Saturday, 26 May 2012

"I've got balance!"

What beautiful weather we've been having this week! I went to Castle Beach yesterday with my children after school and we scoffed strawberries so fast there was no time for the sand to ruin them. Lola and I went for a walk across the rockpools while Daisy clambered further up the beach with her friends. After a few minutes pointing out the red enemies (or anemones, as you wish), Lola stretched her arms out like a gymnast. "Look mum," she said, "I've got balance and I'm not going to fall over. Watch!" She hopped over the green and black seaweed-covered rocks, stopping every now and then to repeat "look at my balance!"

Though I was partly watching through my hands, hating the idea of her falling, I realised I was following her with no fear for myself at all. It was quite a contrast from the way I'd felt about those rocks two years ago, when I was recovering from my mastectomy and reconstruction. We'd gone rockpooling, and it was my husband who followed the children skipping over the rocks. I was so petrified that I stood well back on the firm sand and watched, wringing my hands. I was afraid I would deepen the slow-healing wound on my back and ravage the webbed, puckered scar in the front.

Everything I did (or didn't do) revolved around fear at that time. I couldn't bring myself to step among the rock pools, and neither could I pick up my children, carry the shopping, or bend over the bath and wash my own hair. I couldn't trust in my balance at all. I'd spent months dealing with surgical wounds and scars that wouldn't bloody heal. I was petrified that my body would split open again if I so much as looked at a rock. Now, I realise, I've reached a point where I've healed, my body is whole again, and I'm only as frail as anybody else out on the rocks. There is no extreme wound to pinpoint or analyse or worry about. If I slip, so what? Like Lola says. I've got balance, and I'm not going to fall over. So there.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Embarrassing Bodies: "tits out for the nation"

Last night, Channel 4 screened the first episode of their new series, Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic. A few hours beforehand, a group of women from Cornwall, Mermaid Centre patients past and present, had been tweeting about their journey to Birmingham, where they were going to take part in the show: "we're off to get our tits out for the nation!", "on minibus drinking champagne", "in the green room - no turning back now!" The programme began, and after a brief interlude involving hernias, bums and penises on Skype — the programme invited viewers to call in with their health problems — suddenly there they were. The Mermaids got their breasts out for the nation to show how to look for signs of breast cancer. Viewers at home were invited to follow along, and several were on Skype, interacting with the studio as they looked for unusual lumps, bumps, puckering and creases.

The Mermaids have all been part of a calendar project to raise awareness and funds for a Cornish charity, Made for Life, which supports women with breast cancer, and were quite used to being photographed. But it takes a lot of guts to get your kit off on television in front of millions of strangers. Many of them had already been through surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy; one Mermaid was still in the middle of her chemo. They paid tribute to our friend Malina, who died at only 32 in March; her calendar image flashed up on screen: she's enveloping her three-year old son with her whole body, and even in black and white she looks impossibly radiant. 

Back in the studio, the Mermaids' scars were apparent: I could see the bilateral mastectomy with soaring, arc-shaped scars; origami nipples, cleverly constructed out of skin from the back; perfectly colour-matched areola tattoos. Despite the evidence of all they've been through and all that they've seen, they still have hope. All of us felt very proud of our friends who stood up for something they believe in: they did it because if they manage to get just one person to find a lump early, they may well save a life.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Voice

I'm not going to be talking about Jessie J, Tom Jones or swivelling chairs in this post (there might be a picture though). I've just started to record the voiceover script for the documentary about me and my book on breast cancer surgery, Mermaids and Monsters.

Filming and voice-recording are so different from writing about one's experience. When I write, it's just me having a conversation with myself and I'm very comfortable with that. I don't mind sharing the fruits of that conversation with all the world, on this blog or in my book. I'll tell you anything. But speaking those inner thoughts out loud and talking into the microphone raises the stakes substantially. So does the idea of putting this film on YouTube. It's not nearly as private a process, and as I listen to myself I cringe. South London sloppiness! I'm the female Jonathan Woss! There can't be many people who like the sound of their own voice. It also feels weird because I'm reading the director James's words, and even though his voiceover script is based on things I've said or written, the words don't feel like they belong to me.

Doing the voiceover doesn't come easy, and as I play the recording of part one back I can think of all sorts of changes I would like to make. But that's James's job, so I dutifully read his script the way he wants it, and then I read the script my way so I don't feel like I'm being told what to say. That feels better. I relax even further when I remember how multi-dimensional the film is and how many other voices are involved. Historians, archivists, my surgeon, the breast care nurse, other patients past and present are all an integral part of the final cut. I feel a surge of relief and confidence, and I swing around on my chair, Jessie J style in my leopard print dressing gown, ready to record part two.

Jessie J. 
My dressing gown.