by Susannah Archer

“We’re really sorry, but it’s cancer”

Some of the worst words, to date, that I have ever heard. It really was as bad as I could’ve imagined it would be. My world came crashing down, and I, unsurprisingly, hurtled rapidly towards worst case scenario, and assumed I’d die within a matter of days.

The first few days were pretty terrible, but then something unexpected happened. I realised I was coping, and it wasn’t the end of my world just yet. I found a way through, and, nearly four years on, I continue to find a way through the darker days, as well as enjoying many brighter days along the way. Life will never be the same for me – it probably won’t ever be, after a stage four cancer diagnosis. But life is still very good, in a different kind of way, in a way that makes me seize every opportunity for happiness, and not waste time worrying about things that really don’t matter. Although it’s not easy, in some ways, life is much better, much richer, and much more appreciated now. I laugh more. I also cry more, but it’s often with happy tears, as I appreciate the little things that I didn’t always notice before.

But there are some things I wish I’d known, back when I heard those life-changing words; some things that would’ve made it all easier. And I’m writing this in the hope it will help others, at the start of their journey.

I wish someone had been able to show me that I would cope; that I’d find strength and resilience that I didn’t realise I had. To know that would’ve helped me to face the fear with the knowledge that it would be tough, but that if I stumbled, I’d be able to get back up again, dust myself down, and carry on. If you are newly diagnosed, I urge you to remind yourself, regularly, that you will cope. And you’ll cope better than you could ever imagine.

I wish someone had shown me the importance of taking some control, in a situation that seemed to be spiraling endlessly out of my control. And of the importance of educating myself in something I knew nothing about, in order to ensure I received the very best care available; to ask questions and challenge decisions, until I felt I was being listened to. Actually, much more than just being listened to: being actively involved in my care. A basic right, but one it’s so easy to dismiss and neglect, especially when the doctors seem to know best. Something I learnt very quickly was that no one was going to care about my health as much as I did. It’s okay to ask if you don’t understand, it’s okay to question a decision that’s been made, it’s okay to chase up results, and it really is okay to seek a second opinion, if you’re not happy with how things are going.

I also wish I’d known it really is okay to admit you’re struggling to deal with the sometimes overwhelming feelings that a cancer diagnosis brings. Being the ever bubbly, positive person I am often told I resemble, this has been the hardest lesson for me to learn; to sometimes say, “I’m having a bad day and need some support.” We all need a helping hand sometimes, but we’re all different, and working out what helps us most is a huge step in arming ourselves with the tools to get us through the tricky times. And it’s good to be aware that what helps one day may not be as helpful another day. Some of us have trusted people we go to, those people who just know how to be there for us, and to know it’s okay to not have the answers or a magic wand. To just be there. Others find it helpful to seek out a trained or knowledgeable professional to talk to: a nurse or support worker, a counsellor, or maybe someone with direct experience in supporting people affected by melanoma. Connecting with others who have experienced similar issues, on or off line, can help, too. But some people find talking hard, and instead prefer distractions or activities that take the focus away from the world of cancer: finding ways to switch off and be yourself again can be hugely beneficial.

The last piece of advice it would’ve been helpful to have had is to not let cancer define you. It could easily have become the centre of my world, but it’s so important that other things, other people, remain there instead: for me, that’s my husband and my son, my family and friends, my hobbies. Yes, cancer is there, in the back of my mind, but it’s not my everything and it feels good to not allow it to be. I continue to do all of the things I did before: walking, swimming, reading, travelling around the country to find lovely views, walking on beaches, meeting up with friends. Life has given me a new challenge, but one that I fit alongside the rest of who I am.