Facts are facts, Australia—we have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world. The third most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women, it kills more young people in our country than any other single cancer. Worryingly, though survival has improved, rates of diagnosis are rising.
As members of a generation who grew up hearing ‘80s sun safety icon Sid the Seagull preach a message that captured the changing zeitgeist of the time—Slip, Slop, Slap—we’re committed to ending this deadly disease. Our goal is to encourage you to take the steps necessary to help prevent the 95% of melanomas caused by the sun. We’re talking: Daily application and reapplication of broad-spectrum sunscreen, wearing hats, sunglasses and cover-ups, finding shade during peak sun intensity hours, having regular specialist skin checks, and knowing how to stay alert to changes in your body.
It’s estimated that one person dies every five hours from melanoma in Australia, and that’s not okay. The moment to #CallTimeOnMelanoma has arrived, and we’re blowing the end of game whistle.
When it comes to melanoma prevention, getting yourself a regular skin check is no joke. To be blunt, this simple-but-important procedure might just be the thing that saves your life—a few of the women we've profiled below can attest to that. We've all heard the advice to have our skin checked on a regular basis in order to keep track of any changes in moles and spots, but how many of us really prioritise it? And how many of us are really going to see a dermatologist or specialist every single year?
It's an unfortunate fact of life that it can sometimes take a scare of sorts to convince us that committing to our health is worth the time and effort. (Nothing like a threat to one's own mortality to make one take stock.) In order to circumvent that, we enlisted the help of five women who have been through the anxiety-inducing process that is having a suspicious mole removed. We asked them to run us through their individual experiences in the hope that together they'll serve as a reality check for those who need one.
We also asked them to share images of their resulting scars with the intention of conveying how serious mole removal procedures can be.
As we know, overexposure to the sun is the greatest risk factor when it comes to skin cancer and melanoma, so let this collection of stories and their accompanying photos serve as encouragement for you to get your skin checked thoroughly and regularly. Remember: You're worth it.
I’ve had freckles and moles for as long as I can remember, so I’m not hyper aware of them. The two I had removed only came to my attention because they became really itchy. They hadn’t changed (from what I can remember) visually, but how they felt on my skin definitely changed. I think a lot of people wait for visual changes before they get a routine check, but this wasn’t the case for me.
When I noted that the moles became itchy, I went to a skin cancer specific doctor who has always done routine skin cancer checks for myself and my family. I have always tried to see him every six months or so. I showed him the ones I was concerned about and he instantly said, “these need to come out today”. After he had checked over all other freckles and moles, the very next moment we were in the little surgery room and I was having a local anesthetic applied.
It’s a fairly quick process for the actual removal, but the waiting game to ascertain if the matter they take is pre-cancerous or cancerous can be up to a week before you get results back. This can obviously be a little nerve-wracking. The discomfort from the removal is also not the most pleasant experience, nor is the healing afterwards.
To be honest, because of where they are positioned, I don’t think about my scars often and aesthetically I’m not opposed to scars. I actually quite like the character they add to someone’s story. In saying that, when I do see these two, knowing why I have them, it’s a pretty quick reminder about taking good care of yourself, your skin and really just ensuring you go and get that skin check regularly.
I’ve always been fairly cautious in the sun because family members have had to have various things cut out. I’ve never been one to sit in the sun and bake. I’m all about SPF 50+ and covering up. However, in saying that, having these removed definitely made the whole concept of skin cancer and sun damage way more real, so to speak.
I regularly get my moles checked every three to six months, however, after a stint travelling, I noticed a mole on my arm had changed slightly.
When I returned home, I went and had a full body check and pointed out the mole in question, just in case. Under a microscope, it apparently looked normal, in terms of cellular alignment. But the skin specialist said if I thought it had changed, there was no harm in taking a biopsy. A couple of weeks later I got results saying that a percentage of the mole had turned into insitu-melanoma, so I needed to have it extracted as soon as possible. I was booked in with a plastic surgeon for the removal.
When I arrived for my appointment the surgeon asked if I wanted the procedure done in the hospital, or in the chair. I didn’t think it was going to be a big surgery, so I passed on hospital and opted to have it done there.
The extraction (there were two moles—one on my back and one on my arm) was a lot more serious than I thought. I had almost 20 injections of anaesthetic during the process, and a lot of skin was removed. I bled quite a bit, and almost fainted more than once. The nurse actually had to feed me chocolate.
I ended up having 14 or so stitches on my arm and about eight on my back. The mole on my arm was literally two millimetres in width, so 14 stitches go to show how much surrounding skin was removed.
I was in the chair for about an hour and a bit, which is pretty efficient given what was done. The plastic surgeon was great and I would have been lost without the nurse, both physically and emotionally.
I have mixed feelings about my scars. There was a good period of time whereby every time I looked at the scar on my arm I felt physically ill from fear and anxiety, whereas on the flip side, grateful that I picked it up. I remember taking the bandage off every day to bath it and nearly passing out (I sometimes cried) every day for nearly two weeks.
I don’t go outside or to the beach now without 30+ on (I never used to wear SPF). I also won't go out in the sun for more than an hour. The thought of being sunburnt now makes me feel physically sick.
I am a massive advocate for skin checks, no matter what your background or propensity to tan. Prevention is always better than cure, so it’s never too late to start protecting your skin or being more mindful of time in the sun, both incidental and not.
I went to my GP to have my regular yearly check-up, which always includes a mole check as I have a lot of them, and he saw it and said it looked a little unusual. it turned out to be a melanoma. This was 2003, so I went to the melanoma unit at the Mater Hospital in Newcastle and they explained what was going to happen. It can be quite an emotional thing, so that was to check I was properly informed and mentally okay. I then went to Maitland Hospital to have it removed while under general anesthetic.
The mole was picked up by my doctor because it was on the top of my back, so not somewhere I could see easily. I grew up by the beach and did so much sun baking in the late ‘70s as a teenager, with baby oil. It makes my daughters cringe when I talk about it. As a result I have a lot of moles all over my body. I think having a good regular doctor that knows you is hugely important in monitoring your skin. I’ve not had any moles that have needed removal since then, but I still have regular check-ups.
The melanoma they removed wasn’t deep, but it did leave quite a significant scar. The shape of it meant my skin was pulled in different directions. I’m used to scars on my body as I’ve had two open heart surgeries in my life, the first when I was only seven, but I remember thinking that this was a particularly ugly scar.
Because of the position, I don’t often see the scar. But I did get a surprise with the photos we took for this article—I think I’d forgotten what it looked like. Surgery is not fun. And people, especially of my generation, just don’t think things like this will happen to them.
All those moles that make my back very unattractive are a result of being unprotected in the sun for so many years. It wrecks your skin. I have lots of friends who’ve had skin cancers removed, many on their face, and that’s a pretty huge thing. As the education about sun safety came out over the decades, my attitude to the sun changed. When my daughters were little in the ‘90s they were always covered in sunscreen and rash shirts. I think I still should have been doing more for myself though. Living on the coast of NSW, you hear all the time about people you know having skin cancers or melanoma, and I know I’m lucky to only have a scar.
My mole grew in size and changed colour in the space of about six weeks, so that’s all that needed to happen for it to become more than just a mole, but something serious. I became aware of the changes (size, colour and irritability) myself. I noticed it was painful to wear sandals, so that’s what led me to go to the GP and have another check.
Having the mole removed was the first time I had ever gone under anesthetic, as I had never previously had an operation. It was a big deal because it wasn’t just about a mole once the ‘c’ word starting being tossed about. In the beginning, it wasn’t so frightening to have it removed as it was a procedural thing but there was this feeling in my gut that I sensed everything was about to change. Everything that I had known, or thought I knew, was about to be turned upside and that feeling is one I’ll never forget.
Having just the mole removed at first meant I kept my toe, as at that point in time there were no talks of amputation. But as time went on and results came back (that it was melanoma), there was a choice to be made. To take the toe or to keep it, because all it takes is one cancerous cell to travel elsewhere for things to progress. I chose to amputate because at the time, given the resources and options on hand, it was the only thing to do to give me some sort of control over my own body, which I was desperate for.
After the operation, at first, I was scared. I couldn’t bear to look at it, even when the doctors had to come in and check on the sutures, I’d turn my head away. I then came to hate it, as I saw it as a constant reminder of the pain I’ve been through. I’d like to say four years on I’ve come to accept it, but I’m not quite there yet. I know I did the right thing at the time, and hopefully one day soon I’ll be able to be at peace with it, but right now it’s a tug of war between what I see and what I feel.
I was always vigilant when it came to protecting the mole (and my skin) from the sun. If anything, the experience made me even more vigilant about SPF. I have come to see it as my duty and mission to promote sun safety and awareness to those around me because it really can happen to anyone.
Over time, the large moles on my right shoulder, neck and one on my face started to change. Whilst not currently dangerous, my doctor suggested it best to get them removed sooner rather than later. The ones on my shoulder in particular left quite the scar, but I wouldn't change that for anything.
It was actually my mum who brought the changes in size and colour to my attention. Being situated on my back and in an awkward spot on my neck, they weren't easily visible to me. She asked me to get them checked immediately. She's had scares with melanoma in the past so is always very diligent with us, making sure we routinely check out moles and spots!
I procrastinated the removal of the moles for much longer than I should have. Not because I was scared of the pain, but because I kept thinking it would be unsightly to have stitches and plasters all over me. Ridiculous, in hindsight. I actually ended up going to an event the same day I had them removed, covered in plasters. One on my face even. It was this moment that my passion for spreading the word on sun safety really began. I realised what a prevalent and important issue it was to be discussed.
I have no issues with my scars. They are actually great conversation starters, about impressing upon people the importance of being diligent with sun safety and overall skin health. My skin tends to scar quite badly, so I'd prefer to make sure I am doing everything in my power to avoid more minor skin surgeries. I am not ashamed, however, I am lucky I prevented a potentially more dramatic scar in the future.
I have realised that many of us are procrastinating getting skin checks, or procedures done as a result of vanity. We can't afford to let aesthetics get in the way of our health, and as a result of my experience, I am so passionate about ensuring Australians are being diligent and sensible about their sun safety. Skin cancer is a preventable disease in many cases, and we can all do better at looking after the largest organ in our bodies.