Feel the fear and do it anyway

You know that thing I said a while ago about not feeling any fear when I was diagnosed with breast cancer or throughout my treatment? Well, turns out you can only Keep Buggering On for so long before the big ol’ scary monster, Fear itself, bites you on the arse and one has what I will delicately describe as a Wobble. (You don’t want to know the extent of the tears and associated snot, frankly).

Friends who have been through health crises of their own or with children tell me this is entirely normal. It works a bit like post-traumatic stress disorder, from what I can work out. The big thing happens, you get through it (no choice: it’s happening whether you dissolve into a puddle or not, and the human pysche is astonishingly resilient), you survive. All is well. You stop being intimate with consultants and surgeons. Then, a while later, a thought pops into your head. An insidious, sneaky, betraying thought that starts ‘what if…’

Exempli Gratia: ‘What if that pain/twinge/ache/tingling/weird colour is because Something Is Really Wrong?’ The body has let one down before with a poor performance, after all. Quite dramatically too. Specifically, in my case (let’s be brave and look it in the eye, shall we?): what if that annoying ache in my back is because I have secondary cancer of the liver (rather than another bout of sciatica)? What if that discomfort under my left rib is because I have secondary cancer of the pancreas (rather than getting so excited about my new health discovery, chia seeds, that I overloaded my gut with sudden, massive amounts of soluble fibre)?

If something really is wrong, do I really want to know? Do I want to be prodded and scanned and take the gamble of a) being completely reassured and feeling like a happy idiot or b) being told devastating news that means I will be compelled to write birthday cards in advance for my darling babies and husband for the next couple of decades?

I had a quite intense session with my awesome health creation mentor, Kit, this morning, which prompted me to blog about this. She’s had first hand experience of The Wobble: she was diagnosed with ‘incurable’ cancer in 1992, is in fine fettle, and still panics before every annual check up. She reckons fear is just an acronym of ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. She asked what the thought was that I was thinking, and where it had come from. I know exactly. It was a feature in my beloved Grazia magazine about three weeks ago. It was from the fiance of a young woman who had just died from secondary breast cancer, in her liver, after recovering from breast cancer treatment and then getting a pain in her back. He had been hoping she would make it to their wedding this month. She didn’t quite get there.

This very sad story would have given me the jitters by itself, but there is a twist worthy of the Whitbread first novel prize (ooohhh….). It wasn’t the first time this beautiful girl had been in the magazine. She had written her own story in 2010, just after being diagnosed and having her first chemo. I remember, graphically, reading her feature, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I read it in bed, just after finding the lump in my breast for the first time, two or three days before fessing up to DH and booking an appointment with my GP. I remember the gut-liquidising chill as I read it: I already knew, deep down, that I was about to follow the same path. Chemotherapy in particular, before I had any idea of what it actually entails, was one of the most terrifying things I could imagine enduring.

And so when I read that she had died, my thought  – the thought behind all of this fear over the past few weeks – was this: ‘What if my life is mirroring hers?’ Almost instantly, I started to notice twinges and discomfort all over my body, all of which also have perfectly innocent explanations. No back pain at first, but I worried so hard about it that, sure enough, some back pain manifested itself. I worried so deeply, I’ve given my immune system a bashing and am currently fighting a rubbish chesty cold – the first for years (I really don’t get ill, apart from the obvious…). I panicked about my alcohol intake. I spent an entire evening, last Friday, crying on DH as I explained why I was scared. For, like, five hours (poor sod). Hot, salty, really big ploppy tears. They just wouldn’t stop. It was remarkably cathartic, actually, because to be honest I haven’t really cried specifically about caaancer at any point.

Then on Saturday afternoon I decided to take action. I had heard rumours of the mind-clearing benefit of exercise, though as a largely sedentary, distinctly non-sporty person, I had little experience of this. Regardless. Strapped on dusty trainers and, if I can just shock you, dear reader, I went for a run. Yup, you read right. Pinchy made like Forrest Gump and just….ran. And then walked for a bit, before running, and walking again, round a quiet local residential area, accompanied by an interesting selection of tunes on DD’s borrowed Shuffle. Among the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and Kylie there are a fair number of Disney themes. Turns out The Climb by Miley Cyrus is a perfectly acceptable running track…

Run, Pinchy, run!

Do you know what? Those rumours are true: moving your body really does clear your head. In the stressy age of extreme juggling we live in, that in itself is far more of an argument for getting off one’s fat arse than the nebulous idea of ‘getting fit’. Kit suggested that the universe sends us loving lessons, and maybe the message embedded in my fearful state was my own need to take proper control of and responsibility for my health: my diet (already pretty good, but I have made some more tweaks and am liking James Duigan’s Clean and Lean approach. I will learn to love kale…), the amount of wine I get through (38-year-old working mum levels. You know what I’m talking about), and my lack of any exercise other than 60 kettlebell swings most mornings.

My instinct is that she’s probably right. And she’s also right that I need to pick up the phone to my oncology team and say I’m not comfortable with waiting until next February to be checked over. Being signed off for a year is AMAZING, obvs, and I’m sure my consultant wouldn’t have done so if he wasn’t entirely sure that I’m fine, but six months in, I’m also miles further from medical attention than I have been since I was diagnosed. Which may also have something to do with The Wobble.

Other action: do some yoga cat poses to sort this damned sciatica out. Stop with the chia seeds for a bit (already done; gas levels no longer on the red-for-danger bit of the dial). Most importantly, apply the four questions that make up The Work of Byron Katie to that pesky ‘my life is mirroring hers’ thought:

1. Is it true? (I don’t know)

2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true? (No)

3. What happens when I think that thought? (The Wobble)

4. Who would you be without that thought? (Fully enjoying being happier, and more myself, than I have been at any point in my life, ironically).

Then turn it around: my life is not mirroring hers. We are completely different people, with different diseases, different treatments and different outcomes. I am safe, and free, and all is well.

And a final reminder to myself and everyone else: MOVE AWAY FROM GOOGLE if you or anyone you love has a question mark over some aspect of their health or what’s happening in their body. American health forums filled with fear-filled posts by the ‘worried well’ seriously Do Not Help. Ever. Now, I must ring my oncology team. At some point.

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.

High five!

Yesterday morning I dragged myself from my sick bed to go for a mammogram so my surgeon could start planning the Pruning of Pinchy. I was feeling rubbish with a capital Ar, since it was only four days since my fifth chemo; on Sunday and Monday while languishing in bed at my wonderful parents’ house the thought had actually passed my mind that one would only feel quite so crap if one was imminently about to shuffle off one’s mortal coil.

After enduring the Tit Squashing Machine, though, I soon perked up on seeing a set of pretty pictures featuring a complete absence of tumour. Yes siree, with one chemo left to go, as predicted by my consultant, the lump est disparu! [Cue Team Pinchy cheerleaders chanting ‘F&ck Caaancer, whoop whoop!’). It was rather affecting to see an X-ray of my dear old boob without that scary white mass in the middle this time. Such a bloody shame about the lurking pre-cancerous stuff meaning the surgery still needs to be extensive, but ain’t that amazing? This drug combo I’m on is seriously doing the business.

And I know I’m not the only one: yesterday afternoon I met another young (for breast cancer, anyway) mum who was on the same pertuzumab trial as me, had her chemo and surgery last year, and had a similarly dramatic result. The cancer had gone to her lymph too, and she had the same surgeon and said it was all fine with no problems. She’s just on the Herceptin every three weeks now and looks fab. She was the first person I’ve met around my age in sort of the same situation and it was hugely reassuring to speak to her.

I met her at the Look Good Feel Better workshop at the Royal Surrey’s Fountain Centre yesterday afternoon. This is a genius idea by the cosmetics industry: a load of women with cancer bowl up looking a bit grey and depressed with varying degrees of hair loss, and sashay out after two hours of attention by a crack squad of beauticians looking frankly much better than the girls on Take Me Out, with slap measurable in centimetres and big smiles. And a fabulous goody bag of make-up and toiletries: I wouldn’t exactly forage in the fields around Chernobyl in the hope I’d become eligible, but it’s nice to know that some silver linings come with a Chanel logo.

So today I am feeling almost back to normal. I’ve bounced back quickly again, I think partly due to the holistic support I’m getting from loads of acupuncture and absolutely foul tasting Chinese herbs pressed on me by my fabulous Chinese professor, Erwen. She’s very skilled, kind and funny and seems to actually care about my whole body getting through the chemo, being ready for surgery and sailing through radiotherapy.

And thence to the southern coast of Espana, where at the end of June the Pinchy family will be joining our Friends from Essex on a week at La Manga in a big villa with a private pool on the edge of a golf course with a spa and kids club near a beach (see how many boxes we ticked there?). It’s a bit of a L’Oreal holiday (“we’re worth it”) because we’ve all had a rather shite 18 months and need to spoil ourselves.

It might even be fun doing a slightly different sort of holiday clothes shopping, including a swimming costume with a pocket for a prosthesis  (or ‘shell’ as the breast care nurses coyly put it) so my new small bionic boob doesn’t embarrass its more comely neighbour before the surgery to even up the landscape of my torso. I will report back on the retail opportunities of temporarily looking like I simultaneously have a melon and a peach nestled in my top, though I can reassure you I won’t be posting any shots of me modelling my Special Swimsuit. [Cue further action from cheerleaders etc etc…]

Meet my new friend Sophia

Yesterday I did the thing I’d been putting off for a long time. I went for a wig fitting.

I’ve still got lots of hair but it’s thin enough on top for me not to want to leave the house without a hat/turban/scarf. My confidence about how I was looking had dipped to an all-time low, worse than post-babies, and I had gone through upset and resistance and was actually quite looking forward to the experience. It was Time.

So me and my entourage (my gorgeous sister and my delicious six month old niece) bowled up at Joseph’s Wigs . It was all very discreet: you have to ring on the doorbell, the shop front has blinds across it, and we were shown through to a private room at the back. Surrounded by polystyrene heads sporting wigs of all colours and styles, I sat down in front of a big mirror to have a chat about what I needed and what sort of things I might like to try, and have my head measured (not as small as I’d always thought, incidentally).

The lovely, kind, gentle woman who was looking after us (discreetly) sussed out my budget (the deal with referral from a hospital is that you pay £60 and the NHS pays the rest, up to a max of £120. But if you want a more expensive wig, you have to also pay the extra, and decent wigs are more like double that).

We started with a top-of-the-range wig: a classy chick called Sophia (£250). This is a ‘classic chin-length bob with a light fringe’, according to manufacturer Feather Premier. I quite fancied a fringe: in pre-syrup life I’d always been told by hairdressers that my low forehead and hairline made a fringe a no-no. It is handmade, with each bit of nylon hair hand knotted, and is made from stuff that is soft and comfortable on the skin. Apparently it also has a ‘double monofilament layer and a fine lace front to provide an undetectable front hairline’. (A whole new vocabulary!)

Me and Sophia

I was told not to panic until it was properly on and styled, because at the moment of putting a wig on, everyone looks like Rod Stewart. To put a wig on, you don’t dip your head; you look into the wig, with one hand holding the front and the other holding the label at the back, and bring the wig up to your head, holding onto the front while you pull the back down. Then there are two little tabs near your temples to adjust it so it’s straight.

Me and my sis were seriously impressed. It looks like actual hair. In fact, it looks like my hair with a really expensive haircut and highlights. Off my head, you’d never call it a red wig, but the ‘Autumn Harvest’ colour actually blends in perfectly with my own hair. My sis was saying all the right things about looking pretty, young and groomed, and I liked it so much I was pretty sure it was The One.

I did try on a few more, just to be sure. It was good fun, now the fear factor was removed. The longer wigs look a lot more…wiggy, somehow (and not in a lapdancer way, as DH was hoping). As do the cheaper ones: you really do get what you pay for. It is possible to get cheaper wigs cut and styled so they look more natural – Trevor Sorbie is behind a wonderful charity called My New Hair, which trains hairdressers in salons across the country to cut cancer patients’ real hair and wigs.

Not a lapdancer, yesterday

A wig in a much darker red just looked odd – I had been thinking of playing around with a new colour but I just don’t look myself in anything a lot darker or lighter than usual, and that wasn’t going to make me feel less self-conscious.

I also tried on a very short wig, just to see. If my own hair gets a lot thinner and I decide to wear the wig a lot, it would make sense to do an Emma Watson (without the youth, Ivy League degree and Burberry modelling contract). I was a bit shocked because I always had quite harshly short hair as a child, and there was an eight year old me starring back in the mirror. With bigger eye bags, obvs. But at least I know now I can get away with really short hair if required.

Too short!!!

So Sophia it was. She was bagged up and I had a crash course in Wig Care: they need washing and conditioning with special products every two weeks (in the basin, not on your head) because the inside gets a bit sweaty and smelly (nice!). I also need to use a metal brush or comb to prevent static, presumably so I don’t become a frizzy fire risk, and when the ends get a bit dry, it needs a special oil treatment. And she needs keeping away from cats (looks like a dead rodent) and all sources of heat so she doesn’t, well, melt.

I left feeling really pleased, quite elated. I called DH to tell him I was bringing my new friend home. I said while wearing it I’d looked in the mirror and smiled at myself because I liked the way I looked for the first time in many, many weeks, and for a moment I was overcome with emotion and I could hear his voice cracking (in the middles of Wickes, of all places), too.

I put it on after school to see what the kiddies thought. DS looked at me strangely and said ‘What you doin’ with your hair mummy?’ so I showed him it was a wig, and he lost interest pretty quickly, since it isn’t anything to do with Toy Story. DD wanted to feel it and try it on (she looked like a tiny pageant queen: weirdly too grown up!), and this morning said she liked me with the wig better than a hat. Phew. When DH came home and clocked me, he was a bit shocked, because it’s so different to how I’ve ever had my hair, but he says he likes it. I suspect he’s more interested in me feeling confident and relaxed than anything else, and if I’d declared a purple ‘fro was going to be my look for the next six months he’d be cool with it as long as I was happy.

Sophia accompanied me on the school and nursery run this morning. I was a bit nervous because I’m just learning how to get it looking right, but I got loads of compliments from other mums, the wonderful school-crossing-slash-dinner-lady, the nursery team, and DD’s teachers. And popping into the hospital for a meeting with the breast care nurse about recovering from surgery (of which more another time), I found myself striding in with my head held high, in the way I used to walk everywhere. I hadn’t realised until that point how my much self-consciousness had affected my posture and bearing.

Tonight we’re off out for a girls’ night in to plan The Holiday. I wasn’t ready to meet her before now, but I think I’m going to like Sophia tagging along, she seems quite smart and fun. She certainly makes me smile, anyway.