The Day My World Turned Upside Down

Today marks nine years to the day I was told the small subcutaneous lump I’d had removed form my right forearm a few weeks before was cancerous. It was the day my world turned upside down.

A few months before I found a the offending lump and was Immediately concerned, as it became painful and had grown over fairly quickly. When i visited my Oncologist in Oxford we decided that even though didn’t appear to be any real cause for concern, I would be able to have it removed if I wanted. I thought this was best as it was uncomfortable and unsightly.

Six months went by from visiting the team in Oxford to having the lump removed at Northampton General Hospital in September 2010. By this point I had graduated from University and moved to Windsor to start my first job as a graduate.  After I had the lump removed, I was told by the surgeon’s team that I would have to come back a week later. From my previous experience of having the cancerous mole removed from my neck five years before alarm bells began to ring. I gave myself a little pep talk and convinced myself it would simply be because i needed to have the stitches taken out. Looking back, I’m sure the surgeon who removed the lump could tell there was something wrong.

I’d had so many follow ups in clinic during the five years before that had come to nothing so I thought I knew what I was doing. The clinic ran late and when I finally got called in for the appointment I was asked to change into a hospital gown. I was on my own and the surgeon came in followed by a lady who I later discovered was a MacMillan) and I knew something was really wrong.

My memory of this meeting is a somewhat hazy. The surgeon examined my neck and arms for any other lumps. Looking back he was probably looking for any swollen lymph nodes. He asked if I had brought anyone with me to the hospital as I was on my own. I was told the lump was melanoma and it had spread from my original mole five years earlier. I was then swiftly booked in to an appointment with an Oncologist specialising in melanoma at Northampton General Hospital the next day. I’ve now been seeing the same Oncologist for nine years. That’s 3287 days!

Subsequent MRI and CT scans showed a single lung tumour and a single brain tumour. In the month that followed I went from being a seemingly well 23 year old graduate to a stage 4 cancer patient, registered disabled and unable to go to work, and facing the very real prospect of an imminent departure from the world. Talk about life throwing me a curveball

I am certainly not a statistic and me being alive and well and writing this post it as close to a miracle I will ever get. For me, September is a month full of various triggers and cancer related anniversaries, but October is just the same, closely followed by Christmas and Birthdays as well as Summer time, so in effect the whole year.

I have spent the past 14 years of my life as a cancer patient and next year marks a decade as a stage 4 cancer patient. Its a life sentence and some days I find the whole situation beyond comprehension. Being focussed on the now is much easier said that done with cancer demons floating above, ready to pounce at any time.

I was told upon diagnosis in 2010 that people with my type of cancer at such a late stage lived for an average of 18 months. There have been numerous points over the past few years when I truly thought that I wasn’t going to make it for much longer. It’s looked very bad for me numerous times and I know my family felt it too. I’ve been on sick leave from work and had to come to terms with the fact I might never go back.

Three and a half years ago I was in hospital, having had surgery to remove cancer from my bowel for the second time. I had hardly any hair of my own, and I was unrecognisable from my ‘old’ self. Now I look like the 2010 version of me, with a full head of hair and most of my cancer scars covered up. On the outside I look the same, but I am a whole new version of myself compared to nine years ago. My twenties were really exhausting and stressful, and I feel like I missed out of so much, relationships, work opportunities and generally having fun. So far the first 2 years of my 30s have gone better than the majority of the last decade. I am treatment free and my oncology appointments are currently kept to a minimum. I hope cancer continues to lay low and not dominate the next decade of my life. My world has been turned upside down but I’m living on the flip side and that seems ok for now. Keeping everything crossed for my scans in two weeks.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

A couple of weeks ago I had my second PET CT scan since adopting a ‘surveillance’ approach to my stage 4 cancer in January this year. I am now playing the long waiting game and am not due to see my consultant for another two weeks.

I have so many reservations about this, but I know deep down (or at least I think I do!) that if there were any hot spots coming up on my PET CT scan I would be called in earlier to see my oncologist. I’m now an outpatient, so currently not seeing my oncologist and his team nearly half as much as I have done in previous years. It feels strange to have let go of the stability of having the hospital on speed dial and trust that the people who have been keeping me alive for the past decade are still doing the right thing.

I almost feel abandoned now that my appointments are few and far between. It feels like trying to ride a bike without stabilisers for the first time without any instructions. The anxiety and fear around this will never leave me, but hope in time it’s easier to cope with. It’s become apparent to me that I am suffering from some PTSD, aka post-traumatic stress disorder since I found out I had stage 4 cancer.

I haven’t officially been diagnosed, but I think that most of people who have a cancer diagnosis must suffer from PTSD at some point; life changing events such as surgery and chemotherapy are bound to have an effect. Some of the side effects induced by particular treatments might lessen in time and become less severe, but even the diagnosis itself can be earth-shattering and seems like the perfect place for PTSD fester. I know I have suffered with this for a while, even prior to my Immunotherapy finishing. Thanks cancer for giving me something else to deal with!

I am still in disbelief that I am not on treatment right now. I’ve had trouble coming to terms with this, even though I hoped and prayed for it for years it doesn’t feel like I expected it to. It would seem that cancer is the gift that keeps on giving!

I’ve been open on honest on this blog about my struggles with anxiety and depression over the years, and have only come to recognise this fully more recently. I kept kidding myself that I should be grateful my cancer is treatable despite being stage 4. Living with cancer, palliative or not is one long nightmare!

Over the years I’ve noticed the increasing number of PTSD triggers I have that I can’t seem to control. I’m never going to forget I have melanoma; but some sights, smells and sounds remind me of the multiple hospital trips and specific events such as major operations. My mind is constantly taking me back to moments that will be etched on my memory forever more. Certain triggers cause me to suffer vivid flashbacks that are often deeply distressing and sad. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my diagnosis and the impact it has on my life.

There are so many misconceptions when it comes to PTSD. People reading this might suggest that I should move on and try to get over what has happened. But I’ve suffering from anxiety and depression around my illness for so long and having PTSD isn’t a choice. I can’t ‘just get over it’ when it impacts my life so much.

Back in 2010 when I got told I had brain and lung tumours I suffered emotionally in private, I wasn’t ‘out’ on social media like I am today. I deleted Facebook for almost a year and didn’t use any other social media platforms back then. Over time I’ve tried to stop feeling guilty about the way I feel as I know have been through a lot, it’s pointless and detrimental to me to pretend I haven’t and that its not been a struggle.

Talking about my situation helps immensity, but in the past I have often kept things quite from family and friends because in some ways only other people who have had cancer can fully understand. I don’t want to make others sad or reminded that they could be next, so for a long time I suffered in silence and put on a front.

Sadly a life with cancer doesn’t end when treatment ends. I can’t wait to gt my scan results out of the way and hopefully my PTSD symptoms will die down for a while and I’ll have some space to breathe.