The Chemotherapy Diaries
It feels like I haven’t written a lot for this series of late. I’m not sure why because I can’t see an obvious drop in momentum looking at the post dates. Perhaps it reflects the feeling that I have about me posting less on the blog generally, which I know to be true. I’m trying to cut myself a bit of slack, though. Making fewer posts but making them more interesting is better – right? I think so. Claiming that they’re more interesting is subjective I guess. I’m not even sure I believe that; it isn’t like I read back on my old posts regularly. My post dedicated to my good friend Drew Jones has been gaining a lot of attention these past few days according to the stats. I keep checking the news to see if he has been involved in a public scandal or something. I haven’t seen such news yet. Maybe it really is just sublime writing combined with a great character, a dangerous duo. Onto the topic at hand – hair loss.
I’m used to having very little hair. My hairline started to recede around the same time that I started puberty (not too far from the truth, but still mostly a joke). It was probably more like 16 or 17. I used to be extremely self-conscious about it. How couldn’t I be? No one wants their hairline to be very clearly receding before they have even made it out of their teenage years. I hadn’t even made it out of school yet. The self-consciousness was quite veiled and I think I mostly took the situation on the chin. There was no alternative – hats made me look stupid and I didn’t fancy maintaining a mohawk haircut. Various people had made the joke about my hairline looking like the McDonald’s M by the time I was about 21. It’s even more insulting as I truly dislike McDonald’s food. Every time I get convinced by someone to go, I end up with the same issue – I leave hungry yet feeling incredibly sick. The food is so terrible. The only thing on the menu worth considering is the McFlurry and they even rotate the flavours of that, meaning you find one you like and then they take it away. Perhaps I’m just bitter because of my hairline. At least no one makes that joke anymore (to my face); it’s probably receded too far for it to be funny anymore.
So I’m no stranger to hair loss. That being said, I am a stranger to the hair loss that I am currently experiencing. As I sat there in some shorts a few nights ago, I realised that there were incredibly smooth patches on the back of my legs. To my surprise, I started noticing them all over the top of my thighs too. My hair is quite light in colour so it isn’t very pronounced, but if you look closely you can see hair of all different lengths as you survey my legs. In some areas, it has completely disappeared, and in others it is just turning into stubble. I started noticing that a similar thing is happening to my arms too. Now I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop looking at how randomly it seems to have occurred. No rhyme or reason to where the hair has vanished and where it looks the same as it did before. As usual, I’m looking for a pattern that explains it – a way of understanding something that is probably just random. I do it about the cancer and now I’m doing it about the loss of hair.
It is almost vindicating to know that I have experienced some hair loss during chemotherapy. For the majority of people who have never experienced treatment, it is probably the most quotable symptom of it. I’m assuming if you surveyed a random 100 people and asked them what negative effect chemotherapy has on your body, they would say hair loss. It is part of the image conjured up in the media. A person with ghost-white skin and no hair, attached to a machine and hanging onto life by the skin of their teeth. I’m sure this is some people’s experience, and I don’t mean to downplay how awful it must be if it is. There’s another side to the story, though, and it is this side that dominates the wards I sit on during my treatment. It is mostly normal looking people, dressed in the same clothes they’d probably go to the shops in, trying to avoid eye contact, likely worried that it is considered prying under the circumstances. Sometimes you see someone who looks more ill and you feel sympathetic towards them – but they usually smile back if you catch their eye. Most people don’t want sympathy. They’re probably sick of the world looking at them as a wounded animal. People are much stronger than they appear. My dad says it about my mum. She is the most loving and sensitive woman I know, but I’ve seen her be incredibly strong. I remember being at the hospital with her visiting my grandad just before he died. He was asking where Jessie was (his late wife and my grandma), and kept thinking that he was in the bedroom of their house. “Is Jessie going to bring my tea up?” he asked over and over again. It was hard to be around; I can’t imagine how hard it was for my mum… but she had to leave the hospital that day, likely to make a meal for 6 ungrateful children, before tackling more of the endless washing pile that never got smaller. Life goes on. We all understand that, even if we don’t like it.
A few days ago I received a letter from The Job Centre stating that my last sick note ran out at the end of April. It informed me that until I get a new one from my GP, they cannot process my request for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). To continue with the story, we need to cover some fairly boring informational stuff. Bear with me.
When you are on long term sick in the UK, the employer is obliged to pay you Statutory Sick Pay (SSA) for 28 weeks. Once this period is up, you have to apply for ESA directly with the government. The process is then managed by The Job Centre. You are requested to have regular meetings with a Careers Advisor. It is strange considering I am technically in full-time employment, but have too much cancer/chemotherapy to deal with to allow me to work. You do feel a little like you’re under investigation… but that’s because you are. There will be people who try and abuse the system, though, so it is necessary. The careers advisor I spoke to is a very lovely person who took away a lot of the feeling that I was doing something wrong, so that made up for any negativity I felt from the letters.
I contacted my oncology team and requested another sick note as soon as I read the letter. My original one was issued by King’s hospital when I was diagnosed with cancer. Other than this, I’ve never needed a sick note in my life so I’m not familiar with the process. They responded in the afternoon stating it is my GP’s responsibility to issue sick notes. Fine. I decided to just walk down to my GP as I had emailed two weeks ago about a few things but hadn’t heard anything back. I’m feeling pretty good right now so why not sort out some wonderful admin. Is there anything more sexy than a little bit of cancer admin? There definitely is – anything.
As I stood waiting in the queue to speak to the receptionist, a woman joined it behind me. To my surprise, I heard a voice say “Got toothache do you?” I turned and realised she was talking to me, before then realising that I was standing with my right arm folded across my stomach, and the other elbow resting on it, with my palm resting under my chin and hand across my cheek. I laughed and said “Nope… No… No.” I used to have a bit of wit about me but I’ve struggled more with social interaction since starting chemotherapy, I’m not sure why. She then said, “…because I was going to say that you’re in the wrong place.” She clearly didn’t want to waste a punchline that good. I couldn’t tell if it was a passive-aggressive way of trying to get one person closer to the reception or if she was trying to be friendly. I nodded and laughed a bit and then turned around. We didn’t talk again.
It took about 10 minutes before I was at the front of the queue. As I approached the desk, I explained that I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment at The Christie for pancreatic cancer and that I had an issue with my sick notes. The very lovely receptionist smiled and asked me to wait a minute whilst she speaks to her colleague, before popping her head into a back room. She then told me to go around the corner to resolve my issue, as it was considered ‘private’ – a very lovely gesture indeed. They resolved my issue quickly and I had my sick note about 5 minutes later. It was a great success.
As I was leaving the surgery, I saw the woman who made the joke about my tooth. I think she overheard that I had cancer and was on chemotherapy, as her demeanour was totally different towards me. She looked at me wide-eyed and gave me a half-smile that felt sympathetic. I smiled and told her to enjoy the rest of her day. She said, “take care”. I’ve perhaps created a story out of this in my head, but I’m not sure. I felt the sympathy, though. I understand the sympathy to an extent – I feel sympathy for anyone who tells me they are suffering from, or know someone who is suffering from cancer. It is especially so when they are particularly young or they have a particularly bad diagnosis. I guess I fall into the ‘particularly young’ category for some people. It made me think about what a ‘cancer patient’ really looks like. I’m constantly being told that I look great given what is going on, which is a lovely compliment to receive. I don’t always feel great, though. In fact, sometimes I feel absolutely horrific. And people seem to conflate looking good to how your battle with the cancer is going – something which will correlate to an extent but doesn’t hold weight in a lot of cases. I may have been running ultra marathons with cancer for over a year. That’s how long I was displaying symptoms of something, not understanding what it was. No one ever commented on how good I looked then!
The point is that cancer can impact any of us, and it isn’t easy to identify someone who has cancer simply by looking at them. We don’t walk around hooked up to a chemotherapy machine, holding a mop bucket in case we throw up at any time. I follow a lot of accounts on Twitter of people with a terminal diagnosis who run marathons, cycle one hundred mile races and push their bodies to extremes. Usually, they are raising money for charities like Children with Cancer and posting selfless messages of positivity and hope, which brings me to the final part of the post.
If you are in the UK, you have likely read the name Deborah James in the news over the past few days. She is the host of a podcast called You, Me and the Big C, a podcast where the hosts speak candidly about their experience with cancer. The founder of the podcast, Rachael Bland, died in 2018 after a 2 year battle with cancer, only 6 months after the podcast was started. Unfortunately, Deborah James has announced that she is now on hospice care and is preparing to die. She wrote the below on Twitter.
I tried to read her final column for The Sun, but I couldn’t get through it. I wish I could, and I will eventually, but it is too much for me to manage right now. The details of decline and descriptions of ill-health towards the end of a life ruined by cancer create too vivid a picture for me. I hate to say it because I feel selfish for not persevering through someone’s written experience of something that is actually happening to them right now. Me reading it is nothing compared to them dealing with it. My issue is that I still do not understand what the actual dying part of cancer is like. I’ve never really understood what is the final thing that kills you; I know that it will be different for different people, but I’ve often pondered with morbid curiosity over what the dying phase actually looks like. Not because I want to know, but because I am scared to know. Deborah has addressed these things too well in her writing, and I just can’t read it without feeling terrified to my core of it happening to me. Death isn’t something that scares me, but the process of getting there is hard to fathom. You find yourself hoping that when it happens to you, it is a quick decline for both you and your family. I wanted to pull out the following quotes from the article:
“I do not want to die – I can’t get my head around the idea that I will not see my kids’ weddings or see them grow up – that I will no longer be a part of life that I love so much.
I am not brave – I am not dignified going towards my death – I am simply a scared girl who is doing something she has no choice in but I know I am grateful for the life that I have had.“
What an incredibly humble and moving way to summarise the destructive nature of cancer, and how its victims are left to simply observe as they deteriorate, to the detriment of themselves and the loved ones around them. I read that she was running 5K’s every day recently, and now cannot walk. It makes me resent this image of cancer sufferers as people who cannot strive to live a normal life, keeping physically active and doing what they can to keep themselves feeling as well as they can under the circumstances. People seem surprised to learn that I am trying to run whilst on chemotherapy. Sometimes I think people believe it must mean that treatment is easy for me, or that my body is naturally set up to cope with it. This last month has been extremely hard for me on chemotherapy and I’ve struggled to do a lot. It showed me that things can change quickly, and the state of your health is never as out of your hands as it is with a cancer diagnosis. You feel impotent in the face of it, so strive to control the things you can – keeping yourself fit, spending your time doing things you enjoy and staying as positive as you can. Every second you spend feeling any other way is wasted because you’re more cognizant of how valuable those seconds are, and you want to spend them making a positive impression on the world. No one has done that more than ‘Bowel Babe’ Deborah James, who has raised millions of pounds for Cancer Research UK and used her platform to educate, support and humour the masses.
I wish I had a positive way to finish the post, but I’m struggling to muster anything of substance. Deborah’s beautiful words just remind me what a dark, insipid beast cancer is for taking such a wonderful person away from her family, friends and followers at such a young age. I hope her final weeks are spent full of love and support and wish her family well.