Love and lipstick in the face of a devastating cancer diagnosis

After Ella Risbridger’s boyfriend John was diagnosed with cancer, the generosity of strangers – the money and the lipstick they donated – became a beautiful comfort 

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By Ella Risbridger on

Before my boyfriend was diagnosed with a rare, late-stage and hard-to-treat cancer, I owned one lipstick. It was Mac Ruby Woo, and it was simple and easy and looked good on everyone. I liked Mac Ruby Woo, and I wore it whenever if felt the need for make-up, which wasn't often. Mac Ruby Woo lived mainly on the bathroom shelf and, every so often, I would feel good about myself because I was the kind of woman who owned a proper grown-up lipstick. My boyfriend, John, liked it, too, but it made kissing and eating both quite complicated, because of smudges. That was why I didn't wear it much, because kissing and eating were both at the heart of the life I had before. It was a very nice life. 

On the day John called me from the nurses' station in Urgent Care – I had thought he was at the GP – to tell me it was bad, and that he wasn't coming home that night, I took Mac Ruby Woo off the shelf and put it on. The rest of me was usual-scruffy (jersey dress, leggings, trainers: the secret pyjamas of the working-from-home world), but my mouth was bright and set and red. I couldn't have told you why I did it, only that I did, and I was glad I did, and when I heard the oncologist say, "It's cancer," I thought about my Ruby Woo, and I was glad that the oncologist had seen me looking bright and set and fierce. That's the thing about Ruby Woo: in some lights, it's romantic, and in other lights, it's sexy, and under hospital lights, it turns out, it's fierce. It's a very good lipstick.

My friend Caroline said, when I told her that night, "We're going to have to get you some new lipstick, then." She gave me a little square tube from her handbag. It was pale pink, which was not a colour I had ever worn before. Then again, I had never had a boyfriend with cancer before, either. Clinique Fab Pop was a proper pink – a girly-girl pink, almost Barbie pink, and in the cancer ward (to which John had now been transferred), it seemed ludicrously inappropriate. Everyone in the cancer ward was very sick and very sedate and very sad, and there I was in Clinique Fab Pop. "You look beautiful," said my boyfriend, half-sedated. "You look beautiful in lipstick. You're the prettiest thing in the whole cancer ward."

Cancer or no cancer, I wanted my boyfriend to think I was pretty, because whatever else, we were still young and in love and silly. Because there is, really, nothing sillier than lipstick

After that, it seemed obvious: a new lipstick, one a day. Make the cancer ward pretty. Make my boyfriend think I was pretty. Make my boyfriend know that, cancer or no cancer, I wanted him to think I was pretty, because whatever else, we were still young and in love and silly. Because there is, really, nothing sillier than lipstick. It's only face paint for grown-ups, and it's impractical, and sweet-scented, and unhygienic, and frivolous, and fun, and in all those things it is the complete opposite of a cancer ward. 

Caroline found me lipsticks. The Pool sent me lipstick, and strangers off Twitter sent me lipstick, and my friends sent me lipstick. 

When we decided, John and I, that we ought to use this horrible, no-good fuck-up of a diagnosis for good, I was wearing plum lipstick. It was Bobbi Brown in Plum Rose, and my grandmother had given it to me some years before – it had been in an old handbag, never worn, ever since. It smelled like soap, in the best kind of way: clean and fresh and cared for, and it was a bold colour. I felt bold, and in my grandmother's Plum Rose, I heard myself say, "Why don't you make a JustGiving, and give the money to Anthony Nolan?" 

Anthony Nolan is a stem-cell charity, and they might be our best shot. We don't know, with John's kind of cancer, whether we will get that far, but we hope we will. They organise stem-cell transplants, which, as John wrote on that JustGiving, are "properly futuristic stuff". 

We set the total to £1,000, and we thought it would last the whole week of John's first chemo session. We reached £1,000 in 45 minutes. I was still wearing Bobbi Brown Plum Rose.

When we hit £10,000, some 10 hours later, I was wearing Clinique Fun Pop, the even brighter sister colour to the Fab Pop I wore the day he was transferred to the cancer ward. It was pink again, almost luridly so, and it felt like a celebration. I pouted gleefully in the background of John's Instagram: we did it, we did it. A hundred donors paid for in full! (It costs £100 to put each person on the bone marrow register: necessary, but expensive.) 

We looked at each other. I put on another coat of Fun Pop. He put on a top hat. We took a selfie.

He said, "Shall we go to £15,000?" Reader, we went to £15,000. And then, while I was at home that night, £20,000. I put on lipstick in the bath, to celebrate, and he put on lip balm, because chemo gives you a horribly sore mouth. 

There's something gorgeous and gratuitous about wearing lipstick in the bath, like a movie star – everyone should do it, more often. For that matter, everyone should raise £20,000 for charity in a night, too, because it's the same kind of feeling: exhilarating, ridiculous, gleeful. 

There's something gorgeous and gratuitous about wearing lipstick in the bath, like a movie star... it's excessive, and nothing in a cancer ward is excessive

It's excessive, and nothing in a cancer ward is excessive. Everything is very precisely calculated: John's IV is currently pushing the chemo drug into his veins at a rate of 535ml/hour; this particular bag contains 0.15 of one thing, and 0.9 of another; the whole thing takes into account his weight and height and strength. Between 10am and 8pm, visitors are permitted, two per patient, provided they first swab their hands thoroughly with Softalind (96 per cent pure ethanol). Blood oxygen, blood sugar, blood pressure and pulse are taken hourly, and written down in a little book. 

And then there's lipstick, and the generosity of strangers, and neither of them are like that at all, and between them, they've made this sterile ward a kind of home. In my lipstick, I make us both cups of Earl Grey in proper mugs, and bring in cake, and we sit and work together, as we always have done; only now we're working on curing him, and curing people like him, and – fuck it, why not? – curing cancer altogether. 

Currently, I'm wearing Dior: Fuchsia Utopia. It's a kind of subtle pink – an everyday pink, a wearable pink – for our new everyday. It's not like it used to be – it isn't easy, and it wouldn't suit everyone – but it's mine, and it looks good on me. And you can kiss in it, and eat in it, and it stays put, and that these things are both considerations on a cancer ward, while my boyfriend has chemo, is something I'm thoroughly, excessively, gleefully grateful for. And I'm grateful to all the women who send me lipstick, and I'm grateful to all the doctors who are curing my boyfriend, and I'm grateful, above all, to the 1,265 people who have donated (as it stands) £28,995.91 to Anthony Nolan. Thank you. Let's keep going.

Picture: John Underwood

To make a donation to Anthony Nolan, visit John's Just Giving page 

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