Three years on in some cases, but thank you

Earlier this year, I wrote that at some point I would write about “all the people who’ve helped and supported me through what I can only call the shit-stormy periods of the past two and three-quarter years”.

That was in March, just after I’d run a half marathon on one of the coldest days of the year. I have nerve damage in my feet – peripheral neuropathy, a side effect from the chemotherapy I had as part of my breast cancer treatment that started three years ago to this very day. Most of the time, I almost don’t notice it. However, it was particularly painful as I was running along the River Thames on that cold day, when London was in the midst of a horrendous cold spell dubbed “the Beast from the East”. To distract myself, I started thinking about all the things I had to be grateful for from when I was in treatment for my breast cancer – and, as if that weren’t bad enough, melanoma too, a couple of years later.

Then one Sunday this summer, in July, 60 miles or so into a fabulous but challenging 70-mile bike ride from Crystal Palace in London to Whitstable on the Kent coast, my right foot was killing me again. It was very, very hot – probably one of the hottest days of the year so far. Extremes of temperature clearly make the peripheral neuropathy worse. Again, some distraction techniques were called for. As I was thinking, I decided I really had to put it all down for the record.

So here goes. The list is not meant to be comprehensive and it’s in no particular order. It’s for all the friends who reached out in whatever way during those times. If you did something and it’s not included, don’t be offended. It was all very much appreciated and your kindness and thoughtfulness made things a lot easier than they might otherwise have been. I will be forever grateful. Thanks, therefore, to so many, including those who:

  • randomly cooked meals and dropped them off, including but very much not limited to when my husband Andy had – at my insistence – taken our sons skiing when I was stuck at home having daily radiotherapy sessions
  • drove or offered to drive me to hospital appointments
  • phoned or texted when they were popping to the shops to ask if I needed anything
  • sent words of encouragement or sympathy by whatever means
  • gave me a box full of “things you might need during chemo”, including hand cream and a hot water bottle
  • took me on a walk up Sugar Loaf Mountain in Wales between chemo sessions and visited between Xmas and New Year, days after I’d had my big op
  • gave me a lovely snuggle blanket because they knew I’d be spending a lot of time on the sofa
  • cycled from north to south London against a strong head wind – it might also have been raining! – to pay a visit after my op
  • sent hand warmers after reading about how cold I was when I was suffering under the cold cap during chemo
  • presented me with a bottle of nail varnish from Liberty to use when my nails (which chemo had trashed) were in better shape
  • issued an invitation to take me out sailing when I was better – and kept following up until it happened
  • appeared out of the woodwork to wish me well after they’d “heard from a friend” or colleague that I was unwell. That takes nerves. Cancer is scary and the easy thing is not to say anything.

On the blog front, a shout-out is due for those who gave feedback on draft posts or who took time to make thoughtful/sympathetic/encouraging/funny comments on actual posts..

And there’s all the stuff involving my beloved Tooting Common, the park at the end of the road. Thanks on that front to the folk who:

  • took me there to pick raspberries after one of my first chemo sessions
  • accompanied me on walks and trips to the cafe during treatment and recovery
  • encouraged me and cheered me on when I started doing the Saturday morning 5k Parkrun there after I’d finished treatment and was trying to get fit again.

And then there’s the Spanish friend who wrote and dedicated a sonnet to me. Yes, really. Now how many people can say they’ve had a sonnet written in their honour? Not bloody many, I’d venture. And there’s the other Spanish friend who wrote me the most beautiful long and heartfelt letters (or rather emails) that I will never tire of reading.

And, of course, there were the cards and the flowers that made the living room look like a flower shop.

Throughout the whole thing and beyond, there has been work, which really could not have been more supportive. Also, I have to mention Breast Cancer Care Worldwide chat on Twitter (#bccww) – a testimony to the positive power of social media.

On the melanoma front – which to be honest I kept relatively quiet about, at least initially – there were the friends who bought me running socks for when I was up and running again or who gave me scar-reducing cream for the scar I now have on my right calf from that particular operation.

This might all seem a bit random but I wanted to get it out there and have it on record. There you have it.

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Melanoma? You’ve got to be kidding

If you focus all your energies on one particular worry – in my case that the breast cancer I’d been treated for successfully might come back – you kind of forget about all the other serious diseases you could get. Such as melanoma. Or to be more specific, malignant melanoma. Yes, that’s right, skin cancer. And not just any skin cancer; malignant melanoma is the “rarest but the most serious of all skin cancers”.

I have just had a malignant melanoma removed from my right calf. A large, dark brown patch (about 1 cm x 1.3 cm) that I swear had been there for as long as I can remember was in fact very early stage skin cancer. Having cancer once is bad enough. But twice? That’s not carelessness, as George Bernard Shaw might have said. It’s just rubbish. Luckily, this cancer was caught at a very early stage; that means there’s very little chance of it coming back or of it having spread.

I’d spent (wasted?) countless hours since I finished treatment for primary breast cancer at the end of February 2016 worrying about the possibility my breast cancer might come back and that I’d ultimately be one of the more than 11,500 women who die of the disease in the UK every year. I’m at high risk of recurrence because of the stage my breast cancer was at when I was diagnosed (Stage 3a). Following a lot of effort, I’d more or less succeeded in putting my fear in a box in my brain marked “do not disturb” and firmly shut the lid. Emotionally, I was moving on very nicely. Physically, allowing for age, I was probably fitter than I’d ever been. I’d done a 10-mile run in June and a 100-mile charity bike ride at the end of July (Job done).

In short, I was feeling great. Then, not even a month after the bike ride, I’m hit with a melanoma diagnosis. That was really not in the plan.

I was aware this “irregularly pigmented lesion” on my leg was there but at no point, I repeat at no point, did I think it might be anything nasty. So much for awareness. A colleague at work noticed it and remarked that it was “big”. That set alarm bells ringing. I got an appointment with the GP, who referred me to a consultant dermatologist. Unlike the breast cancer where I suspected the worst by the time I consulted a doctor, at no stage this time did I seriously think there might be something wrong. However, when the consultant examined me, she diagnosed the lesion almost immediately as “probable melanoma”. She didn’t mess around with a biopsy that would have confirmed it one way or the other. Instead, she had a plastic surgeon remove the suspect patch and an area of surrounding skin and tissue – in a procedure called a wide local excision – that same day.

Not only that, the dermatologist had the surgeon take some skin from another, much lighter, area on my upper left chest near my collar bone to be biopsied.

The patch on my leg turned out to be very early – Stage 1a (at least I think it is, I’ve worked that out myself) – melanoma. The patch on my chest turned out to be clear.

Melanoma’s not like breast cancer where we know what the risk factors are but don’t know precisely what causes it. It’s pretty much accepted that the leading cause of skin cancer by far is exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and sun beds or lamps (surely these should be banned?).

I guess the seeds were sown in my childhood, youth and young adulthood. I was a pale Scot with lots of freckles who burned easily. But I tanned and I loved the sun, loved sunbathing and loved getting a tan. I studied French and Spanish at university in Glasgow and spent my summers in the south of France, the Costa del Sol or Mallorca. I followed this with three years in Madrid. Severe sunburn, blistering, sun beds – been there, done that. We’re stupid when we’re young, aren’t we? In fact a lot of us are still stupid as adults.

In later years, I started appreciating the risks more and became so much more responsible. I couldn’t have been more careful. I’m 54 now and, while I still love the sun, it’s been decades since I’ve done what you would call sunbathing, ie deliberately lying out under a hot sun for hours on end. I would love to lie out, but I don’t. It’s as simple as that. I am so careful. I’m outdoors a lot (tennis, cycling, running) but I always splash on the sun cream – most often Factor 50 and, if not that, Factor 30 (why is there no Factor 40?). I’m the one who’s always offering sun cream around and my two sons will tell you I’m a real nag on this particular issue. They’ll tell you I’m a nag on a lot of things but they know on this one I really mean it.

But I guess the damage was already done. I have to say that, given the battering I let my skin take when I was younger, I’ve thought for years now that I’d be lucky not to get melanoma at some point. Even when the evidence was there, though, I failed to see it. It took a colleague/friend at work, to whom I will be forever grateful. You’d think I’d have learned after the breast cancer. It’s starting to look like I have some sort of death wish. Trust me, I really don’t.

Is this second cancer, though, in some way linked to the fact I had breast cancer? Did the breast cancer itself or the treatment I had somehow enable something that was perhaps already there, simmering away with “malignant intent” (great phrase from a doctor friend), to start growing? I’ve no idea, but the American Cancer Society says that while the most common second cancer in survivors of breast cancer is another breast cancer, they’re at a higher risk for certain other types of cancer, including – wouldn’t you know? – melanoma.

I have no idea how long this brown patch that’s been removed had been there for. I’d have to say years but I have no idea how many. I have no idea whether it’s changed colour, how big it was when it first appeared or by how much it’s grown or over what period. It’s much the same with the patch that was biopsied. I felt such an idiot not being able to answer any of the consultant’s questions with anything remotely approaching certainty. Again, so much for awareness.

As with breast cancer, melanoma survival rates and the risk of it coming back and/or spreading to other parts of your body vary according to the stage of the disease at diagnosis. Like all cancers that can spread, the earlier it’s caught the better. Most patients with a Stage 1 diagnosis don’t have further recurrence of their melanoma once it’s been treated. It still sucks, though. Not only can melanoma come back or spread to other parts of the body, people who’ve had melanoma have an increased risk of developing certain other cancers. I don’t mean to be flippant but, come on, spare me a third.

I’ve to go back to the dermatologist for regular checks for at least the next year. I’ve to be on a constant look-out for melanoma coming back in the same place or appearing elsewhere on my body. If I was careful in the sun before, I’m going to have to be ultracareful from here on in.

The melanoma was removed under local anaesthetic. I’ll have a scar around two inches long across the back of my right calf. I had the procedure on August 29th and I got the results a week later. Thankfully, the melanoma was very thin. It won’t have grown deep enough into the skin to allow the cancerous cells to break away and spread. So there’s no need for any further testing – of the lymph nodes in the groin, for example, which is where it would spread to first. Another positive is that the “mitotic rate” – a measurement of how fast tumour cells are dividing – was zero.

That’s not quite it, though. The aim of a wide local excision is to remove a margin of healthy tissue all around the melanoma along with the melanoma itself.  I’ve been told that while it’s unlikely, I may need a re-excision, in which case the plastic surgeon would go back in and cut some more tissue out. I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I find out one way or another.

I’ve learnt a lot about how to deal with worry and anxiety over the past couple of years, but getting a second cancer diagnosis is no joke. Waiting to find out what stage the melanoma on my leg was and whether that second patch on my chest was also cancerous and would need cutting out wasn’t much fun. My husband says there were lots of periods when I’d go quiet, followed by long exhalations of breath. I think I can be excused that.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015, I was told more or less straight away that I’d need chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiotherapy. I knew treatment would be gruelling and would last seven or eight months. With this, if I don’t need a re-excision, I’ll have been diagnosed in the morning and treated in the afternoon. If I’m lucky, that’ll be it… physically at least, emotionally it’s not quite that simple.

I thought long and hard over whether to go public on this. I decided to do so in the name of raising awareness (that old chestnut). Check yourselves, people – there’s an easy ABCD guide: A (asymmetry), B (border), C (colour) and D (diameter) – and take precautions to reduce your chances of developing melanoma in the first place. According to Cancer Research UK, melanoma is preventable in around 86% of cases. For breast cancer, it’s 27%.

To give the wound on my leg the best chance of healing well, I’d to sit with my foot raised in the three days following the procedure and I’ve to avoid strenuous exercise for four weeks (or more, depending on how the healing goes). So no sport at least until the end of September. For those of you who know me, you’ll know what torture that is. I’ve had to cancel four tennis matches that were already in the diary, one of which in particular I was really looking forward to playing. The day before I was diagnosed, I went for an hour-and-a-quarter run. The day before that, I did a 30-mile bike ride.

I’m gutted at not being able to do the 5k Parkrun I do almost every Saturday at 9am on the local common. So much for having set myself the target of beating my personal best time by the end of September. I guess it’ll have to be October or November now, or perhaps even December.

Because instead of focusing on the – frankly-terrifying-if-you-think-about-it-too-hard – notion of two cancer diagnoses in just over two years, you’ve got to, as the old song goes, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. It’s easier said than done, but I’ll give it a good try.