'But you look so well!' It was a shocked response I have become used too. If the illness of a person is judged on their appearance, then I generally haven't fitted the criteria. It doesn't matter that I have incurable cancer, to many people, there is almost a sense of disappointment that I don't look like I'm on my death bed. Someone once said to me 'it would be so much easier to accept you were ill if you didn't look so well.' There is an expectation of what I should look like and with a smile on my face and a touch of lip gloss and mascara, it seems improbable that I should be ill. Surely I have more important things to consider than doing my make-up?
A few weeks back though, I finally started to conform to the expected 'cancer' look. I had lost weight (polite friends called me slender, honest friends called me scrawny), my skin was reacting to the new drugs, so had to stop wearing make-up and instead was exposing my red, angry face and my hair started falling out, leaving me with random bald patches. Looking ill shocked and reminded people of my situation and conversations suddenly focussed much more on cancer. Looking ill gives people the permission to discuss my health. When I look well, we can all be in denial and pretend life is back to normal.
I wasn't that bothered with my hair falling out. It had always been fine and lank, and had been cut into a shorter style at the start of my treatment. However, when I looked in the mirror, I realised my hair do was starting to take rather too much inspiration from a Bruce Forsyth comb over.
It was time to consider getting a wig. An afternoon of trying on every conceivable style and colour and I settled on the hair I had always wanted, but never naturally been able to grow - long, thick and beautifully coiffured. With new hair in place, better tailored clothes that fit, rather than hang off my bones and cream from the dermatologist to restore my skin, I was back to looking 'healthy'.
Yet, beneath this seemingly perfect external image, I am still very sick. Changing my appearance doesn't change my health, but it does change the attitude from society. The old Charley is back and now I look like I used to, perhaps some would argue, even better. An outsider may even be envious of my size 8 figure, my bouffant hair and flawless skin. But the outsider wouldn't know the struggles that are going on inside. As a society, first impressions are often developed from appearance.
I experienced this first-hand on a train heading back from London to home. It had been a long day and it was getting late. A young chap boarded the train and sat opposite me. Rather uncharacteristically for London, he made eye contact and smiled. He then started to strike up a conversation. As I smiled back and started chatting, my wig started to itch. I'm used to it itching and without a second thought, started scratching around the hairline. Not getting any relief from that, I pulled it off and stuffed it in my bag. I looked up and the poor chap had an expression of pure shock, bewilderment and sympathy across his face. How was he supposed to respond? How would I have responded if a fellow passenger had done the same to me?
I immediately appreciated that he may not be used to people whipping their hair off without warning and it probably was a bit of a shock, so muffled a sorry, but he could no longer maintain eye contact with me. He got off at the next stop. It led me to question, would he have been so openly friendly had I started the journey with no hair? I didn't change, just because I took my wig off, but the perception of me did. I went from looking glamorous to suddenly tired and sick.
Recent media coverage has, unwittingly or not, linked appearance with cancer. The no make-up selfie campaign, which despite raising a phenomenal amount for cancer research, left me very uncomfortable - forgo your foundation and you still won't look as bad as someone undergoing cancer treatment. I was even tagged in a Facebook request (not from a friend I hasten to add) to do my own no make-up selfie as it was the least I could do in sympathy of all those poor people who have cancer. I don't need to do a selfie, I just have to look in the mirror. I also don't need sympathy, for in front of me I see a brave, strong and determined woman. Make-up on or not, surely this is the image I should be promoting to my children?
There was also media coverage of a woman in Australia, who had been photographed naked, displaying her scars following numerous operations to rid her body of breast cancer. There were calls of this being offensive and inappropriate. Why do we struggle to see the honest image of illness, yet glorify those following plastic surgery? I would rather see a woman who shows off her scars as a symbol of her courageousness and fight against a devastating illness than a model who has been surgically enhanced and then airbrushed, resulting in an image that is unachievable at best, dangerous at worse.
Yet whilst I acknowledge it is better to be honest and love your body, bald hair and all, I can also appreciate how much easier it is for people to talk to me when they don't have a visible reminder of my illness in front of them. And honestly, sometimes it is also comforting for me to be able to hide behind my make-up and wig, to forget what's going on inside and look as I used to. But, how can I expect others to accept me, scars and all, when I cover them up to look at the reflection in the mirror of myself? So, I have made a conscious decision and last week ditched the wig. People may have done a double-take at my interesting crop cut, but frankly, who cares - I'm still here and am more proud to be the real me, than to conform to society's stereotype of what a woman should look like. And that is the legacy I wish to leave my children. Be brave, be honest, be true to yourself.