Flying Solo

Next month I am flying solo in more ways than one. I’m heading off to Asia for a wedding, and then doing a little bit of travelling alone. Being a stage 4 patient the thought of being in another country travelling solo is petrifying, especially when it’s to countries I’ve not been to before. I keep waking up in the night panicking that I’m going to die on my travels with none of my family around me, this probably seems ludicrous to others, but it’s something that has been playing on my mind. No matter how much I try this always niggles at me when I’m far away. Realistically, I don’t want to travel alone but I am sure it’ll be an amazing experience, I didn’t go travelling during my last minute gap year so It seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. I had a bit of a YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out) moment when booking the trip around a year ago. I just kept hoping I would be around and well enough to see it through, and thankfully I am.

I begin my trip at a wedding with around 40 other guests, including spending the first part of the trip with some very close friends, so I won’t be short of people to chat to and share experiences with there. It’s been a long time coming and I literally cannot wait to spend quality time with friends! I also end my two week trip in good company, which is very lucky. I’m spending about 7 days on my own in total, and although I’ve travelled to places by myself to meet friends before, I’ve never spend that much time exploring alone. I am a little apprehensive about it, but there is no backing out now. A few years ago I spent three days in Barcelona on my own, I loved the city but I missed sharing the experience with another person.

I’ve chosen to travel alone because I may not have much time left; I love going on holiday and always want people accompany me, but I want to seize the day and create some good memories of life outside of the terminal illness vortex, companion or no companion. I am yet to figure out exactly what I am going to do yet, but I do love a plan! I have my bridesmaids dress, factor 50 sun cream, malaria tablets and new camera at the ready, and I intend on spending this weekend looking at guide books and scouring the World Wide Web to find out more about my go place and activities for each destination.

I am sure its going to be an amazing once in a life time trip, and I’d rather travel alone than not go at all. It would’ve been nice to have someone to share the experience with, but I didn’t want to miss out just because I’m single. I’ve been told by many experienced travellers I’m bound to meet people along the way, but if I don’t that’s ok by me. I just hope I don’t end up talking to myself too much!

Being single is a lonely, especially at 31, but so is living with incurable cancer and the two do not make for a great combination. As mention in my blog post Singles Awareness Day back in February, I feel due to my cancer diagnosis I cannot offer a future to someone else. I honestly can’t imagine having a permanent holiday companion and a plus one for life.

As we get older the stakes are higher, I’m sure there are loads of men out there with baggage, but the reality is my diagnosis creates a huge barrier. As we get older it becomes increasingly frustrating; the pool of soul mates keeps getting smaller and smaller, but my illness prevents me from letting my guard down. Maybe I have focussed too much on working and keeping sane that way? but nowadays it feels like there is a time pressure on finding someone and settling down. With life being so uncertain and fragile it feels like I have nothing to offer in that way. Who wants a life with terminal cancer patient on active treatment and on medication for depression anyway? Like it or not there is a huge stigma about being a single female in your thirties, all of a sudden it feels alienating, and with cancer on top this is a total nightmare!

At my age people start thinking more in the long term, I’m in the minority with most of my friends who are settled down. Personally, I cannot think in the long term; I feel like it doesn’t exist in my world, so how I am meant to move forward?. Having cancer has taken so much from me, not just having a wedding / holiday companion but the overall prospect of a relationship and starting a family. Cancer won’t ever let go of my life, there is no remission or stopping treatment in sight and I have to accept that I may never meet a man and settle down. The short answer is I can’t. I am not at the same stage as my peers, although part of me is relieved that a boyfriend isn’t going to be dragged through this living nightmare, the future does feel lonely. It isn’t so much that dating is on my mind, but singleness definitely is.

I’ve heard of people in unhappy relationships who have experienced a light bulb moment post diagnosis and left their partner, having a new found appreciation for life. I feel I didn’t even get the chance to really begin the search for ‘the one’. For me, the sky isn’t more blue, the grass doesn’t looked greener and I’m probably not appreciating the small things in life as much as other people, quite frankly I don’t like the feeling of sand between my toes – it’s too hot and it gets everywhere!

Having said that, of all the bad things cancer has given me I’ve certainly been shown a lot of love and compassion over the years. I am fortunate that there are some wonderful people in the world experiencing this awful journey with me, even if they aren’t my wedding plus one.

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

The Waiting Game

I am now playing the waiting game, having had a PET CT scan last week to check for any disease progression. I am keeping everything crossed and hope more than anything that my scan indicates my cancer has remained stable over the past few months.

Due to a Christmas break and Easter holidays It’s been over five months since I had my last scan, so I’ve had an extra long break from the anxiety that usually comes every three months. It’s safe to say if something is wrong I’ll be kicking myself for not having had a PET CT scan sooner.

Luckily I’ve been fairly busy over the past few days, which acts as a good distraction from all things melanoma related, but it doesn’t make the thoughts and feelings go away all together. I’ve had a few nights where I’ve been laying awake panicking about dying, a very real concern, but a very unhealthy thought process.

Waiting for results is the worst past of cancer treatment, my mind races with so many different thoughts it’s hard to keep on the right track and keep a grip on reality. In the past week alone I had three different medical appointments on three separate days, which in itself is exhausting. Having stage 4 cancer is a full time job and it will always be more important than anything else going on in my life.

My last four blood tests have shown I’m suffering from anaemia, which is not at all unusual for me, but is a bit of red flag. I’m normally boarder line when it comes to my haemoglobin levels, so I’m now taking iron tablets prescribed by my GP religiously in the hope they will help me feel less exhausted. I’m off to the Lake District to do the 5 Peak Challenge for Trekstock next week so I need to be on top form. I just hope it doesn’t lead to a blood transfusion!

When I had my PET CT scan last week I had a problem with my portacath. Over the last 12 months It’s been completely reliable, taking away the anxiety and stress of having a cannula fitted or blood taken every few weeks. Despite the nurses best attempts my portacath refused to bleed back, even though it was flushing normally. In the end I had to have the radioactive tracer for the scan injected via a vein in my arm, which was not ideal, as I have the world’s most pathetic small and thin veins! Luckily it was fine in the end, however there was probably about 20 minutes of failed attempts when my anxiety levels were through the roof (I previously had a couple of extremely bad scan related experiences).

Hopefully my portacath was just having an off day and will flush ok when I go for my next chemo appointment, otherwise I may need medicine to help unblock it! It’s the least of my issues but certainly adds to the stress of the whole treatment process.

Keeping everything crossed for my results!

The Struggle Is Real

The never ending struggle of living with stage 4 cancer is very real, and sometimes it appears that I am coping really well, even when I am not. Recently I have had to accept that I need a bit of help as I haven’t been doing well over the past few months. Late last year I felt I was in a dark place and was prescribed antidepressants by my GP.

Being surrounded by positivity and wonderful people helps a lot, but it’s ultimately not a solution. Cancer is lonely and isolating, which means I struggle with my diagnosis daily. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts I frequently feel very lonely and I am not ashamed to say I cry about my situation often. I have points where my judgment is clouded and I struggle to see the positives, as they hugely outweighed by the negatives. Who wants to wake up in the morning thinking about their impending death? Melanoma is a death sentence which I cannot change.

No longer having the typical visual side effects of cancer and holding down a job may sometimes mean people don’t realise how much I am struggling to get by. I think I often make it look easy, I look well but I don’t feel well. This is by far the hardest thing I have gone through, and will ever go through during my lifetime. Unless you’re in my shoes it’s hard to truly relate. Of course, I do have good days where I feel like I’m powering through, and they feel great, but increasingly they are few and far between.

It’s my priority to feel well in myself, but sometimes my lack of control means that isn’t always possible. I try to try forget my woes, even if it’s just for five minutes in a day. I have a new job, and am starting to focus on my new challenge, the Lake District 5 Peak Challenge with Trekstock in April. I have been making the most of being in London and having down time, rather than trying to do too much, which I wrote about in my last blog post Finding My Focus. I have made an effort to go to my favourite local places, go to the cinema, or listen to my current favourite music (The Greatest Showman and Hamilton soundtracks are amazing!).

There are times in the past when I could have taken antidepressants, such as when I had surgery to remove my brain tumour eight years ago, but I just focussed on getting through each hospital appointment. These tablets ultimately won’t make a difference in terms of how Melanoma affects me, but they have started to help me feel less like bursting into tears every five minutes. The injustice of the world upsets me often, and it all comes back to my lack of control or choices I have in my life. This is one of the reasons I choose to raise money for charity when I can; often unless something touches someone’s life personally they may not think about trying to raise funds, but I’ve seen first hand gaps in the support system for patients, and the astronomical costs of life extending cancer drugs on the NHS.

When you look at television adverts or posters, cancer patients are often seen in a positive light, overcoming illness and defying expectations. I guess this is meant to reassure us that cancer can be beaten by everyone, but it is often hard to comprehend the true reality. So far, taking antidepressants has made a significant shift in how I feel; I still struggle every day but the sadness and frustration feels less overwhelming. It seems there can be a stigma surrounding taking antidepressants, but It is clear that I need a little help at the moment.

I have been feeling depressed for several reasons. The most prevalent feelings being that I am scared my cancer will no longer be stable, and I will suffer immense pain and die. I also know it is such huge factor in my life an there is no ‘putting it all behind me and moving on’. After all, I am still  having treatment and getting scanned every three months, and will never be cancer free, it will always be part of my life. I am not trying to be attention seeking, I am just trying to be honest about the realities of life with a terminal cancer diagnosis, its important to know that the struggle is real. Very real.

Finding My Focus

With 2018 now in full swing, some people choose to make resolutions moving forward. For those who are experiencing cancer, or have been affected by it in the past, these resolutions aren’t always about creating new hobbies, such as taking a photograph every day for a year, taking the stairs at work rather than the lift, or going to the gym more.

So far this year I have started cutting back on things in my diary, rather than doing more. Starting a new job with more hours is really challenging for anyone, so I’m trying to stay one step ahead at all times, and finally learning when to say no rather than being a yes man. If I think too much activity is going to jeopardise my health and make me more fatigued, particularly in the winter months, I’m going to say no. I already feel better for making this conscious choice, therefore the prospect of a 40 hour working week doesn’t seem as daunting any more.

I always like to keep people on side and agree to everything (I love brunch and eating out too much), but with a terminal illness it isn’t practical to say yes so often. I am trying to regain my focus and think about what is really important. Previously my attitude would have been that I am admitting defeat by saying no, but really it is learning to look at something from another angle. Despite always wanting to please people and be liked, I already feel much happier and brighter with more sleep and planning down time in my diary. I need my body and brain to function well so I can concentrate on learning my new role, making sure I am not feeling exhausted by lunchtime.

By taking a break for over filling my social calendar, I can really enjoy spending with the people I can about. It has now become more about quality time than quantity. A couple of friends came to stay with me London at the weekend, usually I feel the pressure of being a host and having to show people all the favourite tourist spots, but coffee and chilled out catch ups in pyjamas were just what was needed. I am sure that this will not always be so easy for me, but my health is my number one priority, and I think I’ve forgotten that at points over the past year. I’m starting to feel much better than I have done over the past few months just by making this choice and forming a new routine. Who knew that having breakfast before setting off for work rather than at my desk would make such a difference?!

There are only 24 hours in a day, of course it would be easier if we had an extra day a week, but time is limited. If I’m spending enough time sleeping, and around hour and half travelling to and from work, and another eight or so at my desk Monday to Friday, that doesn’t leave too much time for relaxation and leisure activities. Going for my treatment exhausts me for about a week, then after a break the cycle begins all over again. I’d ask that people don’t write me off just yet, I still want to be included, but I need time to adjust to a new regime, so If I’ve been less responsive this is most likely the reason why. I really appreciate texts, cards, home visits and coffee dates, and I promise I will see everyone, it just might take a little longer to find a time that works with my new routine.

Festive Feelings 2.0

Christmas 2017 is a day away, and it seems like only yesterday I wrote the first Christmas blog post Festive Feelings, but 365 days have passed and a lot has happened over the past year.

On Monday I went on a Christmas trip with my Mum and Sister to Brussels, which makes a huge change from the week before Christmas last year, when had my ninth cycle of Pembrolizumab. So far I have had 25 cycles of the drug and all remains stable, which is more than I could have wished for during 2017. I am pleased to say I haven’t had any last minute hospital dashes or huge scares over the past few months. I am also very lucky that I haven’t had another major operations in 2017. Once again, hospital is the last place I would want to be over Christmas, and am really grateful to be an outpatient, particularly at this time of year.

I often start to worry about the year ahead and the challenges cancer might throw at me. The unpredictable nature of the illness has been a huge part of the anxiety I have been experiencing lately. Melanoma is never far from my mind, particularly during the festive season.

I’m grateful to be well enough this Christmas to enjoy it again, although I’ve been feeling very down over the past few months I know how lucky I am. Overall it doesn’t matter how many presents someone gets, how expensive they are, how festive the house looks or how big the Christmas tree is. There are much bigger problems in life than what films to watch on Christmas day, or what gifts to buy family and friends. What really matters is spending time with people I care about, and trying to be as happy and positive as I can moving forward.

2018 marks a big change for me, I recently got a new job which I am due start in January. I am excited to have a new focus, and for the new challenges that will come with it.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year!

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.

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.

What Could Have Been

Since writing my last blog post, Life Through A Lens, I had a week long break from social media, and I feel so much better for it. Now I am focussing on my summer rather than what other people are doing. In a few days I will be heading up to Edinburgh to enjoy the fringe festival. I went last year for the first time and had a great weekend.  Despite the fact that I am a Drama graduate, I had never been before, so when the chance came to go again I couldn’t turn it down. I have been pretty easy going about the trip and have left it down to others to organise, so am looking forward to sampling what the festival has to offer for 2017. I love to travel and the fringe combines a lot of my favourite things; travelling, theatre, sightseeing and eating out.

My first ever experience of the city of Edinburgh was during my failed attempt at starting university back in 2005, which I wrote about in my original blog post 11 Years. Since that disastrous week I went back in 2008 with a friend from University, and then again in 2016. I love the city, however being there last year struck a chord with me.  If It wasn’t for finding out that I had melanoma, I would have studied there for three years, and who knows where that path may have led to? It is a question I ask myself a lot, wondering what could have been.

Last summer, on my last day In the city I became very upset and tearful about my situation as recollections of what happened came flooding back to me. At 18, I felt that I had no choice but to have a gap year, since I only found out about my melanoma the day before I flew to Scotland, and I was nowhere near ready to be so far from home with a stage 1 cancer diagnosis hanging over me. I was lucky that one of my sister’s best friends from school had already been there a year when I showed up to study.  She came to see me, finding me confused and upset.  I clearly remember my lightbulb moment, I told her that I wanted to be at home with my family, without bursting into tears. Knowing it was the right choice, I returned to Northamptonshire after just six days, and eventually began the quest for finding a new job. I did not want to return to my previous job working at the cinema, after all people would be sure to ask me questions about the scar on my neck, and why I wasn’t in Scotland. As I had only been working there a very short time I did not feel tied to the job, or have a desperate need to return. I think I was only there for a couple of months.

I feel as though cancer has ruled my life since that initial diagnosis, and subsequently I have chosen paths in life that I wouldn’t have chosen had I been well. I get very upset and sad to think cancer will now always be a part of my day to day existence. It rules my life, rather than the other way around. When last in Edinburgh I felt angry that cancer dictated what happened to me as a young adult, and that impact will never go away. I feel as if it has taken away a lot of my freedom, and limited my choices in life: from where I live (I wouldn’t be able to live anywhere as far away as Scotland these days), to the type of job I have, and the prospects that it offers. Having a part time job means saving money is a non-existent luxury, so I feel limited. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the case if I were able to work more? Who knows?

I can’t help but think about what could have been if I’d been able to stay in Edinburgh to complete my degree. Would I have lived there afterwards? Possibly I may have performed at the fringe myself during my time there. One thing is for sure, it always seems a lot colder up there, so if anything, I guess, that is a bonus!

People often say everything happens for a reason, but I fail to see why this has happened to me. I will never understand why. I hope this year I will enjoy the festival and try not to dwell over lost opportunities and memories I didn’t get the chance to create.

Lastly, I wanted to say a huge thank you to those wonderful friends who contributed towards the  2017 fringe fund for me. My lovely friends set up a collection for my 30th birthday so that I could ‘go big’ at the fringe and it has paid for my all my tickets and spending money, I would have struggled without the funds people so generously donated. Absolutely amazing!

Thoughts On Turning 30 With The Big C

This blog post, Thoughts On Turning 30 With The Big C was originally written for Huffington Post UK and posted to coincide with the release of BBC documentary A Time to Live

This month marks a very special occasion, my birthday. Not just any birthday: I turn thirty towards the end of the month. Although some people of my age may shudder at the thought of leaving their twenties behind, I am truly grateful to be able to experience the next decade. There were several points over the past few years when I did not think that I was going to make it. At one point my 25th birthday seemed unlikely to occur. Of course like most twenty-somethings, I am not going to pretend that it has been an easy ride; these have been the most challenging years of my life. Let us just say getting cancer wasn’t on my top of my ‘Top Things To Do Before I turn 30 list’, and as the years progress it is unlikely that life will get any easier. I was initially diagnosed with stage 4 Melanoma in 2010. Since then, I have had tumours removed from my lung and brain as well as two from my bowel. For the last two and half years I have also been the recipient of various different types of systemic treatment. 

A diagnosis such as this means that I can never be cured. It is a case of having treatment to try and alleviate any symptoms and stay alive for as long as possible. I will never be cancer free. My family and friends have had such a significant impact on my recovery, as have the many extraordinary health care professionals who have kept me alive for so long. I believe one of the main reasons that I am here today is because of my positive attitude and that of other people around me. 

In one sense I feel that although I am turning thirty, I am missing out on the whirlwind of mortgages, marriages and typical adulthood. I am not hitting any of traditional milestones expected at my age, I am certainly not the leader of the pack in that domain. Whilst my friends continue to be busy getting engaged, married or having children, I will be spending the first year of my thirties doing the same thing that I have been for the past six and a half years, fighting Melanoma. 

I have my up and downs, there are times when I cannot help think about what could have been, and how my life might have played out, but the truth is I am just happy to be getting older at all. Having cancer means there is no pressure on me to achieve the same objectives as my peers. I have not been travelling or settled down, and I have zero money in savings, I do not work full time, but that is fine since I have cancer to deal with, which is a time consuming job in itself. One that nobody wants.

People have asked what my plans are for the big day, and whether I am going to throw a party to celebrate. The truth is that since my diagnosis I have not really been interested in drinking, dancing, late nights, crowds, loud music or close personal attention, so I do not think it is really for me. I was probably never a fan of those sort of events anyway, and fatigue is a huge issue, so at least having cancer gives me grounds for a good excuse rather than saying ‘it’s just not my thing’.

For me, there are some very different events that have been a cause for celebration, such as the development of new drugs that might help fight Melanoma, and in turn give me the opportunity for more candles on a birthday cake. It is often about the personal successes, such as getting my driving license back after being revoked on medical grounds, a quick recovery from major bowel surgery, or a stable PET CT scan result. It is not a midlife crisis that I am about to hit, in fact it is the opposite. According to headed hospital paper, I am doing really well and I hope that may continue well into my thirties. It might not be what the teenage version of me predicted, but I make do with what I have got. 

As I have grown older I have realised that I need more help that ever before. When I go to hospital for treatment, I get upset and agitated and often regress about 15 years, turning into a stroppy teenager. At least I will always be remembered for being young at heart.
Until you have known what it is to stand at death’s door, and looked over your shoulder to visualise the past, you have not really experienced what it is like to really appreciate life.
It has been difficult to find the words to describe how grateful I am for the life I have been given. I am still here, and I hope for many more celebrations to come. 

Don’t they say life begins at thirty?