“Cancer is going to change your outlook,” confesses Emma Betts. “I can’t say it makes you want to strive and do everything you’ve ever wanted to do, because that’s not true. It makes you question everything you do.”
The Brisbane-based 25 year-old is talking about whether her terminal cancer diagnosis changed her outlook when it comes to going after things she wants, or taking a chance.
“I don’t think I’ve had any of that crazy, ‘live in the moment’ kind of stuff. Because living in the moment is a bit sh*t,” she says. She and husband Serge tried that approach but found it wasn’t sustainable. “We were having fun because I was dying. But you can’t live like that forever because that’s a constant reminder you have cancer. So we’ve tried to bring a normal sense of life. And I guess this business has helped with that.
Life has not been easy for Emma Betts. But she’s grateful for every day she has. At 21 years old, living her dream working in Aid Development in East Timor, a stranger pointed out a mole on Emma’s left shoulder. Fast forward almost a year later, Emma was diagnosed with stage four melanoma.
“That was pretty full on for a 22 year old. It’s pretty much a blur for me,” says Emma, who didn’t respond to initial treatment. “It went from being just one organ to pretty much my entire body. In January 2014, I was told I would only have three months.”
Thankfully, she’s still here after gaining access to a clinical trial for a drug called Keytruda. “Luckily, I responded to that for almost two years,” she says.
While being given extra time is all she’s ever wanted, Emma admits it’s been, “really difficult.”
“I’m a planner. When I was given the three months, I literally planned my death. Then I got this clinical trial and I pretty much almost had two years of not feeling sick. I got to the point where my tumours were small enough that they weren’t causing pain, so I was off all my painkillers. And I went into quite deep depression because I felt stuck.
“I’d been given three months but now I may have years. I was in such a conundrum. I had to get help dealing with that. We got to the point where Serge and I were like, ‘screw this.’ We bought a unit. We bought a dog. I went back to work one day a week at my favourite gift shop.”
It was going back to work that led to Emma starting her own business Love, Emma care packages, after helping people find gifts for friends and loved ones who had been diagnosed with cancer.
Cruelly, around Christmas last year, Emma stopped responding to the trial and has been, “kind of jumping from treatment to treatment” since. “Nothing seems to be working, unfortunately.”
The business was ready to launch at the end of 2015, but Emma was reluctant. “I considered not doing it because I thought with my lesions growing again it would be stupid starting a business if I wasn’t going to be able to follow it through. Thank goodness, my parents are very supportive and they helped with the initial funds to start.
After all, she says, “You can’t just stop everything because you might only have months. Because I’ve proven that I’ve had years.”
But Emma was still hesitant. After the amount of fundraising and awareness she’s done for melanoma, she admits she “felt guilty making this a business and not making it just a gifting thing.”
Ultimately she came to realise, “it was something that was for me. And also [gave] me a sense of purpose again. You go out to a party or wedding and the first thing people are going to ask is, ‘so what have you been up to?’ And I always felt like, ‘um, nothing, just dying of cancer,’” she laughs. “But you can’t say that.
Now I’ve got the confidence to go, ‘well I just started my own business. I’m writing. I go out to schools and speak.’ And that gives me a little bit of a lift and I think, this is as much for those other people as it is for me.”
At the time of writing, Emma has been accepted into a new clinical trial limited to only 30 melanoma patients worldwide. You can follow her story on dearmelanoma.com
All photos via Lightsmith Images.