The Perks Of Pembrolizumab

Last week it was reported that two scientists behind groundbreaking Immunotherapy developments had won the annual Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their work on Immunotherapy.

This is big (and incredible) news within the cancer world! It got me thinking about all the positives which come alongside taking a newer, cleaner drug like Pembrolizumab. I’m continuing on treatment indefinitely which is hard to get my head around, but It’s safe to say I wouldn’t be alive without it! I just have to suck it up and keep on going.

Professor James Allison and Professor Tasuku Honjo discovered how to fight cancer using the body’s own immunise system, which eventually led to treatments for advance melanoma and has transformed the way it’s treated. My current Immunotherapy drug Pembrolizumab is now also being used to treat other cancers such as advanced lung cancer and Hodgkins Lymphoma. The drugs now offers hope to patients like me with previously untreatable cancer! Believe it or not the duos work began in the 1990s and is now starting to pay dividends!

You can read more about the award and the developments in the news section of the Cancer Research UK website, which also includes a few quotes from yours truly! Thanks CRUK!

I’m so happy that research in the area has been funded so far, but my case is one of many, some not as successful! Hopefully research will continue so scientists can fully understand why drugs work for some people and not others and how it can developed to become even more successful.

Ipilimumab (aka Yervoy), which I took a few years ago was one of the first drugs developed using the scientists discovery, with Pembrolizumab and Nivolumab following closely behind.

I started thinking about all the perks of taking this drug compared to some of my previous treatments. Going through endless cycles treatment is like crossing a battlefield every day. I need to keep thinking about the positive aspects to help keep a positive mindset, and it might help someone else too!

My hair and eyebrows have grown back since my treatment change, for me this is a huge success! I ask look well (partly thanks to the hair and eyebrows!) therefore not like your typical cancer patient; this does wonders for my mental health, but I know often people don’t always appreciate how unwell I am if they can’t see the evidence for themselves.

The side effects for me have been a lot less than on previous systemic treatments, including Vemurafenib which caused me many more problems such as frequent vomiting, skin rashes, bad stomach, headaches and joint pains to name a few. I will sometimes still experience these side effects, but to a much lesser degree than previously. My current main side effects are fatigue and vitiligo, and although these get me down frequently, (see my previous post Tired of Being Tired) I know I’ve come really far over the past two and a half years.

The infusion of the chemo itself is only 30 minutes, I know some people end up hooked up to machines for the best part of a working day receiving other types of chemotherapy. On a really really good day I might only be physically hooked up to a drip stand for a hour or so. Sure, that hour feels like an eternity, and there’s an awful lot of waiting around in between appointments etc, but it could be much worse. Today I had a really long day at the hospital, but I have to remind myself it’s all for the greater good!

Some weeks, when not seeing my consultant or one of my oncology team I only have to visit my hospital for the treatment in the afternoon, making the whole experience far less pain staking!

I’ve spent much less time as an inpatient on a hospital ward that with previous treatments. Three years ago it felt like I was constantly visiting my local A&E due to various side effects and having numerous blood transfusions, but so far so good with Pembrolizumab.

I hope that in the future this drug will be developed into a tablet, meaning a lot less visits to hospital for patients like me, considering how advanced chemotherapy treatments are becoming I would it’s not too much of a distant dream. Until then I just have to grit my teeth and keep going.

The British 10k

I’ve decided to take on another race, the The British 10k in preparation for my Northampton Half Marathon in September. I know, I know, here I go again…

I recently took part in the Lake District 5 Peak Challenge for Trekstock. I know I’ve since moaned a lot, but It was the most mentally and physically tough challenge I’ve set myself to date, and I’m still a little injured because of it. Despite everything I wouldn’t change a thing.

Completing the 10k will determine if I’m on track for the Half Marathon for The Lewis Foundation in Northampton in September, so I am testing the waters so to speak. I’ve ran a half marathon before however I was much fitter then and the treatment I was having meant I could sustain a good training routine. This time around I haven’t done any running and have hardly set foot in a gym since late last year. My body moves slower than it used to and the frequency of treatment means I suffer debilitating fatigue for days on end.

Despite everything I feel like I have to do something, even raising a small amount could help make a big difference. I know the weather is set to be much nicer than when I did the London Winter Run 18 months ago for Cancer Research UK with family and friends, so that is a bonus.

Over the past few months I’ve been following the story of fellow stage 4 melanoma patient Emily Hayward via Instagram and You Tube and learnt today that she has sadly passed away. I know I am not alone when I say her story touched so many lives, both with or without cancer. I found her vlog really compelling as there are so many parallels with our journeys. She has inspired so many people with her strength and positivity, not just those with Melanoma but others undergoing immunotherapy and chemotherapy too. She maximised the good days, and chatted about making her days matter, and making her life count even though the odds were stacked against her. Emily accepted her diagnosis and lived life to the full every single day. There have been other great Melanoma blogs such as Dear Melanoma and Wrestling Melanoma I’ve followed over the years but sadly those people have since passed away too. Who is to say I won’t be next? No one.

News like this hits home hard! It’s a scary reality and I’m petrified about what may come, in an instant one can realise that life is so fragile, and so bloody unfair. The cancer club is a horrible club to be part of, but it is full of very incredible people.

I need to feel like I’m doing my bit; as I’ve said before it gives me a sense of purpose and focus. I want to make sure my life counts, and make each day really matter, I guess perhaps we only have one life after all?

The NHS is an incredible resource which we are very very lucky to have in the UK, but charities like Trekstock offer support that I haven’t always found elsewhere and feel it’s only right to try to make a difference in the hope it’ll help others like me moving forward, either experiencing a life with cancer, or a life after cancer.

If anyone is free early morning on Sunday 15th July and in central London, do feel free to come and cheer me along during The British 10k. I’m not sure I’ll be running, as I still need rest and don’t have time to train, but even if I’m walking I don’t mind, just as long as I cross the finish line. If anyone does wish to sponsor I’m looking to raise £200 from this event, and will also be raising money in August ahead of the Northampton Half Marathon. A link to my page for the 10k is here.

I’ll never understand why life deals some people such a bad hand; I feel overcome with emotion just thinking about it, and at the moment I’m one of the lucky ones which seems bizarre. Life is short, and I want to live mine to the fullest for as long a possible. I don’t want to waste a moment of this precious life. I just wish I had the answer on how to fix things.

Still hoping for a miracle.

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.

Lake District Five Peaks Challenge

Last weekend I conquered the Lake District 5 Peaks for charity, including England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike in just one day. I did this in aid of Trekstock, a young adult cancer charity I’ve frequently mentioned in my blog.

I found out about Trekstock through social media, and over the last 18 months I’ve found them a great source of support. Through the charity I took part in their RENEW exercise programme and also became involved in the BBC documentary A Time To Live by Sue Bourne. I have also benefited from other events they’ve organised for those who have experienced cancer.

The challenge, organised through the company Charity Challenge was without a doubt one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life! It was the most difficult physical challenge I’ve set myself so far. I was on my feet walking for the best part of 12 and a half hours straight and I found the trek both physically and mentally tough. I felt so many emotions in one short space of time; I laughed and I cried! (A lot!), but I’m proud to say I did it! I was the last person in my challenge group of 44 people to finish on the day, and I’m sure I said I couldn’t do it about 1000 times. My hips and legs became so tired that I had to give up my backpack for the last four hours, and the Charity Challenge team kindly carried it for me. I kept joking that the leaders should apply for World’s Strongest Man as they carried my backpack (as well as their own), whilst navigating across the boulders and rough terrain of the landscape. The whole experience reminded me of the type of person I am; I’m a fairly nervous person, I get scared easily, and the weekend confirmed that I’m certainly not an outdoor enthusiast! It took me longer than average to learn to swim, ride a bike and drive a car, so I shouldn’t be surprised I found the trek tough going! I know I won’t be signing up to adventurer Bear Grylls next TV show in a hurry.

Despite my initial disappointment at finishing last, I have to remind myself it wasn’t a race, I also had chemotherapy last Monday, so I know I should be especially proud. Initially it felt bitter sweet; the challenge reminded me that I am not invincible, and that having stage 4 cancer means I will inevitably find it difficult to do things that a healthy person could do more easily. As first I felt really upset, as it was a reality check, but it hindsight I’m just glad to have finished.

I’m still very sore and in pain, and pretty sure I’m going to loose a toenail but it was worth it!  Without sounding like an awards acceptance speech; I am grateful to my two wonderful friends that completed the trek with me (they must be mad!), I’ve never been so happy to see two people before. Huge thanks to the Charity Challenge team who made sure I powered through, and of course to the lovely Trekstock team. I know the money raised will continue to make a huge difference to people like me. It was lovely to meet so many other people connected to the charity, who gave me encouragement, supported and cheered me on until the bitter end. I’ll certainly be visiting the Lake District again soon, it isn’t an area of the world I’d visited before, and the landscapes were stunning. It goes to show there is so much beauty in England so close to home, I still have The Travel Bug, but I’d love to explore the UK more.
 At the moment I’m not sure the Lake District 5 Peaks would be something I would do again in a huge rush, but knowing me I’ll probably end of signing up to something else in few weeks. Perhaps I should opt for a simple bake sale instead? Overall I feel a great sense of achievement. and I’ll be riding high on that wave for a while, even if I am still hobbling.

Its great feeling knowing the money raised can make a real difference, helping to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of people in similar shoes to mine. In total I’ve raised over £1,100 for Trekstock so far, and if you’d still like to donate you can do so here.

I am also delighted to say that I had stable scan results at my oncology appointment last Monday, which is of course fantastic news. Now that I know, I hope I can relax more over the next few months and enjoy my summer adventures and birthday celebrations.

World Cancer Day

Today is World Cancer Day. World Cancer Day takes place every year on 4th February and aims to save millions of preventable deaths each year by raising awareness and education about cancer, and pressing organisations across the world to take action against the disease. According to the Cancer Research UK website, Cancer is the biggest killer worldwide. however research has helped double survival rates in the last 40 years. The day is an ideal opportunity to spread the word and raise the profile of cancer in people’s minds and in the media.

Some game changing cancer treatments, such as Pembrolizumab, the Immunotherapy drug I am currently receiving have only been available in more recent years. My situation would have been very different if I had been diagnosed earlier in life. It’s incredible to think how much the treatment process for melanoma has changed over the last decade. Although huge progress has been made, treatments are painful, debilitating, and for others like me they are long-term.

Sharing my own story doesn’t always come easy to me, as I can be a fairly private person, but I know that is for the benefit of others as well as myself. In some ways blogging about my journey is part of my grief process for the life I once had; expressing myself through my writing is something I previously didn’t think was possible. I really want to make sure something good comes out of this horrific situation.

For me, the metaphorical and physical scars will never been healed; its is as though I am a puzzle which now has a few missing pieces that will never be fully complete again. When I was initially diagnosis with melanoma at 18 I felt my life was over before it had started, but its thanks to pioneering research that I am still here at 30. I know I am one of the lucky ones. Perhaps I don’t fulfil the typical demographic when it comes to my cancer journey, but what is actually considered normal? As they say, so far so good. I have my good and bad days, but I thank my lucky stars every day that I am still alive.

I passionately believe we need to continue research to help find a cure for this awful disease and am beyond grateful to those who dedicate their lives to finding it. I have huge respect for those who continue to raise funds and awareness of all forms of cancer. both individuals and charities such as Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and Trekstock. One day I know a positive result will come from all the hard work.

The Season Of Good News

Following a recent report from Macmillan, there have been a series of articles in the news over the past few weeks stating that there are now thousands of people in England who have the most advanced cancers, and that they now surviving for several years after their diagnosis. There has been a lot of coverage in the news, for example on the BBC and Guardian websites.

The research, revealed at the National CancerResearch Institute Conference in Liverpool is based on data from England’s national cancer registry. The data captures people who were diagnosed with one of ten different types of cancer between 2012 and 2013 and were still alive at the end of 2015. For me, this isn’t really breaking news so to speak. Two years doesn’t seem like an awful lot of time to me, but its better than nothing, and who knows what the future will hold. It is of course good news! The data shows that new and improved treatments such as immunotherapy mean some cancers can be more manageable, similarly to that of other long term chronic illnesses. Sadly, this is by no means a cure. I still have a terminal illness, and I am still dying, but at the moment the disease progression is slower than I have been predicted in the past.

At my last appointment with my oncologist in Leicester I was told that my most recent PET CT scan was stable, there are no signs of disease progression at present. I ultimately can’t change the path my life has set out on, but I am always so happy to hear those words.

I have been a cancer patient my whole adult life, and stage 4 patient for over 7 years. Last May, after my second bowel surgery to remove melanoma one of my surgeons suggested I should think about giving up work altogether, given my diagnosis. Although that person was clearly incorrect, moments like that really hit home, and are a terrible reminder of how cancer has changed my life irreversibly. It bought me back down to earth with a huge thud. Life isn’t as simple when melanoma is involved.

My friends and family often comment on how brave I am, and suggest they wouldn’t be able to do the same in my shoes. I just try my best to get on with my life, I have no other choice. There is no other way to deal with the situation, so it’s actually pretty simple, despite my life being overly complicated. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t mentally and physically exhausting to get out of bed every day and carry on like there is nothing wrong; but there is no other path I can take, no alternative route. I feel unwell and exhausted a lot of the time, more than most people realise, but I just have to get on with it.

Lately, I’ve had many more down days than I have done previously, there has been a lot of late night crying in bed. I need to keep positive, but its those moments when I am all alone and more vulnerable that I think too much. I’m not finding baths as relaxing as they give me too much thinking time! When the door is locked it feels like a gateway to my emotions opens up and everything comes flooding out. I am trying to be kinder to myself and allow a few melt downs or sad moments which I otherwise would have brushed off. it is worse to bottle everything up, but emotionally it drains me of strength and energy.

I am still the same person inside, however I am just overly emotional at the moment. I’ve cut down on a lot of social activities in the lead up to Christmas and December is upon us. I am finding sometimes it’s just too much for me, particularly with the seasons changing. It’s so dark and cold outside, I want to go home straight after work and sleep. Sometimes this can be detrimental, as it gives me more time to dwell on negative feelings.

The positive news about my PET CT scan is something good to focus on, as well as all the exciting events in the lead up to Christmas time. It might be dark and cold but T’is the season to be Jolly! Perhaps this is the season of good news.