‘I was getting married in a month, they wanted me to have my operation ASAP. I had a panic attack in front of the nurse.’: Woman survives recurring skin cancer, ‘The support has been massive’

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“It all began June of 2016. I hadn’t been engaged for long and was just starting to plan my dream day when, suddenly, everything went wrong…

I am a moley person and have never thought much of them. I always spent time out in the sun, got burned, and laughed it off. Never did it occur to me how much damage it was doing.

Lee (my boyfriend at the time) was keeping an eye on a mole on the top half of my back. It was changing shape, getting very painful, and wasn’t feeling normal. One day, Lee said to me, ‘It’s time. You need to go have that mole looked at. It isn’t getting any better.’

My doctor, at the time, wasn’t easy to get into, and it took around three weeks to see them. The day of the appointment arrived. I was at work, as my doctor’s office was near where I worked. I walked there and went by myself, because little did I know what the doctor was going to say to me…

They looked at my back and straight away said they were going to refer me to dermatologist, as all indications were showing this could possibly be skin cancer. Sorry, what? Never did that thought pop into my mind. Naive as it sounds, you never think anything like that is going to happen to you. I came out of the appointment in such shock. I was alone, confused, and scared. I got straight on the phone with Lee, who left work and came to be by my side.

The day of the appointment came, and off to the hospital I went. They confirmed what the doctor said; it looked a lot like skin cancer. They told me I’d be having an operation to have the mole removed and tested. A week or so later, I was in having the operation. I was awake throughout the whole thing, and I could feel a lot of tugging. Half an hour later, I was done and out with a few stitches and a few days off work to recover.

About a week later, I had a letter for a follow-up appointment. I was back in to hear the news I’d been dreading. The mole had came back and was confirmed as skin cancer, so the next stage was a further excision to make sure they had got it all and it hadn’t spread.

The next thing I know, I’m in having the wider excision. Again, I was awake throughout it, and this time, there were a whole lot more stitches. Another couple of weeks passed, and I had another appointment to see the dermatologist. With that appointment, I finally got some good news. There was no sign of it spreading, and the wider excision was clear. Whoohoo! Finally, I thought I could put the horror behind me.

They told me they would be keeping a close eye on me and having check-ups every three months. They also told me to keep a really close eye on my other moles, in case any of them changed. A couple of follow-up appointments went by without a hiccup, and everything seemed great until June of 2017. I was in the full swing of planning the wedding, and I was a few weeks away from my bachelorette party, when I had a check-up.

The doctor did his usual checks, checking all my lymph nodes, and suddenly, he felt a lump under my right armpit. He took a biopsy and booked me for a pet scan. A couple of weeks passed again, and I was due to go in for my results. The hospital ended up calling and getting me an earlier appointment. I knew there and then, this wasn’t going to be good…

I walked into my appointment, and sitting there was my Macmillian nurse, the doctor, and a man I had never seen before. They broke the news to me; the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and was now classed as melanoma. I was sitting there numb, scared, and angry. They continued to explain I needed an operation to remove all my lymph nodes, and the man who I’d never met was, in fact, the surgeon who was going to do the operation.

I was still completely in shock. They went on to tell me, because I was getting married in a months time, they wanted to get me in for my operation as soon as possible, as I would need as much time as we could to help me heal. So, that was it. It was Thursday when they told me, and they had arranged the operation for the following Tuesday, August 1st.

That weekend was my bachelorette party. Part of me wanted to cancel it and not have it, but I thought long and hard, and I said to myself, ‘No, I need to go ahead.’ So, I did, and wow, what a night! My bumbas (Adam and Mitch) did the best job organizing it for me, and all my closest friends turned up. They made me laugh and tried to take my mind off the following week, as much as possible.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

The dreaded day arrived — the day of my operation! Never have I ever been so scared. I’d never had anything like it, and I knew I was getting put to sleep. I was so scared, but the hospital staff were lovely and let Lee come as far as possible with me, so I wasn’t alone. I was all gowned up and had to say goodbye to Lee. I was then taken to the operating room. The surgeon came in, and I just remember lying there seeing all these people around me, and getting more and more scared. The surgeon held my hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you. You’ll be asleep soon.’ And that’s the last thing I remember.

Around five hours later, I was being wheeled up to the ward. All I wanted was to see someone familiar to me. I needed Lee so bad. I was confused and didn’t know what was going on. As I was being wheeled up, I remember hearing my dad’s voice in the corridor. He had spotted me and was on the phone with Lee saying, ‘She’s coming now. I can see her!’ They got me settled on the ward, and suddenly, Lee arrived. I was so happy to see him! I was in pain and just needed him there. I was still pretty much out of it and didn’t really know what was going on, but I managed a selfie, to let everyone know I was okay.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

I was in the hospital four days. During those four days, I hardly slept. I was in so much pain and had drains coming out of me to drain the lymphatic fluid around my scar. When I first went for my operation, they said I would have my drains in for a few weeks, and I could go home with a district nurse. However, it turned out the fluid slowed down quick. I ended up having one drain out a day after my surgery and the other drain out the day I came home!

The month before the wedding was horrible, being so ill with recovery. I had staples in my armpit, which had to keep coming out in stages. So, there was a lot of back and forth to the hospital — having them out, having fluid drained, and just general check-ups. A week before the wedding, I still hadn’t tried my wedding dress on because of my arm recovery. I finally managed to try it on, so they could finish altering it.

I went back to my general practitioner to get more bandages for my arm. I’ve never experienced anything like it; the nurse didn’t have a clue what she was doing. She bandaged me up nowhere near where the issues were. You can see in the picture what she did to me. It was shocking!

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

Sunday, September 3, 2017, was the happiest day of my life. The day I forgot everything and actually felt like a normal human being. Marrying my best friend, my rock. We had the best day and night, and it’s a day I will never forget. I felt so good!

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

This picture makes me giggle, as it’s a month after the operation. I’d been in so much pain with my arm, and hadn’t been able to lift it. Yet, the adrenaline must have let me lift it way above my head.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

Obviously, with everything going on, we didn’t manage a honeymoon. However, we did manage a mini-moon, which was amazing. A week away with my husband, having a laugh and relaxing together, was just what we needed!

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

But after that, it was back to reality and back to hospital appointments. I was told I needed radiotherapy to make sure all the cancer had been caught. When they removed my lymph nodes, they found the cancer was trying to escape out of three! I had to wait awhile between my operation and radiotherapy, as my armpit needed to heal. It took a very long time!

In November, I started radiotherapy. I had 21 rounds. My skin kept getting more sore, and I was getting even more sleepy. But, those were the only side effects I had. The staff were lovely and made me feel at ease every time I went. The day I finished radiotherapy was a great feeling. I can’t thank Tracy enough. She came with me every time I had radiotherapy. We had a selfie, as well as lots of soggy flapjacks.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

My check-ups were every three months, so in March, I went to see my consultant. She arranged for me to go have a CT scan with contrast, just to make sure the radiotherapy had caught everything. The CT scan wasn’t very nice. They injected dye into me, but they found it hard to inject me, and I just remember seeing a lot of blood. The scan itself lasted no longer than five minutes. I remember the nurse saying it might make you hot and feel like you are going to pee yourself, which it did. It was such a strange feeling.

A week or so later, I got called in. The news wasn’t great… I was told they didn’t catch the cancer in time, and it had now spread to my liver, lungs, and chest. I sat there just thinking, ‘I’m gonna die. I’m not gonna have long to live. Why me? What have I done to deserve all this? What’s next? Chemo?’

Instead, they told me about a new treatment, immunotherapy, which had only been going for about five years. It’s given like chemo, but it boosts your own immune system to fight the cancer. I was told it would NEVER go, and it would be a case of managing the cancer. The side effects explained to me were so scary, and I was told it was 99% certain I would get some of the side effects. I thought, ‘Should I really put myself through this for something that probably won’t do anything?’

There were two different types of immunotherapy. I chose to have the highest, even though there were more side effects. I had to give myself the best chance. So, in April, I had my first round of immunotherapy. I was there all day! It was so long! I had two big bags of treatment, and in between, had anti-sickness and flushes. I think we were there seven hours in total. Luckily, Lee was with me, keeping me calm and entertained.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

The first round of immunotherapy finished. Unfortunately, as we came out of the hospital, we had a phone call from my sister-in-law, saying my mother-in-law had been taken into the hospital. We raced to get to Birmingham to be with her, but by the time we got there, she had unexpectedly passed away. Not only did Lee have the heartache of losing his mom, he also had me doing poorly to deal with. I don’t how he got through it. He is so strong!

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

In between treatments, I had been speaking to Macmillian support in the hospital, to help with finances. They were such a great help. I then got told about ‘Look Good, Feel Better’ — a free afternoon of makeup classes to help people struggling with the effects of cancer. It was a free program ran by volunteers, and it was a great time! I would highly recommend this to anyone affected by cancer.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

I had also been speaking to a psychologist, as I was having a tough time coping. Since the diagnosis, I had been really struggling with anxiety. It’s funny, I used to be so confident and not much bothered me. But after the diagnosis, I got very anxious meeting/speaking to new people. The thing that bothered me the most, was speaking to people I didn’t really know on the phone. My psychologist offered techniques to help me sleep better and cope a little better, but I’m still trying to overcome my anxiety.

Every three weeks, I had immunotherapy. I didn’t really have any side effects to start off with. I just felt tired, but I didn’t have any sickness or anything, which was good. My next appointment was on my 30th birthday — what a way to celebrate! I definitely won’t forget it in a hurry. But don’t worry, I still managed a selfie!

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

I had a couple more rounds of immunotherapy. Side effects were skin irritation, mainly around my top half, and all over my boobs looked like eczema. I was given a cream, and after a few days, it had cleared up dramatically. My consultant made me aware the immunotherapy had made me have a under active thyroid, which was making me tired and drained. So, I got on tablets to help this. However, it takes a long time for your thyroid to improve, so this is still ongoing. I was also diagnosed with lymphedema. Because my lymph nodes were all gone on my right side, the fluid was struggling to adjust and was making my arm and right breast swell.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

In July, I was scheduled to have a pet scan to see if the immunotherapy was helping. I was told when I first got diagnosed, on my first scan, there probably wouldn’t be any change. Immunotherapy takes longer to get into your system.

I went for my scan and had a couple of days waiting to find out the results. The day of the results came, and I was so scared! I’ve never felt so scared in all my life! I had it in my head it was going to be bad news. Lee finished work and came to get me from my parent’s house, but I broke down and said I couldn’t go. He really tried to get me to go, but my head was spinning so much I couldn’t. So, Lee went to my appointment for me. They had to call me to get my consent to let Lee know the results.

It felt like the longest wait. Lee walked back into my parent’s house and said, ‘Come here.’ I walked over to him, and he hugged me so tight. He told me, ‘The scan was clear. All the cancer is gone!’ I kept saying to Lee, ‘You’re joking!’ I felt like I was dreaming. He told me the consultant was gutted I wasn’t there to be told the good news, but she wanted to see me the next day, as something had flagged up on the scan.

I phoned all my family and friends and posted online to let everyone know. I couldn’t believe the amount of support I had from all of them. The amount of people behind me, who were so excited when I told them. I can’t thank everyone enough.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

The next day, I went to see my consultant. She told me something had flagged up on my scan on my right breast, but it could have just been an infection. I was told to keep my eye on it.

I was put on a lower dose of immunotherapy, which I had every four weeks instead of three weeks. I had to double check with her that I was still continuing my treatment, in which she replied, ‘You will be having this for the rest of your life now.’ But, if it was keeping everything at bay and away, then I was more than happy to do so!

In August, I had the best time away with the best people! We went to St. Ives, and it was the most deserved break Lee and I had for awhile. We had such a laugh, and again, I felt normal. I could forget everything! Thanks Kirsty, Mark, Esme and Kye for a great trip!

Courtesy of Laura Portlock
Courtesy of Laura Portlock

In September, Lee and I managed to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary. We went to Marco Pierre White’s restaurant in Birmingham. It was lovely.

But, back to reality again. I got booked for another pet scan October 9th. On the 12th, I had to get my results. I had to go through the hellish day of waiting around for my results. I got myself worked up again, but this time, I managed to get myself to the hospital.

They called me in to get weighed. I had a panic attack on the nurse and got so upset, they moved me into a quiet room and brought Lee in with me to wait. I then walked in, and my consultant hugged me and thanked me for turning up. I was told the scan was still clear — nothing on my lungs, liver, and chest. The bit that flagged up on my right breast had disappeared as well. This time, something had flagged up on my bowel. However, the consultant was pretty sure it was nothing to worry about. We were going to wait until my next scan to see if it was still there.

In March, because of how well I responded to treatment, and because of my anxiety, my consultant decided not to scan me until April. Treatment was going okay. The only problem I was having is they were finding it hard to put the cannula in, as my veins were drying up. They could only use my left arm, as my right arm has lymphedema. They started talking about me getting a permanent port fitted, which would be placed on my chest, and using it as a constant feed for them to get blood and put my treatment in.

I was really anxious about having this done, and was putting it off as long as possible for two reasons. 1) You have to be awake while they do the procedure, and 2) you can’t get it wet, so having showers or going swimming would be difficult. Most days I felt ‘normal.’ I didn’t want a constant reminder of what I was going through. However, I knew when the time came, and they really couldn’t do anything more, I would have to have it. Below is a picture of what the last cannula did to me… ouchy.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

In March of 2019, I went to see my consultant for a check-up. She asked me the usual questions: ‘How are you? Any side effects?’ To which I replied, ‘No, nothing.’ She then went on to tell me I’d be having my scan in the middle of May, and I’d be due to go and see her for results May 23rd. Because the nurses were continually telling me I needed to have a port fitted, I thought I would speak to my consultant about it. She said something I was never ever expecting her to say. If my scans continued to stay clear and everything went okay, they were looking at taking me off treatment in April of 2020.

Wow, I was in shock! Immunotherapy was so new they thought I would have to stay on it to keep it controlled, but because of how well I was doing, and how well the treatment was coming along, they could take me off it. If I ever need to go back onto it, they could get me back on it at any time! I couldn’t believe it. I never thought I would have heard those words.

Courtesy of Laura Portlock
Courtesy of Laura Portlock

On May 13th, I had my fourth pet scan. It was a long wait, but it finally got to the morning of the 23rd. The week leading up to it had been hell. I was crying all the time and getting so scared. My appointment was at 4 p.m., and at about 2 p.m., I got so scared and anxious. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t end up going to my appointment; my mind was playing such tricks on me.

On the 24th, the nurse called me to ask why I didn’t show up. I explained, and she was trying to reassure me it was all going to be fine. I agreed to go see my Macmillian nurses to get the results. Wednesday 29th I was due to go for treatment anyway, so beforehand, I stopped in to see my nurse. She told me my scan was clear, no cancer! Because pet scans are that good, some stuff did flag up. But, we managed to rule it all out. So, if they continued to stay clear, I would be off treatment!

I thank everyone for their best wishes/support. It’s so overwhelming, but much needed. A few people I want to mention…

Macmillian — without the support of my skin cancer nurses, Claire, Katie, and Louise, I would be lost and feel so alone!

Cancer research — without you, I wouldn’t be here now. I will continue to support this charity as long as I can! More and more people are surviving cancer because of them!

My husband, my rock — I couldn’t and wouldn’t have gotten through this without you. I’m gonna make sure we continue having fun and enjoying life!

My family, especially my mom and dad, who want to kick my butt most of the time, but who support me so much.

My friends — too many to mention people. The support from you all has been massive, but huge love to my best friend, Adam, who makes me laugh when times are tough, who’s there when I need to cry. Thank you so much.”

Courtesy of Laura Portlock

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Laura Portlock. It originally appeared on her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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