No surrender

At the age of 27, JAMES SHERWOOD discovered he had Hodgkin's disease. He was damned if it was going to ruin his life
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Is it a tumour? Is it cancer? Is it curable? Let's call these the three life-changing questions a third of us will have to ask at some stage of life. They are not questions I would expect to be asking aged 27. Cancer was, and is - how do I put it? Inconvenient. Not in the schedule. Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph glands, has a nasty habit of hitting the under-30s. It hit this one late last year, when life was very sweet.

Nobody can predict how they are going to react to a life-altering piece of information forcing them to face their own mortality. I work in fashion. That's what I do. I dedicate my life to dissecting frocks. It's not a world that equips you to deal with the grotesque physical sensation of sharing a body with a malignant cluster of cancerous cells, grotesquely proliferating like bubbles in a glass of champagne at a PR launch.

I still don't know where the self-control came from to ask my consultant the big three. My natural reaction was to take out a notebook and clear up the finer points, then thank the consultant as if he'd pointed out discreetly I had spinach in my teeth. I have a theory that fashion people know instinctively how to keep up appearances. I wasn't dying inside or in denial about my cancer. I didn't march out of St Thomas' like Boadicea ready to fight a battle with my own body. I felt strongly that this was my cancer: my cancer. It was a deeply private, personal issue and it would be dealt with as diplomatically and subtly as if it were a vexing dinner guest who had over-stayed his welcome.

I didn't want to "share" with fellow cancer patients. Nor did I want too much information about cancer. Nobody knows what causes Hodgkin's. I think it's like the lottery: if six balls line up - genetics, sunbeds, cigarettes, whatever - it will be you. Suffice to say, Hodgkin's is a cancer of the lymphatic system, the body's natural defence against infection. My particular variety of Hodgkin's is in the neck lymph glands. It hasn't had time to infect the entire lymphatic system or attack the liver, lungs or bone. Enough said.

"Business as usual." That was the message to the key people in my life: parents, boyfriend and best friend. Nobody is to be told until I say so. Nobody is to cry, panic or try to take care of it or me. There was to be an embargo on all information until I knew all the facts. I wanted no advice to eat broccoli, drink green tea or stand on my head to "beat cancer". Unbeknown to me, I adopted the AA creed, "One day at a time". Every day would be handled like a deadline until cancer was finished with.

My approach to cancer is part Garbo in Camille, part Mother Courage with a dash of Princess Di. It may sound like a cinematic approach, role-playing through a very real situation, but that isn't quite correct. I made a decision to respect everything the doctors told me, not slide into melodrama and never forget I was one - and a relatively lucky one - of many fellow patients working through the oncology department of St Thomas'. They didn't need a pain in the ass prima donna for a patient.

I think when you've worked like a dog all your life to get to an agreeable stage where life is indeed sweet, then nothing - cancer included - is going to place a land mine in your path. Don't think I didn't cry. I did. Twice. Once I cried tears of pure rage when my parents broke my embargo and told close friends who had experience of cancer. Frankly, I didn't give a flying f--- at the time if they needed support more than I did. It took a lot of weeks to realise I am in the eye of the storm. I can remain calm when those closest are in the maelstrom.

The other crying time was tears of relief. The surgeon who performed the biopsy on my neck had strongly recommended an HIV test. I knew the lump on my neck - and any connection with lymph nodes - could be a symptom of HIV. Having confirmed cancer, HIV was still not ruled out. The cancer/HIV double whammy would, I think, have broken the spirit of even the most confirmed optimist. The result was negative.

Every two weeks this year, I've made the acquaintance of three chemotherapy drugs with names like pantomime dames: Bleomycin, Vinblastine and Adriamycin. Friends, lovers and relatives are embargoed. I go alone. I go home alone. The thought of a loved one flicking through Hello! and asking if I want more tea while I am injected with highly toxic drugs through a tube in my stomach doesn't do it for me. Vanity and pride prevent any emotional handholding - or wringing. There's also an element that this is my show. I don't want anyone else in the picture.

I'm fast becoming a one-man PR department for my oncologist and his team. Saving lives as a vocation makes Calvin's new collection seem insignificant in comparison. These guys are a different species from fashion people. They have pure compassion flowing through their veins. Colleagues in fashion have either bile or neat vodka coursing through theirs.

Secretly, I enjoy my visits to St Thomas'. I want those drugs shooting straight to a vein in my heart. I consume the drugs eagerly because they are literally life-saving. I have no truck with false cheerfulness when you are in a room filled with people fighting for their lives. It is clear from the yellow skin tone of fellow patients that some will lose. But I can safely say the atmosphere in the chemotherapy room is calm. It is a haven. I feel as if I'm coming to a private club to relax and think about the fundamentals of life. The world stops for those few hours on a Wednesday.

Of course, life cannot be business as usual. I learnt that via trial and error. Major life change number one was an operation to install what is charmingly called a Hickman Line. The Hickman line is inserted into a heart vein and hangs from a hole in the chest, where the chemo drugs are injected. This means baths become a contortion act and clothing needs a rethink. Nothing sheer, nothing tight and nothing light-coloured can be worn without telling the world you've got a plastic valve under your left nipple. When I was told chemo would dampen my libido, I didn't believe the doctors. It didn't. But the Hickman makes me feel as sexually attractive as a bowl of cold pasta. You live with it.

Then there is the homework. As well as dressing the Hickman daily, there are three days of steroids after the chemo, a couple of days feeling that morbid flu ache which prevents me leaving the house, and seven days of injecting immune-deficiency drugs into my left thigh. The only way I get through the injections is humming a bit of Billie Holiday as I shoot up before 10am. It's messy, it's nasty but it is all completed by the time my boyfriend gets up for work and that makes me happy.

Having read the chemotherapy handbooks, I am relieved I've been spared some of the more unpleasant side effects. I have not lost a hair on my head after six of the eight chemotherapy courses. I make sure my hair is kept short and neat just in case it does. A subtle Piz Buin fake tan makes me look younger than I have in years. I even dress up as a fashion journalist should for the chemo days. I want to look my best, feel my best and come out of the hospital and get cruised on the Tube. It makes me inwardly and outwardly smile to camouflage cancer.

Yes, personal and work relationships need re-negotiating. I didn't realise my ball-breaking approach to cancer could actually harm those close to me. You can't, as it turns out, tell the world you are fine and then expect best friends, boyfriend and parents to read your mind when you do want support. I had always said I'd whistle if I needed support. So far, nobody has let me down. I push them away when I need to and run to them when I have to.

It is gratifying to know work has, if anything, accelerated this year. You have no idea the strength I get from beating deadlines and cancer. It gives me a perverse kick that, until now, nobody really was any the wiser. On the three bum days after chemo, I can still work on the laptop but won't go out. Apart from that, life goes on as normal.

Chemotherapy is almost over and has been relatively kind to me. The 80 per cent cure of Hodgkin's gave me encouraging odds from the outset. Clear scan results after my sixth chemotherapy is an encouraging indication of cure. Check-ups will continue for up to 20 years but that only makes me feel I've got someone to watch over me. So, for the present, life is still sweet.

THE FACTS

5 Hodgkin's Disease is an uncommon type of malignant lymphoma with peak incidence between ages 15-25.

5 Combination chemotherapy and radiotherapy produce survival rates of 70-90 per cent.

5 The most common symptom is a painless swelling of a lymph node (like the golf-ball-size lump I found in my neck lymph node), plus fevers, drenching night sweats and weight loss.

5 The cause is unknown but there is a documented link with higher social class. None of the more common risk factors - cigarettes, sunbeds, both of which I used liberally - have been linked directly.

Information provided by the Cancer Research Campaign.

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