The number one rule when you spot a mole that has changed

Lessons I’ve learnt after being diagnosed with melanoma.

The skin check mistake I made

Do. Don't think. Don't hope. Do. These are the famous words uttered by legendary Australian football coach John Kennedy at half-time in the 1975 grand final when Hawthorn was losing to North Melbourne. The Hawks still lost but the words have continued to resonate.

They became my mantra after being diagnosed with melanoma in 2009. That was my sliding doors moment. If I had followed Kennedy’s advice, the past eight years may have been very different.

It’s National Skin Cancer Action Week, an opportunity to put the spotlight on what we’re doing well in our “sunburnt country” and what we need to do better.

The kids get it, according to the Cancer Council. They’ve grown up with the slip, slop, slap SunSmart message and are a sun savvy generation. 

Adults, however, are being more recalcitrant. The most recent Cancer Council survey shows that the proportion of adults wearing protective clothing has decreased in the past three years from 19 per cent to 17 per cent. The proportion of adults who get sunburnt on weekends is static at 17 per cent. That’s more than 2.7 million adult Australians who are damaging their skin and running the risk of developing melanoma.

With two in three Australians diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they reach 70, action week has a weighty message.

I grew up in sunny Queensland in the 1960s and `70s when baby oil – and not 50+ sunscreen – was the preferred tanning agent. There were plenty like me.

It wasn’t until I hit my 50s that there was a problem.

This is what I learnt – the hard way:

1. Organise annual (at least) skin checks with your GP, dermatologist or specialist skin check centre.

2. If you spot something suspicious, a mole that changes colour, becomes raised, bleeds, see your doctor – immediately. Don't think about it for several weeks until you have a list of things to make the visit worthwhile, as I did.

3. If you can't get a prompt appointment when you’re referred to a skin specialist, get your GP's receptionist to help. He or she is far more likely to get you an earlier date. Speed could be vital.

4. Do. Don't think. Don't hope. Do.

When I first spotted a mole on my right leg that had been bleeding, I waited several weeks before making an appointment with my doctor. She advised that nothing looked suspicious but referred me to a dermatologist anyway. The first available appointment with that person was six weeks off. I tried other specialists but the wait time was the same.

The dermatologist checked my body and got me back the following day to remove two moles – right leg, right arm. Five days before Christmas I was told both were melanomas.

After Christmas, a surgeon removed more tissue – a procedure they call a wide excision – from the two sites, the standard practice to contain the disease. Two years passed without a hiccup.

Then I found a lump on my right leg. An ingrown hair, said a GP, despite knowing my history. Nothing to worry about, he said, it will go away. Weeks later, when the lump was still there, I sought a second check from another GP and was sent to the Alfred Hospital melanoma unit for a review. A tumour.

Over the next five years the tumours kept coming. I had five operations and two month-long sessions of radiotherapy.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. In January it will be five years since my last operation and radiotherapy – a landmark date that many who are diagnosed with melanoma don’t reach.

Be vigilant – no matter what skin type you are. I do not have many moles. I have olive skin. There is no history of melanoma in my family. Yet …

And cover up. I have to hold myself back when I see sun-worshippers soaking up the rays. Believe me, it’s not worth it.

Have you had a brush with melanoma?



    To make a comment, please register or login
    The Phonse
    22nd Nov 2017
    My skin specialist is becoming a bit slack so I have to be vigilant with him as well.
    22nd Nov 2017
    Discard him/her and get another that isn't slack.
    Janelle Ward
    23rd Nov 2017
    Absolutely. Slack is not good enough!!
    22nd Nov 2017
    Our neighbour has just had brain surgery due to a melanoma on his foot which resulted in stage 4 cancer. He is being treated with tablets now. Unfortunately, he has lost some of his vision.
    He ignored a large lump under his arm and has been lax with GP visits and checks like blood tests and skin tests.
    This drives home the importance of regular doctor visits for annual checks that definitely saves lives and prevents what has happened to our poor neighbour.
    22nd Nov 2017
    One helluva a price to pay for poor vigilance, wouldn't you agree?
    22nd Nov 2017
    Knows-a-lot true this guy may have been able to reduce the damage done by the melanoma by getting it early, but maybe not. If you think you can control this situation by doctors visits you have been misinformed, they're doctors not magicians. It's a good message for grandma to get across but it's typical to engage in a little victim blaming if it's a male.
    Young Simmo
    22nd Nov 2017
    A lot of people get quite fanatical about this sun spot thing. I am bucking 78 and grew up in Wyndham in the 1940s, and years later got roasted every week-end at Scarbourough. These days I only worry about a sun spot if it is soar or irritating me. It is 15 years since I had my last one cut out and I reckon something else will probably get me in the end. So i'll just sit back and wait for my Heart Attack, or plane crash.
    22nd Nov 2017
    Yeh good onya Young Simmo, your way beats being shipwrecked on an uninhabited island even if all you have for company is a coupla nubile nymphs eh ?
    Young Simmo
    22nd Nov 2017
    MD, at 78 life is a lottery and, coupla nubile nymphs is better than going looking for trouble that probably isn't there. My father died on his 43rd birthday of a heart attack. I had a Triple Bypass st 62, smoked for 43 years non stop, and my recent Echo ECG said my ticker is in grate shape so, I am going to keep flirting, life is a BALL at 35 years past DADDY.
    Janelle Ward
    23rd Nov 2017
    May the luck continue to be with you Young Simmo!
    22nd Nov 2017
    I'm very vigilant with skin checks and have it done once a year. I've had a few Basal Cell Carcinoma's removed and my Mum had a Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Mum went through such a lot with the SCC, which can be really nasty as well, which makes me even more careful with checks. Luckily I have a good Doctor who would never ignore my concerns. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the same with all of them.
    22nd Nov 2017
    Yes, I have had that one too on my face against the side corner of my nose which is apparently a bad spot. I am sure there is no good spot though!
    22nd Nov 2017
    Glad you went to another doctor. :)
    22nd Nov 2017
    I had a melanoma cut out a couple of weeks ago. If it spreads to the lymphatic system then I will have to make a decision about whether I will have treatment or not. My father died of cancer and while the doctors meant well the end result was he died a slow death one operation after another a long time after life wasn't worth living. Janelle you seem to have had a good result and I think that's wonderful, but I don't think I will go that route myself.
    Janelle Ward
    23rd Nov 2017
    All I'd say is 'stay vigilant'. I'm still climbing mountains despite losing a big batch of lymph nodes. Every day is a good one!
    23rd Nov 2017
    All the best Janelle. I hope you have nothing but good days.
    Retired Knowall
    24th Nov 2017
    Melanoma is no longer a death sentence. My wife was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma resulting from a small pimple size white mole, no bleeding or discoloration, just a little itchy. This was burnt off with a couple of other spots and after about 2 weeks the resulting scab started to weep. The doctor then took a biopsy and the result was the stage 4 diagnosis. 3 operations later to remove several lymph nodes and a growth on her lung another lump appeared on her neck.
    It was decided to put he a course of the Immunotherapy drug Keytruda. 6 months later the last PET scan has resulted in no detection of the cancer anywhere in her body. Health is now great and she is on a 6 monthly check schedule.
    Advances in medicine are brilliant, 5 years back she would have been told to get her affairs in order, now it all looks promising, so don't give up hope.
    22nd Nov 2017
    Several in my family, including me, have had trouble with sun spots, and I have had a BCC removed from my nose, and minor plastic surgery to cover the indentation left behind. We all have to be careful, and be aware of changes, anything unusual, etc.
    22nd Nov 2017
    My brother died from melanoma when he was only 23, so we are well aware of the dangers. I have so many BCCs that tgey are no longer treated by the usual methods of surgery, burning and freezing but have had radiotherapy to treat the hundreds on my back. I'm lucky though, as I've never had a melanoma. Good luck with treatment!

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