Three Canberra women on why they wish they took sun safety more seriously | HerCanberra

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Three Canberra women on why they wish they took sun safety more seriously

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Australians have long had a love affair with the summer sun – but we know how much havoc it can wreak on our skin.

And we’re not just talking about raw, red skin from sunburn. So, as the hazy, hot days of summer come to a close, we’ve decided to reflect on the importance of protecting yourself from the sun (no matter the time of year).

Here, three locals share their skin cancer stories in their own words – and why they wish they took sun safety more seriously.

Looking for more information? This is a great fact sheet from award-winning news podcast and newsletter, The Squiz on everything you need to know about melanoma (AKA Australia’s national cancer), including what it is, how you can prevent it, and the treatments that are available.

Emily Egan, Miss Galaxy Australia 2022

 

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I was the pale skin friend, covered in freckles who was usually sun safe. I was the friend who never tanned naturally and was always lathering in sunscreen. I was the friend that wore tan in a bottle and sat with a long shirt on whilst at the beach. I was the friend who always had a rash vest on. I was the friend who brought the extra bottles of sunscreen. I was the careful friend.

At only 18 years old, after a coast trip with school friends, I noticed the change of colour in a mole on my chin. I went to the GP who sent me to the skin clinic. Within the blink of an eye, I was told the news that felt like it was so far out of the realm of possibility for me.

Suddenly, I was the friend who had her first dangerous mole removed from her face.

Then, I was the friend who had two more removed from the back of her legs.

It didn’t feel like a fair outcome. I was young. I was careful. Truthfully, I am one of the “lucky ones” who caught it early. I still think about all the people who weren’t as lucky as me, I was lucky to have both time and options.

I remember thinking how young I suddenly felt, and how I wanted to scream from the rooftops to all other young people that this is not an “old persons” disease. If it could happen to me, it can happen to you.

After this, I became the Cancer Council’s ambassador for young people and made it my mission to spread the simple message about sun safety. I want a summer where no young Australian is diagnosed with skin cancer. I was suddenly the friend who was always sun safe.

 

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But it shouldn’t have taken this for me (and those around me) to realise the danger. The good news is you can take steps today to both prevent and monitor this awful disease. I encourage all young people (and everyone for that matter) to embed sun safety into everyday life.

My top tips are:

  • Add sunscreen to your skincare or makeup routine. There are so many options today from creams to sprays and everything in between. A little bit in the morning goes a long way!
  • At lunch, wear a hat and sunglasses and find a shady spot. Small changes to the routine make a huge difference.
  • And my biggest tip, get your skin checked. It needs to be as common as your yearly trip to the dentist.

Australia’s sun is both harsh and dangerous and we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Our younger generation now has the tools and knowledge to make better choices than our parents did, and I encourage all young people to take action, to become the friend who is sun safe.

Bernadette, local sun safety advocate

At the end of 2014, I was diagnosed with a very nasty and aggressive nodular melanoma on my left calf and since then my life has been an internal roller coaster of pain, joy, guilt, and disappointment.

I had never heard of the word ‘melanoma’ before that day – I knew about ‘skin cancers’ that old people get and are burnt off, something that’s an easy fix. Oh, how my education began!

I underwent two rounds of surgery to remove the melanoma on my calf to achieve clear margins, and in the second surgery I had the main lymph nodes in my groin removed for testing and I am left with a very mild case of lymphedema from that surgery. That was not a very good Christmas!

Since then, I have had melanomas removed from my left shoulder, two on my right ankle and squamous cell carcinomas removed from my nose, along with multiple biopsies throughout the years. Recently, I had two more biopsies (one on my head and the other on what is left of my left calf) I am waiting for results and of course more stitches and two more scars to add to my collection. I am sure there isn’t a part of my body that doesn’t have a scar on it.

I have had multiple CT/PET scans over the last 10 years; I swear I glow green in the dark. Blood tests, skin checks, and visits to the doctor are constantly filling up my calendar leaving no room for fun. I feel joy when I receive a report that says, “we found nothing this time, see you in a couple of months”. This is not the life I wish for anyone.

I look at my body and the ugly scars and I feel so guilty and disappointed in myself – why did I allow myself to be so influenced by magazines, TV commercials, and peer pressure? I know why, I grew up watching and listening to all the beautiful people, and being attractive and trendy was always on our minds. Looking at the popular kids at school and in the media and wanting to be just like them, I wanted to be cool, in style, and accepted.

In the ’70s and ‘80s sending kids outside to run around, ride bikes or swim at the pool all day, it was unimportant to put on sunscreen or hats – we were told ‘a bit of sun never hurt anyone’ or ‘a good glow is what you get at a good summer’ or ‘tanning is sexy and attractive. It’s so Aussie’. Unfortunately, those of us who grew up at this time are now paying a terrible price. To save you or give you a chance of a few more years of life from this awful cancer the surgeons may need to take finger(s), toe(s), and eye(s) – is sunbaking worth that? Is that cool?

Changing attitudes and creating a new ‘peer pressure’ is what we need to do to save our kids, families, and friends. Let’s make wearing a hat and sunglasses a display of elegance and quiet luxury, putting on SPF 30 or higher every day is a normal and part of your morning routine. Teach each other to love the skin you were born in and look after it (I guarantee the day you were born the first words and thoughts of everyone in the room were “Beautiful”).

Check your skin regularly, use your phone and photograph moles and freckles, and check again in six months if something does not look right, make an appointment with your GP, and get it checked. The earlier the better it is for you.

I love the Australian sun and I love being outside. I want to live longer to enjoy this wonderful world. I am doing what I can.

Emma Macdonald, Associate Editor HerCanberra

 

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I don’t have many regrets in life. But those careless, cavalier hours in the sun I spent as a child and teenager are starting to come back and haunt me.

My mum used to warn me always of the dangers of the sun. And she would slather me in the most noxious tasting (I don’t know why it always ended up in my mouth) sunscreen. But my relatives were far less sunsafe and I remember sustaining some pretty severe sunburns when I was a kid and enjoying frolicking holidays at the beach. One burn was so bad that my back came out in massive blisters, and I had to go to casualty.

My mum was horrified.

Cut to 40 years later and I am now visiting the hospital for the removal of skin cancers on my chest and face. Regrets? Yes, I have many.

My only consolation is that my skin cancers are being discovered early and removed before serious trouble arises.

About ten years ago I began getting full-body checks by my GP. I moved to a skin cancer specialist about six years ago and every six months she scans my entire body for signs of change. We have a watch list of things she monitors closely. She photographs every freckle and mole of interest and loads them to Molescope, an app I have on my phone where I can see for myself anything that needs a closer eye.

My doctor, Joanna Mya, is amazing. About four years ago, I went in for a check and unbuttoned my shirt. I had barely sat on the bed to get started when her attention zoned onto my collarbone. “Wait, what is this?” she said. “Um, a freckle?” I helpfully suggested.

“I am pretty sure that’s a BCC,” she said. That stands for Basal Cell Carcinoma. It is a very mild and manageable form of skin cancer. Two steps down from melanoma. But left alone, it can spread. And sure enough, after a biopsy was done, it was confirmed.

She removed it a few days later. No biggy and a tiny scar.

 

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Cut to last year and all the moles on her watch list were just hanging around and not changing, which is good, but I had a dry patch of skin on my forehead that I had noticed since my last visit.

Again, her trained eye picked it as another BCC. Unfortunately for me, it was in a tricky spot, straight onto my skull with little flesh underneath it and a deep-growing form.

I had to go to Sydney Specialist Dermatology and an amazing surgeon, Dr Chris Kearney, who practices Mohs surgery. This is a technique where they remove the cancerous tissue, leave the wound open, test the cells for adequate margins on the spot, and once the margins are clear they stitch you up again. The biggest advantage of this type of surgery is that the surgeon can take the smallest amount of tissue that is safe. If the margin is not clear, they simply take more. They can go back until they get it all, but without taking a millimetre more skin than they need to. Admittedly it is a little discombobulating waiting a couple of hours with an open wound while the pathology is done, but, hey, Valium. Mercifully, Dr Kearney got my deep BCC all out first go. And within a few months, you can barely see the scar.

The sad thing is, that now in my 50’s, my skin is revealing the damage that was done in childhood. There is absolutely nothing I can do to turn back the clock.

I hope that the elevation of 2024 Australians of the Year Georgina Long and Richard Scolyer continue to raise awareness of our “national cancer” while undertaking their pioneering research. And that our sunburnt country gets its SPF 50 on.

In the meantime, my kids get a stern lecture every swim in the pool, every walk in the summer, and every game of sports played. Hats at school are, thank heavens, mandatory. I have sunscreen and hats at the door and by the pool and everyone has a rashie.

More importantly, I am committed to my own skin monitoring. So is my husband, so is my teenage son. And so will my younger daughter. If you have yet to get your skin checked, book it now, as the first time is the scary one. Chances are you will be fine, so just get it done! Every time after that you know that should anything nasty arise, you have caught it early. Vigilance brings peace of mind. That, and a hat. Always.

 

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