Having not even hit my 30s yet the news that I had skin cancer was a little bit of a shock. The C word is nothing short of terrifying. It wasn’t just any kind of skin cancer but melanoma, which is known as the ‘bad kind of skin cancer’. Do me a favour – if you do one thing today please give this a read because it may help save your life.
At some point within the past 6 months a new mole sprung up on the back of my leg. It was fairly large and very dark but I didn’t think much of it. Quite honestly, I wasn’t 100% sure that I hadn’t always had it and it took a search through many photos (and who has photos of the backs of their legs) to determine whether it was a new mark on my skin. Then I did what too many people do – I shrugged it off and thought that it was probably nothing. I took no further action for another couple of months. This changed when a good friend caught sight of it on one of the rare days that I wore shorts. I was told bluntly to get my ass to the GP and have it looked at and, knowing the comment wouldn’t have been made lightly, I booked myself a doctor’s appointment.
I managed to get an appointment very quickly and was referred to the Dermatology Department at our local hospital. Within two weeks I was being told that it could be skin cancer and ended up having an appointment the very next day to remove it. Two or three weeks went by and my wound healed up nicely and I started to feel more secure that it wasn’t anything to worry about. Surely they’d have been in touch if it was anything nasty…? Then I had a letter confirming the time of my follow up phone appointment to go through the results. It was a letter – nothing urgent. I wasn’t worried. I still hadn’t realised what a big deal skin cancer is in the UK. Thanks to our miserable weather I didn’t think it was something that happened over here – at least not frequently. To top that off I was one of the most careful people I knew when it came to the sun. I’d never sun bathed or purposefully spent time in the sun. While friends in the past had purposefully burned themselves to get that summer tan, I’d made sure I didn’t. So surely it wouldn’t be a positive result when I’d been so careful.
Yet I picked up the phone to a cancer nurse…
She (very gently) explained that it was malignant melanoma.
I remember not really knowing how to react to what I was hearing. She was so sombre but I simply couldn’t reconcile what she was saying with myself. I felt fine – how on earth did I have cancer…
Here’s the thing though – at least with melanoma – it’s really hard to tell you’re ill until the cancer is very advanced. Sometimes your only sign is that blemish on your skin and sometimes it can be such a tiny blemish that you don’t even notice it. Swallow that.
Anyway, I was in the fortunate position that it had been caught at one of the earliest possible stages. They measure the stage by how thick (deep) your mole is and whether it’s ulcerated or not, which tells them how deep and progressed the cancer cells are in your skin. This helps determine whether they’ve reached lymph nodes and therefore have the ability to spread to the rest of your body. If they have, then you’re in for some serious surgery and a much more advanced stage of cancer. Mine was less than 1mm thick and so hadn’t broken through the layers of skin. This was called Stage 1 and a simple surgery to remove the surrounding tissue should solve the problem. You can read more on the different stages here. Please understand that this is my interpretation of what I’ve read – you need to research for yourself and seek medical assistance if not sure.
So, another week after my phone call I was back in for my second skin surgery to remove the surrounding tissue. This is a belt and braces approach – a precautionary measure – to ensure they catch any possible cancer cells around the primary site. The nurses and doctors were very lovely and supportive and I left feeling pretty well cared for. However, fast forward to several days and I was confronted with a really strange array of emotion.
Firstly, frustration. I felt so claustrophobic sitting still. I struggled to walk around the house – never mind going out. I also couldn’t quite quantify how I felt about the whole thing – being told you have cancer is really damn scary but it also felt like a bit of a dream – not quite real. I was rushed through the treatment process as soon as possible and when I spoke to the nurse on the phone she treated me like glass. Yet, I have been consistently told that it was so early and that the second surgery would solve the issue.
So, how serious is melanoma?
I still don’t truly know but here are some stats:
In the UK 1 in 36 men will be diagnosed in their lifetime
In the UK 1 in 47 women will be diagnosed in their lifetime.
It’s one of the most prevalent cancers between people aged 15 – 35. But here’s where it then gets more confusing (I’m sure this is the same with many cancers) – there are several different types of skin cancer and melanoma is typically known to be the worst one. However, within the melanoma category there are also different levels of severity and aggression. Full disclosure, I’m not a medical professional in any capacity, but after my personal experience my opinion is to make yourself familiar with the signs and symptoms – especially if you’ve been sunburnt, use tanning beds, spend time sunbathing or a lot of time outdoors (me).
How is it possible that this has all passed me by? There are no campaigns out there in the UK to raise awareness of skin cancer – not that I’ve seen anyway. You see campaigns for breast cancer but not for skin… If you burnt badly (peeling or blistering) as a child or teen, you double your chance of developing melanoma. Read that again, d-o-u-b-l-i-n-g. That’s insane. So it doesn’t matter that I’m so careful now – I know I will have burned as a teen who was so keen to look tanned… And it can develop really quickly if it reaches your lymph nodes. This then is a situation that may require many surgeries, scans and can be fatal. In my mind, that’s pretty scary and a very good reason to educate yourself (remember, not a doctor) and check your skin.
After I’d had my diagnosis I had an information pack through the post to give me any info that I needed to know about melanoma and sun protection. In this pack was a leaflet telling me about an app to track your skin and I am a BIG fan. It’s called Miiskin. Go and download it now. It allows you to take photos of moles or marks and track any changes over time. The free version also allows you to do a skin map of your back, which is a really useful tool. I’ve not tested the premium version as the free version at this point is pretty useful!
Where am I at now?
The good news is that I had the all clear from my second surgery so although I have a huge hole in my leg, I am SO DAMN RELIEVED to have the all clear. I have to go back for skin check-ups every 3 months for the next year so here’s to hoping for the all clear…
If nothing else, please familiarise yourself with the symptoms. If you’re unsure about anything on your skin then go to your doctor. It’s also so important to do regular skin checks. Take photos, draw a diagram of where your moles are – whatever! But know your body – it could save your life. Skin cancer is highly treatable when caught early so be alert. It terrifies me to think how long I would have left it if I hadn’t had that external push to see my doctor.