Trying To Live My Best Life

It’s well documented how hard a life with cancer can be for those going through it, however what seems to be less recognised is how hard life can be post treatment, not just from a mental health perspective, but emotionally and physically too. The past couple of weeks, for whatever reason, have felt especially challenging.

I am desperate to get on with my life and try to move forward, but having to balance this out with the expectation from others that I am doing amazingly makes it harder and harder to navigate. I’m forever living in an ‘in-between’ state from scan to scan. I am doing really well, but it’s not an instant ‘fix’.

Now I’ve been drug free for over six months I am slowly finding out what a life away from being a cancer patient is really like. I went to the GP yesterday for the first time in weeks, which feels strange considering my life revolved so heavily around doctors and hospitals appointments only a few months ago. Whilst this can only be a much needed and welcome change, it’s also been tricky to adjust to. I feel traumatised from the last 14 years of my life so it might take me at least another 14 to begin to move on.

I have been trying my best to take it easy, but also live life to the fullest as much as I can, and the two seem to juxtapose each other. It feels like I’ve been given a second chance in life I never thought possible but I’m not going to be skipping down the street in the rain anytime soon.

My friends would say that on the whole I am very positive, however it takes a lot of hard work to put my game face on. I still feel as though my life is restricted and will be short lived. I’m waiting for that lightbulb moment where the switch in my brain goes off and I start thinking otherwise, however I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, or if I’ll be able to find said switch.

I try my best not to think too much into the future, no one ever really knows what’s in store for them, and no future is ever mapped out to perfection. Recently I overheard a conversation on my commute with two people talking casually about future plans, which honestly made me feel scared for what may lie ahead. I still have the fear that I won’t be alive. I feel like I don’t know who I am without the cancer patient label. I attempt to push these thoughts to the back of my mind but it’s so hard, particularly when discussions such as this are frequent and often. The fear is what takes me to a dark place.

Over time I have learnt that nothing can ever be planned out like one would hope. I certainly don’t have a five year plan, It’s more like a five day plan to try and get through the working week and remain as sane as possible

A few weeks ago I finished my last counselling sessions and I currently don’t have any follow up lined up. I’m feeling ok right now, however I’m concerned about not having that outlet where I can fully speak my mind and not worry about judgement or upsetting others.

The phrase ‘Living My Best Life’ is thrown around so often, but for me this is it. This is the best it’ll get and it isn’t an Instagram worthy hashtag showing photos of me drinking cocktails on a beach. I feel like I am trying to balance on a unicycle, and if you know how challenged I am when it comes to riding a bike that department you’ll know just how difficult that is. Hopefully I’ll find a way to balance soon.

Dear 18-Year-Old Me

Within the blink of an eye another year has passed and I am almost 32! I am beyond grateful to have lived another year on this beautiful planet we call home. Who’d have thought I’d be happy about getting old?!  So far 2019 has been good to me, and my life has changed beyond recognition, having only stepped foot through the doors of Leicester Royal Infirmary a couple of times this year, for a PET CT scan and subsequent results. This is the stuff dreams are made of, and despite multiple daily reminders I am slowly getting used to being free from cancer treatment.

Over the last year I have been fortunate enough to travel a fair bit around America and Thailand; I also visited Cyprus in the autumn and have since been on a couple of city breaks Florence and Vienna, as well as various trips around the UK to Newcastle, Torquay, Nottingham and the Isle of Wight. Right now, it’s not all bad.

I’ve beaten the statistics in so many ways, I almost feel I don’t really deserve to be referred to as a stage 4 patient right now. Melanoma is being treated so differently to five years ago and currently I feel like I’ve been given a golden ticket and a chance of freedom.

Three years ago I was in hospital, having had surgery to remove a tumour from my bowel for the second time. I managed to get discharged the night before my birthday, but the celebrations passed me by that year. Five years ago I also spent my birthday in hospital, at the time I was admitted to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London for suspected appendicitis. It turned out to be my first bowel tumour, and I remained in hospital for ten days before being admitted to Leicester for emergency surgery. In July, once I’d recovered from the operation I began receiving Pembrolizumab in hospital every three weeks.

Who knows how the next year will go? At the moment it feels very promising, but nothing will ever be certain. With it also being Melanoma Awareness Month, I started to think what advice would I give to me pre cancer 18-year-old self if I could write them a letter about what was to come over the next 14 years.

Inspiration for this letter is taken from the 2011 video ‘Dear 16-Year-Old Me’ by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund.

Dear 18-year-old me: A letter to my younger self.

Congratulations for making it this far! This is a big year; far bigger and more challenging than you will have ever known before. Some fantastic things will happen this year; you’ll pass your exams, your driving test (at last!) and go on a fun girls holiday. Despite this, you’re going to have a lot of shit to deal with other the next few years, so don’t sweat the small stuff.

When you hear the words ‘you have cancer’ and find out It’s stage 1 melanoma, please don’t panic. Its not nearly as bad as it seems (for now anyway). Melanoma is a type of skin cancer, It develops from skin cells called melanocytes. The mole you had removed from your neck was melanoma – A key piece of advice – don’t ever go to hospital appointments on your own again!

The next 12 months won’t work out the way you would have liked, you must remember not everyone’s path is the same. I know a gap year seems like the last thing you want right now, but it’ll all work out in the end. You didn’t want to go to university in Scotland anyway! Stop comparing yourself to your peers, it won’t help. All good things comes to those who wait, right?

The small scar from you mole removal will become a lot bigger, and more prominent. People will ask you about it; but don’t let it get to you. They won’t know how to react to your story and this won’t really change over the next decade. Embrace university life, believe it or not this part will be the calmest and least stressful of all.

You’ll find out you have stage 4 melanoma at 23, but you can handle it. You’re tougher than you think. It’s not an immediate death sentence despite what you’re told.

You will recover from major brain surgery, and lung surgery too. It’s a lot to take on, but your vision won’t be affected permanently, it’s always been bad anyway! Once you’ve had you lung tumour removed it’ll be seriously painful, but you’ll be able to breathe and walk properly again. A short post-surgery cropped hair cut will actually suit you. Thank Emma Watson for the hair cut inspiration!

Your life will be so so mentally draining and physically tough, but you will get there. Listen to your body and be kind to yourself.

Your friends won’t disown you because you are ill; it turns out this brings you closer together. You’ll still laugh with them like you did before cancer stole your freedom. You’re driving licence won’t be revoked forever, it’s not the end of the world. You will drive and have your own car again in a few years! Your friends will visit you when you are unwell and give you an excuse to get outside. Eventually, you will go back to work; you could’ve done with a bit more time off but you were being stubborn. Remember, part-time work is the way forward, don’t be fooled, only stupid people work full time!

Embrace your down time, you’re going to need it. Post brain surgery chronic fatigue will plague you for two years, but you will eventually get a handle on it. All will be relatively clam for the next few years and despite what it seems, your oncologist is capable of giving you good news as well as bad.

You will make a lot of new friends over the next few years who don’t care that you have cancer. It’s not what they see when they look at you, so please make sure to keep reminding yourself of that.

Like a boomerang, melanoma will come back again, this time in your bowels. Sadly it felt inevitable and you knew that. Try to embrace your scars, they tell you story of survival. You must remember that you cannot blame anyone or anything, it’s not your fault you have cancer. Anyone who tries to tell you differently can do one because they aren’t worth knowing.

When you start systemic treatment you will loose your hair, much of the confidence you’d built back up will be lost again. People will treat you differently now they can see you’re unwell. It won’t last forever, other treatments are been developed and believe it or not you’ll only wear a wig for two and a half years before you hair grows back. It sounds like a really long time, but just like your driving license it’s not forever.

You’ll feel close to death numerous times. You’ll write your will because you are sensible; cancer didn’t change that. You’ll have a lot of different treatments over the next four and a half years and by some miracle you’ll survive. You spend time  learning about treatments and how to pronounce words you’d never heard of  before. The NHS is incredible, be thankful. Always.

Eventually you’ll find the strength to tell you own story, and not feel so ashamed. You’ll write a blog, and be interviewed in magazines and on television to help raise awareness of skin cancer. Your story will inspire others so keep going. Talk to someone when you need to, its not a sign of failure or weakness. Just do what you need to do to get through the days / weeks / months and years living with this illness. Do all you can to raise awareness of melanoma and the important charities that have helped you along the way.

Stop worrying about what other people think and be yourself. You’ll make it to at least 32 and be alive for so many moments you thought you would miss. Tell people to cover up in the sun, repeat it over and over again and don’t stop; never ever apologies for it.

Just Live!

Melanoma Awareness Month

May is Melanoma Awareness Month, so I thought I would take an opportunity to write about the signs and symptoms. After all, it is the reason I write this blog in the first place.

For those who might not be aware, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma in September 2010 at the age of 23, having originally been diagnosed with Stage 1 melanoma five years earlier when I was 18. I am almost 32 and have been living with cancer the whole of my adult life. I initially began my blog to share my story and raise awareness, and since then I have appeared in numerous campaigns for cancer charities, featured in a BBC documentary A Time To Live and told my story in the Daily Mail’s You Magazine. I never have, and never will be a sun seeker, but my experience goes to show there is no discrimination when it comes to getting cancer.

When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, everything felt very out of my control and I felt all my independence was taken away from me. Looking on the bright side, I’ve now been living with my diagnosis for almost 9 years, and in some ways I am stronger than ever. The experience has shaped my whole life, so unsurprisingly I talk and write about it a lot. I struggle with the mental and physical of my diagnosis on a daily basis and are a constant reminder of what I have been through.

Melanoma is a type of cancer that develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural colour. Melanin helps to protect the body from UV radiation from the sun. According to the NHS website melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and there are around 13,500 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year. Stats also suggest that more than 2,000 people die every year in the UK from advanced melanoma, which is higher than I expected, although I’ve always been told not to look at the numbers.

Melanoma is caused by skin cells that begin to develop abnormally. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is thought to cause most melanomas, but there’s also evidence to suggest that some may result from sunbed exposure too. In 2018, Melanoma UK launched a petition for the ban on sunbeds in the UK after a successful ban of commercial sunbeds in Australia. The skin is the bodies largest organ so it’s important to take care of it as best we can. The charity also recommend regular self examinations can help lead to an early diagnosis and in turn increase chances of successful treatment.

The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole which can occur anywhere on the body. In my case, I had a suspicious mole removed form my neck in 2005. The NHS website has a handy guide on what to look out for which is detailed below.

ABCDE

  • Asymmetry – the two halves of the area may differ in shape
  • Border – the edges of the area may be irregular or blurred, and sometimes show notches
  • Colour – this may be uneven. Different shades of black, brown and pink may be seen
  • Diameter – most melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter. Report any change in size, shape or diameter to your doctor
  • Elevation or enlargement – some melanomas increase in size and may then become raised above the surface of the skin. Sometimes the mole can remain the same size and the area around or under it can appear to swell.

Follow Melanoma UK on twitter to find out more about Melanoma Awareness Month. It’s not ‘just’ skin cancer.

Mind Your Language

More often than not it’s difficult for people to find the right words to say to friends and loves ones who have cancer. It’s not easy to work out the right thing to say and sometimes it can come out wrong and offend people, even with the best intentions at heart.

Macmillan Cancer Support recently launched a campaign on their Facebook page to help raise awareness of the language used when speaking about cancer, in the hope to start a conversation and make it easier for those in the cancer community.

Even though I can often use this language myself it can prove problematic. I am not ‘brave’ because I have cancer, I have no choice in the matter, and I didn’t decide on the path my life has taken. It’s not something I would have gone into voluntarily, and trying to stay alive is not a choice. It’s isn’t as though I am picking if I should have jam or peanut butter on my toast in the morning.

People telling me to ‘keep positive’ implies I am not allowed to show how scared I am, and therefore show weakness. I’ve been trying my best to positive for years, but do moments of sadness show that I am weak and negative? It took me a long time to accept I needed help in the form of antidepressants, and I think part of that is the expectation that just being positive would be enough to help me through. News flash: cancer doesn’t care if I am positive, or anyone else for that matter. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. Yes, It doesn’t wonders for my mental health to be in a good frame of mind, but this suggests those with negative mindsets die from cancer, or their symptoms will progress, and if a person keep positive they will one day walk free. Are the people who live the only ones that fight hard enough to stay alive? Wrong.

I am positive the majority of the time, but I have stage 4 cancer and there is no chance I will live my life without this burden, and I continue to learn to live with it as best I can. I am just getting on with my life, going to work, coming home and attempting to be normal (whatever that is!). I am doing the best I can, but sometimes the language used suggests I am just not trying hard enough!

I don’t look like a typical cancer patient and present; I have my own hair and am able to hide my portacath and surgery scars easily. When I explain my situation to new people they often seem shocked, maybe I don’t look ill enough to be a cancer patient? Especially a stage 4 cancer patient who has metastatic cancer that has spread to multiple organs. What does cancer look like anyway? Its not like an identity parade to spot a criminal. I don’t look disabled but I have a free bus pass and monthly disability benefits just the same as others who have a physical disability.

I might look well on the outside, but looks can be deceiving, so I always try keep in mind that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you never know what’s happening underneath. If someone looks tired I’ll try to ask them what they’ve been up to, rather than tell them they look like they’ve not slept for days, it doesn’t aways help to be told you look crap!

I am not annoyed at others for saying something that might come across as insensitive, it’s not exactly straight forward and it all depends how I feel on any given day. Macmillan’s aim is to help change the way cancer is spoken about to make it better for those going through it. In the time is taken me to write this post I’ve seen two of their support adverts on television, so well done to Macmillan for continuing to raise awareness and helping others avoid a classic case of foot in mouth!

Fighting Fatigue

Since Christmas, I’ve noticed I’m in need of more sleep, perhaps In part it’s the cold winter weather and dark mornings, however I feel I have been fighting fatigue more than ever recently. It’s not ideal given that I had a chemo break over the new year, and in theory I should be feeling more awake and energised than usual.

I long for the day when I wake up and actually feel revitalised and refreshed from catching my z’s, rather than feeling like however much I sleep I get it’s never going to be enough. At the weekend I slept for 11 and a half hours, only to wake up get washed and dressed and go back to sleep. I’d slept for nine and a half hours the previous night so I can’t blame it on a lack of sleep the night before.

Everyone always tells me to listen to my body, but right now I feel as though it’s constantly running on empty without a way to refuel? Sometimes I’m so shattered that I practically spend a whole day in bed, I worry that I’m wasting the day away, this precious time whilst I am ‘healthy’ but feel like I have no choice! It is so frustrating being chronically tired, I think it often adds to my depression and negative feelings.

I’ve learnt there is a lot of power in taking a nap, but it’s certainly not the fatigue beating cure I’m searching for. Perhaps it makes things worse? Recently I’ve been going to bed around 9pm and sleeping for as long as physically possible, by the time 4pm comes around at work I feel like a zombie, struggling to keep my eyes open, I am done for the day and in need of a sugar hit to keep me going. At the weekends naps and a must, and I wonder how on earth I manage Monday – Friday without them. I sometimes wish my office had a little room where I could go and lie down for an hour.

Often, even though I’m exhausted, I have nights where my worries keep me awake and it’s difficult to settle, which make the following day even worse. Tiredness affects me both mentally and physically, and it can be really isolating as I am always envious of others who seem to have boundless amounts of energy. I often end up postponing or cancelling plans because I simply don’t have the energy. Having spent the past four and half years on treatment I don’t think I know what being awake and refreshed feels like anymore. I thought I’d gotten used to feeling this way but perhaps not if that past few weeks are anything to go by.

I know that keeping active can really help reduce tiredness, but it can also make me more exhausted, so I feel like I can’t win. Hopefully it’ll pass as the days get longer and lighter. I’m bored of being physically, emotionally and mentally tired.

Another Year With Cancer

Another year seems to have gone by in a flash! Christmas 2018 is upon us and I’ve been thinking about everything that has happened over the past year.

In some ways in been a quiet year in cancer terms, I recently had my 41st cycle of Pembrolizumab and all remains calm on that front. Luckily I have a break built in over the holidays and I am not due back at Leicester Royal Infirmary until mid January. Hooray!

My scan results in early December indicated all remains stable, which is fabulous news. It doesn’t mean I’m cured of cancer, or that I’m in remission, however it shows how amazing Immunotherapy is and that things are continuing to move in the right direction. I know my fourteenth year with Melanoma will continue to challenge and surprise me, but hopefully I can turn this in to more of a positive.

In the last twelve months there have been some highs (trips of a lifetime, new family members) and some lows (feeling overwhelming sadness for the life I feel I’ve lost, getting major FOMO, feeling left out and generally feeling not good enough for others). The stability of my mental health has been hugely challenging, and there have been multiple times where I’ve felt I had control of life; only to realise that I couldn’t be further away from feeling in control and it actually feels as though my whole world has come crashing down around me. Even as recently as last week! I haven’t felt as bad as this since I was first told I had a brain tumour over eight years ago. With another year looming I’ve began to worry about the year ahead, and the challenges living with cancer might throw at me. No amount of therapy or medication will make this disappear, but it’s slowly making things a bit easier. I know that I will have to continue combating my anxiety and depression in 2019 no matter what life throws at me.

In truth, I’ll never quite get my Christmas miracle of a cure for stage 4 cancer, but I can still dream. Deep down what really matters is spending time with family and people I care about during the holidays. Last January I started a full time job alongside chemo, and it’s meant down time has been less of a feature in 2018. That crazy thing is, I did it! I held down a full time job whilst having treatment for twelves months and I am determined this will follow through into next year and beyond. Often I don’t feel as that I have many ‘successes’ so to speak, but If I had to pick something I am most proud of in the last year, that would almost certainly be it.

As ever I’m apprehensive about the next 12 months and hoping it’ll be peaceful and calm.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New year!

Scan Results And Festive Freedom

Yesterday I received results from my last PET CT and MRI scans and I’m relieved to say that the results were good and everything continues to be stable.

After getting over the Scanxiety, I was feeling somewhat confident that the results would be stable, however the worry is never too far from my mind. Hopefully this means I can relax a little over the Christmas and New Year period.

I am fortunate enough to be having a chemo break and am not due back to see the oncology team at my hospital in Leicester for another six week. In my 2 and a half years of receiving Pembrolizumab this is a rare occurrence, and one I am especially grateful for at this time of year, fingers crossed this will be a blissful time of freedom over the festive period.

I haven’t written a blog post since The Truth About Depression three weeks ago. Part of me has been living in purgatory waiting to get my scans over and done with, and the other part has felt like I’ve not really got anything more to say. I haven’t suddenly snapped out of my downward spiral, but I am taking more steps to try and help myself.

I have now had my 41st cycle of Pembrolizumab and the fatigue seems to be hitting me more than ever. Lucky I have been working from home and resting which always helps, but powering through never feels like an option when it comes to post treatment tiredness. This is something I didn’t appreciate before I started having Pembrolizumab. A while back I wrote a post called Tired of Being Tired, which summarised my feelings on being physically and mentally exhausted. After reading it back, I feel the same as I did back then, annoyingly getting used to it doesn’t make me feel any less exhausted.

Exhaustion comes in waves, and when it hits it seems to affect my energy levels straight away. There is something about being in a hospital waiting room which makes me feel so sleepy, even with all the alarms and buzzers going off every few minutes. Having the treatment itself makes me become a total zombie, and I often struggle for a few days afterwards, making small things such as walking up the stairs or packing a bag seem like a huge struggle. I don’t trust myself to drive after chemo as my judgement certainly isn’t what it should be. I long to feel free and full of energy again, so perhaps having a treatment break over Christmas is exactly what I need.

A couple of people have asked me if I planned to celebrate my stable scans results. A few years ago I used to mark them as more of an occasion, but I honestly don’t think about them as a moment to jump up and down for joy. Nowadays I am too scared of what the future holds and I’ve been feeling particularly vulnerable over the past couple of months.

Of course I am so grateful to be in this position, even if living with cancer does take its toll, but I prefer to try and reset my mindset to one that isn’t in complete panic mode. I want to try and look forward to the next few months rather than just celebrate one moment. Hopefully I will feel less like I’m holding a poisoned chalice and perhaps as though I am holding a glass half full instead.

Fingers crossed for more good news in 2019. Until then I need to go back to sleep, rest and try to fight off a cold I think is coming my way as I’m a bit under the weather.

Living With Scanxiety

My next PET CT scan date is looming and my major fears about the future have reared their ugly head once again.

Scanxiety is a term used to describe the anxious feelings that arise in the time leading up to an imaging scan, during the scan and whilst waiting for the results to check for disease progression. I’ve read about the term a lot over the past few years as it’s frequently referred to within the cancer community.

Over the last eight years I’ve had countless scans; MRI scans, CT scans and PET CT to name a few. Each come with their own levels of stress and anxiety, especially since my hospitalisation and anaphylactic shock when I had a CT scan a few years ago! I spent the night before Christmas Eve in hospital as a result and it’s fair to say the day itself passed me by and I only woke to eat and went back to bed again as soon as I could. It wasn’t such a Merry Christmas after all. Now I am contrast free and go for PET CT scans every three months, which eliminates the use of contrast, instead using a radioactive tracer which I’ve so far had no issues with.

My anxiety levels have increased over the past few weeks, I’ll go from feeling fine to the brink of bursting into tears on the short walk from my house to the tube station on my way to work each day. I keep having nightmares about my diagnosis; being told Pembrolizumab isn’t working and there isn’t any more treatment that can help me, or loosing my hair again.

When you have cancer, all the focus is on physical health and trying to keep disease at bay. The constant cycle of treatments, particularly with invasive chemotherapy and Immunotherapy appointments over the past four years has meant its my full-time job. I worry often that my mental health suffers as a result, and it’s only in the past year or so I’ve really focussed on trying to get myself mentally stronger. Lately I’ve been feeling as though I am having a bit of a midlife crisis, and dealing with cancer daily is more than I bargained for, more on that in a future blog post!

Despite me being a ‘lifer’ in cancer terms it seems I would be used the routine but in reality it doesn’t make the multiple appointments any less worrying. The ridiculous thing is that regardless of me loosing sleep or not, the outcome will still be the same. What will be, will be after all! What I know is that it is something that consumes my mind from the moment I wake up until I go back to bed at in the evening, there is no rest.

I have been feeling sick and suffering from headaches, which I’m sure are a sign of the worry and stress, or maybe I just need to eat breakfast when I wake up. My experience means that my mind jumps from headache to deadly brain tumour in a instant. I know all the signs because I’ve been there before, so have had a couple of acupuncture sessions in the hope some tension will be relived.

The next few weeks are going to be testing. I’m wishing time away again so I know where I stand.

Seeing Scars

The clocks have gone back and right now I’m feeling grateful for winter coming our way. I don’t want it to be freezing cold all the time, but like many people I’ve started feeling the need to hibernate as the days get shorter and it gets dark so early. The colder days give me a good excuse to say no to things without being questioned. After work I want to get home as quickly as possible and hide under my duvet and escape from the world.

The winter months mean its easier to cover my many scars from surgery and cancer treatments with high necks and warm layers, which I am very grateful for. My scars tell a story, a huge narrative within my life, often they are scars that no one else sees or notices, but I know they exist and they get me down a lot. I have multiple scars all over my body, including a large one on my neck form my original melanoma site. Often, when I tie my hair up I worry other people will notice and stare at it, or ask questions about how I got it. My scars make a feel vulnerable and despite being 13 years old, the one on my neck is still prominent, and its the last thing I would want to talk about.

As human beings we are a curious bunch (aka nosy) and over the years there have been a few incidents where I have been asked about the scar of my neck by total strangers. Needless to say I’ve not been impressed by this! Another memory that sticks in my mind when I saw someone from school on a night out when I was back from university for the summer, they saw me and said; ‘what the f*** happened to your face?’ I’m not quite sure I knew how to react, but one of my friends quickly jumped in and told the person in question where to go! Firstly, It’s not my face, its my neck! Secondly, what a way to make someone feel terrible about themselves and shatter the little confidence they had left! Years have passed and I’ve not seen that person since, but the memory is still vivid. Clearly they weren’t taught tact and manners growing up – who does that?!

My hatred of my scars will always be there, during my holiday to Thailand in the summer I noticed some spots of vitiligo getting progressively worse; this is one of the side effects of taking Pembrolizumab, so I know I shouldn’t let it get me down, but it becomes another reason to dislike what I see, and it’s something else I cannot control, like all the other ugly marks on my body. The majority of my vitiligo is on my torso and my thighs and legs so it isn’t easily spotted by others, but I know its there and it certainly has an impact on my confidence and what I choose to wear.

I try to overlook my scars when I look into the mirror, but they’re not easily missed, I am able conceal some, but others are too noticeable or in too much of an awkward place to hide. In some ways I should be proud because they tell a story of everything I’ve been through to stay alive, they should be constant reminders of how strong I am, but the person I now see in the mirror is totally different version of me. In reality I hate my scars and the story they tell.

I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo for some time, possibly over my portacath site. I got one inserted two years ago after numerous issues with my veins meant it was getting more and more challenging for nurses to successfully cannulate me for chemotherapy.  Despite being discreet and easier to manage than the other options, my portacatch protrudes slightly from my chest which I find ugly. When I have dark days I wish I could rip it out of my chest, like the scars and vitiligo it is another physical reminder of my diagnosis. I am not sure what tattoo I would have, it’s just be an excuse to cover up something I hate. Maybe I’ll become addicted and get them all over my body! I had my eyebrow tattoos done around two and a half years ago and it was one of the best decisions I made at the time.

All the scars remind me there is an unwell person staring back at me and I constantly have to dig deep for the strength to keep going. I don’t want all the scars to define me, that’s not who I am, but sometimes its hard to get past. It’s more than just the physical effects, but it’s the psychological ones too. Cancer has changed every single aspect of my life and the scars are a permanent reminder of my lack of control.

The various systemic treatments I’ve received over the past 4 years have shattered my confidence, made me loose my hair and eyebrows, made my skin itch and become sensitive, made me sick to my stomach, hardened my veins and kept me awake with fear and worry for hours and hours on end. They have fundamentally changed me as a person. My scars will always be a reminder of just that. I need to learn to embrace them, right now all I feel is sadness each time I catch my reflection in the mirror. All I see are my scars.

Loving The Skin We Are In

As I come to the end of relaxing few days away in Cyprus it’s dawned on me just how many people are dying for a tan, and will go to any lengths to get that sun kissed look all the holiday adverts suggest we should have. What happened to loving the skin we’re in and looking after it?

Last summer I wrote a post called Why Everybody Needs To Wear Suncream and for me these words will always ring true.

Wearing sunscreen on a daily basis is the best thing to do to keep skin looking youthful and healthy, but people do the exact opposite to get a tan, exposing it to the strong sunshine or tanning bed lights for hours on end. I know people who wouldn’t go out of the house without make-up and wouldn’t let their own children go out without sun cream on, however chose not to protect their own skin against UV radiation.

Sometimes It can upset me that people don’t take this seriously despite knowing about my Stage 4 diagnosis, particularly those who are close to me and have followed my journey. Strangers on sun loungers in Paphos can almost be forgiven, but part of me wishes I had a sign around my neck explaining why they should cover up. Something like, ‘Stage 4 skin cancer, spread to brain, lungs and bowel, dying to live, don’t die for a tan’. Might be a bit much though?

Our skin needs protecting just the same as the other organs in our body. We are all at risk no matter what climate we live in, but it’s certainly heightened when we holiday in sunnier climates. Just because someone has been wearing factor 20 or 30 all week doesn’t mean there skin is ‘used to’ the sun and they can then go without. By trying to tan quickly using a low factor SPF, people increase the risk of damaging skin long term.

My personal belief is that everyone should be wearing high factor protection. I didn’t get melanoma from direct sun exposure, and the desire for a tan, but for me wearing anything less than factor 50 would be stupid.

Over the course of the week I’ve seen so many people with bright red faces and bodies basking in the glory on the early October Mediterranean heat. Cyprus has been described as a year round destination, so I can see why people come here to get there summer sun fix, particularly before winter sets in. It’s painfully obviously that red skin is not a good look and doesn’t turn into a tan afterwards, it peels and flakes off and not to mention it’s painful too. I’m currently sitting on a sun lounger in the shade and can spot at least 5 people in my immediate vicinity with severe sunburn.

As someone who is fighting to stay alive I don’t understand why people see sun exposure and even getting a tan as so important. I’d rather been a pale Patsy than a red Ruth any day. But maybe it’s because I know how unpretty, heartbreaking and soul destroying a life with a serious cancer diagnosis really is.

A few years ago prior to my stage 4 diagnosis I watched a BBC documentary about people’s love of tanning with one of the signers from Girls Aloud called Nicola Roberts: The Truth About Tanning.

In the documentary, Nicola, a pale red head explore the culture of tanning amongst young women and men in the UK, and the extremes they will go to in order to obtain the perfect tan. She meets women whose love of tanning has become an addiction, using sun beds 5-6 times a week and someone who inject untested tanning-aid drugs bought online in the quest for the ultimate tanned body.

Even though I hadn’t had my stage 4 diagnosis at this point I remember crying to my mum whilst it was on television as It was far too close to home for me; one of the segments featured a mother who had a daughter who died from melanoma which had started as a result of frequent sun bed use. I cried as I told my mum that it could have been me that died from melanoma. Little did I know that my life would change forever as a result of the same disease shortly after.

Fake it, don’t bake it! Love the skin you’re in as the Oil of Olay (or Ulay) advert once suggested. You never know, protecting it might just save your life.