How cancer made me fall back in love with fashion and live my last months to the full

It was when I opened my wardrobe and saw a seemingly endless array of summer dresses, in every pattern and shade from pale pink to bright yellow, many still to wear, that I realized I might just have a shopping problem. The combination of cancer and Covid pandemic had fueled my desire to look, if not good, then classy, ​​even if the circumstances meant no one but my husband Kris and the kids would actually see it.

As a teenager and in my twenties I had a great interest in fashion. But after my first child was born, I found I didn’t have the energy to change the way I’d dressed for the past nine months.

Looking back at photos of the five years we lived in New York, a period when I gave birth to two children and went through a stillbirth, not only did I wear the same style for five years, I essentially wore the same dress. It would take a step back across the Atlantic and a stage IV cancer diagnosis to help me rediscover my sense of style.

When her kids were little, Sarah Hughes noticed she lost interest in clothes

It started during my first breast cancer diagnosis: if you start losing all your hair, it may be inevitable that you will focus more on how you look. When I was healthy, I had the luxury of being able to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter how people see me,” but once I was sick, I started to care more about the image I was bringing to the world.

I found that the wigs offered to cancer patients, while impressively realistic to look at, made my head itchy too much in the summer. Instead, I decided to channel my inner “younger wife of a Middle Eastern potentate” with a range of dramatic turbans and full-skirt, three-quarter-sleeve dresses.

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes was a prolific and talented journalist for i and many other publications. She died of cancer on April 5, 2021 at the age of 48 after completing her memoir on “life, death, and all the madness in between,” leaving behind a husband, Kris, and two children.

Her family and friends established the Sarah Hughes Trust to hold an annual reading in her name.

After my mastectomy, my hair started to grow back, thick and curly with a white stripe in the front that I was quite attached to. My post-cancer plan included a breast reduction and I had been advised to lose some weight before that. I was about to start when I received the terrible news that my cancer had spread to my liver and had now metastasized.

What followed was a particularly grueling time when fashion was way out of my mind again. I was taking a huge amount of steroids and can hardly bring myself to look at pictures from this period: I am enormously fat and bloated with a moon face. I am unrecognizable. I would lie in bed at night wondering how Kris could get herself to touch me.

In her teens and twenties, Sarah Hughes was very interested in fashion

After managing to feel positive for much of my diagnosis, even announcing that the cancer had spread, I found myself teetering on the brink of major depression.

But when my oncologist took me off the steroids, the effects were almost immediate. The weight slipped off my face and body. I no longer looked bloated and got more of a normal size. More unusually, the weight continued to decrease, partly because I then developed ascites (abdominal fluid), which had to be emptied regularly, and partly because of the progression of the cancer.

At that point, a little voice in my head remarked that this wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

However, it was drowned out by a louder voice acknowledging that it was quite nice not to be overweight for the first time in nearly two decades. At this point I was definitely moving in tricky waters. It’s one thing to want to be stylish and quite another to equate style with a certain weight.

Dealing with illness rekindled Sarah Hughes’ passion for clothing

We are repeatedly warned against pathologizing the way we look, believing that one side is good and the other bad. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was a certain satisfaction in seeing my weight fall and then stabilize.

The most exciting thing about the bloated body and moon face ending was the new opportunities to wear different clothes. After a few years of feeling very uncomfortable about the way I looked and spending my time dreaming about fashion instead of wearing it, I was suddenly able to make those dreams come true.

Before that I had fantasized about clothes instead of buying them. I embraced the concept of imaginary fashion; that is, entire outfits that existed in my head rather than in real life. There were days when I was Margaret Howell Woman, wearing guernseys, immaculate shirts and perfectly cut navy-blue trousers, and staring out to sea from the pottery house I lived in.

Either I lived in Paris during the Belle Époque, where I spent my time with Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, wearing sharp menswear, or in Devon’s “Hangover Hall” in the 1930s, watching Djuna Barnes complete Nightwood.

Sarah Hughes with her children

I was Mitford sister and Biba girl; I queued for Dior’s New Look and joined the hordes crowding outside The Limelight, CBGBs and Studio 54. I was a nightclub star and dolly bird, rocker and mod, punk and post-punk and indie queen.

Now suddenly and surprisingly, thanks to a combination of long-savings and weight loss, I had the opportunity to act on those impulses. I could shop in French boutiques like Rouje, stocking up on their Gabin dresses and lipsticks in every possible shade of red. I could buy perfectly cut sweaters from Navygrey and Me+Em and full skirts from Uniqlo, Whistles and Collectif.

I browsed online vintage stores like Bloomsbury’s Seamstress and flipped through the shirt dresses at the ethical clothing company Palava.

Best of all, I actually became a Margaret Howell Woman and bought a pair of dress pants, a navy blue cable knit, and two shirts. I might not move from Perivale to the imaginary potter’s cottage in Cornwall, but I could put on the clothes and pretend I was there feeling like a long-cherished fashion dream had finally come true.

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More than one eyebrow is probably raised at this point. After all, we are constantly told about the evils of fast fashion and the importance of ethical shopping. To which I can only answer yes, fair enough, but in the kingdom of cancer different rules apply.

There’s something about knowing you’re going to die that changes the way you react to things. Obviously I can only speak for myself here – many other people with metastatic cancer choose not to spend money because they think it’s crazy to do if you can’t guarantee how long you’ll be around. My own experience, however, is that I desperately want to spend the last few months of my life as best I can.

I don’t care that Covid and the ensuing lockdown means that only Kris, the kids and the doctors and nurses treating my illness will see my different outfits. Because ultimately I believe that style, the clothes you put on, the things you fall in love with, have nothing to do with other people. You wear them for yourself.

Fashion may be serious business, but wearing it should always be fun. That simple understanding is why stage IV cancer took it to remind me how much I loved clothes. Because as my world shrinks and the end is in sight, I want to look as good as possible.

This is an excerpt from ‘Holding Tight, Letting Go’ by Sarah Hughes, published by Blink Publishing, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, available now for £16.99

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