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Brittney Anning was an equine sports massage therapist on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. An animal lover with an extraordinary zest for life, Brittney shared her experience openly and generously with Bloomhill and the community, helping raise awareness for melanoma prevention, and funds for our integrative cancer care services here at Bloomhill’s wellness centre, where she is fondly remembered by all those she met.

Brittney sadly passed away in January 2022.

Hi, my name is Brittney Anning.

I am an equine sports massage therapist on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where until I got sick I helped alleviate horses’ pain and imbalances for a living. I love animals, especially working with horses, being able to identify their movement patterns – finding out about them, encouraging better posture and allowing freedom. Horses simply don’t complain loud enough, they’re stoic and big-hearted. I just love helping their owners and trainers, to learn how to detect pain and what to do about it.

I’ve had a pretty extraordinary life and upbringing. When we were young my sister and I grew up on waterfront properties. We lived in beautiful homes and there was no expense spared on holidays. We lived a very comfortable lifestyle. We had many unforgettable experiences and memories traveling around Australia and around the world together. Growing up on the water, I was always outside, on jet skis and boats or out riding my horse. I guess I got a bit too sunburnt on the same spot. Sun baking in solarium beds just to get a tan, didn’t help either.

When I was 24, I noticed this black-looking mole on my collar bone. I hadn’t seen my sister in a while, and when we next caught up she said, ‘oh my God, what the h*ll is that?’ and pointed straight to it. It made me realise this black thing really needed to be checked out. It was a melanoma. I had it removed and was in the clear until six years later, I felt a lump under my armpit.  

Early last year I started getting this pain in my arm, in between my armpit and pecs. I’m a pretty hard worker – I do a lot of physical work – and thought it was a muscle tear. I strapped it up and it went away for a few weeks, then it came back much more painful.

A few months after my 30th birthday I was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma in my lymph nodes which had started as a melanoma on the skin. It quickly progressed to Stage IV within eight weeks. 

During skin checks after the initial melanoma was found, nobody had physically palpated my lymph nodes – they just looked at the skin. I never knew melanoma could come back in the lymph nodes. I had no idea melanoma could come back to haunt me, except on top of the skin. If I had known it could have spread to the lymph nodes I would have immediately got the pain in my armpit checked out.  

I get angry sometimes, because I feel the doctors missed finding the lymph node spread.   They are in a position to know this and educate their patients.  I believe they should have been regularly checking for this in a person like me with a history of melanoma.  

It was a Friday when the GP told me I needed a biopsy after an ultrasound revealed a mass lump. I can’t describe what that felt like – I just burst out crying. I didn’t know what to think or whose opinion to trust.  

Each day waiting for the diagnosis I could feel my arm losing function. I couldn’t brush my hair; I couldn’t even open my car door. The thing was so big it was pushing on all my nerves. This lump was the size of an orange. 

Another Friday arrived, a week or two weeks later. I had a call and the GP said, ‘I’m very sorry but we are very suspicious it’s a melanoma in your lymph nodes’. So that’s when it all started – over the phone. I really didn’t know what to do. 

I hadn’t really been physically unwell before. Not seriously unwell. The diagnosis was right around the time Australia went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, which added another layer or weirdness. Being diagnosed with a disease for which there’s no known cure was an isolating experience, but the lockdown meant friends hesitated to visit in person and some dropped out of communication altogether.  

I had a PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography – it’s where you’re injected with radioactive dye and it allows diseases to be detected) and it revealed the cancer was just in my lymph nodes. I was so relieved. But when they cut it out it, they could tell it had broken through a capsule which meant it could potentially have spread, and it turns out it did.  

In mid-2021 when I’m writing this, I have 14 tumours in my body, all of which are in my bones.  

I’ve had a tumour pressing on nerves in my arm, which causes significant pain. I’ve been imagining what I might look like in a wheelchair as this cancer seems to really want to attach itself to my spine constantly.  I haven’t been able to work with horses since last year, and have watched my beautiful business crumble. It’s been really hard.  

I am surprising myself as to how strong I am, and have an amazing network of friends and family to thank for not being alone.  I wouldn’t like to be on this journey on my own.

My fiancée Shane, my high school sweetheart and partner for 16 years, has supported me unconditionally through the last 14 months, putting his own emotions and feelings aside. When I’m really unwell he stays home and watches movies with me. We’ve devised a system for when to call an ambulance or drive to the Emergency Department, if the pain gets too bad. I guess he’s officially become my slave … ha ha. He now has to do most of the housework and has scaled back his two businesses. I’m so grateful to him, and really looking forward to marrying the s***t outta him finally later this year after 14 years of engagement! Our fur kids have been a huge role in easing the severity of the situation for us both with their endless smooches and cuddles. We have two Alaskan malamutes, Shadow and Dasher and two ragdoll cats, Cruise and Missy. These are our kids.  

My sister moved her family to the Sunshine Coast last year after the diagnosis, and despite having a newborn to care for, is doing heaps of research for me, sending articles on treatments and being the leader of my cheer squad. 

Cancer has taught me a lot of things and actually lots of positives. My outlook on life has changed, I no longer care what people think of me, I speak my mind, I’m more grateful for things, I don’t take anything or anyone for granted. I cherish moments and my health always comes first.  

I’m still working my way through that bucket list. Seeing the Northern lights are at the top of this list! I am still living my life even though my time on this earth might be shorter than most. I am doing things that make me happy. I am surrounding myself with people that want to be in my life. 

I am living my life with no regrets. 

I’m continuing with treatment, but the hope I did have for surviving is dwindling a little since immunotherapy didn’t work the way we’d hoped and I had a mixed response with my lungs having a full response but my bones didn’t.  I’m now on targeted therapy which is more about prolonging my quality of life rather than curing the cancer. It sometimes feels like a means to an end. But I still remain hopeful.  

I want people to know I’ve lived well and am so grateful for it. “It’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Thanks to my parents and Shane, I have gained a lifetime of unbelievable experiences,  I feel very fortunate to have these unforgettable memories to cherish forever.  

No matter what happens, I’m going to face it head on. Ears forward, like my horse Garcia when I’m in the saddle. Attentive, listening, unafraid. 

Cancer is something nobody wants to talk about, but it’s so important we do.  

Going to the art therapy classes, massage and mindfulness sessions at Bloomhill has really helped ground me.  

Art therapy for me is an escape. I love how you can express yourself. It’s not about the finished product, it’s how you feel while doing it. It takes your mind off appointments and medications and all that sort of stuff. So while you’re there you’re thinking about what you’re trying to achieve in the art therapy rather than what you’re actually going through in the real world. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t enjoyed it, every session.

I’ve also done the 12-week mindfulness course which was fantastic, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And I’ve had heaps of massages, which have been great for relaxation and managing my pain.  

I ask that you please share my story, and if you have any history of skin cancer make sure you get not only skin checks but your lymph nodes checked.  And please support and be there for Bloomhill, like they have supported me.  

Brittney Anning 
Equalize Equine Therapy
June 2021