Four years ago my world was turned upside down. I was told I had a form of cancer called Melanoma and that it was the worst case the surgeon had ever seen at Southland Hospital.
It came as a massive shock. I knew I had a mole on my left thigh but I would never have imagined it could have taken over my entire body.
It all started in September 2016. I noticed the mole slowly growing, it had become darker and it started to get itchy.
At the time, I was a heavy drinker and I was smoking cigarettes and marijuana. I tried to ignore the changing mole and swept it under the carpet. It’s only a mole, I thought, it can’t be that bad.
But one day I showed a family member who insisted I get it checked out. I went to see a doctor who told me it needed to be removed so I was referred to Southland Hospital.
I was absolutely blindsided when the surgeon who removed the mole sat me down to tell me that it was cancer and that it had spread throughout my entire body. It was, he said, the worst case he had ever seen in Southland Hospital. It turns out I had ignored it for far too long.
I absolutely lost it. I have my boys to take care of – what does this mean for me now?
Life got really scary. Suddenly, everything revolved around appointments, surgeries, X-rays, scans, more surgery, and more surgery – I can’t even count how many surgeries I have had to try and remove the cancer. I was then told the surgeon could no longer operate as the cancer was too deep and the only chance left for me was treatment, and to give up alcohol, smokes and marijuana – I quit the lot cold-turkey that day.
Throughout this process, a lovely woman named Rachel Oxley assisted me and later referred me to Barbara Metzger, the Cancer Pathway Kaiawhina from Nga Kete Matauranga Pounamu Charitable Trust. I have found Nga Kete to be a good fit for me as I identify strongly with kaupapa maori.
Barbara was a life-saver. She started attending appointments with me and translating all of the medical jargon that made no sense to me. She ensured I had the medications that I needed, and supported me on my emotional days when it was all just a bit too much. If I needed help with anything, Barbara was always my go-to! Nothing was ever a problem and she always made me feel at ease.
I have now taken ten cycles of Keytruda (pembrolizumba), which is a cancer medicine that interferes with the growth and spread of cancer cells in the body and is used alone or in combination with other medicines to treat certain types of cancer such as advanced skin cancer (melanoma).
I had a really tough time after I decided to quit smoking, alcohol and marijuana, and Barbara was there to support me through it, and I also received some support through the Southern Stop Smoking Service. I have now been smoke free, alcohol free and marijuana free for just over one year.
It certainly hasn’t been easy and I’ve had some dark days, but it’s been incredibly rewarding. I have noticed a big difference with my children and our relationships have grown closer. I still have urges; I still have really bad days but I find that chocolate helps! Chocolate every night in my household! I also find cleaning therapeutic so I spend a lot of time dusting, polishing and vacuuming.
There have been some setbacks. Unfortunately, just as life was getting back on track at the beginning of this year, I became ill again. But this was different; I was really sick. I couldn’t get out of bed and I couldn’t speak properly. I was admitted to CCU three times during the COVID-19 lockdown before it was discovered I had Addison’s disease.
Throughout the lockdown and my illness with Addison’s, Barbara stayed in regular contact and went above and beyond to support me during this difficult time.
I’m excited to say that I am now in remission, I am taking medication to keep the Addison’s disease under control, and I am looking forward to the future!
My advice to everyone is to listen to your body. Look at it and listen to it, keep checking – spots, dots, anything – if you’re unsure get them checked out.
I am so thankful to Cindy Quertier at the Cancer Society, who helped to organise all of my travel to appointments, to Rachel Oxley for her support at the Southland Hospital, and to Barbara, who has supported me the whole way through. Words can’t say enough to express my gratitude.
What is Melanoma? Melanoma is a form of skin cancer. It happens when melanocytes (pigment cells) become cancerous. It can emerge anywhere on the body, but typically appears in skin that has been sunburned. It usually begins as a flat spot that changes over time (size, shape and colour), but sometimes it’s raised from the start and these melanomas grow quickly.
What is Addison’s Disease? Addison’s disease is a rare but serious adrenal gland disorder in which the body can't produce enough of two critical hormones, cortisol and aldosterone. Patients with Addison's will need hormone replacement therapy for life.