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.

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.

Flying Solo

Next month I am flying solo in more ways than one. I’m heading off to Asia for a wedding, and then doing a little bit of travelling alone. Being a stage 4 patient the thought of being in another country travelling solo is petrifying, especially when it’s to countries I’ve not been to before. I keep waking up in the night panicking that I’m going to die on my travels with none of my family around me, this probably seems ludicrous to others, but it’s something that has been playing on my mind. No matter how much I try this always niggles at me when I’m far away. Realistically, I don’t want to travel alone but I am sure it’ll be an amazing experience, I didn’t go travelling during my last minute gap year so It seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. I had a bit of a YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out) moment when booking the trip around a year ago. I just kept hoping I would be around and well enough to see it through, and thankfully I am.

I begin my trip at a wedding with around 40 other guests, including spending the first part of the trip with some very close friends, so I won’t be short of people to chat to and share experiences with there. It’s been a long time coming and I literally cannot wait to spend quality time with friends! I also end my two week trip in good company, which is very lucky. I’m spending about 7 days on my own in total, and although I’ve travelled to places by myself to meet friends before, I’ve never spend that much time exploring alone. I am a little apprehensive about it, but there is no backing out now. A few years ago I spent three days in Barcelona on my own, I loved the city but I missed sharing the experience with another person.

I’ve chosen to travel alone because I may not have much time left; I love going on holiday and always want people accompany me, but I want to seize the day and create some good memories of life outside of the terminal illness vortex, companion or no companion. I am yet to figure out exactly what I am going to do yet, but I do love a plan! I have my bridesmaids dress, factor 50 sun cream, malaria tablets and new camera at the ready, and I intend on spending this weekend looking at guide books and scouring the World Wide Web to find out more about my go place and activities for each destination.

I am sure its going to be an amazing once in a life time trip, and I’d rather travel alone than not go at all. It would’ve been nice to have someone to share the experience with, but I didn’t want to miss out just because I’m single. I’ve been told by many experienced travellers I’m bound to meet people along the way, but if I don’t that’s ok by me. I just hope I don’t end up talking to myself too much!

Being single is a lonely, especially at 31, but so is living with incurable cancer and the two do not make for a great combination. As mention in my blog post Singles Awareness Day back in February, I feel due to my cancer diagnosis I cannot offer a future to someone else. I honestly can’t imagine having a permanent holiday companion and a plus one for life.

As we get older the stakes are higher, I’m sure there are loads of men out there with baggage, but the reality is my diagnosis creates a huge barrier. As we get older it becomes increasingly frustrating; the pool of soul mates keeps getting smaller and smaller, but my illness prevents me from letting my guard down. Maybe I have focussed too much on working and keeping sane that way? but nowadays it feels like there is a time pressure on finding someone and settling down. With life being so uncertain and fragile it feels like I have nothing to offer in that way. Who wants a life with terminal cancer patient on active treatment and on medication for depression anyway? Like it or not there is a huge stigma about being a single female in your thirties, all of a sudden it feels alienating, and with cancer on top this is a total nightmare!

At my age people start thinking more in the long term, I’m in the minority with most of my friends who are settled down. Personally, I cannot think in the long term; I feel like it doesn’t exist in my world, so how I am meant to move forward?. Having cancer has taken so much from me, not just having a wedding / holiday companion but the overall prospect of a relationship and starting a family. Cancer won’t ever let go of my life, there is no remission or stopping treatment in sight and I have to accept that I may never meet a man and settle down. The short answer is I can’t. I am not at the same stage as my peers, although part of me is relieved that a boyfriend isn’t going to be dragged through this living nightmare, the future does feel lonely. It isn’t so much that dating is on my mind, but singleness definitely is.

I’ve heard of people in unhappy relationships who have experienced a light bulb moment post diagnosis and left their partner, having a new found appreciation for life. I feel I didn’t even get the chance to really begin the search for ‘the one’. For me, the sky isn’t more blue, the grass doesn’t looked greener and I’m probably not appreciating the small things in life as much as other people, quite frankly I don’t like the feeling of sand between my toes – it’s too hot and it gets everywhere!

Having said that, of all the bad things cancer has given me I’ve certainly been shown a lot of love and compassion over the years. I am fortunate that there are some wonderful people in the world experiencing this awful journey with me, even if they aren’t my wedding plus one.

Why Everybody Needs To Wear Sun Cream

The recent change in the weather and the feeling of summer in the air has made me think more about the importance of wearing sun cream. Its important to highlight just how dangerous sun exposure or the desire for a tan could be. Although over-exposure to the sun is not how I got Melanoma, it would be silly for me not to start talking about it, as its something I think about frequently. In some cases situations such as mine could be avoided or prevented altogether, and I don’t want any one else to go through an ordeal such as the one I’ve been going through for the past 11 years.

I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering if there was anything I could have done to stop this from happening to me, I think the ‘what if’ question will always be there at the back of my mind, along with a pang of guilt for the situation I now find myself in. I’ve never been a sun worshipper, and always cover up as much as possible, but the worry will always be present. I’ve been told my Melanoma would have developed regardless of the climate I live in. Still, regardless It’s easy to know the right thing to do after something has happened, but it’s always hard to predict the future.

As the summer weather reaches it peak I have a feeling I will see more news articles and images of sun burnt brits on social media often accompanied by laughing emojis or captions such as “LOL”. It’s difficult to comprehend why people don’t take this seriously, its no laughing matter. According to the Macmillan website, each year about 14,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with Melanoma, and it is one of the most common cancers in young people aged 15 to 34.

Often skin damage doesn’t show up straight away, perhaps a few weeks, months or even years later, with increased fine lines and wrinkles, and even skin discolouration. It is a vital part of a skin care routine which often gets forgotten about. Wearing sunscreen on a daily basis is the best thing to do to keep skin looking youthful and healthy. I know many people who wouldn’t go out of the house without make-up but chose not to protect their skin against UV radiation. If I am being truly honest it baffles and upsets me that people don’t take this seriously despite knowing about my Stage 4 diagnosis. It’s not healthy or good for a persons to expose themselves to such extreme conditions which our bodies are not built for. Our skin is the largest and fastest-growing organ and needs protecting just the same as the other organs in our body. Cancer does not discriminate, not matter who you are. Bob Marley passed away from Melanoma in 1981 after it began under the nail of one of his toes. It just goes to show we are all at risk no matter what climate we live in or ethnic background we come from.

I so grateful that my Mum made me get my suspicious mole on my neck looked at when I was younger. Once she spoke to me about it I developed a bad feeling about it almost instantly. I remember clearly raising these concerns with my Dad when staying at his house one weekend. I’m fortunate that the GP referred me so quickly, It just goes to show that If you have an overwhelming feeling that something isn’t quite right, you should trust their instincts and pay a visit to the GP. As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I for one know my own body and what feels right or wrong. Often others seem hesitate to book a GP appointment because they consider their aliment to be something minor, or not worthy of the time of a professional, and we all know how stretched the NHS is. I’ve learnt that nothing is minor when it comes to your health and wellbeing, it is what the service is there for in the first place after all. When I was diagnosed with a brain tumour I had a few friends tell me that it prompted them show suspicious moles to their Doctors.  I know people who have since had moles removed as a result of a routine visit to the GP. Action such as this are great, and I am pleased people have been so proactive, but it shouldn’t take such an life altering event for this to have an effect on people. If in doubt, get it checked out!

I am fighting to stay alive due to an illness that is beyond my control, but there is a chance for others that it could be prevented. The side effects such as nausea, fatigue, diarrhoea, hair loss, rashes, joint pain, itching, headaches and reduced appetite are bad enough let alone the stress and physical and mental trauma of actually going for treatment at hospital every three weeks.

Naturally people should continue to enjoy the sunshine over the next few months if they wish, but I would ask anyone reading this think twice before heading outside without sun protection. I hope most of the tans I will see are from a spray can or bottle.