Monday, 29 September 2014

53. The owl who is afraid of the dark

"My owl is hoping your owl is OK as he is afraid of the dark so I have to take him upstairs with me."

These are the words of the ten year old daughter of distant friends. Her lovely card, which I received a couple of days ago, cheered me up no end.

I don't know this child at all. Her parents took her along to my 50th birthday fundraising bash last year, where she seems to have acquired one of the many little owls I made. People took them home, leaving a donation for charity.

Her mother wrote a little note: "I think you are definitely onto something with your worry owls - our daughter now has a scared-of-the-dark-owl... Surprisingly helpful!"

It's lovely to think that Scared-of-the-Dark Owl has a brave young girl to save him from his fears.

I didn't know which of my owls she had chosen, so I asked her to take a picture of her frightened owl for my blog. Here he is. He lives in Yorkshire, which is perhaps unfortunate as it's bound to be darker there than in London, being further up north.

The owl who is afraid of the dark

It's even lovelier to think that my humble cancer-stricken Owl has a growing group of supportive friends of his own, scattered around England and thinking of him.

There's Knee Owl, who is trying to regain his balance after years of walking problems. He lives with my friend here in London who's had two knee replacements.

Knee Owl
Then there's Heart Owl, who I sent to live in Devon last month after another friend's mother barely survived a massive heart attack. "A miracle owl would be wonderful," the distressed friend said after the doctors told her how poorly her mother was, "to help us all adjust to the changes and losses ahead of us."

So I made her a blue owl ("Mum likes blue") with its heart sewn together from two pieces of embroidered fabric ("Mum likes embroidery"), big enough to hold my friend and her five siblings, despite being broken.

Owl about to send Heart Owl off to Devon
Not forgetting Jokery of course, who lives with us. He was made by my younger daughter who thought Owl needed a good friend of his very own. Jokery, she informs me, is extremely scared of spiders. (Funny, that. So is my daughter. But Owl isn't, so they can help each other out.)

Owl and Jokery
The thing is, all of these Owl friends seem to have some kind of difficulty in life and are themselves in need of help and support.

I like them better for it. It occurs to me that they are better friends and better helpers, not despite, but because of their own problems.

I try to imagine a capable, competent, perfectly healthy owl who sails through life and copes with anything. Somehow that doesn't seem as good for Owl. It would just make him feel inadequate.

There's a lesson there somewhere. Weeping in the woods? Perhaps it doesn't matter.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

52. Weeping at the wood's edge

There. Today, I have outed myself as a Weeping Woman. No longer is the blubbing confined to the dark.

She has gone into hiding, Wonder Woman who can cope with anything and who is, above all, able to keep herself in one piece (and a dry one at that).

I'm sorry to keep disturbing your joie de vivre with reports of further misery, but this is day 11 of the third chemo cycle and I'm still exhausted. This is disturbing. I'd pencilled in the Suddenly I feel much better moment for yesterday, day 10, as on previous occasions. Alas, no such joy.

So, in an effort to revive my spirits and to rest my weary bones, I've come to our place in East Sussex for some proper breathing (tick), a swim in the sea (tick)a wander among my baby trees (tick) and above all, peace and quiet (tick). The unticked box was a walk in the woods.

I've been looking with longing at the London autumn sunshine. I love all seasons but autumn is my favourite, with its rustic colours, damp wooden smells and nature's promise of rest. I tried to route my daily walk across Clapham Common, which was nice enough, but what I really needed was a proper wood without car fumes and police sirens edging in.

Today was my day for a woodland walk.

I had to plan it carefully. My husband, having driven me here yesterday, has gone back to London to be with the children. He and my younger daughter won't be back here until later today (the older ones, being older ones, busy elsewhere). No car, so I'd have to be able to walk to The Chosen Wood.

There are small bits of wood all around, but I wanted a proper large one, with ancient trees and ancient smells and a space in the middle where I could just sit and sit and sit on an old tree trunk.

Walking has been wonderful. My doctors and all the booklets recommend daily gentle exercise ("it helps with the side effects"). Swimming is good but involves getting to the pool, which currently uses up the daily amount of energy. Cycling is also good, but this week I found that my eyes can't focus very well and I feel strangely detached from the outside world, which is not brilliant when negotiating London traffic. So walking it is.

Today, I reckoned, I could manage about an hour. Perhaps more, if said tree trunk in The Wood helped me recuperate.

I studied the map and figured I could make it to Promising Wood, about a half hour's walk away.

It looked nice and big, with proper tracks. We've been once before, last year, to the Open Day of the animal shelter it houses. 

Off I set, pockets filled with a water bottle, a couple of biscuits and (afterthought, which turned out to be just as well) a large clean hankie. All went fine, but blimey, did I need that tree trunk.

I noticed yesterday that my bones are beginning to ache. Probably a side effect of the daily injections I've been giving myself this week in an attempt to lure my bone marrow into producing more white blood cells. They've upped the number of injections this time round, as my blood count has been hovering alarmingly near the edge when they ought to creep back up to normal.

It's not particularly debilitating, but aching hip bones are not great when climbing the gentle hill up to Promising Wood. At last! There it is.

But hold on, what's that sign on the entrance track to the Visitors' Centre at the edge of the wood? No Entry? You Need Permission?

I walked past the sign and up to the building. I've got cancer, I told myself (Dutch people are law abiding citizens who respect Signs). Signs don't apply to me. If I can get a Golden Ticket to the hospital's blood letting department, surely I can get a Golden Ticket into the wood? Shall I play the Cancer Card?

"Excuse me," I accosted the women chatting around their mugs of tea just beyond the open door. "Can I just have a walk around these woods?"

"Sorry, no, you can't," said one of them, stepping outside to explain. "These woods are private."

Turned out I didn't need to play the Cancer Card. It played itself, because just like that, I burst into tears. And once I started, I couldn't stop. It was as spectacular as That Collapse in the shop with the funeral outfits, four months ago. But at least then I had my sister with me so I didn't need to explain myself. Here, I realised, some sort of explanation was required.

So I said, "I'm sorry, this is ridiculous, crying over a walk in the wood, but..." and blubbed incomprehensively about having only just made it here, having planned it so carefully, my yearning for The Wood.

"In the middle of chemotherapy," I added by way of justification for both the tears and the need, and in the vague hope that the C word would give me my Golden Ticket into the wood.

It didn't. She faltered, that poor woman, calling to someone else, "she can't just go in...?" No, she can't. Rules, etc.

So I dragged myself to a conveniently placed nearby bench, took off the headscarf that had been annoyingly clammy, put my head on my knees and sobbed.

And sobbed. Don't care who sees me now. Told you, I've come out.

Too much effort, keeping up appearances whilst also trying to keep my aching bones upright and fighting off my disappointment at the non-appearance of the Suddenly I feel much better moment. Let them see they've turned away a poorly cancer patient! Ha! Then they'll be sorry!

(This is an alarming deviation from my usual character. Inflicting misery and guilt on outsiders? On purpose? Whatever next?)

Mind you, I didn't have a choice. Talk of opening the flood gates. Every time I thought I could stop, I was hit by a new wave.

She did come out, the No she can't woman. She was kind enough. Sat next to me on the bench, apologising. "Sorry, I didn't realise. We've got Cubs in the woods today. I thought you were one of the mums."

(What? She didn't realise that a hiking woman asking for access to the woods was in fact a cancer patient about to burst into tears? Well, I suppose we can let her off.)

Not that it helped. You can't let a bawling bald cancer patient loose in a wood full of children, even if she has an armful of glowing Police Checks at home attesting her lack of criminal tendencies. That was in the past.

No she can't woman did offer access to a minuscule corner of wood behind the office, and for that I thanked her kindly. What I really wanted was a cup of tea, and I should have asked. It would have made both of us feel better. 

Instead, I drank my water and ate my biscuits. And did some more sobbing hidden among the trees.

In fact, I am going to show you a picture of it. I may live go regret the eternal presence of this rather unflattering photo in cyberspace, when I'm back to being a respected Associate Professor in Nursing (and when my children start reading this blog).

But if I only give you the smiley pictures that invite the You are beautiful responses, however true they are (and they are), I am only telling you half a story.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

51. Weeping in the dark

I almost interrupted your well-deserved break from this  blog. I had it all planned, just a couple of days following the third lot of Vile Intravenous Poison.

"It's much easier this time! I'm doing fine! Hurray!"

The things that had bothered me most last time seemed easier this time round. The previously all-consuming nausea was only just edging in at the periphery of my consciousness. I managed to string my sentences together, merrily debating the Scottish referendum at the dinner table. My head did not droop quite as alarmingly. My husband noted that I seemed to be up and about more, and he was right.

Even Chemo Tongue was beaten into submission. He has been a fickle foe (the lemons that were indispensable during Chemo Cycle 1 now taste unpleasantly bitter; a craving for Indian spices has been replaced by a need for Chinese flavours) but I am constantly vigilant and ready to walk to the shops to acquire the latest weapon.

Things were looking up, I thought. There were going to be Theories, leisurely shared with my readers.

Have I been under-dosed by mistake? Or has my body simply adapted to the onslaught, not quite as innocent anymore in terms of chemical warfare and therefore better able to accommodate the poison, like an alcoholic needing more of the same to achieve the same effect?

Was it the joyful knowledge that it had been the last of this particular cocktail of drugs? No more Red Poison! I have been promised a different set of side effects for the final three cycles of chemo, and I don't dare think about those yet. But at least, I'm told, there will be no more nausea.

Or could it be Reflexology Man, having put Nausea and Frazzle Brain under pressure?

But then, the downfall.

Because with the slightest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel comes Expectation and Hope and the start of a To Do List. Buoyed by my recent re-engagement with work, with friends and colleagues, with life outside my four bedroom walls, I am eager to toss aside the cancer cocoon that has served me well but now feels restrictive.

I am well and truly bored of having cancer and feeling ill.

Cancer is yesterday's headline news. When I was tempted to fire off a quick blog update, I imagined everyone sighing, Oh no, not again! just as they were about to turn those headlines into cat litter.

But when I try to harness my new-found readiness to move on, I find that I can't. Like warfare in the Middle East, cancer is refusing to move out of the headlines.

I find myself utterly floored.

Tired doesn't cover it. To Do List? Ha! You wish.

And with this overwhelming exhaustion comes an unwelcome bedfellow. He is the reason I have refrained from blogging (and today's offering takes a herculean mental effort). I am loathe to inflict him on the outside world. Torn away from my optimism by sheer exhaustion and a persistent inability to Achieve Things (even minor things), there he is.

His name is Self Pity. He has me weeping in the dark, when no-one is looking.

I hate Self Pity. He clashes with my sense of myself as a Positive Person.

How about all that lovely and profound stuff? Acceptance of life? Understanding that moods, feelings, emotions all rise and fall like waves on the surface, not fundamentally affecting the calm deep ocean underneath? Self Pity has no respect for such luxurious thoughts. He lowers my mood and drags me down.

I remember saying, in the midst of debilitating nausea/chemo tongue/etc: "Yes, I'm tired, but I don't mind being tired. If I'm tired, I can just rest."

But of course that's not true. When one complaint goes away, another surfaces, Maslowian-style. (When I start to complain about the weather, I shall consider myself fully recovered.)

Advice and reassurance from friends or family barely helps. Of course you are tired!! You need all your energy to fight off the chemo! That should be your focus! Don't worry about Not Achieving Things! etc etc. They are lovely, my family and friends.

Sometimes I remind myself to look back at how far I have come, rather than look ahead at how far I still have to go. That doesn't really help either. Looking at the long road travelled only reminds me of the length of the road.

It is a struggle, this cancer road.

The slightest sign of recovery, the slightest glimmer of hope, and I try to grasp back my sense of self-worth, which has always come from Feeling Useful. To my family, my friends, the world at large. Feeling helpless and useless is difficult for someone like me.

So I sink back into the pillows, trying (and, right now, failing) not to despair.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I just need to go and find a clean hankie.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

50. Under pressure in the VIP lounge

 "I'm working on your brain," said the man with the white apron and the slippery blue gloves, whilst squeezing my big toe.

He had come towering over my VIP armchair just as I'd settled in, thrusting me a leaflet.

"I am here!" he'd said. "Just put up your hand if you want me to do your feet! It's free!"

The leaflet explained that he was a reflexologist, here to put gentle pressure on my feet to achieve all manner of good things. Relaxation, for starters.

"Nausea?" I asked. Yes, reflexology can also improve nausea. Right. Count me in.

So when the last bag on the drip stand was plopping its poison into my veins, he put a cushion under my feet, snapped on the gloves, lathered them with cream and set to work, mumbling important technical information (for my benefit, I think, even though I was happy to believe him without the small print). Pathways were being cleared, liver and kidneys were pressed into better service. All good. But it didn't stop there.

Because wait, what have we here? Ah. "Lower back pain?" (Yes indeed. A longstanding problem. Occupational hazard for nurses.) "I'm twisting your spine," he said knowingly, although he wasn't really. He was twisting my foot. My spine felt lovely. Actually, all of me felt lovely. I was tired at the start of the chemo session, and now I was beginning to lose all interest in conversation and ready to doze off. Either the leaflet was right about Relaxation, or it was simply the end of a long slog in the VIP lounge.

"Can you feel this?" he asked, pinching my big toe. I could. It was my brain, in apparent need of attention. Has this man read my blogpost about my frazzled brain? Let's wait and see whether this time round, there is less frazzling and less nausea.

Owl was next.

After a serious assessment, Reflexology Man decided he needed to work on Owl's circulation, which required deep pressure somewhere around the bottom seam. Can you do reflexology on seams in the absence of feet? Will it still work? We'll see.

And no, Reflexology Man was no stranger to dealing with fluff-filled patients. "You'd be surprised," he said, a note of triumph in his voice. "I can have a very serious 15 minute conversation with a bear."

Only 15 minutes?! Here at the Tuffrey Household, conversations with Bear can go on for hours. Seriously. Bear and his owner have gone to stay with their cousins for a couple of days, and the house is remarkably quiet without his constant chatter.

(I was ready to tell him this, but then I remembered that it was not a who-has-spoken-with-the-most-talkative-bear-competition. Plus, my husband was gradually trying to disappear behind the newspaper, and if I spoke of Bear I'd lose him completely.)

Reflexology Man working on Owl's circulation
I have become a native of VIP land.

I know the drill. I know the nurses; the good ones now recognise and greet me. I don't really need someone with me anymore, although it was handy to have my husband there once I was hooked up to the drip.

Being an experienced patient makes me feel completely in control. Somehow, this throws me back into professional mode. I no longer have to focus on what on earth is happening to me. Who are all these people, what is that trolley for, what will happen next? No. I am a Professional Patient.

I look at the patients dotted around on other armchairs; I look at the nurses; and I find that I identify with the nurses rather than with the patients.

Most patients are several decades older than me, but that cannot be the only reason, because my nurse is several decades younger than me.

It is the nurse's experience I want to hear about. I don't want to hear about other patients' experiences. They all inhabit their own world. There's an aura of a weighty story around each of the armchairs, and I do not want to go into it.

Opposite me, there's a thin-looking elderly man with a bald head (can't be due to chemo because his beard is flourishing and I don't think Wish You Were Hair does falls beards) He is accompanied by a solid woman with brightly coloured scarves tied around her dyed-black hair. I try to smile at her but she is not in the business of smiling, not now. Her man doesn't look as if he is going to be cured by the chemo.

There is a husband accompanying his wife, who has smiling eyes, a hat pulled over her remaining wisps of hair, and a lovely bubbly face. (Steriods? See, that's the trouble. I am trying to diagnose everyone.) She is at home here. Another Professional Patient, clearly. She cheerios everyone on leaving, see you again next week.

Staff keep telling me about a centre that offers stress-reduction techniques and patient support groups. But I don't want to go to a centre for cancer patients. I might like to have a bit more of the toe squeezing (as my feet now feel pleasantly relaxed and are urging the rest of my body to feel it too).

But I definitely don't want to be in a group with other cancer patients. Because if I was, I would listen to their stories and be the Professional Nurse I have always tried to be, the one who knows that proper listening is therapeutic and helps patients to move forward. I would not be able to switch off the instinct to focus completely on the other person's troubles. Talking with fellow patients would feel like work, just when I am trying not to be at work.

Now that I am beginning to have some space in my head again, I do not want to fill it with other people's cancer stories.

So I talked with my lovely young nurse.

You can't help but talk to your nurse if you are having Red Poison, as she has to sit there for ages pushing the stuff into your vein.

This was her second job. Why the chemo ward? (My standard question. I really am interested in the nurses and keen to find out what makes them tick. Perhaps I should turn it into a research project. Might it be possible to distill the characteristics of a Good Nurse from what they tell me about their jobs and career path? I am beginning to think so.)

For this nurse, it was more a question of Why this hospital. Her previous hospital had asked her what additional courses she wanted to do (she listed seven) and then said they didn't have any money for training, sorry. But how about half a day's training in something utterly unrelated to her specialty? That was on offer for free, you see.

It made her feel undervalued. St George's Hospital, she said, was just a nicer, friendlier and more supportive place to work. She had heard this, and it turned out to be true. So when this job came up, she applied, even though her friends from nursing training warned her that she'd lose her nursing skills if she worked on a day unit.

"Nonsense," I said. "Any nurse, working in any specialty, loses some of the technical skills and knowledge required on another ward. I've worked in a hospice for years, and there's no way you could have put me to work on a cardiac ward. But you pick it up quite quickly if you start somewhere new. You never lose your basic nursing skills, and most importantly, you don't lose your ability to support patients and families."

(I know this. I was beginning to doubt whether I'd be able to go back to work in a hospice after an absence of over a decade, but looking after my dying mother, it all came flooding back. How to wash her and change her sheets, even if she is fast asleep. How to make her comfortable and free of pressure sores. Wonderful.)

What's next for this young nurse? Well, she has a one year secondment lined up with the research unit. Aha. Right up my street. We had a good natter about this.

"I love research!" I said, encouragingly. "It depends on the research you do, but for me, it wasn't true that I lost my contact with patients." (This was her worry, or rather, her friends' worry). "In fact, it's a privilege. To be able to interview patients and families, talking to them in depth, and then think and write about them, making sense of their stories... what could be better?"

"Oooh thank you so much," she said when the Red Poison syringes were both empty. "I was starting to feel unsure and nervous about my choices, but you have inspired me again."

See? I'm not a patient. Not really. I am a colleague. I like it better that way. Let Owl be the patient, and I'll ignore the fact that I've got cancer.

My younger daughter insisted that Owl should take Jokery along to the chemo unit
This was the last of the Poison Trio.

After this, there will be no more Fluorouracil, no more Epirubicin (the Red Poison with the violent side effects, including hair loss) and no more Cyclophosphamide.The second half of my chemotherapy treatment involves just one drug, a different one (Docetaxil).

This will have a different set of side effects. No nausea (which is good) but, apparently, aching bones. ("How bad?" I asked the breast care nurse. Well, some women are OK with paracetamol, but others are begging for morphine. Hm.) Plus numbness, tingling and pain in your hands and feet. More news about that, I promise you, in a month's time.

For now, I am making the most of the few hours before my brain collapses and the nausea sets in. You, too, know the drill by now. You'll have to entertain yourself whilst I sign off for a week.

Or perhaps I won't? If Reflexology Man has been successful in his Brain Treatment?

I live in hope and expectation, because there is strong evidence that he has done an excellent job on Owl. In fact the evidence of success with the pressure points for Owl's circulation is right in front of you, on your computers and smartphones and iPads.

As you can see, Owl is being widely circulated.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

49. The difference between 50 and 51

It's my birthday today.

When I turned 50 last year, the milestone seemed rather arbitrary but nevertheless warranted attention. I'm not a great fan of parties (I can't dance, for starters), so I threw a fundraising bash.

At my 50th birthday fundraising event
To my amazement,  people turned up who I hadn't seen for years and years. School friends from my teenage years; people I shared my home with decades ago (when we lived in the L'Arche community in South London); colleagues who had moved out of London.

They travelled from Holland and all corners of the UK. I was deeply touched.

Between them, they contributed musical performances and poetry recitals, beautiful handmade things to be auctioned and raffled, home cooked food, organisational help, enthusiasm - and raised over £2,000 for charity. Extraordinary.

One of the many performances

My school friends selling Dutch cheese for charity

For auction - all contributions hand-made by friends and family

I thought that this was the most eventful time of my mid-life. And I thought that this was the biggest demonstration of shared friendship and love I would ever get. 

But I was wrong on both counts.

I look at that picture of myself, just one year ago, and I think: You have no idea what's coming.

I marvel at all the things that have happened since then...

Hot springs in Iceland, October 2013
First off, I went to Iceland with my best friend.

We planned that trip a decade ago. "We'll do it when we're fifty," we promised ourselves when we discovered that we would both love to go. By then, I reckoned, my children would be old enough to be left behind.

When you have a five year old, it seems impossible that one day he will be fifteen. New parents, take heed. It happens, and it doesn't take a decade. It happens overnight.

This country is amazing, I thought. I must come here with my husband. We will need an excuse. Perhaps in six years time, for our 25th wedding anniversary?

Then, during the winter months, we planted 1000 trees.

Earlier that year, we had taken over a couple of fields in East Sussex. Planting a wood was a vague plan that seemed slightly ridiculous ("Wouldn't it be nice if..."). But then suddenly the Woodland Trust, jumping at our idea, declared that they'd help us out by sourcing and delivering these trees for us.

"You need 150 oaks, 100 hazel, 100 wild cherry..." On it went. We were clueless, so we nodded, impressed.

"We can deliver them next week!" they said. This was just before Christmas, but how could we refuse?

Instead of being given a mince pie, Christmas guests were given a spade and put to work. Friends and family gave up their time to come and help out. Over the next six weeks, we dug 1000 holes, planted 1000 tiny baby trees, tied up 1000 protective tubes.

Planting 1000 trees in East Sussex, winter 2013-14
On a roll with the tree planting, February 2014

Just as well we seized the moment and didn't leave it another year.

This picture was taken at the end of January, only two months before my cancer diagnosis. Having become a bit of a dab hand at it, two of us planted 250 trees in less than two days.

Now, I cannot imagine ever having had such energy.

You already know about the rest of my eventful year.

The cancer. The lumpectomy. The mastectomy. My mother dying. Chemotherapy. Five months off work, with more to come. Quite possibly, in a few months' time, radiotherapy (my fate is not yet decided on that front).

Utter exhaustion. (I am tired just thinking about my year. I promise you, it's not normally this eventful.)

But also: an outpouring of love from family, friends, acquaintances. Even from people I don't really know.

Take this Sunday, for example. I was handed a get-well-soon-card by some people in church I have nodded to, but never spoken to. Thank you Irene for all the pleasure you give us with your music, it read. We are praying for you.

How amazing is that?

I may have thought that my 50th birthday celebration was special, but it was nothing compared with the love I have received during the past five months.

And sitting here, at the close of my 51st birthday, minus a mother and a breast, tired from all the cancer treatments, I am left with an extraordinary realisation.

Despite the losses, the worries, the exhaustion, I am no less happy now than I was a year ago.

I am counting my blessings. They are easy to count, because they are prominent. Overflowing. How can I be unhappy?

Besides, our trees are growing. I go and sit among those trees whenever I can get away from London. And that, I can tell you, is just pure joy. I am a lucky woman.

I've changed my mind on one thing. I'm not going to wait six years before heading to Iceland with my husband. We should go, I have suggested, as soon as all this is over. Cancer is a marvellous excuse for almost everything, and recovering from cancer is just as good. 

Carpe diem. Seize the day.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

48. Bald is beautiful

"You are beautiful!"

How often has someone said this to you?

Not including you LOOK beautiful. That's different. You look beautiful implies an excellent hairdresser or a flattering, well-fitting outfit.

I'm talking about you ARE beautiful. You have beautiful features: a beautiful face, beautiful eyes, a beautiful smile. I'm talking beautiful in the way I described Keith, a beauty that cannot be diminished by poor dress sense or a naff haircut. Or by having no hair at all.

Pre-cancer, the number of times that I was given such a compliment could be counted on half a hand. Now, I'm running out of fingers. Particularly since going bald.

You really are beautiful! I'm told. You have a lovely face! Eyes! Smile! etc etc.

Dear friends, here is a word of advice. If you ever suffer an image crisis, not sure whether your appearance will pass muster in today's image-obsessed world, get the razor out. Shave off all your hair. If my experience is anything to go by, your friends will pour out the compliments. No expensive haircut has ever had quite the same effect.

My friends back up their compliments with valid-sounding reasons. They can see my face properly now that my head resembles a shiny ping pong ball, without any hair to distract their attention. Or they love the colourful scarves, making me look like someone who has not only made an effort but is ahead on the latest fashion.

On a good day, this is all very nice and reassuring, and I'm eager to believe every word. It puts an even bigger smile on my face and warmth in my heart. See, I think. I don't need Denise. She would only hide my newly discovered beauty.

On a bad day, I don't believe any of it. I merely suspect my friends of kindness. If I'd done the shaved-head-look a year ago, I think, without the excuse of cancer treatments, which requires said kindness, would the compliments be just as forthcoming?

Because if they were, wouldn't we all simply want to shave our heads? Why waste money on hairdressers?

I have discovered that there are two answers to What is it like to be bald?, depending on when you ask the question.

(a) On a good day, it's all very jolly. Part of me even relishes the opportunity to try out ultra-short hair, to see what my bald head looks like (I've always wondered), and to experiment with brand new styles involving scarves and hats. Without the cancer excuse, I would never have dared.

Now, I can be as outrageous as I like, and no-one will dare say anything (except my children, but they don't count, because looking embarrassingly awful/old/unfashionable is in a mother's job description). There are times when I genuinely feel very positive about life, and the mirror smiles back at me.

Those are the days when I search through my box of scarves with interest. Excitement even. What shall I try today? What outfits/scarves/earrings go together? I stand up straight. Look at me! Cancer, and still presentable! Hurray!

(b) But on a bad day, the same box of scarves induces despair. Everything look ridiculous. Can't be bothered with any of them. Give me a hat. But wait, that hat looks ridiculous too. And it's too hot. My shoulders are stooped.

When the doorbell rings, I shout "Someone open the door please!" because I don't want to see anyone, and more importantly, I don't want anyone to see me.

I end up on the sofa with a blanket over my head. Problem solved.

Whether it's (a) or (b) depends partly on how ill or tired I feel and partly on my general state of mind.

But hang on a minute, isn't that the same with hair? Those miserable days (especially the feeling-ill-and-tired-days) when you cannot be bothered to make your hair sit properly on your head, because you know that it won't? (Not today, anyway.) At least I don't have any such bad-hair-days now.

And the strange thing is that although I may feel  so much less beautiful on a Bad Day, other people don't seem to notice the difference. Sometimes this is annoying. 

"You are looking well!" they say, when I am feeling exhausted and miserable. What to do? Smile and say Thank you? Destroy their optimism and their valiant attempts at cheering me up with a Well sorry but I feel rotten?

I usually choose the Smile option. It's the best one, I think. No point in making others feel as miserable as I am feeling. And who knows, their positive comments may just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I say That's nice to hear, thank you.

And looking at this picture of me and my sister, taken just a few days after the second lot of chemo (so on a Very Bad Day Indeed - I couldn't even string a decent sentence together), it's true that you cannot always tell from the outside how ill I feel. Although that may, of course, have been the loveliness of my sister rubbing off.

My sister and I, a few days post-chemo

Let me tell you what my first weeks of baldness have been like.

1. Feeling the air on my head

It feels cold. No, it feels windy. No, it feels sweaty. It feels BIZARRE.

See, I just cannot describe it and I still haven't got used to it. I have a constant urge to put something on my head (soft hats are especially comforting), but then I want to rip the head covering off within minutes, annoyed with feeling warm and constrained. It's been musical hats and scarves. I am now trying to get used to wearing nothing on my head at all, at least at home.

I admit to looking at people in the street with renewed interest. Especially men with little or no hair. Don't they feel the need for a hat? Don't they have that constant urge to stroke their non-hair?

2. Having a shower

I never knew how much of my time in the shower was taken up with wetting, washing and rinsing my hair. I still step into the cubicle with my head bent, waiting for The Moment when my scalp (previously: hair) can get wet. I have the cleanest scalp in South London. I've been rubbing and rubbing it, lathering it with shower cream, just because I don't know what else to do with my hands.

I do enjoy my showers, though. The convenience of short-hair is nothing compared with this. It's not even Wash & Go anymore. It's just Go. Brilliant.

3. Scarves, hats and wigs

At home, I wear whatever feels most comfortable. That excludes Denise. I've got a couple of comfy hats (not all equally flattering) and am becoming a dab hand at tying scarves.

Sometimes, it needs something in-between. I turn the hat/scarf up and away from my ears, getting too hot. My daughters were in fits of laughter at one such attempt. The pixie haircut may have gone, but the upturned hat, they decided, made me look like a pixie. Looking at the picture they took, I can see they had a point.

The pixie look (Just be honest. Beautiful face? I think not)
Out and about, I keep my baldness covered. This is mostly because a bald woman is still vaguely shocking, and definitely not anonymous in a crowd. At other times in my life, I might not have minded so much if people stopped and stared (see yesterday's post). But now, feeling rather vulnerable, it is just easier not to attract too much attention.

I am not obsessed with hiding my baldness, though. Yes, I wear a swimming cap in the pool, but that is to keep the earplugs firmly in place. I don't cover my baldness between the shower and the changing cubicle, and neither do I mind standing in front of the shared unisex mirror to arrange my headscarf.

If I meet a friend in the street or a colleague in the office who is interested in what my baldness looks like, I merrily whip off the scarf and show them.

Denise will, I fear, soon hand in her notice. If she does, I can't blame her. I tried her on recently, but having got used to my shorter-shorter-gone look, she just seemed ridiculous. I felt like I was wearing the top of a broom on my head. Too Much Hair. She may make me look inconspicuous, but she makes me feel very conspicuous indeed. Too self-conscious. Unlike my bald look, or my scarved look, I don't feel the wigged look is me.

The idea is, I think, that Denise is trying to be me. In truth, it feels as if I am trying to be Denise. She may be a convincing sister, but, much as I love my sisters, I don't want to be them.

Quite apart from the fact that she is uncomfortably tight and warm. Perhaps I can give her a job in the colder months... but then again, how much easier to toss aside a scarf than to toss aside a wig.

4. The Sudden Collapse in the shop

What is it about shops and sudden collapses?

Lacking a simple hat that doesn't look too much like an egg warmer, my courage failed me when I rifled through the racks. Perhaps it's the wrong time of year. Perhaps it's the wrong fashion. Everything was too hot/woolly/scratchy/fancy. But wait, perhaps this one... let me try it on...

Stop right there. Try it on? In a busy shop? That means taking my scarf off and coping with Stop And Stare. Why was that a cause for collapse, suddenly? For tears pricking at the back of my eyes?

I'm beginning to see a pattern here. It happens whenever I am suddenly faced with indisputable new evidence of my cancer. The rare occasions when I've bought a hat, it's because I wanted one. Now, it's because I need one for all the wrong reasons.

I felt lonely and miserable and utterly self-conscious.

Fortunately, I'd arranged to meet a friend for tea afterwards. 

"Did you buy a hat?" she wanted to know. Well, no... I might have seen something suitable but didn't dare try it on.

"Where? Show me!" she ordered, dragging me along. And of course, when you have a friend with you, it's absolutely fine. Because then you can look in the mirror together whilst you rip off your scarf, and laugh together at the unsuitable hats, and impress on the anonymous shoppers (who are looking at you, surely, but you are definitely NOT looking at them) that everything is fine and dandy even though you have cancer.

That shopping episode was probably simply another hurdle to overcome. Having stood in a Public Place, bald and bold, made it possible to stand in front of the swimming pool mirror a few days later, calmly tying a scarf around my bald head.

I thought I could run, but I just needed to take small steps.

The hat shop. Crisis over.