My months with melanoma

melanoma

There’s a saying in life that ‘you’re only ever a handshake away’. Pretty much that means that if you don’t know somebody, somebody you do know does –
if you follow that. Since we’ve been writing Doctor Wellgood it’s been  amazing how many times people have come up to us and said ‘my mate had that problem’. Just last weekend, having just published ‘Beyond the Pale’, our new guide to safety in the sun, one of the team heard the story of Ben (not his real name as he doesn’t want everybody to know) who, at the age of 28, has just undergone two operations as a result of malignant melanoma.


Ben is the son of an ex-teacher of one of the team at DW and they’d met a couple of times. Ben is one of those six foot plus good-looking (handsome even) blonde friendly types. He played rugby, did a lot of cycling, kept very fit – exactly the sort any girl would be proud to take home to her mother or a bloke would like to have a beer with.

BEING THE WRONG SIDE OF ONE IN TEN

As soon as Ben’s doctor saw the mole he said he thought it was a melanoma caused by Ben over-exposing his fair skin to the sun. Ben went for tests and was advised he did indeed have a malignant melanoma and that it needed to be removed. Ben was amazed just how quickly they had him into hospital for the ‘minor op’.

As with all these cases further tests were carried out on the offending growth but Ben was told that in 90% of cases like this no further action was required. He, Shelley and the whole family had some very nervous days waiting for the results. As Ben’s Mum points out ‘waiting to find out if you have a malignant cancer is one of the scariest and most depressing things of your life.’

NOBODY IS IMMUNE TO CHANGE

The lymph nodes basically run the body’s immune system, producing the white cells (good guys) that fight off infections, bacteria, and all the other bad guys trying to get into your system. There are lymph nodes all over your body – 500 or 600 of them – assigned to look after their ‘patch’. Take them away and that bit of your body is much more prone to attack.

The result is that Ben can no longer risk anything that might damage his arm. So no more rugby. No more cycling in case he falls of his bike and injures that arm. And that’s not just until he’s recovered – that’s for the rest of his life. He’ll always have to look after himself.

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MELANOMA: THE STATS

Ben was one of 35 people every day to be diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Currently Melanoma kills over 2,000 every year in the UK and the numbers are increasing at a frightening rate . The most common cause of melanoma is getting sunburnt before the age of 20 – so we can’t necessarily blame the Australian sun for Ben’s problems, but that probably made it worse.

Australia and New Zealand have the highest death rates from melanoma in the world. Globally around 50,000 people die from melanoma each year. The vast majority of these deaths are needless.

BIGGING IT UP DOWN UNDER

Ben did A levels, went to Uni and got his degree in the recession. He found finding a job tricky so decided to go travelling and have the gap year he’d always promised himself. He ended up in Australia and thought it was a brilliant place. He spent a lot of time on the beach, got a great tan, and met up with Shelley, like him a Brit on tour. They came back to the UK together and started seeing each other.

A couple of months after they got back Shelley told Ben that she thought a mole on his side was growing and changing shape. Ben thought nothing of it, but Shelley got worried and Ben agreed to go to the Doctor. That was in March this year – what Ben didn’t know was that before midsummer’s day he’d have had two operations and his life would change for ever.

skin doctor

MAJOR OPS = MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

It wasn’t good news. Ben was the one person in 10 where the cancer had spread, in this case to the lymphatic nodes in his armpit. This called for a major operation as the offending nodes had to be surgically removed. Now if the thought of somebody digging around with a scalpel in your armpit sounds painful apparently you’re not wrong – by all accounts excruciating is a better word for it.

To literally add insult to injury, Ben was in the middle of job interviews and during this process he discovered he had been short-listed for a final interview for a job he wanted – which he had to pass up on as he had no idea how soon he’d recover.

A POSITIVE PROGNOSIS

The good news is that Ben is now ‘clear’. That means the Doctors can’t see any other cancerous cells. But you suspect that Ben will now be spending his life looking over his shoulder, or under his armpit, just in case. So well done Shelley. It just goes to show it pays for your partner, or a pal, or your Mum or Dad, to have a look at anything unexpected or suspicious and then make you go to the Doctor ‘just in case’. One mantra we’re happy to repeat time and again at DW is that early diagnosis saves lives.

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