The Results Are In

I have now been sharing my story via my blog for almost two years, and luckily in that time have also remained stable on my latest Immunotherapy drug, having had my last major surgery in the summer of 2016.

This week is also very significant as it marks exactly 13 years since I was initially diagnosed with stage 1 malignant melanoma via a mole on my neck when I was only 18 years old. I have now been living as a stage 4 patient for almost 8 years. I was told back then I may not make 25 and now I’m 31, struggling sometimes but I keep picking myself up again. Cancer has been with me my whole adult life, which is something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accept.

In some ways my stage 4 diagnosis seems like a lifetime ago, but in others not much had changed. Not long after I had started recovery from surgery to remove my brain tumour and lung tumour I moved to London ana went back to work. I’m still living with friends in the capital city and attempting to navigate the working world as best I can. Around three years ago I moved form South West to East London, so it almost feels like London is a new city, having discovered parts I would never have seen before.

I still get too caught up in the moments when I feel well and then book in too many activities, so last weekend I spent a lot of time relaxing and napping in preparation for the week ahead. I had a chest infection and needed antibiotics, which I think have since cleared everything up. I need to be on good form for the Northampton Half Marathon on Sunday to raise funds for The Lewis Foundation.

I had a PET CT Scan last week and travelled to Leicester to get the results yesterday. I am delighted to say my news was all very positive and takes the pressure off over the next few months.

However, no matter how many times I’ve heard positive news over the last two years there is always the fear my world will fall apart again at any moment. In some ways it feels like I’ve been given a golden ticket, but tomorrow I could find out it’s actually fake after all. I am of course relived, but the fear doesn’t disappear over night.

I’m now very used to the three weekly routine and cycle of my treatment, in way it has become staple part of my life up until this point. Travelling to and from the hospital gets me down, it’s mentally stressful and physically exhausting, but it’s nothing if it means I have a functioning life the rest of the time. I need to try and shift my attitude so that I am ‘living with’ cancer rather than all the negatively that plagues me about dying from it.

Here’s to LIVING!

Read All About It

A quick blog post to update people on my latest media venture.

A little earlier in the year I was interviewed for Mail On Sunday’s YOU Magazine, and the article comes out this Sunday (22 July).

The piece focusses on my story, talking about my cancer experience so far and how my family and friends have helped me navigate through the toughest journey of my life.

I hope it helps to raise further awareness of what it is like to live with stage 4 cancer, and all the ups and downs that come alongside it. In the article, I talk about my initial diagnosis, treatments so far, my work / life balance and raising money for charities such as Trekstock, who have been a huge help to me over the past couple of years. Nowadays I struggle to remember what it was like to live without cancer, to live my life and not feel as though I am in constant fear every single day. Cancer will always be part of my life, so it’s important to acknowledge that, but it is not all I am about.

If you’re able, do go and pick up a copy and have a read over your breakfast / exercise session / bath on Sunday morning. Thank you so much to the lovely Rosalind, Charlotte and all the team at YOU Magazine.

UPDATE: You can read the online version here

I Should Have Been Dead By Now

It’s almost my 31st birthday. This year, like every year I’m beyond grateful to have had another 365 days on this Earth. Looking back over the previous year I realise how much I have achieved. I might have travelled less than previous years, struggled a lot with my mental health, and seen friends and family less frequently that I would have liked, but I’m still alive. Quite frankly I should have been dead by now. In fact, on paper it should have died years ago.

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. Having been diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma in two sites (brain and lung) at 23 it was a shock I made it to my 25th birthday, let alone my 30th last year.

Any money I have managed to save during working life has gone towards living a good life when I’ve worked less, paying for been able to live independently when I’ve been signed off sick from work for weeks on end, or going on trips and holidays to make the most of life when I’ve been feeling well enough. Saving towards a house or something more substantial feels impractical because I’m not sure I’ll have a future to be around and enjoy it. Now I’m 31, but I’m not sure how much ‘good’ time I have left.

Two 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 what I did have was unrecognisable from my usual self. Four years I was also spent my birthday in hospital, having initial been admitted for suspect appendicitis at St George’s Hospital in London. It turned out to be my first bowel tumour and marked the start of me receiving systemic cancer treatment in hospital every few weeks.

I do feel as though I put pressure of myself to do things whilst I am well enough and feel able, therefore making the most of the time I’ve got left until I start to deteriorate. In reality I want to make the most of things, however lack of time and energy are huge factors. Naturally I want to make most of what I’ve got now, but I also need to stop, look around and appreciate what I have. It might not last must longer, so I need to pause and take stock. Some days are better and others are much worse, and accepting that has been one of the hardest parts of living with cancer.

When I was in my early 20s I thought I wouldn’t see my younger siblings grow up. Now they are grown up and are taller than I am! In a way time flies, but the long road has been full of twists, turns and more than my fair share of major challenges along the way. I’m often trying to charge forward in life and catch up with all my friends along the way, but I need to accept this is unlikely. Just to be alive and well feels like a miracle sometimes.

I should have been dead by now, but I’m still alive and considering my dire prognosis it’s a huge win for me to be doing so well.

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.

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.

Not An Average Morning 

This week has undoubtedly been one of the strangest weeks of my life. I began with treatment in hospital, part of my normal routine. Tuesday was followed by a live interview on This Morning on ITV with none other than Holly and Phil, and a double show day at the theatre. The BBC docoumentaty I participated in, A Time To Live aired on Wednesday evening on BBC2. I flew to Prague on Wednesday morning to visit friends prior to the film going out, so all in all it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. 

After filming my interviews for A Time To Live last October I put all thoughts about it on the back burner, and they only resurfaced a couple of weeks ago when the air date was confirmed. In a way I’m glad that I was out of the country, as I might have found if difficult watching with others. My section features cameo appearances from both my work colleagues and school friends, but I’m glad I watched it on my own, seeing the whole thing come together felt like a really big accomplishment.

I was lucky enough to be asked by the BBC press office if I’d be interesting in taking part in an interview on the This Morning sofa with Holly and Phil with Annabel, another participant from the documentary. Certainly not an average Tuesday morning activity! 

It’s true, the prestenters are lovely in real life and made me feel at ease despite my nerves. I can’t believe I actually went on live television, I was panicking I would get tounge tied and say something wrong. One of my friends joked that I should make sure I let the presenters get a word in! I can talk a lot but I don’t think television interviews come naturally, this is why I am not a performer after all. It could be that,  or maybe it’s the lack of talent. 

Having been to TV studios before for work it’s something I’m familiar with but I’m always impressed with the organisation of everyone to keep things running so seamlessly. Usually I am the person arranging interviews for others rather than being interviewed myself, so I’ve experienced the other side of the PR industry. It was a nice treat to get my makeup done before my big moment, I wouldn’t mind that more often. 

Sue Bourne from Wellpark Productions and her whole team have created a beautiful film about living on borrowed time and I am really proud to have been a part of it. The reception has been great, people have sent some really lovely tweets and messages which is surreal but also amazing to know that it’s had an impact on others. It seems a lot of people have found comfort and positivity in watching it. I know if I wasn’t part of it, the film would be the type of documentary I’d watch. 

If you missed it, A Time To Live is now available to watch on BBC iplayer in the U.K.