I started work in 1972 on the waterfront at Darling Harbour, now known as Barangaroo. We didn’t have hats then and we didn’t have sunscreen either.
We often had seven-day weeks, with shifts of up to 14 hours, and I spent 70 per cent of that time outside with sun from the water reflecting on to me. I had no idea what kind of damage I was doing to my body. I got sunburnt from the ground up.
I was about 35 when I was diagnosed with my first skin cancer. Unfortunately, my experience with skin cancer didn’t end there. Since then, I’ve had eight hospital visits for surgery. One of the most serious incidents I had was when I had a major artery in my neck blocked by a skin cancer I wasn’t aware of, and a series of mini strokes as a result. With an average of 10 to 12 visits to the dermatologists at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital every year, I’m more aware than ever of the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation from the Australian sun.
I spent over three decades of my life working without sun protection and my Irish heritage didn’t help. My naturally fair skin meant I was incredibly susceptible to the skin damage and I’ve been paying for it ever since.
I’ve had numerous skin grafts and I was diagnosed with my first melanoma last year. I initially thought it was just a swelling, but when my GP referred me to an oncologist, I knew it was far more serious than that.
It’s easy to make yourself believe that a simple cream or having a little mole cut out can do the trick, but that’s not always the case. I’m still undergoing chemo and although my recent scans show improvements, my journey is tough and it isn’t over yet.
Catching my melanoma when I did allowed me a head start in tackling this disease, but if I detected it earlier I could have saved myself and my family a lot of pain and heartache. I’ve had my fair share of troubles because of my sun-soaked youth, but I’m determined to be safer and healthier now more than ever. It’s never too late to take care of yourself and make your health a priority.
The message of sun safety is one I’m passionate about passing on to my four young grandchildren. I joke around with them and say “You don’t want to end up like poppy, do you?” Even though our time together is filled with smiles and laughter, I know my message is getting through. I know they’re learning from the stories I share with them and I’m proud that they’re realising just how important it is to protect their skin.
I’ve made minor adjustments to my lifestyle to ensure I’m doing what is smartest and safest for me, like doing my gardening in the early morning to avoid the harshness of the midday sun. It’s all those little changes that I hope will add up to a better – and longer – future for me.
Keep an eye on your own skin. Don’t procrastinate and don’t underestimate the importance of a change in the shape of a mole or other skin changes. Seeing a doctor early enough can be a life-saver, but it’s up to you to take the first step.
Making healthy lifestyle changes and being aware of any changes to your skin could be all it takes to save your life.