Wednesday, 1 June 2016

My Skin Cancer Story

I've just finished off filming a Vlog on my experience with skin cancer and thought that with Summer approaching, it would be best to do a blog post about it too. I want to say the same as I have said in my video; this story being put out there isn't for sympathy or to be told I'm brave etc, it's to try to show people what I've had to go through for a very minor case of melanoma and hopefully discourage heavy sunbed users from going on them so much.

Please note before you read this that everything I say on here is pretty light hearted, I just can't show that through typing when there is soooo much to get through. This isn't a sob story at all.

I was going to include pictures in this blog post, but I would hate for someone to see gory things who didn't want to and also wouldn't want people to be put off reading this for the same reason.

I will also probably be talking more in depth on here about everything.

Anyway, since I was about 14 I had a freckle on my ankle that was slowly growing into a mole and getting bigger and bigger as the years went on. When I was about 16/17 I went to the doctor to ask him about it. He told me it looked fine to him but if it kept growing then I needed to go back. Which I did, but about three years later as it had been growing so slowly, I had barely noticed anything different about it. Again, aged 20 at this point, I was sent away saying if it grew any more to come back, but that it looked like nothing. By this point, I was convinced I was wasting my time and that he was getting a bit annoyed with me as I'd been twice so I listened to him for another few months. 

I had started University and rehearsing for Legally Blonde, so I was dancing constantly and really active at that point. The mole was cut by a pair of new shoes and had tried to protect itself by padding itself out, causing it to grow even more again. My mole was now about a centimetre around and wouldn't stop bleeding because of course, if I wore socks, it would stick and stop it healing. Plasters wouldn't help as it wouldn't dry out. I had had enough and went back to the doctors for a third time, I told them I wanted it taken off and explained it had been bleeding. Finally in January 2015, I was referred to the hospital for a dermatologist to take a proper look at it. 

The doctor I was referred to took a look at it under a little microscope that looked like a mini telescope and said that he would definitely reccommend having it removed as although he couldn't tell for sure without a biopsy, it didn't look too good. I remember asking him if I was going to die and expected him to laugh and tell me no, but he just laughed nervously, sighed and said "I can't tell you that". That was the first time I was a little bit scared about it, but as I had been really sensible covering up in the sun, never used the sunbeds and didn't really have any other moles, I brushed it off and never really thought about it again.

I was referred to a plastic surgeon who is the loveliest man in the world - I'm not sure I can mention names, so I won't for now, but I'll call him Dr B and edit it at another time if I find out I can mention it, as I would love to publicly thank him. Dr B agreed it would be best to remove it and gave me a date for the middle of March to have it taken off. I was really excited to get it taken off just because it had been annoying me so much I had been limping everywhere for the past few months. 

My first operation was absolutely fine, I was in for the day and had chosen to stay awake for it and just had the areas numbed. They were going to do a skin graft and take skin from my bum (lovely) to cover the skin they would take from my ankle (the mole and a few millimetres surrounding it). I was able to take my kindle in with me although I didn't read much as I had to turn over a few times. I got really light headed at one point and thought I was going to pass out. Not through being scared or anything - just because it was so hot with the overhead lights being right on me! After my operation, I was able to go straight home pretty much. I had a huge bandage on my foot and as I had never had stitches before, I was terrified to put any weight on it. But that only lasted for a day or so, I was fine after that. 

My results day came in the post for the end of the month and I went with my parents to see Dr B to get them. I walked in and he asked how I was healing etc and told me that it was melanoma that had been removed. He said he had it sent back to the lab twice because he was so convinced it wasn't anything by looking at it (I want to point out that Dr B wasn't the GP who had turned me away). Sometimes you get the ugliest looking moles that are completely benign (non cancerous). But I did have melanoma and they needed to "keep me safe" as they put it. On hearing the words, I felt as though I was going to pass out and I ran to the end of the room I just couldn't keep still. My Mum and Dad came to sit with me and I just didn't want to have the conversation I was having at all. As cliche as it sounds, it felt like a really bad dream. My parents were really upset and they sat with me and asked some questions. My mind had fogged over so I barely remember anything in that room after that. I just didn't understand why this was happening to me as I have been on the sunbeds twice ever and always been so sensible (literally, factor 50 every holiday).

After explaining that they would have to make a further investigation through operations to see how far it had spread, I was walked into a different room with a lovely Nurse (again, don't know if I can use her name so I'll call her Dee). She spoke to me a little more about it and at this point I was already feeling better about the situation, it hadn't really sank in too much either yet which helped in a way. Dee told me again that when they found out just where it had got to, they would be able to prevent it doing any more damage. 

Looking back, this was probably the scariest point of everything, but this was the time I was least bothered about it. I did have to tell my family though, which was the worst part. Although I did reassure them that I would be okay it was still horrible. As little as we knew, I knew I hadn't felt ill or anything and I would always imagine it to be worse to watch it happen to someone you loved than it happen to you yourself. Everyone tried to stay happy and I just wanted my niece and nephew, so a few people came around and we just tried to have a nice night.

The day after I woke up, it was the worst feeling. I woke up relieved and for the first ten seconds of being awake genuinely believed I had dreamt it all, then I got the biggest churn ever in my stomach remembering it was real life. Over the next few weeks, I tried to go back to normal and I did forget about it at times. It was more horrible seeing the people around me being constantly worried and concerned because again, they couldn't feel that although I was worried myself, I felt okay.

My next operation letter came through and this time, they would have to take more skin from the area the mole had been to ensure it hadn't spread to the surrounding areas and that they would have to take what they call the "sentinel nodes" which are the first lymph nodes the cancer goes to that your tumors is giving off. Sort of a pathway. This was where it got pretty daunting for me - in order to find the sentinel nodes, on the morning of my operation I had to have a dye injected into my ankle and had to wait for it to drain to the nodes. For this, I had to have twenty needles in an area that had just been operated on and was really sensitive and lie on a bed/table under a big machine in a white room for about 40 minutes in total. Nobody was able to be in there with me due to the radiation. The dye would travel up my leg to the sentinel nodes and show where the cancer would be (if it had spread) and five lit up (the dye was luminous, radioactive and can be detected through a sort of metal detector, it was all scary but really clever!). Although it didn't mean there was cancer there if the nodes lit up, it still scared me that I had five. 

I was put to sleep for this operation as it took a few hours. They took the five lymph nodes, one from behind my knee and four in my groin and the extra skin. They also took skin from my thigh to use as a skin graft. I have a really high tolerance for pain (I found out) so recovering was never too bad. I went him the same day and again, awaited my results. While I was going back to have my bandages removed, Dee told me I had a lot of water built up behind my stitches and that I may have to have it drained now and then if it didn't start going down soon. I assumed it would just drain out soon, my body was shocked by the lack of lymph nodes so I just thought it would get used to it. 

I went back into hospital for my results a few days later and got the second best news I could have got. I found out that there was cancer in three out of five lymph nodes, BUT it was microscopic. I was so happy I had been expecting it to be in all of them. To be on the safe side, they were going to remove my lymph nodes from all of my pelvis and groin on the right side, just to be sure that any tiny bits couldn't travel. Thankfully, the work on my ankle was done for now and they would trap the melanoma in my leg so it couldn't go anywhere important. 

On my Aunties birthday, my stitches burst and all the water came out. I didn't feel it happen at all and thought I had lost control of my bladder because of all the operations! My big operation was going to be in the next few days so there was no point seeing if they could do anything about it. Every day for about a week, water would build up behind my stitches and they would pop again. It was horrible and it happened twice in public! 

My big operation was the hardest to recover from. In order to get to all of the lymph nodes, they had to cut from the top of my inner thigh to just under my belly button on the right side to get everything they could out and in doing so, they had to go through my muscle. I also had a drain put in which was absolutely disgusting and I had to carry it around with me. I had to make sure I was able to walk alone and climb stairs before I could go home, I stayed two nights. I made sure I only had morphine for about five hours after my operation so they could see I would be fine without painkillers and so I could go home! Luckily, they were lovely and allowed Matty to stay with me (he stayed on plastic chairs for two nights) and that really cheered me up. It was a stressful and sad time but thinking back, it was the first night that my cancer was cut off to just my leg. Once what was being drained ran clear, I was able to have it trimmed and a plastic bag replacing the "carry around" one. I was so happy but sometimes it leaked. The first time I had to be taken in to have it changed, but Dee gave me a few to take home as I watched her do it and was confident I would be okay doing it by myself. I had to do it a few times as it was just constant water coming out of my thigh which would mess with the sticky part attaching it to my leg. 

A few days after my drain had been removed, I received a phone call from Dee telling me the rest of my lymph nodes had came back clear - meaning the cancer had not spread past those! It was the best feeling in the world and I was able to tell all of my family the news which was just amazing to be able to do having caused them to stress for ages! I had another appointment just to confirm it and was taught how to check for lumps and shown what to look out for. I was put of three monthly checks just to make sure everything is okay. 

I have been left with a few big scars and something called Lymphodema - if you google it, mine is about ten times less severe than any of the pictures you'll find! Basically, my leg just swells up now and then if I over do it, which can get annoying as sitting for so long made me tubby. It can take a few days to go down but that is at its absolute worst. I was able to go to Florida and I had an amazing time there. Unfortunately, sometimes I get to a point where I can't enjoy anything anymore. Every time I'm happy I worry it will come back, or sometimes I'm just really grateful to be there which reminds me that something sad has happened which is stupid and horrible but it is starting to go away.

Just after Christmas 2015, I found a lump behind my knee which absolutely terrified me. I was convinced this was the start of another journey like the one I just had, but really it was just "leftovers". I had to have a CT scan just to make sure that there was no cancer in any of my organs (belts and braces/triple check) and although my lump was melanoma, my scan came back clear so I'm still on my check ups! 

It was really really scary to go through but I am genuinely fine about it now and want to tell people what happened as I used to automatically think that cancer was getting chemo, losing weight and going bald and I think if sunbed users and people who don't use the right factor suncream read this and understand everything I have been left with as a result of melanoma then they might change their ways. As I said in my video, "The scars you're left with aren't worth the tan" which is so true. If you care a lot about your appearance, don't actively increase your risk of cancer in return for not looking pale now and then. 

I would love for people to share this around and I hope I can help someone. 

Chesca :) 

P.S - if you'd like to see the video I posted on this, check out the link below.

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