Archive for the ‘keeping you hair’ Category

Ten things that breast cancer taught me

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Often, a life-threatening experience like breast cancer can leave you with a different outlook and change the way you view things – from life’s various trials to the most trivial day-to-day experiences. I’ve had breast cancer twice over the past nine years, and have learned from the experience. Here are ten great things that having breast cancer has taught me:

1. Let people in
Being open about my cancer was the cue my friends and family needed to get involved. No they weren’t coming to my home to do the housework (which is a shame really), but they kept in touch every month by phone, card, letter, email and the occasional visit; they even ran races for me and had prayers said at Mass. By deliberately externalising my feelings, they knew they could show theirs, and we were all the better for it.

2. …especially your kids
My children were eight, ten and 14 when I first had cancer, and I decided that keeping them in the loop from the beginning was the best way of avoiding a bigger problem later on. The best thing I did was to appoint my sister as the official sounding board so they always had someone else to turn to and, crucially, they could ask her everything they felt they couldn’t ask me. They were with me too when I had chemotherapy, so could see it wasn’t remotely scary.

3. Shock your taste buds…
I didn’t lose my sense of taste exactly, it’s just that chemo makes food taste odd, metallic, unpleasant. My way round this was to choose comforting food that reminded me of childhood, like fish fingers and mashed potato; or that went kapow! on my tongue, like lime juice and soda water, and gingernut biscuits dunked in tea.

4. … but don’t gain weight
You’d think you’d at least lose weight but, first time round, I gained a stone which took 12 months to shift. This year when I was having treatment, I decided to see if gentle exercise would stop the weight gain before it started. I began walking, then jogging very, very slowly around the block, eventually building up to three miles a day. I didn’t gain weight; I lost it, but all the time feeling healthier and more energetic. So I haven’t stopped.

5. Get your beauty sleep
After a few weeks of looking and feeling like a zombie, I nipped the chronic insomnia that seems to accompany chemotherapy, in the bud and took sleeping pills. I was prescribed Zopiclone, which is a hypnotic drug (which means it induces sleep without affecting your mood or your sensitivity to pain), and it’s non addictive. I’d wake up feeling and looking refreshed and more than able to tackle the day ahead. When the treatment was over I weaned myself off the pills.

6. Go hippy
I didn’t know very much about reflexology but had heard it had been helpful to others in handling the side effects of treatment. To be honest anything involving having your toes fiddled with for an hour has got to be good, so I gave it a try. In fact I had reflexology the day before every chemo session and regard it as a major contributory factor in helping me cope as well as I did both physically and mentally.

7. Embrace the grey!
When my hair started to grow again, steel grey in places, white in others, I decided NOT to reach for the hair dye. As much as I wanted to go back to the security of medium-golden-brown-with-caramel-highlights, I thought I should take advantage of my situation and turn a potentially ageing hairstyle into a short, funky look. Yes, there were a few double-takes initially, but I’m happy with my new style and there are no roots to retouch; bliss.

8. Even the eyebrows?
Sadly my eyebrows didn’t grow back and this made me look tired and washed out all the time. After months of pencilling them in, I decided to get my eyebrows tattooed on. It’s a semi-permanent procedure and will need to be refreshed once a year, but it’s made a big difference to me and I mentally thank my tattooist every morning when I look in the mirror.

9. Don’t let employers get you down
When you’ve got breast cancer, the last thing you should need to do is “watch your back” at work but, as I found out first hand, not all employers behave with integrity. Some will exploit every opportunity to undermine you at the most difficult time in your life and, although it will seem hard, you have to fight back. I found the very act of making a stand and confronting my employer, despite being petrified, made me feel stronger and more confident.

10. Nothing’s THAT important
An experience like this changes you on the inside. I’m definitely more at ease with myself now. I can cry in front of strangers and not feel ashamed; I can handle difficult situations with calm; I can lean on those who used to lean on me. But, most of all, I’m just glad that I’m still on this planet and can continue to embarrass my kids and, occasionally, make them feel proud of the journey we’ve been on together.

Tattoos after chemo

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

When I was a little girl I always associated Egypt with mummies. The back-from-the-dead-and-out-to-get-you bandaged variety that I saw in films. Based on the fact that only English actors could read the hieroglyphics and open the pharaohs’ tombs, I also felt a little superior, more sophisticated than this country of pyramid builders. Yet while we Britons were discovering that wood could be used for purposes other than burning, the ancient Egyptians invented the water clock to tell the time (because the sun dial was useless at night), a calendar that had precisely 365 days in a year and the blocks, tackles, tools and moving gear to help construct monuments that are still standing 6,000 years later. Of all their inventions the one I’m personally most grateful for is the tattoo.

Tattooing appeared to be an exclusively female practice, playing a therapeutic rather than cosmetic role. Found on the mummified remains of women, often on their stomachs and breasts, it’s been surmised that theses tattoos functioned as a permanent ‘good luck’ charm to help expectant mothers through pregnancy and childbirth.

Now, of course, tattoos are the preserve of men and women. Many of us have them and for a variety of reasons, but rarely therapeutic ones. However as ‘therapeutic’ is all about beneficial effect, then I’d argue that my recently acquired tattoos definitely are.

In 2004 I underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer and, like most women on my type of drugs, lost all my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, the lot. Everything grew back of course, although the eyebrows were a bit of a let down. In 2009, at my five-year check up, I found out that I had breast cancer again, so it was chemotherapy once more and, when the treatment finished earlier this year, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I started to look like me again. Well my hair and my eyelashes returned, but six months later my eyebrows still refused.

You don’t realise how important eyebrows are until they’re gone. They help to shape your face, give it warmth and allow you to show concern. Without them you can also look quite hard. I became quite expert at putting on my eyebrows everyday, and I’m guessing most people thought my eyebrows were actually mine, rather than carefully applied eye shadow. But, in hot weather, I’d often come home with one and a half eyebrows, and sometimes just half; it wasn’t a good look.

I already knew, from seeing music videos of Michael Jackson as well as some of the girls in the Big Brother house, that tattoos were used effectively as semi-permanent make up, and I decided this was now probably the only option open to me. But I didn’t want to look as though I’d been ‘done’, I wanted to look as natural as possible. Here’s what I did next:

1. Do the research
Like most people, I trust personal recommendation above everything, but what do you do if no one you know has had their eyebrows tattooed on? Yup, I had to resort to Google, but it was impossible to make an informed decision, so I called some beauty editors and asked their opinion. The result was unanimous and I was directed to a lady called Debra Robson-Lawrence.

2. Understand what’s involved
Once I’d contacted her office a technician phoned to have a pre-consultation consultation. This was a friendly, reassuring chat about the treatment and what could be achieved as well as to manage my expectations. Then a date was fixed to discuss my treatment plan with my chosen technician (Debra in my case) and have a ‘trial run’.

3. Decide on the ‘look’
I turned up at the Harley Street offices, wearing my usual make up as requested. Debra studied my eyebrows and suggested that a different shape might work better and could she show me. First she used a ruler to take measurements from both sides of each eye up to my brow line; then with an eyebrow pencil sharpened to within an inch of its life, she drew in each hair with light, deft strokes. After only a few minutes she asked me to look in the mirror and I was amazed. By creating a brow line slightly above my natural line she was able to achieve a more-awake, open look. We discussed where we might make changes, but in the end I couldn’t fault her design; we agreed a date for the tattoo.

4. Get tattooed
Two weeks later I was back in Harley Street having an anaesthetic cream applied to my eyebrow area. Debra double checked that I was still happy with the shape and colour, retook the measurements and began work. I’ve never had a tattoo and was expecting to feel some discomfort, but I hardly felt anything other than a little heat now and then. And it only took about 25 minutes max. I looked in the mirror and agreed where tweaks should be made. This was done and I was back on the tube heading home, but not before I’d taken out my mirror in the middle of Harley Street and had another long look. My eyebrows were darker than expected because the skin beneath the tattoo was red from the treatment, but I quite liked that, and the shape was perfect.

5. Perfect the effect
I always knew this was a two-stage process and the full effect of the tattoo wouldn’t be seen until after a second treatment. Some of the pigment used in the tattoo will flake away naturally with the top layer of skin and the overall look becomes softer and more natural. After a month a touch up session is needed to deepen the colour, if that’s what you want, and fill in any gaps.

How long the tattoo lasts depends on your skin type, but I have a colour boost to refresh mine every six months, but that’s all I need to do. Right now I don’t even need to touch them; they’re perfect.

Just like those Egyptian mummies my tattoos have been my good luck charm; they’ve given me more confidence and a feeling of well-being, which is a great pick-me-up after cancer. And, like their tattoos, no one knows I’ve got them – except you and me.

Can you REALLY hang on to your hair during chemotherapy?

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Well I’ve just had my sixth chemo session, which means, with the exception of 20 days of radiotherapy, it’s over.  I’ll have the usual few days of feeling rubbish, but I’m used to that, and I know the best way of dealing with it is by keeping busy.  What’s really bugging me at the moment is my hair.  I decided to use scalp cooling (more commonly known as the Cold Cap) to try and hang on to my locks.  It didn’t work, as I’ve lost about 70% of my hair, but I don’t believe it was a failure either.

If you’re about to have chemotherapy and you want to try the cold cap, here’s what you need to know:

  • However long your treatment takes, add another two and a half hours.  Why? Because the cold cap works by constricting the hair follicles while the treatment is taking place.  So for half an hour before the chemotherapy drugs are administered and for two hours afterwards, you have to wear that cap.
  • The ‘cap’ that you wear looks a little like a jockey’s hat and is plugged into a refrigeration system that maintains a constant temperature of minus 5.5 degrees.  When the cap is fitted snugly to your head, the freezing cold sensation that you experience is fairly intense, bordering on excruciating, but the good news is that after ten minutes you forget all about it.
  • After two and a half hours, don’t attempt to take the cold cap off because if you do you’ll pull out lots of your precious hair.  Ice has formed inside the cap and is frozen to your hair, so it’s vital the refrigeration machine is turned off, and you defrost for ten minutes.
  • How much hair you lose will also depend on what drugs you’ve been prescribed.  As my cancer was a grade three, I knew that hanging on to my hair would be difficult.  Initially, though, the fall out was fairly mild, but after the second and third chemo sessions, the hair was falling out rapidly, so I had to wear a turban to avoid shedding hair everywhere.
  • To try and keep what hair was there I was told not to touch my hair very often and to shampoo in cold water.  Well I could understand the cold water bit, it made sense to keep those follicles constricted, but if the hair was going to fall out, Id rather it fell out.  So, every morning and every evening I’d gently brush my hair over the loo bowl.  It was also a good way of gauging just how much hair was coming out.
  • What was very soon obvious was that my hairstyle was resembling Friar Tuck’s.  All the hair was disappearing from the top of my head, but staying around the edges.  Now while that was disappointing to have such an obvious and growing bald patch, it did mean when I wore a turban, my hair was visible at the front.  It looked like I had hair so that gave me the confidence to NOT wear my wig that often.  In fact I still wear my turban to work, the shops, meetings, networking events and I feel more comfortable, more ‘me’ and that’s a bonus.
  • Now my hair is growing back (steel grey fuzz is a better description), I am trying to see how the long wisps of hair surrounding it will work to my advantage.  I know from experience that when you’re bald after chemo, you need at least another seven or eight months before you have any real hair to style – and even then it’s really, really short.  This is still work in progress, so I’ll keep you posted.

How to keep your hair on despite the chemotherapy

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I was on my way to see my oncologist for my five-year check up this July.  This was a good trip:  chemo over, radiotherapy over, all mammograms clear… brilliant.  I was going to be signed off and get on with the rest of my life (not that I wasn’t already, but somehow that five-year timescale was important to me).

All I could think of was what a wonderful occasion it was, I didn’t even take anyone with me, why would I?

My oncologist, Dr Philip Murray, is quite simply brilliant.  He’s looked after me throughout it all, been straight with me, answered every difficult and daft question I’ve ever put to him but, most importantly, he feels about 50 pairs of boobs a week, and for that I am very grateful!  He felt something in my left breast, it was small, so small that I couldn’t feel it even when he showed me.  Dr Murray thought it was probably nothing, but it must be checked out.  The mammogram was clear, so I was starting to feel better, but when I had the ultra sound scan, even I could see this small  dark  pebble-like shape.  It looked remarkably similar to the previous pebble in my right breast five years ago, but at least I could feel that one.  “Could this be a cyst?”  I asked hopefully.  After the biopsy where a few samples of the tumour were removed for analysis, I was told that it didn’t look like a typical cyst.  I reckon everyone already knew that we were talking cancer here, but needed verification.

The hardest thing I then had to do was to tell my children, who had already been through this before, but were now more cancer aware: they knew that getting cancer again could be terminal.  We all had a good cry, and I remained as upbeat as I could when I explained that getting cancer in the other boob was most likely to be a new primary NOT a secondary, so very curable.  At the time, it was of small comfort.  A week later I was told that the cancer was definitely primary, a grade 3 just like the last one, but three times smaller.  Good, I thought, at least we’ve caught it early.  So, as the summer holiday was already booked, we all went, knowing what I was facing, and all feeling undaunted by it.

On return from holiday I had the operation to remove the tumour and lymph nodes.  What surprised me was that even though the tumour was only one centimetre wide, it had spread to two of my lymph nodes, and evidence of cancer in those nodes was macroscopic.  I’d never heard that word used in this way, but basically it meant a lot of cancer was in those nodes and it was visible to the human eye.  For me the shocking question that kept coming back was:  what if I’d only had a mammogram?  That was clear, so I could have waited another year for my next  routine mammogram, and hopefully the tumour would have shown up, but it would definitely have had another year to spread.  I’d already gone macrosc0pic!  For me the mammogram only goes so far, the combination of this, the ultra sound and an oncologist who absolutely knows what to feel for, would be more accurate, not to mention reassuring.

I’ve started chemotherapy, and I know what to expect, so am not concerned and nor are my children. I’ll have one week of feeling pants, followed by two weeks of feeling fine.  Believe it or not, I’m even running three times a week during those two ‘good’ weeks.  I am doing one thing differently though, I’m trying to see if I can hang on to my hair by using the cold cap.

Five years ago I was offered the cold cap (essentially it’s a method of scalp cooling, which makes the follicles constrict around the hair during chemotherapy), but no one I had spoken to said it worked, so I declined, and I was bald before I had my second chemotherapy session.  I’m having my second chemotherapy session tomorrow, on exactly the same drugs, administered at the same time of year, and I’ve got a full head of hair!  Yes, I am losing a few strands, but certainly not as much as my girls who use hair straighteners virtually daily.  I wear a shower cap or hairnet in the kitchen and we all take it in turns to vacuum the house daily.  (My kids have all eaten my hair in the cooking over the years, and know it won’t kill them, but I can’t stand seeing my hairs anywhere but on my head at the moment.)

In truth, being bald wasn’t all that awful; I had a great wig, your family and friends get used to the new you quite quickly, but it’s the six months or so after treatment, when you’re waiting for the hair to grow back, that’s a pain.  It’s a bit like ‘a watched pot never boils’ your hair just seems so very short, for a very long time.  So I wanted to see if I could avoid that ‘wait’, and emerge from treatment looking like the old me.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress after session two.