Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

A woman with incurable cancer has told of the moment when she surprised her husband by renewing their wedding vows on her 40th birthday – knowing that their time together is running out.

Sally Steadman-South was told in May 2017 that her skin cancer was incurable.

The 40-year-old has since lived every day as if it was her last – touring Europe and Thailand with her family and celebrating her landmark birthday in February with a party for 120 people, where she also pledged her troth once more to her teacher husband, Chris, 40.

First diagnosed with a stage one melanoma – an aggressive skin cancer – in February 2014, despite extensive treatment, three years later she discovered it was stage four and incurable – and after immunotherapy treatment failed to stop the spread, she had just one option left, to take targeted drugs with no guarantee of suppressing the disease for long.

Sally, of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, who has two children, Ted, 11, and Florence, nine, is currently cancer free, but if the drugs – dabrafenib and vemurafenib – which are designed to inhibit the spread of cancer cells in patients like her stop working, she will have no further treatment options.

She said: “I’m cancer-free, but I still have a life-limiting illness. I’ve been taking these drugs for over two years now – which is incredible, as I was told some people have terrible side effects and they normally stop working after six to 10 months – but they could become ineffective at any time.

“I spent a lot of time in the early days just thinking, ‘Is this the last Christmas, is this my last birthday, is this the last time I’m going to get to sing happy birthday to my children?’”



She added: “But, within six months of starting the targeted drugs in July I had my first all-clear scan and have been that way ever since.”

Despite three monthly scans and checks to see if her cancer has returned, Sally refuses to be beaten – instead cherishing every minute of every day and making her life one long adventure.

She said: “During this time I’ve made some amazing memories with my family. We all went to Thailand and spent six weeks touring around Europe in a camper van. I made it to 40, a huge milestone, and Chris and I renewed our wedding vows.”

She added: “It’s important for us to make incredible memories – because we just don’t know what time we’ve all got together.”

Sally, who is keen to drum up support for The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) Kick-start appeal for urgent funds to inject into research that has been curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, first noticed the changing appearance of a mole on her left breast in early 2013.

“As far as I’m aware, I’d always had that mole, but I noticed it was getting darker in colour and becoming more prominent – it looked like a Coco Pop,” she said.

She showed her GP, who did not think it looked sinister but, over the next few months, Sally became increasingly concerned – particularly when the mole began to bleed.



Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

Returning to the surgery, the doctor agreed to refer her to a specialist, and, in January 2014, she was seen by a dermatologist at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, who agreed to biopsy – or test the tissue – of the mole.

When, a few weeks later, she was told she had a stage one melanoma – a type of skin cancer often caused by sun exposure, according to the NHS, which can spread to other organs in the body, she was in complete shock.

“Despite pressing to see a specialist, I didn’t think it would be cancer,” she said. “I don’t know what caused it, but when I was younger, I did take risks, and I did go on sunbeds.

“But never did I link using sunbeds to skin cancer. Knowing what I know now, I cannot believe sunbeds are still on highstreets.

“Even still, I do feel like it was a bit of a Russian roulette and could’ve happened to anyone.”

She added: “I tried not to worry too much. At the time, I didn’t have much awareness of skin cancer. To me, it wasn’t like prostate or breast cancer, which can often be cured so there was no real fear factor.”

In April 2014, Sally had a wide local excision – a one-hour long procedure to remove the skin lesion and a surrounding margin of normal looking skin near to where the mole had been.

Thankfully, the operation – which was not invasive, meaning she did not need plastic surgery afterwards – was a success and the cancerous cells were removed.



Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

After that, her three monthly check-ups were the only intrusion into normal life with her family.

But in September 2016 Sally’s equilibrium was shattered after a weird dream on a family holiday to Cornwall.

“One night, I had the most bizarre dream that I had a golf ball under my arm, and I kept moving it away because it hurt,” she said. “In the morning, I woke up and felt a lump under my left arm.”

Shelving her fears until she returned home, she again saw her GP, who sent her to the Royal Hallamshire, where she had an ultrasound and another biopsy.

Sadly, the results showed that her melanoma had returned, it was now stage three and had spread to her lymph nodes.

“I was devastated – it was like the floor had been ripped from beneath me,” she said.

Referred to Western Park Hospital in Sheffield, Sally had her lymph nodes removed.

At the same time she was tested for the BRAF gene mutation, which can cause normal cells to become cancerous and is either hereditary, can be caused by environmental factors or by a mistake that happens in the body during cell division.

She tested positive but was not genetically tested, so she does not know if it is hereditary gene or if the gene developed because of other factors.

While testing positive meant Sally could, in future, take targeted drugs to help suppress the cancer, it also means she does not know if her children have the gene.



Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

She said: “I do worry that the gene could be passed on to my children. To be honest, it’s my biggest concern.

“My children have half my genes, and even if doesn’t turn out to be genetic, they still have my skin type. I take all the precautions and if they have any moles, I get them checked out straight away. I know it’s really rare, but I want them to be as vigilant and aware as possible.”

Following the gene test and surgery, Sally then had six weeks of daily radiotherapy treatment.

“It was awful – my skin started blistering and it became really painful,” she said.

“To sleep I’d have to keep the fan on all night, because my body just felt boiling hot.”

Sadly, the gruelling radiotherapy was unsuccessful, and Sally suffered repeated local recurrence melanoma – where cancerous cells form near the site of the original tumour.

Then, in May 2017, there was further devastating news.

“I was on the train and I felt a strain in my neck and shoulder,” said Sally. “I felt another lump at the back of my neck and simultaneously, experienced sheer panic.”



Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

An MRI and CT scan later that month at Western Park Hospital confirmed she had found more cancer and her melanoma was upgraded to stage four, meaning not only had it spread to other parts of the body, but it was incurable.

“I just fell to the floor and my husband had to carry me out of the room,” she said. “It was emotional turmoil that I couldn’t even describe. The thought of not being there for my children just killed me inside.”

Deciding against further surgery as it was too risky and, as the cancer had already spread, wouldn’t stop the tumour, Sally began immunotherapy in May 2017 – a type of treatment that takes advantage of a patient’s own immune system to help kill cancer cells.

But she suffered awful side effects – colitis, a chronic digestive disease, and treatment related hepatitis – so was forced to break off for a few months, before resuming immunotherapy every three weeks from November 2017.

Further bad news followed in February 2018, according to Sally, who said: “Doctors discovered the immunotherapy wasn’t working and the cancer had spread to her breasts and her lymph nodes near to her liver.

Knowing she had the BRAF gene, Sally’s only option left was to take targeted drugs, hopefully, to prolong her life.

Told her new drugs were usually only effective for about six to 10 months, she was delighted when, after a few weeks of taking three tablets in the morning and two in the evening, her health drastically improved – leading to her being declared cancer free in July 2018.



Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

While she is eternally grateful to doctors for prolonging her life, she has no idea how long her drugs will remain effective and has not wasted a second of her time.

In the summer of 2018 she, her husband and their kids spent six weeks travelling through Europe – visiting France, Switzerland, Germany and Spain – in a campervan.

Sally said: “The kids absolutely loved it. Florence is a total adventurer, so she was in her element.”

Then in the Easter holidays of 2019 they jetted to Thailand for the adventure of a lifetime.

“It was fantastic,” said Sally. “We stayed with elephants and look after them, explored rain forests, went snorkelling and visited amazing islands and temples.”

Then, that summer, they returned to Europe, making sure to visit Austria.

“We went to a ski-resort in Austria, which had been turned into a toboggan route for the summer, so we could go flying down the mountain,” she said.

And on February 26 this year, Sally celebrated turning 40.

“I know turning 40 is a big deal for anyone,” she said. “But I remember when I first started the targeted drugs, I said to myself, ‘I want to make it to 40,’ so it was extra special for me.

“We hired out a local social club hall and invited about 120 guests, as I didn’t want it to be a sad occasion, I wanted it to be a huge celebration.”

And she had an extra surprise for Chris, who she married in 2006.

She said: “He’d been wanting to renew our vows ever since I got ill. But I didn’t want to, because I felt like we were doing it out of desperation or fear that I wouldn’t survive.



Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

“When my 40th arrived, I was in a different head space, though, and felt we’d be doing it only to show our love for each other – not for any other reason.

“I didn’t even tell the kids what I’d planned until moments beforehand. Then the registrar appeared, and I was like, ‘Chris we’re renewing our vows – right here, right now’.”

She added: “He was a little bit choked, but he’d already prepared a speech for my birthday, so he said something along the lines of what he’d planned, and I’d written my vows out.

“It was, honestly, such a magical moment and afterwards, there were a few tears, but we just pushed all the chairs back and partied into the night.”

It was a perfectly timed celebration, coming just before the Covid-19 lockdown, which has seen Sally shielding for four months, although, luckily, her treatment plan has remained unaffected.

With lockdown easing, Sally and her family are planning to return to Europe next year, as long as she stays healthy.

But, for now, she is happy just to enjoy watching her children hitting their milestones.



Woman with incurable cancer turns birthday into a wedding vow renewal

“Ted starts secondary school in September, so I’m really looking forward to seeing him off on his first day,” she said. “With Florence, I just want to be here for as long as possible to watch her grow into a teenager and then a woman.”

She concluded: “But my main ambition is to be here for school plays, sports days and to watch them have fun – just the basic stuff that I didn’t think I was going to get to do.

“No matter what happens, I want my kids to remember their mum was always there for them.”

Sally, whose current treatment is only available because of research conducted by ICR, is also eager to galvanise support for the charity.

Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of ICR, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has been a major setback.

“We’re calling for vital support to kick-start that work and help us compensate for the research hours we have lost.

“We know that cancer patients around the world are counting on us to deliver new treatments to give even those with advanced disease the chance of a much longer and better life.”

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