Losing hair, making friends

Au naturelle

This time around I knew what to expect. When you pull at your hair and a clump falls out there’s something strangely addictive about it. It’s alien, so what do you do? Reach for another handful, of course.

The loss of eyebrows and eyelashes, however, are a different proposition. I decided to get them tattooed on and through the blog a lovely lady called Julie who runs a semi-permanent make-up place in London got in touch offering to do them for me at a generous discount.  My lashes and brows were, and still are, very much there but I decided that if I sorted them out there and then I wouldn’t have some crazy double-brow when the hairs do eventually come back.

Miffy accompanied me to Julie’s, and as soon as she greeted us at the door with a friendly Geordie accent I warmed to her. Julie explained that she’d been specialising in alopecia for years and was the ideal person to advise me on wigs.  I’d wanted to go all out and get real hair this time, but with my own expected to return and real hair wigs so expensive, Julie recommended that I opt for synthetic and offered to come shopping with me the following week.

Now I’m not going to lie, getting the eyeliner tattoo hurts, but when you get needles stuck into you on a regular basis, have been pushed through claustrophobic scanning machines and had a breast chopped off you can manage a bit of pain.  The eyebrow bit was fine and the result was amazing; now when the lashes and brows go I won’t be some big old moon face and I’ll at least have some definition around my eyes.  Job done, and the ultimate bonus was that I’d made a new friend in Julie.

I’m struck by the people who have come into my life because of cancer.  So many interesting characters that I would never have met if it hadn’t been for this bastard disease.  It’s not just face-to-face acquaintances either; the power of the internet has introduced me to the lovely Francesca Pattison, Lisa Lynch and Kris Hallenga, strong, feisty and funny women of about my age who are going through a similar situation.

“If I can keep it for the fashion show I’ll be happy,” I said to Miffy as we left West London, but by the time Thursday rolled around the back of my head resembled that of a mangy dog, so after donning a headscarf for the event itself I decided to get it all shaved off.

The mangy dog look - so this season!

I booked in with local hairdresser Lisa and I was a bit worried about taking my hat off in front of a stranger but she cheerfully assessed the damage and got the shears out. The plan was to shave ‘F*ck You Cancer’ into the back of my head (for the blog, not to walk around like some crazy person) but I hadn’t had the time and by this point there wasn’t enough of my hair left so Lisa decided to get creative.

The end result was that of a glitter-strewn bauble or as my brother put it, ‘a Christmas neo-nazi.’  Somehow I doubt if I’d been at a Brixton barbers’ that they would have been able to magically produce a huge leopard-print make-up box replete with glitter and silver eye-liner.

Parental Advisory Warning!

Now freshly bald there were wigs to be bought.  Julie had even been to check out a place near to her to see how good they were and sent me some pictures.  We arranged to meet once I was back in London and the afternoon ended up being really good fun.  The wigs were so much more realistic than I had expected; the first time around I had bought a shoulder length blonde one that I wore on just one occasion because I hated it so much.  With Julie’s expert advice I emerged with one blonde and one dark, confident in my choices, and this time I intend on having fun with them.

Since the bout of tonsillitis I’ve been troubled by a hacking cough. I’d like you all to think I’m positive all the time but that’s just not true.  I panicked that it could be the cancer rather than a simple cold.  I was sure that with such an awful cough my white blood cell count would be in my boots, which would have ruled out chemo on Monday.  The knock on effect would be to delay chemo and then my Christmas plans to finally meet my new nephew would be screwed.

I felt drained from the lack of sleep from hacking all night and for the first time in a while I was having a real wobble.  “It’s just a cold,” Tom reassured me, but  when you know you have cancer in your lungs and you can see a red mark on your chest in the mirror every day it’s a bit harder to brush it off as just a winter bug.

On the Monday morning I saw Professor Hope, as I do before every chemo, and he was as cheery as ever.  I had my new wig on and was almost nervous about him seeing it, as I am with anyone who hasn’t. I was unsure whether to mention it, but he commented straight away, complimenting me on it and putting me at ease.  He listened to my chest and told me that apart from a bit of wheeziness it was totally clear – nothing to worry about, but he prescribed me an inhaler just to help.  Relief washed over me; after next Monday I won’t have chemo until January 9th.

“That’s the day after my birthday”, I told him.

“And you’ll be 29?  Anything big planned for your 30th?”

And there it was again, the big difference between my old consultant and good old Prof Hope; a belief in me and that we’ll work together to somehow get through this.

Miffy came to meet me after my consultation and we waited for me to get my bloods done.  I showed her my inhaler. Now, if you’ve read ‘Worse things happen in Milan’ you’ll know about Miffy’s unique turns of phrase.  “Eugh.  This is just like the film Stand By Me,” she observed.

“How the eff is this like Stand By Me? An eighties film about four boys trying find a corpse.”

“’Cos you’re like the weak one with that inhaler and I’m like the three other strong ones!” (I think she might have been getting confused with The Goonies).

Giggling as I entered the blood room I forgot about my fear of the low blood count.  We took ourselves off to TK Maxx for the two hour wait to see if all was well for chemo.

And guess what? My white blood cell count was higher than before I’d even started chemo.  So sod the sceptics!  All the mediation, lovely Emma at EFT, Michael the smiley, super bright herbalist, and the new diet; it’s got to be working.  I don’t want to sound cocky because I’m well aware there will be dips in this path I’m on but seeing those scribbled numbers under ‘WBC’ gave me a huge boost – a validation that what I know is mentally making me feel better is also physically having an effect.  I have complete faith in Professor Hope’s medical plan and now I believe one hundred percent in my alternative one too.

The day after chemo I was to go and get one of the wigs cut.  The lovely Jo from Heat Magazine who has been reading the blog from the very start arranged for me to see Trevor Sorbie at his Covent Garden Salon.  As I write this I’m reminded of all the fantastic, kind-hearted people that have come into my life since my secondary diagnosis.

Trevor Sorbie set up My New Hair to help women like me who lose their hair either because of cancer treatment or for some other medical reason and the whole experience was fantastic.  Trevor said he thought the blonde wig didn’t need anything done to it, but felt he could improve the brunette one.  He really is such a lovely man, immediately putting me at ease, and of course he is a very talented hairdresser.

Trevor and I after the cut

I can’t recommend the charity enough.  I do hope people remember to give to causes like this, because feeling like you don’t even look like yourself when you’re going through the most stressful time of your life is pretty depressing.  People like Trevor are giving women like me the psychological boost that they need. Yes, I’ve got cancer and my priorities have changed but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to look the best I can.  I still want my hair to look good, it still cheers me up to buy a dress for a night out and I’ll still cringe at photos on facebook if I think I look like shit. And My New Hair gets that.

God this has gone on a bit hasn’t it?  Well done if you’re not snoring face down on your keyboard, but to round things off I have to mention the tweet from Stephen Fry.  When I woke up feeling groggy, tonsillitis making me sound like one of Marge Simpson’s sisters, hearing that the legendary Stephen Fry had tweeted about the blog made my year! So thank you very much Mr Fry and welcome to anyone who has stopped by the blog because of his tweet.


...or brunette? Answers on a postcard


It’s not about the money…

Lora and I attempting to make a speech!

I’ve been thinking about how to write this latest post without it reading like a regional newspaper article about a local charity event because for me it was so much more than that.

The fashion show was the brainchild of a childhood friend. Lora and I had known each other since we were four and until the age of eighteen we were best friends. As often happens in adolescence we grew apart and then we eventually lost touch when I moved away. When she heard that I was first diagnosed with breast cancer Lora got back in touch through Facebook to wish me well, and then when I was told the cancer had spread Lora discovered the blog and asked if I could suggest a charity she could fundraise for. I proposed Coppafeel.

Without giving it much thought, I imagined that Lora might be planning a 10k run or something similar to raise some cash, so when she told me that she was going to organise a fashion show she surpassed all my expectations. It was such an ambitious project that, health permitting, I knew I had to attend.

I was to have chemo on the Monday and the event would be on the Thursday. The trip was entirely dependant on how my body would take the treatment, so when I was diagnosed with tonsillitis on the Wednesday morning it was touch and go. Fortunately, in the afternoon I didn’t feel too unwell, so I booked a last minute train and made the journey back up to the North East.

I was nervous about attending; my hair at this point had mostly come out at the back so I would have to wear a headscarf. I feared that people would see a sick cancer patient rather than me – a girl who, despite all these keratinous cancerous cells, is actually happy with her lot.

One of my best friends, Sarah, set me straight. “They’re all here to support you. Just remember that the fashion show is the main event, and I’ll be on scarf watch.”  Hers was the stern, no nonsense voice that I needed to hear.

As we walked in I couldn’t believe how professional it all looked; glamorous girls in matching pink dresses selling raffle tickets, beautiful lighting, pink cupcakes on sale, and the fashion show…well, I’ll let the pictures do the talking (which will be up very soon I promise!)

The amazing cupcakes Lora's good friend Sam made

As soon as I saw Lora I could tell she was nervous about pulling off the event. We hadn’t had a proper conversation for probably ten years and yet she put me at such ease, despite being anxious about the event. The young woman I now met was glamorous, bright and determined; a woman who didn’t have to do any of this but had chosen to do so.

The night was a massive success, raising around £4000 for Coppafeel, and of course the money was the ultimate goal of the event but that’s not what I will be taking away from that night.

What struck me were the old faces that showed up just to say hello and show their support. Schoolmates I’d not seen in twelve years, acquaintances who made the effort to come along just to give me a hug and say hello and old friends who came on their own to contribute.

An ex-boyfriend from my teens gave me a friendly hug and as I went to let go he held on for just that second longer, an unspoken way of saying he wished me well. He also won a raffle for a spa weekend, which he gave to my mum and I.

Then there was a bloke who introduced himself to tell me that his fiancée reads the blog. They often make the drive from Scotland down to Middlesbrough and been bickering in the car as couples are wont to do, and then his partner will read the blog aloud to him, they’ll put things in perspective and make up. When she joined us she explained that her mum had kept asking when they were going to set a date for their long-awaited wedding, and it was after reading the blog that they were inspired to seize the day. If I remember correctly I think they’ll be tying the knot in August next year!

Being a journalist I’ve met lots of different people with difficult stories over the course of my career. Some are heartbreaking. I remember the first ever report I went on for local TV was about an eleven year old boy who was dying of leukaemia yet who gave an hour of his week to help teach swimming at his local baths. I went off to report on that story and of course was touched by the tragedy, but even as I learned the nuances of his plight I was thinking professionally, ‘what shots do I need?’ ‘Which of his sound bites shall I use?’ ‘We need to get back to edit this in time for the programme.’ It sounds cold and dispassionate, but it’s the truth.

Now I’m the one who has the life threatening illness and I’m being enlightened as to what true kindness is and the depths of human empathy which we take for granted.

So yes, it was about the money and I know Coppafeel will use that cash to educate young women and to save lives, but for me the fashion show was about so much more. Oh and the clothes were rather good too…

Check out

http://kiwiboutique.myshopify.com/ top ladies fashion

http://bakerstailoring.com/index.php amazing men’s tailoring

http://www.akbars.co.uk/ the fantastic venue which also donated very generously

Two of the glamorous models on the catwalk