Coming To Terms with Chemo

Every cloud has a silver lining, and this is a story of a couple of very silvery linings indeed.

The whole Cancer thing was definitely a complete facer when it came to light back in early winter 2014, and coming to terms with it all is a journey that takes a lot longer than one might think. You just feel as though you have a handle on your emotions, and then wham! a side swipe of full on fear and misery overtakes you.

Some people can turn immediately to their creative hobbies to help them cope, others either don’t have that side to their lives (presumably not you lot because you are reading this!), or the creative drive deserts them completely and seems impossible to catch a hold of.  I am in the latter camp, and it has taken me nearly three months to be able to find a way back into my studio to do anything creative at all.  When I did finally get in here and feel a need to do something, I was still not able to get back to my familiar mediums, so I turned to words and paint.

My stash of materials extends to a good collection of sketch books, but I was still not ready for them. However, an old cruise catalogue that I had (unused of course), held the promise of thick glossy paper and a completely un-intimidating appeal.  It would not matter what I put in here. A slosh of gesso or emulsion and the images of perfect people in expensive clothes looking at sunsets in tropical places disappeared, and what I was left with was some wonderful messy textured pages ready to receive anything that could be thrown at them. No blank page anxiety, it really didn’t matter one iota what went on the pages, just as long as it helped me to get some of the thoughts and feelings that were swirling away inside, out of my head in a very visible way.  Talking helps, but sometimes this is even better.

Working on a few pages at once, I decided to write down my positive thoughts on one page, my negative thoughts on another, and finally my anger and fear on a third. I was not expecting that third page, but it just came along of its own free will!

What emerged over a number of days I am sharing with you. Not because this in any sense has artistic merit, but just because it might help someone else take a similar approach and get those rotten mixed up, fearful feelings out.  Each time you do this, it removes a bit more from inside and makes things easier to deal with.

Underneath all the many layers of paint is a page full of positive thoughts and wishes in thick black permanent pen scribbled all over. Washes of paint followed with absolutely no real thought of any image, just trying to use colours that reflected the words.  The result was a sunset, not because I think this is in any way the end of things, because it isn’t. I just find sunsets something  lovely to look at (the real thing, not this one!), and gives me good thoughts about the next day.

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Negative thoughts and worries were scribbled here, but they were quickly joined by discoveries of positive things too, in fact, this turned out to be my silver linings page.  The colours again came from the feelings, and the flowers just emerged from the darkness.20150222_163320 - CopyThe page that surprised me most was the fear and anger page.  It started out just as fear, but I found myself using angry words too.  Not anger at the injustice of having cancer (other people have so much more to deal with than me), but anger at the effects on my cosy comfortable life and how this has messed up all my plans and my expectations – anger at being so frustrated by the fatigue and the inability to plan for things and do what I enjoy doing. The fear of the side effects and the hair loss, and the fear of what my friends and family have to cope with because I know they love me and are concerned for me.

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I won’t be sharing much more of this stuff with you I expect, as it is really just about helping myself, but on this occasion, I am hoping it might help someone else to find a way of constructively expressing their feelings about whatever they are going through.  The journey is personal, and the images are not art, they are therapy.

Hair loss on the other hand is a very public affair.  Mine started just over a week ago with large tufts coming out leaving me with really thin patches which looked very odd.  It then began to come out all over my head, thinning it down to such an extent that it was tricky to make what was left look half way decent.  As I knew this was going to happen, it was not alarming, just odd.  My appearance is important to me but it is not beginning and the end of my day.

Clumps-coming-out - CopyOver the next few days the tenderness and discomfort grew until I became desperate to not have hair!  The hairy detritus left on my pillow and around the house was a pain, so I asked my husband to chop it off.  We had the choice of his beard trimmers, a pair of small sharp scissors or the dog grooming shears! I opted for the scissors.  Not the neatest of jobs, but it did mean that the hair that came out was much shorter and clogs up the vacuum cleaner much less.  Anyway, he was in a rush to get to work, and I quite liked the ping pong ball with mange look20150224_085609
A day later and even more had had come out.

Hair-Mange Now the silver lining began to take shape. I dug out all my enormous stash of scarves and began some creative tying.  Having bought some cotton chemo caps and hijab bonnets to wear close to my head, I had a plethora of colour choices, but not much scarf tying experience. Hey ho, I am always up for learning a new skill. And even better, I got to use more than one scarf at a time!IMG-20150224-WA0004 Then, joy of joys, my lovely hairdresser Claire Parr of Steeles Hairdressing came all the way to my house to shave off the offending mange. Immediately the tenderness disappeared and the look immediately became a lot less scruffy.  She also trimmed and styled my wig for me so when I need to look in the mirror and see myself, or want to be seen just as me by other people and not a cancer patient, then I can.Shave-frontAs Claire was sorting out my bonce, my very good friend Erica Thomson came over with her overlocker, loads of fabric and yarn and an urge to play!  We spent the afternoon designing and making funky head gear.  Below is our first attempt using three different fabrics and lots of yarn in the overlocker.  It took us 4 hours to work out the design and construction of the hat having got inspiration from something I had seen on Etsy.  We ran with the idea and took it our own way, making it up as we went along.   I love, love, love the colours.Orange and black hat

A quick change of fabric and a few more cups of tea and we were on to the next one. This took us less than half the time, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the results.  I wore it last night to a posh dinner.  I was not sure I would feel up to going after having chemo in the afternoon, but I was ok, and it was fun to really put on some colour and stand out in a sea of black dresses and suits.  A vibrant turquoise scarf slung back to front over my shoulders made it all look very stylish.  If I was going to stand out from the crowd, then it needed to be done in style!Turquoise-hatThese hats are a massive silver lining for me.  If it had not been for the whole hair loss thing, then I would never have dreamed of wearing anything like this.  Hats are not usually my thing at all, I find it really hard to find anything that suits my round head; they tend to wear me rather than the other way around.  And you all know I love colour, so this is just the very best opportunity to put that colour on my head and feel fantastic about it.

There is another bonus as well – whenever I get the frequent Tropical Moments (made worse by the chemo annoyingly), I just have to quickly lift the hat off and the bare bonce cools down really fast.  They are soft inside and so easy to wear.  They are a talking point and they help me to show a positive face instead of the more depressing chemo cap that does nothing for my spherical head.

A HUGE thank you to Erica for helping me do this. I would not have done it without you as my creative ability is sadly impaired at the moment as we have already discussed.  But now I have two fabulous hats that no one else in the world has, one of which has a lovely pattern of hippopotamuses (hippopatami?) running just below the brim.  Both have a fancy overlocked pattern on the top and both feel totally fantastic to wear.  But you can tell that by my face I expect.