A woman's head and shoulders are overlapped by a giant dark speech bubble bearing bad news, totally overwhelming the peaceful colors of the rest of her surroundings.

The Moment I Heard the Words ‘You Have Stage IV Cancer’

It was a Friday afternoon and after a week full of tests, I sat in the waiting room of my doctor’s office thinking, ‘I have a very bad feeling about this’. My brother made a comment about the cooking show playing on the TV in the waiting room. I appreciated the effort, but at that point, there was no taking my mind off the reason we were there.

Trying to hold it together

My doctor was running behind and every minute felt like an hour. My brother's phone rang and he stepped outside the waiting room to take the call, I could see him through the glass doors but in that moment, I felt completely alone. I could feel the fear rising and the tears start to form. ‘Keep yourself together Courtney, breathe, you’re ok’ I kept telling myself in an effort to convince myself everything was going to be fine, but I knew deep down in my gut, I was a liar.

Not the news you want to hear

"Courtney," my doctor called my name I looked straight at the door for my brother, who immediately ended his call, there was no way I was going in there alone. Before I had even sat down my doctor said, "the tests are back and it’s very serious."

‘Breathe Courtney, just breathe’ I said to myself as I sat down. My doctor then grabbed a permanent marker and drew a circle around where my 2 lumps were on the back of my arm. "Don’t let this wash off, you are coming back in on Monday for surgery and I am going to cut them out."

A stage 4 cancer diagnosis?!

The doctor then spoke in medical talk for a couple of minutes which I didn’t really understand, then, "this is stage IV cancer and I need you to understand this is very serious," he said.

‘STAGE IV F**KING CANCER, STAGE IV!!! How did this happen?’ I thought. I was angry, SO angry, I had had skin checks every 3 months for 3 years and not a single doctor found this lump, I found it myself. I felt like the healthcare system had failed me when I had done everything right!

When the survival stats are more than just numbers

He then proceeded to read statistics off a handy laminated chart he had sitting on his desk. "So if we just cut out the lumps you will have an 18% chance of survival over the next 5 years." 18%, 18%! I just sat there silently fighting back tears. I looked at my brother and I could tell he was not happy with my doctor’s bedside manner, after all, only days earlier when he was referring me to get a PET scan he said "hopefully you don’t light up like a Christmas tree."

"Okay so what treatments or trials can we get in to improve those statistics," my brother said abruptly cutting off my doctor. He went on to explain that there had been some amazing advances in the treatment of skin cancer over the past few years. "If this was 2016 I would have sent you home to die" he said. But now with immunotherapy, my chances of survival could potentially increase by about 50%.

I started to ask my own questions, but my doctor basically told me not to get ahead of myself. "You’re going to need to grieve this weekend," I remember him saying, it felt like he had already started writing my eulogy.

How do you tell your loved ones you have stage 4 cancer?

As we walked back to my car all I could think was ‘how the hell am I going to tell my mum, (her brother died of melanoma), she won’t be able to handle this’. I asked my brother to tell our parents, I wasn’t strong enough to do it. I called one of my oldest friends and asked her to tell everyone else. I couldn’t keep saying it out loud. I could hardly process my own emotions, never mind deal with other people’s. But I had this sense of urgency, I wanted to rip the band-aid off, I wanted everyone to know straight away so I didn’t have to keep reliving it.

A rollercoaster of emotions

In the hours that passed I had a mixed bag of emotions:

  • Fear for what was ahead
  • Anger, why me?
  • Sadness for friends and family
  • Reflective – would I have regrets if I died? (I even started forming a bucket list)

I processed a LOT of emotions very quickly that evening. I am lucky that I am able to process things fast, go into problem-solver mode, take control, and adapt to change. So, as I placed my head on my pillow that night to sleep, I didn’t cry, I wasn’t scared anymore, I was ready to fight.

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