cancelled (which I’ve never done) or got a taxi and got on with it. 

So the morning I had this lot in my hand I got in a cab and delivered. I had to make a last minute jacket change as the navy one exasperated the hair which was literally falling out as I moved. The session went well and I loved it. They thought I was a right diva when I left and jumped in my private car to take me home. If only they knew! 

The week before the LBS gig, I panicked that all my hair was going to be gone in days (based on the rate It was falling out and the amount I found on my pillow, in the plug hole and on the floor). 

The Wig

I needed to get a back up plan, I wasn’t ready to stand up bald in a room of 80 people. I needed to source a wig. And fast. This is not as easy as it sounds. In the NHS you need a referral, then an appointment and then they ordered something in. After a bit of phoning around I found a wonderful women about 45 mins away from me. She had no appointments, but put me on the cancellation list. She also asked me to send some photos of my hair via email. Within minutes of sending the email she called back and said she was pretty sure she had a wig in stock that would suit. Originally she’d talked about ordering 4/5 in and then me trying them and deciding. I was comfortable with this. However, she sounded very sure about the wig in stock. Sometimes you have to trust someone who specialises in something. I rang a good friend who I knew would be up for and not freaked out by the trip and would give an honest opinion.

Off we went and had an absolute ball!

It was honestly one of the most unexpectedly fun outings Cancer has gifted me. The wig was so perfect it was weird. It was my hair, but on a good day. The woman styled it and showed my how to brush it, wash and condition (I kid you not) and dry it. All things I had no clue about. Suddenly staying in to wash my hair would be a reality! 

My hair just before Chemo started
The wig (parting swapped sides, but nobody noticed!)

My wig was expensive, yet another hidden cost of cancer, but it was worth every penny. I didn’t need to wear it to the LBS, but the day I bought it I wore it for school pick up. It was a tight fit as I still had quite a lot of hair despite what had fallen out. Two mums were in on it, but apart from that no one knew. 95% of the playground didn’t know I had cancer. I got several breezy ‘nice hair cut’ ‘you look well’ comments and one Mum who has the same hairdresser said she loved the cut and had sarah done it? She touched it and said how well it sat at the back. I felt sick inside, dreading it coming off as she touched it, cringing as I lied about my cut! We laugh about this day now. The best thing about it was both my son and my daughter didn’t even notice. When I took it off a home they were gob smacked, but also my daughter was relieved as she was most worried about a ‘bald mummy’ picking her up from school. The thought of the hair loss bothered her a lot, she still goes on about it now. 

I am now on the cusp of having yet another change of treatment as my disease has progressed again.  Finally the scans and oncologists opinions agree with my own experience of the growing tumours in my axilla and the ever growing skin and chest wall metastasis that I have to look at in the mirror and deal with the chronic pain of. Despite what is in plain sight they don’t  show up on an ultra sound or CT scan. Finally I’ve been referred to stage 2 of the trial and am hoping I’ll pass eligibility and they’ll give me immunotherapy. I’ve been campaigning for it for over 12 months and have had the placebo/control in the last 2 trials so this has to be 3rd time lucky. Surely. 

The thing is immunotherapy might not even work but the good thing (I think) is I get it with another chemo agent called Eribulin. This will be my 8th chemo agent and my fourth series of chemo treatment. I remember when they first told me I had cancer and I’d have 18 weeks of chemo, nowadays I get worried when I’m not on it or it options are limited, which they are.

This chemo is likely to cause complete hair loss again. I’ve had hair thinning with the last two, but not complete loss. Yes I have a great wig, but I’m still not relishing the thought of the cold cap or losing all my hair again. That’s why I thought I’d finish this post.

People who ‘brave the shave’ for charity do not go through the almost mourning period of losing every hair on their body. They get the end result not the tough journey to get there. It’s not just the hair on your head either.  I never knew how much I liked and needed my eyebrows and lashes. Aside from the fact that they frame your face and eyes, they also stop sweat running in your eyes or flies sticking on you eyeballs. The hair up my nose also stops pollen going right up it and warms and filters the air we breath in. This combined with no mucus makes your nasal passages very uncomfortable. Never take body hair or lubrications for granted! 

Braving the Shave

Eventually at the end of August 2018 I could not deal with the patchy hair anymore.  I have worn a hat or head scarf for most of the summer (wig was just too hot for the summer of 2018) with little bits of hair coming out the bottom.  So it looked like I had hair.  The bald patch in the middle was hidden from view.  It was however always waiting for me when I got home, when I cleaned my teeth before bed and again in the morning.  Time to take charge, the hair had to go.  My husband shaved it off and it was massively liberating.  Should have done it earlier.  I still wore my wig for most of Autumn.  

Wig, bald, scarves & regrowth

undefinedundefinedundefinedundefinedundefined

Look good, feel better

In the middle of Autumn I did a course with a small, but important charity called ‘Look good feel better’, they give you a bag of cosmetics and a 2-3hr session on painting on eyebrows, putting some colour in your cheeks and a bit of a spring in your step.  It was fab.  The BBC happened to be filming the day I had my session and most participants weren’t keen to be on film.  I said yes as I thought the charity was good and it might help funding. Plus once you’ve had a boob off and half the county gawping at and touching your chest, you get a bit blasé about these things.   A few others said yes too and they made the film below that was on the BBC news.  In fact it got slightly more coverage than I had anticipated.  I was unlucky enough to be the mug shot on the front of the clip, double chin and all.  As I have since discovered that it is all over twitter and all the staff at my local hospital had it on their newsletter so I thought i’d include it here too.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-berkshire-45983972/cancer-treatment-patients-get-beauty-workshops

Click link above not film

A slightly longer post than anticipated, but hopefully you get a bit of perspective on the highs and lows of hair loss.

Let’s hope I keep my hair on for this next lot of treatment.

15th January 2020

Street Art, Life, Love and Death

London Hearts – Borough Market, 2018

Who owns the images on the street? On our urban walls? When does graffiti become street art or art? Earlier this year whilst in London with the children we stumbled upon an uplifting piece that I immediately connected to. I think this is street art; apparently graffiti is done for other graffiti artists whereas street art is for a wider audience. Like many others we were compelled to have our photos taken with this happy mural. A bright and hopeful backdrop for many a picture of loved ones. Past and present.

Later when looking through my phone shots for suitable images for my blog, the above street art image popped out at me. It made me instantly smile. It felt right for the start of the blog. I don’t want all the chat about cancer to be depressing and melancholy. I want it to connect to you and others. There is a genuine out pouring of real love that happens with a serious cancer diagnosis. Or at least that has been the experience I have been lucky enough to have.

“I want people to be closer, more expressive and have real conversations with each other rather than a life masked or filtered through social media and conformity. “

I appreciate the irony as I write this on a blog and refer to it on social media, but what I try to do is to be honest and unvarnished. Sometimes this isn’t possible as I have to keep something for myself, sometimes it is unfair on my children, family or close friends to share everything, often it is just so raw I can’t even go there in my head, never mind on paper or in conversation. But I try to be as real as possible, and when I am, great things happen; to me and others. People around me are making life changing decisions, they are saying f**k it and embracing or planning for changes. What I love about this, is people talk to me about it in a way they didn’t always before.

A plethora of people have contributed to the creative process of this blog. From the small bits of encouragement with off the cuff comments about the style of my text messages or whatsApps, sharing of poems and the site, with significant and time consuming gifts like pro-bono executive coaching, logo design, help and confidence with publishing the blog. In the beginning, when I was toying with the idea, I hadn’t realised it was live. At least not until I started getting comments and followers from sincere and real people that I had never met! I then had to take the plunge and not look back.

So I am left with the dilemma of whether I should contact the artist, I’m not sure if I’m asking for permission, because I don’t know if I need it. But I’d like to thank him for his inspiration and mood changing role of his work. It’s a manners thing.

I went to a talk on writing at The Guardian a couple of months ago and met this great woman who was going to start a blog about street art. A weird coincidence. I asked her what she thought. Her view was that the artists liked the publicity and as I took the picture it was OK to use it. I described the art to see if she knew the artist, she thought it might be an artist from New York. He’s apparently fond of hearts and travels the world spray painting them. I looked him up – I didn’t think it was his.

With some light google effort I relatively easily found out who’s work it was. I also found that other works I had photographed and been inspired by were also his. Another weird coincidence. I also saw on closer examination that the work was signed and like many things in life, hiding in plain sight!

Portrait of Shakespeare, Bankside, London 2016

The work above was created by James Cochran (aka Jimmy C). The ‘London Hearts’ is one of his ‘drip paintings’ or ‘aerosol pointillism’. It is dedicated to the 8 people who lost their lives in the London Bridge terror attack in June 2017. James talks about the response of love in dark times. It was painted in Spring 2018, when I got my cancer diagnosis. This made it even more poignant and I was glad I’d included it. Those people didn’t invite terrorism into their lives in the same way that I hadn’t invited metastatic breast cancer into mine. I decided to write to the artist and let him know that he was part of a growing tribe of people who encouraged me to keep going, to keep telling my story and to hope that it will be longer than the Triple Negative Breast Cancer prognosis stats suggest.

I’ll let you know what he says…

I do believe that art shifts you, heals you, makes you think in different ways. There is a lot of it in and around the hospitals I visit and it definitely triggers something different. Not least that the people walking these corridors are worthy of some break from the monotony and blandness of endless hospital corridors and appointments.

Cornelia Parker – Still Life with Reflection, 2004

I am not sure what this ceiling installation is trying to tell you? Each piece of silver, or likely silver plate, is reflected in a flattered version of itself. Is this the juxtaposition between the multi dimensional us and the one dimensional us? Or was it more tongue in cheek? As the owner of one boob and one flat chest I couldn’t help but think it was ironic in a clinic with people who’d had breast surgery. It gave me something to think and laugh inside about whilst waiting for yet another consultant.

Again I looked this piece up and the artist, Cornelia Parker was interested in the captive audience of waiting rooms where ‘time and reality are suspended’ (so true) and was influenced by tromp l’oeil. This is a technique often used on ceilings to ‘deceive the eye’ into seeing something three dimensional. She has done some similar pieces, more recently, one of a series of ‘alter ego’ works in 2010.

So just goes to show we draw our own meaning from art and our experiences regardless of the artists intent. For me art does trigger or jolt me to think in different ways, to make connections and uncover insights that I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t seen it or created it. I am grateful for the rich and vibrant art scene we have in this country and am delighted that I can stumble upon it on the street and in hospitals.

Look out for it on your travels this week. Let us know if you find any interesting bits?

Written on 26th September 2019 (to post later because I knew these last few days would be tough, and they are).
If you are reading this in an email or link. Feel free to visit www.thecancergap.com to enjoy and share other posts and poems.

Here we go again (Poem 15)

Here we go again

I have paused.
I feel calm for a moment.
The train is taking me,
I am not driving it.
Momentum is someone else’s

En route to do one final test,
Timely hoop jumping will surely bring eligibility?
The adrenalin and cortisol are slowing for a rest,
They are exhausting friends of mine who fuel my agility.

Looking out across the fields, pondering the probability,
Only days before the open label I will see and know,
Recalling the last manic journey to only get placebo,
Some feel deceived;
I felt relieved,
A reason for disease progression,
A known price for future science to learn the lesson.

Whilst mostly strong, I’m aware of my growing fragility,
The cancer has had time to take hold.
I’m tired, aching and a little uncomfortable; affecting my ability,
The cumulative chemo effects, I’m told.

Once again I feel like I’m in a race,
Obstacles to go around, this time for the last space,
When I reach the finish line, it will once again begin,
New hospital, new journey, new side effects within.

I want to be hopeful, but can’t escape the reality of Triple Negative morbidity
Is giving over my body and life for a bigger cause the ultimate act of humility?

2nd October 2019

What does ‘awareness’ really mean?

On the last day of blood cancer awareness month and the eve of breast cancer awareness month, I am wondering what awareness looks and feels like?

Less than two years ago I didn’t know what Acute Myeloid Leukaemia was, never mind its symptoms. I first became aware of it when our good friend Gemma Thomas was diagnosed with it. I received the call out of the blue to say she’d been diagnosed and was going to have chemotherapy.  For those of you following the story in the media you will know that 3 days later we received the tragic news that she had died. We were still in shock about the diagnosis, we couldn’t catch up with ourselves at the news of her passing.  She was a happy, healthy and compassionate women with a rye sense of humour. We still miss her massive smile and rolling eyes.

Simon, Gemma’s husband has just finished a whole month of challenges to raise blood cancer awareness for @Bloodwise. Judging by social media and the rise in google searches on the subject he’s done a great job. 

A few months after Gemma’s death, I found out my cousin Trudi has AML.  My heart was in my mouth, I could not comprehend that a disease I was not really aware of had taken someone in my life and could take another. I am pleased to say despite being put well and truly through the wringer on chemo, isolation units and stem cell transplants she is doing brilliantly.  Like me Trudi is passionate about raising awareness of her form of cancer and what it is like to endure the treatment for cancer.  I’m super proud that she made a film for Leukaemia Care to bring to life both the difficulty in spotting the signs (and she is a nurse with bags of medical knowledge and understanding of the system) and the mental and physical harshness of cancer treatment. 

Trudi Archer – Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) – Spot Leukaemia

https://www.leukaemiacare.org.uk/support-and-information/latest-from-leukaemia-care/inspirational-stories/trudi-archer/

It is only in becoming aware of the symptoms of different cancers and their impact on individuals living through treatment, that we can begin to catch cancer earlier, and help people feel part of their community and society when they endure treatment or live with their disease. 

“Awareness, for me, is about ‘not fearing cancer’, but being alert for its signs and empathetic and authentic with people who are in treatment or living with cancer.” 

Two months after Trudi’s diagnosis I found my lump.  As you know I was diagnosed with Grade 3, Stage 3, Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This has now metastasised to other parts of my body as well as a local reoccurrence. So I am now stage 4 and have an incurable and inoperable cancer. There are no known targeted therapies or treatments for Mtnbc.  I’m trying to experiment with immunotherapy, but every three weeks someone keeps giving me the placebo. I’m hoping to get onto another immunotherapy trial soon. This and/or chemo hopes to extend my life expectancy. Sounds grim, right? 

But I feel and look really well.  Honestly.

Not at all like I thought someone with stage 4 cancer would look like. Even last year, with stage 3 cancer, I didn’t think stage 4 would be like this. I was pretty ignorant. So don’t feel bad if you are.

This is another reason why I write this blog, to raise awareness of living with cancer.  To help us all work out how we accommodate cancer into our everyday lives, because like it or not, cancer is here to stay. Much better to be aware and face into it rather than to ignore it or the people who have it. 

I think listening to these stories, and those of the millions of other cancer patients out there, are what cancer awareness is all about.  Not the pink ribbons and decorated bras which will no doubt be marching out from tomorrow and the start of breast cancer awareness month. 

Don’t feel you need to wear a pink ribbon or buy something for breast cancer awareness, but do go home and give your boobs or moobs (because boys aren’t exempt) a good check over!

I’m serious.