The Truth About Depression

The truth about depression is that there is no one size fits all approach, it affects people in different ways; young or old, male or female, the experience differs for everyone. I have been experiencing depression in some form for a number of years and I can say with 100% certainty that cancer is the major reason why I feel the way I do.

As a society we tend to define happiness by some key factors; health, work, location and relationships. The idea is that if a person has all of these plates spinning at the same time, they will be content and happy, however if one falls that person becomes unbalanced.

I feel I live in a constant state of flux, only having stability in some areas means I’m loosing focus on what is good in my life, and small changes can feel like the icing on top of the cake, like all my spinning plates are crashing down and breaking into pieces all at once. On social media I keep reading the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Turns out I didn’t get any lemons, but instead got given a pile of shit, and what do I make with that…a shit sandwich?!?!

As a cancer patient I need options, and I need hope that things will get better, and living with terminal illness has meant I’ve been frequently deprived of these, halting my ability to try and move forward with my life. I feel I am frozen in time, like I’ve heard there is huge storm coming but there isn’t anywhere I can run and hide for shelter. I am not asking for the world, just some hope that my life will get easier. I don’t aspire to look like the Instagram influencers I’ve never met online, likewise I don’t want to be paid a lot of money to travel from country to country documenting my life. I only want a life to live in the first place. I just want to be happier, I don’t think that is asking a lot.

Depression isn’t about feeling down for a few hours when I wake up in the morning, It’s the constant cycle of highs and lows and it becomes more obvious when I start having more bad days than good ones. A lot of changes recently have made me feel I am going through a particularly dark stage and last week I burst into tears because the warning light came on in my car and I only had an MOT and service a couple of months ago. Out of the blue something small acts as a trigger and I fall apart over and over again, but each time I put myself back together I am missing another piece. Of course, it’s not really about the car, however it becomes another issue that has to be sorted out, another reason why I feel I am failing. Depression is one extreme to another, I’m either high with happiness or feel like I am falling down and no one will be able to catch me. I believe the voice in my head telling me negative thoughts and leaving me feeling hopeless for days at a time.

Some days are better – for a split second I feel that maybe, just maybe I will start to feel human again one day. Depression is serious and ugly and affects so many people from all backgrounds and walks of life, it doesn’t just disappear when you’ve had enough, but manifests over time. I am not going to wake up tomorrow morning and decide not to feel hopeless because that isn’t how it works.

I’ve read books where people have said they have a new appreciation for life since they were diagnosed with a serious illness, that the small things in life become more significant. I don’t jump out of bed every day grateful to be alive singing happy tunes at the top of my lungs, and no one else does it either! I am constantly told I’ve been lucky so far, so feel I should be eternally grateful. It goes without saying that of course I know it could be much worse, but I don’t see others celebrating in some special way just for being alive. I’d be fine with my lifestyle and accept the all things I can’t have if I felt I had some element of control, and could potentially live a long and healthy life. It’s not easy to believe everything will work itself out when I’ve been fighting fires for the last eight years.

Currently It’s not one particular thing that makes me emotional, it’s the whole process of being a terminally ill patient. It feels like everything and nothing at the same time. I am an outsider in a world full of insiders and It’s no coincidence that cancer has affected the way my life has panned out thus far, and I’ve failed because of it and I’m constantly trying to look for answers in a world where they don’t exist. It has changed every single aspect of my life and each day there are multiple reminders thrust in my face which only serve to highlight exactly why I am depressed. It could be seeing my scars in the mirror, using my Freedom Pass or Please Offer Me A Seat badge to travel, my constant blood tests, GP visits, the struggle it takes to get myself out of bed and go to work, and the antidepressants I take when I wake up each day. I have been having what I like to call ‘mini-breakdowns’ over the last 4 weeks so I feel an adjustment of my medication is needed.

I am now at an age where 85% of my peers are getting married, having children and buying houses. Cancer aside, when I was in my twenties I felt I had a lot of close friends and allies doing similar things to me, but now I am the odd one out. It doesn’t feel so bad being in a group, but nowadays It can feel isolating. It’s so difficult not to compare myself to other people when I’m surrounded by what I am missing out on every single day, and I feel like I am a failure in comparison.

I feel like the chance at a future has been taken away from me, which is a major issue when in comes to relationships. How do I find ‘The One’ when I feel there won’t ever be anyone for me? Nobody could take on the burden of my illness, I don’t want someone to care for me, just about me, I want someone that can help pick me up when I am down. Having not settled down with someone in my early 20s I can’t give a man the future they deserve because I believe I wouldn’t be enough, and quite frankly feel I don’t deserve it. In reality my life is far from the disney fairytales everyone seems to hope for. The thought will always in the back of my mind that If I take a turn for the worst, would someone want to be there with me side by side until the bitter end? Not exactly the opening line of a dating profile. What I do know is how precious life is. It is fragile and uncertain, I know what it’s like to be told that cancer is in multiple organs and what it’s like to spend hours attached to a chemotherapy drug pump fighting for my life. I can’t bring someone in to that life.

I’m not angry at friends for being settled and having children, but am I sad for myself I can’t do that? yes 100%. I am only human after all, and although I don’t blame anyone for my sorry excuse at adulting it is extremely hard and unsettling right now. However, I don’t think of other peoples problems as insignificant to mine; I know people have awful times too which I could never relate to, and they aren’t less valid because they don’t have stage 4 cancer.

Being upset doesn’t mean I don’t want to see people and their children. However I have to acknowledge it is a challenge because my options are non-existent in comparison. I feel like an outcast when I compare myself to others, and I often need to do some self preservation, but I know it’s not other people’s fault. It would be easier to try and blame someone, however my life a series of unique and entirely unfair circumstances that I cannot control. Right now I am emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted and feel I can only pick myself back up again so many times before I collapse into a heap on the floor.

Cancer has a lot to answer for and sometimes I feel worthless, as though I’m running around in circles trying to catch up with my friends; but we are not even in the same race! My path is going on a different route to that of my peers who all seem like they are running alongside each other. For years I’ve been held back because of my diagnosis, so I guess It no coincidence that I don’t fit in. I only want a fraction of what other people have, just some stability and options in life. I don’t feel like I am asking for much. It is unsettling and frightening standing in my shoes without options, like being given a series of multiple choice quiz questions with no answers to pick from. 

Wishing I Was Anonymous

As I come to the end of my two week holiday I’m looking forward to getting back into a routine. As much as I love being away and exploring new places there comes a point where my fatigue kicks and I am ready to rest in my own space and sleep in my own bed.

One of the best things about being on holiday is being anonymous. I travelled alone for seven days after my friends wedding; a whole week where nobody I encountered knew anything about my personal life, to them I was just an ‘ordinary’ person travelling alone, but for me the trip meant more than that. I didn’t have to feel the need to explain myself wherever I went, which was a welcome break for me. I’ve spent the last year worrying that my illness would mean that somehow I wouldn’t make it on to the flight. When I first booked the trip I kept thinking that if I die in the next year, would my family be able to get the money back I’d paid so far?. Morbid but true!

This holiday helped my realise I need to try and stop letting cancer define me. Like it or not it happens to me every day. I can be who I want, sometimes it isn’t always possible, but there are occasions when I can be completely anonymous and free from the poison chalice that is my terminal diagnosis. Even if it’s for a few hours it feels so nice to feel I fit in to the crowd. Looking well is a huge bonus in this situation as there are no questions asked. I enjoyed being a typical tourist exploring a new city.

For the first few days of my solo trip cancer was very far from my mind, however a few days in I received an email confirming my next PET CT Scan at the end of the month, so I am back in purgatory for the next few weeks whilst I play the quarterly ‘will or won’t my cancer be stable’ waiting game. You’d think after almost 8 years since my stage 4 diagnosis and approximately 4 years of active treatment I’d be used to this, but I’m not!

During my trip I noticed some spots of vitiligo getting worse, which I think could be down to overall sun exposure whilst away. Although I wear sun cream constantly I spotted a new area appear on my neck which made me feel really low. This change in skin pigmentation is a side effect of my treatment. Most of my vitiligo is in my torso and legs so not easily spotted by others, but the new area, along with the huge scar on my neck from my original melanoma is much more obvious. I also had a couple of nose bleeds, but I think this is likely to be down to the huge head cold and sore throat I got whilst in Chiang Mai.

When I look in the mirror I see I scars or marks of cancer treatment at every angle, the mark on my neck is another to add to my collection. I have scars on every part of my body from different operations, some more obvious than others; I have a protruding portacath for my immunotherapy treatment, vitiligo, raised scars, tattooed eyebrows and a slightly lazy eye. I had the last eye as a child but it got progressively worse again a couple of years ago so I had it operated on for the third time. The surgeon told me he thought it was very divergent considering I’d already had surgery twice, and the shift could be down to optical nerve damage that may been cause by my brain tumour a few years before. Although this is not necessary why, I can’t help but feel my tumour had something to do with it, because nothing is ever simple in my world. My left eye still remains slightly lazy, another reminder of all the crap I’ve had to go through. I so wish these things didn’t have an impact and I didn’t care, but I really do.

I should look in the mirror and be proud of my body, I know this because it has been so strong and fought back at every opportunity, but there are days when its difficult. The last few days have been hard, with no one there to help distract my thoughts about plans for the day or if the breakfast in the hotel will be good.

I really try not to let cancer define me, not to let it win, and It’s certainly not going to destroy me. When I feel low and depressed its not necessarily one particular thing that I can put my finger on, but a combination of the whole living with cancer package that throws me into turmoil. It’ll be something seemingly small, such as spotting the vitiligo earlier which will push me over the edge and then makes me feel down again.

All the scars and marks remind me there is a extremely unwell person staring back at me. That person is asking for the magic cure to fix everything. I have to dig deep for the mental strength to and carry on, only wishing I had the answer my reflection is looking for.

Being positive and picking myself up each day isn’t always simple, I try to see the good in situations and hope one day I’ll have the answers. I want to feel happy but it isn’t always the case. It goes without saying I’ve had an amazing couple of holidays over the last few weeks, I had a chemotherapy break, so when I go next week it’ll be the first time in six weeks, which is a rarity. America and Asia have been so much fun, but my reality is still the same as it was a few weeks ago, and it’s always hard come back from a good place mentally knowing it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Can I go back to being anonymous please?

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.

The Rough And The Smooth

I used to find it so clichè when people described having cancer as being on a rollercoaster, but at the moment, it feels like one of the best ways to easily articulate daily life living with stage 4 melanoma.

In my previous post I mentioned that amazing news that my last PET CT scan results were stable. Despite this, I have felt very up and down over the past three weeks. Sometimes I find living with the side effects of cancer treatment can be harder that having the treatment itself.

Sadly the results don’t mean all my side effects from taking Pembrolizumab disappear over night, it’s probably quite the opposite as somehow I feel more aware of my body than ever before. Living with cancer has so many ups and downs, it’s mentally challenging and know from experience that the good news can change to bad very quickly.

Last week I dreamt I had five brain tumours, not one, but five! Negative thoughts like this will always haunt me, and dark clouds will follow me around wherever I go. I worry so much, particularly about getting a brain tumour. I had one removed when I was initially diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2010 so for me this isn’t an irrational thought.

Over the past few weeks I have been attending regular CBT sessions in order to help me manage my anxiety surrounding my diagnosis and the depression that comes with it. It is hard to accept that having been labelled as terminally ill it essentially means I am dying. It might not be today, or tomorrow, or in a month or perhaps even a year, but one day cancer will get the better of me. For all those people who suggest I could get hit by bus tomorrow and die instantly so I shouldn’t worry; trust me it is not that same thing. At the moment I’m taking each day as it comes, taking the rough with the smooth so to speak. When I’m in a negative spiral it can often take a little longer to ride out, even though I try to be a positive as possible.

According to the NHS website, Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.

It’s most commonly used to treat depression and anxiety, and is based on the idea that negative thoughts and feelings can trap a person in a vicious cycle. The therapy aims to help people deal with problems that feel overwhelming in a more positive way, by breaking them down into smaller parts. Essentially learning how to change negative patterns and become more positive, looking for practical ways to improve a persons state of mind.

Through my experience so far I think CBT has been beneficial, however as I write this I am mid hospital appointment, having just broken down in tears. A hospital is the last place I’d ever want to be, but I don’t have a choice about coming to have treatment. Sometimes it’s all too much, even if the appointments are running to time. It’s not one particular thing that makes me emotional, it’s the whole treatment process. A classic example of a day which had been pretty unstable; I feel like I’ve experienced so many emotions in one afternoon. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day and the CBT will continue to help me move forward living with cancer.

This July marks two years on current wonder drug Pembrolizumab and 7.5 years of living with stage 4 melanoma. Any tips on helping manage emotions would be much appreciated.

The Waiting Game

I am now playing the waiting game, having had a PET CT scan last week to check for any disease progression. I am keeping everything crossed and hope more than anything that my scan indicates my cancer has remained stable over the past few months.

Due to a Christmas break and Easter holidays It’s been over five months since I had my last scan, so I’ve had an extra long break from the anxiety that usually comes every three months. It’s safe to say if something is wrong I’ll be kicking myself for not having had a PET CT scan sooner.

Luckily I’ve been fairly busy over the past few days, which acts as a good distraction from all things melanoma related, but it doesn’t make the thoughts and feelings go away all together. I’ve had a few nights where I’ve been laying awake panicking about dying, a very real concern, but a very unhealthy thought process.

Waiting for results is the worst past of cancer treatment, my mind races with so many different thoughts it’s hard to keep on the right track and keep a grip on reality. In the past week alone I had three different medical appointments on three separate days, which in itself is exhausting. Having stage 4 cancer is a full time job and it will always be more important than anything else going on in my life.

My last four blood tests have shown I’m suffering from anaemia, which is not at all unusual for me, but is a bit of red flag. I’m normally boarder line when it comes to my haemoglobin levels, so I’m now taking iron tablets prescribed by my GP religiously in the hope they will help me feel less exhausted. I’m off to the Lake District to do the 5 Peak Challenge for Trekstock next week so I need to be on top form. I just hope it doesn’t lead to a blood transfusion!

When I had my PET CT scan last week I had a problem with my portacath. Over the last 12 months It’s been completely reliable, taking away the anxiety and stress of having a cannula fitted or blood taken every few weeks. Despite the nurses best attempts my portacath refused to bleed back, even though it was flushing normally. In the end I had to have the radioactive tracer for the scan injected via a vein in my arm, which was not ideal, as I have the world’s most pathetic small and thin veins! Luckily it was fine in the end, however there was probably about 20 minutes of failed attempts when my anxiety levels were through the roof (I previously had a couple of extremely bad scan related experiences).

Hopefully my portacath was just having an off day and will flush ok when I go for my next chemo appointment, otherwise I may need medicine to help unblock it! It’s the least of my issues but certainly adds to the stress of the whole treatment process.

Keeping everything crossed for my results!

Singles Awareness Day

It is that time of year again, January is over, the new year is in full swing, resolutions have been broken, everyone has been paid again following Christmas, and it finally starts to feel like winter might not last forever after all. Valentines Day is the next celebration on the list in a couple of days. For some it’ll be a big deal; It’s a time when shops are filled with red and pink love hearts, fluffy cushions and chocolate themed gifts, because nothing says I love you more than a box of Cadbury Milk Tray.

I find it odd that somehow as a society we have started to measure love by how much affection or generosity one shows another on a particular day, instead of perhaps showing love in more simple ways all the time. Why does it have be once a year? If you are single like me, then messages everywhere are saying that this day is only for certain people. There is a reason we’ve all heard of the M&S ‘Dine in for Two’ and not one.

I recently heard of another phrase coined Singles Awareness Day, so thought I would take a moment to blog about relationships and cancer. Over the years I have struggled a lot with the idea and feel like the future has been stolen from me, which is particularly problematic when in comes to relationships. Cancer is a catyclysmic event at any age, but if you haven’t settled down with someone it makes that idea seem beyond impossible. I didn’t meet my Mr Right at University and was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer shortly after graduating, which has made relationships pretty much non existent. I am now 30 years old, I still have single friends, but increasingly people are settling down and starting families, and days like Valentines Day make it more and more apparent I’m not at the same stage in life and Cupid hasn’t done right by me so far.  I’m not desperately single or angry and bitter about it, but it would be nice to feel like a relationship could be possible one day. I would have liked the choice.

When I featured in the BBC documentary A Time To Live last year a clip of my interview was posted on the BBC News Facebook page. The clip showed my thoughts on dating and was subsequently viewed online 1.2 million times. You should be able to view the clip here. I still stand by what I said back then, why would anyone want to take on someone with incurable cancer? Imagine falling for someone you know there isn’t a future with; I have some much baggage it wouldn’t be fair on the man in question. I don’t like to think about my prognosis, my immunotherapy is working well, but I know ultimately the outlook isn’t good and I’m on borrowed time.

Dating feels like minefield at the best of times, so with a cancer diagnosis on top of the usual woes it becomes even more difficult to deal with. The thought of trying to go out and meet someone makes me feel physically sick. I don’t even go on nights out as it is! How do you tell a man you’ve only just met you have a terminal illness? It isn’t the chat someone brings to the table on a first encounter. Even with new friendships I worry about how much to tell others, should I tell them my cancer is terminal? Or that I can’t have children? Do I reference my scars before they notice? or do I casually mention I’ve already written a will and thought more about having a funeral than a wedding?

All of these questions are extremely hard to think about in day to day life, I can’t imagine being in that situation with a potential male suitor. Even without cancer, I am not sure a person shares everything about themselves so early on, but perhaps it’s easier to lay all your cards on the table from the start. I know it’s not a persons place to know about my situation, however cancer is such a huge part of my life, and that won’t ever change. I often wonder that as I’ve no control over my circumstances then maybe I shouldn’t be trying to keep people in the dark so much. I am not ashamed that I have cancer, but of course if there was one wish I could have in the whole world it’d be to change my diagnosis. I fear having the ‘I know, I don’t look unwell…but I am actually really ill’ conversation with everyone I meet.

In reality, I can’t be the only person out there of my generation in this position, and I often wonder how others have navigated through illness and dating. There is no one to tell you how to talk about cancer when you’re trying to form a new relationship or meet new people. I know my friends would say I should put myself out there to meet someone, as I know it is unlikely won’t happen if I don’t look out for it. It’s 2018, we are a generation where online dating is the new normal and I’ve been told I’d be a great candidate for First Dates, I’ve definitely got an interesting back story, but I wouldn’t want that to be my key selling point. How do you introduce yourself and explain you are dying? I know I don’t have as much to offer as a healthy person with their whole life ahead of them. Would the suggestion be to find a man with similar odds to myself, maybe someone who has also experienced cancer in the hope that they will understand the situation more? Sounds a bit weird to me.

I am not sure if the right man is out there, I’ve never been good at meeting people, so how could that possibly improve? Perhaps dating is a bit like going to job interviews, having to put on your best front with someone you don’t know and convince them you are what they’ve been looking for. A life limiting illness isn’t exactly a positive selling point. I think that cancer and dating are almost entirely incompatible, I don’t think I can I possibly factor my illness into future relationships. Often I don’t have much energy to see friends and family, let alone going out to meet a person I hardly know.

Having cancer places a very severe burden on a potential partner, I know couldn’t put that on someone else. Last time I checked I was still playing a tug of war with cancer, most likely to die a slow, debilitating death with the odds are all stacked against me. It’s not the sort of message to write inside a Valentine’s Day card. Or how about ‘Do you want to be with me until I deteriorate too much that we can’t cope?’

Rather than solely celebrating couples as such, I’m going to take this day to tell my family and friends around me that I love and appreciate them, because perhaps I don’t say it often enough.

The Struggle Is Real

The never ending struggle of living with stage 4 cancer is very real, and sometimes it appears that I am coping really well, even when I am not. Recently I have had to accept that I need a bit of help as I haven’t been doing well over the past few months. Late last year I felt I was in a dark place and was prescribed antidepressants by my GP.

Being surrounded by positivity and wonderful people helps a lot, but it’s ultimately not a solution. Cancer is lonely and isolating, which means I struggle with my diagnosis daily. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts I frequently feel very lonely and I am not ashamed to say I cry about my situation often. I have points where my judgment is clouded and I struggle to see the positives, as they hugely outweighed by the negatives. Who wants to wake up in the morning thinking about their impending death? Melanoma is a death sentence which I cannot change.

No longer having the typical visual side effects of cancer and holding down a job may sometimes mean people don’t realise how much I am struggling to get by. I think I often make it look easy, I look well but I don’t feel well. This is by far the hardest thing I have gone through, and will ever go through during my lifetime. Unless you’re in my shoes it’s hard to truly relate. Of course, I do have good days where I feel like I’m powering through, and they feel great, but increasingly they are few and far between.

It’s my priority to feel well in myself, but sometimes my lack of control means that isn’t always possible. I try to try forget my woes, even if it’s just for five minutes in a day. I have a new job, and am starting to focus on my new challenge, the Lake District 5 Peak Challenge with Trekstock in April. I have been making the most of being in London and having down time, rather than trying to do too much, which I wrote about in my last blog post Finding My Focus. I have made an effort to go to my favourite local places, go to the cinema, or listen to my current favourite music (The Greatest Showman and Hamilton soundtracks are amazing!).

There are times in the past when I could have taken antidepressants, such as when I had surgery to remove my brain tumour eight years ago, but I just focussed on getting through each hospital appointment. These tablets ultimately won’t make a difference in terms of how Melanoma affects me, but they have started to help me feel less like bursting into tears every five minutes. The injustice of the world upsets me often, and it all comes back to my lack of control or choices I have in my life. This is one of the reasons I choose to raise money for charity when I can; often unless something touches someone’s life personally they may not think about trying to raise funds, but I’ve seen first hand gaps in the support system for patients, and the astronomical costs of life extending cancer drugs on the NHS.

When you look at television adverts or posters, cancer patients are often seen in a positive light, overcoming illness and defying expectations. I guess this is meant to reassure us that cancer can be beaten by everyone, but it is often hard to comprehend the true reality. So far, taking antidepressants has made a significant shift in how I feel; I still struggle every day but the sadness and frustration feels less overwhelming. It seems there can be a stigma surrounding taking antidepressants, but It is clear that I need a little help at the moment.

I have been feeling depressed for several reasons. The most prevalent feelings being that I am scared my cancer will no longer be stable, and I will suffer immense pain and die. I also know it is such huge factor in my life an there is no ‘putting it all behind me and moving on’. After all, I am still  having treatment and getting scanned every three months, and will never be cancer free, it will always be part of my life. I am not trying to be attention seeking, I am just trying to be honest about the realities of life with a terminal cancer diagnosis, its important to know that the struggle is real. Very real.

Festive Feelings 2.0

Christmas 2017 is a few days away, and it seems like only yesterday I wrote the blog post Festive Feelings, but 365 days have passed and a lot has happened over the past year.

On Monday I went on a Christmas trip with my Mum and Sister to Brussels, which makes a huge change from the week before Christmas last year, when had my ninth cycle of Pembrolizumab. So far I have had 25 cycles of the drug and all remains stable, which is more than I could have wished for during 2017. I am pleased to say I haven’t had any last minute hospital dashes or huge scares over the past few months. I am also very lucky that I haven’t had another major operations in 2017. Once again, hospital is the last place I would want to be over Christmas, and am really grateful to be an outpatient, particularly at this time of year.

I often start to worry about the year ahead and the challenges cancer might throw at me. The unpredictable nature of the illness has been a huge part of the anxiety I have been experiencing lately. Melanoma is never far from my mind, particularly during the festive season.

I’m grateful to be well enough this Christmas to enjoy it again, although I’ve been feeling very down over the past few months I know how lucky I am. Overall it doesn’t matter how many presents someone gets, how expensive they are, how festive the house looks or how big the Christmas tree is. There are much bigger problems in life than what films to watch on Christmas day, or what gifts to buy family and friends. What really matters is spending time with people I care about, and trying to be as happy and positive as I can moving forward.

2018 marks a big change for me, I recently got a new job which I am due start in January. I am excited to have a new focus, and for the new challenges that will come with it.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year!

Being Dealt A Bad Hand 

My stage 4 cancer diagnosis means that I miss out on so much, having serious health problems means there are many things I will not be able to do in my lifetime, which I find really upsetting. I have been dealt a bad hand in this life and at the moment I’m not coping very well. I’ve had sleepless nights over the past couple of weeks just wishing things could change.

People talk about elite members of society being the privileged few, but It feels like a terminal illness makes me part of the unprevileged few, not able to have opportunities like others can. All I want is a future. Why do bad things happen to good people so much? So many unasnwered questions!

I am so grateful for everything I do have, and that at the moment my treatment appears to be working, but I do get upset over the loss of opportunity that plagues me every day. So often people talk about life goals or future plans, but it’s sad for me, as I know cannot make those plans, as I won’t be able to achieve many of the things I wish for. It isn’t fair, It really isn’t. I don’t want people to think all I do is compain, but It’s hard not to be sad when I feel as though I’m staring down the barell of a loaded gun 24/7. I feel as though Ive been forced into playing a game of Russian Roulette. It takes all my energy to get out of bed in the morning and sometimes distracting myself from the horrendous situation by cooking and baking just isn’t enough.

I lack control over so much of my life, it’s frustrating that other opportunities and options do not come more easily. As a disabled person it’s great to get subsidised travel and free NHS prescription, but it’s a high price to pay. The opportunities to work full time, pay off my student loan etc are non existent which is hard when all I want in life is some stability amongst all the uncertainty. Just a small amount of control. Seemingly small things such as not being able to get a life insurance policy makes me feel like someone is telling me my life is worthless.

Each hospital trip fills me with dread and anxiety, I keep thinking that out of nowhere I could easily be signed off sick from work for weeks. The negative thoughts and worries constantly fill my head with the ‘What If’ secanrios. The sad thing is they aren’t irrational thoughts. I didn’t do anything to deserve this awful disease, but yet it found me regardless.

Society tells us we should have achieved a whole host of things in life by a particular age; from going travelling, establishing a career, perhaps getting promoted, finding a soul mate, getting a house together,  getting married, and then start thinking about a family. Although nothing in life is a guarantee for anyone, I feel I am not able to achieve these goals, and it makes me feel like an unworthy outcast. I know others might think differently, but I do see my health issues as a huge barrier. I’m so happy for others, but its still really unfair. I wish some of these things would be made easier for disabled people rather than harder. I wish more than anything I was able to do something to change it, If only it was simple. I want to run away from life’s problems and stick two fingers up to society. Sometimes society makes me feel like I’ve failed. Big time.

It’s amazing to see new lives entering into the world, and I admire my friends for their amazing parenting skills, however, for me it’s tinged with sadness as I know I won’t be able to have children myself. I just wish I had the choice rather than feeling like I have been robbed of the opportunity.  Similarly with feeling settled in a house, another constant reminder of all the options that are off the table for me. Travelling back and forward for treatment and not being able to put my mark on somewhere or save to put roots down is frustrating. I want my independence away from treatment, but it’s becoming more apparent I can’t have both, I’d just like to feel as though I have a future ahead of me like my peers and more choices.

The phrase health is wealth feels very apt, having a disability makes me feel like options are servelry lacking for me. I’m plagued by fatigue more and more every day and it makes doing things really difficult, much more so lately. I feel worse than I did when I started pembrolizumab a year and a half ago. I can feel so alone even in a room full of people who I know are my family and friends and care about me.

Of course, nobody knows what lies ahead, and naturally no one can have everything, but the grass certainly looks greener without stage 4 cancer. I’d like to be in anyone else’s shoes but mine just for a day, so I didn’t feel like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. If there is someone upstairs looking down on us they clearly don’t like me very much. Sometimes at night I think about everything and get so worked up I can’t breathe and feel so overwhelmed with sadness it’s too much to bear.

I think mentally I’d be able to sustain this treatment and find some form of contentment if I knew cancer wasn’t going to kill me in the end. It’s so exhausting fighting a battle I know I am going to loose. I’m full on stress and anxiety with my next set of PET CT scan results just over a week away.

I want to be able to wave a magic wand and take the pain away. I wish I could win the Euro millions, and use it to do good and find a cure for cancer but until then I just have to keep going.

Why do bad things always happen to good people? I wish I was the quiz master with all the answers. I just want someone to hug me and tell me it’ll all be ok and teach me how to play my cards right with this terrible hand I’ve been dealt.

World Mental Health Day

World Mental Health day took place this week, and I saw lots of long posts on social media about the importance of looking after all aspects of our health. The day aims to draws attention to the importance of mental health and increase education on the subject which people often shy away from. Having stage 4 melanoma has hugely impacted both my mental and physical wellbeing. Knowing that I am dying, that something inside my body is killing me, and I’m constantly having to fight it off is often too much to process. 

Receiving a diagnosis of a serious illness such as cancer can have a huge impact on a persons mental health, and I have felt this over the past few years, particularly since receiving different chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments. Thanks to my terminal diagnosis It is normal for me to experience huge levels anxiety, worry and fear on a daily basis. I touched on this previously back in April in a blog post called Maintaining Mental Heath, which focussed on the importance of exercise, It’s amazing how much a little exercise can help mental wellbeing. I sometimes take part in the occasional Parkrun, my time has actually gotten worst since I first went, but I do feel better for taking part. I tend to walk / jog the route, but its better than not doing it at all. I’m focussing my breathing rather than all the other negative thoughts that cloud my mind every day.

Having cancer is so draining, and the frequency of doctors appointments and hospital visits often adds to my anxiety and worry. Over the past seven days I’ve been to the GP twice and the hospital once, and I’m due to go in for immunotherapy tomorrow. Sometimes it just feels like too much! I’d love to escape somewhere for a few weeks with no hospitals around.

I’ve read a lot about Post-traumatic stress disorder and the effect it can have on cancer patients. People experience flashbacks and panic attacks as a reaction to exposure to very stressful and traumatising events they’ve experienced in the past. I’ve truly never really appreciated being mentally well, and the impact being unhealthy can have on a persons life until mine completely changed. I’ve always been a stressed person; school and studying at University were huge challenges for me, constantly worrying about deadlines etc, but that’s nothing compared to the way I feel nowadays. I once tried to see a psychologist when I was first diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma, but back then I felt worse for it. It was another trip to the hospital I just didn’t need! All my friends were embarking on new careers whilst I wasn’t well enough to get out of bed in the mornings, let alone go to work, and talking about it felt like a constant reminder of what I had lost. Years later I tried to seek counselling, and was fortunate enough to be referred by my GP to a local service in London. The idea with the sessions meant I had to commit to seeing someone for at least twelve weeks, however as I was about to mention this to my work I found myself back in hospital undergoing life saving surgery.  I never managed to make it to my first appointment, and since then I haven’t attempted to try again.

I know that I will always continue to experience these negative feelings and sadness because I am still having treatment. I am about to undergo my 23rd cycle of Pembrolizumab. There is still no end in sight, my treatment will continue, and I know I have to try to accept this. There is no being ‘out the other side’ of cancer.

Being in the know is very helpful when it comes to my diagnosis, I like to have as much information as possible so I feel like some things are within my control. I had a PET CT scan late last week and will get the results in three weeks time. I hope it will be ok, but I don’t think I can ever be that confident it will be. Ultimately it won’t be ok, and the longer I am well, the closer I am to becoming unwell again. Yes, it being mentally draining is an understatement! I live my life in cycles of twelve weeks, so I am really hoping I can continue on Pembrolizumab and refocus after I received the results. I really want to enjoy Christmas and New Year.

As I get older I find mental health problems seem more common than I once thought, but perhaps that’s part of being an adult and being more aware. Sometimes it’s ok not to be ok, I know I have both good and bad days, and have to accept that. Tomorrow is a new day as they say! I’m sure there are some people reading who have or will be effected by mental health during their lifetime, either themselves or by knowing family or friends who have struggled. Luckily I have a strong network of people around me to talk to, as well as using this blog as an outlet for my feelings.