Leigh’s story

I’ll never forget that feeling when I learned I had melanoma.

The sun had risen on a beautiful day. I’d gone for an early walk and was back home, freshly showered and, in the bathroom, towelling off, before I hit the road to Sydney, a 3 hour drive away. My husband leant over, looking at my back, and said “I think that’s worth checking out…”. Seems there was a small mole on my right shoulder that he thought had noticeably grown in size.

I was off to the big smoke a few days later to fly to Uluru in Central Australia for a tourism conference so I took the opportunity to swing by my Sydney doc for a check-up. I’d had annual skin checks for a few years and was about due for the next one, anyway, so wasn’t fearful of any nasties. And I have brown hair and brown eyes and, well, I wasn’t a candidate for skin cancer, was I. Oh, I’d had a couple of BCCs along the way but they’d just get burnt off and I’d continue on my merry way.

Life has been very good to me. I’d grown up spending my teen years on the beach where my parents had built a beach house when I was 12. Oh how I loved that time. I’d hang out with the life savers for as many daylight hours as I could muster, I’d sunbake to be brown like them, I’d slide the straps around (or off) so I didn’t get ‘strap marks’. When studying for my final year school exams, I’d sit on the veranda in the hot afternoon sun so I could go back to school looking tanned. Sure, I’d get burnt, peel even, sometimes ‘sheets’ of skin, often ‘flake’, but that was almost a status symbol, a step on the path to what I saw as fabulous.

And when I wasn’t on the beach, I was on the tennis court. I was going to win Wimbledon, or so I’d dream! Court-side, I’d hitch up my already teeny tennis skirt and stretch out my baby-oiled legs to get browner. One didn’t use sunscreen in those days – first up, there was really only Skol and it wasn’t ‘cool’ to smell like Skol, way better to smell like the much-used coconut oil. Secondly, sunscreen ran into your eyes when you got sweaty and made you lose your grip on the racquet, so sunscreen wasn’t used. And my mole was on that part of the shoulder you can’t reach anyway.

I now know I was creating a recipe for disaster. Mum would warn me that I’d go ‘leather-like” in later life but later life was forever away and what did she know, anyway! How wrong I was.

I’m seated casually with Doctor Sue and she is studying my ‘spot’. “I want you back here tomorrow. We need a biopsy on that.”

“I can’t. I’m off to Ayers Rock tomorrow for three days.”

“Well, I’m booking you into the dermatologist upstairs for the day you get back.”

I’m back, this time meeting the dermatologist, Dr Michael, who looks about 15. He takes a neat little biopsy sample, checks me all-over, thoroughly (!), and says he’ll call with the results. No further thought on my part, I’m bullet proof, super-human, even.

Until that call.

“I’m sorry. It is melanoma. I want you back tomorrow for a wider incision and further tests.”

What? Me? Not possible.

Yes, definitely possible. Probable, even, given my beach-babe history, he tells me.

He does a delicate job but the result can’t be denied and it’s official, I’m one of the x cases of melanoma diagnosed each year in Australia. Fortunately for me, my observant husband had noticed the change early – probably because he’d had his own melanoma journey some 15 years earlier and had, fortunately, come through, a little beaten up, but alive. I still bore the emotional scars of his fight.

The next round of results come back with good news, “we got it early”, “got it all”, ” clear margins”, it all raced through my grateful head. “And I’ll need to see you every three months for a while for a thorough skin check.”

Three months later, four actually, I’m back. Dr Michael is sitting on the floor with his magnifying glass studying the inside of my left knee with intensity. “I’m not really worried about this but I’ll just do a biopsy to be sure.” It’s an innocuous tiny dark brown spot. I’ve never really noticed it. This one is nothing to worry about.

The call comes.

“This is another melanoma…”. “I need you back tomorrow to do the wide incision. You’ll need a skin flap because of the position, you’ll be a bit more laid up this time…”

His words are blurring.

No. It can’t be.

I brave up, pretend to be fine.

But inside I’m not.

It’s out. Yuk. Big, angry scar. Much covered and bandaged, so it’s invisible. I’ll be fine.

Until those results come in, it plays with my mind. I’m scared. I’m fragile. I’m looking down a barrel.

And then THAT call. Once again, I’m lucky in life. Margins are clear. We’ve again caught it early. I am SO blessed. That big angry scar with all its stitches looks like a ‘C’ for cancer, but I prefer to see it as a smiley face. No further treatment is required. Just regular three-monthly dermatologist check-ups with Dr Michael.

I start researching online. I want to know everything about melanoma. I’m hungry for information. I want to know if my kids are at a higher risk – yes, they are – and I want to know what research is being done about this insidious disease, Australia’s national cancer.

I find my way to the website of the Australian Melanoma Research Foundation. I call. Offer my help. Don’t care what it is, but I want to help. They accept. I’m part of the team.

Let’s all help. We’ve got to stop stories like this – or the stories far worse than this…and there are many.

Have a good look at our website and see what we’re up to.

Donate if you can. Research is everything.

Your own journey might be closer to home than you think.

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