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?

Independence Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Independence Day!