I had a tough day yesterday. I spent over 5 hours in St George’s Hospital in Tooting, having two appointments with a large gap in the middle. It’s quite interesting wandering around a hospital, actually, but totally depressing at the same time. No-one smiles, except for the Cancer Research chap who kept saying “Sixty-eight days til Christmas! Get your Christmas cards now before it’s too late”.
My first appointment was a catch-up with my perinatal doctor. It was all good – We bumped up the dose of my antidepressants. It was actually the second appointment of the day that I was most nervous about – A meeting with the dermatology team to discuss the results of a biopsy that was taken from my skin about a month ago.
Now, just to fill you in on the history… I first noticed an itchy mole on my right forearm about seven years ago, which had also grown and changed colour. I remember my little sister commenting on it, asking what it was. At that point, I had already made the appointment to see the GP about it. I was very worried that it would turn out to be something nasty. So, the GP referred me to the skin specialists at St George’s, who managed to get me an appointment the next day (So rare!). At the appointment, they said that it also had a halo, which is not a good thing, so they told me that they would like to remove it today and send it off for testing. So, I had the operation to remove the mole and waited for the results. There was a confusion about how the results would be given, but I eventually got them from one of the doctors, who told me that it was a malignant melanoma. Luckily, we had caught it early. They wanted more skin to be taken from around the site of the melanoma, and they wanted to check the other moles on my body. I had a few follow-up appointments after that, as well as another three operations to remove skin and other moles, including a large one just above my belly button which I have had since I was about 3 years old. I felt sad to lose that one, even though, when I was a teenager, I asked my GP about removing it because I hated it! It’s funny how attached you become to these things, isn’t it. God, I remember the bruising after having that one removed. My whole tummy was blue and yellow. It was a big mole, so they had to remove a large amount of skin in an eye-shape around it, and go quite deep through the layers skin. I still have a long scar, which is almost as long as my c-section one. They make my belly look a bit like an inverted divide symbol!
In 2011 (after a year), I got the all-clear. They were happy that none of my other moles or markings had proved to be malignant, so I was sent on my way with no more follow-up appointments to be booked in. Ever since then, I have wondered if it would ever come back or, if it may have spread somehow without the doctors noticing. I regularly check my moles and skin for any changes, even craning into strange positions to check my back in the mirror!
I was undoubtedly concerned when a new blemish appreared on my neck last year. At first I thought it was a pimple, so I had picked it and thought that it would just go away, as anyone would, right? But, instead, it changed shape and colour, and became scaly and itchy. It was there for about 9 months before I went to the GP, always hoping that it would just go away one day, and I wouldn’t have to worry that, again, it might be something nasty. The GP thought it looked OK, but referred me to the skin specialists just to have it checked out. I waited a while for my appointment this time, and finally went to see them last month. They checked out the blemish on my neck as well as doing a full check of all of the moles on my body. They concluded that they wanted to do a biopsy on the one on my neck, and to take photos of five other moles around my body – Ones that were large, or new, or containing two different colours. The surgeon who removed the blemish told me that she was doing a 4mm ring incision, which meant that some of the blemish may still remain on the skin, as it was slightly bigger than that.
Yesterday, I had the results of the biopsy. A basal cell carcinoma. A superficial one, thank goodness, but skin cancer nonetheless… again, or should that be ‘still’.
The doctor was lovely, and reassured me that this was not as bad as the previous melanoma. She was surprised to see it on a 37-year old woman who grew up in the UK, as they’re usually more commonly found on older people who have had more exposure to the sun throughout their lives. She was concerned that some of the carcinoma may have remained, as the surgeon had informed me at the time of the operation, and said there were two options. There is a cream which will boost the immune system to fight off those last few cancerous cells from my skin, or they can freeze the rest of the carcinoma off. We decided to try the cream but, as it’s quite nasty and can cause some rather horrible side effects, the doctor told me to stop if it’s too uncomfortable. I haven’t started it yet, as I have just found out that it shouldn’t be used while breastfeeding and, as I’m almost ready to stop breastfeeding my son, I will start with the cream very soon. I have a follow-up appointment in the new year, and hope that the nastiness will all be gone by then.
Now, what I want to say to my 20-year old self is this… STAY AWAY FROM THOSE BLOODY SUNBEDS.
I was addicted to them at one stage, when I was about 25/26 years old. I had used them before, and liked the results. I liked the whole process, actually. The countdown you’re given to when the bulbs start up, and you only have a couple of minutes to get naked, smother the cream on and put on the goggles. The fact that you should go later in the day because the bulbs will have warmed up more by that time. When I walk past tanning salons now, I can still smell those tanning creams I once used. I loved the smell of them. They smelled like holidays. I would go a few times a week, sometimes for twelve minutes per session every other day, which is a long time to be exposed to those harmful UV rays. But, I liked having a tan. I liked having brown skin. It made me feel confident and attractive. I could wear more colours which wouldn’t wash my skin out. Now, when I see photos of myself from around that time, I feel sad that I ever felt that way about my skin. Little did I know the damage it was causing me.
I stopped using the sunbeds, I think, because I couldn’t afford it any more. Plus, I was starting to feel very faint and claustrophobic while I was in the booth. I wonder if things would have been worse if I had continued for longer. But, what can be worse than having to come to the realisation that you will have to deal with skin cancer for the rest of your life because of a stupid, vain and superficial decision you made in your early twenties? How many more scars? How many more operations will I have to go through? What do I tell my kids when they’re old enough to start noticing these things? On a positive note, though, the nasties only appeared 7 years apart. That’s a long time. I may never have another one. Wouldn’t it be lovely to know that for sure.
I want to conclude by sending a message to all of you who can do something about it before it’s too late. Please look after your skin. It’s so important. Yes, I forced my skin to endure too much unnatural UV light, but it’s just as easy to expose your skin to too much sun when you go on holiday and don’t wear sunscreen. And, please check your moles, or get your GP to look at them. It only takes a moment. If there’s anything you’re worried about, get it checked. Please. Malignant melanomas can spread easily if not caught, and basal cell carcinomas can cause deformities if left too long. Don’t risk it.
I hope you’re listening to this, 20-year old me! I really wish you’d have heard me.
|This was me two months after they removed more skin from around the site of the melanoma in 2011, as well as another mole on the other arm, which they thought looked suspicious (but turned out to be benign).|
|The letter sent to my doctor, and CCed to me, about the original biopsy |
results. Not something you want to see written about you, really, is it.