Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Perks

Dear my Cousin -in-law Karen,

I've been meaning to write this post for a while now, since it keeps striking me every time I look at my post-chemo self in the mirror how funny it is that cancer can have its benefits. In light of your recent news I thought it would be helpful to write it now. (I feel like we're in that episode of Round The Twist btw - did you ever watch it? Funny supernatural Australian kids programme in the 90's, in one episode characters were miraculously cured of their ailments if they transferred them to someone else). You could probably do with some good news...

There's no denying that, as your husband - my cousin said, "You have work to do". But as with most jobs, this one has perks. Granted, most of them come at the end, but like that chocolate fudge cake you've been eyeing up since the appetisers, it'll be worth the wait.

As I'm sure most doctors, nurses, friends, leaflets, family and pamphlets have told you, everybody's journey is different, but I've been chatting to some women who have confirmed some of my journey bonuses to be theirs too, so I'm pretty confident most of these are universal.

1. Virginity Restored
I'm talking the hair variety of course. It may seem a bit of an a*se thinking of how your hair will be one day, before its even fallen out, but consider this: you and I have had several decades of dying, curling, straightening, blow-drying, highlighting, maybe even perming I suspect - you were more '80's child than me - and this does not glorious hair make. Although I'm sure they wouldn't chose our extreme methods of starting over, most women would kill for renewed, virgin hair. It may not be through choice, but I can already tell you, my new hair is exciting to christmas-eve-for-your-three-children proportions, and probably as soft as theirs too. Hairdressers keep telling me how gorgeous it is already, and I've only had it a couple of months. Lifelong hair crime slate, wiped clean.

2. Easy Dieting (The Holy Portion Control Grail)
This is a gross, sweeping generlisation, and one I know I can't attribute to everyone (my policy on internet shopping will be the same for others regarding donuts - i.e, during this time, do what the hell you like), but for the first time in my entire life, I was able to exercise some will power. It's like cigarettes after a lung cancer diagnosis; the thrill just isn't really there any more I'd imagine. Had I given up alcohol and wheat and dairy and soya and sugar (mostly) for weight loss reasons, I would have lasted a long depressing week. For anti-cancer reasons though, and I'm still living a much healthier life even after it's out. And I'm finding it easy. And I'm fitting into jeans I don't think I've ever been able to, which is a private perk for me, but not one I should really shout about. But I'm a woman! Jeans are important to me!

3. Better Than Ever Skin
I was trying to speculate at the beginning of chemo (joy of joys, this perk happens during treatment so you don't have to wait so long), as to why terrible toxicity in my body made my skin so glowy and radiant. I'm pretty sure part of it is to do with point no. 2, plus ridiculous amounts of water to flush the chemo out, but I'm convinced a large part is also the banishment of all bacteria. At the LGFB workshop last week the majority of women there were busy being thrilled by their newly amazing skin, and they all ate their chocolate biscuits at break time, so it can't all be down to nutrition. (KIDDING, chocolate biscuits can only be good for you).

4. Braver Than Bear Grylls
I am, I think, about able to conquer anything scary. Saying that I still slightly hate needles, even after the several million I've had this year, but I'm not a 5 year old about them anymore. But I do think I can handle the dentist. I am putting that theory to the test tomorrow so I'll let you know, but really, how scary can that experience be after what I've just done? Although there may well be needles...

Spiders are still a no.

5. Soppier Than Economy Kitchen Towels
I didn't think it possible but I'm now so much closer to the family than ever. They've been through it all too; we're like the Claygate Olympian team, bringing home the golds. Also they think they love me more now too, (of course its still the same, how could it not be? I am adorable youngest child), but it's newly clarified so I can get away with more things. I might ask to borrow a few more tenners from my dad... I digress, I know the Beresiners - you will most likely OD on soppy family love.

6. I Heart Everything
I've said how much I now love the sun all the way through, and sun is really just a tiny example of all the things I love now. Its an appreciation thing. I could even love a dirty puddle on Dalston High Street if it glinted right, but I'm just more grateful for the little things, so I feel joyous very easily. If everyone has a joy level to reach, and a day-to-day living level below it somewhere, my living level is now dangerously close to the joy level so I may set it off at any time. Such a lovely tra-la-la perk that has me happy to queue for 20 minutes in M&S for a punnet of strawberries. Before I would have huffed the whole way, now I queue smiling - oh joyous queue.

7. Boost Your CV
You are a mother of 3, you probably have no space left for new skills, but all that down time while you're mooching around getting over chemo will be filled with something. For me it was cooking, and now Dadjokes loves me more as a direct consequence - more perks! For you I suspect it will be relaxing, in which case take it SERIOUSLY and add it to your repetoire and whatever it is you learn to do you'll be a more qualified person out the other end.

8. Hypochondria Hall Pass
You can now be let off the hook for hypochondria. This may not apply to you - even though you are a Beresiner, it is by marriage not blood - but I was always embarrassed to go to the doctor and complain of far too general ailments that I had convinced myself were devastating. I did it anyway, regularly, and got pleasant but vacant attention. Now when I go I am medically important. I feel a bit special, like I have EARNED my right to complain about things, and SEE how brave I am. Is that just me? Oh...

9. Laid Back Looks
I have a new experimental attitude to my looks. The anticipation of the hair loss and the boob loss was a sticking point because I was, well, stuck on the old me. WHY did I have to have stupid pixie crop? WHY did I have to relenquish my boob tubes (metaphorically - I would never own a boob tube). In reality the drastic hair change was refreshing and I like the challenge of planning outfits around my 'special needs'. That sounds funny, because it is. So from now on, if I get a bad haircut one day, there will be no angsty tears or threats of legal action, I'll just go with it.
Everythings OK earrings by House Of Holland
I was having a post op check up with my surgeon last week and the nurse was telling him about my blog. I actually said these words: 'I wouldn't have written it if I hadn't got cancer, so it's great!'. Great? It is true I become blathering and moronic around medical professionals, but I did mean it in a you-know-what-I-mean kind of way. Know what I mean?

You'll be much better when you're better Karen,

Lots of love and best wishes and forced advice and healthy banana bread recipes,

Your Cousin-in-law, Soph xxx

p.s. I almost forgot the best beauty bits! You're probably still in an info overload haze, so I'll spell it out. No. More. Waxing. Plus every hair day a good one (should you go that route), a chance to have the (ok, draw on the) eyebrows you've always wanted, and super soft hands from all the washing up you now don't have to do. Bonus! Any more perks, please add below x

Friday, 22 July 2011

The M-Blow Thing and How It Happened

It seems the god of symmetry has decided against cutting me slack. My formative years were spent hustling to the left side of friends in group shots so I could turn my skinny arm toward the camera, and keep my monstrously, disproportionately humongous right one out of view. I may be exaggerating in the same way that you feel particularly conscious of your own pimple, compared to other peoples perception of it. Or I could not, since it has always been a source of delight and awe for everyone I know. Including the surgical assessment nurse who had to measure both arms for hospital records, in case of lymphoedema. Each measurement of my right arm is exactly one cm larger than my left, apart from the upper arm, which is three cm bigger. There is no medical explanation. On the up side I was very good at javelin at school. And swimming in circles.

My alcoholic childhood dentist neglected to correct one protruding incisor, so it took a lot of practice and effort to stop talking, laughing or smiling out of one side of my mouth only. It just wasn't great for my graduation photo, attempts at coquettish giggling or early TV appearances.

And now, I am destined to the next two years of mono-boobism.

Its not really something a 31 year old should think about. The problem is, the breasts haven't done their job yet. I'm not done with being outraged (read delighted) at appreciative glances from the opposite sex. I haven't breast fed my baby, or lured anyone (read DadJokes) into making one with me in the first place. I'm not ready to give up bikini-confidence, haven't filled out my wedding dress, basically I was really quite happy with both boobs for now, thank you very much.

As with the hair loss, I had to go through some stages of mourning to handle the thought of this new me. There involved wailing on a train platform while I accused Dadjokes of being too nice in telling me he'd still find me attractive. I spent whole evenings mentally sorting through my lifelong collection of lingerie, consigning my most beloved pieces to an imaginary dustbin. There are some dresses hanging in my wardrobe that I actually couldn't look at, like a sick puppy I'd given up for adoption. But most of all I couldn't imagine waking up from surgery and dealing with looking at myself for the first time.

As it turned out the anticipation was so much worse than reality. This may have been helped along by morphine, but it was definitely helped by the understanding of my boyfriend, best friend and sheer bloody relief that I no longer had a mortal enemy exorcising squatting rights in my body.

I won't lie, it is quite weird. I didn't look until Katie helped me shuffle to the toilet, and since I was there, and a mirror was there, and we had nothing else to do, I held my breath and kept my PJ's on and had a peek. It wasn't earth shattering, just flat, to be expected, nothing special. I was even slightly disappointed that I didn't crumble in a heap and require immediate psychotherapy, or even sedation. If anything I am freaked out by how OK I have been. It appears I didn't know me very well. I'm now fascinated by my scar , like when someone catches a repulsive spider under a glass and I insist on inspecting it before they put it outside.

Fashion wise - guess what?! More shopping needed, hey ho. I need stretchy to accommodate my awkward left arm, patterned to distract from the extreme a-symmetry, high necked to avoid an accidental bending-down flash, sleeved to cover the dressing, loose sleeved to allow for swelling, short sleeved to allow for hot weather - wait, we can probably scrap that last one - but basically, it's a logistical conundrum of very great importance that requires INTENSIVE Internet research and monies spent. Even my dad can't argue with that one.

It has been four weeks and one day and, aside from the unsettling pings and pangs I get where my jumbled nerve endings are trying to work out their place in life, I'm really feeling OK about the new me. I think the surgery interrupted my grieving process, so I skipped the denial, anger (OK, some of that), bargaining and depression and went straight for acceptance. I'm not blowing my smug trumpet, it's just not as bad as everyone thinks. Not least for the post-surgery perks such as a medically prescribed necessity for someone else to carry everything for me, and lots of flowers and cards.

Plus its not forever. I can look forward to being re-built at some point in the future, I may even take advantage of the situation and up a cup, in which case I will need a whole new lingerie drawer and a showcase holiday too. In the mean time I'm someone a bit different from everyone else. And I like it that if I put my wig on and stuff a foam comfy down my Sloggi crop top (needs must), that guy who just checked me out on the street has no idea that I'm only just past bald and with one tit. How funny is that?

Symmetry fans...

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Proof Is In The Pudding

I'm not really one for support groups. I was inundated with offers at the very start, official ones, unofficial ones, telephone dates with fellow cancer patients or friend of friend of mums friend survivors. I could think of nothing worse at the time, much to my family and DadJokes discomfort. They even had to call Macmillan for me a few times to check my ahem, downstairs movements were normal, since I couldn't even face doing that. I didn't want to be part of this 'club' you see, and if I stayed under the duvet and let someone else do the phone-talking/pamphlet reading then I could just about pretend life as I knew it had not given way to abject terror. Always with the drama, me.

After a few months, some gentle blogging and a fantastically supportive response I realised I had created my own group therapy. Which worked perfectly for me since I had an important job (answering lots of emails and reassuring young girls that their various dubious lumps were not likely cancer, but check with GP etc etc.), I could remain at home, and didn't have to do the 'Right on Sister!' thing that I imagined all support groups to revolve around.

What a wally I was. I've just come home from a Look Good...Feel Better workshop. It only took me 8 Months to get around to it (I make that sound like laziness, rather than annoyingly timely hospital admissions), but even though it was out of my control, I do wish I'd done it earlier.

I was there in my beauty editor/cancer-ravaged-looks capacity, so although I was technically 'helping out', it was a lovely learn for me too. Not least when I took my wig off to show my regrowth, and then got a round of applause when I left it off.

For those who don't know, one of these workshops involves a room full of fellow cancer-ravaged-looks ladies, a few volunteer beauty experts, lots of products and mirrors and biscuits and tea. Two hours of guided beautifying, giggling (occasional hysteria in fact), tea and biscuits later and all the ladies leave looking so lovely it's a crime that it's not 20.00 at night and they're on their way to a party. I think most of them went home, but one 73 year old attendee was ready to acquire a toy boy on the bus journey there.

Here was tangible proof that my beauty/cancer philosophy holds true; Looking good feels better, so 18 odd women could now also testify, and even committed confirmation to a form asking how their workshop could be improved. All responses were variations on 'It Cannot'. Apart from 73 year old Phyllis who felt her experience could have been richer with the addition of a stripper-gram. See the effect a bit of lipstick can have on a woman's confidence?

So I renege on my aforementioned support-group phobia. This was the first time I'd been in a situation with other cancer victims (I'm told I'm not supposed to use the V word), aside from the chemo suite obviously, but I don't think Elton John-A-Like could have helped me much anyway. It was certainly nice to chat hot flushes and reconstruction with someone other than poor, aurally assaulted DadJokes. There's nothing he doesn't know about the requirements of a post-surgery bra or how many millimetres a day my eyebrows grow. Someone please let me know if there's a workshop for bombarded boyfriends too...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


Oh how the side effects keep on coming. I'm not on medication currently, but I am experiencing worryingly high levels of  sappiness, particularly when it comes to anyone around me.
This is not helped by various act of kindness that have come my way over the last couple of weeks, and may I remind you that I have very little in the way of eyelashes to hold the waterworks in...

Firstly and most importantly, The Race for Life, which although it's only up to 10k, seems to go on FOREVER. Way back in June the Lookettes ran the 5k, last weekend Katie and Co. ran 10k, as did my PR friends at The Communication Store, and still to come are the Arden PR team, dedicating their efforts to Look Good Feel Better. Although there is no getting around the fact that this is all amazing in itself, it was only when the Dream Team travelled to Blackheath to cheer Katie on that the real amazingness hit me. It could have been because she had this pinned to her back so the other runners could see who she was doing it for.

It could have been because she roped in three lovely friends, who I only met recently, who had my name on their backs too. I mean come on. Standing at the sidelines with Dadjokes, mum and dad, reading everyone's backs and feeling proud and humbled in equal measures, was an emotional experience.  Dadjokes duly noted, 'it's quite a big deal, this pink running thing isn't it?' Quite.

While I have you, a little story of kindness to warm some more cockles. While I spent a measly 24 woozy hours on the ward at the hospital after my surgery, I somehow forged a friendship with Madge, the lady in the bed opposite mine. I say somehow because my morphine addled memory of those hours is blurry at best, (I was so sure I was fully compos mentis at the time too). But I only remember a couple of short conversations in between visitors and iPad movies and trips to the toilet. This was enough for her to go the lovely effort of fathoming out where I work, ordering me a helpful book on Amazon and getting it sent to the office, with a sweet note. I mean come on! Clearly she had much less morphine than I did. Madge, if you're reading this, thank you thank you x

Anyone who asks after my mum makes me want to hug something. It is certainly true that watching your daughter go through something bad, is really bad, this I know (more so now that I'm getting better, since she's more free with the truth these days; "no Sophie I'm fine, everything's fine, yes I can sleep fine!" was all basically b*ll*cks), but the ones who sent her whole care packages just tipped me over the edge. Sadly my dad couldn't benefit quite as much since he's not as receptive to Estee Lauder Day Wear or Decleor Hydra Floral Cream...

Finally and profoundly, I'm not sure how to sum up this whole work thing, but 'kind' seems to be top of the list. I am a workaholic to the point of necessitating a 12 step programme (look at me now, typing when banned - I am sitting on my left hand to stop its natural inclination toward keyboard). I am very fortunate to have such supportive management at Look that they make efforts to keep me away from the office to concentrate on getting better. I'm surprised they haven't positioned a security guard at the gates to encourage me back home. Chemo brain and rollercoaster-emotions have made me near useless when I do go in; it's likely more an opportunity to showcase my Internet wardrobe than to contribute anything useful editorially. Although I think they do read this, in which case I retract former statement.

Dadjokes' work place manages to make me a bit weepy if I think about them too hard too. It's not luck that had him holding my hand at every hospital visit, chemo administration and orders to come home and rub my back/feed me painkillers/plump my pillows. If promotions are possible at the top, I think his people are deserved, based purely on compassion and flexibility - very important managerial traits.

But please give him one too so we can go private next time... *wink*

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Help, I need Somebody

Now that the glory of relief has settled down a little, the restrictions of the Nit are starting to become all too apparent. Its not so much the Nit itself - I feel I've mostly conquered that with my extensive bra research. No, this is the post-op effects of an axillary clearance. My new wonder surgeon recommended I have all my lymph nodes taken out, since a couple were a bit affected initially. The wonderfully good news is the rest were clean under closer inspection. The bad news is my excavated armpit has rendered me about as limp and useless as this cat toy.

Aside from recovering from quite a big operation, letting my skin knit back together (eurgh) and waiting for feeling and function to fully return to my left arm, I also have to be careful to avoid lymphoedema. Forever. My risk is higher since I had full node clearance, so I'm not allowed to lift anything heavier than a small shopping bag. Great for getting out of moving house any time in the future, bad bad bad for cuddling my kittens. It's only my left arm that's restricted but Woody and Columbo are wriggly little buggers. I am taking them to the vet next week to have them weighed (with assistance, yes). I may take a small shopping bag for comparative purposes. I have also noticed a strange phenomenon whereby I can feel cold drinks in my armpit. I thought it was my overactive imagination picturing the liquid seep out of the stitches cartoon style, but then lovely reader Phoebe asked me if I noticed it like she did, so it must be a hilarious side effect. Its quite refreshing in this weather in fact.

So here I am, back to 'normality' in my flat. Which would be great except I have never been more aware of how much I CAN'T do. And its making me humph.

I'm not allowed to type. Imagine! This post is being bashed out haltingly and frustratingly, one fingered, like someones technologically repressed great aunt.

I can't wash my left armpit. This is frankly disgusting, considering it is hot outside, and is further compounded by the fact I can't really get dressed. My options are limited to things that don't go over the head. Now that DadJokes has gone back to work I have found myself in a few contorted situations where I've attempted something adventurous with buttons but without elastic. I have remained calm and somehow restored decency just before calling on a neighbour. Then I'll realise my choice was too hot or uncomfortable, and even though I've got it on, NO amount of physical prowess or mental aptitude will work out how to get it off. So I've sat and sweated/winced till DadJokes got home and rescued me.

I can't really sleep. This is particularly annoying considering I thought I finally could relax. I think it's like when you've finished your a-levels but you've crammed so hard that your head is still turning over equations for a good few weeks afterwards. I may need to consider Ovaltine. or Valium.

Chores are basically impossible - even cutting up my dinner is hard - but I just can't stop myself trying (smack on hand for me), so I'm shuffling around the place, half girl, half gorilla with a limp left arm and a bit of a determined scowl on my face. My brother in law finally utilised that secondary school red cross training and (sort of) made me a sling. The family thought it would stop people grabbing my arm forgetfully, or me doing things. It didn't.

This post will greatly upset DadJokes (he may attempt to give up work), my mum (she may attempt to move in) and Katie, (who can't give up work since she's covering me, and also, I am her boss), so I hereby take a vow of uselessness in their honour.

Even though my wisteria has become so overgrown since my op that I can't actually get out the back door. Even though we have a new desk arriving tomorrow that will require assembly and a spare room for it to go in that looks like a clothes avalanche hit it. Even though I am craving banana bread but don't have the ingredients.

Nope. I'm going to sit here cradling my arm, typing one fingered, and re-evaluating my wardrobe to avoid panic scenarios. Till the weekend? Till next weekend? Well, for now at least...

p.s. If there are any local friends who have even a slight green finger about them, I could really do with a (left) hand in the garden...

the view immediately outside

Saturday, 2 July 2011

See Below

Katie gave me this book  few months back, very optimistically sweet of her, but I've been holding my breath till I could feasibly illustrate with and dedicate a post to the subject, so I'm more than happy to do it now. Over the moon, dance in circles, laugh out loud happy.

Actually, that is the way movies portray this kind of happiness. In real life- now that I have first hand evidence - it's more like lots of tuneful sighs (you know, the ones that are loud on the way out), and slouched shoulders (at last! an opportunity for muscle relaxation) and my mums hand surgically attached to my shoulder or kissing my dad more than is necessary. Ahhhhhhhhh (that is how the sighs look phonetically).

OK so I had to sacrifice a boob (or a Nit, as Claire has coined it - a non-tit, see?), and I can't have babies for the next five years, but at the moment, the next five years are a gift of epic proportions themselves, so hey ho!
On the other hand I cultivated a fine and upstanding Dream Team, which is worth a lot more than a Nit - and I must admit have all helped me be OK about that particular scenario too. They have also been loudly sighing since yesterday when I got the news that it's all out, hasn't spread and so now, (after a few more obstacles), everything is going to be OK.

Forgive the schmaltz - OKism provokes large amounts in me...

My embarrassingly large hospital entourage consisted of DadJokes, Mum, Dad and Katie. They were insistent on seeing me through the smurf-esque operation attire, woozy and emotional wake up (where I told them off for not being there sooner), and the next 24 hours which I can't remember very well but involved flowers, paracetamol and being escorted to the toilet. Also the first Nit glimpse, which I got through OK thanks to Katie being perfectly blase, and DadJokes being perfect.

My Telephone Support Sister, Amy, has proved that extreme Hypochondria is in fact a useful ailment. It is common in the Beresiners, but her case means she is Internet educated to PHD level, so can confidently tell me when I'm being stupid, and also break the not so nice stuff to me in an easy to take sisterly fashion. Plus her daughter Poppy keeps me entertained with drawings of my hair separate from my body, her brutal child honesty ('Auntie Betsey, you look like a boy') and general three year old isms.

My home-from-the-hospital visitors, Claire, Katie and Debbie made sure I didn't even have time to read my book let alone dwell on my forthcoming surgery results (I don't even like writing that word these days). They came all the way to Surrey to sit and look at my permanently PJ'd form and make it through dinners with the parents - no mean feat depending on the level of hyperactivity in my lovely Dad.

Now I'm out the other side of the results fear and operation apprehension, I overly love everyone here, and am only on paracetamol so can't even blame it on the drugs.

My mum summed it up perfectly over a girly lunch following a trip to The Royal Marsden, 'And there we were going through life thinking we were a normal family, but look how strong we all are'.

That's my Dream Team that is, and they make me dead proud... (including me! including me!)

My Everything's Going To Be OK shoes - any excuse...