A few days ago, it was a grey drizzly morning as I recall, I visited the Sainsbury’s in Newark, Peterborough. I was wearing a baseball cap to protect my tender frame from the rain, as well as my work clothes, finished off with a messenger bag slung over my shoulder. I guess you’d call the style ‘Homeless Chic’, ‘Preppy Grunge’ or perhaps just simply ‘scruffy’. Certainly one uppity little member of staff thought so. And, as I shambled around looking at the books, video games, toys etc. I was followed from aisle to aisle by this guy, pretending to adjust shelves or some such thing. He very clearly thought I was intent on shoplifting (I wouldn’t, but with his sideways glances and suspicion I was suddenly tempted, just to put one over on him!)
I didn’t like it. I felt angry and humiliated, that someone would think, just by glancing at me, that I needed an escort round the store. I gave him such a glare, that he probably misinterpreted and thought I had been vexed by his attentions.
It reminded me of a similar situation I found myself in, in the autumn of 1999. Long time ago now. It happened, as coincidence would have it, in another Sainsbury’s, this time in Market Harborough. I was wearing a baseball cap then too. Not to protect my hair though, because in autumn 1999 I had no hair.
Anywhere on my body.
Because in autumn 1999 I was undergoing consecutive courses of intensive chemotherapy to combat my Acute Leukaemia. A walk across town to the supermarket on my own was quite a big deal. I was tired, thin, (though still with a little pot belly!) pale and slow on my feet. I had a Hickman Line, a central line device, like a plastic tube into my artery for giving drugs and taking samples from. It was a permanent fixture and was held in place by a bandage round my neck. I was not in good shape and clearly the security guard who then trailed me round the store thought I was a junkie or something. Wrong drugs pal. Well mostly. I was on a drop or two of oral morphine for pain management. Hated it though, so I lived with the pain like a macho fool.
It was an upsetting experience, in a time when my life was full of them; physically, financially and emotionally. To have people drop money onto a counter in a shop rather then touch your hand is just horrible.
As a man I can reasonably expect to lose the hair on my head. It is hardly unusual to see a bald pate and draws little comment. Oddly, it is the eyebrows that make the difference. A man without hair looks like a bald man, but without eye brows your face becomes something weird and unsettling. That Christmas we had visitors, one of whom had to leave the room because they were so unnerved by my appearance. That felt good, as you can imagine.
It is one of the most commonly known side effects of chemotherapy. It happens because the broad sweep of drugs you are given, attack the fast growing cells. Not just the cancerous cells in your blood stream and bone marrow, but your hair, your sperm, your taste and even your fingernails.
Yes, fingernails. For each cycle of chemo a band of nail would die. After four courses I had distinct stripy nails which I wore like a badge of honour. Your taste buds are affected; food tastes odd and if you bit your lip the ulcers took so long to heal. I lived for several weeks on Complan, Rich Tea biscuits and Wine Gums (i.e. odourless food). The pain and nausea meant I just couldn’t face hospital food.
It was a week or two after my first doses of chemo, enormous syringes full of red liquid that turned my urine bright red. That was a surprise let me tell you, though not as much as when it turned green on a later course. I had quite long hair then, and it started coming out in drifts. Like a cat or dog moulting, you’d run your finger through and come away with handfuls. You don’t realise how much hair is up there until it starts coming out. So, the future Mrs Bloke brought in hair clippers and we cut it short. Just to save the mess really. The rest soon fell out, along with my body hair and my eyebrows. After that first month in hospital I was sent home for a week or so, I was totally bald by then. As the weeks passed I’d grow back some fuzz, then lose it again after the next course.
This is a photo of me from the time, sporting my Hickman Line. It looks horrible, but compared to the agony of putting those chemicals through veins in my arms, it was a Godsend.
We got help from many sources during that time. One of them was from Macmillan Cancer Support. The charity does such amazing work in providing all kinds of support, not least of which, in our case, money, to help us cope with the extra travel, living expenses, me not working etc.
A few years ago they started their ‘Brave the Shave’ campaign. Encouraging people to be sponsored to shave their heads as a sign of unity and support to cancer sufferers.
Mrs Bloke did it a couple of years ago, bless her. Brave thing for a lady to do. Until now I’ve wanted to do it as well, but I’ve always been performing in plays and needed a full head of hair to act with. However, this year I am ‘resting’ so, yes, I am going to be doing the ‘Brave the Shave Challenge.’
On the 4th August I will shave my head and my beard off. And I would be delighted and honoured if people could sponsor me to do it. The link to visit my page to make a donation is https://bravetheshave.macmillan.org.uk/shavers/martin-lightburn
So, please, consider sponsoring me. Make it worthwhile and let my daft gesture provide some relief to another family going through hell.
Thank you so much.