It seems to be a pretty much universal thought that bad things happen to other people and it will never be you – of course that’s not true as someone has to be ‘the one’, but that doesn’t make it any more believable when it actually happens.
Maybe it’s partly that belief that keeps many of us from making too much fuss about what seem like minor health issues, as ultimately we don’t believe it’ll be a big deal. That was certainly my experience – I have plenty of moles so didn’t think much when I noticed one that I wasn’t sure stood out before.
After a couple of months considering it, I visited my Doctor. She took a look and explained that it wasn’t unevenly pigmented or scabby, and sent me on my way. After a few more months I noticed it again in a changing room mirror and thought it may have slightly grown, so I returned and was sent to a dermatologist as a precaution. As soon as they saw it they asked if I could come back first thing the next morning to have it removed. I was pretty anxious about that reaction, but again, I told myself it’d just be a precaution and that I’d not had any health issues before, I’m only young, etc.
I returned the next day. Being a total germ phobic, prior to this I’d do my best not to set foot in hospital even to visit, let alone go there for anything of my own! The removal wasn’t pleasant but you only feel the sensation, not the pain. It was surprisingly sore for a week or so after, but bearable. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I received a call out of the blue asking if I could go to the hospital the following morning for the results, although my appointment wasn’t for a week yet. That was the first time I experienced real fear about it, although the following day was worse – my husband and I were ushered into a room of people who told us that my mole was cancerous and then it was just like you see on cancer adverts. I can only liken it to when you’re told someone has died – the feeling of disbelief, shock and an inability to pay attention to all the important things people are telling you.
Having been referred we were told I had to have a wider skin removal around the area but that I had an 85% chance the melanoma would not have spread, so it was optional whether I also had a sentinel lymph node biopsy to remove and test some nodes. Definitely one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made – 85% is pretty favourable; if I got that in an exam I’d be fine about it, but then if I was told there was a 15% chance of the ground falling away and me plunging off a cliff, would I be ok with that?! Having asked a lot of people for opinions, one bit of advice really stuck in my head. My lovely father in law said ‘if you have it, then whatever the results are, it’ll be good – they’ll either be clear and you won’t have to worry anymore, or they won’t be, in which case you get to have the earliest treatment’. That was a large deciding factor for me opting to go for it and I’m so glad I did.
We spent the whole day at hospital as prior to operating they had to inject the scar with dye to see what lymph nodes to take – if it wasn’t for the lovely ladies in Nuclear Medicine I was so close to backing out as the thought of general anaesthetic terrifies me.
To be honest, the aftermath was way worse than I’d anticipated. I was black and blue for weeks and there was hardly a position I could even sit in, let alone sleep in for a while, but it got gradually easier and my kind, patient husband was amazing; running around after me and getting me addicted to chocolate digestives and tea! – my 11am highlight for about 3 weeks!
The results from the op seemed to take forever – after a few weeks we were back at the Melanoma clinic waiting to hear and to be honest with an 85% chance it’d be ok, I was secretly hopeful it would be good news, so was totally knocked sideways when we were told (not very sympathetically to be fair) that they did find cancerous cells in one of the 9 nodes removed. This was like the initial diagnosis times about 100 – all I could think about was dying and leaving everyone behind, the horrible time I was bringing to my fairly newly married husband and how this couldn’t actually be happening to us; it was devastating and probably the worst day of my life seconded by the month that followed where we were waiting for CT scan results to see if there was any spread already. Thankfully finally the results came and brought a massive relief as the scan was clear.
Next step was a visit to an oncologist, as it turned out to talk about preventative treatment which I wasn’t obliged to have, but I was told it would significantly increase the chances of not seeing the melanoma back. The thought of IV drips (I hate needles so much!) every 3 weeks was another huge challenge, but I’d already decided I’d do anything that was for the best, so I started a year- long course of immunotherapy just over 6 months ago.
It’s hard to know for sure what causes certain cancer – for me, I did use sunbeds in my early 20’s and personally I feel that contributed as I had a few skin anomalies at the time which I’d never seen from regular sunbathing. I stopped using them back then but I’ve been told now that UV rays can permanently alter the cell which can later become cancerous. Also, maybe the severity of melanoma doesn’t get enough press; when my friends and I were using sunbeds we certainly never realised how serious melanoma is. Even when I got it, I initially assumed it’d be less serious than other cancers as it’s on the skin.
The part that’s hard to imagine until it actually happens is how it really makes you feel – and how it makes your partner feel – the ongoing nature of treatment is hard and how you feel about yourself generally when you’ve gone from being ‘normal’ and well, to covered in scars and having on-going hospital treatment, Suddenly you’re in a ‘club’ you don’t want to be part of and for me initially all of the above made me feel like a burden, an ‘ill person’, unattractive and vulnerable – and weak, which is something I hate people to see me as. Plus there’s the guilt of how horrible it’s making your partner’s life and how hard it is for them – if anything they have it worse in some ways as they feel constant pressure to be your rock, be responsible for you and remind you of the positives when you’re sad, while no-one is focussing on how life changing it is for them.
I feel very lucky though – people do say that often the ones who get you through aren’t always the ones you’d expect and I’ve definitely found some less likely as well as likely support. Having got over half way through treatment I definitely feel like there’s an end in sight and I’ve adjusted the negative feelings I had about myself. If anything, having to deal with such a lot can show you that you’re stronger than you think, so I’m hopeful that by 2020 all this can start to be a memory to look back on.