I was 25-years-old when I was diagnosed with melanoma. I’d always had a lot of strange moles despite being relatively sun-safe and only suffering a few sunburns as a child. But sometimes that’s all it takes. The 11th mole I had removed was the rascal. Black-blue, raised and on top of my left foot, it was only about the size of a pencil tip but it made me feel sick to look at it.
I got the call when I was home alone. As soon as I saw an unknown number on my phone, my stomach dropped and my heart rattled wildly and filled my ears. Somehow I knew.
Skin Cancer Happens To People Like You
Growing up in Newcastle, I had a typical level of skin exposure to the Australian sun. My mum is dark and my dad is white. I’m pale in winter but boy can I tan, and my skin is punctuated with over 200 moles — almost all irregular in terms of shape, size and colour, which is what I was told to look out for. This puts me in the ‘risky’ skin cancer category, along with people who tend to burn rather than tan, those with a light eye colour, blonde or red hair, freckles, or with a family history of the disease.
That said, anyone is susceptible to skin cancer, and the group most at risk are those who spend time in the sun — or, as they’re sometimes known, ‘everyone’.
I grew up hearing the skin cancer warnings. Even heeding them, mainly, save one or two blistering sunburns. With my excess of unusual moles, my parents insisted I kickstart the pretty boring task of almost annual visits to the skin cancer clinic as an 11-year-old, which is when I had my first mole removed.
Eleven mole removals and 14 years later, feeling like an old pro, I did have a lingering worry about the small, raised, blue-black mole on the top of my left foot, which had been there forever but had become more pronounced over the past year. The black spot was the size of a pencil tip and seemed to sit on top of the otherwise flat brown mole.
So when I got the call three days after a routine mole removal, my everyday optimistic mantra of “I’m okay, even if things aren’t” struggled to adhere to its new format. “Things are okay, even if I’m not”.
I cried a bit. I called my close friends. I decided not to tell my mum, so as to not worry her. I told my mum. My house was empty so I put myself to bed at 3pm. That didn’t work. I stared at my foot. I stared everywhere except my foot. My friends arrived. I cried a bunch more. We went to the pub and I made everyone do trivia and we drank and laughed. I took sleeping pills. I felt lots of things I couldn’t control or talk myself out of. It was a week until my next appointment, when they would tell me the full diagnosis and the next steps.
Those days, my feelings wove between numb, terrible and weird. I was dealing with it like any capable Gen-Y-er would. After exhausting all of the online images I could find of weird skin cancers, I dug deep into some bizarre Google Answers melanoma archive from 2006, which was full of just the worst guys. I texted my friends “Pretty good…apart from the cancer!” as a funny joke, when they asked me how I was feeling. At one point I found myself down the street from my workplace, sitting on a curb and scrolling through the #melanoma hashtag on Instagram. Hey, check out my life, here are my choices.
While people were overusing 2013’s famed word of the year, I was integrating and processing words like pathology, sentinel lymph node biopsy, and margin clearing. It was like a Venn diagram where one side was ‘urgency’ and the other side was ‘long periods of waiting’ and I was just wedged in the middle, sliding between panic attacks and sedatives. Having avoided it up until that point, a “quarter life crisis” of sorts was forced upon me. One minute everything mattered. The next minute, nothing did.
My focal thought was, “I can’t wait to not be thinking about this.”
Typically, there are four stages of skin cancer, classified by its depth and spread. Stage one is generally less than a millimetre thick, requiring a follow-up operation to clear the margins. For stage two, where the tumour is generally between one and four millimetres thick, there’s the surgery and potentially a biopsy, to check if the cancer has reached your nearest lymph node, which are cancer couriers who distribute the disease around your body. Stage three is if the melanoma has in fact reached the lymph node, regardless of thickness; here, several melanomas may be present and they should all be removed. If that’s not possible, options include injections of immunotherapy or radiation therapy, or injecting the affected area with a heated solution of chemotherapy. Stage four melanomas are very hard to cure. They have already spread throughout the body, often far from where the cancer started, and metastases in internal organs are common, especially in the lung, bone, liver or brain. Making things even more difficult is that melanoma can recur at the original site, or in other parts of your body. Skin cancer isn’t just about removal and moving on.
I was lucky before and I remained lucky. The melanoma was only 0.73 of a millimetre deep. I was at stage one.
My tumour required one urgent follow-up surgery to remove the margins (taking one centimetre around and below the affected area, which would have been 100% cool were it not for the fact that FEET ARE MADE OF BONES). The surgery took place at the Peter Mac Cancer Clinic in Melbourne, and I had a week in bed with my foot up afterwards, and about a month on crutches with limited movement.
I bounced back, and the whole experience has since been filed away under ‘2013’: my absurdly eventful and overall excellent year. I mean, I “beat” cancer, you know? I have a cool scar forever. I’ve gone back to the clinic twice with no recurrence, no problems, and no new moles to remove. Everything is back to normal, except I’m at a much higher risk now, and so is my gene pool. It happened, and I still have to think about it. Sometimes.
The thing I hear the most when I tell people about my melanoma is, “Oh, I have a weird mole I should really have checked out. But I never have.” Sometimes they have me look at it, as though having had skin cancer now qualifies me to recognise that, y’know, general melanoma vibe.
My answer is always the same. “It is easy to protect yourself, and it is easy to get checked.” Live joyfully and don’t be scared of the sun, but be safe and sensible and aware. It’s as easy as using a beach umbrella, hat, sunglasses and shirt, or putting on some sunscreen. Two in one pro tip: check your skin while you’re applying your sunscreen.
Before this, I assumed melanoma was for tanning bed tragics and baby boomers that baked themselves because they didn’t know better. Even the word sounded bad in my mouth. I assumed it wasn’t for me. But melanoma accounts for almost one in ten cancer diagnoses. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2,087 people died from Skin Cancer in 2011. Melanoma is the third most common cancer in both Australian women and men, and is the most common cancer in Australians aged 15-44 years. It’s for us, and we can be a part of the generation that stops it.
Trotting out statistics seems like a bit of an obvious thing to do, but the evidence is there. 95 to 99% of skin cancer is caused by exposure to the sun. Sun exposure causes 95% of melanomas: the deadliest type. Skin cancer is just really shitty, especially as a young person when there’s so many better things to think about, but it’s preventable if you avoid sun damage in the first place, and treatable when caught early. The importance of being aware of your skin can’t be overstated, nor can speaking to a doctor if you notice anything different or unusual with an existing mole, or a new one forming.
Our generation has more access to information than any other generation before us. It’s pretty foolish to not use it. My melanoma was treatable, but more so it was preventable. The stomach drop, the tidal wave of fear, the tears, the stress to my parents, the operation, the pain, the scar, the overarching unpleasantness of an uncertain future — it all could have been avoided through the simple defence of dodging dangerous sun exposure.
We know better. So let’s be smart enough to do better.
Check out Pretty Shady and become part of the generation that stops skin cancer one summer at a time.
If you have a mole you are concerned about, visit your doctor to have it checked. If you or someone close to you has cancer and you need support you can call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.
Taryn Stenvei is a Melbourne music manager and former music editor of Beat Magazine. She believes owning a bed, a bike, a selection of novelty towels and a BBQ makes her a legitimate adult and asset to society. She is working on her five year plan. Right now it’s just ‘get a dog’.