Telegraph health Sept 13 Jane Kelly
[This needs a standfirst billing it as a follow up piece to an article we ran earlier this year on Jane’s experience as an NHS cancer patient. Here she looks at some surprising effects of treatment].
Getting cancer is a terrible shock for anyone. When Jane Kelly was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer last May and began chemotherapy she expected to look and feel dreadful for the best part of a year. Unexpectedly, things didn’t turn out quite like that.
“You do look well and much better than you used to,” an elderly lady said this to me recently. She was being kind like the other people who keep saying this sort of thing. They know that four months ago I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage four, and am now in the middle of six sessions of chemotherapy, enduring fatigue, mouth ulcers, weight gain, nausea, aching joints and sleeplessness.
Aged 54, I have long since learned not to expect my face to win me any favours – but now most unexpectedly, I look years younger.
During my illness and treatment, I have changed into the kind of woman I never was: lilac turban, perfect maquillage, and discreet jewellery. To my shock and awe I look increasingly like Joan Collins; there she is in the mirror smirking back at me, all luscious cherry lips and arched brows.
Chemo makes most people bald and in June after two sessions my dark, shoulder length hair began its journey into the shower tray. I was warned this would be distressing, and it was. Stepping out of the shower after the second chemo, I saw clods of hair around the plug hole, lying there like a drowned mouse. I felt breathless with shock and stood in front of the mirror panting, as if I had just run up the street naked, like in a bad dream, but this was real, and I wept.
My hair fell out in patches starting from the crown, so I looked like a monk. At the Maggie’s cancer support centre at
Maggie’s centres and Macmillan support nurses steer women towards workshops on hair loss, make up and wigs. I wasn’t very interested in attending these but felt grateful when I heard that I was entitled to a free wig on the NHS.
My referral papers got lost at the hospital and after waiting over a month I was sent to a gloomy specialist wig makers near Paddington. I was attended by an elderly woman who looked like an assistant to Sweeney Todd. Her face was immobile under its make-up, her own yellow hair like a farm girl in a musical. She didn’t look at me, or show any sign of interest as she plonked down a large black wig.
For some reason she didn’t let me see any of the wigs in stock or choose from them myself. With a sinking heart I put on the one she selected and from what I could espy from under it, it was suitable for a 1960s fancy-dress party. Where were all those short, chic things I’d seen in the catalogues?
“You want it flicky do you?” she said, when I asked for something short, returning with a different bush of black acrylic that seemed to have been chewed. “It’s a bit rough at the back,” I said. “That’s because it’s flicky,” she said.
I felt like a nuisance so I shoved it on and left hastily, but outside I felt deflated. In my reflection in the shop windows I seemed to be leaning forwards under a bear skin, and it felt as if it was about to lift off, like an over tight egg cosy.
I decided to do visit a salon in Kensington to try and sort myself out.
Happily it was quiet so I could hide my balding pate from curious eyes. I asked a lad called Josh to trim the wig so I could see from under it, and remove the rest of my hair, which was patchy, thin and hanging down in wisps.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said snipping nervously at the thick acrylic fibres. Then he gently applied an electric razor to my head. We both stared as my white skull appeared, and it looked good! My head had a surprisingly good shape, my ears small and neat.
I looked strangely young and left the salon feeling pleased that going bald had not turned me into a monster at all. I rather cowardly put the wig on to meet a friend for lunch. A waitress glanced at me sympathetically, the way you do at any woman forced to wear a Busby, as you know she must be odd, bald, or Joan Collins.
During lunch I felt it slip sideways, so I placed it on my knee like a lap-dog, where it gradually filled up with stray frites and crumbs. I went home in my head-scarf. The wig is still in its box and the cat can have it for Christmas. My shaved head feels like velvet, I like the way water runs over it in the shower, and I am particularly happy not having to worry about my hair anymore.
I started going out in pretty scarves donated by my mother and friends, then a private medical supplier who had read my blog about my hair falling out, sent a very pretty range of head-gear, including a lilac turban; this was the Joan Collins secret. As she herself recently put it:
Maybe she’s as bald as a badger underneath hers too, we haven’t seen her real hair for years, but turbans work for her and for me. It looked beautiful, if rather stark and benefiting from the use of make-up and jewellery.
With a layer of foundation, eye and lip pencil, lipstick and sparkly earrings, I was transformed: here was Joaney, or at least one of those well kept ladies who look like her.
In a cab the other day I saw a road sign saying “Labouring men.”
“Do men still labour?” I asked the driver vaguely, as if I had just landed by jet from a life in
It was after that that I really noticed there was something different about my face. Looking at photos taken at a birthday party in August, my skin looked taut and smooth, like a teenager, albeit a Mekon. I put this down to a very good diet, as I am trying to eat myself well. I didn’t twig that my face had not changed because of all the spinach I am eating, or because of the turban and slap. I realised the uncomfortable truth last week, while talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for months.
“You look great!” She said to me. “Really well.” But she added, “You don’t look wrinkled or haggard at all.” Meaning, “Like you used to.” At that moment I finally realised that a poisonous cocktail of chemicals worthy of Dr Frankenstein has turned me into La Belle Collins.
We were warned that the steroids we have to take to prevent any allergic reaction to the chemo can create a puffy “moon face.” They make a lot of people put on weight but in my case they have put just enough fat back under my skin to restore my long vanished youthful bloom. Four sessions of chemo have given me a free face - lift, and de-bagged my eyes.
Looking like a Collins clone is not so bad, after all she is the ultimate triumph of survival over cruel nature. Friends seem delighted with my new look, partly because they are glad to see that I am not at death’s door, but also it signals that the chemo which everyone fears so much, is tolerable and you can look well on it - in fact too well.
I will have this dewy skin until the treatment ends in October, but what then? Cancer is full of uncertainty, but I am pretty sure I will soon shrivel back to being the old me again, better from the back than the front – it’s cruel, it’s heartbreaking!