Where have I gone?
When I set about introducing people to my world as a “citizen” of Cancerland there are many things thing about this disease that I want to share, how I’ve experienced them and one particular area is that of image and identity, especially the body and face, shape and appearance.
I’ve really been prompted to this because of the lovely algorithms in Facebook who insist on reminding me of all the fantastic times I had four and five years ago before all this began. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very nice function of Facebook and being the sentimental person that I am, I love a good trip down memory lane. A picture of me and my son taken at the St Patrick’s Day parade in 2014 popped up in my feed on Saturday and, although it’s one of my favourite pics of us of when he was a baby, it’s a very stark reminder how much of “me” has physically changed in the past four years.
In the picture I’m still rockin’ my “signature” blunt bob, I know Anna Wintour may have the march on me here, but it was “my hair”, my fantastic hairdresser and friend Stephen Kelly minded it like a baby over the years. With it and my red lipstick, it was my look. It was my part of my PR/serious career momma armour too, that and some sharp brogues and white shirt, or anything stripey, and you would have nailed “me” pre the cancer.
The picture is a close up shot of me clearly squeezing Fionn with a toothless giggles on my knee, he’s approx 18 months old and still a little baby. He’s now nearly 6. It’s a painful reminder too that this little boy has spent nearly all of his life growing up with a mum who is not that smiley lady with the killer sharp bob and shiney red lip, but a mum with cancer, who has had hair, no hair, been skinny, fat, covered in spots and everything in between, but I’m still his mum who is alive and let’s be fair he doesn’t care about my bob!
He will never know me as the career mum, who dashed from pickups with one eye on my phone and one ear open for stories of the day at school. He does however have the benefit of his mum at home all the time, something I see as a nice accidental side effect of this illness. My other son was in full-time childcare since he was six months old and tells me all the time how he thinks it’s great to have me around when he comes home from school. Every mum who works outside of the home suffers from some level of guilt when it comes to the never-ending debate around being at home for your kids or putting them in childcare, the pros and cons are endless. I’m happy we chose the right option for both boys and had amazing childcare when I was working full-time, but I do like being around for them in the afternoon and helping them with homework, actually participating in play dates and feeding them when they come in from school. It’s an accidental-really-nice-side effect of living in Cancerland.
A few weeks ago my oldest son looked at a picture of me on my wedding day, taken 10 years ago and remarked that I “used” to look so beautiful. He may as well have kicked me in the stomach, such was the cutting pain I felt. He didn’t know what he said and when he saw my face, he followed it up with “well, I mean, you’re still beautiful, but different. Maybe it’s the medicine mum.”. Aghh, even worse. He’s only nine, so he can be forgiven, but he’s right! I look in the mirror and sometimes I just don’t know where I’ve gone. My hair, skin and body shape have been so altered over the years between surgery and chemo that it’s hard to look at photos of the old me sometimes, as I know I’ll never get that person back. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the vainest person in the world, but the physical changes that have happened over the years are so hard to predict and control that I can’t even pretend that a trendy diet or some facemasks will sort me out, these changes are irreversible.
I’ve been having chemo on and off for nearly four years now and, over this time, I’ve had hair (yes, you can keep your hair on some chemo!), no hair, blistering skin rashes, acne, cracked heels, cracked hands, dry skin, flaky skin and my personal favourite… rosacea! I’ve tried every cream and balm on the market to counteract my chemo-induced dry skin and really the only products that worked after many trials were Kiehl's, the classic Elizabeth Arden 8-hour cream and various organic oils. But I think everyone needs to try and test what’s best for their skin and treatment reactions. I was prescribed so may creams too but very few actually worked. I’ve cried with nurses when I got chronic acne from one chemo, I mean serious acne! As if the cancer wasn’t bad enough I had these boils on my face that were so sore I had to take painkillers. Thankfully my doctor took me off that chemo realising that the acne wasn’t worth any possible benefits that drug might have on my tumours. I’ve also had the most spectacular eyelashes for about six months a few years ago, they looked fake. I kid you not, they were marvellous and a side effect of the particular chemo I was on, they were so long I nearly had to separate them with my fingers when I blinked!
If you are reading this and going through chemo and your skin is coming under attack, I’d say find the most emulsifying and hydrating creams you can for your body, bring it back to basics keep it as natural and organic as you can. Less parabens and sulphates as possible as they will irritate your skin. Coconut oil, milks, oils, aloe vera, serums: organic, gentle brands such as Kiehl's, NUX, Dr. Hauschka and check out organic wholefoods stores as they stock brands you may never have heard of before.
The hair thing for people can be the hardest to bear when you are going through chemo, it’s like having a mobile neon sign “I have cancer” following you around, I've been lucky in that the regime I’m on doesn’t always mean your hair falls out, at the moment I’ve a full head. However, I have had no hair and when it falls out it can be really hard to take, especially when you find lumps of hair in the butter dish and down the back of the couch. I am lucky to have an amazing hairdresser who came to my house and chopped it all off, he had been cutting it in stages to prepare for the loss, and I think this did help, especially for the kids when it went. I didn’t shave it all off and to be honest I did look a bit like an asylum patient from the 1800s for a while, but I thought this was easier to live with that a full bald head! I also took to wearing fabulous turbans, elaborate head scarves and trilby hats. I don’t like those “chemo” hats that tend to be sported, with naf flowers to the side as if to make them more “fun”; it’s a bit like wearing a really awful maternity dress. If you have no hair it doesn’t mean you have to have no style. My hair has recently grown back enough to get my “bob” back, but it’s just not the same, since my hair grew back a “wave” has appeared and it doesn’t sit the way it did. But, I do have hair so beggars, as they say, can’t be choosers!
When it comes to my body, let’s just say my bikini days are well behind me.
When I had my first surgery they opened me up from my breast bone to my groin, so the scar is pretty impressive! They also removed my belly button, but gave me a “stoma” which I’ve had reversed and it kind of looks like my belly button is on the left side of my stomach. My weight has fluctuated from 65kg to 95kg and back to 75kg, between the steroids and all the cake I eat when my friends call to see me. So the stretch marks are a sight for very sore eyes! Let’s just say I’ve an enviable collection of expandable pants and large tops. But, I’ve made peace with the fact that most of my clothes go with trainers these days and I did buy myself a very impressive dress this Christmas, it’s been worn once for my girls Christmas party, and it hangs patiently waiting for another outing, who knows when that will happen. Sorry lovely dress, I just don’t live that life any more.
Also, a few tips that may help keep body and soul together while undergoing treatment. I uncovered these remedies by myself so I feel that sharing them is my responsibility.
Keep your nails short, they will crack and split. That or invest in regular manicures. I did have a mild shellac addiction at one point so be careful that could happen.
Buy comfortable, cotton clothes for treatment during and post-treatment, “lounge gear” if you will, one level up from PJs, comfort is key!
Drink LOTS of water, and I mean lots, I react to cold water because of one of the drugs I’m on and so I’ve developed a love for warm water and it just so happens it great for your skin and body too, nice.
Mind your teeth and gums. I’ve experienced so many mouth infections during treatment and if you are really careful you can avoid this. Brushing and using a really great mouthwash will see you right, I also using a mouth guard as I was grinding my teeth post chemo and it really helped stop infections. This may not work for everyone but upon the advice of my dentist it’s been a complete game changer and I haven’t had an infection in a year since I got it.
I’ve learned to give myself a break on the body size thing, no ones cares that I’m not a size 10. One thing I would advise is to watch the levels of goodies you will consume. Beware of well-meaning friends bearing yummy cakes, they come in large volumes and are delicious but nearly everyone I know who’s had cancer tells the story that they thought they’d at least be skinny but they end up piling on the ponds, legitimately from steroids, but mainly from the edible gifts they receive!
Cancer robs you of so many things and it definitely has a good old go at your body to induce so many external physical changes, for me as a young(ish) woman it’s definitely been challenging at times, but we all change as we age too so, with or without the cancer, I’d
definitely be welcoming a few extra wrinkles. Change is never easy and especially when it’s to the only body, face and hair you have but I’m accepting these changes as this is me now. My cheek bones may not be as sharp as they were a few years ago, but the scars I have and the skin that needs more moisturising than I ever thought possible is me now, and to be fair this body is still keeping me alive, despite all the medication, operations and needles I keep throwing at it. It keeps going, like the most reliable old car that knows all the back roads and sneaky shortcuts as I navigate the highways and byways of Cancerland.