The C Word

I have cancer. There, I said it.

Stage 2B cervical cancer, in fact. I had my first radiotherapy session last week and I feel like I’ve had the stuffing knocked out of me, but nothing compares to the feeling of guilt I’ve experienced when telling people. I’m afraid of eliciting pity, or worse, tears. I’m young. I’m strong. I’m otherwise healthy. But I put off having a smear test for years, thinking “it’ll never happen to me.” I can tell you now, a few minutes of discomfort down at the GP surgery is a picnic compared to having radioactive waves directed through your pelvis. Or being told you may never be able to have children.

I’ve spoken to several people about the diagnosis since I received it a few weeks ago. Reactions have ranged from shocked to sympathetic, supportive but confused. I’ve encouraged people to ask questions, but there’s still a definite air of nervousness around me, like I’m an invalid that needs to be tiptoed around. So here’s a few myths to bust that I’ve already come across in just a couple of weeks of being A Cancer Sufferer:

  • “But you’re too young to get cancer” (cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35; the last decade has seen an increase in rates amongst younger women)
  • “You’ve had no symptoms” (high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection – the cause of my cancer – is linked to almost 100% of cervical cancer cases, but often shows no symptoms until picked up in standard screening)
  • “Could this be because you used to smoke?” (Possibly – an estimated 7% of cervical cancer cases in the UK are linked to smoking, but mine has been caused by HPV. Either way, it was a stupid habit and I should never have started)

[Statistics courtesy of Cancer Research UK]

So there you are. All laid out.

But what if you don’t fit the mould of the Patient Cancer Patient? I’ve known people who have experienced cancer, those who have survived and those who haven’t. All of them, good, decent people, who made and continue to make an enormously positive impact in the lives of those around them.

But what if you feel like you actually deserve this? That, if anyone was going to get it, it should be you, because of the stress you’ve caused others? It’s just the latest in a long line of really crap, life-altering events that have happened over the last few months, for which I can’t help but feel entirely at fault. I feel like the Universe is trying to tell me something: “Stop fighting.” And I’ve had enough.

I’ve had enough of giving in. I’ve made mistakes in my life, for which I’m trying to make amends. But, for the first time in years, now I actually want to fight. I want to keep going. I want a nice, quiet, boring life, but to do that I have to get through the drama.

So here goes. Wish me luck. And for god’s sake, get your smear test.

 

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How beauty got me through divorce and depression: Why make-up is sometimes the best tonic

A good friend recently said to me that I look better now than at any point in the decade she’s known me. This is despite the fact that in the last few months I have:

  • Left my marriage of less than a year
  • Experienced one of the longest and most severe bouts of depression I’ve known
  • Waded through an enormous workload and navigated a tricky step up in my career

Yet, apparently, I look great. How does that work?

(Not actually my dressing table, but I'm still living in hope)

(Not actually my dressing table, but I’m still living in hope)

The thing is, when I get low, I doll up. I put on make-up. I do my hair. I talk to friends. I do yoga, or go for a walk. This is the complete opposite of how I would deal with stress or depression less than a year ago.

I used to hide under the duvet. Overeat. Lash out at anyone who would try to shake me out of my stupor (one of the reasons behind the aforementioned short-lived marriage).

Then I started experimenting with eyeshadow, lipstick, perfume. Hard-living, tough birds like Liz Taylor and Vivienne Leigh became my icons. Even though it didn’t cure how I felt inside, making myself look more like the ‘real me’ – that is, the person I wanted to be, sans the imperfections, the stress, the mental health issues – woke me up. I finally realised why it was called warpaint. I was going into battle with my own demons. Only this time, I had donned bloody gorgeous armour.

Elizabeth Taylor

By investing more in my appearance, I was telling myself that I was worth something. It may sound shallow to some, perhaps even contradictory coming from a committed feminist who maintains that women are held to impossibly high standards of beauty. But I believe that an interest in make-up, hair and perfume is not at all at odds with politics, art, music or any of the other more ‘serious’ pursuits, as deemed by the gender mores to which we are sadly still subject.

Taking an interest in myself is exactly that: I’m using all the tools in my arsenal to get well, to move forward, to be the ‘real me.’

(Special thanks to Babyliss Hot Rollers, Clarins Everlasting Foundation, Sleek iDivine Eyeshadow Palette and Rimmel’s excellent collection of red lipsticks for helping the author look like a bad-ass boss bitch during some spectacularly shitty moments over the last few months.)

Falling in love with London again

I’m writing this from the front seat of a double decker bus, lurching away from the City towards Brixton, where I have found the perfect little room to lay my head whilst I await my wife’s return from Brazil.

Earlier today, I spent my lunch break in Embankment Gardens, reading and enjoying the warmth of the sunshine against the back of my neck.

It’s raining now, but it’s that peculiar early summer rain, with a couple of persistent sunbeams continuing to glint off the tallest buildings, creating a beautiful golden glow through the drizzle.

I am in London, but I’m happy.

Several months ago, we moved to Kent to save money and to start planning our country wedding. We soon fell in love with the gently rolling hills, clean air and sense of community. We never wanted to return to London, but soon realised that work would bring us back here.

At first I was utterly miserable at the thought of returning to the city, a place I associated with the dark and lonely years I spent following university. But now I’m here, it feels different. Lighter. More optimistic. Maybe it’s because my wife is returning home, maybe it’s because my life is far brighter now than it ever has been, but I’m starting to fall in love with London again. I can see it’s beauty now, amidst all the traffic and crowds and costs, and it’s quite something.

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Guest Post for Found on the Underground: Embankment

The following is a guest post a wrote for the rather brilliant Found on the Underground. Huge thanks to Sarah Karacs for giving me the opportunity to write this.

Selling Point

Not only is the tube stop a major transport hub of central London, it is – more famously – something of a magnet for lost Spanish school groups. Stepping out of the tube carriage onto the platform, you’ll be met by the cheery newsagent as he guards his treasure trove of sweets and fags. Like a Zone 1 Smaug, he caresses the Crunchies lovingly with his eyes, darting suspicious glances at anyone who even dares to browse through his Precious Things.

Making your way up the slightly-too-narrow stairs and into the main hall of the station, you’ll notice that inspirational quotes have been lovingly written out onto a standard-issue TFL notice board, presumably to give a glimmer of hope to the otherwise miserable commuters filing past every morning.

As you leave the station, you’ll come across the best florist in London, run by the happiest Cockney woman you’ll ever meet. She sells beautiful bouquets, roses and pot plants – perfect if you’re looking for something to liven up your desk or if you have inadvertently insulted your spouse’s cooking and need an emergency token of apology.

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Fuel Up

Head up Villiers Street and you’ll find an array of options for the hungry carnivore; Herman ze German offers the best sausages this side of Duesseldorf, with perfectly crunchy, oil-free baked fries and just the right amount of spicy currywurst. A couple of doors down isLupita, a good spot for a sit-down burrito or tasty Mexican salad.

If you can cope with the crowds of the Strand, wander on down to the Port House, a hidden gem for candlelit tapas and wine, and the speediest and friendliest service in the area.

In a rush? Avoid the usual chain stores – Pret, Itsu, Eat, of which there are dozens – and instead grab a salad or soup from Korean street food-inspired Kimchi, which also offers bench-style seating to catch up with friends over plum tea.

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Broaden Your Mind

Got an hour to kill? Check out the RSA on John Adam Street for free lunchtime and evening lectures on a variety of topics, from the rise of alcohol-related crime to the history of cultural values in Maoist China.

The National Gallery is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Trafalgar Square, providing ample opportunity for art-lovers to admire the Holbein’s and Van Dykes. When in need of a coffee break, visit the National Café or Espresso Bar for a pit stop.

Alternatively, cross Hungerford Bridge to the South Bank and visit the South Bank Centre, which often has outdoor exhibitions and events, especially in the summer months. Bookworms should pop into Foyles underneath the Royal Festival Hall for a browse, especially if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten track guidebook or history of London (Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London: A Biography’ is a particular favourite).

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Cut a Rug

Now to the fun bit: partying. One of the best but often overlooked hang-outs in the area isRetro Bar – one of the oldest gay bars in London. Cheap and cheerful with a mixed, laid-back crowd, it’s a great place to kick off a night out.

For those you hankering for a spot of Mother’s Ruin, head over to Gordon’s Wine Bar on Villiers Street or the Princess of Wales next door. Great gin and tonics, as long as you don’t mind the crowds elbowing their way to the bar. If it’s a sunny day and you can nab a space outside, it’s definitely worth it.

Depending on your persuasion, you may decide to pay a visit to Heaven to show off your moves and maybe catch the eye of that lucky someone. Be warned, their foam parties can be lethal – this author almost drowned in six feet of chemical fluff and had to be rescued by a glamorous drag queen in 10 inch heels. It was awesome.

Once you’re all partied out, run down to Trafalgar Square, dip you toes into the fountain, clamber atop the lions and breathe in the night air. Watch the night buses speed by, the hen nights stagger past and remember – this city is yours. Enjoy it.

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Enjoying our honeymoon on the beach with Dusty Dog

Eating Better, or How I’m Trying to Avoid Being a Smug Killjoy

Enjoying our honeymoon on the beach with Dusty Dog

Enjoying our honeymoon on the beach with Dusty Dog

Here we are, at the end of March 2014. It’s been an eventful month; my partner’s 35th, followed by our wedding the day after, a perfect honeymoon in Margate (we stayed here, and would highly recommend it for anyone looking for a seaside getaway), my birthday, the arrival of equal marriage and a beautiful Mother’s Day with my wonderful Mum. But this has been only the latest chapter in the life-affirming, perception-shifting, mental overhaul that has marked the last six months.

So what’s changed? Really, everything and nothing. I’m still the same person, living in the same place, going to the same job everyday. But my outlook has changed dramatically. Last September, Wifey and I moved to Hastingleigh, Kent, to support my Mum after a period of illness over the summer and to start saving towards the life we want. At first, the move was a bit of a shock. After living in London for several years, living miles away from the nearest train station, bus stop or corner shop seemed so alien. It didn’t help that within weeks of our move, huge storms swept across the South East, uprooting trees and cutting out power. On top of that, a 3+ hour commute each day seemed overwhelming. I allowed myself to become submerged in stress, getting into arguments with my partner, struggling to concentrate at work and feeling utterly, completely exhausted.

My outlook had to change. I started reading for pleasure again, something I hadn’t had time to do for months. I devoured novels, favourites from childhood, recommended reads from friends, anything I could get my hands on. I also began reading up on health and nutrition; I’ve struggled with my weight since leaving university, through both over-eating (especially sugary or salty foods) and lack of exercise. After reading a few articles on the amount of sugar in the average Western diet, I was inspired to start cutting out refined sugar wherever I could. No sweets, no white bread, no sugar-laden breakfast cereals. Just real food – whole grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, natural yoghurt. And lots and lots of water.

The most surprising thing about this new regime was how I was actually eating more. If I felt hungry at 10am (unsurprising considering how I now eat breakfast at 5.45 every morning!), I’d have a snack; some nuts, a piece of fruit, maybe a glass of semi-skimmed milk. I have more energy now than I ever have before. My skin, hair and nails all look much better. I’ve also lost a tonne of weight (almost 2 stone), but that wasn’t why I did it, just a positive side effect really. My mood also improved immeasurably, probably because I was feeling so much better about myself and my body.

I still take my regular medication and think I will continue to do so for a while yet, but changing my lifestyle like this has been one of the best things I’ve done for both my mental and physical health. It hasn’t gone unnoticed either; my partner tells me how much my mood has improved, friends and colleague comment on how much healthier I look and I’m actually starting to like how I look in photos now, rather than hiding from the camera or despairing at photos I’m tagged in!

This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and I know it can make me sound like a smug killjoy at times, but it’s been really good for me and by extension, those around me. Good eating, exercise and laughter has become part of my everyday life. I’m looking forward to continuing on this journey and seeing where it takes me.

K x

P.S If you are interested in finding out more about the impact of sugar in modern diets and how you can cut down on refined sugar, check out this book. I’m also following the Harcombe Diet at the moment, which is more restrictive and not for everyone, but I’d love to hear of other people’s experiences of it.

 

 

Flamingos

Revamp

Hello again dear world,

Well, after a long hiatus, Notes From a Femme is back, albeit in rather different form. I’ve decided to take this blog in a different direction, focusing on my new-found health, happiness and love. I’ll be posting about food, books, music, style and maybe even a bit of politics and culture.

Those of you who have been following this blog since its inception may have noticed that I’ve taken down quite a few of my old posts; this isn’t through embarrassment of a fear of being ‘outed’ for my experiences of mental health. It is about moving on, leaving the past behind and focusing on the ‘new me’ – a fulfilled, healthy and deliriously happy Mrs Gresswell-Bandeira.

I hope you enjoy the blog and look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas for new posts!

K x
Flamingos

A Love Poem

I wish I could take your scent
The warm aroma of cinnamon and cocoa
Bottle it.
Spritz some on my pillow when I feel alone
Dab it on my thighs, between my breasts, the nape of my neck.
An echo of your touch.

I miss your black liquid eyes,
Sweeping across my body.
I want your delicate hands, with your olive oil skin
To caress every crevice of my body
To feel your breath on my cheek
To hear the soft lilt of your voice in my ear.

You are beautiful to me, my love.
An exotic creature,
Flying in a blaze of colour and spice to share my bed.
Stay with me here, beneath the sun-dappled sheets twisted around our bodies.
Do not let me tame you
Keep your black liquid eyes and sun-drenched scent
Just leave a drop for me.

Tube Station, September

The platform was dusty and humid

Filled with besuited commuters, filling the air with sweat and strain and stress.

 

A white-winged butterfly fluttered into view.

Rested on the concrete floor

Heaved itself up

Once, twice, again and again and again, finding space between feet, bags, fast food wrappers.

 

Streams of bodies continue to fill the concrete pipe

No-one notices but I.

 

Wings tinged with a greenish hue

Tainted by the hot grey air around.

 

Closer you leap

I urge you to come rest at my feet

I’ll protect you, keep you safe

Shield you from impurity and corruption.

 

A sudden shrieking wind picks up

Launching a cool breeze against ties, coats, hair

Providing welcome respite from the stifling suffocation.

 

In it comes

Pushing, screaming, demanding attention

A red and white stampeding monolith.

 

Heads turn, elbows jostle

Toes step upon each other in the rush to assert personal space.

 

And as the stinking, screeching serpent shoots along the tracks

Your wings lift you up

By your own effort or the force of the carriages, I cannot tell

You veer towards its path

And the last I see of you is one tiny, delicate wing, as you are swallowed by the darkness.

Commuter Love

I’d forgotten my book that day

Some heavy fantastical tome or anti-consumerist treatise most like.

I squeezed myself into the tube, planning to do something wholesome with my evening

Do some exercise

Clean the kitchen

Phone my mother.

 

A pale slender wrist was the first I saw of you

Turning the pages of some free commuter rag.

A sweaty besuited businessman moved his enormous rump out of the way, revealing a delicate neck, covered by soft peachy fuzz.

Hair fair and cropped short like a boy’s

Fine and golden in the usually unforgiving strip lights.

 

Crisp white shirt, buttoned all the way up

Blue chinos and brogues.

 

Your chin was plump and wrinkled as you chewed your bottom lip.

A small beige bruise on your forearm.

 

I wanted to lean into your scent, kiss your bare neck.

Feed you, undress you, laugh with you.

 

We got off at the same stop, as I had hoped we would.

You stepped in front of me, my eyes right behind that perfect neck.

I followed you up the escalator, aching for you to turn around and acknowledge me.

Perhaps we could know each other

We could smile and say hello every evening

Become the start of some beautiful commuter romance.

 

But as we both strode through the barriers, out into the great art deco hall, you turned towards the other exit

My body cried out to follow, to catch the smell of you just one more time

But I had to turn the other way

And merely hope to see you tomorrow.