Melanoma & Me

I was diagnosed with Stage 1b Melanoma in September 2020 at the age of 29. I found comfort in reading the support Melanoma UK offered and made me feel as though I belonged to a community and wasn’t in this alone. They were kind enough to share my story which has helped spread awareness of a cancer which I believe is very much misunderstood. I would like to raise as much money for Melanoma UK to continue to be able to support those who are diagnosed, in all those many ways they do.

I rise to the challenge of walking 100 miles in the month of January 2021.

Here’s my story:

The following may shock some of you, it may make you feel sad or even just indifferent. I am not looking for sympathy when writing this (believe me, I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime) but I would like to raise awareness and hopefully prevent any of you, any of my loved ones and their loved ones and their loved ones, on ever being diagnosed with skin cancer. To the class of 2020, and in the words of Baz Luhrmann,
“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.
A long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists,
whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now”

I first noticed a mark just above my right knee in December 2019. At the time, I was backpacking in the Philippines with my husband. A women, who we got to know well on our trip, mentioned in passing that she had noticed the mark and that I should consider keeping an eye on it and get it checked out once I was home. Once home, Christmas celebrations took over, we went on a family skiing holiday and, with the start of a new year and running a business on my own, it didn’t lend much time to notice any change. Life happens, as they say.

It wasn’t until March 2020 (a month that changed the lives of all of us), when I was at the hairdressers, that it came up in conversation with a family friend who was sat next to me at the time. The hairdresser noticed a freckle on my ear which she said she’d never seen before (she has been cutting my hair since I was a child) and then my family friend mentioned that her husband had a mark on his leg removed a few years ago. This gave me the nudge and reminder I needed to get it all checked out, for peace of mind if nothing else.

Two days later, I visited the doctor. The doctor checked the freckle on my ear- fine, the moles on my back I wanted to get checked while I was there- fine, he had a feel of the mark on my knee- also, fine. He said the mark on my knee was 6mm in width and they’re only able to refer to a specialist if the mark is 7mm or larger... 🧐
We put it down to possibly having a small freckle and an ingrown hair underneath that had been picked and a scab had been left. He told me to keep an eye on it and return if it grows at all in the next few months. I had got peace of mind, sort of. Then covid hit.

With months of being at home, with my dance teaching business coming to standstill, and with lots of time to notice changes in myself, this time allowed me to monitor the mark on my knee more closely. By the time July came around, I had started to itch the area on my knee and could feel the mark was raised through my leggings. I felt it had grown to around 1cm in width, but never actually measured it. I knew intuitively there was just something not right. I should mention that alongside my intuition, it had all the tell tale signs- irregular shape, light in colour on the outside and dark in the middle and had definitely changed in size over a short period of time.

I decided then to have a phone conversation with a doctor at my local GP surgery. I explained I had never, ever, been on a sun bed, but that I had burnt in the sun when I was younger, that I have continually travelled a lot in both hot and cold countries (and where getting caught short in boiling hot sunshine at gas stations on road trips around the world sometimes became a regular occasion!) and in general, being the outdoorsy type. She asked me to send photographs of the mark of concern and that she would get back to me with her thoughts. She responded quickly and said she would like for it to be looked into further and referred me on.

Although it was always in the back of my mind, I hadn’t heard anything for a while and I was enjoying the summer spending time with my family up at our caravan site in Scotland.

3 weeks later, “No Caller ID”. I answered,
“Hi, this is the urgent cancer line”.

Confusion filled my head and my heart sunk. They went on to explain that I was being referred to get the skin lesion removed and that it was a suspected melanoma. I was given a provisional date for the removal on 2nd September 2020, a month away.

I cried. A lot.

The month leading up to my initial skin lesion removal was both unsettling and comforting. Knowing I was getting the mark removed, either way, brought a degree of comfort but also instigated the need to find out more about the worst case scenario so I could prepare myself (or try to!). From the facts I read on the NHS website, I concluded in my own head that the mark WAS a melanoma. Why else would it have appeared? Why else would it have changed and grown so rapidly?

Before my operation, I had to isolate for a week and have a Covid test 72 hours prior. The 2nd September arrived. My mum dropped me off at the hospital at 7.30am for my admission for a skin lesion removal under local anaesthetic. After changing into my hospital gown (and sexy slipper socks 😉) I waited in a little room to speak to the surgeon who had a look at the mark and drew a big arrow on my leg. “⬆️” marks the mole! The Surgeon connected with me instantaneously by the very fact I was a Taurus born 3 days after him!! I decided I liked him, and gave him the approval (in my head of course) to poke around at my knee. Which, I have now nicknamed the “Knee of Doom”, having already had two operations on the same leg due to dancing injuries. I was simply adding to the collection of scars! The more the merrier! Or something like that 😬...

After just over an hours wait, I headed into theatre (not the theatre I am most used to 🎭🩰!). The local anaesthetic was injected to the area and although there was no pain, there was a bit of discomfort and what I can only describe as “digging around”. I could feel all that he was doing but couldn’t see (thankfully!!) and I could feel blood trickling behind the back of my knee every now and again 🤢. The procedure took around 30 minutes. He showed me the mole in a little plastic sample jar. It looked like a jellyfish with the skin layers and fat dermis dangling down in the liquid 🐙. He had removed around a £1 coin sized chunk, in width and depth, from the area. I asked him what he thought, fully knowing he obviously couldn’t give me a definitive answer, and he said with the speed of growth it’s highly likely it is a melanoma. Ditto, that was what I thought too! My next thought, maybe I should become a surgeon 🤔...

The next few weeks were long and unsettling. The healing of the wound and waiting for the results was the worst bit so far in this whirlwind journey. Yes, I was that annoying person who kept ringing the nurse to see if the results had come in. I was told 10 days... but 4 weeks later I got THE call. 30th September 2020. A date from which my life changed forever.

“Hi Molly- it’s your cancer nurse here. We have your results back and I am sorry to tell you that unfortunately it is a cancer diagnosis.”

I cried. A lot. And then cried a whole lot more.

The C word. A word I don’t think you can ever fully prepare yourself to hear. A word that’s hurt and affected me and my family already and now, a word that will effect me, my family and our future.

“...there will be a Macmillan leaflet in the information pack sent to you”

The diagnosis: a Stage 1b Melanoma. Luckily, it was caught at an early stage which allows for better monitoring and effective treatment going forward.

Although the phone call was a bit of a bleary-eyed blur, I was able to read and research about the next steps more clearly afterwards. And so I could feel more prepared when telling loved ones the next steps.

The next 2 weeks comprised of waves 🌊 . Waves of calm and deep sadness which would rise from nowhere and smash down unexpectedly. I told myself to just keep riding those waves. The ups and downs left me emotionally drained and overwhelmed. I also went through a phase of feeling really irritated with no tolerance or patience for things (throwing the scissors on the floor trying to cut a plaster to put over my oozing wound, for example). Many moments of not being able to concentrate on watching things on the tv, moments of what felt like short term memory loss, and lots of typo mistakes in work emails (which for those who know me well is very out of character!). All while being smothered (lovingly 😁) from all my friends and family with beautiful, thoughtful messages, phone calls and sent all my favourite things to aid self care.

4weeks since THE CALL, I was called again. This time more information about my next operation.

I was told that in the meantime I had to get a blood test to check my Vitamin D Levels (which were 71- optimum level is 75-80 so not far off! 🏆), had a pre-assessment with an anaesthetist who took 3 blood samples 💉🩸, 3 MRSA swabs (nose, mouth and groin), and an ECG heart monitor test. I had another Covid test all whilst isolating for 2 weeks before the procedure (which meant for me that I had to frantically arrange cover or other arrangements for all my current dance classes and for my training to become a Dance Movement Psychotherapist which I had just begun 4 weeks previous). Also while we were in the midst of getting a kitchen fitted (a healthy distraction- I must admit), whilst my husband works away for over a month, and whilst the country were in talks of a second lockdown... Talk about timing! 😅

My Covid test swab experience this time round was awful- not the swabbing- the nurse- who I can only describe as being desensitised and on a power trip (a story for another time). I got home feeling upset and enraged about how I was treated by someone who lacked any empathy or compassion for how a person coming into the clinic may be feeling and how her job as a nurse was to be aware of, well, exactly that. And then. I got a phone call.

“Hi. I’m phoning to let you know your operation on Thursday is cancelled”.

There was no further explanation and I went into full on panic spiral. Ringing every number I could muster to try and get some answers. All of this happening whilst I was stuck upstairs in our bedroom whilst the builders, unbeknown to the chaos, cracked on with the kitchen downstairs. I “slept” on it.

The next morning I got a call from the care co-ordinator who explained it had been pushed back a week for various reasons and it would have to be done next week as there is a 31 day target window since the day of diagnosis where this has to be done. So I felt a little better and began pushing back my life by a week. Then the second lockdown was announced for the day of my op.

5th November 2020- my mums birthday, bonfire night, lockdown 2.0 and now the date I had my SLB and WLE.

The morning of my next operation involved 4 injections of blue dye around the cancer site, a radioactive fluid (which turns the whites of your eyes, your wee and poo blue- I believed it when I saw it 💙👀 Smurfette, eat your heart out!) which showed up all the lymph nodes clearly. The dye travelled fast from the cancer site up to the lymph nodes in the groin. They took imaging from a specialist machine from a few different angles as I lay still (hardest part by far for a dancer 😬!) for around an hour. The process could take several hours if the dye doesn’t travel far in a short space of time, luckily mine did.
In the afternoon, I had a wide local excision (WLE) under general anaesthetic where they removed a further/larger layer of dermis around the cancer site. They entered in at the previous wound (which had healed well) and made a new bigger scar. And at the same time as this, I had a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLB). This is where they removed two lymph nodes closest to the cancer site, and in my case, this was removed out from my right groin. This is to help predict the likelihood of spread in the future. The surgeon and the anaesthetists were very friendly- and one of the anaesthetists was a parent of a little girl I used to teach so I felt instantly more calm and comfortable in their hands.

I went in at 1.30pm and came around after the anaesthetic at around 4.30pm- I think- though I was high on morphine! All I remember is being really hungry (shock! 😂) and all the nurses running through to the window beside my bed as you could see Fireworks from there.

The nurses then brought me some food and said once I had been to the loo I could go home as there was no drainage needed from the wounds. I was elated- if not still a bit on another planet from the morphine 🤪- and I got picked up and spent the evening at my mums home rather than in hospital which was much more comfortable (although, I was sick all over her car on the journey home from hospital!).

The first few days of recovery were sore and uncomfortable. I was relying on painkillers and struggling to know what resting meant! Then as the days went on I felt more and more mobile and my wounds felt less tender and I had learnt how to relax. I had my wounds checked and dressings changed at the hospital a week later where, although there was a bit of fluid build up, I was healing on the right track which felt good. I began to walk more or less normally after 10 days and I could drive again so got some independence back after a month more or less of isolating.

16th November 2020. Results are NEGATIVE! Which basically means that the cancer was contained to the mole they removed and it hadn’t spread to the dermis around it or to the lymph nodes. Going forward, I will attend 3 monthly check ups to check the lymph nodes and any other marks of concern for the next 5 years.

I also wanted to highlight that on top of all I’ve included in my journey (and pat on the back to you if you read this far!), I have realised what is important. Maybe it’s been covid/lockdown related, maybe it’s been being given a cancer diagnosis at 29 years old, or maybe it’s just been an enlightening moment at this point in life-or a combination, who knows- but what I do know is, is that life is precious. So are your loved ones.

I am the first to admit that I always wanted to live life fast. I wanted to cram as much into my life as possible and do all I wanted then and now. And, not to gloat but, I was pretty good at doing that. I travelled the world widely and on my own, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone many many times, I have fallen in love, I have suffered great pain, I have built a successful business which wholeheartedly helps people and satisfies both theirs and my needs (emotionally and financially!) and I have met many fascinating wonderful people (and also some much less so but nevertheless...) who have allowed me to learn, grow and develop into the best version of myself. And living life fast definitely has had its positives in that I feel I’ve achieved a lot of my personal goals in a short space of time. But having cancer, and physically being forced to SLOW.THE.F.DOWN, has taught me that I do want to live a long healthy life and if this body is treated with the respect and nurture it deserves that I will (hopefully) be able to do just that.

I now have to wear 30-50 spf EVERY.SINGLE.DAY, no matter what the weather, on any exposed skin and I have to take daily Vitamin D supplements. I am now well acquainted with all the hospitals in my area and a stab to the arm is second nature 💉🩸 (but I still have to look the other way!).

Over the next 5 years I will long for the “all clear” but 5 years is a little while away and if you need me anytime soon, I’ll be here- living in the NOW.

So my last words to you and if you take anything at all from my waffle, and as Baz Luhrmann says, “Wear Sunscreen”.

Molly Grey