Why Laughter Really is the Best Medicine

Approaching life with humour is not something that I learned to do. It is something that I have always done, from the time I was a wee one. I cannot take any credit for being that way. It was Mother Nature’s gift.

In fact, I do not know how one can learn to see things through that lens if it doesn’t come naturally, but I suppose it must happen. Maybe on the heels of a life changing event, such as, a-hem, a cancer diagnosis. Any of you who were born all serious and buttoned up who later learned to see the funny in things please pipe up and tell me how that came about (and how it’s working out for you).

Now don’t get me wrong. Not everything is funny. Some things are just plain ole horrible or sad or grotesque or infuriating. And that’s life. But a lot is funny that might not appear to be on the surface. Living life that way is all I have ever known and it is sure one helpful tool when the gauntlet has been thrown down.

Some things would be funny to almost anyone, such as the time my mother and I were in an argument about God knows what (I was a teenager so…) and as things really hottened up I noticed that she had a glob of sour cream on her eyebrow, at which point I burst into laughter and the argument was over.

Other things are funny to one person and absolutely unfunny to the next, such as the time one of my good college friends, Jen, was looking to see if her roommate was in the Georgetown Kinko’s (now FedEx for you youngsters). Squinting to combat the glare, she approached that window slowly but surely until she misjudged and walked right into the plate-glass, slamming her forehead into it, clapping her hand to the area and yelling “ow!” Having seen this unfold (and after making a snap determination that first aid was not required), I fell right on the sidewalk when my knees buckled due to uncontrollable laughter. I know my mother would not have found this funny. But I did. Sorry, Mom.

A third category is things that are probably not very funny to most people, but are to a select few of us weirdos. Like the fact that after brushing off (so to speak) hair loss, deciding to shave my head, and embracing my new look, I promptly got, on the back of my head, simultaneously, a case of the shingles and a red bumpy rash due to being immunosuppressed by the chemotherapy. So I went from being bald and badass to bald and rashy and rather un-badass in a matter of days. Lovely. But to me, kind of funny, because what can you do?

Things brings me to a public service announcement: If you are over a certain age, had the chicken pox as a child and have not been vaccinated for the shingles, you might want to get on that. Shingles isn’t tons of fun, but I was lucky and mine was not that bad, considering that one description I read (on the internet — oops) indicated that the site felt like a hot ice pick was being inserted into it intermittently. That might not have been funny to me either.

So back to humour. Humour is why I am actually looking forward to my sixth chemotherapy treatment tomorrow. When I strode in two weeks ago in my ridiculous leopard-print outfit (see What I Wore To  Chemo Today if you haven’t read it yet), I made a lot of people laugh. And that made me laugh, and made me happy. Then it really wasn’t so bad to be there. It lightened the mood, made us forget a little bit why we were there.

The only thing that isn’t funny about the whole thing is now I feel a mounting pressure to come up with an equally groovy outfit to wear to chemo tomorrow, and I don’t know if I can deliver! So I am going to distract myself by making some cancer-killing roasted Roma tomato soup from The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, an excellent cook book that my friend Dee  got for me. Whether you need to kill it or just cook up some tasty meals (don’t let the c-word in the title put you off).

Ciao for now.

Writer’s Block

It has occurred to me that at some point I may get writer’s block. In fact, it is almost a sure thing. How could I not at some point struggle with what to write on this blog or how to write it?

I was thinking about that yesterday. Then I considered that, provided I stay on schedule, only one month from today I will receive my last chemotherapy treatment. After which I will have five weeks of radiation, five days a week, which should prove anticlimactic comparatively (from what I have heard). More on that later.

I thought, dang, what if I have nothing interesting to write after chemo is over? No more interesting chemo ensembles (see What I Wore To Chemo Today)… No more entertaining other patients in the chemo suite with my antics and bad behaviour (oh I forgot to tell you that the last time I was there this one dude kept coming up to me and telling me he was really feeling my outfit and he was there with his wife, who was the patient!  Shameless!)… No more bizarre, unexpected “side effects of the week” (more on that later too)…

I mean, every time I gear up for and go to chemo I am inspired to write something. There is a ton about it I haven’t even told you yet and I still have three treatments left. It’s just excellent fodder for the blog. So it will be a real shame when it is all over. Not. Chemo sucks. But I won’t be too hard on it since it is killing the hell out of anything floating around in there that doesn’t belong.

I suppose when I do radiation I can still yell “die, motherfuckers,” and imagine my heroines (see Chicks I Dig Vol. 1) going in there with their signature weapons and obliterating any microscopic cells that dare to remain near the original site of the tumours. (That and cross my fingers that the radiation doesn’t burn my skin too badly and otherwise complicate the final stages of my reconstruction, because in the end I would really like a nice “set” out of all of this nonsense.)

I just don’t want my posts to become boring. Or predictable.

When my hair grows back I won’t be able to write about being bald anymore and all of the interesting things that go with that particular side effect. Or take anymore badass “I’m bald and I’m killing it” pictures. But I suppose I will have been there and done that, so maybe that’s not the worst thing. I mean how many times can I take a picture of my bald self looking pissed off and post it and think “I really like what I’ve done here.” (A lot actually — you should try it sometime it is pretty great.)

Who knows where all this will take me. I just hope that you’ll continue to tag along. I need you. I want you. I have to have you.

Speaking of which where are you right now? Are you in the US or the UK? Kenya or Kuwait? Why do you read this? Do you know me? Did you once? Is or was someone in your life touched by cancer? Are you a survivor? Are you just curious? Tell me… I’ll be right here. Killing it.

Vag Toupee

WARNING: If you are a prude this is not the post for you. Take a deep breath and click on the following link, which will guide you to a topic equally fuzzy but more appropriate to your delicate sensibilities: http://www.dailypets.co.uk/.

Okay. Have we weeded out all the nice nellies? Good. Onward.

When I found out I was going to need chemotherapy earlier this year, a lot of jokes came to mind about losing hair in all sorts of places. Losing it on your head is obvious, of course, and people who haven’t been touched by chemotherapy (or alopecia caused by something else, such as an autoimmune disorder) might not stop to consider that there is a great deal more hair on the average (particularly adult) human body than on the head.

Most chemo patients I have spoken to or read about have lost at least some of their eyebrows and eyelashes in addition to the hair on their heads during treatment. And many have joked about no longer needing to shave or wax their legs or underarms in order to optimise appearances in the latest jort or halter top (both of which most people shouldn’t be wearing anyway — ah-hem — whether or not they are currently featured in InStyle Magazine).

I started to consider the possibilities. This could be a good thing, I thought. After years of unsatisfactorily bleaching the brunette peach fuzz on my upper lip, which frankly resulted only in a blonde moustache that caught the sunlight just so, I might be able to cut down my personal grooming efforts by a sizeable chunk every week.

Yessir. Goodbye as well to plucking those pesky industrial-strength eyebrows that once threatened (they’ve given up a little after years of maintenance, sigh) to weave my two prominent arches into something resembling Bert on Sesame Street or the actor, Peter Gallagher.

But what else? Ah yes. The bikini area.

Although initial thoughts of losing my hair “down there” made me cringe, because I don’t fancy resembling a prepubescent girl, it didn’t take me long to find humour in the situation.

“Well,” I joked with my very best friends who were already intimately acquainted with my raunchy self, “if the pubes go I can always just get a ‘vag toupee.'” I laughed at my own joke and started to come up with alternative names for such a prosthesis (although vag toupee is kind of my fave). “I could call it a ‘vig,’ after ‘vag wig,'” I quipped. Peals of laughter. “And if you would rather not have hair but you want something down there you could bedazzle your area and have ‘vling!'” (Umm, that’s “vag bling” for our octogenarian readers).

Little did I know, I was not original. Not even a little bit. That’s right; it turns out the vag toupee has been around for a very very very long time. I mean longer than chemotherapy. Longer than America has been independent. Seriously!

And this brings me to a brief history of the vag toupee, a/k/a the merkin.

The Oxford Companion to the Body dates the use of a merkin, or pubic wig, back to the mid 1400s! Back in the day, women used to shave their pubic hair to ward off crabs. Prostitutes would take it all off to hide evidence of sexually transmitted diseases. In both such cases, a pubic wig was employed in order to hide the evidence and make their goods look, well, good.

But wait, that’s not all!

Today, merkins are used by fetishists and drag queens (everything else on a drag queen is false so why not the muff). In addition, Hollywood employs merkins all the time to cover up inappropriate pubic hair styles (for example, if the movie takes place in the 1950s and the actress has a Brazilian, which is not true to the period), to make an actress’s cuffs match her collar (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and perhaps most often, to conceal the labia so that a film doesn’t get the dreaded NC-17 rating, which is somewhat lethal to wide cinematic distribution.

Sort of ridiculous, by the way, that a man can have his hog out in a film and it doesn’t warrant an NC-17 rating, but God forbid a labium creeps onto the corner of the screen and everyone runs for cover. Puh-lease, people. But that’s a blog for another writer. I am not here to protest inequalities between the sexes. After all, men can get boob cancer too!

Total aside — if you have ever seen Last Tango in Paris, that was not a merkin. That was a real bush. It is no wonder the poor actress who played that role was so screwed up after that movie. If zillions of people had seen my vag fro looking like that I would have been screwed up too. Actually I don’t think I could even attempt that look without a dozen merkins, or at least some pube extensions. Just sayin’…

The long and short of it (tee hee) is, I got an unexpected education on the subject of the vag toupee when I started to poke around there (tee hee hee — sorry I couldn’t help it). And when you think about it, the merkin really is a clever little device.

But I am sorry. The word merkin is completely unacceptable. I don’t care what the origin is, and from what I have read it may be a variant of the word malkin, meaning “mop.” See http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=merkin.

Vag toupee is much better.  🙂

Day-Glo Orange Surprise

A few weeks ago it was spring break here in sunny (ha) London. Everyone had big holidays planned. Trips to Mauritius, Dubai, Tenerife, the States. And here I was stuck with no plans except to have poison pumped into my veins. Fun times. Cue violin.

I decided that was unacceptable and with two weeks notice ordered my husband to book a suitable Easter vacation for the family within a two-hour radius of London in case I had a serious medical issue while away and had to be whisked back here.

Because he is wonderful (and because I have cancer and he listens to me a lot more now), he didn’t disappoint. He booked us in for a four-night stay in the Cotswolds at a fabulous Jacobean manse that had been a private home for 400 years until it was converted into a family friendly hotel in the late 1980s. It was about a 20-minute drive from Bath.

After deliberating we decided to take the train to Bath, neither of us having driven on the wrong side of the road (it is not the other side; it is the wrong side — deal with it), and rent a car from there to drive the short distance to the hotel. Actually as an aside we learned from our cabbie in Bath that the origin of driving on the left has to do with how people travelled in feudal times. Since most people were right-handed and held their weapons in that hand, it made sense to have one’s weapon on the passing side. Same with jousting and holding your lance in your right hand. Apparently Napoleon, who was left-handed, and thus made his entire army march on the right (poor buggers), was responsible for most of the rest of the world driving on the right. He really had a lot of chutzpah that Napoleon. If this subject interests you check out this link.

But I’m going to return to my story now.

So we packed our suitcases and set off for Paddington Station (yes, like the bear!). I have always enjoyed traveling by train. And this was a decent train with a clean bathroom. Bonus. I read The Hunger Games while the kids looked at books and chatted and then starting pesting until we relented and gave them our smart phones so they could play educational games like Angry Birds and Doodle Jump. What? Those are educational and stuff. Aren’t they?

The ride was painless. We got to the station, found a taxi and drove to the car rental place. We rented a car with a navigation system (key) and Toonces the Driving Cat (we call Bill that because of his tendency to hit stationary objects while driving and well just because he is Toonces, though he has never actually driven off a cliff… yet) took the wheel. I was a little concerned but not enough to kick up a big fuss and take the wheel myself. He did pretty well. I only cringed and shrieked about five times on the way that he was “awfully close to the left! Ahhhhhhhhh!” and needed to overcompensate on the right. He got mad at me for backseat driving even though (a) I was in the front passenger seat and (b) he practically took the driver’s side mirror off a parked lorry (that’s truck US folks) we whizzed past.

But overall he did great, even navigating several roundabouts (Brit speak for rotaries) without incident. I came up with some special driving music for him, which I think was from the Benny Hill Show. I just love Benny — he was such a perv. We reached the hotel. It was beautiful. I breathed in the country air, delighted and amazed that we had pulled off this trip, that we actually got to enjoy a real vacation, albeit brief, during this screwed-up time.

Our rooms were behind the main house on the second floor of a stone cottage. They had just been renovated and we were, in fact, the first guests to stay there since the renovations had been completed. That day. When we got to reception we were informed the rooms weren’t quite ready but that was reasonable because check-in time was three o’clock and it was only about one-thirty. So we left our bags in the car and had lunch in the main dining room. The food was surprisingly good.

At three we climbed up to our rooms. The place was old and there were odd quirks (yeah that is redundant) everywhere. For instance, the key hole to our suite was on the bottom of the door, so that you had to either lie on the ground or be partway down the stairs in order to open it. We nevertheless managed to get in. The rooms were lovely. All pristine and crisp and very British with twin upholstered headboards in the girls’ room and a wrought iron number in our very generous master bedroom. Fancy tub with sparkling stainless fittings. Groovy details like reclaimed wood door on bathroom that looked like it was from an antique barn. Just reeking with charm. And a splendid spring bouquet with an Easter greeting from Granny (that’s my moms) on the chest.

We felt very welcome. And there was a lot to do for everyone. Kids’ house with nice ladies to watch over little blighters crashing into each other with plastic ride-on toys or to assist older (and ah-hem more civilised) children with crafts and drawing. Wendy houses (read: play houses — origin from Peter Pan; house built around Wendy when she is shot by one of the Lost Boys) sprinkled here and there and a chicken coup, gardens, outdoor sports including cricket, football (soccer I mean) and croquet. There was also a spa with treatment rooms and an indoor swimming pool, an outdoor swimming pool (bit too cold for that though, sadly) and loads of gorgeous flowers, shrubberies (“We demand a sacrifice! . . . . We want… a shrubbery!”) and trees, including a marvellous ancient tree in the front that must have been there for at least a hundred years — probably longer. You getting the gist?

The main house was cozy, casual and charming. I felt perfectly at ease strolling into the sitting room, kicking off my clogs, plopping down on a leather sofa and reading my book by the fire. Random dogs abounded, including the resident dog, Peanut, a spaniel of some sort, I think, who had one of those unfortunate doggie tumours she was going to have to have removed (we were thus soul sisters from the get go, me and Peanut). All large tail-wagging guest dogs made a beeline for Bill and slobbered all over him, knowing as dogs do that he didn’t grow up with pets and was thus a desirable target. He was a good sport though, since none of them ate his biscuits.

At first there were only British families with young children. But on turnover day lots of nationalities showed up and I was hearing Italian, German, Portuguese French and Spanish and some Australian and Canadian accents. I think we were the only Yanks over the long weekend. Fine by me. I like to mix it up. Everyone had kids and there were lots of babies and some (very) pregnant ladies. I enjoyed being around the babies, even though it made me a little wistful.

Meals were a hoot. They had a deal where you could accompany your kids to early dinner (children’s “tea”) in the orangery (like a conservatory) and then later eat a civilised grown-ups’ dinner in the main dining room while the little ones watched a movie in the tv room or were monitored in our bedroom by a baby listening service. This was pretty great. Even if the baby listening service mightn’t clue in if the kids were juggling knives or popping my anti-nausea meds (don’t worry they were fine).

On the second evening of our stay Bill and I were having our adults’ meal while the kids watched a film down the hall. Although I had worn a scarf all day, I had decided that dressing for dinner would include Gabriella (see my earlier post, Armpit Wig, if you are stumped, and no, it isn’t what you think if you haven’t read it yet). I wonder if I confused the staff. Now she has hair, now she doesn’t, and vice-versa.  Hmmm. Anyhow, there I was, with my lovely dark bob, in a printed silk blouse and Joseph cigarette trousers (I mustn’t say “pants” bc it means underwear in England, tee hee) and flats, looking pretty normal. We had a romantic table in a prime spot and the moon was enormous that night, glowing through the branches of that great tree. I sipped a glass of champagne. Bill looked handsome in his Nantucket reds and striped shirt, representing for Massachusetts. All at once I noticed that we were not alone. A pleasant lady from reception was bending over our table, something about an issue with the room below us and could they just pop into our room to check the bathroom.

Oh dear. My first thought was that there had to be a water issue. But the woman was very calm and assured us it would be fine. I said yes of course pop away. When we finished dinner, collected the girls and returned to the room, two dudes and the nice lady were still up there checking things out.

Do you know anything about English plumbing? Well the English are not known for it. Sort of like the shortest book ever written being Italian naval victories. The gist was that during the very recent renovations a pipe had been disturbed and our sink was leaking into the floor and dripping into the bathroom below. “So what if you can’t fix it?” I said. “Well then you might not be able to use the sink,” one dude replied. I contemplated brushing my teeth  in the terlette or the bathtub for the next three days and was not amused. But it worked out fine and they said just to try to limit use and they could triage it until after the weekend when they would open the ceiling below and fix it properly. “Happy to oblige,” I assured.

By this time it was late, and well past the girls’ bed time. I was tired, which I always am toward the end of the day, and as much as I like Gabriella, I wanted her the f*ck off my hot itchy bald head. So no sooner did I bid the plumbers adieu and close the door, than I whipped off that wig and threw her on the bed. Twenty seconds later I had yanked off my shirt and trousers and was standing there in what can only be described as a day-glo orange lace bra and matching boy shorts, a recent purchase to make me feel less like a cancer patient and more young and fun and sexy and normal (well, sort of normal as it was fluorescent orange). 

I turned to my husband, and said in a South Boston accent,* “if they come back knockin’ now they’re gonna be in for a fuckin’ surprise.”

*If you’re from Nepal or something and aren’t familiar with that accent, go right out and rent Good Will Hunting and listen to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (but not Robin Williams — who, although I dig him, did not have a good South Boston accent).

As it turns out they didn’t come back knockin’. But it would have been epic, no?

During our stay, we explored the Roman baths in Bath, drove completely out-of-the-way on nameless roads that stumped the navigation system to a microbrewery (which of course was closed because it was Good Friday). On the way though we saw rolling hills with yellow flowers and scores of spring lambs with their mommies. We visited Castle Combe, a medieval village where lots of movies, such as War Horse, have been filmed. Bill splashed about in the indoor pool with the girls and I got my toes polished since I wasn’t allowed to get in the pool (germs, ew). And we did a lot of chilling in the main house by the fire or in our room, reading, drinking tea and munching on lemon drizzle cake. It was a fabulous trip.

Although poor Bill was distraught when we were packing up the room on our last day, having discovered in the eleventh hour that there had been a ceramic jar filled with home-baked cookies on top of the dresser the whole time we were there.

But we’ll know for next time.  🙂

Top Ten Reasons Fighting Breast Cancer Isn’t All Bad

Reason No. 10:  No need to wax or shave.

Reason No. 9:  No bad hair days.

Reason No. 8:  Get to play the “C” card

Reason No. 7:  Can get away with shameless self-promotion

Reason No. 6:  Excessive self-grooming becomes “a medical necessity”

Reason No. 5:  Excessive retail therapy becomes “an emotional necessity”

Reason No. 4:  Wearing leopard print to chemo

Reason No. 3:  Get to find out who your real friends are

Reason No. 2:  Get away with posting pic of own ass on Facebook

And The No. 1 Reason Fighting Breast Cancer Isn’t All Bad:  Bigger tits in 60 seconds (come on you knew it was coming — read Boob Retrospective if you are mystified)


What I Wore To Chemo Today

My treasured friend Susan of 17 years came all the way from America to visit with me today. That visit happened to coincide with my first of four doses of Taxol (see my last post, Countdown, for details on that). Thus, our visit was conducted in the chemo treatment suite in white leather chairs. Susan is the director of the most prestigious public interest fellowships in the law, “a legal Peace Corps” as described by The Los Angeles Times.

Back in the days of good posture and (naturally) perky boobs (see Boob Retrospective — don’t you want to read it just for the title?), I was Susan’s legal assistant at the New York law firm that established the fellowships. We bonded immediately. She has too many qualities to list in the time I have before the fatigue hits me so just trust me on my compact description — she is HIGH QUALITY in every respect. But I do have to mention some specifics: she is both a philanthropist and a fashionista, has a wicked sense of humour, is not afraid to say “fuck,” is a hot ticket, is highly intelligent and has a true gift for friendship. And that just scratches the surface.

Anyhow, years ago, after I had left the firm and was a One L at Harvard Law School, Susan came to speak to the students about the fellowships. A Two L aspiring fellow had called her with some questions on the application process and Susan had told her to come to the talk and meet me (a built-in resource, having been through the process as Susan’s right-hand gal) so that I could help her and any other public interest students so-inclined.

Susan is very fashionable, but always very tasteful, and she had kindly bestowed upon me a number of designer suits that she no longer needed. She figured I would be wearing one at the meeting to please her and make a good impression on the students. Pale blue Armani, perhaps? Crimson Feraud?

Of course when she showed up I was sitting on the floor in a cheetah print mini dress I got at the ten-dollar store and knee-high boots. Oops.

So last night when I thought about seeing Susan after quite a long stretch of not having seen her, I realised that an appropriate ensemble was in order. I mean I didn’t want to embarrass her again and make her feel uncomfortable in the chemo suite, for Christ’s sake. She flew across an ocean. And to top it off I am bald now, which doesn’t help one’s appearance.

This morning I scoured my closet, keeping in mind that I had to allow decent access to my port site near my left axilla for blood draws and administration of chemo. I selected and then rejected several choices as inappropriate, but finally settled on the perfect kit (look it up, Americans, it’s Breeteesh). At this point of course I was late. So pathetic to be late to one’s own chemo. And to top it off the nifty phone apps I downloaded in order to get a taxi to show up at my door refused to work and the cabs and car services were all popping up with “unavailable in your area” messages. Unacceptable. And there was no “FU I have cancer come anyway” button.

At that point I had no choice and gulped down the rest of my flat white (like a latte but better), wiped the cinnamon from the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand, and dashed out the door to get to the tube. It was raining again and so I put on my silver wellies so I wouldn’t soil my outfit. I had not planned to be sloshing about — thought I’d be cabbing it door to door.  Grrr.

I dashed into the tube, which of course crawwwwwled along. Blasted Northern Line. When I finally reached my stop I catapulted myself onto the platform, ran (yes ran) up two escalators and flung myself outdoors to hail a taxi. I was still a good 15-minute walk from treatment. Luckily I found a cabbie right away. He dropped me off in front of the clinic (most people know it’s a cancer place) and then refused to make me pay for the fare. It was lovely, really, and I was touched if not a little surprised. I mean people get dropped off there all the time and I am sure they usually have to pay. It must have been the combination of my elegant attire and — oh — the fact that he knew I was a cancer patient.

So, I was about ten minutes late. Not fatal. But I was concerned about getting a good seat under the skylight. I practically jumped down the stair case and was scolded by a lady not to rush (good point — headline: “she makes it through four chemos only to hurl herself down a flight of stairs at chemo and end up a quadriplegic”).

The staff ushered me to a nice, sunny pod. I yanked off my wellies, hung my coat up and waited for my friend. I hoped that she would like my outfit. I did not want to let her down. Again.

A blond breath of fresh air in a red and gold silk scarf, persimmon sweater and chocolate trousers breezed through the door. Susan had arrived. She saw me. She smiled.

What? You were expecting Rene Lezard? Please, people.

Nothing says “cancer, kiss my ass,” like matching leopard print tops and tails.

We killed it today, Susan and I. Easiest bloody chemo I ever did.

Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.

Armpit Wig

If you read my last post, “Cold Cap: From Rapunzel to Rambo,” you will know that I shaved my head in early March after trying out a number of different hair lengths. Hard to believe that I have been bald for that long already. Harder still to believe that I will be bald for my fortieth birthday on May 12. Not exactly what I had in mind when I thought about “fabulous at forty.” I need me a Lady Gaga “do” right quick. After I post today maybe I’ll run out and buy a light pink bob with fringe (that’s Breeteesh for bangs).

Before chopping my hair for the first time after my surgery, I began to contemplate a wig. I figured I would wear scarves most of the time (which I do) but it is nice to have a back-up plan should one want hair.

I asked around. Everyone recommended synthetic hair. Human hair is very expensive and you have to style it (i.e. wash and condition it, blow it dry and then make it be-have, baby), whereas synthetic hair is low-maintenance, requires less washing and will snap back into shape as it dries naturally on its wig stand. You don’t want to blow-dry a synthetic wig. It might melt.

With both kinds there are limitations. But a good synthetic wig can look pretty realistic.

My wonderful, kind and generous friend Kate had flown over from the States to accompany me to my first chemo, after which I felt okay. So we decided to have a “fun with cancer” day and go wig shopping right after treatment and lunch.

We cabbed it to a tiny establishment in Kensington touted as the go-to place for chemo patients desirous of a wig. They had a good selection and a nice saleswoman helped me try on many different styles and colours.

What not to buy became clear pretty quickly. I have a rather small forehead, so a heavy fringe (you should know this word by now if you have been paying attention) didn’t suit me. Also a no-no was anything too dark as it washed me out — not a good look when one is a cancer patient.

I felt a little bit like Goldilocks on the first two tries, except that I wasn’t in a house of bears and I didn’t have curly gold locks and I wasn’t eating porridge. Nothing was quite right. I just wasn’t feeling it. Too short and helmet-y made me look like a soccer mom (not my thing, really). Too long dragged my face down and wasn’t practical. About chin length seemed to work well…

We finally appeared to strike gold, or rather copper, when I tried on a chin-length ginger (that’s Limey for red head) number with great movement. But when they pulled out the same wig in the nice rich brown colour I wanted, it was slightly shorter and sort of poufed out at the wrong place. Foiled again. At this point I had had enough and was starting to get frustrated. Also, I began to feel tired from the chemo and all the decision making. If you think that a trip to the department store to buy new skinny jeans is tiring try purchasing new hair after chemo. It’s really a bit draining.

So we packed it in and went home. Wigless.

The next morning I had more surgery to install a portacath into one of the major arteries in my chest so that chemo going forward could be administered via the port. This avoids damage to the veins in the arm, which can happen after repeated treatments, so lethal is the shit they pump into you. Following that I was too sore and tired to go wig shopping again anytime soon and the next day, Kate had to fly back. So there I was, still without a wig and on my own.

After a few days I felt better and was back at it. I went to a well-known major department store. They sold wigs and hairpieces in two places, on the ground floor and in their posh salon, upstairs. I decided after my initial disappointment and frustration to think outside the box and try some wigs that didn’t really resemble my real hair. Trying too hard to match it didn’t seem to be working out for a couple of reasons. For one, synthetic wigs are mostly straight, whereas my own hair is wavy. They had some wavy ones but they looked pretty 80s and were lame. Also, getting the same colour is an impossibility.

Anyhow, I decided I was approaching it wrong and needed to have more fun with the process. I tried on a platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe (it was pretty hot, actually). “Happy birthday, Mr. President…” I tried on a human hair brunette wig just for shits and giggles, but the hair was very thick — probably of Indian origin — and it just looked weird on me. I liked a dark red one, definitely a contender, even in the red, but not enough to buy it.

I have to admit I have always had a platonic crush on Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. She had great jugs and was such a tease (did the Professor ever get on that?). So something kept drawing me to the red ones.
But I wasn’t quite sure/ready so I noted the style number and went upstairs. When I got to the salon it was the wig lady’s day off so I tried on a couple half-heartedly, including a severe salt and pepper bob which made me look about 50, and another red number. Then I made an appointment with the wig specialist for the very next day.

That morning was a Thursday and I began the day with a visit to my plastic surgeon for a little instaboob (see the end of my blog entitled Boob Retrospective if that doesn’t make sense).  I returned to the store with my husband in tow. The wig lady was good. She was a stylist and had worked in the industry for years, including on fashion shoots, and then developed an interest in helping cancer patients with alopecia when her own mother was diagnosed. She sized me up and pulled out three or four styles she thought would suit me. I tried on yet another red number, shoulder length with light fringe and long layers. Great colour and movement, but not sure. Then she whipped out a very chic, chin-length deep brunette bob. I put it on. I posed. I became European. I became… Gabriella. I envisioned myself strolling down the street in Florence with a large Prada bag and a small dog, nodding to the men who were blowing kisses and whistling as I passed. Che bella

It was by far the best one I had tried on and, as the wig lady pointed out, it was “me” even if it wasn’t really me. My husband didn’t like it at first, but when I tried on some others and then reemerged with it he came around. So I bid him ciao and set about making my purchase. I got the works. Wig stand, special brush and Revlon shampoo and conditioner for synthetic hair. The wig lady took me downstairs to get the VAT off my purchase — I had to fill out a form that said I’d had a mastectomy and voilà, VAT-free wig. I ought to get something out of this, no?

To celebrate I bought some new make-up and by then I was so high I practically skipped out the door. On the tube I came up with a new MasterCard commercial to sum up my day:

Stylish new wig: £383
New NARS make-up: £85
Bigger tits in 60 seconds: Priceless

I went to the girls’ school to pick up Isabel and her pals and bring them to hip-hop class. I tried on Gabriella in the locker room at the hip-hop place and a friend snapped a pic.

That evening when I got home, I assembled the wig stand and opened the shiny box containing my new wig.

Something was not right.

What was that smell? I looked around the room, inhaled again. I sniffed my armpit. Nope, it was not I. I looked down at Gabriella. Could it be? No….

I picked her up, had a sniff. Oh, fuck. Gabriella smelled strongly of armpit. And not my armpit, mind you. Someone else’s armpit. Definitely female, due to the slight undertone of musky perfume. I frantically turned her around in my hands and inhaled every inch. The offending areas were the crown and down the right side.

The horror, the horror!

My mind was racing. “What the hell am I going to do?” I thought. I tried to think of a tactful way to phone the store and explain that my brand new wig smelled just like armpit, but not my armpit. To a British person. I considered saying nothing and washing Gabriella to see if the smell would come out. But what if I removed the tag and that didn’t work? Then they might accuse me of imparting the armpit smell myself. Maybe they would think I was into something kinky and was wearing the wig in the wrong place. I decided to sleep on it, my buzz from the day having been thoroughly killed.

The next morning I decided to come clean. I called the salon and thankfully reached the wig lady. “Er,” I stammered, “I have a sort of a strange issue that I need to discuss with you.” I explained that although I was thrilled with my purchase, I had gotten the wig home and noticed a peculiar odour emanating from it. I held my breath. “Oh bring it right in,” she responded. “I’ll take care of it.” Phew. She said she would either have it cleaned or get me a new wig, which might take over a week if it wasn’t in stock. I felt hot prickles go up my back as I recalled my experience at the first wig shop where the “same” wig did not fall the same way as the first one. I feared I might never see Gabriella again. And would have to start all over.

But that afternoon I took her back and handed her over. I left. Wigless again. I felt I had lost a good friend.

A week later I got the call. It was the wig lady. Gabriella was ready for pick up. She had gone back to headquarters and been washed and styled by their top stylist. I smiled.

The next day my friend, Susan, a terrific gal and a fellow Houstonian (I was born there), emailed with intentions of visiting that very store and did I need anything? I hesitated. “Well, actually,” I wrote, “my wig is ready to be picked up. But the thing is, you would have to smell it before you leave the store, you know, to make sure that it is really clean and fresh.” I bit my lip. Maybe this was too much to ask of a friend, even a very close friend. “I’ll do it,” she wrote. Hot damn.

She emailed once she had the goods in hand. “So, did you smell it?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” she wrote. “I smelled it so hard I probably got snot on it.” “As long as it is your snot,” I replied. “I’ll do a DNA swab when you get here.”

Now that, people, is a true friend. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The doorbell rang. It was Susan. She handed Gabriella over. I lifted the lid and took a whiff. Fresh and clean and completely armpit-free.

So the morning after we shaved my head I put on Gabriella and left the house. I went to lunch, alone, at Le Pain Quotidien on Marylebone High Street. Leaving the house with a wig on and nothing under it for the first time was a strange experience. I kept having to remember to move my neck. “Oh God,” I thought. “Everyone knows. Everyone knows I am wearing a wig.” I tried to ignore these concerns and ordered. Then I struck up a conversation with a nice young couple who had a new baby. I reminisced about my girls when they were babies. “How old are they now?” The man asked. “Five and seven,” I said. “Oh you must have been really young when you had them,” he responded.

Dude, you just made my day. Made me feel like we can kill it, me and Gabriella together.

Cold Cap: From Rapunzel to Rambo

Once we know I need chemo, I meet with my oncologist for the second time. He’s an extremely personable and energetic Kiwi at one of the top places in London. He informs me that they have these “really great” cold caps that you can use throughout chemo to try and keep your hair. He looks at my thick wavy mane and determines I am an excellent candidate.

Afternoon tea at the Athenaeum

“Get yourself a bob,” he twangs. “With all that hair piled on top of your head the cold will never reach your scalp and it won’t work.”

Okay. So I decide to chop it. I had had long hair for well over ten years because the last time I cut it short was when I was a summer associate in Paris. I take the tube to my Hampstead hairdresser, waltz in and blurt out “hi I have cancer and need chemo so you have to chop off my hair.” Followed by a toothy smile.

He looks at me, pauses briefly, sighs and then sets to it. Very cool. No drama.

There is something liberating about cutting your hair and knowing that it won’t really matter if you aren’t thrilled with the results. You have to do it so you do it. And well, the ends were a little crunchy from years of highlighting and dyeing to conceal a generous sprinkling of salt in my pepper.

I emerge from the salon, the new me. Send pics around and everyone claims to like it — even prefer it — to my old hair (I hope later the same is said about my new vs. my old boobs but as we know from my last post that’s a tall order).  But I digress…

I consider the cold cap. How it works is: they put a plastic cap with below freezing liquid in it on your head and this reduces blood flow to the area which prevents the chemo from reaching the hair follicles. I am told best case scenario my hair will probably thin at least 20% even with the cold cap.

I conduct personal research.

Of my cancer buddies who tried it, each gave up after one or two tries because (a) it was excruciating to have a below freezing cap on your head for hours (shocker) and it gave them migraines and/or (b) the smell of the conditioner they slathered on to prevent the cap from sticking to the hair nauseated them (delightful).

Chemo for me consists of four doses of AC (doxorubicin a/k/a “the red devil” and cyclophosphamide) followed by four doses of Taxol, each given every two weeks on a dose dense regime. So sixteen weeks of treatment in all.

Here’s the catch: if the cold cap works and I retain a good amount of hair through the first half of treatment, I will have to switch to a weekly dose of Taxol for the second half and tack on four extra weeks. Why? Because Taxol when given biweekly is done on a slow drip over three hours and you cannot tolerate the cold cap for that long.

Then my friend Beth raises the possibility of a scalp metastasis if the chemo drugs do not reach the scalp. Shit.

I ask three top oncologists on two continents about this possibility. They say that scalp metastases are rare but it is a theoretical risk.

I do some math:

Freezing cold thing on my head (with loads of icky-smelling conditioner) + 12 weekly treatments vs. 4 biweekly for 2nd half of chemo + possibility hair will fall out anyway + possibility of not killing some little fucker hiding out in my scalp = NO WAY JOSE.

Sorry, but it just isn’t the honey badger way.

I inform my oncologist and the nurses at the chemo treatment suite that, no, in fact, I do not wish to try the cold cap. “Are you sure? You know your hair will fall out, don’t you?” Umm, yeah. I kinda got that. Thanks. I’m not putting that thing on my head. Fuggetaboutit.

It is just hair. It will grow back. And this way I get to go all GI Jane when it starts to fall out and maybe try out a mohawk, at least for a few minutes. Come on, you know you have always wanted to try the ‘hawk.

So I do my first chemo with my perky bob sans cold cap. The treatment suite is pretty swanky. One level under ground but cleverly designed with skylights so it is sunny (when there is sun in London) and nice white leather adjustable chaises longues. People bringing round tea and biscuits. Free wifi. It ain’t a bad place to be, really. If you have to be there. I feel like Dr. Evil in my own little underground lair (except with skylights).

A nice lady comes by who is visiting a friend having been through chemo herself. She has a cute short hair cut. “You should really cut your hair short before your next treatment,” she offers. “It’s easier if it isn’t so long when it starts to go.” I agree. I’ve been warned that when it starts to go, it goes FAST.  And I don’t want to be pulling out long pieces in the tub or walking down the street on a windy London day and have the bloke behind me get a mouthful. Ew.

So a couple weeks later, off I jaunt to Hampstead for new hairstyle numero dos.

This is the shortest lasting hair cut of my life. It lasts exactly five days. On the fifth day I shower and pull out about one quarter of my hair. I am prepared for it, as much as one can be, but still it is disconcerting. I make my husband come deal with it. He does, no questions asked.

The next night I rally the troops, sanitise the shaver my cancer buddy friend lent me, get the shears and get busy. I enlist the girls. Bill is skeptical about their involvement. “But that way it will be fun and silly.” I explain. “You can’t just have mommy show up with a shaved head.”

Although this may seem to represent great wisdom and creativity on my part, I have come to this conclusion after our five year old burst into tears following each of my new haircuts, shrieking “I HATE it! You look POOPY!” And proceeded to bawl and spit (seriously) and carry on. Luckily I have a good sense of humour and thought this was funny, especially when after an hour both times she came up and said I looked great.

I let Isabel take the first whack at it with the shears. No turning back. After a while I start to resemble a concentration camp victim. Bill and I don’t like that part much. So it is time to speed up the process and whip out the shaver. Strangely, I enjoy it. I feel powerful. I do feel like Demi Moore in GI Jane (except taller and I’m not getting paid millions). At Isabel’s suggestion, we do a mohawk.

After snapping a few pics for posterity we shave off the ‘hawk (my hair is falling out so quickly we kind of have to — otherwise I totally would have kept it for a while).  This is London, after all. No better place to be an anonymous nutter (that’s “crazy person” for you British English challenged).

And there we are. The cold cap can suck it. Because I am killing this look.

The best part? Charlotte comes up to me the next day and says “Mommy, bald is your best look.”

A Chemo Haiku

I am tired so let’s make today’s short and sweet, shall we?

I like to think of chemotherapy as napalm for cancer. Because napalm conjures flamethrower warfare, however, perhaps Agent Orange is a more apt metaphor. Particularly since it was a defoliant.

Of course, that chemo nukes the patient is somewhat problematic, but I can handle it. Just get in there and kill any fast growing cell you find and be done with it. Death to the old bad cells. And, alas, to a lot of the old good cells. But lo, this brings me to today’s submission: a chemo haiku.

The ultimate spring cleaning
A new me will blossom

Thank you, Kate, for inspiring today’s blog with a picture of angelique tulips bursting forth. Now if only this crap, London weather would improve I might see some blossoming in my own garden in the near future.

Assaulted at the Global Festival: Things Not to Say to a Cancer Patient

I am feeling good.  Looking good.  I have on make-up AND my new Missoni headscarf in a colourful chevron stripe — did you know that turbans and headscarves are en vogue right now?  Lucky me.

My mom is in town visiting and it is a Sunday.  We go to the girls’ school for the biannual Global Festival.  The gymnasium is chock full of delicacies from around the world.  And it is a good day so I am on my second plate of food.  I graze, zigzag and chit chat.  Run into people I know, watch the performances on stage including an astounding Crouching Tiger-esque routine with two little kids and a couple of long hard sticks.  These kids look invincible.  I like it.

I am normal.  I am just hanging out.

Until… “Oh, dear are you having chemo?”  A matronly English woman holding a plate of scones is addressing me.

You are fucking kidding me, lady.  “Uh, yes.”  I say.  Other responses pop into my mind.  “No I am just chic and wearing a headscarf.  I am a spring pirate.  I have alopecia.  I am muslim.”

The woman is still standing there.  Looking concerned.

The woman proceeds to ask about my treatment, my cancer, inform me that she had chemo for breast cancer as well a few years ago, ask if my oncologist is Prof So-And-So, blah blah blah.  Then the clincher:  “Well don’t be surprised if you feel depressed after it is all over.  And you won’t feel at all normal for at least a year, maybe even eighteen months to two years after.”

Gee, that is helpful.  Now I feel better.  I look at the scones.  I consider sneezing on them.  The interaction seems to drag on for another five minutes and then is blissfully over.

Mom is pissed.  I tell her not to worry.  I have nothing to do with her, Mom.  She ain’t me.  And that is just her story.  And you see that’s when it hit me.  Her story ain’t my story.  Nobody’s story is my story.  And vice versa.

I have met enough people who have been through this to know that everyone’s story is different with some similarities along the way.  Learning about someone else’s personal experience may provide guidance or comfort.  But it should never be flung in one’s face unsolicited — to what end?  Especially if the message is negative.

“You will feel like shit.  Shittier than you think.”  That’s the takeaway?  I’ll pass, thank you.  On the advice and the scones.

I asked myself why this woman approached me.  Did she see me and think “that woman is going through what I went through.”   Maybe.  She certainly wanted me to know that I was going to have a really hard time.  Just in case I didn’t know.

But I was just hanging out being me, eating some weird Iranian thing that I grabbed from the Iranian table without asking what it was.  And I didn’t ASK her.

So here’s some advice:  Don’t ask don’t tell.  That’s right, if I don’t ask then don’t tell me.

Don’t tell me I will have a harder time than I think, that I will get x, y and z side effects, that my energy level will suck for over a year.  Of course if I want to know I will ask you and then all bets are off.  Fire away.  Tell me everything.

One day I’ll tell you all the other dumb shit people, most of whom have never had cancer themselves, have said to me.  By then I know the list will be longer.

Meanwhile I plan to kill it, recover and move on.  However long it takes ME to do so.  But I’m planning on a speedy recovery just to prove the scone lady wrong.