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The day my life changed - Cancer diagnosis taught me to make the most of life

Shadow of illness hardens determination to grab every opportunity

Shadow of illness hardens determination to grab every opportunity

I had gone to Dubai to teach for a couple of years, and noticed a mark on my leg. I had it for eight or nine months before I did anything about it, but it didn't look right, so one day after work I nipped to the hospital next door to the school. The doctor said it was an infected insect bite. He gave me some cream and said it should get smaller in a couple of weeks. But I wasn't convinced, so I decided to get a second opinion.

It was December 23 by the time I saw a dermatologist. He was immediately concerned and booked me in for a biopsy the following day, Christmas Eve. My boyfriend had flown out to visit me for Christmas so he came with me, but it was still a very anxious time.

We went back for the results on New Year's Eve. I went in on my own while my boyfriend waited outside. The doctor told me it was skin cancer and it was malignant. It came as a huge shock. I hadn't believed it was an insect bite because it had been there for months, but I still didn't think it was cancer.

My boyfriend was waiting when I came out, but I just couldn't tell him. We walked out of the hospital in silence. I was driving and we were halfway to one of the malls to get a coffee when I pulled the car over and burst into tears and told him.

It took a good few hours for the words "You've got skin cancer" to sink in. We had booked a desert safari for that evening to see in the New Year. It was only when it got to about 5pm and we were due to go out at 7pm that it hit home.

Within four days I was in hospital. The doctors were confident that a wide-area excision would get rid of all the cancer, and afterwards I would just need check-ups every three months. By the surgery date my boyfriend was back in the UK, so I was on my own. I was happy to stay in Dubai. I loved my job and didn't see any reason why having cancer should put me off having that life experience.

I went to see the doctor in June 2009, a month before I was due to return to the UK. I had been feeling tired and thought I had become anaemic and might need iron tablets. He did blood tests, spotted anomalies and sent me for an MRI scan.

They discovered I had a pituitary tumour. That means I don't produce oestrogen. The doctors have decided to replace my oestrogen but just monitor the tumour with scans and tests. It may stay there for the rest of my life and not do anything.

I had reconstructive surgery on my leg in Dubai, 11 months after the operation. Since then doctors have re-grafted it because it didn't heal particularly well and they are talking about whether they need to do further surgery. At the moment I'm getting a lot of pain in my leg. It's an ongoing niggle but the bigger issue is knowing I have got a tumour - that there is something potentially worse than the melanoma.

I think the melanoma almost prepared me for finding out about the tumour, because it showed me you never know what's around the corner so just enjoy life and make the most of any opportunity that comes along. Obviously you have moments where it all just gets a bit too much, but on the whole I think, "It's there, it's never going to go away, so it's pointless getting stressed about it." I try not to let it get me down.

I'm 34 and I have never been keen on going in the sun. If people can protect themselves by being that bit safer, that needs to be pushed. I would hate for anybody else go through what I have been through.

Joanna Williams is supporting SunSmart, Cancer Research UK's skin cancer awareness programme. For details, go to She was talking to Shade Lapite. Do you have an experience to share? Email

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