Summer Scan Results

A month ago I had my second PET CT scan since adopting a surveillance approach to my treatment for stage 4 melanoma. Like last time, I had to wait almost a month to see my consultant for the results. Yesterday I saw my team in Leicester an am happy to report that for the most part all has remained stable, which is cause for a celebration.

Annoyingly, I have been told there are a couple of very small ‘hot spots’ which were present on my most recent PET CT scan, one in my arm and another at the back of my throat / nose.

My Oncologist suggested there was no cause for any immediate concern, which is great, however I’m a bit thrown by these small spots appearing on my scan! I feel physically well and expected the results to continue to show no evidence of disease (NED), so the fact this isn’t quite crystal clear means I’ve been caught off guard. I’ve been riding the NED wave for some time now, so I’m disappointed.

I was offered the option to be referred to an ENT specialist to investigate this further, but my Oncologist felt this unnecessarily so I decided to trust his judgment. I’m also still enjoying the freedom of having very few medical appointments and I’m not keen to start adding to the load again unless it’s 100% necessary.

A PET CT scan doesn’t diagnose cancer itself, so It is very likely that the hot spots might have been caused by other factors such as a blood test / injection or even a cold.

The current plan is to carry on without treatment and take a look at my next scan in a couple months and act then if there is any reason to. It’s feasible that these spots will have disappeared by then, and no further action will be needed, but it’s certainly freaked me out a bit. I guess this is the nature of being on ‘watch and wait’.

In other good news, I’ve been told that all being well we can discuss the possibility of getting my portacath removed once I’ve been off treatment for a year.

For the most part my glass remains more than half full, something I’ve been trying to tell myself over the last year or so. There are plenty of adventures planned before I have both an MRI and PET CT scan in October, so hopefully my mind will be occupied.

The Beauty Of Friendship

I’ve always known how important my friends are, but the last few weeks have highlighted just how lucky I am to have a solid cohort of friends behind me.

I am lucky to have spent last weekend with some of my oldest friends, and no matter how much times passes our friendships remain intact. We may not see each other often, but we are still there for each other in times of need (thank goodness for mobile phones and what’s app).

The vast majority of my friends are well and truly settle down and some have children too. I am very aware I’m a fair few stages behind when it comes to these matters and I always count my cancer diagnosis as part of the reason for this. It’s shaped who I am today, much like my friends own experiences, but ultimately we still have a close bond.

The great thing about our friendship is that we love and respect each other, even if we don’t always have the same opinions. We don’t all have the same interests either; I love theatre, eating out, and travelling, but I am not a fan of Love Island, and it doesn’t matter. As teenagers we had similar interests, such as being old enough to go out in town and go drinking for the first time, it was fun at the time but as adults we embrace our differences. I prefer to stay in and watch Netflix than go out to a bar, and that’s ok too. We’ve learnt to embrace our differences, and it’s probably one of the reasons we have stayed friends, each to their own after all! We are all individuals however together we work. I am lucky to have many friends from my school days, some that have stayed in the midlands and other who live close by in London. I was also lucky to find some wonderful friends and University too, as well as in the various jobs I’ve done since graduating.

In the last month I have caught up with two friends who have visited the UK from Australia, one from Japan and two from America. These are not people who are in my life of a daily basis, and I met them and different times during my life, but despite the distance they are frequently in my thoughts. We communicate as often as we can, sending long updates about life via what’s app it that occasional Skype call.

I often wonder where in the world I would be be without these people? Nothing compares friends getting together for a good catch up full of laughter, and last weekend was no exception.

True friends are those you can be 100% honest with, and they still like you anyway despite what they know. These friends are people you can sit in silence with for hours and it not be awkward. These are the ones who will be with you during the best and worst times and lift you up when you are in a bad place. I’ve had my fair share of rough rides and I am eternally grateful to those people.

Some friends are relatively new ones, but they are just as important to me.  During an average week I spend more of my time and work and socialising with friends than seeing family which makes friendship (and of course family) so key to my overall happiness. I feel fortunate that I have those I can confide in, act like counsellors, and overall support systems. I am always trying my best to be a good friend in return.

Whilst I await my next PET CT scan results I am forever grateful to my wonderful friends for keeping me sane.

What A Difference A Day Makes

I had a very busy weekend, with a much anticipated theatre trip to see both parts of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child followed by a day trip to West Sussex on Sunday to walk from Amberley to Arundel with some friends.

I’ve been pretty busy over the past few weeks, including during the weekends, and felt like it all came to a head yesterday after I had my PET CT scan in Leicester. My body felt exhausted; I guess It was a mixture of aching from the walk, lack of sleep, lack of food as I was only allowed water prior to the scan, and a recently shoulder injury. Luckily, desipte not being able to be cannulated via my portacath the scan went ahead as planned.

I got worked up and anxious when I was told a nurse wasn’t available to cannulate me via my portacath. Previously I had been sent away from a PET CT scan after two unsuccessful attempts to put a cannula in my arm and had to come back another day for the scan to take place. At the time it was very distressing as I travelled to Leicester on my own for the scan, thinking I knew what I was letting myself in for. I’ve learnt that with cancer I never know what I am letting myself in for!

Over the past couple of years my portacath has been my saviour and I’ve not been to a scan on my own since. Fortunately, one of the radiographers managed to put a cannula in my arm on the first attempt so the radioactive tracer could be injected into my bloodstream. Considering how many times my veins have failed me I was pretty impressed. Now I have to arrange another visit to the chemotherapy suite for my portacath to be flushed (never a dull day!)

After the initial hiccup my scan went smoothly, I did my usual hour long wait once I’d had the tracer injected and then spent 45 minutes being scanned form head to toe. I am due to see my consultant for the results in the next month. Each scan comes with its own level of stress and anxiety, especially since my hospitalisation and anaphylactic shock when I had a CT scan a few years ago. As the months pass and I learn to live on my new ‘watch and wait’ routine I can’t help but feel like my world could fall apart again at any moment.

I felt really unwell after my scan on Monday and had to go back to bed when I returned to my mums house. I slept solidly for almost three hours, and it just goes to show what a difference a day makes.

Twenty-four hours earlier I was waking through fields with my friends, feeling energised without much worry, and within such a short space of time I felt like an invalid. When I tried to get out of my dads car when I got back I felt like I’d suddenly aged 40 years – walking seemed so difficult and I felt sick and exhausted. All I’d done is lay there in the scanner but it took so much out of me! It felt as though I’d just come home from treatment and my body was drained of energy.

I don’t often share the moments when I physically struggle online, because I want to focus on the positives, but also because ‘dear diary, I was exhausted so spent the day in bed’ doesn’t have the same ring to it. It hit me hard, but I need to keep my head up and keep going.

That ever changing 24 hour period was a harsh reminder of how fragile life with cancer can be. I am slowly beginning to feel better, after some research, Dr Google suggests I might have a trapped nerve which is causing shoulder and neck pain, so have booked in for some more acupuncture in the hope that the symptoms will be alleviated. I know I should really google me symptoms either!

A cynical voice in the back of my mind is linking the pain to disease progression, but I don’t want that negative energy to impact me. I haven’t had any other worrying symptoms over the last few months. Another part of me thinks my oncology team would ensure I get the results much quicker if there were any red flags from their end.

The next few weeks are going to be testing, and I really hope Scanxiety doesn’t kick in. It’ll be easier once I know where I stand so I can breath again.

Of Mountains And Minds

I was recently fortunate enough to to be invite by the lovely Caroline McKay to be a guest on her podcast Of Mountains and Minds.

Caroline began the podcast to help shift our culture to talking more about struggles and stigmas. She has interviewed a number of people who have been through/are going through major challenges in life. Conversations on the podcast have included depression, addiction and grief as well endurance challenges like Everest. You can listen to Caroline’s podcast on Soundcloud or ITunes.

The great thing about this podcast is that It’s not intended to send a message that after navigating major challenges everything is healed and happy-ever-after, which I highlighted In my last post. The idea is to highlight the difficult, messy and inconvenient realities of trying to move forward after something so life changing.

Caroline asked me to to talk to me about the everyday realities of my cancer diagnosis and carrying on with life both during and after treatment, as well as my experience with depression, all of which has been well documented on my blog. I’ve never been a guest on a podcast before, so I can now tick that off my list alongside tv appearances and magazine interviews which would never have happened without melanoma.

I will post again when the podcast goes live in a few weeks.

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 in that department when it comes to riding a bike, you’ll know just how difficult that is. Hopefully I’ll find a way to balance soon.

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.

A Spring In My Step

Over the past ten days I’ve started to notice a major change since the end of my cancer treatment. After approximately six months of being free from Immunotherapy, I’ve finally started to feel less fatigued, or at least I think I have!

I recently had a couple of weeks off work, which allowed for some much needed down time; it culminated in a trip to the Isle of Wight to see one of my friends get married. It was a fantastic weekend, full of sunshine and dancing and on the evening itself I didn’t get to bed until the early hours! I couldn’t tell you the last time that happened, and I’m not sure I could’ve done that a few months ago! The day after the wedding I felt exhausted, but in a different way to after hospital treatment. I felt really tired, but it certainly felt different to the extremely fatigued, glazed over sop-you-in-your-tracks feeling that I have been so used to. It was a great realisation that perhaps the long term effects of receiving cancer treatment might be fading slightly, therefore allowing me more room to breathe. Once I’d caught up on sleep, I felt really happy I’d danced the night away.

Despite feeling as though I have more of a spring in my step, I still feel broken by everything I have been through, and I know that feeling will never go away (or at least not easily). Over the past two years I’ve seen three different counsellors, had CBT and now take regular antidepressant medication and I am not sure my mental health will ever truly recover.

No matter how hard I try, I still have days where I am completely exhausted by the whole process of just living my life. It’s hard to navigate in this new world I’ve suddenly found myself in, I’m still baffled that I haven’t been to go to the GP in the past month. It’s literally blown my mind! This must be what other people feel like?!

I still live in constant fear of disease reoccurrence and I have frequent dreams about my demise, include finding out I have another brain tumour, or being in constant abdominal pain due to another bowel tumour. Sometimes I wake up and It takes me a moment to two to realise it wasn’t real after all. I don’t want cancer to define me, but it has been such a huge part of me that I am finding it hard to separate my life with cancer and my new regime without treatment. This is what I have dreamt and hoped for, but it’s much more difficult than I ever imagined it would be. I hope that in time I can start picking up the pieces of my shattered existence and start taking small steps forward again.

I haven’t written on much on my blog recently as I’ve been trying navigate in the new world I’ve recently found myself in, and hoped a blogging break  would help me to feel less like cancer is still ruling over my life. I do think it has helped, but I also find writing is a little like therapy, and helps in a similar way to my counselling sessions. 

I have a busy month ahead as I am due to celebrate another birthday in a couple of weeks. All birthdays are milestones for me, and I am very happy to be turning the glorious age of 32. My situation has changed beyond comprehension in my 31st year. Having been diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma with metastasis in my brain and my left lung at 23, it was a shock I made it to my 25th birthday, let alone my 30th a couple of years ago. I also never thought in a million years I’d seen the younger members in my family grow up, but two are about to enter into the adult world, and we had a new addition join our family at the end of last year, which has been life changing. These are life events I never thought I would be alive to see, and when I think about it, this makes me the happiest. I know I need to keep reminding myself of how far I’ve come and try to use this to my advantage.

I hope my energy levels continue to increase and get more plentiful as time goes on. I’ve already got the date for my next PET CT scan in July, so I am hoping and praying i continue to reap the rewards Pembrolizumab has offered me so far. 

The Power Of The Cancer Community

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a lot on social media about a recent campaign by Marks and Spencer and Fashion Targets Breast Cancer to help raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research. It certainly raised a few eyebrows and the general feeling was it massively missed the mark. Understandably, there have been many people speaking out about this on social media.

Marks and Spencer are donating 30% of the purchase price of tote bags and t-shirts to help raise vital funds for Breast cancer research. That’s no small change, however It appears that on this occasion they seem to have painted a unrealistic image of cancer through the media, including the use of celebrities in their campaign, and have been criticised for completely missing the opportunity to use real women living with cancer in the campaign, of which there are so many spreading such valuable messages on Instagram.

I do agree with this in part, however we cannot tell if someone has been affected by cancer just by the way they look, I am a stage 4 patient who was having immunotherapy every 3 weeks until very recently, but I look well on the outside. The same goes for the celebrities, perhaps they have friends or family members who have been unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with cancer. Part of me believes that If seeing one of the Marks and Spencer adverts, or even an instagram post from a celebrity about the campaign means women pay attention to their bodies and it gets people talking, then they have done something positive.

I agree the slogans ‘two is stronger than one’ and ‘good things come in twos’ are insensitive and could have been thought out better. It’s clear the campaign has caused offence and upset, which was not the intention at all. It would seem this does not translate well when you’ve had a mastectomy, whatever the intention, and I don’t blame people for being upset.

Marks and Spencer are raising money for a hugely important and valuable cause and sadly, I feel the message of this campaign has been lost with all the commotion. The campaign invites people to dress in solidarity, and champions strong friendship. They missed the mark, but I believe this is a good catalyst for a better conversation about these sort of campaigns, and fingers crossed it is something that is considered better in the future.

After the initial backlash, Marks and Spencer then posted patient stories on social media and on the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer website. I agree that they should have led with these stories in the first place as it feels more powerful.

The campaign seems to have fulled some fire about breast cancer getting a lot of coverage in the media compared with other types of cancer. I am not sure why this has all become a game of ‘which cancer is worse’. All cancer is horrific, it is awful no matter what stage you are diagnosed. Yes I’d like other cancers to get awareness, I know charities like Melanoma UK don’t get enough attention, and I’d certainly like to see more information out there about other cancers too, but it doesn’t mean the funds and research for breast cancer charities are any less important.

This was a prime example of the strength and impact social media can have, and the campaign has led to the development of True Cancer Bodies a patient led campaign that put all cancers at the heart of its message. Seriously well done to all those involved! Of the 20 people in the campaign many different types of cancer were represented,  including breast, bowel, liver, lung, colon cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The aim is to enlighten the public as to what cancer really looks like, and I think they have done a great job.

I’ve always said that having cancer is like being in a members only club you don’t want to be part of, but this has shown how the cancer community has come together to try to make change for the better, so long may it continue.

When No News Is Good News

A few weeks ago I had my first PET CT scan since adopting a ‘watch and wait’ approach to my cancer treatment earlier in January. Although I had to wait almost a month to see my consultant for the results, I am thrilled to report that all has remained stable.

I feel like this a major hurdle I’ve somehow manage to navigate. Naturally, every scan makes me anxious and scared, but this felt different as It was first time in years I’ve had a scan whilst off treatment. It’s the first time since I stopped doing anything to help my melanoma remain stable. No longer doing my bit by going for Immunotherapy is hard to get my head around, but as they say, no news is good news.

I am still feeling very fatigued, but as many people have pointed out to me I have an active social life and a busy full time job, so there is no doubt in my mind these are contributing factors. Often it feels like 10 hours of sleep a night is not nearly enough, so I probably need to reign it in a bit. It’s hard to find the time to see friends, family and work a 40 hour week, but I often feel like others around me manage it! I know my next few weekends are quiet and I have some annual leave coming up soon which is a blessing as I can spend some much needed time chilling out, watching Netflix, getting up late and doing small things like sorting out my wardrobe, and putting photos from my summer holiday trips to America and Thailand on my laptop and getting some printed; something I’ve promised myself I’d do for months, but I’ve never felt I had the time.

I’ve also been relatively quite on my blog of late as I’ve tried to settle in to my ‘new normal’ and readjust to my routine (or what feels like a lack of routine altogether!) and in all honesty, I’ve been too tired when I get home from work to write a post when I don’t feel I’ve too much to say. I’m just trying to get on with my life, which is a good thing, and exactly what my Oncology team have been telling me I need to do.

I’ll be celebrating today’s win with an early night and attempt to carry on my ‘new normal’ life until my next scan in the summer.

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 keeps 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!