So, I had this dream the other night, in which one of my nephews, for whom I’ve written a press release, was berating me for not coming to band practice. (www.beneaththereef.co.uk – check them out – they’re very good and I’m now something of an authority on ska/reggae/punk). If everyone else could make it, he scolded, and for a laid back guy he was really cross, why couldn’t you? I made various excuses, worried how I was going to get to Wales each weekend and then fretted that if I did make it to band practice, they’d discover, when I opened my mouth, that I couldn’t actually sing.
This might be a metaphor for my writing. At least once a month for the past five, I’ve started a new blog post without successfully completing any of them. ‘They’re not very funny,’ was one constructive criticism from the home front. ‘They’re a bit too much about cancer,’ was another. Strange that. Anyway, the beginning of March, Spring is in the air, and I’m thinking that this may be the one that gets posted.
Treatment’s over, cancer’s history, life’s back to normal. Rock on!
But, all those unfinished blogs…it pains me to waste them. So, with a bit of ruthless editing I’ve sifted out some upbeat-not-too-graphic bits before I get to now. Here goes.
October: The Fog – Finished chemo
It did the job. Surgeon delighted. Well done chemo! Didn’t lose hair in vain, after all. (Reminded of a good book I’d read some time back – Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova – about a woman, with Left Neglect, a condition that completely erases her awareness of the left side of her world, I reckon I had temporary Top Neglect. I didn’t realise I’d lost all my hair until I saw some recent photos that seem to prove otherwise. Shocked to see I was bald as a coot at the end.) Of all the things about having cancer, losing my hair remains at the top of the list of Things I Found Most Traumatic.
Not feeling ill any longer made me realise just how grotty I’d felt during chemo.
November: Brief Encounter – Convalescing
Started thinking about my recovery rather than my treatment. Indulged in a manicure and booked the three shaggy wigs in for a trim at Toni&Guys. Not gonna lie – swapping the wigs in the loos: a bit humiliating. There was method to my madness though: bond, bald, with the hairstylist, and he’d appreciate the significance of my virgin haircut. He was quite nice, my ‘Style Director’. Sensitive. He complimented my wigs. I coveted his hairstyle – a sort of Sharleen Spiteri/Miley Cyrus-the-twerking-years cross. I think we connected. Until he tried to upsell. A bottle of stuff. Said it was a bargain. That it would make my hair grow faster. That he used it and his was getting really thick. I asked him if he’d been bald too and sensed a glitch in our connection. Me: £45 better off/Him: No Sale.
My brain started to rewire itself and I read all of The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. Not so captivated by the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. Halfway through, the chemo drugs, leaving my body, induced such a state of euphoria, I felt no need to finish it. There was nothing he could teach me; I knew it all. This was my reward for the past six months. I evangelised about it to anyone who’d listen. A paltry two weeks that feeling lasted before I remembered I still had surgery. The joy balloon burst. I was devastated.
November: Nip/Tuck – Surgery
It occurred to me, that if it weren’t my life, I’d find the whole tackling-cancer thing quite interesting.
…But not so much, when I was having my breasts photographed, in the basement of the hospital, by a man with no arms.
…Nor when I was lying on the operating table, shaking, waiting to be anaesthetised.
On the plus side, it felt like the best sleep of my life when I came round. Bravely, I left hospital, wig and cancer free, airing my newly sprouted hair in public for the first time.
Things I discovered: Boob jobs hurt. General anaesthetics render you an emotional wreck. And supermarket outings with your husband are not conducive to a happy marriage.
A little post-operative negative paranoia reared its ugly head. Random thoughts: ‘Will I ever be normal again?’ ‘Will anyone want to employ me?’ ‘Will I find my old identity?’ ‘Are my friends really my friends, or do they just feel sorry for me?’ At which point, even I thought I was being flaky. I drank much Prosecco and regained a semblance of equilibrium in time for Christmas. My first in the UK for eight years. On New Year’s Eve I went to bed at quarter to midnight and on January 1st I embraced the New Year with more vigour than I’d felt the night before.
January: Star Wars – Radiotherapy
My favourite bit of the treatment? Oh, radiotherapy, if I must. The ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ vibe in the waiting room – that’s what did it. Reluctant members of an exclusive social club, we hung out with each other daily, comparing sore bits and fatigue. For me, at least, it felt like the home run.
Landmark time: I had my first proper haircut, (at a different salon to the thick-haired Style Director’s one). I smiled the entire day.
After my final radiotherapy, lovely nurse Katie gave me a big hug, radiotherapy compatriots kissed me and I did not cry. I left the hospital 325 days after I was first diagnosed with breast cancer on Mother’s Day 2013, 291 days from the start of treatment. I went and sat in Pret, around the corner, with a flat white and an almond croissant. I sat and I pondered, giving myself a gentle half hour to come to terms with the fact that my treatment was over.
My treatment is over.
That brings me up to speed, pretty much; the end of the Waste Not Want Not recap. So here we are and now I feel like we’re making polite but stilted small talk at a drinks party. I’m fine, I say, just fine. And then there’s silence. Well, I proffer, I’m not really fine exactly. ‘Fine’ is over there, just out of reach. I can see it. Sometimes I even feel it, briefly. The thing is, if you really want to know, I’m wading through the flooded plains of Crikey that was a Crappy Year.
On the surface I am chugging along nicely. No cancer, diminishing scars, some radiotherapy-induced fatigue and a Hairstyle. I walk. I do Pilates. I’m tackling a little work. All good, positive stuff. But – and here’s the nub – it feels like someone else’s life. This isn’t what I did before. This isn’t where I lived before. And this isn’t how I looked before. It’s all a bit unnerving.
So, here’s the thing. A bit of spare time on my hands, and I was researching all sorts on the internet, when I found myself a place – a Pre/Present/Post Breast Cancer Club of sorts. It offers holistic treatments, people to talk to, lots of support (www.thehaven.org.uk ). Perfect. Introduction Day loomed and I um-ed and I ah-ed and I got cold feet. Did I really want to spend a day thinking about cancer? On the other hand, didn’t I want to find a way to stop thinking about cancer? My thoughts ping-ponged relentlessly back and forth until I smacked them both on the bottom and took myself in hand.
The eight friendly women I met there were of a similar age to me. Our stories shared were variations on a theme: Life’s jogging along quite contentedly when Cancer appears out of the blue, trips Life up and tips it and Future Plans into a deep black hole. Shock throws a left hook, Disbelief aims a kick, Terror tries a stranglehold. Anger charges like a bull. It was something of a revelation, that to a woman, we were victims of the same assault, the same struggle to regain our equilibrium. It was a huge relief to know that my feelings have not been veering too far over the wrong side of normal.
I was reading a travel piece in the Times this week, about Dubai, and as I looked at the accompanying panoramic shot of the city, I unconsciously traced the skyline with my finger and found the area I used to live in. It brought me up short: the realisation that that was my home for four years and I’ll never live there again. I don’t usually dwell on this – it makes me too sad. But while I’m at it, I’ll wallow briefly and share those things I don’t miss – the heat; the material trappings of the expat lifestyle; the sense of entitlement that wealth, earned or unearned, brings. And those things I do: the adventure; the camaraderie of a transient expat community; the very liberating temporary-ness of it all; the feeling that my life was just a little bit extraordinary; my job; the deserts of Bahrain and Oman; Dubai’s diverse architecture.
But if I’m completely honest and a little less full of guff, what I really, really miss more, much more than any of the above, above all else, above all everything, is Friday Brunch, Middle East style. (To understand this random inclusion on my list, let loose any vestige of decorum you used to have and embrace five-star profligate gluttony in all its splendour, expats behaving badly, and a gastronomic stuff-up of the world’s finest cuisine in a four-hour all you can eat and drink marathon. Discover your inner Henry-the-Eighth-after-Lent and let rip.) Friday Brunch was a treat of epic, vulgar proportions. To me, it epitomised all that might be imagined of Middle Eastern expatriate life. I include a feature I was commissioned to write for a guidebook: Brunch Dubai Style so that you may better understand my loss.
But that was then and Harvesters is now. Time to move away from the memories and seize the day. I’m a bit wobbly, but I’m finding a balance between being a diligent convalescent and preparing for re-entry to normal life. I do a little gentle editing for a magazine. The CV is out for its spring clean. I glance at the job vacancies that ping into my inbox and I’m back at work on my novel – Splintered Lives. It’s about a woman called Suzanne – with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and the impact this has on her daughter’s life. A love story spanning 50 years. I completed the first draft three years ago, but after getting a ‘proper’ job on a magazine it has sat quietly on the backburner, simmering. Since then I have revised and rewritten it and I’m currently padding out my protagonist. With three identities, and three different voices, she’s a meaty challenge. I’ll mould her and carve her, squash her down and sculpt her back up. Patience is the key. As I help Suzanne shape her life, I shall, in parallel, attempt to do the same to mine.