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Me, Myself & Melanoma

Me, Myself & Melanoma

When it comes to the beauty industry, skin cancer is probably not something that immediately comes to mind. However, when I received my melanoma skin cancer diagnosis, it was a matter of life and death for me, or a matter of surviving with the consequence of looking like Frankenstein for the rest of my life. As someone who hadn’t realized how serious this type of condition can be before that, I want to share for the first time ever what I learned about melanoma.

This is not a story I have been very open about, in fact- the trauma that it left with me made me never want to speak about it again as I didn’t want to relive it again. However, working in the beauty industry I had noticed how often the topic was neglected, ignored and the lack of education behind it – both from industry professionals and clients. The same way I didn’t really want to talk about it, nobody wanted to hear of it either.

The statistics teach us that melanoma is more likely to effect adults between the ages of 45 – 54, I was 19 years old. At the time, I had just graduated high school, I was overseas living my best life – as I couldn’t decide what I had actually wanted to do with it. Committing to a four-year university degree or climbing corporate ladders wasn’t exactly what my 19-year-old self saw as life, rather a trap – and I was far too full of life for that, I wanted to explore, go places, see things, learn about everything, and then decide what I was passionate about. Turns out after my experience I became passionate about skin.

Before my personal experience with melanoma, I remember seeing ads on the television about “slip, slop, slap” but none of it educated you on the consequences and I thought “naively” if I may say, that if I followed the guidance on the television, it would never happen to me. But then it did, it happened and I discovered it by accident.

I was taken to the emergency room department in my local town overseas for a severe allergic reaction which I had never had before – but it was springtime over there so I figured it must be something in the air and after receiving an adrenaline shot, I was sent home. The following night I had the same allergy which was creating swelling in my respiratory system and again struggling to breathe I found myself in the ER, this time however they referred me to a dermatologist to test for allergies.

The dermatologist who was a man somewhere in his 70’s took one look at my face and before he even asked me about my allergy situation which is why I was there, he asked me “how long have you had these beauty spots on your face” – I replied that I couldn’t remember exactly when I got them. He then proceeded to ask me if I had noticed any change in their size or colour, and that, I had – they had gotten bigger, but I thought that was normal as I had seen plenty of doctors back home in Sydney and no one had ever said anything, the colour and shape didn’t change. The dermatologist had then asked me if he could take a biopsy and have it tested, I agreed but honestly thought he was overly cautious. The biopsy hurt. We tested for my allergy, and I went home and waited.

Just over a week later, I got a phone call.. the phone call to confirm that I had melanoma. Not stage I but stage II melanoma. This was also the first time that I had found out that melanoma could spread in as quickly as 6 weeks before it is completely life threatening. I felt as though a clock was ticking and I wasn’t going to make it. I felt hopeless. I also didn’t know anything about melanoma or the different types and stages of it.

Here's what we need to know about melanoma, before I continue:

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinomas (BCCs), squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs), and melanomas. BCCs are slow-growing and rarely spread to other parts of the body. They are often caused by sun exposure and tend to arise from moles or other growths that appear on fair-skinned people with a history of sunburns or tanning. SCCs can also arise from moles or other growths and cause scaly red patches which may ulcerate and bleed. They can sometimes spread to other organs, making them more serious than BCCs. Melanoma is less common than BCC or SCC but is much more aggressive and has a higher potential to spread throughout the body if not caught early enough. It usually develops from an existing mole or dark spot on the skin that changes colour, size, shape, or texture over time.

Melanoma is the most serious and aggressive form of skin cancer that appears as an abnormal mole. It has the highest risk of death. It develops when melanocytes, the cells that give skin its colour, begin to grow out of control. Melanoma is classified into four stages each with different signs and symptoms and requiring different treatments.

Stage 0 – This is known as the precancerous stage, where melanoma in situ occurs. During this stage, cancer cells are still located within their original site; they have not yet spread to nearby tissue or other parts of the body. In this phase, there may be changes in the size, shape and colour of a mole, as well as any new moles appearing. Treated with surgery or chemical peels.

Stage I – The cancer cells have now spread to nearby tissue but remain localized within one area. If detected at this stage, it is a very curable stage with a 5-year survival rate of 98%. Treated with surgery.

Stage II – The tumour has grown larger than 2 mm thick and may have spread further through the lymph node system. The regional lymph nodes may contain microscopic deposits of cancerous cells that can't be seen or felt during examination. Treated with surgery and if required radiation therapy or immunotherapy.

Stage III - At this point, there is evidence that the melanoma has spread beyond the local area into adjacent tissues or lymph nodes in addition to being thicker than 4 mm. It might also have ulcerated (eroded away part of its top layer). The 5-year survival rate for Stage III melanomas is 71%.

Stage IV - In this advanced stage, melanoma has spread to distant organs such as lungs, liver and brain, often making it difficult for doctors to completely remove it via surgery alone without causing irreparable damage to healthy organs or tissue nearby. Treatments might include targeted therapies such as BRAF inhibitors that target specific proteins found in some melanomas; immunotherapies that help boost one’s own immune system’s ability to recognize and attack cancer cells; chemotherapy; radiation therapy.

So, there I was with Stage II melanoma, thinking the good news is they can just cut it out – there just small beauty spots. To my absolute horror I soon found out that - that it wasn’t so simple. They would need to cut the surrounding tissue as well (wide excision) and then burn it with a specific type of laser to ensure that there was no cancer left. The longest incisions would be 9cm long and I had 3 of them to remove – 2 on the right side of my face and 1 on the left. I was advised that if I wanted to attempt to keep my face intact that I should see a plastic surgeon – which is exactly what I did. But I didn’t have any time to lose as I didn’t know how much time I had.

To add to my already severe anxiety which started when the reality had sunk in - which wasn’t until I had to make the phone call to my mum and dad in Sydney and tell them “hey I need to have surgery – I have stage II melanoma” it wasn’t exactly easy. For them or for me. The surgeon had booked in my surgery for a few days after the initial consultation in which he proceeded to advise me that there were great risks and these included temporary or permanent damage to my nerves, muscles, blood vessels, in rare cases complete loss of sensation or movement and on top of it all the chance that the skin grafts would not take to my body. I was petrified.

Growing up in Australia, the country where the sun has “no mercy” and we have some of the world’s strictest systems for product approvals I was absolutely shocked to find that dating back to 2003 there is evidence – you can see for yourself on the TGA website that several Australian sunscreen products have been recalled due to potential health risks.

As reported by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), numerous sunscreens containing oxybenzone, a widely used chemical in many cosmetics and skincare products, were found to contain higher levels of the active ingredient than indicated on their label. TGA has warned consumers not to use any sunscreens containing oxybenzone until further notice as they could potentially cause skin irritation or damage to the endocrine system if used in excess. It is also important to note that oxybenzone can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin and accumulate in body tissues over time. This could potentially lead to long-term health risks such as hormonal disruption, reproductive toxicity, and cancer.

The TGA has recently recalled several sunscreen brands including Banana Boat Kids Max Protect & Play SPF 50+, Cancer Council Kids Maximum Protection Lotion SPF50+ and WOTNOT Natural Baby Sunscreen SPF30+.

The Recall has been put in place after a number of consumers reported skin irritation, rashes and chemical burns after using the products. The recalled items include various brands of sunscreen, after sun lotions and spray on sunscreens that were distributed across Australia over the past two years before been investigated. Funnily enough 2022 was when the highest number of SPF brands were recalled as the complaints grew louder and louder.

The affected products contained potentially harmful chemicals such as oxybenzone, octocrylene or butylparaben. Oxybenzone is an artificial chemical found in many sunscreens that can be absorbed through the skin and accumulate in fatty tissues, potentially leading to long-term health risks. Octocrylene is another synthetic chemical commonly used in cosmetics that can cause allergies and possibly even cancer if it is repeatedly exposed to sunlight. Finally, butylparaben is a preservative that can disrupt hormone function when absorbed through the skin. What helps a product absorb into the skin? – let me tell you HEAT!

So potentially we may even get a chemical burn and believe it’s a sun burn? From the product we believe, and trust is protecting us from the harsh rays of the Australian sun. We put these trusted sunscreens on our children and on our babies to protect them.. are we protecting them? What is really going on and why are there bans in Australia for the use of non TGA approved sunscreen over disputes of “labelling” gone wrong - illegal to sell in Australia. We have been limited to exposure only to the TGA approved sunscreens but TGA approval is EXPENSIVE and can take years to get approvals so most countries don’t bother with the TGA – they simply don’t sell in the Australian market. Almost every brand of TGA approved sunscreens has been recalled at some point in time over the past decade. You can do your own research and thinking.

I was absolutely infuriated. After the trauma that I had suffered infuriated was probably an understatement. Post surgery I was prescribed pain killers and sent home to rest. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for weeks – the stitches holding everything in place were black to top of it and I had nightmares about Frankenstein every night. I couldn’t open my mouth properly without feeling like my entire face would rip open, or brush my teeth without crying. I also couldn’t chew any food or leave my home. The healing process was painful and long, unforgettable you may call it – not in a positive way.

But out of it something good came too, a new version of me. I was lucky – lucky that some divine intervention happened and that I had these severe allergies that sent me to a dermatologist, I truly believe that something saved me, I never had the allergies again. I survived, I was lucky that the skin grafts worked, lucky that I had no permanent damage and lucky that I educated myself.

I don’t advocate for toxic products, and I hope that by reading this you will do your own research too and make educated decisions about the products you use on your skin, whether it be your face or your body – its still the same organ, an organ that absorbs the world around it like a sponge!

My journey is my own, and whist it can effect anyone, it took this happening to me to realise the seriousness of skin cancer and how common it is - maybe infomercials have improved, there's an abundance of information available online, but it's my duty to share my experience and help raise awareness about one of Australia's Deadliest Cancers.

Education, products and regular check ups are the first preventative measures, take the step today to looking after your skin, don't regret it.


Recommended research:

Difference between the effects of UVA & UVB radiation

Korean SPF PA rating system

Australian sunscreen recalls

Cancer causing ingredients used in everyday skin products

Skin cancer and how to prevent it