I’ve always been healthy and enjoyed spending time outdoors.
I grew up in the Blue Mountains and my parents were always conscious of protecting my fair skin. Of course, things changed as I got older and I was occasionally sun burnt, but it definitely wasn’t a regular occurrence.
My career in the Police Force was going well and I was in the prime of my life when I was diagnosed with melanoma, aged 25.
It was early 2010 when I noticed a raised mole on the top of my scalp. It was under my hair and not sore, so I wasn’t too concerned. Months later, in December, the mole started to become itchy and a little irritated so I went to the local skin cancer clinic.
It was September 2011 when my girlfriend noticed that the mole was looking very dark and she began to worry about it. She encouraged me to go and get an opinion from a dermatologist.
I attended the dermatologist surgery and he diagnosed it as a suspected melanoma on the spot. He said it absolutely had to come out. Within the week, I had seen a surgeon and had the mole removed.
Another week later, I received the biopsy results from the removed mole. They indicated that the mole was a Clark level IV melanoma (meaning it had invaded the reticular dermis of the skin) and two millimetres deep. It was determined that further invasive surgery had to be undertaken.
At that point, I was referred on to the Melanoma Institute of Australia for further treatment. When you hear that you have cancer, all thoughts about work and socialising totally drop off the radar. The severity of this ugly-looking mole, that I hadn’t been too concerned about, really hit home and shocked me.
I had a further surgery in October 2011, which resulted in more skin being removed from the top of my head and a six centimetre skin graft being applied. I also had a number of lymph nodes taken out at this time, which came back clear, indicating that the cancer most likely hadn’t spread.
For nearly two years, I continued to see my dermatologist, but it was in July 2013 that I found a lump in my neck. The lump was small, about the size of a pea and lay just under my skin. A biopsy and PET scan indicated that two of the lymph nodes in the right side of my neck contained malignant melanoma.
I had a radical neck dissection where the surgeons took out all the lymph nodes and surrounding muscle tissue on the right side of my neck and shoulder. It took about six months of rehab to get my neck moving from side to side again. And it was probably a full year before my movement was back to a normal range of motion. As they had removed so much of my muscle, I lost a lot of strength. I also permanently lost feeling to the right side of my face, neck and shoulder.
When you’re told that the cancer has spread, it makes you feel incredibly vulnerable. It made me feel that nothing was certain anymore. My first hurdle had been bad enough, but this one was even worse. What could happen next?
About a month after the neck dissection, I elected to go into a medical clinical trial for third stage melanoma patients, conducted at the Melanoma Institute. It’s a five year study, which I’m currently in the middle of. In some ways, I consider the clinical trial to be a bit of a safety blanket because if anything goes wrong, it’s likely to be picked up early. It’s the hope that the clinical trial has eliminated any remaining melanoma cells in my body.
I finished the trial medication a couple of months ago and am currently having CT scans and other checks every three months to check on my progress.
I have a two year-old son who was born a little less than a year after my initial surgery. By far the greatest change in mindset that I’ve had from this experience has been towards my son. There is so much more to think about than just myself. I am also hyper vigilant and conscious about protecting him from the sun. I definitely don’t want him, or anyone else, to go through what I have.
It’s critically important that everyone understands that the sun can do severe and lasting damage to your skin. It doesn’t take much exposure to cause a chain of events which can lead to a number of major surgeries and can severely impact your life.