The boss that became my unexpected friend and confidant
Since I was a child I would wrinkle my nose in distrust when I heard “I have a surprise for you”. By the very nature of a surprise they always come when you least expect them and you are caught unprepared. For me, I really didn’t enjoy this feeling of apprehension and not every surprise proved to be a pleasant one. Over the years, I tried to train myself so that nothing could surprise me anymore. I had built enough experience and faced enough weird and wonderful situations that I believed I had learned what to expect from people and life in general and there was nothing that could catch me unawares.
By doing this however, I realise now, I was setting myself up for the biggest surprise of all – LIFE. I forgot how unpredictable it can be and that no matter how much I calculated or planned down to the smallest detail, I could never predict the actions of other people.
Then, one day in February, I found myself one late Friday evening on the steps of a hospital in a country to which I had moved only 3 months before. A country with a completely different culture from my native Romania. For me, Dubai was a place where I was a foreigner, a stranger, who had as many friends and confidants as I had fingers on one hand.
Yet, there I was, holding in my hand a result of my first biopsy, a result that to my surprise and my terror, read “cancer suspicious”.
Neither I, nor my flat-mate, Elena, one of my few close friends in Dubai who had come along with me to receive the results, had any idea where I could ask for guidance. So, in tears and in a moment of panic, I grabbed the phone and I called my director Jerome, the only man that I could think of that could help me with some advice. He was literally the only person I knew in the whole country who had more experience of the place than me. I never expected for a moment that after this conversation, this man was going to be by my side all the way through the rest of my diagnosis.
In the hardest time of my life, when I didn’t have my family or friends, the people I trusted and held close to my soul, it turned out that he, a man I had only worked with for 3 months, was the person who supported me. Jerome gave me courage and strength when I felt helpless and terrified. He simply would not let me forget that I am a strong woman and a fighter and he offered me a shoulder to cry on when I just couldn’t hold back tears anymore. In the morning, after the results of the 2nd biopsy to confirm the suspicions were finalised, my doctor told me the diagnosis. Cancer was confirmed.
I felt like the world was crumbling around me. I was 32, healthy, didn’t smoke or drink, went to the gym 5-6 times a week, ate good organic foods – was this really me they were talking about? How could this be me? I was completely lost! But there was Jerome, he was holding my hand and wiping tears from my cheeks. He was my boss, we had nothing other than a business relationship, we did not go out together partying after work, we just worked with each other and he was absolutely the last person I would have thought to be there for me at a time like this.
Unexpected, unpredictable and unforgettable are the only words that come to mind when I recall that moment.
Jerome (though his modesty will hate that I write this) is a tall, handsome, dark haired and blue eyed Frenchman, with a penchant for good suits and silk ties. I never told him, but the (female) Hospital staff were often joking, asking could I always bring him with me as they like mornings when they can see a “beautiful man with a sexy French accent”. I always laughed, to me, he was my boss! Even when he helped me out and stuck by me, he was just “Jerome”. It always made me smile to see the staff at the hospital giggling like schoolgirls because of him.
I met wonderful people in this hospital, being one of the few in Dubai that had a breast cancer specialist. I was lucky to meet my doctor, Dr Sama, a lovely Arabic woman with whom I had a connection that I never thought possible between a doctor and a patient.
She helped me every step of the way, closely following the procedure to diagnose me, while trying to apply as many discounts as possible. My health insurance had by this point, refused to cover any cancer treatments and further diagnostics, as a result I was paying for each procedure (and still am). Every day she was trying to find options for my treatment and surgery because at that time I had no way to afford the treatment I needed.
Above all of this, she gave me warmth and hope. I found in her more than just a great doctor, I found incredible support. She was already the mother of 2 kids of her own, yet she hugged me and kissed me like I was her own child every time she saw I was struggling to cope. This woman, who I met as a patient 2 months before, was in tears when I told her I would be going to France because I had managed to find an affordable option there for my treatment. She cried tears of joy that I had found a way to treat the cancer, but surprisingly also of sadness because she couldn’t do more for me and felt helpless.
Unexpected, unpredictable and unforgettable are the words that come again into my mind when I think of this woman who played such an important a role in my life. I hope she knows just how much she truly DID help me.
I was lucky and surprised in the last 6 months, since the marathon of hospitals and treatments started, to meet incredible people, people who were strangers to me but that helped me and supported me emotionally, physically and financially. Strangers and friends alike gave me strength and courage, made me smile and kept me positive. People who were already close friends, relatives, colleagues, people I had met only occasionally and people who didn’t know me at all, who hadn’t seen me or ever had spoken to me…all of these types of people were with me all the way.
Sadly, there is an ugly reverse side to this coin. The unpredictable surprised me when some of my close friends, people I felt were very close to my heart, or even considered as family to me, chose to turn their heads, forget the times that we had together and stay away. I was shocked and hurt by this, but the comfort I took was that, for each “friend” who decided not to help, there was a stranger waiting to show support.
I guess I learned that life is completely unpredictable, that you can make your calculations and “expect the unexpected” but you will never know, or have control over, how the fates conspire and can change from day to day. I learned that life’s surprises are even more intense when you believe, as I did, that there is nothing that can surprise you.
In the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“There will always be people who will hurt you, so you need to keep your confidence and be more careful in whom you trust the second time”
This is true, but the part that Marquez forgets to mention, is that there will always be people who will make your soul happy, give you hope and will make you smile when you feel like giving up. Even if you never knew them beforehand, or would have ever in your wildest dreams, expected them to step up!
colour your life
People say you lose your hair when you have chemo, which is true, it does fall out, but I’m now the proud owner of 4 different wigs, so I definitely have more hair now than when I started. There are a couple of ways you can handle this situation: you can choose to see the bright side and move forward smiling; or you can let it drag you down and create an uncomfortable and depressive frame of mind. Going through chemotherapy has plenty of challenges without adding extra stress, so I tried very hard to take the hair loss in my stride.
For women, hair will always be a very important and sensitive subject. Often, women’s hair is a representation of our style and our image. It’s a huge part of our self-confidence and its linked heavily to our ability to feel good about ourselves when we go out with friends, or our partners or to events like weddings and special celebrations. Every time we feel like we need a change, to feel beautiful or sexy we try a new color, a new haircut or evena radical new hairstyle. If we feel that we need a treat or simply the need to disconnect from everyday life, we can go to a beauty salon. We spend hours of time and huge amounts of money to style and maintain our hair, keeping it looking great at all times. I was definitely in the category of women who loved to go to beauty salons as often as possible, spending a few hours each time seeking to change something in my look. Having long, thick, dark and very curly hair it was easy for me to be creative with it and I always enjoyed the ability to change my look and surprise my friends. I loved my hair and I never asked myself what I would do if one day I would no longer have it. That was,until the day I was told that I would lose my hair in the first 2 weeks of treatment. To my surprise I received this news unexpectedly well, my first thought was, “so what? Hair grows back, could you just get rid of the cancer please?” I would often say to friends and my doctors that losing my hair was the very least of my problems.
As soon as I left the doctor’s office I told my boyfriend, Gordon, who accompanied me, we were going to find a hairdresser to cut it short, as a first step. I chose what, for me, would normally be a very weird haircut. Straight, short and choppy at the back getting a bit longer at the front falling down to around my chin. I knew would last only two weeks, so if I hated it, there was no big problem, but to both our surprise it suited me incredibly well. I found this very funny because I would never have had the courage to go for a look so drastically different under normal circumstances. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, I sat in the chair and I told the hairdresser what I was looking for. She looked shocked and she insisted on asking me if I am 100% sure I want something so short, as it will be a radical change.
My transition haircut proved to be a very good idea which first helped me to get used to the idea of losing my hair and second reduced the visual impact when it actually started to happen. Although I was feeling comfortable mentally and didn’t feel like I had any issues accepting the idea of not having my hair for a while, when I found myself in the situation of running my hand through my own hair and seeing far too many strands between my fingers, I started to feel much less brave. It took me two days to be able to say out loud “I’m losing my hair”. Gordon confessed he had already noticed from the start, but he said nothing and let me bring up the subject when I felt comfortable doing it. He didn’t point it out to me because he knew I was already aware, but that I was just struggling a little to admit it to myself. He gave me courage and reminded me that beauty does not depend on how long or short my hair is. He told me I was beautiful regardless. I didn’t want to just wait and see it all fall out naturally so I asked him to help me cut it all right down to a number 1 crop. It wasn’t an easy thing to do for either of us. Obviously cutting off all your girlfriend’s hair is not an everyday thing to do and at the same time I was thinking nervously about how I’ll look with a bald head. As tough as this moment sounds, I still keep a special memory of that day, the first lock of my hair that Gordon cut. He knotted it and sealed it with a gold wax stamp on a piece of letter paper, on which he had written some beautiful words to remind me how strong and beautiful I am. I still find it incredible how he managed to turn what should have been quite a painful memory, into a special one that I actually smile when I think of. He said the letter with the lock of hair is to remind me how brave I had been and how it will grow back in time once I’ve done what I need to do.
All patients with whom I spoke in the clinic told me how hard it was to lose their hair, some even said that this news had upset them even more than the diagnosis itself. They were trying to prepare me for the nightmare moment when it would happen and I would be distraught and horrified.They are always surprised when I tell them how I faced it head on and that I’m now wearing a wig. Yes, I’m wearing a wig, a half natural hair, half artificial one which boasts a very similar hair style to the one I used to have when I got my curly hair straightened, even the color is similar. It looks so natural that it’s very hard to notice that it is “fake hair” (as I like to call it). To my amusement I was really surprised to be told, and not only on one occasion, that I have a very beautiful hair. It always made me smile saying thank you, thinking to myself, yes I do, but it isn’t mine!
In France, people undergoing chemotherapy treatment have the cost of the wig reimbursed by health insurance, as a result, they are very expensive to buy. My “normal”, every day wig I found in a small shop in Paris, where my friend Linda took me. Linda’s mum had breast cancer 5 years ago and she has been a great source of honest advice all the way through my treatment. It was a store with incredibly affordable prices, good quality and a wide variety of styles. We enjoyed strict privacy during the testing, having a very comfortable room to ourselves. We studied, without being disturbed, all the catalogs and I tried at least 10 styles, lengths and colours (sorry, I promise, I am not advertising for them!!!). I must admit that as soon as I walked into that room, as welcoming as they had tried to make it, I felt my stomach empty. I stared at Linda and I said “I did not expect to feel this strange”. She didn’t let me fall into this trap and started to distract me by recommending wild shades of red. We started to laugh and joke, playing with the different models we were shown. Besides the wig I also picked a purple headscarf, which reminded me of the beautiful scarfs worn by the Arabic women in Dubai, and a strengthening gel for eyelashes which proved to be a very good suggestion from Linda. At least, my eyelashes haven’t fallen out so, it must have been. After a few hours in the shop, we lost ourselves in a walk through the streets of Paris, continuing to laugh and telling stories. By now I had totally forgotten about that first feeling I had in the room and was just immersed in the enjoyable company of an amazing friend who always helps remind me what a strong woman I am.