Being a Diva

One of the best pieces of advice I received after being diagnosed with breast cancer, was to be more like Mariah Carey – a diva.  At first I didn’t quite get it – was this really the best time in my life to be strutting around in fancy clothes, demanding only the very best.  My friend Clare explained to me that it was about taking care of myself, and using this time in my life to be number one.  Don’t be a people pleaser, don’t think of others needs, just think about yourself.pexels-photo-276064.jpegApparently one of the common symptoms of people who get cancer is that they are often ‘givers’.  I don’t think of myself as selfless by any means, but I had stopped looking after my own needs, and was definitely feeling a little lost.  Clare had told me to be selfish and to make sure I had a ‘healing ‘ environment at home.  So after my operation and before the chemotherapy started, my husband and I had a checklist of items to complete:

  1. Make sure you are warm – put an extra heater in the bedroom
  2. Your bathroom should be a little more luxurious: put Epsom salts in the bath after each chemotherapy treatment; soak in the bath with a pillow to rest your head and put in a wireless speaker so you can listen to healing music while bathing
  3. Change your bedlinen regularly, and make sure it’s lovely crisp white cotton
  4. Have a scented soy wax candle next to your bed
  5. Put a pile of books or/and Kindle next to your bed – you’re going to have plenty of time to read
  6. Have some sort of screen in there to watch films and TV series on
  7. Wear a beautiful pair of pyjamas or nightdress in very soft cotton
  8. Have your room cleaned thoroughly before your ‘healing’ retreat starts
  9. Have a notebook next to your bed, to write down your thoughts – light and dark
  10. Use the best face cream you can find, as your skin is going to need nourishment

If you’re wondering why there isn’t a picture of Mariah Carey, it’s because I couldn’t find one without royalties.  She’s very easy to picture anyway in your mind’s eye, and a little mantra for me whilst going through my recovery was always ‘What would Mariah Carey do?’  It’s just a little reminder to make yourself number one during this trying time.

Pickled Apricot

One of the weirdest things I did during my breast cancer treatment was to put a pickled apricot in my belly button before every chemo session.  It’s actually called Umeboshi, a Japanese pickled apricot, which can be bought in jars from health food shops.  My friend Andrea who is an expert in Chinese healthcare explained that this would be effective in combatting nausea during the chemotherapy treatment.  The navel is the centre of the body, and the properties of the Umeboshi balances its energies.

 

 

Umeboshi2

So how do you fit an apricot in your navel?  Here’s how.  You take out the stone of the apricot, and then wrap the Umeboshi in gauze and carefully place it in your belly button.  Then tape it to secure it.  You leave it in for as long as you feel necessary, so it could be 24 hours, or it could be five days.  I generally took it out after five days, when the worst of the chemotherapy was over.  The dressing itched slightly, and I always knew when I’d had enough.

So does it work?  Well, I certainly didn’t suffer too badly from nausea.  I was never sick, but I never had much of an appetite.  The hospital wanted me to take anti-nausea medication, but I refused it.  I’d just had enough, so even if by putting a pickled apricot in my belly button acted as a placebo, then I think it helped.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

I remember as I was nearing the end of my treatment, an Irish friend Anne told me about a large bell in a cancer wing of an Irish hospital.  When patients had finished their treatment, they were encouraged to ring the bell to mark the end – a sort of celebration – it seemed like a lovely idea.

When I first heard about this, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind.  I couldn’t wait for my treatment to be over, but would it be a celebration?  Every time I imagined ringing the bell I wanted to rip it off the wall.  Rather than it being an ‘air punching’ moment, I imagined screaming out, relieved it was all over, but angry too that I had been subjected to this treatment.

pexels-photo-633497.jpegAs part of my ‘therapy’ I would listen to songs on Spotify whilst driving back and forth to the hospital.   The song Ballerina by Van Morrison would often crop up on a playlist from his album Astral Weeks.  One of the lines of the song is ‘All you gotta do is ring a bell’.  The song went round and round in my head, conjuring up the vision of me trying to ring the bell in the hospital.  While singing along there would be tears rolling down my face.

As the final day of radiotherapy neared, I was exhausted and literally burnt out.  I stared at the wall during the treatment and then pulled my gown back on, feeling numb.  The radiologist turned to me at the end with a smile on her face, and said ‘this is your final session.’  I just burst into tears, sobbing as an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders.  She comforted me by saying that I had been well dressed with make up on every day.  I replied ‘yes, I’ve tried to be strong for too long.’

It’s a Cover-Up

I’d always presumed I would wear a wig if I lost my hair after chemo.  My friend Chloe had given me her old ‘breast cancer’ wig which was a good fit and the same colour as my hair, so it was left in a drawer until Doomsday.  The fact was, when my hair did start to fall out, my scalp became very itchy and bumpy with some sort of rash.  My instinct was to wrap it in something very soft, but the inside of the wig was harsh and coarse.  What to do?pexels-photo-936559.jpegAt the point my hair began to fall out, my friend Philippa came round to see me.  I was distressed because it had started to appear whenever I sat down – the sofa, the dining room table, my pillow……she suggested wearing a turban, and set about looking on the internet for scarf tying tutorials.  Now the thing about Philippa is that she is an ex-Vogue stylist, so I knew I was in good hands.  Philippa also runs a cool online brocante shop Duck’s Nest Vintage www.etsy.com/shop/Ducksnestvintage?ref=ss_profile

Rather than look like I should be scrubbing steps, I tried to channel Sophia Loren or Liz Taylor on board a Mediterranean yacht in the sixties.  It was also winter, and our house is very drafty, so wearing a scarf round my head also kept out the excruciating cold which my newly shaved head experienced.  I found a large oblong scarf the easiest to wrap around my head, rather than the square scarves which create a different look.   Here’s the link for Liberty scarf tying tips: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0k4xMtHQMdg

Later on, as my hair started to grow back, and the weather became warmer, it became difficult to wear scarves around my head, as it was just too hot.  It was also the period when I’d lost my eyelashes and eyebrows, so I was feeling particularly gloomy about my looks.  I’d been given lots of beautiful square silk scarves – some from my stepdaughter who’d recently visited Beirut.  My hair was growing back, but it was more like a peach fuzz, so it couldn’t really be exposed, together with the fact that I had developed a sensitivity to the sun due to the chemo.  My friend Jeny Sugg came to the rescue.  She often wears funky scarves, and has a cool retro style, and persuaded me to create a more fun look with large glasses, hiding my lack of eyebrows and eyelashes, together with square scarves tied with more volume on top.  Here’s the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXWgVQweGVY&t=276s.  Jen makes beautiful handmade items such as knickers, cards and cushions – she also has an online shop https://www.etsy.com/shop/frenchkitschdesigns?ref=search_shop_redirect

I now have a Pixie cut hairstyle, so I am scarf-free.  It’s such a relief to have my head uncovered, but looking back the scarf provided little moments of joy during a pretty dark period.

Losing It

I didn’t expect to have chemo – I’d found the lump early so the doctor told me it would most likely be a course of radiotherapy after the operation.  When the news came that it was an aggressive cancer, and that I was to have chemo over the course of five months, I was gutted –  mostly because I would probably lose my hair.pexels-photo-973401.jpegAfter receiving my initial diagnosis I’d deliberately left my hair long.  In a strange sort of way I was almost willing it not to happen, trying to subliminally convince my doctor that chemo wouldn’t be necessary.

Why was it so painful?  For me it was a symbol of my strength, health and vitality.  The shock of possibly losing it was heartbreaking.

The doctor told me that a cold cap during chemo sometimes worked in preventing hair loss.  As I moved closer to my first chemo appointment, I knew I needed to prepare myself which meant a short haircut.  The cold cap needed to have contact with the head in order to work, and also if my hair was to fall out, then it would be easier to deal with.   Going to the local hairdresser just seemed too difficult as I imagined staring at myself in the mirror sobbing as long strands of my auburn hair fell to the floor.

Then one of those little miracles happened, which seem to happen all the time when you’re going through a traumatic experience – ‘out of the blue’ our neighbour mentioned to my husband that she was an ex-hairdresser.  I was relieved to be able to have my hair cut in the privacy of my bathroom.  When Fiona came round the following day, I deliberately chose a seat which wouldn’t allow me to see my reflection, I just trusted her to do her job. I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see my hair fall, and then after it was all over, I looked at myself in the mirror, and it wasn’t too bad.  That was the easy part though.

The first time I went to hospital for chemotherapy the nurses came in every fifteen minutes with a cold cap – a soft helmet which is kept in the freezer – to try and paralyse the hair follicles I presume.  Unfortunately the cap didn’t work, it just gave me a excruciating headache – after three sessions my hair began to fall out….

My hair already seemed thinner, and then I began to notice hair on my pillow, the kitchen table, the sofa….wherever I sat really  It was also extremely itchy, as if a rash had developed on my skull.  A couple of days later,when I put my hand on my head, the hair would come out in handfuls.  I found this so distressing, more than anything it was the feeling of hopelessness, and the lack of control.  One morning I woke up and decided it needed to be shaved off.

Luckily my good friend Andrea was staying with us during this time.  I asked her that morning if she would do me the honour, but knew it was a big ask.  Andrea was a doctor, so immensely practical, but also extremely kind and sensitive.  I had thought of asking my husband to do it, but I think we would have both been too upset.

Sitting in the bathroom, I put my head in her hands, literally and metaphorically.  She first cut it as short as possible with scissors and then started to shave it, gently and methodically.  Tears rolled down my cheeks, as I had flashes of negative images of Jewish people having their heads shaved in Nazi Germany or women shamed after the war being paraded through the streets.  I needed to take my power back, rather than be a victim so I tried to change my vision.  I started to think of Buddhist monks or strong female actresses such as Sigourney Weaver who had shaved their heads for a film role.  This somehow made me feel more powerful.

After it was shaved, I put a soft cotton/silk cap on my skull, but wouldn’t actually look at my head for at least a week.  I then needed to decide how to cover my head for the outside world, but that’s another story.

 

 

Teen Spirit

It was very hard for me to come to terms with having chemotherapy, it seemed so counterintuitive that something which killed healthy cells in my body was going to cure me.  Finally I managed to process it, by imagining it being a factory reset of the body – cleaning it out and rebuilding it post-treatment.  I wanted to remember a time when I felt vital, strong, relaxed and happy, in order to revive these feelings in my body, and to help the healing process. Looking back, it was my teenage years and early twenties when I felt joyous and hopeful, as I had not suffered any major shocks, I had very little stress, and life felt full of possibilities.  I had put a series of photos on my desk of my loved ones, and I included a picture of myself, at the age of 19, laughing, suntanned, and with sparkling eyes – it seemed to be a good image to focus on.

pexels-photo-761963.jpegI was also conscious of the fact that I had stopped listening to music so much.  I used to love dancing, and I had fantastic recall of lyrics.  My music collection had disappeared due to the transfer from vinyl, cassettes, CDS and now downloads.  Then my stepson Jamie got me set up on Spotify.  As soon as a band or singer from my youth, popped into my head I would search for it, and then sing along in the car (especially during my long journeys to and from hospital).  It immediately made me feel uplifted and would usually connect me to a happy memory or feeling.

Exploring this further, I thought about my clothes, and how I had neglected my appearance in recent years – being more practical than fun.  I didn’t go crazy, but if something caught my eye, I didn’t immediately search for reasons why I shouldn’t buy it, but instead, thought ‘why not’.  This was especially useful when I had lost my hair, and was not looking my best, I actually started to take more pride in my appearance – wearing make-up and maybe a cool pair of shoes, or something sparkly.  It really helped and it’s something I’m going to continue doing.

Smell is also meant to be the most important sense for evoking memories.  After starting chemo I read an article in a magazine with Juliette Binoche, who said her favourite perfume was Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel.  This is the perfume I always wore when I was a teenager, so a couple of weeks later when I happened to see it in a duty free shop, I put a little on my wrist to remember its smell.  I was immediately transported back to my youthful self, and so I now spray a little on my inner wrist each morning to get me through the day!

Another thing, I felt was lacking in my life, was laughter, real belly laughter when you feel completely alive.  It was winter, and I was going to be spending a lot of time in the house, so I found comedies online from my youth, such as Alan Partridge and current stand-ups, such as Ricky Gervais.  There is something incredible about really laughing, it completely lifts you out of your current state and your body feels so relaxed afterwards – teeming with positive happy cells!

I also stopped focussing so much on the news and world events.  In the run up to my diagnosis, there had been frequent terrorist attacks, Brexit and the inauguration of Donald Trump.  I needed to feel that life was worth living, and so just stopped tuning in so much to the bad stuff.  It’s not that I don’t care, but if I can’t do anything to change what’s happening, I feel powerless – in reality I can only try and change the environment around me, and by constantly watching the news, it was a huge distraction from what really mattered.

Oddly enough, after instinctively trying to tap in to my inner teenager, I read something similar in Deepak Chopra’s The Healing Self: Supercharge Your Immune System.  He describes an experiment by Harvard professor Ellen Langer, who put seventy year old men in a sort of time capsule – wearing the clothes from their youth, and listening to music from the same period – recreating that environment actually made them healthier and more youthful on a physical level.

Later on in the book, Deepak Chopra suggests ways to cope with a delayed flight, in terms of reducing your stress levels.  As I’d downloaded the book in the airport, whilst facing a three hour delay – I thought ‘yes, I’m on the right track.’

 

 

Breathing In

One of the first people I spoke to on receiving my breast cancer news was my friend Clare.  Clare is a ball of energy, always positive and vibrant.  She drove up to see me immediately, and boosted my spirits, not only giving me the confidence that I would get through this, but also talked to me about changes I needed to make in my life.  Her Mum Catriona sadly lost her husband to cancer, and has since become and expert on alternative medicine, and the importance of diet.  She is just like her daughter, full of energy, and a real inspiration.

blue-sky-merge-clouds-675977.jpegCatriona sent me lots of information on  supporting the body, one of which was Oxygen drops.  The theory behind it is that in our industrialised societies, our bodies are receiving less and less oxygen, which is making it harder for the cells to repair themselves thus creating illnesses such as cancer.  As I already live in the countryside, I decided not to take them, but it did reinforce the importance of exercise during this period.

During chemo I felt pretty dreadful most of the time, but I was by no means bed-bound, just lacking in energy, coupled with rather dark thoughts, as the chemo coursed through my body.  One of the other side effects, especially towards the end was little pains in my thighs and hip area.  I forced myself to go out walking every day, or on my bicycle if the weather wasn’t too grim.  I was especially buoyed on by my sister, who always has lots of energy, and if she wasn’t with me, I would still make sure I took the dog out, for thirty minutes or so.  Not only did it take the pains away in my thighs, but for the first time I consciously breathed in the oxygen into my lungs, and I really felt its benefits.  I would return home with colour in my face, a little more tired, but less depressed that I had been staying in the house.

I’m also bringing meditation into my daily routine, being conscious of my breath, in order to reduce my stress levels as well as clear my head.  I’d neglected this in my pre-cancer life, and think it’s important going forward.  I’d also read quite a lot about breathing into my belly – this is where your emotions are stored so breathing in (four counts in, six counts out) is a really good way of relaxing.

I don’t want to sound like Mr Motivator, as at the time it was really hard, and still is,  but on reflection, I am really glad I managed to do it, most days at least, and I think it’s helping my body to recover now as I go through radiotherapy – physically and mentally.