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Sally Steadman-South and her family (The Institute of Cancer Research / PA Real Life)

A charity worker has relived the bittersweet moment when she surprised her husband by renewing their wedding vows on her 40th birthday.

Sally Steadman-South was diagnosed with skin cancer. She has since lived every day as if it was her last, traveling through Europe and Thailand with her family and celebrating her landmark birthday in February with a party for 120 people, where she also renewed her vows with husband, Chris.

Diagnosed with a stage one melanoma, in February 2014, she was submitted to extensive treatment, and three years later she discovered it was stage four and incurable.

Sally Steadman-South and her family (The Institute of Cancer Research / PA Real Life)

Sally 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.

“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," she said.

“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?'"

Sally Steadman-South, Florence and Ted (Collect / PA Real Life)

“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," she said.

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.

“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 said.

“It's important for us to make incredible memories – because we just don't know what time we've all got together."

Now, she wants to support the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR).

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

Sally Steadman-South, Chris, Florence and Ted (Collect / PA Real Life)

This all began when she fist noticed a mole. She showed her GP, who did not think it looked sinister but, over the next few months Sally became increasingly concerned.

The doctor agreed to refer her to a specialist, and she was seen by a dermatologist at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital, who agreed to biopsy of the mole.

When, a few weeks later, she was told she had a stage one melanoma, she was in complete shock.

Sally Steadman-South, Chris, Florence and Ted (Collect / PA Real Life)

“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 sun beds."

“But never did I link using sun beds to skin cancer. Knowing what I know now, I cannot believe sun beds are still on high streets. Even still, I do feel like it was a bit of a Russian roulette and could've happened to anyone."

She tried to remain calm.

“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," she said.

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 was a success and the cancerous cells were removed.

Sally Steadman-South with her family in Thailand (Collect / PA Real Life)

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

But in September 2016 Sally was shattered after a weird dream on a family vacation 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."

Sally Steadman-South with Chris and their children (Collect / PA Real Life)

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.

Sally had her lymph nodes removed.

Sally Steadman-South and her children (The Institute of Cancer Research / PA Real Life)

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.

“I do worry that the gene could be passed on to my children. To be honest, it's my biggest concern," she said.

“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."

Sally Steadman-South and her family (The Institute of Cancer Research / PA Real Life)

Sally 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 grueling radiotherapy was unsuccessful, and Sally suffered repeated local recurrence melanoma, where cancerous cells form near the site of the original tumor.

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."

Sally Steadman-South (The Institute of Cancer Research / PA Real Life)

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.

“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 since it wouldn't stop the cancer from spreading, so Sally began immunotherapy in May 2017.

Sally Steadman-South driving the campervan (Collect / PA Real Life)

But she suffered awful side effects so was forced to break off for a few months, before resuming immunotherapy every three weeks from November 2017.

“Doctors discovered the immunotherapy wasn't working and the cancer had spread to her breasts and her lymph nodes near to her liver," she said.

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

Sally Steadman-South and her family (Collect / PA Real 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.

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 traveling through Europe in a campervan.

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

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 snorkeling and visited amazing islands and temples."

Sally Steadman-South and Chris (The Institute of Cancer Research / PA Real Life)

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.

Sally Steadman-South and her daughter Florence (Collect / PA Real Life)

“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.

“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," she said.

“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'."

Sally Steadman-South and Chris on her 40th birthday (Collect / PA Real Life)

“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," she continued.

“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."

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.

“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."

“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," she said.

“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 gather support for the charity.

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

“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."

To find out more visit ICR.ac.uk/KickstartICR