BY NATALIE CARTER
Hello fellow people of Tring! When I saw the invite from the team at Tringbuzz.com for blogs from locals, I was surprised – nay, stunned quite frankly – at my response to share my cancer story. I am an avid follower of Tringbuzz, a huge fan of Katy and the team, and am also a grateful and chirpy inhabitant of our town. I consider myself incredibly lucky to live here and be able to provide my two daughters with a pretty idyllic childhood, assisted largely by location. Bear with me before you turn the metaphorical page and leave with the impression I am about to spout or preach or depress you – I have realised that what I want to share are the little nuggets of advice, positivity and avoidable cock-ups I experienced during my own unique cancer mare. Assisted by my own prescribed treatment of Pinotherapy, all of what you are about to read is intended to help. You see, if I can provide a mum, daughter, husband, son, friend or colleague with a smidgen of info I gleaned from my time at the Hand of Crap, which in turn reassures, advises, tickles or comforts someone else, then good. So there.
When I was initially diagnosed in 2016 with grade 2 ductal breast cancer, my immediate reaction was secrecy. Actually, it was to vomit in the consultant’s paper-bin, followed by a determined desire to hide my nasty secret. I wanted no-one to know I was ill. Hence my surprise at now wanting to share so freely! When I say secrecy, I mean not telling even my children, sister or parents I had cancer by creating a believable alternative (Lupus, if you’re interested – the first disease I mooted I soon thankfully discovered was mainly found in chickens) I didn’t want people to worry about me, I felt guilty I was ill. I didn’t want people looking at my body and thinking of it as diseased, wondering if I’d have a mastectomy and I most certainly didn’t want my children thinking I was going anywhere. It was my job to protect them not leave them. At this point, I was adamant I was in charge – I actually think I told a MacMillan nurse where to go when she advised I didn’t lie to my children (oh the shame!). I’m sharing this with you to express that whatever you feel at the time is the right thing to do, is the right thing to do. Everybody is different and each journey is unique. For example, a key aspect of my initial experience was the realisation that I was shockingly vain. My first question to the consultant was not “am I going to die?”, it was “will I lose my hair?” I am embarrassed by that memory. Asking if my daughters’ life span would be affected was my second question. (I’m sharing this to reassure someone, somewhere, it’s normal to be bonkers – I’m telling you my experience so others might feel they are not as mad as they fear. I would also like to tell you now that ALL MacMillan nurses and NHS staff are actual angels and I’m so sorry for the effing and jeffing.)
Now, quite quickly I sunk really, really low. In the spirit of sharing and possibly helping someone’s family and friends, ‘keep an eye out’ as well as practice Pinotherapy: I once considered slipping into the canal. I only see black when I think about this period of my life. At the same time, I was buying natural hair wigs with a view to faking being fabulous, so clearly my mental state was wobbly to say the least…. (wigs are extortionate!!!!! I bought one online for £250 that was supposed to make me look like Mena Survari. Think Janice from the Muppets…)
I had two operations – the initial diagnosis was of a small lump which turned out to be a big lump requiring a second surgery and lymphs removed. The term used was aggressive. Me or the cancer, the jury’s out. (The second op was on 4th May. I am a huge Star Wars fan, so every cloud really does have a silver lining.) The waiting between the results of the second op and the possibility of a mastectomy was a very difficult time, not helped by the release of Adele’s album 25. Listen to track 4. I still can’t listen to it without dissolving.) And so, begins the chemotherapy/ Pintotherapy chapter….
Which, for me, was mercifully not that bad! And this is where local Tring people came into their own. As my reaction was to hide the truth from the masses, I spoke to a friend, who had a friend or family member, who had used vitamins and particular make-up brands to improve hair thickness prior to chemo effects. Not just head hair, but eye lashes and eye brows too.
Hmmm, so began an obsession with trying to keep up a normal appearance. My key advice at this juncture, should you not normally sport a lot of slap as I don’t, is not to get false eye lashes during chemo. I had beautiful false eye lashes put on by angels at Cara in Tring, who provided both beauty treatments and quality conversation, and for a couple of days I looked like a real-life Disney princess. Then the chemo took hold, I batted my eyelashes at some poor undeserving soul, and suddenly resembled an actor from Clock Work Orange. My advice? Save your pennies. Go to Cara when the chemo has finished.
I have to tell you about my hairdresser at Zen in Berkhamsted. I don’t know if they realise they have cancer specialists, but my hairdresser bought products and used techniques in order to give my hair a chance. She washed my hair very carefully in tea tree shampoo to stimulate growth and blow dried it on cold. I kept my hair. Maybe these are techniques which could be tried at home?
Something which can’t be tried at home is the cold cap. My consultant calmly informed me that my chemotherapy drugs would be the strongest of combinations and I would definitely lose my hair between treatment one and two. It confounds me that loosing hair, even if temporarily, is so devastating for a woman, but the thought absolutely was for me. It’s insulting. I had never considered myself particularly vain, but the thought of losing my hair was so hard to deal with. (Needing to shave my legs I coped with admirably. Every cloud etc.) The cold cap was almost as painful as childbirth, but I kept my hair – kinda. It was summer, so even though my hair thinned (more than I realise when I look back at photos), I could wear sunglasses on my head and feel pretty normal as they hid the bald patches. Hats became essential.
My head would be frozen to minus 4 degrees before each treatment so that the chemo drugs couldn’t enter the hair follicles. That isn’t the most painful part – defrosting is. I felt pathetic as I cried with pain while stalwart old people wired up to god knows what contraptions whilst they endured transfusions in the chemo unit looked at me with sympathetic eyes.
Even though the cold cap worked pretty well for me, it doesn’t for half the people who try it. So I went to Beesley Wigs in Sandhurst – another recommendation from a local friend. I absolutely accept Sandhurst is not local to Tring and that there must be other quality suppliers nearby. But Beesely were recommended to me, the service was understanding, respectful, discrete and immediate. When the risk of hair loss is overnight, immediate is key.
I’m beginning to think I’m rambling, and haven’t got to my tips for coping with the nausea associated with chemo, the month of daily radiotherapy which burns your skin from within (don’t take off your shirt until necessary otherwise you undergo your consultation topless in front of 50 people…) dealing with subsequent hopes for having any more children being royally rained on, the fact that my local dentist is working on keeping my teeth post chemo even three years later, I’ve now got bigger hair than Tina Turner, eye brows akin to Denis Healy, and that the staff at Rothschild House have been nothing less than but perfect in supporting me during the resultant need to force my menopause in order to reduce the risk for cancer reoccurrence. Just last month, a doctor used the phrase ‘your life expectancy…’ to me. I looked over my shoulder as he must have been referring to someone else. I’m going nowhere, however, I sincerely hope somewhere in this someone has found a useful piece of information that can be passed on. I found that by talking to people locally, the kind souls of Tring provided me with information, tips and advice I might not have found in pamphlets. I’m a firm believer in mind over matter, and the links between mind, body and soul. And that a local community such as ours has the power to provide valuable support in many fashions. (Shout out to Jason Maxwell from Maximum Wellness at this point seems appropriate.)
Oh, and when life gives you lemons, throw a wig party.
P.S – there is a character in this blog who I have not mentioned. His name is K.I.S.A which stands for Knight in Shining Armour. He was with me every step of the way and is even more private than I am, but I cannot post this without expressing my devotion and gratitude for his strength, love, patience and never-ending support. XXX