Recently, I was approached by the guys and gals over at Big C (Norfolk/Waveney based cancer charity) to be a social media and blog ambassador for their summer campaign #CancerConversations. Naturally, like so many others, I would do anything I can to support these amazing causes so jumped at the chance to write a post for them. I had a few different ideas when it came to how to approach this post and what I could possibly write that would help people open up about cancer and talk about it more; as it is ultimately the aim of this campaign. What could I say that could help? Then I thought about Claire*.
I was 19 years old when I first met Claire. It was a hot afternoon in the salon I worked in at the time and in strolled this glamorous woman, full of confidence and pizzazz. She worked in a shop in the middle of town and truth be told, I had never really heard of Big C until this point. I never did ask how old Claire was but I would guess late 50’s, with all of the spirit of a 21 year old. From then on, sometimes with myself and sometimes with colleagues, Claire would come in weekly to get a blowdry for her new bob we gave her and have a natter. Normally she would come on a break from work, or sneak in early getting someone else to open up for her so she could have her weekly treat.
After about a year, I decided I was going to make a change and move salons. I never pressured any of my clients to move with me, simply letting them know where I was going and saying they were always welcome in my new salon. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting Claire to move with me but there she was on the first week, booking in appointments and getting to know my new colleagues in a way only she could. Claire was a people person and brightened the room when she walked in, you couldn’t help but like her. She asked about my boyfriend, my family, she really remembered details of my life and became a friend rather than a client. Then one day, after she had paid for her appointment and made the rounds chatting to my boss and the salon dog (!) she handed me a letter and told me to read it after she had left the salon. Well, I thought she was telling me she hated her hair and she was going back to the old place! Nervously I opened the envelope, what was inside floored me. Claire had cancer.. She didn’t want a fuss and she didn’t want to talk about it, but as her hairdresser she thought I should know as she was going to have to have treatment and I would surely notice a change in her hair. I felt something which I had never really felt before reading this letter; I was only 21 years old and hadn’t had to deal with such things before. My Grandad had tragically passed away from cancer when I was 3 but since then, I hadn’t had any experience with the disease or really any loss at all.
Claire’s next hair appointment soon came round and as per her wishes in the letter, I did not mention the C word apart from to say I have read the letter, was very sorry and that I will continue to treat her in the exact way I always had but I was more than happy to discuss it if she ever wanted to. Months went by and after a time she did speak to me about what was happening to her, but in the most lighthearted way you can imagine. She would joke about the wig she had been provided with ‘just in case’, she told me about travelling to and from the hospital and what a pain it was to have to have time off work. Amazingly, she never lost any hair, it remained thick and bouncy despite her treatment and we kept colouring it and cutting it as normal. As well as not wanting the ‘cancer conversations’ with myself or anyone at her work, she also asked the nurses administering her treatment to tell her what she NEEDED to know and to leave it at that. She joked she had no idea if she was meant to be colouring her hair still or if she was meant to be resting, as she simply didn’t let anyone tell her. She didn’t want to know. She was vivacious and I admired her, she simply had this thing wrong with her, it was an inconvenience and she was living as she always had.
Despite all of this, with the lack of knowledge on my part about what Claire was going through, came a sort of blissful ignorance. People would ask me how she was and I would say ‘oh she’s doing great, she has had her treatment and is looking healthy and is talking about going back to work!’. The appointments continued and as far as I knew, she was doing well. But then the appointments thinned as she went on holidays and she couldn’t make a few weeks here and there. I never put two and two together.
It had come the time where I decided hairdressing wasn’t for me anymore and I had got my job where I currently work, so I had to start telling clients. At the time of me being offered the job, Claire was on holiday, but I had 4 weeks notice I was working and rearranging my clients with my colleagues where I could. It got to a week before I left and I still hadn’t seen her, it was starting to worry me. I couldn’t just go and have Claire come in for a blowdry to be told I had gone, what was I meant to do?! ‘It’ll be fine’ we all said, she will either come in this week and I can tell her or if she doesn’t, the girls can tell her and I will pop into the Big C and see her at some point while I am in town.
The week came and went and I didn’t get to tell her myself, but she did make an appearance a couple of weeks after and so like discussed, the lovely receptionist of the salon explained I had gone and that I will see her soon. At the time of my changing jobs, we also bought our first house – I literally got the keys on the Friday and started my job on the Monday, so it was a very busy time. I kept thinking to myself that I really must pop into town and while I’m there go to see Claire, but time was in short supply. Probably after a month and a half of me being in my new job, I got the news I never expected. I was scrolling through social media and saw a post from her much loved husband, thanking people for attending his beautiful wife Claire’s funeral. It took me a few minutes to really take in what I had read. She had passed away and I had missed her funeral. The last time I saw her I waved her off with a ‘have a lovely holiday I will see you when you get back with a great tan!’ and now she had gone.
I have never really spoken about this and how much it affected me before now, it feels cathartic to write this. I will never forget Claire, she taught me that you can be glam at any age and that kindness and family are the most important things in life, she was so loved. But I also wish that she had spoken about her battle more, let people know what she was going through and had let us cared for her. She must have been using every ounce of energy she could muster to come for her weekly visits and putting on the most convincing brave face you would ever see, but she was in fact dying and we never knew. I wish I could go back and tell her how much she inspired me and how she was my favourite client, I wish I could ask her more about her life. She had worked in all kinds of great places and I just know she had more stories to tell than the ones I had heard. I wish I could go back and see her in her shop when I left, tell her myself. Looking back, I question whether her not wanting to speak about her condition was braveness or was it in actual fact the opposite, was she just scared? I wouldn’t blame her if she was.
This is where the current campaign comes in – Cancer Conversations. Talk about it. Let people in, let people help you. The Big C are an amazing resource and they want to reach out to everyone, not just the people already diagnosed, and get people talking about cancer. Are there things you have always wanted to know, but you don’t know who or how to ask? Do you know someone with cancer but you don’t know how to approach the subject with them, you don’t know what to say? Take that person out for a drink and talk about it, I wish I had.
The Big C have specifically identified that it is men who (shock) don’t talk about things enough and whether it comes to having the mother in law over for Sunday lunch or the lump they think they have found, it turns out they just aren’t very good at discussing things. But men, whatever you are worrying about, this charity can help. There are support groups, financial information, different therapies you can have (all free) whether it be proper counselling or just a massage, if you live around Norfolk there will be somewhere close that can help.
I hope reading this has helped you whether it has made you want to donate to help the Big C continue their amazing work or if you have been bottling something up and wondering whether to approach the subject no-one really wants to talk about. Please, talk about it, from someone who knows what it is like not to.
This blog post supports a new local awareness campaign by the Big C created to help signpost men diagnosed with cancer to the different services and support available to them in Norfolk. Men – don’t bottle it up, join the conversation @BigCTweets #CancerConversations. For more info go to http://www.big-c.co.uk/support/cancer-conversations.aspx
*Names have been changed due to the confidential nature of this post.