Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

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So, chemotherapy …

Stay with me, dear reader.

The first thing I had to do was to meet my oncologist, Professor Paul Ellis. Ade couldn’t make the first appointment due to Captain Hooking, but a timely oil spillage then came to our rescue. Someone had leaked diesel oil under the massive panto tent in Canterbury and it was deemed unsafe to perform, due to the fumes. I presume there was the possibility that, if a child dropped a cigarette butt, it could turn into a giant Peter-Panny fireball. So he had a few weeks off.

Paul Ellis explained in beautiful detail the reasoning behind chemotherapy. My cancer was hormone sensitive and HER2 positive, so I was going to have Herceptin as well as other drugs. He did some small sketches on a scrap of paper. From the drawing, I understood that there were some spiky things that needed small hats. Then he went through all the different options of drugs I could have and the various courses of treatment. I made a good face and attempted a question or two, but all I wanted to say to him was, ‘Listen, you don’t have to do this. I will be happy with the option you choose. I trust you.’

It is the same with my agent, Maureen, and contracts. She knows that it is pointless going through the fine detail with me. Fine detail, to me, is white noise.

‘I won’t go through the whole thing with you, love, because I know it bores you. Any questions?’

‘No.’

‘Do you just want to sign where indicated?’

‘Yes, I do. Thank you.’

So Paul decided on a six-month course of treatment that we all agreed sounded the business. Six months. I made a note on the calendar. Six months and then back to normal. Job done.

Before the ‘off’, I had a portacath fitted. This allows the drugs and whatever else to go directly into a vein. It was quite different from what I imagined. I thought it would be like the top of a carton of fruit juice, but no, it actually sits completely under your skin and the needle is then stabbed through into it, which means there is never any trouble finding a vein. Marvellous! All this required was a small operation, which gave me the chance to see Mr Gui again, and the anaesthetist, whom I was again extremely nice to.

Port in place, and the chemo began.

The first one is a bit scary, because you have no idea how you’re going to feel. I had my own little cubicle, and Ade and the girls came along to keep me company and have a look.

The clinic offered me a thing called a cold cap, which is a helmet you wear that is extremely cold – freezing, in fact – and can prevent a good deal of hair loss. I gave it a go, but losing my hair was not a real worry for me. I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life in wigs of one kind or another. Most people don’t really know what my real hair looks like, and are shocked to find out that it’s not red and curly.

A little detour about wigs here. There are acrylic wigs, the kind you can get in department stores, which are obviously not made from real hair and are attached to an elastic net – pull-on wigs. But wigs made from real hair are painstakingly constructed by specialist wig makers and made to order. Every individual hair is knotted on to fine lace. The first fitting you have involves having your hair pinned down as flat as it will go and having layers and layers of cling film wrapped tightly round your head. It’s not a good look. The hairline is drawn on to the cling film before the whole thing is removed and used as a template. Then a huge box of dead hair is produced, of every length and colour imaginable, and the selection process begins.

It’s not actually dead people’s hair – which is what I always used to believe it was. Or nun’s hair. It is just people’s hair that is cut off and sold. So, basically, poor people’s hair. The hair is then knotted on to lace by tiny people with tiny fingers and excellent eyesight. It takes weeks. The hair is then cut and treated like normal hair. It’s hairpinned on to yer head, and the lace at the hairline is practically invisible and stuck down with glue. There you go. Just so you know.

Anyway, with a very cold head, it’s time for the saline drip, some paracetamol, some antihistamine and then the big boy: a huge horse syringe of red liquid that’s pushed in through the port. Then more saline. Then wait. And what comes is like the most enormous hangover you’ve ever had in your whole life; it’s like a night on mixed spirits, wine and grappa. It’s a real cracker. It’s a humdinger.

When we left, I was walking very slowly, and clutching a large bag of various pills and anti-sickness medication, which worked brilliantly. I never felt sick. I was lucky. And the steroids they give you keep you fairly buzzy for the first few days. They tell you to keep active, so I swept the patio ceaselessly.

The following night, Dawn and I were booked to appear at the Palladium – no, I’m joking! It was actually the Albert Hall, for the Wainwright/McGarrigle Christmas show. As we knew Rufus Wainwright and loved the whole family, it seemed like a fun thing to do. I can’t remember exactly what it was that we did, but I expect it involved dressing up, showing off and listening to some wonderful music. As it turned out, it would be one of Kate McGarrigle’s last shows as she sadly died of cancer the following year. She was unwell that night but extremely brilliant and brave, and it put what I was going through into perspective.

From one day to the next, you never really know how you’re going to feel: some days you can go for a long walk, the next you get breathless after a few steps. Sometimes you stay in bed; sometimes you just have to get up. It is the most frustrating thing: you have the perfect excuse to just lie abed, but you can’t because you feel like you should make an effort.

Freya was still living at home and was an absolute stalwart. She checked I had taken all my drugs and even had to administer the odd injection. I don’t mind injections, and I thought I was quite good at them, but, as it turned out, I could give them to anyone or anything as long as it wasn’t myself. Mainly, I could give them to sheep and lambs.

One year in Devon, when we still had our sheep, Ade had decided to put them to ram, with the aim of having lambs by Easter. The only slight problem was that he had failed to realize that the dates of Easter change every year. Thus the lambs started to arrive a month earlier than he expected, and he was locked away in Fame Academy for Comic Relief. So I had to do all the lambing. Lambing is satisfying and enjoyable but bloody tiring and involves giving injections of antibiotics to the lambs that are struggling. I got pretty good at it. Big needle, tiny lamb? Yes. Tiny needle, own huge bum or thigh? No.

The weird thing is that I came to quite enjoy my visits to the clinic. If you’re me, having treatment is a fairly good thing: your life has a routine and a pattern. You do what you’re told, and I find that quite liberating.

I had the same wonderful nurse every time. Joel was funny and a sharpshooter with the needle; bullseye every time, and no fuss and nonsense.

Friends would drop by with papers, and I had a rota of company keepers.

I came to like my big white chair. I had given up on the cold cap. It was painfully cold and looked funny. It’s hard enough making your way to the loo with your drip stand in tow, without having to wear what looks like a spaceman’s riding hat as well.

My hair had started to thin so I cut it short, and then shorter, until we all knew it was time for the clippers to come out. Freya shaved my head.

I had always been certain that I had a pan head, all flat at the back. But lo and behold, my head actually had a shape. I looked quite cool and felt great. I found myself stroking my head a lot. Finally Ade and I had matching hairdos.

My make-up artist and friend Christine Cant and hairdresser Beverly Cox had, between them, lined up various wigs and fake lashes, so I was well provided for on that front. Like JoBo, I always had a little acrylic wig that I could pull on, which didn’t look half bad under a beanie hat. Luckily it was winter, so I just wore hats all the time if I went out.

Ade is a good hat-wearer. Why don’t more men wear hats? I can’t bear it when I watch the news and see bald reporters standing outside in the sleet with their collars up and a bare head. Wear a cap! Ade has got into caps recently. Caps, hats and glasses. If he doesn’t, he says he looks like an onion.

I didn’t keep my cancer a secret. It was just private. All my friends and the people I worked with knew, and I think the press probably did too. I just like to think they were being respectful. Yes, I actually do believe that’s possible.

I have great girlfriends and family who rallied round and who I am incredibly thankful for. Because of course there are times when it isn’t possible to stay positive, times when you feel completely bloody shit. There are times when you just want to cry all day. The chemo is accumulative; you have to think of it as medicine, but it is also trying to kill you.

My lowest point came when I had lost all my hair; every eyelash, every pube, every follicle was empty. Your periods stop and you have no hair. There’s very little for a girl to do in a day! It was then that I got a terrible rash all over my face. They think it was a reaction to the Herceptin, and it was horrible! I felt like a great big overgrown baby with pimples all over my face. A big, horrible, red-faced baby.

So, feeling like hell and not wearing anything like my best underwear, I went to see a dermatologist. I thought it was pretty obvious, but still she asked me what the problem was. I pointed to my face.

‘Is it anywhere else?’

‘No, it’s just on my face.’

‘But it’s nowhere else?’

‘No.’ Quite angry now. ‘It’s just on my face.’

‘Would you strip off so I can have a look? Just go behind the screen.’

Strip off? I am incredulous. But I do as I am told and go behind the screen, wanting to cry. Why does no one ever specify what they mean by ‘strip off’? Even when I have a massage, I’m never sure what to leave on and what to take off before they cover me with a pie crust of towels. And at the doctor’s, it’s a nightmare! Does she mean just take off your jumper, or does she mean take off everything but leave your bra and pants on? Or does she mean everything? Why aren’t people more specific? Why must it be left to the embarrassed individual to have to ask? And I’m wearing a wig. Do I take the wig off and go out bald, or will this be too shocking? I decide to remove it. I don’t care if she’s shocked.

‘Shall I keep my bra on?’

‘Yes. If you like.’

If I like? I want to keep all my clothes on. I would like to keep all my clothes on! I don’t know you, and I don’t want to be here.

Suddenly, the screen gets pulled back and she’s looking at me in my very poor bra and pants. She circles me and then gets me to stand in a better light and looks again at the strange baby. Am I on Candid Camera?

‘OK. Get dressed now.’

‘Thank you.’

‘It’s just on your face.’

I can’t answer because it would make me cry. I am silent until I leave.

She gives me some steroid cream for my FACE. Which I take and apply to my FACE and which clears it up slowly from my FACE.

Just after Christmas, I get a call from Maureen.

‘Hello, love. Just to say, I think I may have taken your name in vain. I hope you don’t mind. It’s just I was talking to Judy Craymer. You know, love, the producer of Mamma Mia!

‘Yes, I know.’

Of course I knew, but I couldn’t understand why Judy herself would be interested in having anything to do with a person who had ripped the piss out of the Mamma Mia! film as mercilessly as I had.

I recalled Sue Perkins as ‘Judy’ in the sketch, and wondered what Judy really must have thought …

JUDY/SUE: The genius I had was thinking of Abba … and then friends called and said, ‘Hey, Judy, you’ve got to make it into a film!’ And so I did!

Judy had taken it all with a great sense of humour, thank God.

‘Mamma Mia!’ may be my favourite of all the parodies we ever did. At a time when we had retired the French and Saunders act, we were suddenly given this gift by Comic Relief. I had of course been to see the film, and walked out knowing that I could not go the year without somehow wearing Meryl Streep and her dungarees.

We had a fantastic cast: Joanna Lumley, Sienna Miller, Alan Carr, Miranda Hart, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Matt Lucas, and Philip Glenister, who was a revelation as a comic actor. He was playing Pierce Brosnan and had noticed that, in the movie, Pierce is generally leaning on something – a wall, a door, a tree. And when there was nothing close, he would simply lean on his own hand.

The whole thing was a joy. We honestly didn’t want it to end! We would happily have gone on and done the whole film. I wished it could have become my job for the rest of my life – just singin’ and dancin’ and messin’ about. I wouldn’t care if no one ever saw it, because sometimes that’s not the point; sometimes, when something you’re doing with people you really love really works, it’s enough. It’s like being in the best game of pretend that you had when you were a child, but with huge, need-to-pee laughter.

So.

‘Judy is looking for a writer for a new project.’

‘Really?’

‘And I told her you might be interested.’

‘Right. What is it?’

‘It’s a musical based on the music of the Spice Girls.’

‘Maureen. Ring her up now and tell her I want to do it. Don’t let her get anyone else.’

‘Right, love. Will do.’

‘Tell her what I’m going through, but assure her that my brain is fine.’

Of course my brain wasn’t really fine, but I didn’t realize that until months later when my brain was actually fine.

I met Judy, and liked her, and shared the same vision for a Spice Girls musical. We also shared a love of martinis, which made everything even more pleasant. I hadn’t stopped drinking during chemo; I just thought that alcohol in the old bloodstream was the least of my worries. But of course, and yes, thank you, I do realize … DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

Judy was patient as I went through the treatment and the accumulation of chemicals took its toll. My nose was constantly dripping, due to the lack of nasal hair, and often bled, which was less than lovely. I felt breathless if I exercised and had little in the way of an immune system. I felt chemical. I felt like a chemical.

The midpoint between treatments is the lowest point for your immune system and it is recommended that you avoid people you might catch something from. It was at one of these low points that I went to Canterbury to see Ade in panto. I got in a slight panic. The tent was vast and hot and filled with germ-ridden children. It was a cauldron of mucus. But I had planned for this and had in my bag a white mask as often seen modelled by Michael Jackson and forensic pathologists, so I wore it. Feeling ridiculous but safe.

When the six months was up, I was relieved. But strangely I knew I would miss the routine. I would miss my hours in the white chair. I would miss laughing with Joel. I would even miss my portacath.

The radiotherapy treatment kicked in immediately, so I could put off my medical-institution cold turkey for a few weeks.

What they do basically is blast the affected breast with X-rays to kill off any stray, unwanted cancer cells that have managed to survive everything else that’s been thrown at them.

It is incredibly precise, and you have to lie still in a lead-lined room as they align you with the machine, using a tiny dot of a tattoo that is between your breasts. You have to breathe rhythmically as the rays are delivered in pulses on the out breath, so that they don’t affect your heart. (I can now hear doctors screaming, ‘That is not how it works, you idiot! Didn’t you listen to the explanation?’)

The nurses leave the room and seal the massive doors.

And then the voice starts. A calm, soothing woman’s voice.

‘Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out …’

I do as I’m told.

‘Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out …’

I had always believed that I would be impossible to hypnotize. I just don’t think my brain cuts out easily.

Doing research for Ab Fab, Abi and I once went to a woman who was famous for taking people back into their past lives. She had been on TV and taken the likes of Phillip Schofield back to – in his own words – seventeen something. It was regression. Or Soul Freedom Therapy, as she called it.

We went up to her flat, which was predictably cream-coloured and full of candles. We were upfront and told her that we were only there out of interest; we were curious to see what might happen.

I was actually excited about who I might once have been, because there are times when just being who you are isn’t enough. I want past lives, and I knew that Edina definitely wanted them too. Abi was there as my witness, and to pull me back from the brink if it all got a bit hairy. There was a time in my second year at school when we put a girl into a trance on the playing fields and couldn’t get her to come round. Teachers had to be called. I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want to get stuck in Cleopatra’s time with nothing but handmaidens for company.

She was a nice woman, with a perfectly normal voice. I sat on her comfortable sofa and closed my eyes. Then I heard a different voice. It was still her, but this was her regression voice, slower and deeper and frankly silly. Without opening my eyes, I just knew that Abi was desperately trying not to laugh. I was trying not to laugh.

She attempted to take me to a lovely beach where I could hear the waves gently lapping on the shore – a place where all the cares of the world had disappeared and I felt relaxed … so relaxed …

‘The most relaxed you’ve ever felt … and now I want you to feel sleepy … you’re drifting off … OK, now I want you to find a place to be and I want you to imagine looking down at your feet … you are somewhere else … take time and look around … where are you?’

‘I’m still here. Sorry.’

I opened my eyes to see her disappointment and Abi in the grip of laughter suppression, trying not to catch my eye.

‘Sorry.’

We tried everything. We tried dimming the lights and lighting more candles. We tried lying on the floor on my front and on my back. We tried Abi not being in the same room. Eventually, I was so embarrassed that I put myself firmly on the lovely beach and beyond, faked a shiver, and allowed her to cast off a demon spirit that had become attached to me.

What we didn’t try – but should have tried – was a voice saying, ‘Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out,’ because within thirty seconds of the door closing and the voice beginning, I was always asleep, and sleeping wasn’t the point because then I wouldn’t be focused on my breathing. At least twice every session, I would be woken by the klaxon alarm. The heavy doors would open and the whole process of alignment would have to start again.

Even now, just writing the words, I can feel my eyelids droop and a heavy sleep coming upon me …

‘Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out …’

KLAXON!!!*