We met Stuart recently, after one of his work mates completed an amazing fundraising event with him in mind.  Stuart has very kindly agreed to share with us with an insight into his diagnosis and his life following.

Life.

Life is a series of events that define us as the people we are through the experiences and choices we make. Like everyone else I’ve made bad, and good choices which led me to where I am now.

To understand where I am now I’ll rewind to September 2010 when the first truly defining moment happened to me. Having split with my partner and mother of my child for very good reasons irrelevant to the context of this story, I found myself looking after an 11 month old baby boy alone. As most new parents can relate to, you’re left with the difficulties in coming to terms with a complete change in your lifestyle and priorities.

A year later and still getting to grips with life as a single parent, dare I say resentful of the massive change in my circumstances, I had a dramatic moment of realisation. My son, coughing at night, unable to catch a breath struggled for air, and as I drove to the hospital, panic stricken with tears streaming from my eyes hoping he would be OK- it happened. I realised that life as I’d known it was over!

Now my purpose in life was to protect him, to see him grow, and get my enjoyment from experiences we’d have together. To laugh with him, cry with him, teach him all the things my parents had taught me. From that moment on I knew I’d never love anyone as much as I would love him. 

Anyway, after administering steroids at the hospital to enlarge and relax his airway he was wide awake at 6am like nothing had happened!

Fast forward to January 2015 for the next defining moment. I’m 40 years old. I made the fateful decision to see my GP about a mole I had become concerned about. I’d noticed it sometime around the previous September/October. Right in the middle of my shoulder blades, it would irritate, and itch. I’d convinced myself it was because it was catching on the back of a chair, or the rim of the bath. I wasn’t stupid – I’d heard all the stories of “you need to get an itchy mole checked out”. But no, it wouldn’t, it couldn’t be me – I never went in the sun!

The GP wasn’t happy with the mole and referred me to St. Luke’s Hospital in Bradford for a closer look. A week later I ended up having it removed. Another week on and as I opened a letter inviting me back for the results of tests they’d performed on the excised mole my stomach churned. You don’t get invited back that quick unless….

With trepidation and blind hope I returned to St. Luke’s for the Doctor say all was well. But, it wasn’t! The mole was malignant melanoma, and had grown deep enough to cause concern. It was strongly suggested I have a wider local excision and sentinel node biopsy to ascertain if the melanoma had spread.

All I remember about that day was asking how I could possibly have it as I wasn’t a sun worshiper, followed by a numbness in the waiting room as I clutched a handful of leaflets, gathering my thoughts before driving home. During the journey home I cried (what would be one of two times since my diagnosis) as I thought I’d be dead in a few years. Thoughts of my son growing up without parents raced in my mind, I’d let him down! I was meant to be his protector, not abandon him. As I drove I pondered… I’d make a series of videos for him to watch after I’d gone – teaching him maths, science, history, life lessons and advice – something he could watch as he grew up, something to remember me by.

I went to my parent’s house, told them the diagnosis –  the look on their faces as I said the Doctor suggested it could have resulted from sun burn as a child. It was never the done thing to wear sun cream in my childhood. I vaguely remember having sunstroke, and applying after-sun lotion. Incredibly I recall the attitude of wearing bright red, peeling skin as something akin to a badge of honour. They were devastated to think they might have contributed to it!

Whatever the initial reaction was to my diagnosis, I dread to think what might have been had I not gone to see my GP, and kicked myself for not going sooner. You must get these things checked. Always!

To continue… The sentinel node biopsy and wider local excision had resulted in biopsies being taken from nodes under both armpits. And as I walked around for the next few weeks unable to put my arms by my sides, or sleep properly with the discomfort I wondered, hoped, that was surely the end of it.

I’d made the mistake of looking at the internet. How frightening it is when you see survival rates based on the amount of people who survive more than 5 years! 5 YEARS!

So, off I went to see Mr. Peach, consultant Plastic Surgeon in Leeds. Sat in his clinic, optimistic of my 80/20 chance I’d been offered. I was stunned to be told I was in the 20% category. Melanoma had been detected in the lymph nodes under my left arm. I was a stage 3 cancer patient.

April 2015, only 4 months since seeing my GP I was in hospital having major surgery and facing several week off work. The operation went well, apart from throwing up a sip of water in recovery whilst trying to be cool in front of the nurses!

Having recovered from the operation, gaining movement in my arm again and seeing the consultant every three months things were going well. I’d been told my Vitamin D levels were low and had to take supplements to boost them. Although I did for a while it fell away, and I told a white lie to the consultant to say I’d been taking them.

An unfortunate side effect of having a lymph gland removed is a susceptibility to infection. I ended up getting a blood infection in my left arm from an innocuous scratch that required a course of strong antibiotics. Watching a strange red line wind it’s way up your arm was quite scary! I’m now very wary of any cuts on my arm.

A year passed by, and around May 2016 I felt a hard lump about an inch above my initial excision site. Oh no! I went to see Mr. Peach who confirmed my fears – the melanoma had returned. I was fairly pragmatic about it to be fair. It had come back, but I’d caught it quick enough and it was just a case of cutting it out. I was back under Mr. Peach’s scalpel for it removing, though I had a very painful recovery experience.

July 2016, around 6 weeks later I discovered 2 more hard lumps further around my back, on the left side. My pragmatism vanished. What’s going on?! Why had it come back again, and why so soon? I phoned my parents up after I’d got my son to sleep to tell them what I’d found. I was so upset – it was the second time I cried. 

Back to the clinic I went. Back into the operating theatre.  Hopefully, this would be the end of it.  I ended up going back again, twice. The last one returning news of trace melanoma in the surrounding tissue resulting in Mr. Peach sending me for a PET CT Scan to see if the melanoma had spread.

Fortunately, no spread had been detected though traces were present in the tissue from my last op. I was told that I was facing possible skin grafts, drug treatments, or both.

Another defining moment. PET CT Scans are based on radioactive sugar. The scan man told me a body metabolises sugar for the brain and heart first, then any cancer cells get the lion’s share of what’s left. That’s what the scan is based on. The radioactive sugar hot spots are where the cancer is.

My diet was poor. I’ll be honest – I loved sweets, chocolate, cake, biscuits, fast food. I was a lazy cook. BUT… What if I stopped eating sugar? Would it help? I mean I’d had 5 recurrences. Could I do anything to help my body fight? I didn’t want drugs with side effects, and I certainly didn’t want skin grafts if I could help it. I needed to stay alive until my son was 18! That was surely the first aim. To see him become an adult – in charge of his own destiny.

It just so happened that February 2017 was “National No Sugar” month. With the support of my girlfriend I decided to abstain from processed sugar for the month. The first two weeks were hard, but I got through it with the thought of staying alive long enough to see my son grow up. One thing led to another, and I can hand on heart say I’ve not had a sweet, chocolate, cake, biscuit, pudding, or anything sugary since!

Furthermore, having watched several TV documentaries on Netflix and YouTube I adopted a new approach to life. The theory is your body needs four core foundations to promote health. They are diet, exercise, low stress levels, and rest.

My lifestyle at that point was contrary to all  of those foundations. I was doing myself no favours whatsoever.

I have amazing parents, an amazing girlfriend and friends who support and encourage me, and I would be in an entirely different predicament without Mr. Peach, Mr. Dewar and their wonderful team in Leeds. I now try to live every day as it’s a blessing. To enjoy the time I have left. I’ve embraced a new way of thinking!

Since July 2017 I have eaten a plant based, whole foods diet which I’ve religiously stuck to. I feel great, have tonnes of energy, and have lost over four stones in weight. My exercise is moderate, based on the exertions of looking after an 8 year old boy and running the junior football team in which he plays –  I jog once a week for about forty minutes too. I had a very stressful job, which I’ve since been able to change with the help of my employers who have gone above and beyond in their support. The thing I need to work on is going to sleep at a reasonable hour. I’m not perfect – I need a few hours to myself on an evening. 

I firmly believe you must help your body to fight disease. I highly recommend that if your doctor tells you to take Vitamin D, you do so, and you should watch programmes such as “Forks over Knives” or “The C Word” for a different perspective on food. Since changing my diet and lifestyle I have not had a recurrence. It may be co-incidence. I was told traces of melanoma were left behind from my last operation and fully expected to be having further treatment. However, having gone through a six month period of having almost one per month, I’ve not had one in approaching nineteen.

With a positive outlook something good can be found from something bad. I feel so much better for choosing to change my lifestyle, but in all honesty it wouldn’t have happened without the urgent need to look after myself for the sake of my son. We never give it a second thought to question our own mortality until you hear those terrible words, and I’d like to think my journey has led me to a better mind set and view on life.

I hope what I’m doing for myself will help me reach my initial goal of seeing his 18th birthday and beyond. And I hope that if you’re reading this you might consider a change to your lifestyle – I believe it could make a difference, and it certainly won’t hurt.

Finally, I’ll leave all you parents with this thought. Regardless of how difficult it is to get your child to wear factor 50 sun cream (believe me, I know) you must persist. I do not ever want my son to come home with news that he has melanoma, and it might be because I didn’t make him wear it as a child. You can make a difference!