The final piece of the jigsaw

So I only have three days left, including today, of having an impressive cleavage. At 7.30am on Friday morning I will be checking into the short stay unit at the Royal Surrey County Hospital for my state-funded boob job, to reduce the size of my left breast so it matches the now cancer-free, smaller but much more pert right breast.

After it all heals up, I reckon I’ll be down to about a C-cup from a DD – happily, bigger than I expected before the initial op last Easter (yeah, it was that long ago!). I won’t need to be tucking my silicone chicken fillet into bras to fill out the cup any more. I will be able to spend all the lovely Rigby & Peller and Figleaves vouchers that generous friends and rellies have been giving me, on pretty bras (much more choice for smaller sizes, I gather). Given the ‘tits like a 19-year-old’ state of the right one, I may even be able to get away with not wearing a bra in the summer (though I do feel that once a lady is past a certain age, going for the ‘smuggling Tictacs’ look under a Hollister t-shirt is possibly just a bit sad). Another plus: I won’t have to hoik my post-breast-feeding puppies into undergarments any longer. And I’ll be able to wear polo-necks!! What’s not to like?!

'Chesty LaRue? Hooty McBoob? Busty St Clair?'

Well, I’ll tell you what’s not to like. There is a massive psychological difference between staring down at mummy boobs that grace one’s tummy when unscaffolded and thinking: ‘Gosh, I would love to have a few grand to get these chaps lifted and possibly reduced! I’d feel so much younger and clothes would fit better and I’d feel more confident and sexy if I had a boob job!’; and the procedure being forced upon you, in two far-apart stages, because the cells in one of your tits went a bit mental and threatened all sorts of nastiness if they weren’t cut down to size. The decision was out of my hands.

I really liked having big boobs, saggy or otherwise. I liked having an impressive cleavage. So did DH. He’s a tit-man through and through, and was particularly fond of the soft bits at the side, so he’s got some adjusting to do as well. I liked wearing low-cut tops and dresses. I’ve always been quite happy for all and sundry to be thinking ‘Woah, look at the top bollocks on that!’. Plus breast-feeding my two babies is one of the proudest achievements of my life, and every stretch mark and scar is a reminder that I have done some things right as a mummy.

So while I can intellectually process the ‘positive’ aspect of my balancing surgery on Friday, forgive me if I’m not really feeling it. I never wanted my body to be a different shape entirely, and I never wanted a cosmetic boob job. A bit more toned, a few pounds lighter, less prone to dry skin, sure. But being resculpted entirely against my will? That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

I’m sure I’ll get used to it – I’m sort of used to having one small boob and one big one, nine months after that first mission-critical op, and I never thought I’d get used to being lopsided. And it’s a short, simple op and the recovery will be quicker, and there’s no lymph involvement this time. And it’s being done by the same brilliant surgeon, Tracey Irvine, after we sorted out a slight hiccup whereby the date I’d had in my head for the op since September – 23rd January – didn’t get transferred to her 2012 diary and there was a certain amount of date juggling before we came up with 3rd Feb. That – Titgate – was very hard to deal with because I’d been psyching myself up for this op for months.

And now the real date is here and I’m finding it harder than I thought. I need to pull myself together. It’s only a standard breast reduction, FFS, what am worried about? It’s the final piece in the cancer treatment jigsaw. After this, apart from 4.5 more years of Tamoxifen, it’s over, right? Cancer journey completed; job done, well done Pinch, time to get on with the rest of your life.

The thing is, though, it’s starting to dawn on me that this won’t ever be over. My body will be a different shape forever. I will always have heavily scarred breasts. And I have finally realised that I will always have to take care of my right arm and try to avoid cuts, burns, bites, excema, cracked skin. After the rather nasty cellulitis/lymphoedema incident which had me on antibiotics for a month before Christmas, I now have a snazzy graduated compression bandage which runs from my knuckles to my armpit. I have to wear this if I’m going to be working on the computer for a long time (ie, doing my job four days a week), driving for any length of time, ironing, lifting, housework, exercise. Forever. It looks a bit like I’m a dummy in a shop window when I wear it, because it’s flesh-coloured. It’s quite tight and tricky to get on, like wearing support tights.

I don’t have any strong feelings about it, to be honest – it’s quite reassuring that there are things I can do to hopefully stop me getting cellulitis again, because that was so grim. I don’t think a gentle nudge that I have to look after myself is necessarily a bad thing, really. But it is a constant reminder, nevertheless.

And then something else happened a couple of weeks ago that added a new dimension to the realisation that once you’ve had caaancer, life is always going to be different in so many ways, some which are actually good lessons or blessings, and others which aren’t. That new dimension was fear.

I haven’t felt fear since the day I was diagnosed. At the risk of sounding like Simon Cowell, I genuinely mean that. Not one twinge. I always knew I’d be fine. And then me and DH watched the eagerly anticipated first episode of the new series of Restoration Man (the one where Gorgeous George the architect sees a couple through some crazy water mill restoration project). The couple in question had been able to embark on their mad scheme after a critical illness cover payout after she got ovarian cancer. That was a few years ago, she was fine, silver linings all the way, we cheered, such a strong echo of our own experience. Then about half way through, the whole thing turned into a nightmare. The cancer had come back. Secondary cancer is incurable. She became more and more frail. George and her husband were in tears. So was DH. Then she…well, she died, and never got to see their dream project completed. Eeeeeek. Awful.

I must admit that was the first time I’d fully appreciated how fearful DH still is of my health, and possibly why he’s never really felt he can properly ‘celebrate’ me ‘getting better’. It was also the first time I’d felt any sort of fear. It crept on me like a chilly shadow: ‘What if it does happen again? And what if, then, I’m not so lucky?’.

But I can’t think like that – I have had such good, thorough, belt-and-braces treatment. Plus I’m never going to be as stressed and lacking in sleep as I was for a couple of years in the run-up to my diagnosis. And I’m taking control of my diet, and doing my yoga, and all the esoteric non-medical stuff I believe in. All I can do – and all DH and my family and friends can do – is trust that things are exactly as they should be, right now, and all is well in my world.

It’s weird that for me all the stuff about the long term and my own mortality has only started sneaking in since I finished my treatment. It’s probably why I’m a bit up and down at the moment. I spent over a year with my head down, buggering on through it all, and only now do I get flashbacks that make me really shiver, and give me some insight into how everyone else might have been feeling.

I think the main lesson is the obvious, and hardest, one: that we only get this day once, and so it needs to be good. Whether that means it’s productive, or fun, or lucrative, or problem-solving, or organised, or thought-provoking, or relaxing, I want to go to sleep every night thinking, yes, I made the most of that day. Whatever the size of my bloomin’ tits. Bye-bye Chesty La Rue, it was nice knowin’ ya. There’s a new pair of chesticles in town.


Pinchy, punch, first of the month…

I’ve started 2012 by already ticking something off the bucket list: firing a shotgun. Not at DH, I hasten to add; we and the lovely friends we spent New Year’s Eve with fired into the air at midnight to celebrate the long-awaited end to That Bloody Year. It was brilliant! Definitely need to do a shooting day this year. And drive a tractor. And learn to play tennis. And take up fencing, or archery, or hockey. And write The Damned Novel, of course. ‘Such fun!’, as Miranda’s mother would say.

The last night of the year was great. Endless plates of yummy food, during a five hour game of poker. The four of us were at the table all night, with our guests Miss Taittinger and Mr Barolo. Eating, drinking, laughing. Perfick. Well, almost: it would have been great if our four children had actually, y’know, slept during their sleepover, but hey.

Today we took down our beautiful Christmas tree from the bay window where it has sat twinkling for three weeks in exactly the way I envisioned when we first set eyes on this house in July, and started the New Year proper, with the requisite resolutions to be healthier, eat better, exercise more, drink less, go to bed earlier. (We once got to 18 January without wine. I’ll let you know how we get on this year…).

There are two types of resolutions in my book: Habit Changers and Big Goals. My Big Goal you all know about (writing the novel rather than talking about it and going through the synopsis with everyone I meet). The Habit Changers involve the usual suspects, plus: investing in beautiful, matching, comfortable underwear (after my balancing surgery in 22 days, when my boobs will be the same size again, though rather less of a handful); playing more with the kiddies (I have rediscovered my love of Lego this Christmas, and also the searing, Hugh-Grant-style-sweariness-inducing pain of stepping on a rogue two-er stuck in the flokati…); being rather more high-maintenance in the eyebrow/bikini-line/manicure/pedicure department; learning a new joke every day; having a monthly date night with DH; doing more fun stuff with friends. And getting kittens. And maybe a light box to ameliorate the winter blues. And thanking the universe every night for all the wonderful things and people in my life, and the blessings of every day. And worrying much, much less about what other people think. And doing my affirmations every morning (currently: I love and accept myself just the way I am).

There is a theory, of course, that January is precisely the wrong time to be making any sort of lifestyle-changing pledges. It makes much more sense to continue to hunker down, eat comfort food, move slowly, and generally stay in semi-hibernation, and then as the first signs of spring start to emerge, match nature’s exuberant rebirth with our own new start. The number of people running around Guildford this morning was hilarious. Why not wait a few weeks to start blossoming?

I am so looking forward to this year. Today is such a lovely contrast to this time last year, when the side effects of my New Year’s Eve third chemo were beginning to kick in, and the good times seemed such a interminably long way in the future. But now the future is here, and I have a funny feeling in my tummy (and prickles in my eyes, actually) when I think about all the possibilities the year ahead holds.

And it has been quite a wonderful Christmas: for the first time, it was just the four of us on Christmas Day, in our own home. On Christmas Eve we went for a walk in the Surrey Hills with our fab friends Team H, then left a mince pie, carrot and a nice glass of Malbec for lucky Santa.

The kiddies with their offering for Father Christmas

We had a romantic bit of well-aged sirloin (insert your own joke here), and finished wrapping the waaay-too-many-but-what-the-hell presents for the smalls. In the morning, they jumped onto our bed to open their stockings and have some pretty serious cuddles. We had pain au chocolate for brekkie, then cracked open the prosecco and managed to string present opening out from 9.30am to 11.30, when we had a big American-style brunch (waffles, syrup, bacon, eggs, berries, mmmn…). In the afternoon, DH assembled various Playmobil and Sylvanian Families sets while I got on gradually with the roast, which we ate at 4.30pm. The kids were on great form, we all got on really well, all day. They were delightful company: aged five and three, they are now a real double act and huge fun, and just about old enough to play family games like Connect 4 and Guess Who? (and the ill-advised Doggy Doo, but we won’t talk about that). It was a perfect, relaxed, low-key, family Christmas, polished off with Downton Abbey and a nice bottle of red.

The letter Santa left this year

It sort of felt like the Christmas we grew up. For the first time, we weren’t the kids going home to our parents to be fed and watered and hand over the grandchildren. We were the grown-ups. I cooked Christmas dinner for my own family (rather well, I have to say, partly due to a great-quality bird and partly down to stress-free accompaniments from Mr Marks and Mr Spencer). Something shifted for me and DH this Christmas: I have another theory that growing up is not at all a gradual process, but goes in leaps, followed by periods where things don’t change very much. We both feel like we have had a couple of major leaps forward in the past year.

I have to be honest at this point and add that you still get growing pains in your late 30s. As DH has found, it can be hard to not slip into the traditional (sometimes disempowering) roles you’ve always played as a son or daughter when parents are around. I have also found this big leap forward challenging, especially finishing my caaancer treatment on December 1. I was elated at first, but then started feeling a bit weird about it all. I mentioned earlier in the year, between my surgery and radiotherapy, that it felt like ‘God put me down’, as my lovely health creation mentor Kit once said. And I’ve been feeling like that again, except much more acutely.

I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read an interview with my Breast Cancer Hero Jennifer Saunders in December. She ‘fessed up that, actually, there are many aspects of going through treatment that are enjoyable. Being absolutely the centre of everyone’s attention, being showered with love, the laughs and quality time you have with friends on chemo days: what’s not to like? And then suddenly it’s over, you’re fine (thank God), everyone’s relieved, you all celebrate and then… life moves on, for everyone. And the funny thing is, it’s actually a bit lonely and bewildering.

Having moaned about hospital appointments and invasive treatment for over a year, I now feel slightly lost without knowing I am being kept such a close eye on by my medical team. Things get back to normal (and you know how much I have been worshipping at the altar of normal all year) and yet…what is normal, now? I don’t want to, can’t, go back to things being exactly the same, because I wasn’t happy, or fulfilled, or myself. But neither do I know what the New Normal, for me, looks and feels like, quite. I have days where I am loving life, getting on with everyone, feeling good in my skin, and then other days where I feel utterly disjointed and confused, out of kilter, and completely misread situations. My communication skills desert me and conflict reigns, confusingly. I feel like someone’s disconnected the sat nav of my life, or I’m following the rules for a different board game to everyone else.

But I guess these things take time. It’s a big period of adjustment. As always, I’m probably in too much of a hurry. I just need to breathe, drop my shoulders, smile, and go with the flow a bit more. Be myself, and let everyone else be who they are. Now that’s what I call a good New Year’s Resolution. If I can hang onto this particular wagon for January, I might just form the best habits ever. That’s worth raising yet another glass of champagne to, I reckon. When I get over my dry few days, anyway. Happy Noo Year!