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‘I’ve never thought of myself as a vain woman but suddenly, I was an object of pity’: Mail writer AMANDA PLATELL reveals physical and mental scars left by cancer treatment
The past few months have been among the worst of my life. I’ve lost my confidence, my laughter, my equilibrium and, quite literally, all sense of perspective.
Slowly, I am emerging from a nightmare. But for months I was a hermit. I hardly left the house, too scared of the looks of pity or curiosity that would greet me, too wary of the rudeness I would face.
Why? To put it bluntly, I have been disfigured. And the experience of losing my looks taught me more about myself and the way people treat the vulnerable than I would have dreamed possible.
Frightening: Amanda Platell found the experience of being treated for cancer thoroughly demoralising
Happier: Before cancer, Amanda never thought of herself as vain but found life harder with an eye patch
It all started last August when I went to see my GP. It was a visit I’d been delaying for a while — I’d been worried about a small red spot, the size of a pinhead, on my lower eyelid.
He took one look and dismissed it as nothing to worry about, as did my ophthalmologist when I had my glasses prescription updated.
It didn’t go away, however, and my concerns continued — so much so that I went to see an eye surgeon.
What I thought would be a routine visit ended with the news that the tiny lump was, in fact, cancer.
Several months and four operations later, I’ve lost not only half of my lower eyelid, but part of myself.
I’ve had many operations before, but they were all on the inside. No one could see what bit of me was missing, how I’d been marked by illness. This was different. My disfigurement was visible and this was devastating.
My recovery was slow and agonising. I was first covered in bandages and then had to wear an eye patch for nearly three months to protect my healing eye.
Even when I didn’t need the patch, I still wore it to hide the swelling and bruises. I couldn’t bear to display the ugliness of it all. But the patch couldn’t protect me from crippling embarrassment. The humiliations have been myriad — often petty, always lacerating.
There was the child in the supermarket who shouted: ‘Look Mummy, that lady’s only got one eye.’
Or the friends whose faces crumpled when they saw me for the first time before attempting the ‘It’s not that bad, really’ approach.
Not to mention the well-meaning taxi driver who took me home after my first operation and ‘comforted’ me with stories of one-eyed people he’d seen on a TV show who almost looked human again after bionic surgery.
All in all, it has been an experience that has made me profoundly question who I am and made me realise how much we define our worth by our looks.
Now and then: Although her eye has recovered and looks like it used to (right), the mental scars are still there
Losing my looks, in short, made me feel like half a person. It was as if the confident woman I had once been evaporated.
Suddenly, I found it hard to communicate. How important your eyes are in this respect. I was unable to flirt, exchange a knowing look, smile through my eyes. Put simply, I was unable to be myself.
Despite the GP’s reassurance, I’d known from the start that something was badly wrong — I’ve had dozens of skin cancers removed from my face and arms.
I knew the tell-tale symptoms. Sometimes red, sometimes a small white blister, the tiny lump constantly changed — a real danger sign.
On October 25, in a private hospital, I had the first of three procedures. The cancer was removed under local anaesthetic. That afternoon, the surgeon began the reconstructive work. It would take three return visits before it was complete.
The tumour was much bigger than they had expected and the surgeon had to reconstruct my lower eyelid by taking part of my upper eyelid.
After that, my eye had to be stitched closed. It stayed that way for three weeks. After the first operation, I left the hospital with a flesh-coloured bandage from the top of my hairline to the bottom of my chin.
Bizarrely, the colour made me appear as though I had only half a face — one eye, one eyebrow, half a nose: Phantom of the Opera eat your heart out.
Brave: Amanda makes an appearance on TV alongside Sir Ian McKellen sporting her black eye patch
The next procedure saw my surgeon remove the stitches and replace the bandages with an eye patch. The outer corners of my eyelids remained sewn together to help them heal — it was another two months before I had an operation to slit them open.
My surgeon warned me that I would be exhausted and would need time to recover. He advised me to take three months off work. A week after the op, I was back writing my Saturday column for this newspaper.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken the surgeon’s advice, but writing each week was the only thing that kept me sane and made me feel like myself.
I may have looked horrible, but this was one thing I could still do. It was my lifeline.
The day when I experienced perhaps my lowest moment came when I managed to pluck up the courage to venture out for lunch with a friend, two months after the first operation and just weeks after the second.
The wound was so raw I couldn’t even wear my patch and had to put on sunglasses. On my way to the table, I passed two women dining together. One said loudly: ‘How pretentious! I can’t stand women who wear sunglasses in restaurants.’
I walked on, saying nothing, but I crumpled into a heap when I sat down. The salt from my tears stung my raw wound like nettles.
‘They’re just idiots,’ my friend said. ‘Forget it.’ But I couldn’t. I spend my life being honest, not least in my job as a columnist. My integrity means a lot to me. If I didn’t have that, what did I have left?
When I went to the loo, I passed by the women’s table on the way back. I paused, took off my sunglasses, looked at them and said: ‘The reason I’m wearing sunglasses is that I’ve had a cancer removed from my eye.’
My wound was weeping, red raw, my skin swollen with black bruising. What a sight I must have been.
I continued, quickly, the emotion rising. ‘Perhaps the next time you’re about to make a careless comment about someone’s appearance you might think first.’
Kind: Amanda was touched by the solicitousness of David Dimbleby and her fellow guests on the panel
One of the women was aghast and told off her friend in front of me. Ironically, considering the upset they had caused me, I almost feel as if I should thank those women. My confrontation with them was a rare moment when I felt good. The old Amanda was back — momentarily.
I still had months ahead of me, concealed behind an eye patch and fighting a profound depression.
Doctors had told me the sight in my eye would not be affected long-term, but the bandages and eye patches meant that, for all intents and purposes, I was blind on that side until the wound had healed.
Unless you’ve been partially sighted, you can’t know how it affects you.
My peripheral vision was non- existent and my perspective was flawed. This led to all manner of embarrassing mishaps: falling over, walking into things, reaching for a glass and missing it by inches, almost getting killed crossing the road as I failed to see a speeding vehicle.
In the midst of all this, I went to the office Christmas party, attempting ‘pirate chic’ — black patch, lots of red lipstick.
I knocked over two plates of canapes when the waitresses served them on my blind side, stumbled into some chap who ended up sprawled in the Christmas tree and dropped a glass of wine as it was handed to me because I simply couldn’t judge what distance it was from my hand.
I’m not sure what I hated most: the feeling of a total loss of self or the sorrow and sympathy I could see etched in people’s faces. The humiliation was almost unbearable.
I am used to people approaching me in the street or in restaurants, whether they be Mail readers or fans of the Andrew Marr Show or Question Time, on which I’ve made regular appearances. When I was well, I never minded this attention. Now, though, I did. However kind these people were, I just wanted my anonymity back.
So when my friend, Andrew Marr, asked me to go on his last show before Christmas — before he had a stroke in January — my heart sank. I knew my face would look horrible: my only option was to wear the eye patch.
The guests on the show that day were the actors Richard Wilson and Ian McKellen and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. They are all Lefties, but they couldn’t have been kinder to me.
I just wasn’t the caustic, opinionated Amanda Platell they were used to — I was someone to feel sorry for, to show compassion to.
Support: Lunch with friends, kind gestures and small good turns helped Amanda through the darkest periods
Sweet as it was, I hated it, seeing the sympathy only as a marker of how much things had changed for me.
During those months, late at night when I couldn’t sleep, I would wonder why I felt this way. Yes, I was disfigured, but I was still the same person, with the same mind, the same heart. I could still write, be kind to my friends, look after my parents. But, somehow, I was bereft of myself.
The world didn’t look the same to me any more and I certainly didn’t look the same to it. My eye wasn’t the only thing to have changed, either. Unable to exercise, I put on weight, becoming fatter than I’d ever been.
During this time, I refused to get on the scales — I knew that would be a downward spiral to depression. Let’s just say I was fishing out my fat jeans from the back of the wardrobe. It all combined to make my self-loathing even greater.
While I’ve never been one of life’s great lookers, I’ve always made a big effort with my appearance. In the Platell family, the motto was always: ‘Make the most of what you’ve got.’
To which my brother Michael would always add: ‘And in Mandy’s case, that’s not a lot.’ A big nose, huge mouth and frizzy hair, I was never destined for the catwalk, but I have always tried to look my best.
Make-up and Velcro rollers became my best friends and, when I could afford not to have to make my own clothes any more, I realised that anyone could look good if they dressed well.
I’ve never thought of myself as a vain woman, and certainly never a beautiful one, but I have always taken pride in myself. Suddenly, all that was gone.
My once wide and buzzy social circle became tiny. Hermit-like, I hardly left the house and saw only my family and closest friends.
Appreciative: Cancer made Amanda truly realise the importance of friends and family
When I look back, my biggest regret is that I didn’t accept more of the many offers of kindness from friends and neighbours.
My most devoted friends contacted me every day, whether it was to offer to come over for a visit and a chat or to do my shopping. I had those who loved me most close at hand. It was in this love that I found healing. Of course, you also remember the friends who say they wished they’d done more. I wish they had, too.
And yet through it all there were moments of sweetness. When the delivery man arrived with the logs for my new wood-burning fire, I shied away from him like the Elephant Man, pleading: ‘Don’t look at me, please.’ He replied: ‘You look lovely.’
The operations took five months to complete and by the end of it — well, you can judge for yourself from the picture on this page. But I think my surgeon, Mr Malhotra, has done a magnificent job.
My eye looks like a normal eye. It’s still healing and the swelling won’t go down for a while yet. I don’t have impaired vision — it just feels a little sore and gets tired quickly.
So what have I learned, seven months after I was diagnosed? That life can take a swift turn at any time and leave you in a different, dark place.
Cancer, a stroke or heart attack are demons that will come knocking on most of our doors at some time. But it’s not what it does to you that matters, but what you allow it to do.
I know I’ll never look the same again, but my cancer is gone. For that I am truly blessed.
I’ve learned a lot about myself — most importantly that it really doesn’t matter what you look like. Those who love you will continue to do so, perhaps even more.
As with all personal crises, it identifies who your friends really are. More than this, it makes the true relationships even stronger.
After hard times, you remember the little kindnesses, the selfless acts of compassion and love. Scars fade, embarrassments pass. This is what cancer has taught me.
If YOU want to follow my fight against Cancer from when it started and I first presented with symptoms in 1998 see The TAB at the Header of this Blog. called >DIARY of Cancer ….< just click and it will give you a long list of the main events in chronological order, many linked to specific blog postings.
Thoughts, articles and comments will be in chronological order in the main blog and can be tracked in the >ARCHIVE< in the Left Sidebar.
You may find the TABS >MEDICAL LINKS< and also >CANCER LINKS< of help, also many of the links in articles and >HOT LINKS< in the Sidebar.
YOU are welcome to call me, minded that I am NOT medically trained, if you believe I can help in ANY way. .
Posted by: Greg Lance-Watkins