A 49-year-old mother has detailed the “terrifying” week she went from fit and healthy to having just a 50 percent chance of survival as tumours broke out all over her body, as well as in her brain and lungs. Ms Richardson was diagnosed with Stage 4 high-grade melanoma, a skin cancer, after having been given the all-clear by her doctor. She said she prepared for death, writing letters to her husband, daughter and other family members, as she rapidly declined ahead of immunotherapy.
The mother’s saga began when the 49-year-old, from Hampshire, came across an alarming mole underneath her bra strap five years ago. Her doctor, when she went to have it checked out, found a thin layer of skin cancer, at stage 1B, which was removed.
“I knew at the time something was wrong and I just went numb,” Ms Richardson said. “I just wanted facts. I knew nothing about melanoma.
“But he was really reassuring, saying it was really thin, we’ve taken it out and the wider tissue removed around it. It was caught early and he’s not worried about it.” Scans showed that the cancer hadn’t spread and that Ms Richardson was all clear.
But as she received private healthcare through her husband’s medical insurance, Ms Richardson insisted she had a lymph node surgery too just in case.
It was here that they came across a tiny microscopic deposit of cancer – a micrometastasis – that wasn’t picked up on a scan due to its size, which set her at stage three Melanoma. The micrometastasis was also removed, but with no treatment available at the time, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy to catch any other rogue cells, there was nothing else they could do.
“From a mental health perspective, it really hit me,” Ms Richardson told The Mirror. “It happened very quickly. There was no treatment at the time, that was the weirdest bit.
“Living with the knowledge there could be cancer but nothing to do about it. That was the hardest part as there was no plan. So I threw myself back into work and focused on my daughter, who was just nine at the time.”
The mother had to have CT scans every six months and an ultrasound of her armpits every six months too, which meant she was having a scan every three months as they alternated.
The scans always came back clear, but then after the summer of 2019, while laying in the bath, she suddenly felt a small chickpea-size lump on her pelvis.
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The following morning, she checked to see if it was still there, and worryingly three more had appeared – one on her back, her ribs, and her pelvis.
She managed to book an appointment with the dermatologist that afternoon, where she at that point had gained seven lumps.
“It was utterly terrifying,” Ms Richardson said. “He [the dermatologist] went white when he looked at me. I knew then it was stage four. I knew the outlook was going to be very, very bad. That was when utter devastation and complete guilt for my daughter hit me”
Doctors said she had high-grade melanoma, with tumours doubling every two hours. By the Friday, she was hospitalised as a chest x-ray showed tumours had filled both of her lungs, resulting in her not being able to breathe properly. Five tumours had also taken over her brain.
“I went from working to not being able to walk, sit up and breathe the following Monday,” Ms Richardson said.
“Tumours were wrapped around my kidney, my spleen, in my stomach, my pelvis, my shoulder blades. I had lumps everywhere under my skin so all of my chest and stomach and back and face and neck were covered in really painful lumps. It happened in the space of a week.”
Luckily, a new life-saving treatment had become licenced in the UK a year earlier – immunotherapy – which suppresses the immune system to attack cancer cells. However, with only a 50 percent success rate, Ms Richardson had to prepare for the worst.
With potentially less than a few months to live, she wrote heartbreaking letters to her husband, parents, and her daughter, and got her will ready.
Speaking on the dangers of the cancer, Michelle, who admitted she doesn’t think she applied enough suncream up to her bra line in the past, added: “The skin is the largest organ, it goes everywhere. It’s the fastest growing cancer in young people and because it is in the skin, it will go everywhere.
“It kills and it’s utterly devastating.
“With any other cancer, if they said you could put a cream on your skin to prevent it, you’d do it without question but people aren’t with melanoma.
“It’s just not worth it for a tan.”
In December 2019, on the day of her daughter’s birthday party, the oncologist phoned to say the treatment had been working. Sat sobbing on the stairs as she received the call, Ms Richardson felt utter relief.