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The reality behind the photo

It’s been a while since I wrote about how I’m coping with having an invisible illness. I’ve now been formally diagnosed with ME/CFS which was both a relief and a worry. A relief because I can now answer questions definitively about what is “wrong” but also a fear because part of me really didn’t want it to be ME. I wanted it to be something curable, treatable…for someone to be able to ‘fix’ me.

I’ve been using social media much more to promote my blog lately and as we all know, social media portrays an image of people that doesn’t always reflect the honesty of your reality. Some people that I follow who have ME are truly brave and use their accounts to show the reality of daily life living with ME, but I don’t. I guess I don’t because I try to keep as many aspects of my life positive and happy in order to keep myself as pepped up as possible. There is nothing wrong with either but my option does then cause problems. By posting a photo that shows me out, smiling, laughing, with people, posting positive etc etc it would appear there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not opposed to the odd selfie but I also don’t always feel comfortable to show reality through them, my space for being honest is here in my writing.

But what I want to write about in this post is the story behind the social media photos. Photos give you a snap shot. Take for example the photo below.

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This was taken on Friday evening at a surprise party for my ex head teacher and friend. I was picked up at 7pm…well 6.45 as Olivia was EARLY!…the party started at 8pm and my Dad picked me up at 9.30. In the photo I am laughing, surrounded by some of my loveliest friends, drink in hand, having a ball. And I was. In that moment I was happy, I was with people who accept me for who I am, support me through what I’m going through and understand my limitations. To many people though they will see this photo and possibly think the following:

  • Hannah is out, she tells us she’s in bed by 9pm
  • Hannah is dressed up and out at night when she tells us she struggles with noise and busy places
  • Hannah tells us she is in constant pain and can’t do very much let alone go out with friends

Now, I will tell you the reality behind that photo. I haven’t been out in the evening in a party situation since July last year and on very few occasions have been out for a meal in the evenings, so Friday was a big deal. I was anxious about going and I spent most of the afternoon trying to nap to have enough spoons to cope and calming myself down in anticipation. When we arrived it was much louder than I’d imagined it would be. I put my ear plugs in straight away but soon realised that because it was so loud, music plus ear plugs meant I couldn’t hear a word anyone was saying! So I spent the entirety of the few hours I was there with an increasingly banging headache and fuzzy head. I loved those few hours, but I also felt so self-conscious. I was literally the only bald person in the room, I felt like the light was catching my head or that people were staring at me and I certainly didn’t want to be in any photos. I felt hideous, I didn’t feel feminine, I felt ugly and awful and the worst I’ve ever felt about myself. So that photo was me putting on the biggest show of my life in a way – I was happy but would have been happier to not have been captured in that moment. By the time Dad collected me I was done. My legs, knees and back were throbbing, my ears were ringing to the extent I felt like I was shouting when talking to him in the car on the way home and my head was pounding. As I lay in bed that night it was like I was drunk (I only had diet coke!) my head was whirring, my legs cramping and having spasms, my knees seizing. I finally fell asleep at around 8am. That is the reality behind what it took for me to be at that party for two and a half hours.

I’m 31 in a few weeks. I should have been there with my friends on Friday until 1am dancing, drinking a Malibu and coke and being the one snapping the photos like I have always been known to do. I should be looking back on my 30th year and have it littered with good memories of adventures, holidays, milestones and happy times. Instead, it’s a year of appointments, medications, blood tests and sleep. Of course I have had happy times in the year but I think you know what I mean. I feel like a shadow of my former self and I find myself needing to defend how I feel because of photos like the one I’ve talked about. I refuse to not post those photos because otherwise I will not have any memory of these years, in effect I will be missing from these years of my life. There’s a campaign called ‘Millions Missing’ that promotes ME. It talks about how people who have ME are missing from their jobs, social lives, holidays, families..we can’t participate in life in the way we used to but we are still here, we still make the most of what we can when we can. Last year they organised a protest in Whitehall and various other places across the world where people left pairs of shoes to demonstrate how they were missing from their lives because of ME and protesting for the fact that more needs to be done in terms of research and greater funding needed from the government to help people understand the illness more and treat it and it’s sufferers better and with more care and consideration.

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I have been talking to a dear friend this afternoon about this but also about mental health and the similarities that we share. Mental health is also an invisible illness. Just because we had a good day or hour or five minutes yesterday, doesn’t mean we will today or tomorrow or next week. Mental health and ME are fluctuating conditions with no rhyme or reason, no straight path or definitive ending. They are illnesses that need understanding and for people to simply say, “I believe you.”

I find it hard when I see people who say, “You’re looking so well,” or “You’re looking so much better than when I saw you last,” because it makes me feel like a fraud. I feel like I need to defend myself and explain that it’s a hidden illness and looks can be deceiving. If I could wear a wig and pop on some make up I would look totally and utterly fine but I’m not. I feel embarrassed to have to then explain that I’m not actually feeling great but, “thank you for saying I’m looking good.” I know whole heartily that these people are probably being really genuine and kind –  it’s my issue not there’s, I should be thrilled to be told I’m looking well. But because of my personality, I worry that they think I’ve been having them on. My positive attitude and positive mask can work against me in that way because people come to believe it and don’t question it. I saw a friend the other day and we talked about how I am, the loss of my nose hair (!) and everything else in-between but when I saw her again on Friday night she said something that made me smile from inside out. She said that when she got in the car to drive away the other day, she thought about me and what we’d talked about but then she wanted me to know she thought, Hannah is still the same as she’s always been to me. Wicked sense of humour, same old laugh and smile and sense of caring for everyone. To hear that being said so genuinely meant so much, it wasn’t focused on how I looked, or all the changes in me that have occurred, it was a comment about me as Hannah.

Living with an invisible illness is teaching me so much and I’m sure there’s more to come. It’s such a debilitating condition that is stripping me of so much of what I consider my identity. And there’s no end in sight especially when the only recommended “treatment” of a course of CBT is a waiting period of 4-6 months! So, I will continue to try to test different ways to cope and pace myself, I will deal with the ups and downs, I will continue to try and like myself and my appearance, I will try and start to accept that I can’t drive or have much independence and I will continue to strive to stay positive.

It’s a lonely place in this little arena, my bedroom and little writing area are my safe place but they are also lonely. It accentuates the fact that I’m not in a busy classroom or planning for nights and days or even weekends out. But it means that when I do see my friends or I do go out with my family that I don’t take it for granted. I savour every moment even though it may hurt and will inevitably wipe me out for hours, days or nights after. Because at the end of the day, whether I like it or not, this is my life and I will still only get one shot at it. If and when I get better there won’t be a rewind button.

So as with so many of these blog posts, I leave you with this thought: many people you know or will meet may have so much going on in their lives that isn’t visible to you. So be kind and patient and understanding. Give them time, give them a smile and possibly some chocolate…every little helps!!

See you Friday.

#hairlesshannah

 

13 Reasons Why – my review

’13 Reasons Why’ came to my attention via social media. Twitter seemed full of it and that intrigued me because there was a clear divide of opinions. So it became my next Netflix watch and now that I have finished it, I also feel very torn. I haven’t fully digested it all and taken time to sit and think about how it’s made me feel hence why I am just sitting and typing and hoping that by writing about it, I will get rid of the feeling of unease it has left me with.

The premiss of the show is that a high school girl named Hannah Baker commits suicide but before doing so, she leaves tapes explaining the reasons why she has done so.  We are told the story through the character of Clay who struggles with the idea of listening to the tapes and it takes him an age to get through them because he feels so uncomfortable about Hannah’s story as it unfolds and hampers his coming to terms with her death.  This is something I felt I had in common with Clay – it wasn’t a series I felt I wanted to binge because each episode revealed a reason why this 17-year-old killed herself and that didn’t sit well with me. I needed to digest each episode and the issues it brought to the forefront.

Suicide is something I don’t have any experience of. Yes, dark thoughts have been a real issue for me of late but not to that extent. Yes, I’m taking anti depressants but not for the reason of suicide. Yet watching this programme, it portrays just how easily impressionable, vulnerable teens can be led to that state of mind where there seems like no way out. There’s nowhere left to turn, the feeling of emptiness is overwhelming to the point of no return. The show, in my opinion, is very well acted. It’s sewn together faultlessly to show the web of teenage life and how simple acts can lead onto bigger issues. We have to take care of the words that leave our mouths because we don’t know what other people are going through. When I was little the rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” were relayed a few times but actually, that is so far from the truth. We don’t know what struggles people have or what their emotional state is. Simple, harmful, throw away words that leave our mouths in a matter of seconds can stick to the recipient for hours, days, months…years even and make a chink in their armour that is irreparable.

Every year as a teacher I have done a simple PSHE activity about how words can hurt each other and how we can’t take them back. The children start in small groups with a paper plate, a tube of toothpaste and some cocktail sticks. They love the activity – getting to squeeze out every last drop on the toothpaste onto the plate. And then when I ask them to replace ALL of the paste back into the tubes using only the cocktail sticks, it’s fun to watch their little faces, full of concentration and determination which soon turn into frustration and sadness when they realise they can’t do it. This is when I get them to imagine the tube of toothpaste is their mouth and the squeezing out of the paste are their words. The reality of it is we can’t get that toothpaste back in the tube, just like we cannot take back and erase the words we speak, once they are out the damage is done. A simple yet effective activity that I love and will always use.

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One of the reasons I wasn’t sure about the show was because a massive part of me agrees with some of the twitter comments about how this programme could be a trigger for those who are dealing with suicidal thoughts and who have dealt with/are dealing with abuse. ‘Stranger Things’ actress Shannon Purser tweeted:  “I would advise against watching 13 Reasons Why if you currently struggle with suicidal thoughts or self harm/have undergone sexual assault. There are some very graphic scenes in there that could easily trigger painful memories and feelings. Please protect yourselves.”  And I wholeheartedly agree.

But this doesn’t mean others shouldn’t watch. The shows main message for me is how many people miss Hannah. How much people around her care for her and love her, value her and miss her. It shows what she is now not a part of and will never be able to be again. It gives the message that if you are in this dark place to stop and look around, really look around and look for the goodness in your life – people, things, experiences and put your reason for living into them. Find reasons to live not reasons not to. Although I also know this is much much easier said than done.

It highlights the fact that we need to speak up about issues of mental health and abuse – it tackles rape and suicide very graphically. This is another part I still struggle with, probably because they are the scenes that stay with you because they are so graphic. I don’t know whether that is absolutely necessary because both issues are dealt with so well through the script but I see why they were included. It’s the rawness, the total open honesty of the show that hasn’t been done before to my knowledge – it tackles these issues in full view for us to see. So yes it is horrific, uncomfortable, upsetting viewing but it is needed in order to tell Hannah’s full story, for us to understand what she went through and to understand what led her to her ultimate death. And through that we can see how the people around her are led to realise how they played a part in it all – demonstrating again how delicate and thoughtful we should be to our friends, colleagues, acquaintances…people we pass on the street. The shows writer has responded to criticism about these scenes and why they were included and when I read them I understood the importance of their inclusion:

“It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all – it’s a screaming, agonising, horror. We wanted to tell that story truthfully. And as difficult as it is to watch, it should be difficult to watch. If we make it easy to watch, then we’re selling goods that we didn’t want to sell.”

It’s okay to not be okay, but don’t be not okay alone. Friends and family are there through good, bad and ugly and to support and help you. And if you don’t feel you have friends or family that can do that, there are helplines and organisations who are. Suicide should never be the only option left for any human being.

Samaritans: 116 123

Papyrus (supporting teens and young adults with suicidal thoughts): 0800 068 4141 

Rape crisis: 0800 802 9999

Victim support: 0808 168 9111

I’m not going to recommend this show, not because I don’t think people should watch it, I do. But it’s a show people need to decide whether to watch or not on their own. It is an 18 certificate for a reason.

Sorry for the heaviness of this blog but the show just brought up a lot of thoughts about issues I hadn’t ever really truly considered before and I wanted to get it out there because they shouldn’t be taboo subjects, they need to be talked about so people don’t feel so alone. If anything, the show has brought these issues to the forefront, and whether you agree with it or not, people are talking about it and that equals awareness and that can never be a bad thing.

This has been a tough blog for me to write because I know there will be some people who have watched the show/have opinions on it who will agree with my thoughts but there will be some who really oppose them – let’s just remember the premise of the show here and not leave any nasty comments – everyone is entitled to an opinion and discussions are welcomed but only if they are kept nice and peoples own thoughts aren’t judged.

#hairlesshannah

Catching some zzzzz’s

Sleep.

When you think about that word, what does it mean to you? Is it a thing of beauty, does it conjure up images of an inviting bed made up with the softest, fluffiest pillows and prettiest of covers beckoning you to snuggle down and rest and recuperate? Or does it simply mean a thing that you need and have to do in order to function for the next day?

Do you need a certain amount of it in order to feel human and happy?  What is your minimum amount that will allow you to be human and not become a monster when anyone dares to talk to you?! Are you a late nighter or a 10pm-er? Do you enjoy a lazy lay in or are you an early riser? Is sleep a thing just for nights, do you revel in a cheeky little nap or have you trained yourself in the art of power naps? Do you need to set an alarm or is your body conditioned to your work schedule?

Does sleep bring you a release? A place to be you, to be quiet and thoughtful, to dream and escape? Is sleep and your bed a place you welcome when you return from a holiday or can you sleep anywhere?

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Sleep, for most, comes naturally. Our body clocks know when we need it and how long for. Our bodies are very clever like that, it knows when we need more or when we can possibly cope with less. That is, until our bodies’ works against us and that leads to some very tricky situations as I have been learning. Sleep has become much more of a nightmare for me since becoming ill. Having researched more it is very clear that many ME CFS sufferers have this same problem; the feeling of overwhelming fatigue is there all the time, the ease to nap during the day out of necessity unlike in the university days when a nap just helped you for the upcoming night. Yet when it comes to the evening and the night-time, sleep seems to evaporate. Our bodies pain sensors kick into overdrive and sleep gets further and further from our reach.

I have never had issues with sleep before, I’ve always needed between 7-8 hours and that has always suited me well. But now, insomnia/painsomnia is in my vocabulary and it sucks. No one can really explain why this happens but it clearly does. As with the rest of the research with ME CFS, there isn’t enough of it to explain all of the side effects and symptoms. I guess it’s almost like when people say you’re overtired or you’ve had too much sleep and your body gets confused. But with my body, I can’t sleep because the pain intensifies and I simply can’t get comfy…even with my pregnancy pillow! I have tried sleeping tablets which to be honest worked a little but not enough and in any case, I can’t stay on them as they are addictive. I have started using herbal remedies but they just don’t seem to match up to the discomfort and insomnia.  I do manage to get some sleep when my body literally crashes but it is always broken and it is never deep, restful or refreshing.

I’ve tried everything in the depths of the night to distract myself from the pain and discomfort.  I’ve tried laying there and persuading my body to rest and sleep. I’ve tried watching box sets and TV programmes, listening to music and audio books, colouring, blog writing, pacing around my room every half an hour to move my stupid aching limbs. Nothing works and that’s when the frustration kicks in, that’s when the mind starts to act against you too and the endless thoughts go round and round your brain tormenting you. It’s such a lonely, scary place to be. It’s a feeling of being trapped and not being able to escape, a feeling of the unknown. And this goes round on repeat until eventually the body can’t take it anymore and shuts down and sleep occurs. Then I’ll wake every hour or so until I make myself get up ready for another glorious day!! Our bodies and minds really are a marvellous thing but sometimes I just don’t understand them. They are meant to be wired up to help and protect us so why do they work against us at times?

Sleep is just another thing I’m having to approach differently these days and that is just how it is. It’s not nice but it’s not the end of the world –  it’s just another thing I just never appreciated enough at the time..but then who does?

Hope you all sleep well tonight, sweet dreams.

#hairlesshannah

I, Hannah Green

Last week I finally got round to watching, ‘I, Daniel Blake.’ From the opening second I could feel my heart beating faster and stress filtering through my body – the scene was one of a conversation between Daniel and the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) asking the medical assessment questions. Questions which will lead to you being awarded points which then determine what benefits you are entitled to. It is scored out of 15 and the questions go something like this: “Can you lift your arm above your head? Can you walk unaided for 50 metres? Can you walk to the bottom of your garden unaided? Can you show me how you take your shoes and socks off? Can you empty your bowels frequently?

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Yes, these questions and answers override anything your doctors or specialists have advised or done and if you score less than the 15 points they tell you that you are fit for work and therefore need to apply for Job Seekers Allowance. I cannot tell you how similar Daniel’s story is to mine. I scored 0/15 on my assessment. Zero. Zilch.Nada. So as with Daniel, I had my ESA (Employment Support Allowance) taken away – which I’d never actually received in the first place may I add – and was told to make an appointment for Job Seekers.

The character of Daniel is similar to myself. He didn’t want to give up without a fight because he knew he was entitled to something and that is what we have worked and contributed for all our lives. In the end I cancelled my Job Seekers interview after yet another frustrating conversation with the DWP. I tried telling them that although I was wanting to take my case for mandatory consideration, I was not willing to waste both my own and the people at Job Seekers when I wasn’t actually able to work! This they couldn’t understand. They wanted me to turn up and get advise on how to write a CV before applying – at this point I informed her I was a teacher and knew how to write a CV, again I was told, “In order to dispute your claim Miss Green, this is what we will need to see you doing.” Well I’m sorry, but I am not doing that, I am not willing to put myself through a humiliating session, being made to feel degraded and useless. So the route I am taking is to let the DWP know that my parents will be appealing on my behalf because I no longer have the strength to deal with their red tape and bs.

I won’t give away the whole storyline of the film, but you should watch it. It challenges stereotypes at every turn and gives an insight into how people could quite easily end up homeless on the streets. If I didn’t have my family or the back up of selling my flat, what would I do then? The reality is that once my money was gone, I would be homeless. I am sure the people at the DWP are nice people who are just doing as they are told but to me they are inhumane robots who don’t care, don’t see the real people, don’t consider what medical professionals are saying about your health. They talk to you like you are below them, like a piece of dog poo they stepped in on the street, they let you hang up the phone and cry because you feel so worthless. I wonder what they would do or how they would feel in the same situation?

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There is something fundamentally wrong with our society and our benefits system. I would give anything to be able to work, if I could I’d be down applying for Job Seekers ASAP but I can’t right now and regardless of what my GP, neurologist and ME specialists say, the computer still says no because I can lift my arms high enough to put a hat on my head! I know that the majority of people on benefits do genuinely need them, but I also know there are people out there who abuse the system and get away with it and that angers me beyond belief. All I want is to receive the benefits I’m entitled to so that I can help my parents pay the bills that I’m adding to by being back at home. I want to have some money coming in so I don’t feel totally dependent. I want to be acknowledged as someone who is worth the help and support, not someone who is a scrounger.

I, Daniel Blake is a very powerful film which highlights current issues in a true light, and I can say that because much of what he experiences mirrors what I have to. I have a very dear friend who is also having to fight for her sons rights, if you heard the details of their story your blood would boil on their behalf. The film should be watched by as many people as possible so that these issues are discussed – awareness can only bring positive outcomes. So watch, talk about it and take action if you feel you can. Our next step will be writing to our local MP, the injustice needs to be addressed.

I, Hannah Green feel abused by the system, but I’m afraid that as with Daniel in the film, they have chosen the wrong person and family. We will continue to fight and complain and make my voice heard..I just need to stock up on some spoons before I try again!

Just something for you to ponder on this Tuesday!

See you Friday.

#hairlesshannah

Guest Post: Paul Foley, brain stem glioma

Paul and his lovely family have been our neighbours for the last 17 years; they are not only neighbours, but our friends. Paul’s story is a tough one to read but one of great importance, not only because he is spreading awareness about his brain stem glioma, but because he has a question to ask.

He needs a new wheelchair to improve his quality of life – pop over to YouTube and search TEK RMD wheelchair and you will see how incredible it is. However, this chair costs £18,000. A cost that no family will be able to afford on their own. Then comes the next stages of his treatment, at a cost of between £50-100,000. So Paul and his family are reaching out to ask for help, for our help to raise funds to make these unthinkable improvements to his life.

Please read his story below and donate if you can, it doesn’t have to be much, every penny counts and no matter what you can afford, Paul will be so very grateful. Share the heck out of this blog post, share Paul’s story and share the link – if any family deserve your help today, if any family deserve your good deed for the day, then this is them. Thank you in advance for your support, love and kindness – I will now pass you over to Paul.

#hairlesshannah

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Before I tell you my story, I want to share with you why I’m writing this guest post.

I’ve now had 5 courses of chemo and there have been some slight changes however, I’ve decided I need to be more proactive and having seen an amazing robotic wheelchair which allows users to stand and move around safely, I’ve set up a funding page with the aim being to get one of these to improve my life. Then there is the next course of treatment – a course of immunotherapy which will complement the chemo. The robotic wheelchair is approx. £18k and the immunotherapy as much as £6k per month. I have set the target at £30k knowing it would be more and the response so far has been amazing. We raised £20k in a week and are now just under £24k with about £15k expected from planned events. I suspect though we will need double that total for the treatment I need.

I head up to Guys tomorrow for chemo course no 5 and hopefully get some answers on cost and amount of immunotherapy: they will not provide funding for brain tumours on NHS – for other cancers yes, but not brain cancer. This is despite the fact that brain cancer is the biggest cancer killer of under 40s but receives only 1% of funding losing out to the more publicised (but controllable) cancers of breast, prostate, testicular etc.

So, if you would like to help out by organising a fund-raiser or simply donate, please head to this link and know that both myself and my family will be forever grateful. The page can be found on the gofundme.com website, search Paul Foley and you will get all the information you need.

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Now for a potted history of my story, by Paul Foley.

For two years leading up to a diagnosis in September 2012, I had a series of GP appointments where getting heard on the specific symptoms I was experiencing was a real struggle. Basically I had a dull, deep-seated headache that did subside gradually over time but I knew was different to any stress or migraine type headache I’d had. One GP helpfully told me to try Yoga as it appeared to be Spondylitis – I laughed and said, “no mate this isn’t muscular-skeletal, this is deep inside like a gland pain” – my exact words – Yoga, seriously?!

I then had 2 or 3 ‘episodes’ that Summer, brought on by heat (sauna) and alcohol, which all resulted in a prominent limp where I had to drag my right leg along – it just wouldn’t work. The next day I’d be wiped out but the limp was gone so I assumed it must have been a blip. Between June and August it didn’t seem to flare up other than having a weird feeling like someone grabbing the back of my neck in meetings at work. Then on the treadmill in August I noticed that the quicker I ran, the right leg just couldn’t cope so I’d stop and do stretches either side but the right leg still wouldn’t behave. So back I went to the GP and back to A+E for a scan…but still nothing.

On holiday in SW France in August 2016, I drove a camper van that week, there and back from the UK and that’s when I noticed that driving was getting tricky. The key turning point was one day in August when I woke very early and my whole spine felt wobbly and weak, I could barely walk. I wanted to walk my youngest to her primary school as I ‘wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be able to walk’ – I remember knowing I was in trouble. I have always known I was in trouble – the medical staff have always been on catch up unfortunately. I broke down on the park bench in the Rec next to her school as I just had a feeling this was very bad.
I headed straight over to the GP and eventually saw the right one – he listened, he knew more about neuro issues, no talk of Yoga – he agreed this was neurological not mechanical – I’d had ankle, knee, muscular injuries over a 20 year semi-professional football career and I knew this was different. He sent me with an urgent letter to take to A+E.  I went to the PRUH at Farnborough and there is where they found it, finally ,on the MRI scan. A lesion / blood / swelling at the bottom of my brain, a really bad spot…won’t be able to get to it so highly likely zap it with Radiotherapy and / or chemo. Bang. Shock. Relief they found something but please not an inoperable tumour. Pulled curtain back……silence, shock, fear, tears, some anger, resilience, creeping determination, some grit and a firm upper lip – I’m never giving up. 

So treatment – all arranged swiftly – all well explained by my very knowledgeable and straight talking consultant – I liked her, she was like a brain specialist version of Mary Portas. The options were limited to two – intensive daily doses of radiotherapy to the brain for 6 weeks and Chemotherapy if that didn’t work.

So every day for six weeks we went to Guy’s, getting zapped to the brain at their advanced Radiotherapy department using a machine that only hits the hotspot of the tumour reducing peripheral damage…supposedly. It didn’t though as I suffered hearing and taste issues to name but two. To ensure the tumour was getting hit they fit you with a bespoke heat moulded mesh mask which is bolted to the bed so you can’t move. You may have seen on the TV cancer ads running at moment. It’s not nice, it’s claustrophobic, you can’t breathe, swallow or cough at all. The only good thing is the zapping is quick, say 5 mins for all of the effort required to get there.

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One slog through rush hour to get home springs to mind as this commuting zombie who could clearly see I was shuffling along with my ticket in my mouth, whacked into me on purpose as I was delaying him all of 5 seconds. I dropped my ticket and hollered after him on a packed platform using my full range of expletives. I wanted to knock some sense into his thick skull but he scarpered up the stairs – he heard me ok – and like a Dalek I was undone by the stairs. As the weeks wore on and the dreaded steroids took a hold, I filled with fluid at every available void and my face got fuller, that bespoke mask fits a face that no longer exists. It’s tighter, more claustrophobic but don’t mention it,  just a few more sessions to get through.

As a bit of advice from someone who has blown up on steroids, if you want to pass comment – don’t. It’s just irritating. Pre-illness I was 6 foot 2, 14 stone and with low body fat and higher than most general fitness. I’ve never been bloated or swollen or overweight. So when people say ‘cor you’ve put on some timber’ or ‘you’ve blown up’ it is just going to grate. Yeah I’m ill, I’m on horrible drugs that just fill you with fluid, I can’t move – funny my body shape has changed! The things people say to you when you’re ill never ceases to amaze me. So many ‘friends’ I just can’t be bothered to talk to anymore – illness polarises your attitude to friends.  Some are brilliant and surprise you and some are just so self-absorbed in their own world they just don’t get it. It is a cliché but illness just strips away the things that don’t matter and you really notice it in others and you get a great radar for selfishness. I couldn’t care less about the weight gain (4 stone currently) it’s a by-product of the illness but the daft comments can do one! I get uncomfortable because I can’t move so well as I’m bloated but it’s just how it is, no more knocking out ab crunches on the bench – I’ve come to terms with that – seemingly others haven’t.

So the treatment finishes and towards the end I start to get a spasm/twitch during zapping – that can’t be good. I can’t taste anything and my hearing goes all ‘electronic’. I asked the pleasant Radiographer about it who replied, “oh didn’t they tell you that?” – unfortunately an all too familiar comment over the next 4 years. She showed me a coloured image of my head which actually shows in ‘glow’ the peripheral damage as the radiation goes through healthy brain tissue. This is the first time I’ve seen this. There is not enough explanation or understanding around radiotherapy especially to a highly vulnerable and sophisticated organ like the brain. You are putting radiotherapy into your brain through healthy parts to get to a tumour – just stop and think about that for a minute! There is a lot of publicity around the Gamma knife and Proton Beam therapy machines with the Proton option being the one the family took their young child abroad and paid for treatment. Young brains that are still developing are more prone to damage from ‘standard’ radiotherapy – they don’t care so much about the older messed up brains. Well, the NHS paid millions for two Proton machines but couldn’t afford to run them – I believe there are some up and running now. The principle makes sense if you imagine a clock face Proton delivers a spread of safer strength beams at 12, 1pm, 2pm and so on which all focus in a concentrated point at the tumour with hardly any peripheral damage. It would have been preferable to have this treatment.

paul-5

That continued for three years of ‘stability’ as they call it which basically means you will get symptom changes, numbness, loss of feeling or some movement, reduced endurance etc but if your MRI scans show the same then you are ‘stable’. In some ways it was stable, I was making it into work most days, I was limping around but just about able to do what I had to do. I was getting lifts to work for a while and then back driving when I was able. 

Then around September 2015 things started to deteriorate, I was having to stop more frequently and ‘re-set’ my walk. It got worse and worse and I could barely cross a road in one go. Getting upstairs was very difficult. This changed quickly over the next three weeks to the point I couldn’t stand for long and started to stoop making tea etc unable to stand up straight the back muscles just giving up. I told the hospital every time a new symptom appeared and they advised that the scans were showing ‘no change Mr Foley’. By Christmas I was really struggling to even get around the house and some nights couldn’t make it up the stairs. I couldn’t get my right sock on, eating was one-handed now, shaving/using toothbrush etc, I couldn’t get in and out of shower anymore so it was sitting by the basin and washing. One day at home I stood up to do my belt up and just as I went to fasten it I fell like a tree without getting my hands out onto the breakfast table smashing my nose and rolling off onto the floor. No one was in and I couldn’t get up, so rolled my head onto the timber floor to save the gushing blood from ruining the rug. Hannah’s dad had to rescue me as no one else could lift me off the floor.

A few weeks later another fall, this one as I went to transfer from wheelchair (which I was in now) to toilet but as I stood my leg locked and I fell against the tiles holding my body at 45 degrees with my all of weight-bearing onto my head. I called out, managed to slide down onto the closed WC putting my chest onto the toilet and then sliding onto the floor where I was unceremoniously dragged into the hall to wait for the ambulance to get me into my chair as it was 2am – we couldn’t ask Richard this time! We waited two hours on the cold floor, they got me back in the chair, ran tests and it was 6am before we knew it.

In February 2016 the decision was reached to put me on a 6 month course of chemo ‘empirically’ which basically means ‘without any clinical reason’ so try it and see. I was happy with this though as I was desperate to try something. Then around September  2016 the decision was made to switch chemo to a more powerful chemo, PCV. Around the same time Matt called home with some interesting news, the medics at Oxford had found an extremely rare and specific antibody only found with a condition called Devics or NMO. It could be managed much like MS and may be an improved prognosis but more tests required. So they ran tests alongside continuing the current treatment plan of chemo until we know for sure. A month later the experts told us it is categorically not Devics, despite the presence of a Devics specific antibody. A huge disappointment as an improvement possibility disappeared and the communication + management had been very poor.

I’ve now had 5 courses of the chemo and there have been some changes however,  I’ve now decided to be more proactive and having seen an amazing robotic wheelchair which allows users to stand and move around safely, I decided to set up a funding page for this and a course of immunotherapy to complement the chemo. The robotic wheelchair was approx. £18k and the immunotherapy as much as £6k per month. I set the target at £30k knowing it would be more and the response was amazing. We raised £20k in a week. We are just under £24k with about £15k expected from planned events. I suspect though we may need double that total.

I head up to Guys tomorrow for chemo course no 5 (of new chemo) and hopefully some answers on cost and amount of immunotherapy: they will not provide funding for brain tumours on NHS – for other cancers yes, but not brain cancer. This is despite the fact that brain cancer is the biggest cancer killer of under 40s but receives only 1% of funding losing out to the more publicised (but controllable) cancers of breast, prostate, testicular etc.

Hopefully I get answers, hit my fund target and get continued improvement on my mobility.

Thank you for reading my story, for sharing it and for possibly being able to help me raise the money I need. 

Paul Foley 

Unwanted visitors

So many people I know have had some, metaphorically speaking, unwanted visitors knock on their doors lately that you can’t turn away or shout at or send an e-mail to because they are part of you. Illnesses, diseases, things that you can’t slam the door on.

I am obviously purely speaking about my situation and therefore my experiences, feelings and emotions so they may not correlate with anyone else so don’t get cross if you don’t agree!

My illness is hidden so I find myself in a situation where I have days when I look better than others which seems to indicate to people that I’m getting better. I’m not. That is why it is called a hidden/invisible illness and that is why it is so frustrating. I think I become even more prone to this kind of comment because I don’t show my true feelings and emotions so therefore it is even easier for people to assume I am getting better and feeling great. I’m not.

Because my ‘complex’ case is STILL under review by many doctors and specialists, it seems like I am forever waiting for answers, fighting tirelessly to get people to fight for me! I’m 16 months into this now which I know is a long time. So much can happen in 16 months and has done to most of the people in my life – good, great, bad and bloody awful. But it also means that due to no fault of anyone, and I mean that wholeheartedly, life goes on. My life is stuck but other people’s aren’t. So therefore I have become lonelier, felt more isolated and even more desperate for healthcare professionals to take me and my life seriously and help me.

But it seems that healthcare professionals, even those at supposedly the best hospitals in the country, don’t feel or see the urgency in my eyes. I am acutely aware that what I have is not life threatening and don’t ever want to compare it to those who are living with those illnesses or are no longer with us because of them, but what I am living with is totally life changing for me. Last week I met with the first doctor in months that actually listened, took time and an interest in me and gave me hope. Only for that to be totally shattered when he phoned me Friday to tell me most of what he’d said was incorrect. The referral will take months and even then may not be accepted as it has to go through funding applications and that the help he’d promised in the interim was for those who live in Southwark only – when did I ever tell him I lived there?! So here I sit once again, being totally let down by the only people who have the power to help me.

I don’t recognise my life anymore. I described it this week by saying I feel like I have an existence, not a life. Most of the doctors and specialists fail to see me as a human. As a 30-year-old woman who has so many hopes, dreams and aspirations,  who’s existence is mainly lived out within the four walls of her bedroom. The pain I have is constant and worsening, I’m experiencing pain insomnia on levels I never knew existed. It takes an age to get up and get ready and in all honesty it’s taking all I have at the moment to even do this because really, bed is the place that comforts me most regardless of the pain.

In bed, I only have to move to change position and shift the pain locality. In bed it’s quiet, the curtains are shut and it’s dark. I can drift in and out of consciousness, cry or just contemplate and dream. If I’m up, I feel like I have to put a face on things, I manage to hide the pain because that’s easier than revealing the truth. If I’m up I can’t manage to do much which frustrates me. My hands are becoming even more painful so even typing for long periods hurts. All I really have is my blog to make me feel purposeful but creating the content for it often causes more pain than I feel the blog is worth. But then through the blog comes the communities I’ve become part of – the spoonie and chronic illness heroes and heroines that give me hope and strength are incredible.

The doctors don’t see the life that I seem to have left behind. I can’t drive, I can’t socialise, I can’t stay up late, I can’t shop or treat myself, I can’t save for holidays or beautiful bags and shoes, I can’t treat my friends and family, I can’t blare my music out and dance around my bedroom whilst getting ready for a girls night out. I can’t even drink a cider because of the tablet concoctions I take daily – it comes to something when a practically teetotaler is craving a cider! Lately, I’ve even come to wish I hadn’t experienced the life I had in Dubai because life was so good. Even though work is more than likely the trigger for this situation, socially life was amazing and the opportunities that fell into my path enriched me more as a person than I ever dreamed of, I had plans that were unfinished and unaccomplished which means I know what I’m missing and then I start to resent that.

I know there is no easy fix to this. I know there is a long road ahead and so much more uncertainty but all I can tell you is that I wish this bloody unwanted visitor would f**k off out of my circle as quickly as it arrived.

I read a quote another spoonie posted the other day and I loved it – it’s not me that’s unreliable, it’s my health.

Rant over! Be nice to people today and remember, they may be going through something that you just might not be able to see. So be kind.

Happy Saturday.

#hairlesshannah

 

Bedside manner

It’s unusual for me to write an unplanned blog but today my fingers just needed to let loose on the keyboard to get out of my system the hate, hurt, anger and upset that’s  setting in. Even though I posted yesterday, I hope you don’t mind this unscheduled rant! It’s all too easy on social media to portray that life is peachy but sometimes we need to be honest because we can even trick ourselves into really believing the “I’m fine” business. Although that’s the path I’m happier to tread for the majority of the time, sometimes I find myself in a space that is so catastrophically not fine, that I can only be true to myself.

This blog is aimed at anyone in a job that holds any kind of human interaction whether that be face to face, via email or over the phone. It’s a blog to remind people that whoever you are interacting with, they are human. They have feelings. They may have their own problems that are hidden to you. I’m not particularly religious but at this moment in time, all I keep thinking is – treat others as you’d wish to be treated.

Earlier in the week I finally experienced my first decent phone-call with someone at the DWP. She didn’t talk to me as if I was a piece of dirt on her shoe, she didn’t judge me, she didn’t tut at me or make me hang up the phone and crumble into tears. At the end of the call I asked for her name and thanked her for allowing me to ask the questions I needed to without being made to feel belittled. Unfortunately, although she was pleased to be thanked, she said that it’s all too often she hears that from people and assured me that the position both she and her colleagues hold is not one of seniority, they are there to help and reassure people in order to ensure they get the help and benefits they need and are entitled to. How sad it’s taken four months for me to finally be treated this way.

And this leads me on to other experiences I faced this week. A letter arrived last weekend from the dermatology department, I’d had to reschedule an appointment in early January as it clashed with a neurology appointment but they had obviously overlooked that. Therefore this letter outlined the results of my skin biopsy and recent full blood tests. Luckily – well not really for me – most came back clear, but what if this hadn’t been the case? I would have found out via letter? And then I came to the last paragraph; a short, swift sentence saying they agreed with the diagnosis by my GP, that my ‘hair loss’ was linked to that and therefore they had referred me to a psychologist. I’m sorry, but had you forgotten that I am a human here? This is my life, my hair, my situation? And yet you are bluntly wiping your hands of me because, why? My case is complex and might take extra time and money? Why am I not worth that? But anyway, after another cry and feelings of deep sorrow and frustration, I dusted myself off, plastered on my “I’m fine” face and focussed on the fact I could discuss it on Thursday at my next appointment.

Fast forward to Thursday. It took a lot for me to get up to Kings for 9.30am yet ten o’clock rolls round and still we haven’t been called in so I approach the desk to enquire about how long the waiting time will be. It’s then that I am told the specialist I am due to see is on annual leave and the stand in Dr is not yet here and they can’t get hold of him. I’m sorry but, why were we not a) informed she was on leave prior to today or b) told when we arrived that this was the case? It doesn’t take a lot at the moment to make me cry because although I manage to keep it in most of the time, I feel like I’m constantly on the edge. So there I am walking back to my parents in a full waiting room, crying. All because my doctor isn’t there – stupid but it tipped me over the edge. Does no one actually care about me? I had a text the day before my appointment reminding me that a missed appointment costs the NHS £160 but hey, if a patient is stood up, never mind, come back another time right? No harm done!

To be fair, the receptionists were amazing and it really wasn’t their fault. After they did some calling around we were told the stand in Dr had been on nights and had apparently cancelled his day appointments but the message hadn’t got through. The next available appointment would be March. But at that point, eagle-eyed mum saw the senior dermatologist come in and asked the receptionist if she could see if he would see us. Long and short is, fair enough, he did. But I wish in many ways he hadn’t.

He is the lead specialist in the dermatology department so you would hope that his bedside manner was outstanding eh? I understand and give some leeway to the fact he wasn’t expecting to see me but that doesn’t excuse the next ten minutes in my eyes. He didn’t have any notes so was obviously working from memory from their meeting after the case conference but he proceeded to tell me that actually their diagnosis was that my hair loss was more than likely untreatable and incurable. Bang, just like that. I cried and he just commented, “no tissues – sorry, NHS.” No worries that I’ve just told a 30-year-old girl that her hair may never grow back, no biggie, you can cope with that.

After I gathered myself I managed to question him, I was angry and in all honestly did not trust what he was saying. In the letter I received, statements had been made about other things which he then did explain to some extent but also tried to wiggle out of. He also stated that dermatology don’t really know much about hair loss and alopecia, he shrugged his shoulders a lot and leant so far back on his wheely chair, at one point I cruelly wished he’d keep going so it toppled over. He was abrupt, insensitive and uncaring, I was so stunned and shocked and felt harmed by someone I didn’t really know. He did explain why the psychologist had been suggested, if I deal with any stress internally then my body may start to heal from the inside which in turn will help the outside – or something like that, I must admit I had started to zone out a little by this stage. I asked him why I had follicles that weren’t growing – he responded with, “pffff, we don’t really know.” Mum pushed him to say that his referral meant that there was still some hope to which he said yes, but in all honesty, by this point I didn’t believe much that was coming out of his mouth.

After that appointment I reacted in a way I hadn’t before. I didn’t want to talk, I didn’t want to be around anyone, I didn’t want to ‘be’ really. In that instance I felt I had no fight left, nothing, zilch, I felt done. I wanted to run away, not have to face any of it anymore, I felt like I had reached crisis point and all because of the way that a specialist of the NHS had spoken to and treated me.

He is going to refer me to a specific hair loss dermatologist at Guy’s which I will go to and I will attend the first psychologist appointment but after a restless night and thoughtful morning I have come to a conclusion. I do not need to be cured in terms of my hair. My lack of hair is not offensive contrary to some socially inept people, it doesn’t make me any less worthy of love or affection. Like I’ve said before, I miss my hair every single day and I hate the person that stares back at me just as much as the day I shaved my head. But the conclusion I’m coming to is that maybe that’s because I haven’t allowed myself to accept it because I’ve constantly been looking for a cure. I’ve seen my hair loss as something disgusting and something wrong with me. But actually, I don’t need to be cured. I don’t have hair. I’m HairlessHannah, baldblogger. This is me now and hair doesn’t define me, I don’t need a cure. It’s not disgusting, okay it’s not something we see often but it’s not harmful to me or to others. That thought is actually quite freeing, I’ve never considered it that way before.

The rest of what I’m going through DOES need a cure. I cannot live the rest of my life in pain, with constant fatigue, noise and light sensitivity,  in isolation, not driving, socialising, working, earning. I cannot live with pins and needles from the neck up for the rest of my life. All of that needs a cure. Not management, a cure. And if a cure for that is found then MAYBE my hair will grow but MAYBE it won’t. If the rest of it is cured, I will be able to wear hats and wigs if I so choose, I can wear make-up and jewellery. I can make myself feel more feminine again but my hair doesn’t need curing.

So, I will see this other guy, I will try out the psychologist incase it will help with my illness but apart from that, hair wise I’m done. I’m done with trying different treatments, herbal remedies, seeing different “specialists” because I simply don’t need their lack of bedside manner. I am taking back the control again. I don’t need their opinions. The only opinion needed in terms of my hair, is my own. So from now on, I am bald, I have alopecia and I am proud. My hair may grow back one day but it also may not and I need to start  accepting that. And as I cry whilst I type this, I know that this is the first step towards starting to love myself again which, as my dear friend told me during our reiki session this week, I need to be able to do that again because it’s actually more important than we realise. Hate in any form isn’t healthy so self hate can’t be doing me or my recovery any good.

As a teacher, no, as a HUMAN,  I always strive to treat every child, every parent, every person I come into contact with, with the utmost respect, care and kindness. I imagine how I would feel if I was receiving the news being delivered to me. I go out of my way to help people and to make sure they know how much I am investing in them. I know the NHS is under great strain at the moment but if the bedside manner isn’t there, that’s when patients start to lose faith. That’s when patients walk away from any potential help that could be available. That’s when the system fails us.

So regardless of your job, just remember that your job as a human is to treat people how you would want to be treated. Everyone is fighting something on a daily basis so be kind, be mindful and think before you speak.

Have a lovely weekend.

#hairlesshannah