New milestone, new mission

In a few days I’ll be 50. It’s a milestone I wasn’t sure I’d see and although it’s almost here it feels a little ethereal and bewildering. I’m one of an incredibly small number of women in my family to make it this far.

I don’t quite understand how I’m still doing OK when all our paths have been so similar. Most petered out at 40-something yet here I am, mostly intact, mostly functional, and mostly able to do the things 50, 40 or 30 year olds can do.

I’m enormously grateful for the extra time cancer care and treatment has offered me, though treatment itself was not a walk in the park. Regaining anything like my former levels of stamina, fitness and overall wellness has proven tougher still but at last this hard, hard, slog is paying off:

– 15kg lighter

– back at “healthy” BMI

– almost as strong / fit as pre-surgery

– auto-immune conditions in check

These are all such tiny things, the kind we take for granted when all is well. They may as well be miracles though because they make such a big difference to me. Time and improved quality of life are the most priceless gifts, and unexpected presents for a birthday I thought I might never achieve. Other women in my family endured extensive cancer treatment too, some even had the same chemo regime, but no-one can explain why I’m here and they’re not.

This is a mystery I’ll never solve and my time, precious as it is, will always be tinged with sadness for those who didn’t make it to the other side of cancer. They wanted, and deserved, another chance too.

It’s taken a lot of soul-searching to reluctantly accept we don’t all reach the other side of cancer treatment. This whole experience, mine and my family members, made me think very deeply about how I spend the ‘extra’ time I never quite thought I’d have. In death there is little I can do for my many loved ones lost far too young to cancer except honour their memory in the most wholehearted way possible. So it seems timely and personally meaningful that surviving cancer helped me chose a new direction in life, one where I can make a difference for others when they might need it most.

I know this won’t be easy but I’m thrilled to have been accepted to train as a nurse. I hope in time I’ll be able to give back some of the care, kindness and compassion that helped heal me enough to truly appreciate the value of life, the importance of choice and the significance of dignity in dying and death.

The Oncologist

Tomorrow I’m heading back to see the oncologist.  A quick recap: he is studious, often serious and I was told some people find him rather terse. He also came highly recommended on the basis I could cope with a scientist who holds a passion for his subject, has considerable clinical trials expertise and presents the facts in a sans-sugar-coating, say-it-as-it-is kind of way.  It’s true he wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea because small talk and social pleasantries aren’t his thing. I knew I could live without those but the same could not be said for a well-constructed third generation treatment regimen designed to tackle very aggressive HER2+ breast cancer.

When I was in active treatment I made it my mission to find some way to make the oncologist laugh every time I saw him.  Despite the various cancer shenanigans and associated torments I managed to retain at least a smidgen of my naturally playful, sometimes mischievous (in a harmless kind of way) spirit. So tomorrow I’ll be in his office finding another way to make the man who averts death smile and laugh because let’s face it, 12 hours a day 5 days a week managing various forms of cancer is hardly fun, even if your success rate falls in the upper quartile.

I haven’t been back to the hospital for some time now and if it weren’t for the follow-ups I’d avoid going back there at all costs.  It’s the place where my life switched from relatively stable to completely FUBAR in a matter of moments. It’s the place I associate with a tranche of memories I’d happily erase if permanent amnesia happened to be available in tablet form. It’s a place where the staff are brilliant, my treatment was excellent and as far as I know all traces of the mutant cells terrorising my body were eradicated. Unfortunately it will always be the place where cancer and me were forced to become far too familiar with one another. That acquaintance lasted much longer and caused far more damage than any of us is led to believe so I might just have to strangle the next person who says breast cancer is an easy cancer, the best kind of cancer or anything that remotely infers treatment and recovery is a walk in the park. Oops… I lost my playful spirit for a moment there.

Thankfully my oncologist chose to be an oncologist instead of an actuary, a computer programmer or an astrophysicist. For that I will be eternally grateful. For cancer I will not.

More Yang, Less Yin

The yin (shade, darkness) and the yang (light, sunshine) are opposite and interdependent, constantly changing, sometimes more one than the other and on occasion, one engulfed within the other.

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Mercurial, haphazard, in perpetual motion and full of contrasts: light and dark, day and night, happiness and sorrow. Our lives embody the yin-yang and for our part we must learn to adapt, knowing that bad times will eventually give way to good. As a reasonably optimistic person I live in hope that any periods of yin in my life will eventually give way to yang and on the whole that’s what happens. Living with someone who is suffering from fairly severe depression calls the whole yin-yang into question though and at present I’d appreciate a bit more yang and a lot less yin in my son’s life.

When someone develops cancer it’s immensely difficult for them and for their family and friends. As well as being a distressing sometimes frightening experience, family members often feel helpless because they believe they are unable to do anything that will change the situation for the better. Clinically this is likely to be the case but spiritually and emotionally it is not so. I know this all too well as I’ve been on both sides of the cancer fence, patient and family member. I now know the same sense of helplessness can be true when sharing your life with someone who is struggling with depression.

Watching a person you love withdraw from the world, continually question their worth and slip into thought patterns that hold no glimmer of hope or positivity is extremely challenging. Emotionally it’s very draining and this is especially so when you think you’ve turned a corner only to find yet another brick wall shrouded in darkness. That darkness is insidious and as a parent it chills my heart because I have no way of knowing how long it will continue or how much darker it might get before some daylight eventually creeps into my son’s most desperately unhappy episodes. Though he is making progress (we both thought the worst might be over) it seems minor incidents continue to throw him back into the void. Often that journey is highly traumatic and when he goes back to the darkest place we have to start again from the beginning, covering old ground and having the same conversations.

“Life is unfair,” “why do bad things happen to good people?” and “how come nasty people make other peoples lives a misery without consequences?” are regular features of our cyclical, circular communiques. It takes a significant amount of rational discussion and sound reasoning to help dissuade these views once they’ve taken root and I am not always successful. When I explain with clinical precision that fairness, bad things or nasty people are simply concepts and value judgements i.e. they are all made up, the message sometimes strikes a chord. Illustrating that life is a series of events to which we attach meaning, meanings are subjective and intangible thus fair/unfair, good/bad or nasty/nice can only ever exist in our personal view of the world occasionally comes across as off-beat or plain weird enough to provoke a degree of confusion and in doing so lets a sliver of light reach in.

I seem to serve as a constant reminder that a caterpillar sees only the end but for the butterfly life is just beginning. It takes patience, time and unwavering commitment when we’re having the same conversation for the two-hundredth time. I’m not a psychologist. I have no real idea how to help challenge the spectre of depression yet I feel compelled to do so. Something primordial whispers do whatever it takes, prevent it gaining so firm a hold that it might never let go… because deep in my own psyche lies the thought that it might not let go.

In those moments I think of the caterpillar. There is a period of complete chaos where it is nothing more than cell soup inside a paper-thin wrapper. During a few weeks metamorphosis it’s yin is transformed by the developing yang and then, almost miraculously, a butterfly breaks free. Life is once again in order and it has chosen a new and vibrant shape. No trace of the caterpillar’s doom remains to be seen.

This, I have to hope, is what lies ahead. In the meantime, patience and tenacity prevail.

Twenty-two months towards the road less travelled.

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It’s twenty-two months since I was diagnosed with aggressive HER2+ breast cancer. Since then so much has changed. How many of the changes might have happened anyway, even if I’d not been exposed to the world of the cancer patient? I know for sure the treatment related changes would all have been avoided but I’ve been exposed so there’s no escaping the fact that medically I’m a recovering cancer patient and have the scars and related issues to prove it. In three years time I aim to be classified (medically) as an ex-cancer patient, I hope the scars will fade and the side effects will subside by that point in time.

The term relapsed cancer patient is not something I aim to become familiar with so the two-fingered salute is for you epigenetic factors, oncogenes and transcription errors. Keep the hell out of my cellular processes because you are not welcome there or anywhere else for that matter. My finger nails are almost as good as before and I intend for them to stay that way. The same goes for my hair.

Whilst some of the changes of the last twenty-two months have been unavoidable, others have been a conscious and positive choice.

I enjoy meat but am now almost totally vegetarian; extensive research into the implications of cheap meat production led me to conclude the risk to my future health outweighs the fleeting pleasure that comes from a decent steak. I really don’t miss it and if I have the occasional unquenchable yearning then its a rare enough event to have no influence on my genetic make-up.

I once enjoyed wine (and beer) but again the potential risks involved in more than the minimal intake coupled with months of being alcohol-free seem to have curbed my liking for it. Even if I decide to have a glass I don’t enjoy the taste these days and alcohol is expensive so the money I save helps pay for other things.

I sleep more. Deliberately. The science of cell malfunction is complicated but we know for certain sleep deprivation leads to increased levels of cell mutation and cell mutations can lead to cancer. Gone are the days of 5 or 6 hours sleep per night. I also get out more, into the garden or walking (in spite of ongoing joint and nerve issues that serve to remind me of Taxotere and Herceptin) and I take vitamin D because most people in the Northern Hemisphere never get enough sunshine. I work hard but not endlessly, relentlessly or in the completely self-sacrificing manner of my pre-cancer life.

During the week (and at weekends if he wants company) I live with my son. We’re 40 minutes from the university – far enough to put the day’s events behind us when he returns from lectures and I return from work. Living together today doesn’t make up for the years I spent working in distant cities staying in soulless hotel rooms, but its still special and we’re at a point in our lives where we’re friends as well as mother and child. We live a quiet, harmonious existence laughing at the silly stuff and talking through any serious matters until we find a way forward. We study together, or rather he studies and I try to keep up so I can help with revision. With focus and good final exam results it looks likely he’ll realise his dream and go to medical school in 2015. I’m pleased he retained this ambition in spite of the carnage of the last two years.

My life now centres on living in the moment. I appreciate the time I have and the people I spend it with. I only fret over things I can do something about and I do something about them to negate excessive worrying. I keep no pacts with fate or destiny and I don’t assume some bright and brilliant future lies in wait for me. I accept it will be whatever it turns out to be and trust I’ll find a way to deal with it as required. In spite of everything that’s happened I don’t resent cancer; it’s just something that happened. That doesn’t mean I’d welcome it back into my life and I now know the same is true of excessive hours, an unhealthy work-life balance, sleep deprivation and regularly being away from home.

It seems some good can come from almost any situation, including those that derail the life we once knew. Twenty-two months of change has driven me to chose the road less travelled. Though there are bumps along the way, I suspect its a happier and healthier road overall.

Half a World Away

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky

 

It’s a beautiful morning. Since the beginning of December I can only recall one other day without rain and that seems like a very distant memory. At work on Thursday we joked that the Mayans may have correctly predicted the end of the world – it’s simply coming along a bit later than expected. They were ancient people without atomic clocks so what’s an extra year or two on top of a few centuries?

Looking at the clear blue sky today is not the day it all ends and I’m happy that’s the case.

This time last year it was snowing. Clumps of pristine white snowflakes were swirling around me like the stuffing from expensive duck down pillows. January and February both saw fairly significant snowfall, at least by UK standards. Out here in the countryside the drifts were over six feet high and I walked the lane crunching my way through the freezing blanket to take photographs in a completely silent landscape. When snow muffles everything the silence takes over – no road noise, no rustling trees – and with silence comes stillness. The fields and hedgerows slip into a moment of frozen tranquillity.

Silent stillness always draws me out into the chilling air. Wrapped in a thick winter coat, huge scarf, fingerless gloves (so I could operate the camera) and my woollen cable-knit baker-boy cap I trudged down then up the lane, a walk that normally takes 10 minutes but needs at least 20 in heavy snow. The horses at Holly Farm had taken their leave and retreated into the stable but every tree and shrub along the way was alive with small birds foraging for food. When the snow comes the need to eat overcomes the need to fear humans, the birds will take seed at your feet if you’re still enough. After walking the lane I was cold and tired but a cup of hot chocolate soon addressed both.

How do I recall this scene so readily when it was a year ago? I’d just received my final round of Taxotere. I was hairless, as pale and translucent as an undernourished vampire and completely strung out on steroids. There are few things I detest and dexamethosone is one of them so if I never have it again that’ll be just fine with me. Looking back the whole scene – the snow, the chemo unit, the regular blood draws, the side-effects – it feels half a world away. It almost seems unreal and if it weren’t for the tale-tell signs all over my body (and embedded in my psyche) I could almost convince myself it was a very bad dream.

Almost.

Today there’s no snow. The tall trees opposite the window are gently rippling so there’s a breeze. The sky is the most beautiful cyan blue and bright yellow winter sunlight, the kind that is brilliant but holds no blazing heat, is streaming into the room. Small birds are chattering outside the window and the cats who were exiled to the conservatory last year, are happily curled up by the fire for an after-breakfast siesta. Today is a very beautiful day and it seems that all is well in my wonderfully bizarre, confusing and ever-changing world.

Half a World Away

A strange kind of home

I returned to the Millbrook Suite this week. It sounds almost glamorous and the uninitiated might believe it’s an opulent spa hotel somewhere balmy, exclusive and ridiculously overpriced. It’s true Millbrook welcomes an exclusive clientele and some eye-wateringly expensive activities occur there. There are few places in the world where one treatment costs between £2000 and £30,000 plus specialist staff and equipment (equally essential).

For all the things Milbrook Suite is – friendly, supportive, exclusive – it isn’t a haunt for celebrity-style pampering, the kind I’m told you find at luxury beach resorts. The staff provide an exemplary service and the treatments come in costly courses of between 6 and 12 sessions, that’s where comparisons with swanky hotels end. Fortunately service is included and visitors don’t pay, at least not directly, which is good because most of us couldn’t afford it… But what price do you put on the countless lives passing through Milbrook on their way to treating or managing cancer?

I’m one of them and on the treatment front so far so good, the £150,000+ looks like money well spent. Dr C is happy with progress, all is as it should be except joint issues that continue to perplex us both. More drugs or further investigations were briefly mentioned however I can’t recall a case of someone dying from joint pain. I told Dr C I’ll put up with it, unless he knows otherwise. He scratched his head turning his hair into a small replica of the Sagrada Familia then laughed and said he wasn’t aware that happened terribly often. So we’re avoiding further medical interventions to counteract the side effects of previous medical interventions. In my view there are always consequences.

There were 7 more lives in the waiting room this week. Some are getting better, some are forced to increase their efforts to overthrow the murderous stalker within. Millbrook Suite might be considered depressing because everyone attends knowing they have no real choice. Do nothing isn’t an option yet for some the medical staff reach a point where treatment stops working and they can offer nothing more. A man from my chemo days had lung mets confirmed; we talked about it while waiting to see Dr C. He laughed and said at least he’ll get some value from all the tax he’s paid – he thinks five years is achievable (they give him 12 months). I agreed and secretly asked whatever higher authority might be listening to please give him at least five more years because in the grand scheme of things it isn’t so much to ask. This is the reality of Millbrook. Complete strangers are thrown together and forced to confront mortality whilst accepting their bodies are no longer a safe place to reside. They laugh in the darkest moments. I’ve never quite belonged anywhere because my experience of life has been far from straightforward. It made me an anomaly and awkward or pitying questions always came up – in short, how do I cope with so few happily ever afters? I gave up asking why (the deaths and disappointments kept happening) a long time ago because there’s no other way to survive and remain sane. I find I fit in a little better at Millbrook where none of the lives are straightforward. It’s a strange place to call home and definitely wouldn’t have been my first choice but at least I’m not a curiosity there!

Back in the waiting room

This week is busy. For the first time in several months I have two hospital appointments in the space of a couple of days. Yesterday’s appointment was the mammogram. Thirteen months have passed since the mammogram that couldn’t find a 2cm lump just 2mm away from breaking through my skin. Eighteen months have elapsed since the regular mammogram that gave the initial false-negative result at the beginning of 2012.  My experience means I have little faith in mammograms; I think I’m still much more likely to detect any future anomalies myself but after so much treatment I hope the eventuality never arises.

I thought I might be apprehensive about yesterday’s hospital visit but I wasn’t. Dispassionate might be a better description of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. I’ve moved beyond the pointless worrying that accompanies any form of diagnostic imaging because it’s wholly futile. Things will either be OK or they won’t. If they’re OK I continue to live a reasonably normal life. If they’re not OK I already know what happens next.  The radiographer told me she couldn’t see anything that looked to be of concern but the formal result will be with Miss M in a few weeks. Waiting is something else I’ve become accustomed to – the result will either be OK or it won’t and whatever it is, I have no power to change it.  This is the reality people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer live with for the rest of their lives; the carpet can be pulled from under their feet again at any point in time.  The experience has altered my perception of many things, made me much clearer about how I lead my life and where I spend my time.

Tomorrow is the final blast of herceptin, the wonder drug for people with Her2 positive cancer. Prior to herceptin disease free and overall survival rates for this kind of cancer were some of the worst; few people made it beyond the 5 year follow-up period. Herceptin is a breeze for many but that hasn’t been my experience and no-one can tell me how long the side effects will last or if they’ll completely resolve over time. The joint pain and immobility have been of greatest concern because these side effects impinge on day-to-day life. Weight gain and the inability to lose even a pound when sticking rigidly to 1200 calories a day is frustrating.  Overall though herceptin is a good thing for those whose cancers are Her2 positive, it has proven survival benefits.

3D Dual Colour Super Resolution Microscopy wit...

3D Dual Colour Super Resolution Microscopy with Her2 and Her3 in breast cells, standard dyes: Alexa 488, Alexa 568 LIMON (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a few remnants of what happened last year scattered throughout my body. The scars and fakery are the most obvious as well as my shorter than pixie-cut hair which is still thinner at the front than I’d like. The early menopause that has, as far as I can tell, gone through the hormone deprivation stage and all it entails leaving few after-effects except the future potential for osteoporosis. Two toes on my right foot have subungual haematomas, one is painful the other isn’t, and all of my fingernails have onycholysis (detachment of the nail from the nail bed).  At some point I expect all the affected nails to part company with me but for now they’re hanging on.  An irritable gut that now appears to have a mind of its own irrespective of what I eat, fluid retention and inflexible joints that make me move like a 90-year-old.  Surviving cancer is not without consequences but surviving is still the preferred outcome.

After tomorrow I’ll be in the ultimate waiting room, the one that takes 5 years to get out of.  Hospital visits will be the exception rather than the norm (I hope) during that period, aside from the additional surgeries I’ve elected to have. Shortly the evidence of my skirmish with cancer will be barely noticeable, with luck my stamina and fitness will return to their pre-treatment levels and my clothes will fit again! Being back in the waiting room has no hold over me anymore.  Life is beckoning and I don’t intend to waste it on things I have little opportunity to influence.

I want change

December 31st is usually the time we think about resolutions, things we want to do or changes we want to make for the future but April 3rd also seems as good a time as any.  After 321 days of breast cancer, 130 days undergoing various treatments (to date, medical interventions aren’t finished yet),  277 days of stress and worry as to how I’d provide for my dependants during and after treatment (to date, livelihood interventions aren’t finished yet either), some of the people I considered friends abandoning me and my family being thrown into crisis that will leave everyone with scars I want change.

I live in a so-called modern first-world country, part of the Western wonderlands where breaches of human rights, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, malnutrition and persecution are all supposed to be so frightfully awful that they couldn’t possibly happen here.  l live in a country that shakes its head and tut-tuts at China, Syria and Pakistan. My country needs to learn the saying “people who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones.”

While I was in Bristol last week I saw more homeless people than I’d seen since the 1980’s. These were not the New Age Traveller kind of nomadic homeless, they were people in late middle age, of pensionable age or older. Several of them were older women carrying everything they owned in a bin liner and a few Tesco carriers that had also seen better days. One of the women was almost blind – cataracts she said – as the assistant in the coffee stall sorted through a small collection of copper coins that wasn’t enough to buy the coffee. She gave it to the old, blind woman anyway with a smile that asked ‘how did this happen to you?’  I was pleased to witness some human compassion at an individual level because the temperature that evening was -3c by 7pm with windchill taking it down to -8c. Afterwards I wondered if the coffee cart girl would be in trouble with her boss for her small act of kindness or if she’d make up the shortfall in takings from her own purse. I suspect the latter. People cannot afford to be out of work in the current climate since even those who have paid into the system for most if their adult lives receive little or nothing in return when hard times befall them.  Being out of work and out of luck is the most likely reason I saw so many older homeless people last Thursday evening.

Whenever there’s a recession and unemployment figures rise the behaviour of employers changes too. A friend of mine was made redundant at the end of last year. He’s a bright guy with plenty of high-tech experience to offer and a young family to support. Although he’s attended several interviews, he told me the process for every vacancy is long and drawn out. The time from application to interview can be months rather than weeks and companies are asking candidates to attend upwards of five interviews with different people over anything up to three months before responding to say they’ve changed their mind and won’t be taking the vacancy forward at this time. Another friend of mine was made redundant 2 years ago, she too is bright and well skilled. After a year searching for work she took up a contract post but that too is now coming to an end. She fears the market is in a worse position today than it was when she took up her contract and with no other source of income she isn’t sure how she’ll continue to pay her mortgage.

As a breast cancer patient it seems I’m expected to take care of myself, (there has been very little support outside the standard medical activity), continue to provide for my dependants including my teenaged son whose student loan falls more than £2k short of his accommodation costs let alone providing any money for his food, transport, books, etc., pay all my bills on time and in full, remain positive about the future (because being anything other than positive is bad when you have cancer) and remain hopeful that everything will be alright in the end.

Normally I’m positive, I seem to be wired up that way however there are some very cold and harsh realities of being a cancer patient in my modern first-world country in 2013 as follows:

  • there is significantly limited / no help available whether that’s psychological support, help with normal household activities (eg gardening, cleaning), getting to and from hospital appointments, etc.
  • the best drugs aren’t made available until you’ve suffered the worst side effects because they’re too expensive to provide upfront
  • employers attitudes to people with cancer vary greatly and it’s not just small companies who treat people disgracefully. A cancer patient has as much chance of securing alternative employment as a snowflake in hell.
  • having cancer is expensive. There are items cancer patients need to buy to take care of themselves and they cost money. Eating healthily, plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and avoiding junk/processed food is more expensive than eating supermarket ready meals.
  • the need for psychological and emotional support isn’t just the domain of the patient, their family also need support and it is rarely if ever forthcoming.

I want change. Not just for cancer patients but for everyone who has paid into the system and appears to get nothing in return. I want to see the elder folk of my country with roofs over their heads, warms beds and food in their stomachs, not living rough on the streets. I want future generations of cancer patients to be given the best drugs without having to suffer hideous side effects first because the drugs are too expensive so patients are treated like guinea pigs. I want employers to act responsibly and with some degree of integrity – remember cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke can strike anyone,  you could be next so consider how you might like to be treated before trampling all over today’s patients. I want professional psychological and emotional support to be available to people and their families for a nominal cost – not £40 – £60 per session as it stands today and I want supermarkets to consider their role in promoting a healthier society, one that will live longer and thus contribute to their profits for longer, by making healthy foods available without scandalous levels of mark-up. Start working with local farmers and you’ll help the national economy as well as reducing your air freight costs and offering fresher produce in store.

Already I can hear the politicians screaming “but these are difficult times, the country cannot afford all this.” And to that I say bollocks. We spend c.£39bn on defence plus c.£11.5bn on international aid, £54bn on local and national government (excluding budgets devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).  That’s over £100bn…. I don’t think we’re getting value for money when my elders sleep rough on the streets, my fellow patients are suffering physically and psychologically and our disabled folks are quite literally disabled from cradle to grave in education, the workplace and the benefits system.

I want change.

Buckaroo, Kerplunk, straws and camels backs

When I was a kid Buckaroo and Kerplunk were popular games. Buckaroo involved a toy donkey. Players took turns to add items of equipment onto its back all the while hoping the donkey wouldn’t buck when they placed their item onto the burgeoning pile. After being stacked high with buckets, sacks, rope, spades and various other goodies, the donkey would eventually reach the point where it could bear no more and living up to the name of the game, would buck all the pieces off. Real life donkeys don’t seem to do this, they have heavy loads foist upon them until they’re barely able to walk. The phrase beast of burden is often applied to donkeys and it’s not difficult to see why. When I worked in France one of my French colleagues said, “you English, you are stupid. You work like the donkey and what for? You are working 50, 60, 70 hours and you do not complain. In France we do not do that, we are not like you stupid English donkeys and we are happier to have time away from the work.”  My colleague made a very good point!

 

Kerplunk was a Buckaroo situation in reverse. Thin plastic sticks held up marbles inside a tall cylinder. Players had to remove sticks without letting the marbles drop through. As pieces were removed so the weight of marbles increased until eventually someone would remove a stick causing all the marbles to fall. Kerplunk, game over. On another occasion in France I saw children aged around 8 years old aligned in crocodile fashion marching through the Metro station at Chatelet. They were shouting, chanting and carrying placards accompanied by a small number of adults. My French wasn’t good enough to understand all they said so I asked a French colleague to interpret and explain what these children were doing. Why were they marching through the subway stations? She told me the kids were with their teachers and they were protesting about education reforms; a reduction in the number of teachers and taught hours. I was amazed. I couldn’t imagine British 8 year olds taking part in a protest to maintain teaching hours or have more teachers. My colleague laughed. She said in France children learn to protest early and French people stand up for their rights and the things that matter to them such as education, fair remuneration, decent medical care and so on.

 

I cannot remember when I first heard the phrase ‘the straw that broke the camels back.’ It was sometime before I reached my teens but I’ve no idea when. The idiom is thought to stem from an Arabic proverb. The camel is another beast of burden and the straw that breaks its back is the final thing making the weight on its body unbearable. Instead of throwing off the load like Buckaroo, the camel sinks to the floor broken in half and presumably dies as a result of its heinous injury. Once again while working in France I came across a ‘straw that broke the camels back’ situation. A large French company undertook a programme of transformation, restructuring and changes to people’s roles. Some of the changes were radical and the impact on certain members of the workforce was quite dramatic. A number of employees couldn’t cope with the situation they found themselves in and committed suicide. I was deeply traumatised by this situation, not the first workplace suicide Id encountered.  In my early career a young guy in my workplace committed suicide. Afterwards everyone said they should’ve realised the signs, he was under too much pressure, withdrawn, silent and very unhappy looking. He hung himself from a stairwell.  People were shocked, they talked about the stress he must have felt and mused that he had no outlet for his distress. I remember thinking how sad that a young man, probably aged around 22, felt so alone with his problems that the best solution was to end his own life. I still think its sad that he died suffocating to death in dingy stairwell, his life slowly slipping away because the burden of living became too much for him to bear on his own.

 

It isn’t often that I feel like the Buckaroo donkey or overloaded camel. Normally I’ll bear a heavy load and keep moving forward but of late a series of events has been edging me ever closer to broken back territory. Although challenging, in isolation each event is manageable. Cancer, chemo, social exclusion, work issues, loss of friends, discrimination, the thought (and reality) of more surgery – all unpleasant but in isolation or limited combinations all bearable. Even when they happen in combination and quick succession they’re bearable as long as nothing else is dumped on top.

 

This week something else got dumped on top; two additional  significant challenges to further embellish the list. I checked my major life events against the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. A score of 300+ indicates a significant risk of illness. Unfortunately many of my major life events are a direct result of illness so my Holmes and Rahe score was already running at over 300. This weeks challenges have pushed it to over 500 and there’s very little I can  do about it except wonder at what level the scale moves from ‘risk of serious illness’ to ‘be sure to note your preference,  flames or earthworms.’

 

I opted for flames long ago so I can look on the bright side in that respect – at least I know what’s coming to me in the end! Being downbeat doesn’t really suit me but I am human and I have limits. There’s only so much crap I can take before I feel overwhelmed and the past year has been packed full of it. Fortunately I still have a few friends and family who stand by me and check in to see that I’m OK. The young guy I worked with felt abandoned, the employees in the French company had no-one to turn to and couldn’t see a positive future once their jobs had disappeared or changed beyond all recognition. My friends and family can’t undo the hardships and stress certain others are hellbent on creating in my life but their moral support means I’m not entirely alone and that’s important. It helps me maintain a Buckaroo mindset casting off the crap instead of slipping into the camel persona and being completely broken by the weight of the load.

 

Buckaroo!

Buckaroo! (Photo credit: unloveablesteve)

 

Sorry guys, I really should’ve thought about this sooner

IMG_1846 - Donald Faison

IMG_1846 – Donald Faison (Photo credit: Anime Nut)

Stanley Tucci

Stanley Tucci (Photo credit: nick step)

I have a confession to make.

Until recently I’d never given much thought to what it must be like for a guy to go bald. I suppose it’s not entirely unusual as I’ve never been a man, I’ll never have the equipment to be a man and in spite of all the trouble this female body has caused I’ve decided to carry on living in it.

 

Many of my male friends have lost their hair, some at a very early age, but I never stopped to think how it might have affected them.  Now I realise it probably did affect them, it no doubt knocked their confidence and changed the way they thought about themselves – at least for a while.  Most of them didn’t talk about it and I guess that’s because we still have some old-fashioned ideas about what ‘real men’ are like, what they talk about and which emotions they’re ‘allowed’ to express.

I wish all that nonsense about being strong, silent, macho, tough, etc, etc, etc, could be banished because the guys I know have the full suite of emotions, they’re eloquent and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to express whatever is on their mind without worrying whether or not its the ‘manly’ thing to do.  I don’t care about manliness, I think its healthy to articulate thoughts and feelings  rather than keeping them locked up inside.  The act of saying what we think or feel  goes along way towards building meaningful relationships, it helps us understand (and appreciate) each other a whole lot more and it facilitates the elimination of ignorance and misconceptions.

Even though guys can look good with shorn heads or no hair at all (think Stanley Tucci or Donald Faison) I imagine the process of losing their hair and knowing it will not regrow is pretty traumatic.  Wayne Rooney said as much when talking about the reasons behind his hair transplant and James Nesbitt commented that his second transplant had changed his life and future career prospects.

Having now experienced losing my hair, all of it, I have a much better understanding of the emotions that go along with it. I know the ‘what the heck happened’ feeling when it looks like a horde of hungry moths descended during the night and chomped big patches at random.   I know what its like to look in the mirror only to find a complete stranger looking back. These aren’t feelings that fill you with confidence, high self-esteem or super-hero strength. The whole thing takes a lot of getting used to even for someone like me who can get to the ah, Fec-it! place quite quickly. Even when you know the hair loss is temporary and the big C is presenting a whole range of other interesting topics to exercise the mind…

I’ve always known that contrary to common folklore, guys can have insecurities, crises of confidence and emotional wobbles; it’s never bothered me because we’re all human and these are natural reactions to some of the curve balls life throws at us.  I suspect hair loss, especially for guys of a young age, is a pretty traumatic experience.  If you can’t talk about it because society says that’s not manly it must be quite isolating too. From 2013 onwards I for one will be less ignorant and much more empathetic to the challenges hair loss presents for my male compatriots.