Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Soapboxes and Cosmetics

I'm just starting to feel human again, and it's only 5 days before my next chemo, when they change the cocktail to Taxotere which, by all accounts, is an absolute killer. I stupidly googled all about it earlier today, and from being merely frightened I'm now simply terrified. Taxotere is made from the needles of Yew trees, which sounds fairly innocuous, even for this needle-phobe. However the list of side effects seems to be as tall as the Yew tree itself, and some of them are pretty scary indeed. It sounds very clever in the way that it works, though, by blocking the cancer cell's ability to divide and grow, and whatever nasty things it does to me over the next few weeks I'll be hoping that those cancer cells are getting an even more miserable time of it. 

All I can do is shut my eyes, hold my nose and jump into the deep end and keep swimming til I surface again.  I had a great piece of advice this week, which was to treat this whole treatment process just as if it were a job. Except there isn't a "handing in your notice" option.

Debbie and Anita came over today, both such upbeat, happy people, and both left-handed ladies just like me. Three left-handers all in one room on Halloween as well, eh, but without our broomsticks? Once upon a time we'd have been burnt at the stake which would have left the world a much less jolly place. They are both coming to my laughter taster session at Mencap in a couple of weeks' time - with both of them there I really won't have to work hard at all to get the room rolling about in fits of laughter, all in all, a lovely afternoon, even though they did both tell me off for googling far to much for my own good.

Yesterday, I must have been feeling better because yet another news item managed to wind me up completely. There is a new Government-backed report that is claiming that the routine mammogram screening programme is "over-diagnosing" a significant number of women. Lots of people will read this and think it means that they are "mis-diagnosing" loads of ladies. They are not. They are claiming that, of every woman who's life is saved by having treatment, there are 3 others who have all the treatment thrown at them, but would not have died if they hadn't had it. What they fail to make crystal clear, though, is that there is no way of telling which of those four women desperately needs that treatment. The whole report reads like a piece of non-news, a load of tosh, where they seem to be suggesting that playing Russian Roulette is fine, and let's not treat them. Even worse, they are suggesting that the women themselves decide if they think they are in that 75% percent who might not need treatment. 

At the moment of diagnosis, and for several weeks afterwards, women diagnosed with breast cancer are in shock, denial and completely disorientated. To ask them to make that sort of decision will allow many to percieve that this is their "get out of jail" card. Who really wants to go through cancer treatment?  At that point in any woman's life, the temptation to walk away and kid yourself that you'll be okay is overwhelming at the best of times. This report could cause countless women to turn there back on treatment, with disastrous consequences.

Headlines that state that mammograms are causing 75% over-diagnosis will be misunderstood by a huge number of the wider population. Going for a mammogram isn't exactly like having a slice of yummy cake, and many thousands of women already choose not to turn up for their screening appointments. No one wants to have cancer, and there is still an almost superstitious belief that "if I don't go, no one can tell me I've got cancer, so I won't have it". What really happens of course, is that if they do have it and don't get checked early enough, by the time they can't ignore it any longer it may be too late to treat effectively. Surely this silly message is going to feed into this fear, and deter many more thousands of women from taking part in the screening programme? I'm not cynical enough to actually believe that this message has been released to save thousands on the NHS budget, but I can see why many people are thinking like this.

My own case, I hope will act as a salutory case to anyone reading who may be thinking about not bothering to get checked. If I hadn't gone for my routine mammogram (and I was sorely tempted not to bother) they wouldn't have found the two primary cancers, totally unrelated different types, one in each breast. Even on the day of surgery, the surgeon couldn't feel either of them, they were so deeply buried. The scans had shown them to both be tiny, very early stage, that hadn't yet spread. After two operations, including a mastectomy on one side, they found that both had spread, one of them was a whopping 14.4 centimetre spherical ball, and that cancer was already in 9 of my lymph nodes. I am now undergoing treatment with no guarantees of survival, yet I am in with a chance of beating this. If I hadn't gone, I would still be in blissful ignorance, but the cancers by now would have been spreading to loads of other organs, and within a few months I would have become incredibly ill, and it would have been too late to do much about it. Please please please never put off a mammogram, or any other cancer screening you might be offered.

Ranting over, but at least I'm well enough at the moment to stand on a soapbox. Well enough to be planning lunch tomorrow with WM and his sister and brother-in-law, well enough to have nearly contemplated going to the theatre tonight, and certainly well enough to watch a load of rubbish telly for the rest of the evening while WM loses his inhibitions shouting at the Chelsea/Man U match on the other TV. 

Something else happened this week that made me feel a whole load better. I had probably the best hospital appointment ever - a place on the "Look Good, Feel Better" workshop on Monday. It's a charity specially for women with cancer, run by the cosmetics industry, and we were taught how to really use face products and make-up properly, with tricks of the trade about how to pencil in our missing eyebrows, and tone done the chemo-related sideburns that are developing when the hair is falling out of all the places it's supposed to be. For someone like me, who has studiously neglected any form of beauty treatment and avoids looking at my face in the mirror to prevent both fear and depression, this was a totally strange, but strangely pleasant experience. I'm now exfoliating, toning, cleansing and moisturising like the best of them. There were 8 of us in the workshop, with 5 really encouraging beauticians, all volunteers, doing a great job of making us feel like we count and matter, and can actually look quite reasonable most of the time. 

There were two "best bits" for me. One of the beauticians is trained in wig-care, and he really kindly offered to cut the fringe for me so it doesn't go in my eyes all the time anymore. This means I can double the length of time I can wear it comfortably now. The other great treat was the goody bag, a huge cosmetics bag stuffed full of the sort of products I could never normally even think of being able to afford, and some of these things I wouldn't even have known how to use beforehand. It was also quite liberating to spend a couple of hours in a room with other bald ladies, and to feel totally OK and accepted. By the time it was ready to leave, my face was completely madeover, and  even to my critical eye it seemed passable.

So, now there are even more reasons not to tackle that housework of mine, because I'll need to spend so much time at the bathroom mirror to keep up the good work!

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