Cancer · Fundraising · Living with Cancer · Melanoma

5 Years on with Stage 4 Melanoma – How Life has Changed

May is Melanoma Awareness Month

Five years ago at the end of March, I received the devastating news that my melanoma had spread to my brain and I would need immunotherapy treatment. I remember the day very clearly and my head going into a complete tailspin as I realised the enormity of what I was being told and questioned whether I was going to survive the next 3 months.  I didn’t really process anything I was being told about the treatment and I left the consultation in shock. Fortunately my husband David was with me and had managed to take in more of the detail. The immunotherapy treatment (ipilimumab and nivolumab) that has contributed to me still being here has been a game changer for extending the lives of advanced melanoma patients, began a few days later, for anyone who wants to read more about my full melanoma story is available here https://shomelanoma.com/about/

Cancer anniversaries are a reminder of how long I have been living with incurable cancer not something that is necessarily to be celebrated. However I have been incredibly fortunate to have benefitted from the huge advancements in treatments for advanced melanoma and without these and the incredible care I receive from my second home The Royal Marsden I would without doubt not still be here writing this today.  Too many patients however don’t respond to these treatments highlighting the huge need to continue funding melanoma research to continue developing new treatments and stop patients continuing to lose their lives to this awful disease.

I was back at the Marsden in late March for my latest scans and all went smoothly at the hospital. The day after the scans I started to feel ill with a bad headache, blocked up nose and I was really tired. The next day I felt worse so I did a COVID test and it was positive.  I registered it with the NHS app and contacted the medical team at Marsden HQ to find out if I should continue taking my drugs. I was told by my Oncologist to continue on the medication as long as my symptoms remained mild. I didn’t feel great the next day but it was just like having a bad cold. On Friday, 2 days after I had tested positive the GP called to check in how I was doing and also to let me know they were referring me to the St George’s COVID team to check if I needed to have the antiviral drugs which were being given to the vulnerable. On Saturday, I had a call from St Georges and they went through a series of questions with me. By this point I was feeling slightly better but the doctor said he wanted me to speak to the respiratory consultant. On Sunday, the respiratory consultant called me and we went through more questions and in conclusion he decided that based on my feedback I didn’t need the antiviral drugs. I was impressed that the COVID response had kicked in and it did take me back to the start of the pandemic when my Oncologist advised that it was highly likely that I would get the virus at some point but it would be better to get it later rather than sooner as they would likely develop drugs to treat it which obviously they now have with the vaccines.  I was due into the Marsden on Monday for my scan results and to see my Oncologist but on Sunday eve I was still testing positive so I contacted my medical team and said I think its best I have a phone consultation.  At 8am on Monday morning my phone rang and it was Prof Larkin to tell me that my scans were good, 3 more months of drugs were being prescribed and it was happy days. I was so delighted 5 years on from being told that the melanoma had spread to the brain and as always it’s a huge thank you to the amazing melanoma team at the Royal Marsden especially Prof Larkin and my CNS Nikki Hunter who have been there with me all the way.

In the last couple of months, there has been much sad news on the melanoma support group that I am a member of and we have lost many special people.  One lady in particular I used to message some times as we had a similar love of the Scottish islands and I met her at a patient lunch a few years ago Susannah Archer who died of stage 4 melanoma a couple of months ago. It all happened very suddenly as she had run out of treatment options and was on a trial. She was always answering questions of other patients even although she was going through a lot herself and I learned a lot from her about educating myself about melanoma, not being afraid to question my medical team and advocating for myself. She was also a very talented wildlife photographer and her photographs were very calming.  David and I will be going to the Outer Hebrides shortly and she loved the Isle of Harris so will have a toast to her when we are there and think of her husband and son.    

This reinforces how quickly things can change and makes me determined to keep focused on the Team Shomelanoma fundraising for melanoma research at The Royal Marsden.  I am delighted to announce that the next big fundraising challenge for Team Shomelanoma is the Toubkal trek in Morroco, North Africa’s highest mountain which we will be taking on in September 2022. This will be a tough challenge as we will be climbing in the heat of the Atlas mountains and Mount Toubkal is not to be underestimated at 4,167m. Team Shomelanoma has 16 hikers signed up and training is kicking off shortly. A huge thank you to everyone who has signed up and we are looking forward to another challenging adventure raising funds for the fantastic melanoma research team at the Royal Marsden. More to come on this challenge and how you can support the team in the next blog.

As COVID restrictions have lifted Dave and I were lucky to get away for a mini break to Madrid over Easter. It really is a beautiful city and we had a fabulous long weekend exploring all that the city had to offer. It was the first weekend of warm weather of the year and we could easily identify the Brits in the city. With temperatures in the low 20’s the Spanish were still wandering around in their winter wear whereas you could spot the Brits a mile off in their shorts and vest tops displaying as much skin as possible to get a tan. As we enter May – Melanoma Awareness Month and go on the raising awareness of skin cancer, this is just a reminder to do a skin check once a month and report any changes to your GP or dermatologist.  Melanoma UK has an excellent checklist and I recommend reading through this, I would hate for anyone else to go through the experience of this awful disease just because they wanted to have a tan.

https://www.melanomauk.org.uk/pages/category/skin-check

We are coming up to conference season and with COVID restrictions lifting we will once again be having in person conferences this year. I am looking forward to the Melanoma Patient Conference in June and my Oncologist Prof Larkin is giving a lecture on immunotherapy at the Royal Society of Medicine that I am planning to attend. There are many new and exciting advances taking place in treatment of melanoma and this week my Oncologist did an update for Melanoma UK, which provided an excellent update for patients on the latest treatment developments. Here is the short video for those of you that may be interested https://www.melanomauk.org.uk/news/melanoma-update-april-2022

Thank you as always for all of your support, with the 5 year milestone passed it is onto the next one, while living life still very much in the present and treasuring every day ( and being very glad to still be here) I am closing this blog remembering the lovely Susannah Archer.     

Cancer · Fundraising · Living with Cancer · Melanoma

Staying Alive with Melanoma Research

One month into 2022, 4 years on my current drug regime I was back onto the cancer treadmill with a bad case of Jan, Scanxiety.  It is a new year and I was back at my second home Marsden HQ for my 3 monthly scans. The time seems to pass so quickly between scans, you have just passed go had some freedom some time to try and put the cancer to the back of your mind and it rears it’s ugly head. Don’t get me wrong, I am massively grateful to still be here 5 years on and the reason for that is due to the huge advances that have taken place in drug treatment for advanced melanoma, 10 years ago it is highly unlikely someone with my stage 4 melanoma would still be here.  Sometimes, I just long for that freedom of life before cancer not being beholden to the ongoing worry of is the cancer growing again. 

I was hoping for an uneventful scan visit and I had my blood tests first and then arrived for my scans. My veins are not great; 5 years of regular prodding and only being able to use the right arm, as I have no lymph nodes in my left arm doesn’t help matters. Anyway as they tried to cannulate me for the scans my veins would not play ball and it took 5 attempts to get the cannula in which made it quite stressful. Whilst this was happening there was an emergency inpatient case on a ventilator who needed an urgent scan whom I walked past and was clearly very ill. I am just not good in these situations and began to feel very queasy as if I was going to pass out. I think it just brought home how cancer is such an awful disease with the ability to destroy so many lives. Anyway I got myself together and the radiography staff are always amazing in helping keep you calm and I was able to get through my scans and get home.  A few days later I was back the hospital to get my results and was delighted to hear that my scan results are good and I can continue to get on with living my life.

Of course as I am the two-cancer queen and whilst the melanoma has always presented the highest risk, the breast cancer also has to be managed. For the last year, I have been taking tamoxifen to control the breast cancer and that has worked in reducing the tumour that appeared in my right breast a year ago to the point where it now looks normal.  I have been having 3 monthly ultrasounds to monitor this and on Thursday this week it was back to the Marsden for the latest ultrasound and also my annual mammogram. I sometimes have a nightmare that all of this time worrying about the melanoma, it will be the breast cancer that comes to haunt me and this was making me feel nervous for this week’s appointment.  I had my mammogram first followed by the ultrasound and the radiographer told me that everything was looking good there was no evidence of the tumour and the tamoxifen was still working. I then saw my doctor and she confirmed that the scans and mammogram looked good and I didn’t need to go back to see her for 6 months. I left the hospital feeling happy and exhausted.  The mental effects on dealing with living with cancer are very real and everyone deals with it differently, there is no right or wrong way, I definitely slept better on Thursday eve after receiving my results and feel hugely grateful to the incredible teams at the Marsden.

Back in  early November,  we were beyond delighted as the Team Shomelanoma Fundraising reached £75,000, which is fantastic news after Phil Hines and Adrian Baker completed 26 miles on the Thames Path. Both of them had been signed up earlier in the year to do the Giants Causeway but had got COVID so been unable to join us. Dave and I joined them for half of the walk and it was a gorgeous afternoon.  A huge thank you to both of them and everyone who has joined the challenges and supported all of the fundraising activities, these have kept me going, created goals to work toward whilst creating a lot of special memories with wonderful family and friends so a heartfelt thank you to all of you.

In late November, I felt very excited to be invited back to the Francis Crick Institute in London to meet with Dr Ben Shum and Dr Samra Turajilic to discuss the latest updates on the melanoma research projects that the funding we have been raising is going towards.  Dr Turajilic leads the Cancer Dynamics Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute  (https://www.crick.ac.uk/research/labs/samra-turajlic ) as well as working as a Medical Oncologist for the Melanoma and Renal team at The Royal Marsden with Professor Larkin.  Dr Ben Shum is  a Clinical Research Fellow at the Royal Marsden and currently undertaking melanoma research at The Crick Institute.  

As you know, I have been fortunate to benefit from both immunotherapy and targeted therapy for my stage 4 melanoma. But 50% of stage 4 patients do not respond to immunotherapy and normally targeted therapy works on average for 12 months. (I am an outlier in that it has worked for 4 years), As such whilst there has been much progress made in treatments there is still so much more to extend and save more lives.

One particular area of unmet need is Uveal melanoma, which occurs when melanoma develops in the eye. It behaves very differently to skin melanoma and immunotherapy treatment does not work for the majority of patients. Some of you may recall our friend Robin passed away from Uveal melanoma 4 years ago after he had run out of treatment options so I was very excited to hear about this exciting new treatment for Uveal melanoma that the team had been involved in. Dr Shum provided the following research update :

There has been a newly published clinical trial for metastatic uveal melanoma for a treatment called tebentafusp, which has been the first treatment to improve survival in decades. This study included patients 378 patients who were HLA-A*02:01–positive (approximately 45% of persons in the United States and Europe) who did not previously receive any systemic therapy for metastatic uveal melanoma. The results show that on average, patients on tebentafusp survived for 21.7 months, compared with 16 months in those who had a different treatment. 

This is a very exciting landmark step, because previously there was no standard treatment for metastatic uveal melanoma. This new treatment is in the process of being funded by the NHS, however early patient access programmes are now being set up. New clinical trials are also in the process of being set up to investigate the potential role of administering tebentafusp after resection of high risk uveal melanoma (in the adjuvant, rather than the metastatic setting).

The PEACE (Posthumous Evaluation of Adanced Cancer Environment) study is a post-mortem study of cancer patients who have kindly donated their bodies to cancer research. The generosity of these patients have provided us with a unique opportunity to investigate and understand more about all subtypes of metastatic melanoma. At post mortem, we sample many sites of disease, including many that would not be possible to sample during life. This allows us to investigate mechanisms of treatment response and resistance to treatments such as immunotherapy and targeted therapy.

The PEACE study includes 9 patients with metastatic uveal melanoma, and includes some patients who were enrolled in the tebentafusp clinical trial and benefitted from this new drug. In the lab, we are analysing how this drug might improve the immune system response to overcome uveal melanoma through sequencing the cancer genes and examining the tumours closely under the microscope. In particular, we are looking at how the tumour interacts with its microenvironment, of immune and other cells. We hypothesise that tebentafusp may be effective in bringing immune cells to the tumour cells, to help them recognise and overcome the tumour, and this effect may last beyond the duration of the treatment. We are also studying patients with other melanoma subtypes and are very excited to publish this research soon.

It was a wonderful afternoon and thank you to both Dr Turajilic and Dr Shum for spending the time with me. It really brings to life the wonderful research that is being done and how it then translates into the clinic to impact treatment of melanoma patients.  

We are now planning the next fundraising challenges and there will be a full update in the next blog. If you would like to take part in your own fundraising challenge please get in touch and let me know.

Before Christmas I was finally able to have my 50th birthday celebrations with friends and family. It was a gorgeous evening and felt very special to have everyone together and see them in person after the last two years dominated by COVID. We also had a lovely family Xmas and New Year in Essex and Scotland.

After my recent scan results we also made it out to Chatel in France for a long weekend of skiing with gorgeous friends Jen and Paul, her sister Jill and Rick plus their Dad Norrie. We had so much fun, it felt amazing to be back in the snow covered mountains after 2 years and we belly ached with laughter, it was honestly one of the best weekends I have had in a very long time we loved every minute.

On that note, enjoy every day, live life to the max and check your skin regularly. Report any concerns to your GP or Dermatologist , early detection saves lives.

I’ll be back soon with more Shomelanoma adventures. 

Cancer · Fundraising · Living with Cancer · Melanoma

5 Years with Melanoma, What I’ve Learned and Living every day to the Max

As I passed my 5 year cancerversary on June 16, I am feeling very thankful still to be here and also looking back thinking how naïve I was when I initially received my melanoma diagnosis.  In fact just last month when I was at the Holy Trinity and Christ Church schools presenting to all the children taking part in the Skipathon one of them asked me ”Was I shocked when I was diagnosed” ? When I look back on that now the answer was probably no as I suspected something was wrong with the mole, but what I really didn’t realise was when the Doctor said to me , only 50% will survive 5 years and its not a great diagnosis, I did not appreciate the severity of it all.  Many of you know the story from there or you can read the summary here. https://shomelanoma.com/about/

Whilst life changed forever on that day in June 2016, and the melanoma rollercoaster had only just begun, one of the most important things that happened was the plastic surgeon Mr Simon Wood who gave me the bad news that I had melanoma also referred me into The Royal Marsden to see Oncologist Prof Larkin. At the time I really wondered why on earth I was being referred there when my PET and MRI scan had been clear. However he knew that I had a thick 4.5mm melanoma that was ulcerated, I was stage 2C at very high risk of spread and how right he was. This decision got me under the care of one of the best cancer hospitals and melanoma specialists and for that I am forever grateful.

I have learned a lot about melanoma over the last 5 years. Just a few weekends ago I was logged onto the ASCO Cancer Conference – the world’s largest clinical cancer conference.  As it was a virtual event they allowed patients to attend this year.  As you know there has been much progress made in treating melanoma in the last 10 years with both immunotherapy and targeted therapy. However 50 % of advanced melanoma patients don’t respond to immunotherapy and many develop resistance to targeted therapy. The results of the latest clinical trials were presented at the conference and there are some promising new drug trial results. However it takes time to get the drugs through the approval processes plus every country has different funding requirements and many patients just don’t have the luxury of time. We have seen with COVID how quickly vaccines have been developed, approved and rolled out and whilst I realise cancer is a very different disease it is still killing hundreds of patients every day. I just hope that some of the learnings from COVID can be applied to cancer and help get these life saving drug treatments to patients more quickly.

It has been a hard few weeks for many melanoma patients in the support group I am a member of. We continue to lose patients far too young and there are many struggling as the disease advances all too quickly and they run out of options. It is heartbreaking watching all of this unfolding. As I have been approaching my latest set of scans I have found myself having strange dreams and whilst I have been feeling well in myself you just never know what is going on inside. Two weeks ago it was time to go back to Marsden HQ to find out what has been happening with my pesky breast tumour.

As many of you know I had a nervous wait a few months ago when a chest lymph node had popped up on my scans that then turned out to be due to my COVID vaccine so I did feel anxious going to my ultrasound to check if the tamoxifen was doing its job on the breast tumour. I am pleased to say that there is now no evidence of the breast tumour and the tamoxifen is doing its job. My doctor told me you are very responsive to drug treatment, a walking miracle and I left feeling massively relieved to have passed go once again for the next 3 months.

I couldn’t switch off yet as I still had the melanoma scans coming up this week and it was back to my second home last Tuesday for a CT and MRI scan. There were no dramas, it all went smoothly and the RMH radiography team were at their efficient best. I didn’t get much sleep on Thurs eve before going into the hospital on Friday to get my results. I had my best friend Jen’s 50th bday party on Fri eve so I was really hoping it was going to be good news and a double celebration and fortunately it was. Prof Larkin told me my latest scans are clear so its happy days and I can now go and have a good summer. As always a massive thank you to the wonderful team at the Marsden who look after me so well, you are all amazing.

I know that I have been incredibly fortunate to benefit from the advances in melanoma treatment over the past 10 years. But there is still so much more to be done and that is why the fundraising for the melanoma research at the Royal Marsden is so important to continue funding the research and helping the team develop further life saving treatments.

Over the month of May (Melanoma Awareness Month) the Shomelanoma team including the wonderful children of Holy Trinity and Christ Church primary school in Chelsea took part in a month long Skipathon fundraiser raising funds for melanoma research at the Royal Marsden. It has been such a successful and fun fundraiser and I want to say a HUGE thank you to everyone who has taken part so enthusiastically and also generously supported the team.  There were many highlights to the month including bringing together friends and family from across the globe, the sheer enjoyment of seeing everyone skipping every day for a month, the fancy dress Friday which the team embraced and the improvement in skipping skills and tricks. It was getting quite competitive by the end of the month. 

The top highlight for me was the day I spent with the children of Holy Trinity and Christ Church School. I spoke at all of their assemblies sharing my melanoma story, the care I receive at the Royal Marsden, why I am fundraising, the wonderful research they are doing and educating them in sun safety. They asked me lots of intelligent questions and were very engaged. After each of the assemblies I had a skipping session with all of the children. It was such an enjoyable day so lovely to see how much they were all loving the skipping and also to see how engaged they all were in the assemblies. A MASSIVE thank you to Headmistress Mrs Avis Hawkins and also Katie Rose for their incredible fundraising support plus all of the children, parents and carers.  Also for my return to school I did forget to address Avis as Mrs Hawkins, black mark for that one must do better next time.  

One of the parents wrote “Such an amazing inclusive fundraiser, our girls have not stopped skipping all month and are so proud of their new skills. Such an important cause and brilliantly organised. “ I was slightly sad when the month came to an end it has been so much fun. I know that for some they were delighted when May 31 arrived and they could put down the skipping ropes.  We raised £6,382, which is just fantastic so huge thank you once again, and an update on the melanoma research projects the funding is supporting will be featured in the next blog.

Next up is the Giants Causeway Challenge, which is now just 2 weeks away. The team will be hiking 26 miles over the steep undulating coastal path of the Northern Ireland Giants Causeway. We are very much hoping that the weather gods will be kind to us and we wont be having a repeat of the Welsh 3000’s 2 years ago when it rained cats and dogs for 3 days. We will be prepared for all eventualities so look out for a progress update in the next blog and all support for the team is much appreciated.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/shiona-ramagegiantscauseway

As we celebrated Jen’s fabulous 50th birthday on Friday eve with her special friends and family, I briefly reflected on the fact that 5 years ago I never thought I would still be here and it really is thanks to the wonderful advances of medical science, a kickass medical team, rockstar husband and amazing friends and family. I have hope and options, it’s still one day at a time enjoy and savor every moment and live every day to the max. I hope to catch up with you soon, wear your factor 50, protect and check your skin regularly and have a wonderful summer. I’ll be back soon with more Shomelanoma adventures.

Cancer · Living with Cancer · Melanoma

Escaping Lockdown with Stage 4 Melanoma and Milestone Birthdays

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After 100 days of lockdown shielding I was feeling euphoric to leave London for a day of hiking on one of my favourite hikes in the South Downs over the Seven Sisters to Beachy Head. As many of you are aware, I have been in the shielding category, which has been a big challenge. Even though I have been going out more in the past month I was still feeling quite trapped in the city and had major cabin fever after spending so much time at home. The sight of the sea and the cliffs was good for the soul and felt amazing, it was so quiet, and we hardly met anyone on the 20km hike. It was a shame that the pub at Beachy Head was not yet open as that is usually the half-way lunch spot but we stopped near there and had our picnic before heading back. It was a stunning day and I really loved every minute. My legs on the other hand were screaming as they are out of hiking practice; definitely more training required before we take on the next challenge on the Giants Causeway in October.

Next up was my big milestone birthday, on July 12 I turned 50. At the start of the year I was feeling so excited about my birthday as we planned a big party in a gorgeous house we had rented in Kent. The girls were also planning a trip to Ibiza but as the lockdown progressed it became obvious that both the planned party nor the trip to Ibiza was going to be possible with the COVID restrictions so they have been postponed to next year and I’ll be staying 49 for an extra year. I feel quite emotional and grateful to be turning 50. I think before my stage 4 melanoma diagnosis I may have been dreading reaching such a milestone age and worrying about getting older. Now that has all changed, every birthday is to be celebrated, (this one even more than most) as it represents another year that I am still here, healthy, happy and able to make the most of every day with family and friends. I distinctly remember almost 3 years ago to the day being discharged from Marsden HQ after my 3 week inpatient stay after experiencing extreme autoimmune hepatitis from my immunotherapy treatment thinking would I see the next Christmas far less dream of seeing my 50th birthday. So the fact, I am celebrating turning 50, I feel hugely grateful to the fantastic melanoma team led by my Oncologist Prof Larkin and Nurse Nikki Hunter and all the team at the Royal Marsden for continuing to look after me so amazingly well. You are all superstars.

Although the birthday party was postponed, I had a gorgeous bday picnic at Cannizaro House in Wimbledon with family and friends. I was so excited to see everyone as I had been missing them all during lockdown and we had a gorgeous day. I was woken in the morning bright and early with my good friend Denise calling from Hong Kong where David and I used to live. As I was opening my birthday cards, in the middle of the pile were the forms for my blood tests that had been sent from the Marsden. I quickly put them to one side, as I did not need to be thinking about melanoma on my big day. The sun shone and we had lots of fun, I felt very spoiled and after the last 4 months of lockdown it felt that I was finally escaping. The next day David and I escaped to the Pig Hotel in Kent for a couple of days, which was really gorgeous. The hotel had put lots of safety measures in place to protect guests and staff against COVID and it was really lovely to eat out again in a restaurant after so much time at home. We then spent the day walking along the Kent coastline from Bottany Bay to Broadstairs, which was stunning. Here are a few pics. We both returned to London feeling rejuvenated and rested.

By Friday I was back at Marsden HQ for scans, mask on. The hospital was so quiet; I was quickly taken for my MRI and CT scan. Since I was last there in May it is now mandatory to wear masks in the hospital and I did wonder about needing to wear a mask in the MRI scanner along with the face cage, which is already very claustrophobic. Fortunately I was allowed to remove my face mask which was a big relief. As I had such a lovely birthday week and was feeling on a big high (I managed not to think too much about the scan results over the weekend) It was gorgeous weather and we met up with friends Phil and Jo to go hiking which took my mind off the scanxiety. I had also been feeling really well although that can lull you into a false sense of security. On Monday morning I was back at the hospital for results and fortunately the wonder targeted drugs continue to work over 2.5 years on and my melanoma is under control. This was just the best birthday present and a lovely finish to my bday week. I also saw my nurse Nikki which was lovely to catch up with her in person, as I hadn’t seen her since Jan as the consultations have all been taking place by phone. After picking up my drug supply it was off for breakfast with David to celebrate, we were too early for the Ivy café so that will have to wait. I feel very grateful that my treatment has not been disrupted by coronavirus, scans took place as scheduled, and I felt very safe at the hospital.

However the COVID situation has been very worrying for many cancer patients who have had their treatments postponed, scans cancelled and recently CRUK estimates that an additional 35,000 extra deaths could result due to treatments being deferred or cancers going undetected. Deborah James (aka) Bowelbabe a fellow Marsden patient recently presented BBC Panorama “Britain’s Cancer Crisis” which laid bare the impact of coronavirus on NHS cancer care and included some really heartbreaking patient stories.

We have seen this also in the melanoma patient community and this has a significant impact on patient survival. We are seeing too many young lives lost to melanoma tearing families apart. Covid 19 is also having a huge impact on cancer research and just a couple of weeks ago CRUK which is responsible for the funding of over 50% of UK cancer research announced it was making 500 people redundant and £44m cuts to its research.   

The Royal Marsden cancer charity had also been affected and has been running an emergency appeal. I recently wrote a blog for the charity and also spoke to the team in a short video about my experience at the hospital during coronavirus and why it’s so important to continue supporting the charity during this time.

Team Shomelanoma are back training for the next big challenge on the Giants Causeway at end Oct. It has been a shock to the system getting the legs back into hiking action but it has been good to be back out in the Surrey Hills training with the team. Next up we will be off to Scotland to see the family and tackle a couple of munro’s and we have everything crossed that the challenge will be going ahead. More details to come in the next blog.

As the heatwave returns to the UK this weekend we had the news today that Brits are spending 40% more time in the sun during lockdown than they did last year with over a third of us saying they don’t protect their skin in any way in their own outside space. The sun isn’t only strong abroad so please remember to protect your skin slap on the factor 50, stay covered up and out of the midday sun and most importantly don’t get burnt. Early detection saves lives, melanoma cases are on the rise in the UK and we are still losing 7 people every day to the disease. If you do notice any changes get an appointment booked with your GP or Dermatologist.

Thank you as always for all your support and look out for more Shomelanoma adventures coming your way next month.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cancer · Living with Cancer · Melanoma

Lockdown Life with Stage 4 Cancer

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Well what a difference since the last blog update! We have now been in lockdown for 8 weeks and to say there have been ups and downs would be an understatement. Whilst I have become somewhat used to dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of stage 4 cancer, I have found dealing with the restrictions of life imposed by Coronavirus pretty hard. I am one of the 1.5 million people classified as extremely vulnerable which brings with it an additional layer of restrictions known as shielding and involves staying in your house and not leaving for 12 weeks. I contacted my Oncologist for clarification and he told me there was no evidence that the targeted drugs I was on have a major impact on the immune system. However he said anyone with metastatic cancer is unlikely to have a completely normal immune system so the conservative position would be to follow the advice and delay getting the virus as long as possible until they know more about it. I felt on a major downer and so disappointed after hearing this news and the thought of spending 12 weeks not leaving the house just felt awful. I had been feeling so well and the training for the triathlon was just kicking up a gear and now I had to stay locked at home. I knew that the advice was for my own good but being totally honest I didn’t feel vulnerable and in fact felt very fit and well. I just had to take some time to get my head straight and in the correct frame of mind to cope with the situation and take it day by day. I have drawn from my experience of dealing with cancer to help but its fair to say by the end of week 3 I was going stir crazy.

 

For the first 3 weeks, I followed the stay at home guidelines by not leaving the house at all. I wasn’t sleeping particularly well and with the construction of the NHS Nightingale Hospital in the news, I kept having nightmares I would end up there in East London. I have been doing doing regular workouts in the garden plus yoga/pilates via zoom and we have been very lucky to have good weather. By the end of week 3, I had a really bad dose of cabin fever and so we decided to get up early at 6 am and do a circular walk up to Wimbledon common. At this time it is very quiet, there are a few dog walkers and joggers and it felt so good to be out of the house walking in the fresh air, seeing all of the spring blooms and enjoying the sunrise. Since then David and I have been going for early morning walks twice a week and have ventured a little further by enjoying Richmond Park, which has been truly beautiful, peaceful and very quiet. The sky has been so blue there were no cars or bikes and as we walked into the park the first time, the mist was just lifting and it was stunning. One of the benefits of the pandemic has definitely been the cleaner air, no pollution and the chance for nature to recover. We have even seen more stars in the sky, than at any time over the last 10 years. I have been really missing our hiking as normally at this time of year we are out in the hills training with the hiking gang for the latest challenge. Seeing photos of fields full of oilseed rape and bluebells, it really does make me want to escape London as soon as possible to the countryside. I can’t wait to get back to the hills and mountains of Scotland.

 

The complete focus on the Coronavirus situation has been especially worrying for cancer patients. Many have had treatments postponed, scans cancelled and analysts estimated that an extra 18,000 people could die from cancer due to treatments being deferred and/or cancers going undetected and/or treated. This is extremely worrying. In addition many clinical trials and cancer research projects have been halted as resources have been diverted to dealing with the virus which will cost further lives in the long term.

The Royal Marsden has been the cancer hub hospital for London. My nurse called me a month or so ago and said they were going to move my scans back a month so that I didn’t need to come into the hospital which I felt fine about but then the appointment confirmation arrived for mid May. At first, I was quite relieved at the prospect of pushing my scans back a month as no one really wants to be visiting a hospital right now, however, I am also acutely aware that the fact I am still here 3 years on from my stage 4 diagnosis is because my melanoma progression has always been picked up early on scans. So last Thursday it was off to Marsden HQ for my CT and MRI scans. It’s a couple of months since I was last in the hospital and during my visit I felt very safe from the security guard on the front entrance checking my appointment letter to the screens that had been put in place at registration, the social distancing in the waiting room to the radiographer with her PPE. The hospital was very quiet as there is currently no visiting, you are not allowed to have anyone with you and most clinic appointments are taking place by phone. As I headed home I was feeling quite calm and tried to forget about the results until Monday morning. Of course by the time Monday arrived I was not feeling so calm, the nerves had kicked in and I spent the morning pacing up and down the lounge waiting for the phone to ring. The current phone consultations make the appointments efficient but I did think how difficult this must be for patients who don’t know their Doctor very well and also its not a good way to receive bad news. Fortunately the phone rang and my doctor told me the news that my latest scans are good and the targeted drugs Debrafenib and Trametinib continue to work 2.5 years on. I felt so delighted and relieved but no trip to the Ivy Café Chelsea to celebrate it was a coffee and cake at home instead.

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I am now just longing to be making the most of every day doing all of the things I love seeing family and friends (the zoom calls are ok but just not the same as seeing everyone in person) getting out in the hills with the hiking gang and up to Scotland to see the family and breathe in the fresh air. We had also planned a lovely trip to the South of France for early May, one of my favourite spots in the world where I spent a year at university, but that was of course cancelled. Hopefully we can try and go in the autumn. A girly trip to Ibiza in June has now been moved to next year. Hopefully training for the next challenges will be getting back on track; the hike in Ireland on the Giants Causeway is scheduled for July but we expect that will probably be moved and the triathlon has been moved to September.

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It would also be good if the government could clarify what is happening next to the 1.5 million of us who they have advised to shield at home. There are a lot of people on the list with a lot of different underlying health conditions. With the exception of my stage 4 cancer I am currently fit and well (more fit than the average person my age) and I don’t want to be living the next few months trapped in the house. It’s absolutely not good for my mental health and its also hard as lockdown restrictions are lifted for everyone else. I wont enter into the governments handling of coronavirus that’s for another time, lets just say in my last blog I felt the British government slept walk into this crisis and with such a high loss of life in the UK that has turned out to be the case.

As a reminder to everyone May is Melanoma Awareness Month and with COVID 19 dominating the news there has been very little coverage this year. The government have being doing its best at press briefings to encourage the British public to get out and sunbathe but there has been no mention of wearing factor 50, avoiding getting burnt and checking your skin for any abnormalities or changes to moles. Early detection saves lives, melanoma cases are on the rise in the UK and we are still losing 7 people every day to the disease. If you do notice any changes get an appointment booked with your GP or Dermatologist to get it checked out. If you want a tan this summer please fake it, there is nothing healthy about baking yourself in the sun. For more information see Melanoma UK https://www.melanomauk.org.uk/Pages/Category/what-is-melanoma

Here is the link to my patient story with commentary from my Oncologist, which appeared in the latest edition of the Marsden magazine (p12)

https://issuu.com/royalmarsden/docs/rm42_webreadyspreads

I hope you are all well and look forward to seeing everyone soon. I’ll be back next month for more Shomelanoma adventures hopefully out of lockdown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melanoma

Mastering the Melanoma Mind Game – Happy 2020

I have been thinking a lot recently about just how much melanoma messes with your mind. This can manifest itself in different ways and set me off on a whole spiral of worry in the last month. The feel good factor I had after the Peruvian holiday quickly disappeared. It had started off in Peru when I woke up one morning after having a very vivid dream (or nightmare) that my fingers needed to be amputated due to the fact my melanoma had returned (all in my dream). In reality, just before Christmas I started to feel a strange pain in my fingers and it was worse when I woke up in the morning. During the day the pain lessened. I checked the side effects of my drugs and joint pains are on the list and I also know from the melanoma support group that some other patients on the same drugs had experienced this too. However the thought that this may be something more sinister was at the back of my mind.

After Xmas the pain was still there in my hand and I also felt that my fingertip was feeling numb. It was two years ago when my gums became numb that led to the early discovery of a small tumour in my brain which was affecting the nerves, therefore my mind was running into overdrive that the fingertip could be related to further nerve damage. I had scans coming up at Marsden HQ so I knew that if there was an issue all would soon be revealed. Last Friday afternoon I was back in Chelsea for my scans. This was not without drama. Every time I go for scans I have a cannula put in my arm so that they can inject the radioactive dye to show up any cancer cells on the scans. As I have no lymph nodes in my left arm this is always done using my right arm. After 3 years of treatment, monthly blood tests and scans every 2 – 3 months the veins in my right arm are not in the best condition and last Friday it took six attempts to find a vein for the cannula to go into my arm. Normally I don’t find this process stressful but on the last two visits it has taken several attempts, making it much more stressful. I think the fact I was already feeling worried made me even more anxious. The radiology team at the Marsden are fantastic, these situations aren’t easy for them either and they do their absolute best to calm you down. I left the hospital with an arm that looked like I had been through a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson.

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By Monday morning I was in nervous wreck mode. I actually started to wonder if my dream back in November about the finger needing to be amputated was a premonition (the mind was playing games) of what was to come. David was amazing as ever keeping me occupied and was his usual calm self even as I had convinced myself the melanoma had progressed and the rollercoaster was about to go back up a gear. My scans had been very late on Friday afternoon and my nurse advised that that they were awaiting the radiologist to sign off the CT scan before we could have the appointment. Immediately sensing my rising anxiety levels, my nurse tried to reassure me by saying, “It doesn’t mean anything to worry about” however, it all added to my overall anxiety so the wait felt even longer. By the time I was in the door and sat down being told that my scans were good, I felt like I was about to burst (I probably looked that way too) and it was such an overwhelming sense of relief. I hadn’t felt as bad going into a scan results appointment for a long time and was also exhausted. The pains I was experiencing in my hands were put down to side effects of the drugs or nerve pain and as the week has gone on my fingers have been feeling better. So the mind games did play a big role in how I was feeling in the run up to the latest scans and as other cancer patients will know its hard not to assume that every pain you have is cancer related. I think I am quite in tune with my body and how it is feeling but I was pleased to be proved wrong on this occasion and massively grateful that the targeted drugs I am taking are still keeping my melanoma under control. Of course the happiness that the drugs are still working for me is tempered by the fact that for many patients the targeted drugs that I am on develop resistance and/or immunotherapy doesn’t work for them so they are currently struggling trying to get on drug trials or running out of options. This is why its so important to continue supporting pioneering melanoma research and raising awareness to help prevent melanoma by protecting our skin, doing regular skin checks and getting anything suspicious checked by your GP.

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Exercise has helped me with my mental health over the last 3 years and I am now ready to turn my focus to the 2020 challenge and get training for a triathlon. I have signed up for the Blenheim sprint triathlon on May 31 with some friends, which involves swimming 750m, cycling 20km and running 5km. Who knows if I am taking on more than I bargained for, I am not a great swimmer BUT am planning to have a couple of swimming lessons and then practice, practice practice. If you would like to join the Shomelanoma team and join me in the triathlon challenge it’s not too late and I’d love to have you. Full details are here.

http://www.livetotri.co.uk/blenheim

Just let me know if you’d like to sign up and I can ensure you are added to the team. My nurse at the Marsden asked David if he would be joining me for this challenge to which he responded absolutely NOT. I’ll keep you posted and entertained with the swimming attempts over the next few months.

There is more to come on this year’s Shomelanoma fundraising challenges and adventures. If you would like to take on your own challenge please get in touch. Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2020 and thanks as ever for all of your support it means the world. As David said on New Years Day Keep searching for your window on the world, above all enjoy yourselves and have fun. Here’s the lovely card my good friend Jen sent me this week, Thanks for listening.

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Friendships, Welsh Mountains and Melanoma

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The week before the Shomelanoma team set off for the latest mountain challenge I was back at Marsden HQ for the latest scan results. It feels like the time between scans passes so quickly as I try to cram as much as possible when feeling well knowing that everything could change at the next consultation. Fortunately the latest scans were good and the Dab/Tram continues to work 19 months on from when I started the latest treatment so I am feeling very thankful.

Managing anxiety before scans is never easy but I have found that it helps to be away from London the weekend before getting results as I am occupied and thinking about other things. Dave and I were in the Peak District the weekend before the latest scan results as I was celebrating my birthday whilst getting in some last minute training on Kinder Scout for the Welsh 3000’s. After getting my scan results and telling my Oncologist about the latest madcap mountain challenge we had the green light to set to off for the Welsh mountains.

We have a wonderful group of special friends who have accompanied us on these challenges and this year was no exception. Tony and Sam, Phil, Colin and of course the rock star husband Dave all took precious time away to train with us, spending the last few months walking up and down hills across the UK from the Brecon Beacons to Cornwall and the Malvern Hills to Scotland. There have been many amusing moments and lots of banter on the walks that keeps us all entertained and I always looking forward to our precious time spent together

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After last year’s extreme heat on the Jurassic Coast 100km, this year the Welsh mountains had the opposite weather in store for us. An idyllic summers eve in the beautiful coastal town of Conwy in a lovely pub on the north Welsh coast was a false dawn as the next morning the gales and rain had set in as we arrived at the hostel for the safety briefing before setting off to start the Welsh 3000’s. A message from our guide the day before telling us to have enough clothing to get soaked for 3 days was the warning that the weather gods were not going to be on our side.

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What followed was 3 days of extreme weather high gales and driving rain, which made the steep terrain difficult to navigate, and the ground underfoot slippy. Over the whole 3 days there were hardly any breaks in the relentless wind and rain and it is safe to say that you often had to question is this really July in the UK. This was an extreme challenge and a big step up from the 3 Peaks that we had completed 4 years ago. With the exception of summit night on Kilimanjaro this was the toughest challenge yet. We all had moments over the 3 days thinking (what the fXXX are we doing this for and get me to a dry pub ASAP). There were no comfy beds to go back to in the evening and the boy’s dorm with 10 bunks and low ceilings reminded me of travelling in my 20’s and not in a good way. We were all longing for the comfy bed of the pub in Conwy. We weren’t allowed up two of the peaks: Tryfan and Crib Goch due to the dangerous windy conditions. All of the team were amazing and showed real determination to complete the challenge. The Charity Challenge guides were the right mix of encouragement in difficult conditions and also keeping us safe. The final day was a real struggle for me as I was full of the cold, tired, wet and after 3 days I had had enough BUT the gang were great at keeping me going, my smile had pretty much deserted me by this stage and it was just blissful to arrive at the bottom of Snowdon, have an ice cream and get changed into dry clothes before heading back home. As I reflect back on the weekend now I feel super proud of all of the team there was never any doubt of anyone giving up, we have raised more valuable funds for the wonderful melanoma team at the Royal Marsden who are doing a fine job keeping me well enough to undertake these challenges. In addition, I didn’t think of melanoma once over the whole weekend, as I was too busy worrying about not falling flat on my face. It was a privilege to undertake the challenge with all of the team and big thank you also to the Charity Challenge guides looking after us so well Andy, Rich, George and Fiona were all fantastic as was Sarah with all the lovely food.

Now that the team are home, rested and recovered I have been feeling a bit sad that its all over (you may think this sounds strange but I can assure you that Dave is over the moon that its over!) but there is such a build up and focus goes into these challenges that when they are over you naturally start thinking about what’s next and hoping that I will be well enough to continue undertaking these challenges. They really do help keep me motivated and having a goal to work towards helps me to stay fit plus I can honestly say that it’s as much about the mental side as they help to keep my head clear and I love being out in the mountains.

Of course a massive thank you has to go to everyone whose generous donations have supported the latest challenge. We have now raised over £46k in a little over two years, which is almost beyond my comprehension and for everybody that has donated, taken part and/or organized an event, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It really does inspire and motivate me to do more in the future. We will be receiving a full update on the melanoma research project that the money raised is supporting and I will provide a full update in the next blog.

The last couple of weeks have seen some of our lovely Hong Kong friends passing through London and it has been great to catch up with them. The summer is passing quickly and after spending so many weekends away from London to climb mountains it is nice to spend some time at home. As you head out to enjoy the summer sun remember to slap on the factor 50, cover up, stay out of the sun between 11 and 3 and check your skin regularly and watch out for the ABCDE rules

https://www.melanomauk.org.uk/signs-and-symptoms

You may remember Alfie Ranstead who earlier in the summer did a 50km bike ride to raise funds for the melanoma research at RMH. He also created this fabulous video to help raise awareness about melanoma and how to prevent it. It has been shown to all of the pupils at his school and only takes a couple of minutes to watch. Well done Alfie you are a superstar. https://youtu.be/LpD99yihrNw ,

Thanks as always for all your support and tune in for more shomelanoma adventures next month.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mountains to Climb, Milestones and Melanoma

I woke up at 3 am one night last week and the first thought that came to my mind was Mountains, Milestones and then I remembered the dreaded Melanoma. I did think right with the upcoming Welsh 3000’s mountain challenge what a perfect title for the next blog, so I wrote it down and went back to sleep. As my 3 year cancerversary passed on June 15, I have been reflecting on how life has changed over the last 3 years but also feeling very fortunate still to be here.

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I have been on a 6-week break from the hospital, which has been totally blissful, of course I love the medical team at Marsden HQ but not having to visit the hospital has been good for the mind and soul. I also count myself very fortunate to have been well enough to travel to some amazing places over the last few weeks. I find that getting away from London even for a short period clears the mind and helps me to forget about melanoma for a while which is only a good thing. In the last month I have been lucky to go back to New York, spend a few days in Fife with the parentals, climb hills in the Brecon Beacons and am just back from a week in my happy place Cornwall (more of that later).

Summer has fully arrived in the UK and its very much a case of sun’s out guns out (well those of you watching Love Island know that anyway). I have recently returned to the local gym to up my fitness levels for the upcoming mountain challenge. A couple of weeks ago, I overheard a discussion amongst the girls about wanting a tan now its summer and one of them mentioned going on a sunbed. Another girl then tried to dissuade her saying its much safer to have a fake tan and relayed a story about a friend who had died of melanoma. I honestly can’t believe how many young people still use sunbeds in the UK and are not fully aware of the killer machines that they are. Melanoma UK has been trying to get these banned as they are in Brazil and Australia

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/237086

Whilst in Cornwall beach season was kicking off, temperatures rising and the Brits were at the beach crisping themselves to a shade of beetroot. This did make me realize just how much awareness still need to be done to educate people in protecting their skin. You don’t have to burn to get a melanoma and there’s nothing healthy about a tan. I recommend you fake it and if you are looking for a good fake tan I can recommend Vita Liberata Body Blur that is idiot proof to apply covers up scars and gives a light colour https://www.boots.com/vita-liberata-body-blur-instant-skin-finish-100ml-10208481 . But most importantly stay safe in the sun wear factor 50, cover up and stay out of the sun between 11 and 3.

The next big challenge coming up in 2 weeks is the Welsh 3000’s . As many of you already know, I love being in the mountains and after having back surgery 5 years ago, my surgeon told me no more long distance running, I replaced it with hiking up mountains. Since my melanoma diagnosis, I have loved being in the mountains even more. I find it focuses the mind, I forget about melanoma and it helps keep me fit. It also provides me with a goal and as someone who is generally positive and motivated I love to have a challenge.

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Every year for the past 5 years we have done a mountain challenge and this year is no exception. From the Three Peaks to Kilimanjaro this year it is the Welsh 3000’s. This is a HUGE challenge especially for me currently on treatment and involves climbing the 15 Welsh peaks over 3000 feet in one weekend involving steep ascents and descents of over 4000 m in one weekend. The challenge is rated as extreme and I am starting to feel nervous at the prospect of what’s in store. Dave and I are doing the challenge with the fantastic Tony, Sam, Phil and Colin who have undertaken many of the previous challenges and we will be raising funds for melanoma research at the Royal Marsden where I continue to be treated for stage 4 melanoma.

Full details of the challenge are here and if you would like to support the team it would be hugely appreciated and there will be a full update on the next blog.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/shomelanoma-welsh3000s

Earlier this week David and I attended a patient evening at the Royal Marsden, which was discussing “Pioneering Treatment: What does the future hold for Melanoma and Urological Cancers? “ which was a very informative evening and covered topics from the current landscape for melanoma and kidney cancer treatment to advances in the precision of radiotherapy to the impact on patient quality of life of new melanoma treatments and the evolution of cancer where Dr Samra Turajilic describes how cancer evolves to resist treatment and how we need to understand how different cancer cells in a tumour change and how to adapt to improve patient outcomes. This is a hugely complex subject and the fact that everyone’s cancer is different makes it even more challenging. It was a very enjoyable evening and was lovely to see some of the other patients who are treated at the Marsden. I even had a couple of them come up and introduce themselves as they recognized me from reading this blog, which was lovely. There was also a patient in attendance from the original clinical trial, for the drugs I am currently taking, whose melanoma has been successfully controlled for the last five years.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a very informative programme on BBC4, following George McGavin “A Year to save my Life” and followed the entomologist and TV presenter through his treatment for malignant melanoma on his heel. Given his scientific background, he was intrigued at understanding more about melanoma and how it evolves. The programme also highlighted a very real benefit and development that was not available to patients like myself just 2½ years ago. George’s melanoma had spread to his lymph nodes in his groin (classified as Stage 3) and rather than have surgery to remove his lymph nodes, he was able to have adjuvant treatment and took dab/tram (my current medication) to treat his melanoma. In George’s case, this successfully treated the melanoma and prevented intrusive surgery. Previously the only option for patients at Stage 3 was surgery and thereafter to “watch and wait”. For patients, this is a huge step forward in that they now feel that the disease is being proactively treated. If you would like to watch, here is the link :

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000696j/a-year-to-save-my-life-george-mcgavin-and-melanoma

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The latest superstar Shomelanoma fundraising efforts for melanoma research at the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity come from from Alfie Ranstead, and Jacqueline Varty. Alfie Ranstead (14) cycled 50 km along the Ridgeway in Wiltshire. He had never cycled that far before and successfully completed his challenge cycling with his 2 brothers Tom and Will in 3.5 hours. Also in cycling mode young Will Baldock (6) recently completed a hilly 10 km cycle in St Albans. He had plenty of snacks, his Dad cycling with him and a big cake awaiting him at the finish to keep him motivated. Finally my school friend Jacqueline Varty completed the Edinburgh half marathon last weekend and also did a PB. Massive congratulations and thank you to all of you.

 

The latest fundraising efforts have sent the total Shomelanoma fundraising efforts to close to £42k in 2 years and are helping fund further melanoma research to help keep cancer patients like me alive . We have now set the target at £50k and are hoping to reach that milestone by the end of the year.

Finally here are a few photos from the recent travels. I really loved returning to New York a city I used to visit frequently with work but since the melanoma rollercoaster I hadn’t been back. It was lovely to be there as a tourist and stay in lower Manhattan to explore the city that is up there as one of my favourite cities in the world. We were also very fortunate to have fabulous weather for our week in Cornwall, this really is my happy place as my Grandfathers family comes from Sennen Cove/St Just I have this feeling of being at home when I go there. I love the area around the Lizard and it’s really hard to believe you are in the UK. We had a wonderful week there and I was sad to return to London but my 6 weeks of no visits to the Marsden had come to an end and it was time to return to Chelsea to see Professor Larkin and the team.

Stay tuned for the next installment and full details of the latest mountain challenge when the Shomelanoma team tackles the Welsh 3000’s.

 

 

 

 

Uncategorized

May is Melanoma Awareness Month – It’s NOT just Skin Cancer

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It’s May – Melanoma Awareness Month – the sun is shining and the warm long days have returned to the UK. As I began writing my blog to raise awareness of melanoma, this month I’ll revisit the signs and symptoms of melanoma so that hopefully you don’t find yourself in my situation in years to come. First of all on a positive note, I was back at Marsden HQ on Monday and had good news that my latest scans are good and the Dab/Tram continues to work 18 months on. I was over the moon and Mr. H and I headed off to the Ivy Café Chelsea which is currently in bloom for the Chelsea Flower Show for a slap up breakfast to celebrate.

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On June 16, I will have my 3 year cancerversary. I was originally diagnosed with melanoma after a dodgy mole was removed from my back. It was displaying all of the signs of melanoma as it had grown, become darker and just before it was removed had started to bleed. It was thick – 4.5mm, ulcerated and after a WLE (wide local excision) had spread to my lymph nodes by Jan 2017. I had a full axillary dissection to remove about 20 of my lymph nodes in February but by the end of March 2017 a scan showed the melanoma turned up with a small tumour in my brain. I started immunotherapy (IPI/Nivo) before experiencing grade 4 adverse side effects causing autoimmune hepatitis and it took 3 weeks at Marsden HQ being treated with steroids and mycophenolate followed by 6 months being weaned off the medication to get it under control. Fortunately, I responded to the immunotherapy but after 6 months in Dec 2017 I had a recurrence in the brain when a new small tumour was detected. Since then I have been on my current targeted drug treatment of Debrafenib and Trametinib which has reduced the size of my tumour and kept the rest of my body clear.

Cancer has invaded and changed my life forever and whilst I have taken the positives – it has focused me on living life in the present appreciating the family and friends that I love very much and treasuring my time with them, there is no denying that its still a fairly shit diagnosis and I sometimes wake up in the morning thinking I am living a bad nightmare. Saying that I feel fortunate that treatments for advanced melanoma have improved so much in the last 5 years or the likelihood is that I wouldn’t still be here and I am treated by one of the best Melanoma Oncologists and his team at the wonderful Royal Marsden Hospital.

However the reality is that Melanoma is the 5th most common cancer in the UK and 16,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, though 86% of cases are preventable. In the UK the risk of melanoma increases with age however the number of young people is disproportionately high as it is one of the most common cancers in the 15-34 age group. For more information I recommend Melanoma UK https://www.melanomauk.org.uk/

I was a child of the 70’s/80’s when getting tanned was all the rage and I spent many summer holidays in the South of France baking myself in the sun wearing factor 3 sun cream. I then spent a year of university studying at Aix en Provence before a couple of summers strolling up and down the beaches of the South of France selling ice creams. After university I headed out to Beijing and Hong Kong for 7 years working and travelling round the region. I know that I could have taken better care of my fair Scottish skin. I never used sun beds and in more recent years, before being diagnosed with melanoma, I was much more sun aware and always protected my skin. I can only say that I wish I knew 20 years ago what I know now about protecting your skin.

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On the recent Easter holiday David and I travelled down to Devon and we were blessed with lovely warm sunny weather. This was the first warm weekend of the year and in typical fashion the Brits had their clothes off and were basking in the sun, some of them looked very burnt. I often wonder what is it about the Brits that means the first sign of the sun means they strip off their clothes. In the recent February heatwave, I was walking up the street in SW London only to see a few men with their tops off walking down the street (lets say they were not David Beckham lookalikes ). In Paris or Rome you would never see men strolling down the high street with their tops off in February or even in July for that matter. There is still so much more to be done to raise awareness of safety in the sun and changing attitudes towards the “a tan is healthy myth”. If you want a safe tan then fake it.

In addition, please watch out for any changes to moles or blemishes on your skin and follow the ABCDE rules going to see your GP if you have any concerns. Always better to be safe than sorry. https://www.melanomauk.org.uk/signs-and-symptoms

I also recommend Heliocare sunscreen factor 50 for your face. It is like a gel is slightly tinted and there is no stinging of the eyes. I wear this every day rain or shine winter or summer and I love it. https://www.heliocare.net/eng/heliocare-products.html

This month, I have been feeling well and it has been lovely seeing and catching up with lots of friends and family. First there was a trip to Chamonix for Johnny’s birthday and a bit of late spring skiing, Easter in Devon catching up with the Smiths and doing some walking training. Then my gorgeous sister in law turned 40 and we had a lovely weekend celebrating with her before heading to Scotland last weekend to see family there, do some hiking and Dave played in the Brian Oates memorial golf day raising money for Crohns disease. I have loved and treasured every minute.

 

 

The Shomelanoma Fundraising has also kicked up a gear this month. First of all to the gorgeous superstar Will Baldock aged just 6 took part in a 10 mile hilly bike ride in St Albans to raise funds for melanoma research. He did a fabulous job helped on by his parents Jo and Steve Baldock and a few snacks to help him climb those hills. Well done Will and a massive thank you for your amazing support.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/joanne-baldock5

Next up young Alfie Ranstead is doing a 50 km bike ride along the Ridgeway in Wiltshire on May 27 accompanied by his brothers Tom and Will. Alfie is 14 and has never cycled this far before in his life so it will be quite a challenge but he said “If Shiona can stay so positive with stage 4 melanoma and raise all this money for others [melanoma research] I can manage my bike ride.” We are wishing Alfie massive good luck for this weekend and a HUGE thank you for all of your support.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alfie-ranstead

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Also this weekend my gorgeous school friend Jacqueline Varty is undertaking the Edinburgh half marathon to raise further funds. Wishing her massive good luck and looking forward to seeing all the photos. Huge thank you and read more about her efforts here.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jacqueline-varty1

The Shomelanoma team is currently training for the next big challenge The Welsh 3000s which is coming up at the end of July. It looks TOUGH 15 mountains over 3000 feet in just over 48 hours with some scrambling…….. More to come on this one next month.

We also have a big team signed up for the Royal Parks half marathon in October. This is the one Dave is attempting to run in under 2 hours. His park run training is commencing soon plus mentor guidance from his cousin Matt who will also be running. If you would like to join us please let me know we’ll be having a party after this one!

We have now exceeded the £40k mark with all the fundraising which is amazing news and we hope to push this up to £50k over the coming months. A BIG thank you to everyone for all of your continued support it is making a massive difference and the Shomelanoma fundraising for the Royal Marsden has helped keep me focused over the last 2 years plus of course give back to the wonderful hospital that is currently keeping me and other cancer patients alive. On that note back with more next month and stay sun safe peeps factor 50 at all times.

 

 

 

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Stage 4 Melanoma 2 Years On – All Stable

Two years ago on March 31 2017, I received the news from my Oncologist that my melanoma had spread to my brain. Two years on, I am hugely thankful to still be here and very much living life to the full. My latest scans show that my melanoma is stable (good news for any stage 4 cancer patient) and my current targeted treatment Debrafenib/Trametinib which I take in tablet format twice daily 12 hours apart continues to work 16 months on. I am hugely grateful to all of the amazing melanoma team at the Royal Marsden Hospital led by my Oncologist Professor James Larkin who continue to look after me so well.

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For the past couple of months I have had the feeling, I am living on borrowed time, which is probably hard to relate to if you don’t have an incurable disease but fellow stage 4 cancer patients will resonate with this feeling. In the run up to the January scans, I became a bit obsessed with the fact the current treatment I am receiving works on average for 10 to 12 months and I have now exceeded that which is good news. My Oncologist reminds me that for some patients it can work for years and often patients have treatments in a different sequence. For the latest scans I felt much calmer until the morning of the results when I always feel nervous and it was a huge relief to hear everything was stable. For now I am continuing the kick ass enjoy every day mantra and getting on with my life as I know how quickly the situation could change.

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It’s been an exciting month and one of the highlights was when David and I were invited to visit the Francis Crick Institute (https://www.crick.ac.uk/) to have a tour and see where some of the research that the fundraising we have been doing is taking place. The Crick is a biomedical research institute who works to understand why disease develops and to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat a range of illnesses including cancer, heart disease, stroke, infection and neurogenerative disease. There are over 1200 scientists working there and the building is amazing.

Dr Lewis Au, Clinical Fellow for the Royal Marsden who is part of Professor Larkin’s team gave us a tour of the Crick and what an impressive building it is. As it is open plan the premise is very much on the collaboration between all of the scientists working there. The current research is looking to understand immune related toxicities by multifaceted profiling. We were taken to the wet lab where the scientists are examining specific tissue samples of tumours. We met one of the scientists on the team Alan (also Scottish) who showed us samples taken of a large tumour found in the kidney. He mentioned that previously they would take one biopsy from the tumour but in this example, the tumour was sliced into four sections with up to 20 samples taken from each section, e.g. 80 Nr samples in total. They are then doing specific genomic and immune profiling of the patient and the tumour which takes place in the dry lab where the analysis takes place. The goal of the research is to better understand how tumours develop as they metastasize (spread) around the body. In the context of immunotherapy, they hope to develop a panel of biomarkers to identify patients at risk of immunotherapy toxicity and develop supplementary/complimentary treatments for prevention and treatment of toxicity. As a patient who has experienced severe toxicity to my liver when I had immunotherapy this research is particularly personal to me. The whole experience was really quite fascinating and made me question if I had gone into the correct career. We loved it and it was the highlight of my month and a big thank you to Dr Lewis Au for hosting us his scientist colleague Alan who was explaining everything to us and it was lovely to see Dr Samra Turajlic too.

My 2 year anniversary with no booze is on April 10. I can hardly believe it and am often asked if I miss it. The honest answer is no with the exception of the occasional summer night out when it’s warm and a glass of rose is tempting. I know I was probably drinking too much before my stage 4 melanoma diagnosis and from a health perspective I definitely feel better. I am now the one at the party watching everyone else when they have had one too many knowing all too well I have been there many a time. I can still party with the best of them and I now remember the repeated nonsense that everyone else talks at 1am but for now I am happy with my clear alcohol free head and trying out the latest alcohol free cocktails on a night out.

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As well as monthly appointments with the Oncology team I also have check ups with the Dermatologist every 6 months. Last week my check up proved quite interesting. As I have mentioned before, I have developed 2 vitiligo patches on my face and this is a known side effect of my melanoma treatment. The Dermatologist has also noticed that some of the moles on my body have disappeared and some have become de-pigmented and lighter. The immunotherapy or the targeted treatment could have caused this and it shows the immune system response against antigens shared by the normal melanocytes and melanoma cells. I was also sent for follow up photographs so that this can be compared against the photos from 2 years ago when I started treatment and also moving forward.

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The Shomelanoma team has started training for the next big challenge The Welsh 3000s which is coming up at the end of July. It looks TOUGH 15 mountains over 3000 feet in just over 48 hours with some scrambling…….. After the first training walk last week of 20km and the sore legs the next day there is a long way to go. More to come ………

We also have a big team signed up for the Royal Parks half marathon in October. This is the one Dave is attempting to run in under 2 hours. His park run training is commencing soon plus mentor guidance from his cousin Matt who will also be running. If you would like to join us please let me know we’ll be having a party after this one!

https://www.justgiving.com/teams/shomelanoma

As always thanks again for all your wonderful support, as we move into the warmer weather please take care to protect your skin slap on the factor 50 even when its cloudy and check your skin for any changes in moles and go to see the GP. Better to be safe than sorry. Melanoma is a nasty disease and even although there have been huge advances in treatment there are still 7 people losing their lives every day in the UK alone. May is melanoma awareness month so more to come next month.