Cancer · Fundraising · Living with Cancer · Melanoma

Moroccan Mountain Highs to Back on the Cancer Rollercoaster

Mount Toubkal Summit Sunrise Sept 17, 2022

What a difference a week makes. Last month Team Shomelanoma’s 13 musketeers were wakening up at 3 am after very little sleep in the mountain refuge dormitory ready to climb to the top of Mount Toubkal North Africa’s tallest mountain. Upon my return from Morocco I was straight into the Royal Marsden for my latest set of scans and was back to earth with a big bump.

As I had just returned from Morocco and having been on the highs of climbing Mount Toubkal there had been no time for thinking about upcoming scans. I headed off to Marsden HQ still feeling on a high from my Moroccan adventure. The scans were uneventful and all passed smoothly thank you to the radiography team at Marsden HQ who are a model of efficiency. I was back at the Marsden on the Friday to see my Oncologist for my results. My brain scan was clear which is good, as you know when my melanoma spread in 2017 it was to my brain and everything has been stable there for over 5 years. However, my CT body scan shows that I have a lymph node in my chest that has popped up. My doctor explained that lymph nodes can pop up for many reasons including infection and many other things that are not related to the cancer. In fact last year I had a similar situation on one of my scans and it was not long after I had my COVID jab. He also said he felt it was very unlikely to be related to the melanoma as if it does recur it is more likely to return where it has grown before. He advised me of my options – either we bring forward my next scans from 3 months to 2 months or he could send me to see a chest specialist for further investigation and he would most likely do a bronchoscopy and biopsy to check it out.

I left the hospital feeling very frustrated. I had just come back from the most amazing trip to Morocco and less than one week later here we were again back on the cancer rollercoaster more tests, worry and anxiety but such is the life of living with stage 4 cancer. After I had time to digest and process the news I thought about Dame Deborah and what she would have done in my situation and I know she would have pulled up her big girl pants got out a glass of wine (in my case non alcoholic beer) and danced round the kitchen, one day at a time and fingers crossed this is just a blip on the long road.

The following week I was back at the Marsden for my planned check up with my Breast Cancer Oncologist. Fortunately my ultrasound and check up were all good so I have decided to have my next scans brought forward from 3 to 2 months. If there is still an issue on the next scan then I will be sent for further investigation. I know that other patients have had this issue also had it investigated and it has turned out to be innocent so I have fingers crossed and will keep you posted.

Back to the amazing adventure to Morocco, we set off in mid September for the latest Team Shomelanoma Hiking Challenge to climb Mount Toubkal North Africa’s tallest mountain. Getting packed for the challenge was giving me flashbacks to Kilimanjaro, which we had climbed 6 years ago, and was the last big overseas challenge we had undertaken. In the run up to the trip I had called Insurance With who are a specialist travel insurance company who cover cancer patients and had insured me previously when going off on adventures to Peru and Argentina. When I called them the week before setting off for Morocco, they informed me that they no longer insured anyone to go above 4000m. With Mount Toubkal at 4167m this presented a problem and the agent told me they would not be able to insure me. As it was important that I was insured for the altitude I had to go with another insurance provider but my melanoma would be excluded. I wasn’t overly concerned about this but it does highlight the issues of travel insurance for a stage 4 cancer patient.

Team Shomelanoma all arrived safely in Marrakesh and we had a couple of days exploring the crazy city before setting off for the Atlas Mountains. Friday morning we left Marrakesh and headed to the village of Imlil in the foothills to start our trek. After a briefing with the local guides we set off on the 6-hour trek climbing from 1740 m to Toubkal base camp at 3210m. It was a hot day and there was no shade and you rise a significant amount of altitude in one day. We were all very happy to reach the Toubkal basecamp refuge to get our heads down for the night ready for the 3 am wake up call. We were all in one dormitory in bunk beds and the conditions were pretty basic. I had little or no sleep as I had a dodgy stomach and ended up at the toilet every hour on the hour. When the 3 am alarm call came I was feeling pretty tired and we hadn’t even started the climb in the dark to the summit.

We all set off up the steep scree and boulder filled slopes and it literally was straight up to the summit. Climbing in the dark, head torch on reminded me very much of Kilimanjaro summit night where you can just see the lights of the hikers torches ahead zigzagging up the slope. We could really feel the altitude and the air thinning and I found myself stopping to catch my breath on the way up. We did stop for regular breaks and it helped having Clem singing some Take That numbers on the way up to keep the morale of the team up. I was tempted to join in but my singing is not the best as many of you will know. The relentless ascent continued until we could see a glimpse of light and realised that the sunrise was coming and we should be nearing the summit. We approached the crest of the summit where we had a short break and could feel the full force of the icy winds. At this point as the sun rose we got the full effect of the amazing views as the sun appeared and we could see the full cloud inversion below. Unlike Kilimanjaro when there was still a long hike to the summit as the sun rose we could see Toubkal summit was just another short climb away and along with the views this gave us an extra boost to reach the summit.

The views were epic and the feeling euphoric as we all reached the Toubkal summit. I was feeling super proud of all of the team and slightly emotional that here I was 5.5 years on from my stage 4 melanoma diagnosis and still able to take on these incredible adventures with a very special team of family and friends. In my rush to congratulate our lead guide Craig on getting us all safely to the top when he said to me “ Don’t do that now we still need to all get down safely” I realised that we still had a long way to go until we were all back at the next hostel. As we started to descend down a very steep slope full of loose scree I realised that the toughest part of the climb was not in fact the ascent but the descent. After 4 hours of the rocky scree slopes, I almost lost it when we arrived at the boulder field, I was tired kept falling on my bum and just needed to get onto a more stable footing. We did finally get down over the boulders and we arrived at the next hostel 14 hours after we had left the refuge absolutely exhausted. After no sleep for the previous 48 hours we all slept like logs and the next morning everyone was feeling much brighter even although the legs were still aching. We spent the next day walking around the berber villages of the Atlas foothills, which were just beautiful. Here are a few photos of our amazing adventure.

This was one of the toughest challenges we have taken on so far and I feel super proud of all of the team for successfully completing it. A huge thank you to Craig Saunders and the team of local guides who looked after us all amazingly well. 5 years ago after being diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma I honestly didn’t think I would be able to continue taking on such extreme challenges. I am hugely grateful to the team at the Royal Marsden for the fantastic care I continue to receive especially Prof Larkin, Nikki Hunter and Miss Fiona MacNeill who all have actively encouraged me to continue living life to the max. The challenges have also given me a sense of purpose, motivation and have helped keep me healthy both physically and mentally. To all of my Toubkal Team Shomelanoma musketeers you absolutely rock massive thank you for creating another memorable adventure that will last a lifetime and was very special love you all.

The team was taking on this challenge to raise funds for melanoma research at the Royal Marsden. Less than 10 years ago someone with my prognosis where melanoma has travelled to the brain would survive on average 6 to 9 months’ as there were no effective treatments available. The fact that I am here 5.5 years after a melanoma tumour was diagnosed in the brain is nothing short of incredible and in large part due to the significant advances in drug treatment (immunotherapy and targeted therapy), which have transformed the treatment of advanced melanoma. However over 50% of patients do not respond to current treatments or the cancer develops resistance and they run out of options. We lose 7 people a day to melanoma in the UK and this is why we are so passionate to continue funding melanoma research to stop so many people losing their lives to this devastating disease.

Whilst melanoma has been at the forefront of immunotherapy, its use has subsequently extended to many other cancer types. The funds we raise are explicitly used to further understand immunotherapy treatments and the evolution of cancer as it metastases and spreads around the body, in the hope that further breakthroughs and improvements in cancer treatments emerge.

A MASSIVE thank you to everyone who has supported the latest Team Shomelanoma Toubkal Challenge.

In addition, Chris Lloyd and Becky Pearce took on the Royal Parks Half Marathon for Team Shomelanoma last Sunday October 9. They were both fabulous and completed the race in good times raising more funds for the Royal Marsden. Big congratulations to them both and thank you to everyone who has supported them.
Thank you again to everyone who has supported the Team Shomelanoma fundraising challenges. I’ll be back next month with more Shomelanoma updates and keep your fingers crossed my pesky lymph node is just a blip.

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