Red lipstick, a wig and glamorous nail polish got me through breast cancer at 31
Sophie Beresiner on how keeping up appearances helped her to cope with the shock of chemotherapy
Published 23/08/2011 | 05:00
Beauty is my business, so to be peering at my post-chemotherapy, naked eyelids in the mirror every morning, willing on the reappearance of my loved and lost lashes, is a world away from my ordinary life.
This is what I now know; no amount of mascara can help when thinning lashes turn into no lashes, but a simple imprint of the brush can cheat them from afar.
Even nails do not go unscathed where chemo is concerned -- it attacks all fast-growing cells -- but dark polish is a good camouflage.
And my knowledge of rehydrating parched skin is second only to a Harley Street dermatologist.
In December last year I had breast cancer diagnosed. This followed a four-week period of initial referral by my GP (no inkling of anything scary), ultrasound at hospital (still fearless), then results one week later with a consultant surgeon (nah, couldn't happen to me).
The fact that it did was such shocking news for a 31-year-old that my GP called to tell me how shocked she was -- her diagnosis of a cyst was a far more likely scenario, considering my age, my lack of family history and the size and symptoms of the tumour.
It was so shocking, in fact, that my memory of being told is terrifying but somewhat hazy. My boyfriend and I had taken the day off work and planned lunch afterwards. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Instead, December 6 became the first and hardest of my cancer milestones.
Part of that day was taken up in a quiet room at the hospital, being consoled by a rushed nurse. "The next few months will be a rollercoaster ride, with extreme highs and lows." Highs? There can be only lows, I thought.
If I think about what still haunts me today, it is telling my mum and dad. We have always been a close family, comprising a still-happily married set of parents, my sister Amy, and me.
I feel funny if I don't speak to my parents at least every other day, so it was unsurprising that my first thought was: "I need them". My boyfriend Raja went to make the call -- I don't think I could have got the words out. While I'm glad that he broke the news, I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what it must have been like for them.
They were, outwardly at least, calm and composed. At the hospital within the hour, they have continued to make me feel better at every low.
During a period of tests to establish what stage I was at, I was consumed with worry about the possibility of losing my hair. This could have been an effort to blank out the scarier stuff, or it could be because I am a beauty editor and a woman who was always all about the hair. If you were to describe me, it would always start with "long, dark hair". I had just fully mastered curling tongs and then, bam! I'm losing it. This is not something I had ever contemplated, except when wondering how Gail Porter copes now that her hair is falling out a second time.
One evening, soon after my first cycle of chemotherapy, I tugged out a worryingly large handful of strands. Cue immediate meltdown. I somehow didn't believe that I would be so textbook as to suffer the predicted side-effects, so although I should have been prepared, I was beside myself.
There followed a lengthy discussion with boyfriend and Google on what to do next. It turned out that Google was not so helpful, but my boyfriend was. He shaved my hair off, cuddled me and told me that I looked beautiful; I avoided mirrors for the next 24 hours or so.
He cleverly developed some endearing, topically relevant pet names that I should have taken offence to -- Garry Baldy and Mr Magoo taking particular precedence -- but, when delivered right, had me laughing when all the signs pointed to melancholy.
This is a common and important thread throughout my cancer experience, and highly recommended to keep you peppy. My wondrous and comedic partner has been more effective than chemotherapy, which I can say in all truthfulness because the ineffectiveness of the drugs led to another low: a full mastectomy.
In the end my tumour-to-tit ratio was such that a lumpectomy wasn't an option. I'll be honest, as a beauty editor and young woman (in cancer terms at least, 31 is young), how I look is of significant importance to me. Once I stopped feeling guilty that I was consumed with worry about being bald, I realised that, of course, I would worry. I am a woman; the effect on my looks is a tangible aspect of a runaway disease that I have zero control over.
I was constantly aware of this terrorist in my left boob, but with everything happening so fast the only handle I had on what was going on in my body was the physical change in my appearance. And the baldness was only the beginning. I eventually conquered that with the help of my hairstylist and dear friend Claire with her social-life-saving advice on wigs.
Basically, the less feature-defining facial hair I had, the lighter the wig. What the movies don't focus on is disappearing eyelashes -- a screamingly obvious cancer beacon and more difficult to cheat than a wig -- yellow-tinged skin or ridged and dying fingernails.
I learnt from scratch that dark nail colours are the best camouflage, wearing bright red lipstick (Rouge Dior in Red Premier) is happymaking, and there is nothing doing for yellow skin other than a colour-processing app, so photographic evidence will forever be altered in history. A life, body and wardrobe-altering mastectomy, however, was the cherry on the cake. Or off it, as it were.
I am a natural optimist. But during the eight months of treatment so far I had a series of disappointments that rewired my brain to become rather more pessimistic. These ranged from "It's a cyst; no, it's fibroadenoma; no, its unquestionably cancer", to "It hasn't spread, we'll just triple-check that it hasn't spread; Oh, wait, yes, it has spread".
The acceptance of the surgery came in the five weeks between chemo finishing and breast going. I spent it in a purgatory where nothing was happening.
I wasn't being treated, had an overactive imagination and a very large dose of anxiety. This being a commonly acknowledged occurrence in this in-between stage, I kept away from the internet, hospital literature, well-meaning friends with friends-of-friends stories, and spent my time failing to imagine what life would be like with one boob.
When it came to it, I was surprisingly okay. This was, in part, down to my distracting and loving hospital entourage of parents, boyfriend and best friend Katie, in part the morphine, and in part the betterness of reality over anticipation. If anything this experience has taught me more about the strength in other people than in me.
It was these people who breathed the biggest and most heartfelt sigh of relief when I received the news that the cancer was gone, it hadn't spread farther than two measly lymph nodes, and I could finally look forward to the future -- a cancer-free gift of epic proportions.
Their collective happiness made me realise that by loving association they had been as affected by my illness as I had, so I'm as proud of them as I am of me, which is a lot. That particular news preceded the purest happiness I have ever felt, which, I have to hand it to the cancer, I wouldn't have experienced had I not started leading a life less ordinary.
The pure excitement at watching the progress of my 2cm-long hair and tentative appearance of frizzy eyelashes is almost worth losing them for. My recovery will be apparent in my appearance, just as my illness was, and I'm hugely looking forward to the day when I can go to the office resplendent in pixie crop and mascara rather than a brown wig and false eyelashes.
Oh, and superficial doesn't even come into it. At a time when huge importance is placed on keeping a positive attitude, the confidence-crushing effect that cancer can have on appearance is definitely not something to be glossed over.
Lip-glossed over, maybe . . .
Sophie Beresiner is the beauty editor at 'Look' magazine