When Fiona Embleton heard that her mother had just three months to live without treatment it felt like the air had been squeezed out of her lungs.

Her mother, Ursula, 74, was diagnosed with skin cancer just before Christmas 2018.

The cancer had spread to her brain, lungs, liver and bones and the outlook was bleak.

Thanks to ground-breaking immunotherapy treatment, Fiona’s mum now has no active cancers and is starting to enjoy life again with her daughter.

The beauty editor wants to share her story to raise awareness of what she calls ‘the silent killer’ and to thank the team at Royal Surrey County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust for the care her mother received.

“I’m a wordsmith by trade but I still haven’t found ones adequate enough to describe that moment when someone you love so much is told they have three months left to live without treatment.

“Having the air squeezed out of your lungs so hard it hurts is the closest I’ve come.” said Fiona.

Fiona’s mum was referred to Royal Surrey oncologist, Dr. Tim Crook, Consultant Oncologist, who began the immunotherapy treatment immediately.

The combination of drugs works to fire up the immune system and attack the cancerous cells.

“First and foremost, we have an utterly brilliant oncologist in Dr. Crook,” said Fiona

“Anyone who bashes the NHS should spend just five minutes with this man.

“His sheer grit when it comes to killing off what he calls ‘these cancerous little buggers’ is an inspiration to anyone.

“I’m also under no illusion that we struck gold with him.

“I knew mum was dying when we first went to see him. But rather than dissect her recent scan, or talk to us using highbrow medical jargon, Dr. Crook spoke to mum like a human being who had everything to live for and focused on what we could do, which somehow gave us back some control over this silent killer.”

The treatment was gruelling with challenging side effects after each dose, including a high fever and painful skin peeling, which caused Fiona’s Mum to be admitted to hospital.

“With each cycle I would sit with my fingers crossed behind my back and mumble the words ‘please work, please work’ under my breath as I listened to the machine dispense the drugs into mum’s veins,” said Fiona.

“Each time mum was admitted Dr. Crook appeared by her bedside and gave her the reassurances she needed – reassurances that, for example, spurred her on to become more mobile, first with a frame and then with a walking stick, despite the painful tumours in her groin.”

Dr. Crook said, “We are pleased and excited to be able to treat our advanced melanoma patients with cutting edge immunotherapy treatment at Royal Surrey’s St Luke’s Cancer Centre.

“We hope to be bringing even newer immunotherapy drugs to the hospital in clinical trials in the near future. The whole melanoma team is focused on offering the best care possible to patients with this challenging cancer and this increasingly includes immunotherapy and targeted drugs.”

Fiona and her mum made the brave decision to share their story to raise awareness about skin cancer which is now the fifth most common cancer in the UK. Around 13,500 new cases are diagnosed each year.

More than a quarter of skin cancer cases are diagnosed in people under 50, which is unusually early compared to most other types of cancer. Over recent years, skin cancer has become much more common in the UK.

“As a beauty editor on a glossy magazine, I spend three months of every year talking about sun protection.

“Often this is in the context of anti-ageing – any means necessary to get women to slather on that high factor broad spectrum SPF.

“But the fact is, melanoma is a killer. There’s no point sugar coating it. Nor is it the case that if a mole goes bad you simply have it cut away, job done and back to the sun lounger.”

Fiona also wants to raise awareness of the impact which cancer has on relatives and carers.

“During mum’s treatment I suffered badly from panic attacks. Mum had been assigned a Macmillan nurse, Kate Upshon, who would see her at every clinic appointment and be our first point of contact should we have any questions or mum develop any side effects.

“She has become a wonderful friend. Her beaming smile and ‘we can do this’ attitude even managed to transform a clinic into a welcoming, safe place.

“I found myself opening up to her immediately and she put me in touch with the counselling service at The Fountain Centre – a charity for cancer patients offering care and support – to get these panic attacks under control.

“My advice to other carers is use this service, even if it is just to treat yourself to a relaxing massage. It’s okay to allow yourself some ‘me’ time and half an hour when you’re not thinking about the ‘C’ word.”

Fiona says that they have been extremely lucky.

“I say ‘we’ as cancer happened to both of us one way or another and mum and I are pretty much superglued together these days in the fight to beat it.

“Mum isn’t completely out the woods yet but her latest scan showed that there are no cancerous tumours in her body any more.

“I’m starting to see shades of the woman she used to be. Her appetite has started to return and thanks to the dieticians at St Luke’s Cancer Centre, even someone like me who can’t boil an egg is able to whip up delicious, antioxidant-rich recipes to help build up her strength and resilience.

“Most importantly, we’ve started to laugh again, knowing those ‘cancerous little buggers’ didn’t win this particular fight.”

©2019 Royal Surrey County Hospital

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