Pantani or Eric?

St 19 - Pantani solo-MWith my blood full of drugs and my head fully shaven, I am totally channelling Marco Pantani right now.

Pantani was a crazy Italian cyclist who was a big rival to Lance Armstrong in his earlier years. He became infamous for a head as bald as an egg, and the huge gold earring which earned him the nick name ‘Il Pirata’ on the cycling circuit.

I had not intended to shave my head. I knew I’d lose some hair where the radiation is passing through my skull, but I expected it to come out in small clumps. I thought I’d just sit it out, wear a cap when the sun shone too brightly and wait for the small gaps of hair to grow back when treatment was over.

Even when the radiologist showed me my radiotherapy mask, and pointed out the bits where I was likely to go bald – with the words, “well, pretty much everywhere on this side really,” – I didn’t suspect the hair loss would be quite so substantial.

Now, let’s be clear. It’s been a long time since I have had a lot of hair anyway.

Aged 17, I had a long matted mop that was pretty wild and fitted in with the general grungy combat trousers, DM-wearing, home brew crustiness of the time. I’m sure my hair looked great and smelled just as good. But then Miles Hunt from The Wonderstuff went and cut his off for the band’s (then) final gig at the Phoenix Festival in 1994, and I took his lead. It was time for that Levellers dreadlocks thing to move aside and give the cooler and decidedly shorter haired BritPop a turn.

Ever since then, my fringe has been receding; going out like an continuously retreating low tide. But at least I’d retained some back and sides to ask the barber to ‘short’ on the rare occasions I’d go into one.

But the radiologist was right, of course.

The result of three weeks of radiotherapy wasn’t so much clumps of uneven hair or bald patches, as one thick stripe of baldness. It reached from the neck upwards until it met the crown, then plodded a few centimetres down into my hair on the other side, accompanied by a crooked line of longer hair remaining on either side.

It looked like one of the thick hairbands my eight-year-old daughter wears to school sometimes, but one made of… well, of no-hair.

The loss pretty much happened overnight. I went to sleep on Saturday with a neat trim, and woke on Sunday with scalp looking like a once luscious lawn for which the grounds-person had been sacked mid-mow.

Then pretty soon the cap I started to wear outside became too uncomfortable; the superb honesty with which children speak became too true to ignore; and the trips to the bathroom to check just how ridiculous I did look, came way too often.

The buzz cut it had to be. And the deed was done on Wednesday night, and I do feel better for it.

It’s not a wet shave. I’m not Pantani. And I’m not a maniac with the guts to take a razor to my own scalp every day. I can barely manage my chin without collateral damage. But I do look completely bald from a distance. Picture Eric from Guess Who?, with the bushy eyebrows but no moustache.

But all this attention on hair has given me another window on the cancer world that, despite it being the most visible and probably well known side effect of treatment, I’d not paid too much attention too.

Sure, on my way in to the City Hospital by bike each day, I’d glanced over at the wig shop situated opposite and thought, “ooh, that must be good for footfall”, but other than that: well, it had more or less passed me by.

Now I find myself in the radiotherapy waiting room taking sly glances around, noticing those who have taken the bald or short-growth approach, or otherwise trying to guess if this or that particular patient has done a little shopping across the street.

And as I write now, I wonder if the radiologists doing the brain radiotherapy have little sweepstakes between them about what people are going to do when their hair starts falling out. How long will it be before that chap who turns up every day sweating, wearing shorts and a badly mown cricket pitch on his head, cracks?

Whoever had Thursday/Week 4 on their sheet did a very good job indeed of hiding their delight when I showed up that afternoon. (Or maybe I’ve just absorbed too many box sets of Scrubs and Green Wing.)

Aside from the hair loss, the other side effects from my treatment have been relatively mild. I’m still incredibly tired, with some days better than others, but have been able to cycle to every treatment so far. Today I managed a 40 mile cycle for fun too.

I often feel nauseous in the afternoons, and am still trying to stifle that by eating Liquorice Allsorts. They manage to be lovely and disgusting at the same time and they’re not quite doing the job. Tomorrow the plan is to up the ante and hit the nausea with some Fishermen’s Friends.

There are a few mild headaches, and it’s starting to hurt to lie on my treated scalp.

The biggest shock, and one that deserves far more space and will get it in another blog, is that my epileptic seizures have totally and utterly disappeared. Given that they have been such a massive feature in my brain tumour story so far, it’s a complete and very welcome surprise. I expected exactly the opposite, at least in the short term.

So put a note in your diary DVLA: 21st May 2016. That was the date of my (hopefully) last, and extremely mild, epileptic seizure. If nothing changes, you can be sure I’ll be writing to you eight weeks before the one year anniversary asking for my driving licence back.

* Pantani’s full story is a sad one. After being strongly suspected of doping throughout his career, and thrown off the Giro d’Italia in 1999 for ‘health reasons’ (his blood values failed the EPO test of the time), he went on a spiral of alcoholism and illicit drug taking that resulted in his death in a Rimini motel room in 2004. The excellent film The Accidental Death of a Cyclist (2014) is as revealing about the state of the pro-peloton and its drug problems at the time, as it was about the charismatic rider himself.


  1. I used to eat liquorice when I was pregnant as it was all that controlled the sickness. You can get really hardcore liquorice products in Scandinavia if anyone you know is going soon; there also used to be little things called Imps which were like a cross between Fishermans Friend and liquorice. Just did a quick google and they are now called Nipits and seem to be widely available (note to self: buy some soon). Just a thought as this is the first time I have heard of anyone except me using liquorice in this way.

    Good luck with it all and the new baby too!

  2. I use chewing gum to deal with the nausea. (In last week I added in anti nausea tablet 20 mins before). Also not eating before each blast and 1 hr after helped too. You are doing great. Exercise does really help. You can do it

  3. I went to the Turkish barbers for the first wet shave, also a few weeks in to radiotherapy. Very much the Pantani look, good for a week at least, and quite restful for 20 minutes. A year later and I shave my own head (with a safety razor) – much easier than your face, even though you can’t see the back, because there’s no sharp corners. There’s videos online to show you how if you’re ever tempted, e.g.
    though I shave in the same direction as the hair.

    For a while, I woke up starving. I don’t like bananas but that was the hospital staff’s suggestion. An un-ripe (pretty green) one out of the fridge at 6:15 worked well (following the kids’ wake-up call).

    I lasted 3 weeks cycling to the station, but was very glad about a charity transport after that. I hope you’re still riding. If not, it’s a joy to look forward to.

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