Independence Day

I write my latest blog post for America on July 4th, celebrating Independence Day with one of my oldest and closest friends. Unsurprisingly I’ve felt really happy and content during our trip so far, as I’m removed from the realities of my daily life. It’s exactly two years since I started taking Pembrolizumb after my second bowel surgery to remove a tumour from my small bowel.

Thanks to Pembrolizumab I’m celebrating another kind of Independence Day; one that is free from cancer and all the worries that come alongside it. I’m in full on vacation mode right now and it feels lovely to have a long break from work and get some headspace.

Ten years ago at the age of 21 I studied in America as part of my university degree and I made some incredible friends from all over the world along the way. I was lucky enough to be a bridesmaid for one of my closest friends in Maryland over the weekend. America and the people I met remain very special to me, and I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to return to the states over the last decade, even though there have been times when I felt it would never be possible again.

Looking back, I wish I’d gone travelling on my gap year, however nowadays I feel even more grateful that I was able to experience living in another country as a young 20 something.

Health insurance can mean the America ends up being one of the no-go places for cancer patients, particularly those who haven’t been given the all clear or are classed as in remission, however I managed to get a reasonable insurance cover policy through a company called Insurance With. They recognise Immunotherapy treatments alongside chemotherapy which has made the insurance process much easier.

I’ve been caught up with everything at home over the last few months; a new job, moving house, a charity trek and the never ending cycle of hospital appointments. So much so that I hadn’t realised I need to take some time out. Walking through a stunning National Park yesterday made me feel like I hadn’t a care in the world, I’ve been so relaxed in the beautiful setting in Maine I’d even forgotten what day it was. I’ve been spending time with my oldest friend who I only see around once a year, so it’s even more special. If you follow my social media you’ll see my various holiday photos.

Often I feel as though I’m living in the shadows of the life I had before, but not today. Despite tiredness and aches and pains from hiking up a beautiful mountain yesterday I’m ready for a new day. It seems crazy to think just over a week ago I was having Chemotherapy back home, my 34th cycle of Pembrolizumab. What a difference a few days can make! I have vivid memories of having this drug for the first time; I remember the smell of medicine and cleaning products on the ward and the long wait for treatment whilst sitting in a side room. I thought the wait was a one off before I understood how the drug is made at the hospital pharmacy.

Two years is a long time to constantly receive treatment, especially as I’d been on other treatments before, but I’ve been given another two years of a good life, so no complaints there.

Happy Independence Day!

Confidently Speaking About Cancer

It seems that for the most part I can write blog posts about my feelings, even speak on national television about my cancer journey, but often when It comes to smaller settings, or even a one-to-one, I clam up and become emotional. Having cancer has affected my confidence in so many ways, it varies each day depending on how I am feeling.

I can struggle to express things to friends and family, often just opting for telling people I am ok, but I don’t mind frequently sharing my thoughts online for anyone who wants to read. I don’t quite understand why I react in this way. Perhaps because some forms of sharing feel like the are more for the ‘greater good’, and could help others as well as myself, so somehow feels more worthwhile. In some ways I feel more detached from my story, but if an individual asks me about my hospital visits, even if I know them really well, I start forming tears almost instantly. My confidence levels can change daily, I certainly don’t feel confident when I am having my treatment on the chemo suite surrounded by lots of other unfortunate people. During one of my recent visits I had what I would describe as a breakdown moment. sitting in the chair waiting for my drugs to arrive I became overwhelmed with negative thoughts and burst into tears. Life is unfair, it really is, I needed a good cry that day, but no amount of crying will change my situation. One of the nurses kindly pulled the curtain around the area I was sitting (not that a flimsy blue curtain is at all soundproof) and went to get and get my mum who was in the waiting room.

A friend asked me a few months ago if I had considered filming a blog or starting a podcast, but the idea scares me much more than writing things down. With a vlog or podcast it is different; I feel I would be judged in so many other ways, and feel as though I wouldn’t have anything new to say. What if no one watches it except my parents, and, if people do, I fear it won’t be interesting or engaging enough. Vlogging or creating a podcast seems like a bigger investment somehow. Who really wants to know what I did on a day off? I also don’t like the sound of my own voice; it is my voice however, and it isn’t going to change, so I should just be comfortable with it. I also have a lot of scars, including a particularly huge one of my neck form my original melanoma site, so the thought of creating a video where I am the subject feels strange to me. When Sue Bourne and he team filmed me for A Time To Live they followed me around for a few days, I got to know the small crew and felt secure with them. I still think I look odd and slightly uncomfortable on camera though!

If someone was asked to describe me I’m not sure what they would say; in some ways I’m confident, but in other ways I feel cancer has crushed my confidence and I can’t move forward. On the outside I seem fine, but on the inside it can be a different story. My fear with vlogging would be that others would be hoping to see a happy person or hear encouraging words on how to be powerful and strong and brave, but I often don’t feel that way. People want to see positive stories, but what if I can’t give that? Not every day is a good day, I try to muddle though as best I can.

I’m often happy with my own company, or having the house to myself for a night, but cancer is a lonely place, and I don’t think I benefit from having down time, as it’s gives me too much room to think. Towards the end of 2017 I felt I was in a dark place and was prescribed antidepressants which I’ve now been taking for over six months. This has helped take the edge of and feel like I can still get through a day unscathed. Often, if I am around people I trust and love I can be the most chatty person in the room, but put me in front of  new people and it is a different story all together and my confidence is non existent. Ultimately I am just me and I should accept it, but cancer has changed me forever in so many ways, and I can’t go back to the younger, carefree, drama student version of myself.

Lake District Five Peaks Challenge

Last weekend I conquered the Lake District 5 Peaks for charity, including England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike in just one day. I did this in aid of Trekstock, a young adult cancer charity I’ve frequently mentioned in my blog.

I found out about Trekstock through social media, and over the last 18 months I’ve found them a great source of support. Through the charity I took part in their RENEW exercise programme and also became involved in the BBC documentary A Time To Live by Sue Bourne. I have also benefited from other events they’ve organised for those who have experienced cancer.

The challenge, organised through the company Charity Challenge was without a doubt one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life! It was the most difficult physical challenge I’ve set myself so far. I was on my feet walking for the best part of 12 and a half hours straight and I found the trek both physically and mentally tough. I felt so many emotions in one short space of time; I laughed and I cried! (A lot!), but I’m proud to say I did it! I was the last person in my challenge group of 44 people to finish on the day, and I’m sure I said I couldn’t do it about 1000 times. My hips and legs became so tired that I had to give up my backpack for the last four hours, and the Charity Challenge team kindly carried it for me. I kept joking that the leaders should apply for World’s Strongest Man as they carried my backpack (as well as their own), whilst navigating across the boulders and rough terrain of the landscape. The whole experience reminded me of the type of person I am; I’m a fairly nervous person, I get scared easily, and the weekend confirmed that I’m certainly not an outdoor enthusiast! It took me longer than average to learn to swim, ride a bike and drive a car, so I shouldn’t be surprised I found the trek tough going! I know I won’t be signing up to adventurer Bear Grylls next TV show in a hurry.

Despite my initial disappointment at finishing last, I have to remind myself it wasn’t a race, I also had chemotherapy last Monday, so I know I should be especially proud. Initially it felt bitter sweet; the challenge reminded me that I am not invincible, and that having stage 4 cancer means I will inevitably find it difficult to do things that a healthy person could do more easily. As first I felt really upset, as it was a reality check, but it hindsight I’m just glad to have finished.

I’m still very sore and in pain, and pretty sure I’m going to loose a toenail but it was worth it!  Without sounding like an awards acceptance speech; I am grateful to my two wonderful friends that completed the trek with me (they must be mad!), I’ve never been so happy to see two people before. Huge thanks to the Charity Challenge team who made sure I powered through, and of course to the lovely Trekstock team. I know the money raised will continue to make a huge difference to people like me. It was lovely to meet so many other people connected to the charity, who gave me encouragement, supported and cheered me on until the bitter end. I’ll certainly be visiting the Lake District again soon, it isn’t an area of the world I’d visited before, and the landscapes were stunning. It goes to show there is so much beauty in England so close to home, I still have The Travel Bug, but I’d love to explore the UK more.
 At the moment I’m not sure the Lake District 5 Peaks would be something I would do again in a huge rush, but knowing me I’ll probably end of signing up to something else in few weeks. Perhaps I should opt for a simple bake sale instead? Overall I feel a great sense of achievement. and I’ll be riding high on that wave for a while, even if I am still hobbling.

Its great feeling knowing the money raised can make a real difference, helping to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of people in similar shoes to mine. In total I’ve raised over £1,100 for Trekstock so far, and if you’d still like to donate you can do so here.

I am also delighted to say that I had stable scan results at my oncology appointment last Monday, which is of course fantastic news. Now that I know, I hope I can relax more over the next few months and enjoy my summer adventures and birthday celebrations.

Life Through A Lens 

Recently I’ve been witness to how much of our lives are governed by social media, from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to Snapchat and Instagram stories. More often we are living our lives through a lens and my guess is we are probabaly all guilty of oversharing at times, myself included. Sometimes I use apps like Instagram out of habit and I don’t even think about it, I’m not even going on there to look at anything specific.

I frequently enjoy sharing elements of my life online alongside my blog, and in doing so it’s helped me feel less like the odd one out, I’m not the only one living the lonely cancer life. Writing my blog and creating social media platforms has opened up a lot of new opportunities for me, from my television debut to writing guest blogs for Huffington Post UK and The Lewis Foundation,  as well as finding out about the work of other charities I wouldn’t have heard of before. I’ve also been in touch with other melanoma patients who I wouldn’t have connected with otherwise. I do however feel a temporary break is much needed.

The use social media seems like it’s at an all time high, gone are the days of hotmail email accounts, MySpace and MSN messenger,  being part of the millennial tribe means that everyone is quick to share photos and videos of their lives at a click of a button. I’m also guilty of this, I mean who wants the FOMO?! (aka the fear of missing out for those that are less social media savvy). When I was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2010 I took myself off Facebook for almost a year, and  didn’t have any problems staying in touch with friends, so it might be nice to go back to basics for a few days. The more I think about it the more I am glad to have grown up on the cusp of the social media revolution. 

It would seem that doing multiple activities in a day is commonplace when I look over Instagram profiles. It could be that it is partly the profiles I chose to follow, but I don’t want to be made to feel guilty that I’ve eaten copious amounts of maltesers, or that haven’t made every meal I’ve eaten during the week from scratch because I’ve had treatment that week. Even on a regular week I wouldn’t be cooking every night. I feel like what I see on online is often unrealistic, unless being a blogger is your full time job it just doesn’t work like that. Social media can make me feel like I’m doing something wrong, and the pressure to be part of the crowd and be constantly active can feel too much. I don’t want to be made to feel like an outsider if I have had a few duvet days and not bothered going to the gym. This pressure comes in waves and I’m sure it’s something which like others I will continue to experience now and again, but I would like to create some sort of distance. My lifestyle is not picture perfect by any means, but I still have a really good life. Even if my life isn’t going to be a long one I know that I’m fortunate to be well at the moment, perhaps I should focus on that whilst on my way to my next day trip destination rather than mindlessly scrolling through Twitter and not paying any particular attention to what is on the screen.

Over the past week or so I’ve spent the best part a whole day in bed watching trash tv, and another full day receiving treatment at hospital in the chemotherapy suite, but who really wants to know I’m doing absolutely nothing? Social media tends to focus on the highlights, but not every day is the same. I chose not to show images of me in hospital for a number of reasons; it makes me feel uncomfortable and I don’t want a lasting image to remember it by, It won’t be something I forget easily. My immunotherapy is ongoing therefore I won’t be posting a picture of myself holding a sign declaring my final treatment has been completed, or one declaring how many years I have been in remission. I’m happy for those that do experience that, it must be an incredible feeling. I can’t help but feel sad when I look at these images, because it will never be me.

Having a break doesn’t mean that I am quitting anything permamently, just a temporary break to help refocus and allow me to take back some control of my life and think about other positives I have going on. I hope that a break will help me get things in order, such as my sleep pattern and overall productivity. I can certainly procrastinate if I want to, so I’m going to take a step back from posting online for a week and see how I feel afterwards. Wish me luck!