Bath Time

If you have a bath, the chances are you don’t use it very much.  Most of us are in a hurry and so jumping in the shower seems much more efficient.  But going through cancer treatment is a time when you need to focus on your wellbeing 100 percent.  Before the chemo started I wanted to be able to use the bath as a refuge, somewhere to relax and unwind – something which I’d forgotten how to do.  Bathing in the water is really good for the body and the mind – I needed its restorative powers as I went through what was going to be a really challenging time.

pexels-photo-105934.jpegI knew I was going to have zero energy after my chemo started, so I made sure I cleaned the bathroom, and set it up as a little bathing retreat.  My friend Clare bought me a little headrest pillow, I got the tap fixed (the thermostat had been broken for about four years) and I made sure the fluffiest towels were at my disposal.

The bath become a place to relax after each hospital visit to literally clean out the toxins mentally and physically.  Before getting into the bath, I would use a dry skin brush on my body, to help flush out the nasty chemicals and to improve my skin.

When you have a cancer diagnosis you need to be very careful about which bathing products you use, as you don’t want anything which contains harmful chemicals.  I used natural soap to clean my face, and that was it – skin has a tendency to dry with chemo, so it’s best to guard whatever natural skin oils you have, not strip them away.  I used to put Epsom Salts in the bath, which are are great detoxifier help after each chemo session to flush out the chemicals in my body.  Epsom Salts are from England, but any natural bathing salts will probably have the same effect.  They also have the added benefit of softening your skin – as the chemo progressed, I had an itchy rash on my head, where the  hair had fallen out, and also on my body, particularly on my arms.  Before cancer, I would regularly put moisturiser on my body after having a bath, but during the treatment I wanted to keep all my pores open without any blockages, so using these salts really helped to keep my skin soft.

I also put a little Bluetooth speaker in my bathroom to listen to music and guided meditations.  Spotify have lots of meditations, including Deepak Chopra’s. They help you to relax, think more positively, and help with sleeping, which was becoming a real problem for me.  Part of the meditation also includes breathing exercises, so you’re really oxygenating your body too which helps with the healing process.

This is just a little something to help to get you through a really awful process.  I’d forgotten to take care of myself, and the simple pleasure of lying in a bath really helps you to relax, and also clean you out your mind, body and soul.

Phoenix Rising

I really didn’t want to have chemotherapy.  Not only did I not want to lose my hair, but I didn’t believe in it.  Surely something which was going to damage my immune system and kill healthy cells was going to poison me, and in the long run weaken me, making it more likely that I would have cancer again.  It was all so quick, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so I had to put trust in my surgeon, who did seem to know what he was talking about, yet I still struggled with the idea as the day drew closer, especially as I had been told this treatment was just ‘preventative’.  On the lead up to my first treatment, I talked to friends and family, and would often use the word ‘poison’.  I clearly had an issue, and I knew this type of language was not going to help me get better.  So there I was, stuck between a rock and hard place – my gut said, ‘don’t do this’, and my head said, ‘you don’t have a choice’.

dawn sunset beach woman

I have a clear memory of those first few chemo sessions.  I was hysterical.  I entered into the ward, and saw lots of very sick people around me – grey, no light in their eyes, and weakened bodies.  What on earth was I doing?  I didn’t belong here and I was going to become one of ‘those people’ and my life would be over.  I cried hysterically, so much so, they sent the psychiatrist in to see me.  They wanted me to take anti depressants, but to my mind, it was perfectly understandable that I was upset, and anyway I didn’t want any more crap in my body.  I also hated the port that had been put under my skin and made me look like a robot.  It gave easy access for the chemo drugs directly into my veins, and is something which usually stays in the body for two years.  I couldn’t stand looking at it- not only did I look like some sort of futuristic robot, with a large implant under my skin, but the idea that I could just be plugged into the machine was a dystopian  nightmare.

So what to do?  I knew it was important to believe the treatment was going to make me well, but as it was ‘preventative’, it was very hard for me to get my head around the idea that this was helping me.  My friend Andrea, a medical doctor with experience of cancer care told me to imagine the chemo as if it was little particles of light cleaning my body.  When I was plugged into the machine, I should try to meditate on this, rather than the idea I was being poisoned!  My dialogue (inner and outer) focussed on the idea of re-birth, a renaissance, phoenix rising – I was going to come out of this stronger, fitter and with purpose.  This gave me the strength to get through it, and rather than be a victim of cancer, I was going to try and turn it into a positive.  So, over time I came to accept what was going on (or was so weak, I didn’t have the energy to fight back!), and I also became far more empathetic to the people around me in the hospital – rather than thinking of these people as ‘the other’, I felt we were all in this together, no matter what stage we were at.

One day I shared a room with a lady who was wheeled in on a trolley.  She was literally wasting away – she could have been 40 or 80, it was impossible to tell.  I remember the two ambulance men (built like rugby players) lifting her gently onto the bed, and then with immense kindness one of them placed her soft slipper back onto her foot.  Later in the day a nurse came in, and spoke to her in a calm reassuring voice, and on leaving kissed  her on the forehead.   With these gestures I was struck by the humanity of all the staff  – it outshone the treatment and it helped me to face this terrible challenge.

I still find it difficult when I read things about chemotherapy and the lasting damage it can do, but all the dreadful side effects are slowly melting away, and I’m hoping my positive frame of mind is helping my body to make a full recovery.

Making Up is Hard To Do

When you lose your eyelashes and eyebrows, you lose definition in your face.  Suddenly you look ‘sick’ to the outside world, and almost unrecognisable.    Your skin tone also changes, so doing your make-up is quite a challenge.  It’s also not advisable to have any tattooing or micro blading done, due to the risk of infection, so you need a few tips and tricks to try and make you feel more human.

 

pexels-photo-208052.jpeg

The basic rule, is ‘tone it down’.  If you go too heavy on the make-up, you’ll end up looking like a clown.  I was given advice by make-up artists who visited hospitals during my chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

  1. Eyeshadow is your friend.  It softens the face and adds definition.  Choose a lighter colour than normal, and always take it from the outer corner, moving inwards, and avoiding the inside of the lid.
  2. Use white eyeliner on the inside of the eye.  This will make your eyes appear brighter and less ‘sicky’.
  3. Use an eye pencil, lighter than your normal shade, definitely not black and draw a line just above where your eyelashes used to be, to give the impression of eyelashes.
  4. Use a brow pencil, go a couple of shades lighter than your normal hair colour, and gently draw on your brows, but go easy.
  5. Finally, dab a little colour on your cheeks or lips, to make yourself feel human again

Failing this, just wear a large pair of sunglasses when you go out!  It may sound vain but one of the things I dreaded with chemotherapy is taking my natural glow away.  It does disappear during the treatment, but it starts to come back gradually, and I hope I will be in full blossom soon….

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.

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.

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.’