Friday, 4 January 2008

Hair and other losses

My hair came out after the second dose of FEC. I don’t know which of the three drugs was responsible for my baldness, or whether all three were equally responsible. I favour cyclophosphomide because it sounds like a poison, a weed-killer, perhaps; whereas of the other two, fluoricil could be a tooth-whitener, and epirubicin a jewel-red fruit squash that turns pee pink for a day. But they are all universally toxic to cells (like the sun which shines on good and evil alike); and epirubicin especially, when combined with trastuzamab (Herceptin) is toxic to the heart.
‘If you do arrest,’ Thea told me cheerfully, ‘we can always resussitate you.’
And if I arrested, what would happen to my daughter then? She was staying with my mother in the north while I embarked upon the nasty chemo regimen. I was unsure of how it would affect me, and consequently, my ability to care for my child while I recovered from each dose of poisoning. So I let her go, when my mother put it to me as the only option, without thinking too much about what it would mean to lose my little girl, because thinking about it too much would have made it quite impossible for me to wave her off at the station and go home to an empty house, bereft for the first time in ten years of my only child’s presence, her sweetness and her light. When I waved her off, I still had hair, auburn hair, down to my shoulders, although it badly wanted cutting. I had battled with Cara about it throughout our holiday in Budapest. She wanted me to let it grow.
The breast nurse, Janet, had told me about the cold cap, a ridiculous-looking blue helmet that is meant to minimise the risk of hair-loss through chemotherapy. It maximises the treatment time, however, because it needs to be worn for a bit before the drugs are infused, during the infusion, and, I think, for a short time afterwards. My objective was to spend as little time at the hospital as was possible in order to spend as much time as was left to me with my daughter. My hair was a small price to pay for this precious commodity of time, newly precious to me because I had wasted so much of it. Cara, I hoped, would understand.
‘And anyway, it grows back in six months,’ Thea said, ever cheerful, ever sure. ‘The wig lady’s here today. You can get a wig on the NHS. Why don’t I introduce you?’
On the advice of the wig lady, who clearly knew about these things, I went for a pre-chemo crop at an expensive salon with a chair that massaged my back while my hair was being washed and my head massaged. This was the only visit I have ever made to a hairdressers’ when I didn’t feel intimidated by the experience, made all the more enjoyable because the stylist was the first person I had chatted with in over two weeks who did not know I had cancer. A haircut usually lasts me about six weeks, although I figured that, this time, instead of the hair growing out of its style, it would probably fall out altogether, something I neglected to tell the stylist as I tipped her. My next cut was waiting in a box at home: a Raquel Welch ‘pixie’ wig, with a steel brush to groom it and its own special shampoo and conditioning bottles. I hoped it would make Cara laugh, because seeing her cry again, as she cried when she learnt of my diagnosis, throwing herself down on the hardwood living room floor and howling with an existential despair, while my mother went to phone a friend in the other room, and I stood there helplessly, was more than I could bear. That my daughter should come to know despair at the age of ten, because of me, caused me far more pain and grief than the disease itself. How I would get through this, I didn’t know. But I knew that I would get through it. I have breast cancer, I said to myself, as I opened my eyes the morning after diagnosis, knowing that it was going to be like this every morning now, for the rest of my life, ever walking beside me. I have breast cancer, but I will get through it. It was like a mantra.

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