A five-year milestone

Warning: Long, quite emo post ahead…

When it comes to cancer, if you’ve gone for five years with no evidence of the disease (NED), you’re considered cured. Sure there are some that have a chance of recurring several years – even decades – down the line, but reaching that five year mark is a huge milestone.

This afternoon I had my five-year anniversary checkup following the melanoma I had removed in December 2004 (yes I know it’s a few weeks early – my checkup schedule worked out that way and my surgeon says that a couple of weeks don’t matter!). I had to go for a chest x-ray first and then on to the melanoma clinic where my surgeon and oncologist gave me a thorough going-over, checking my skin, lymph nodes and abdomen (checking my liver). Everything was absolutely normal and I have now reached five years – yippee!

Because this is such a significant checkup, I have been a bit of a wreck the last couple of weeks, in anticipation. Having got so far, to find out that some ‘mischief’ (as my surgeon calls it) had cropped up would have been devastating. My Mum likened it to climbing a flight of stairs, only to twist your ankle on the second-from-top step and fall all the way back to the bottom. Luckily for me I am very blessed and I’ve made it to the top with no problems. 🙂

So how did I feel when I got the good news today? I didn’t burst into happy tears, which I thought I might. I didn’t leap around dancing. I felt relief – and then it felt surreal. The day I’d been looking forward to for so long is here… wow. Wow. It’s taking some time to get my head around that. So what did I do? I took the rest of the day off and celebrated life by buying a gorgeous pair of red platform sandals 🙂  Retail therapy is, for me, quite life-affirming!

I’ve had many, many checkups over the last five years. Initially I had to go every two months, alternating between the clinic and my dermatologist. After two years, that changed to every three months – and from now, it will be every six – with an annual chest x-ray before my clinic visit. I am so thankful for the private healthcare that I have access to, which is excellent. With melanoma, there is a slight chance it could recur down the line, so an annual check-up is recommended. Because I have very fair skin, I’m high risk for any skin cancer, so I’ll see my dermatologist regularly too. It’s going to be strange having much longer gaps between checkups and I hope it won’t freak me out too much – much as I’ve dreaded them, they’ve been very reassuring as I know I’m being carefully monitored.

I do weird things in the run-up to my checkups. Firstly, I start getting overly sensitive to every little ache, pain, mark and feeling… I scrutinise my scar for any changes, start wondering if moles that have probably been on my body forever are in fact new or have changed and when I get really nerve-wracked, I start tensing up, which causes headaches (brain tumour!), a stiff neck (lymph nodes!), etc. etc. I know it’s totally psychosomatic but can’t seem to help it!

On the day of my checkups I get a little OCD in my house… I have to tidy it completely before I go – make sure all the washing up is done, put all my clothes away, vaccuum, etc. etc. It’s kind of like ‘At least if there’s something wrong, I will come back to a nice clean house’. Or ‘If there is anything wrong, I don’t want it to have been caused by my not doing the dishes’ – OK, yes, that does sound ridiculous, I know! But maybe it makes a little sense. One thing this experience has taught me is that there are things I can’t control – so I hang on to the little things that I can control. I also always read my Bible – getting closer to God has been one of the very good things to come out of this experience. Psalm 16 is my special psalm – go and read it if you need some reassurance; it is hugely comforting. When I had the diagnosis in 2004, my Dad made me a ‘promises jar’ – a jar filled with little paper scrolls, each containing one of God’s promises from the Bible. I dip into the jar, picking one at random, whenever I need a little extra reassurance that God is indeed never far away. I keep one or two in my wallet and on my phone too.

Last night I got quite emotional, thinking of everything that has happened in the last five years and how I’ve dealt with this whole experience. As I mentioned before, I was very lucky to have my melanoma caught early – all I had to have was surgery, no nasty treatments. Many other cancer survivors have to endure the ravages of chemo and radiation therapies and I am so grateful that I didn’t have to. But I still had that moment when I was told that the biopsy showed a malignant tumour. A moment that changes your life. Where you go cold and wonder if you are going to throw up. When you wonder how much time you have left. Days, weeks and even months afterwards where your stomach is in knots with anxiety and you lose weight because your nerves give you diarrhoea. Panicky and stressful hours leading up to checkups. Realising you have forgotten to breathe during a medical examination.  Praying that your x-rays will be clear. Your stomach lurching when you read the words ‘cancer’, ‘tumour’ and ‘malignant’ on the line items on your medical bills. Kindly medical technicians asking ‘so where was the cancer?’ and feeling like they must be talking about someone else. And the amazing feeling of relief when you’re given the all-clear. The deep love and empathy you feel and the tears that fall when you read stories of hope and bravery of other cancer survivors, or the sad stories of those who don’t make it – even total strangers.

I’ve had people be quite dismissive of my experience – maybe because my treatment was so minor. Maybe because I didn’t lose my hair or look (or feel) sick. Maybe because I hide my scar from them and they’ve never seen it. Maybe because they have loved ones whose cancer experience was much more traumatic. I’ve lost two good friends this year because of this – they just could not understand why I avoid the sun so diligently. Two dermatologists, a surgeon and an oncologist have all said that I can’t take enough precautions to avoid the sun – so I will continue to choose their advice over the peer pressure of friends. I hope that one day, the friends I have lost will come to understand me and we’ll be reunited.

I have also had amazing support. My parents, who are my rocks and without whom I’d have fallen to pieces long ago. My good friend B, a doctor, who has patiently and gently listened to all my symptoms – real and imagined (including a panicky 6am call in my first year about stomach pains which turned out to be indigestion!). My other friends who understand, respect, encourage and support me with great kindness and love. The therapist I saw throughout my first year. My skilled, kind and patient doctors, through whom I know God channels His healing power. Sheila, my guardian angel. And my God, whose constant and unfailing love amazes me.

I am so thankful and grateful that I have reached this milestone. I am one of the lucky ones. My heart and love goes out to all who are dealing with some form of cancer – may you also reach your five year NED mark and may God bless you and fill you with His healing love.  And please, avoid the sun or cover up if you must go in it – wear long sleeves/trousers, sunscreen and a hat. A tan is just not worth it.

Love and light (the non UV type!) to you all.

A xx

Dealing with health issues – on your own

I have to have regular medical checkups and the 24 hours leading up to them are times when I REALLY wish I wasn’t single.

Nearly five years ago, I had a mole removed and it turned out to be an early-stage malignant melanoma. I was very lucky it was caught so early and didn’t need any nasty treatment – just had a chunk of flesh from around the original mole cut out of my chest (I tell anyone who asks that the scar is from a boob job gone wrong – LOL!). But it REALLY freaked me out. Cancer? At 31? This wasn’t part of the plan!

I’m blessed with an excellent medical plan which connects me with outstanding healthcare providers, who have taken good care of me since. I go for check-ups regularly – to check for any recurrence or spread of the original melanoma (unlikely), but also general skin checks as I’m very fair and in a high risk category for skin cancer.

If you’ve had something similar happen to you, you’ll know the sense of dread that starts creeping in a few days before your checkup. For me, I start getting edgy, a bit snappy and start self-diagnosing all sorts of things (“headache? must be a brain metastasis! oh hang on – maybe it’s because I’ve been sitting hunched up at the computer all day… hmm, ok, that’s more likely…”) The times when this coincides with PMS are doubly exciting – add a dash of paranoia and pinch of patheticness… back away slowly…

The evening before a checkup is the worst – lots of time to think (note to self – schedule dinner with friends next time) and worry and play scenarios over in my head. I try to schedule my appointments as early as possible in the day as (a) I can never eat anything beforehand (tummy to churned up with nerves) and (b) I would go bananas sitting around all day waiting for it.

Today I went to a new dermatologist so that added some extra nervous-sprinkles on the top of my freaked-out sundae. I wonder if all her patients greet her with a shaky, ice-cold handshake? Probably quite a few of them do. But all went well and my scar, skin, lymph nodes and liver are in tip-top condition. Yippee! If you’ve ever had this sort of checkup you will also know the IMMENSE sense of relief (and post-adrenaline spike wobbly feeling) when you get the all-clear. After a good check-up I have an almost uncontrollable urge to go shopping (and I don’t mean for groceries…) – for me that seems to be my default ‘affirming I’m alive and well’ setting. (Champagne comes to mind too.) Today I did limit it to groceries but they did include some chocolate treats.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (bit late now, I know… excuse the ramblings…), it’s when I’m faced with a medical situation that – despite usually being very happily single, feisty and independent – I could really do with a partner to distract, reassure, love, hug, pray for and support me. Fortunately I am blessed to have extremely supportive and close parents and several good friends who I know send positive vibes my way too. I am also religious and knowing that I’m in God’s hands helps me immeasurably. He’s done an excellent job of taking care of me so far 🙂

How do you cope with this sort of thing? Who do you turn to? Or doesn’t it phase you? I’d love to know if anyone feels like I do.

P.S. With any cancer diagnosis, the magic ‘you’re in the clear’ mark is 5 years with no evidence of disease. I am THREE MONTHS AWAY from that and am planning on having a HUGE party to celebrate!

P.P.S. Melanoma is no fun, people. No suntan is worth gambling your life with. Fake it rather and keep away from those rays. See a dermatologist annually (or twice a year if you’re as fair as I am) and keep an eye on your skin and if you see anything changing, go get it checked out. Melanoma is curable if caught early enough; if not, it is usually fatal and is the most dangerous of all skin cancers. This site has some excellent ‘safe sun’ advice. PSA over!