health

'I'm 26, and I was diagnosed with cancer the week the world went into lockdown.'

What I had planned for March 2020: A big birthday celebration and a work trip to London.

What actually happened in March 2020: The world went into COVID lockdown, I lost half my salary and was diagnosed with cancer.

…I know that’s a heavy way to open a story, but to be frank, is there any way to drop a double C-bomb in a casual way?

Watch: Talk to your family about their health history. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

It all started with a routine skin check. And I say routine in a rather cavalier way because I had never actually had a skin cancer check before. Being originally from the north of England and therefore starved of sunlight for a solid proportion of my childhood, skin checks weren’t really on my radar. 

However, after a few friends having a few too many skin-scares, I decided to head to my GP to suss out if any of my many moles were looking dodgy. 

Not all GPs are happy doing mole checks and most will encourage you to go straight to a dermatologist, but the one I saw gave my skin a gander and flagged two problematic moles – one on my boob and one near my bikini line. He packed me off with a referral to a dermatologist up the road and I made an appointment straight away.

Heading into the dermatologists, it all felt very routine. Everyone was smiling and the reception desk was laden with mints. Always a good sign in my book. 

The dermatologist had me strip down to my underwear and came at my moles with a light-up magnifying glass. She started on one side of my face, worked her way down and then headed up the other side of my body. She was nearly done and optimistically stated, ‘It’s all looking pretty good to me” before halting at my left boob.  

Ah.  

“This one will need to be biopsied.”

As someone who had received most of their medical education from Embarrassing Bodies, I had no idea what that meant. My brain automatically went to the rather dramatic conclusion that my whole boob was going to be chopped off right there in the chair. 

Obviously, that was not the case and no boob-chopping occurred. Instead, she proceeded to move on up my body and stopped smack bang on my left cheek. 

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“How long have you had this mole?” she asked me. 

“Umm, my whole life,” I replied. 

“This one will also need a biopsy.”

The mole in question. Little f**ker. Image: Supplied.

Both my boob and face were then injected with local anaesthetic and the dermatologist took what looked like a biro pen and screwed it down over the moles. She then extracted a long plug of skin and stitched up the wound. Three stitches in the tit and one in the face. 

To be honest, even at this point I wasn’t really freaking out. I was more amused at my face being stuffed full of anaesthetic and sending daft videos of myself to my mates. Mature, I know. 

After the biopsy. Image: Supplied.

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A week later I was called to be told that my boob was a-okay and that I’d just need to come in the following week to get my stitches out. At this point I thought I was invincible. Particularly because my boob mole, with my untrained eye, looked way worse than my face one. 

Boy, was I wrong.  

I came back into the dermatologists with COVID now in full swing. The mints were gone from the reception and everyone was wearing masks. 

After getting my stitches removed, my dermatologist took me into her consultation room and her demeanour completely changed.

“We have got the results back for the mole on your face. I’m afraid you have melanoma.”

My heart instantly fell through my arse and suddenly breathing felt too complicated to manage.  

“Melanoma? As in skin cancer?” 

“Yes, that’s correct. Your results have concluded that there was an in-situ melanoma found within your biopsy.”

At this point I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer and just crumbled in the chair.  

“I really wish I could give you a hug right now, but we’re not allowed to do that anymore,” my dermatologist stated, followed by an apt, “Damn Coronavirus.”

She went on to explain that the cancer was still ‘skin deep’, meaning it was an operable fix, but that could change at any moment, so I needed to organise surgery ASAP.

With the announcement that elective surgeries were no longer happening across Australia I had no idea whether that would delay my surgery. 

But I needed to do something else first: Call my family.

Both my mum and dad were supportive and so strong throughout the call, but with NSW in a state of lockdown, I couldn’t go and see them. 

I know that as a 26-year-old woman, I should be just fine to deal with this on my own, but the second you are told you have cancer, all you want to do is hug your mum.

Instead I was sitting in my car on a random road in Rosebery, crying my eyes out. 

Watch: Levi tells his mum he loves her, taken just before he passed away. Post continues below.



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The next hurdle was trying to navigate the medical landscape. As this would be the first operation I’ve ever had in Australia, I had no idea what I was doing. Frantically calling hospitals, surgeons and my health insurance providers, only to be told that I didn’t have any sort of cover for cancer treatments and that now I had flagged with them that I had melanoma, I wouldn’t be covered for any cancer treatments for 12 months, even if I upgraded my cover. 

Marvellous. This meant I had to go private with my surgery and it was set to cost over $4,000 all up.  

Just when I felt like things couldn’t get any worse, I had a call from my boss. COVID had hit our industry hard and due to the impact, I was going to be stood down to half hours and half pay. 

In one week, I went from a cancer-free full-time employee, to feeling like my career was in jeopardy and a big fat melanoma growing on my face.  

Despite the colossal sh*tstorm that I found myself in, I knew I had to crack on with things. I needed to be thankful that I had even half a job and that yes, I had cancer, but I could get it chopped out – something that I now know is a serious blessing.

I booked in my surgery and spent the rest of my time resisting the urge to not snip the f**ker out myself. 

Post-surgery and just before my stitches were whipped out. Image: Supplied. 

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The surgery itself was fine. It involved 12 injections of local anaesthetic into my face and then an hour of what felt like being prodded with wooden spoons. Though I couldn’t feel the cutting, scraping and snipping, I could hear every slice as it was all happening inches away from my ear.  

I left the surgeon’s practice as a swollen, sore chipmunk with six layers of stitches in my cheek.

Weirdly, after the surgery I felt shakier than ever. Even though the likelihood was that all of the cancer would have been removed, I think I had been bottling up my bravery throughout this whole time. I found myself touching my face and bursting into tears, not because anything was in pain, but because I had a tangible ex-cancerous slice now. It was gone, but the fact it had been there was driving me nuts. 

Watch the moment I removed my surgery dressings and saw my scar for the first time. 






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My shitty little mole before I found out it had cancerous cells in it. Just as the world went into lockdown, I found out that I had melanoma. After failing to have a skin check for the entirety of my life, I decided (following some active encouragement from @calltimeonmelanoma ) to go and have a mole check. The doctor was suspicious of two - one on my boob and one on my cheek - and so I had biopsy’s on both. While my boob came back a-okay (good lass), the mole on my cheek had a melanoma in situ. Being told that you have any form of cancer is fucking hideous, but finding out and knowing that you can’t see your friends and family for a supportive hug was particularly crummy. Luckily, I was able to catch it early and the melanoma was only skin deep and so hadn’t spread further - though who knows how quickly that could have changed. Between being diagnosed and locking in my surgery date was potentially the most helpless, lost and low I have ever felt. However, my beautiful friends and family have done their utmost to make sure I could feel their love and support from afar. Between bottles of wine, pizza deliveries and heartfelt phone calls I can proudly say I never felt alone throughout this, so thank you 💕 On Monday I had my surgery and a big old hole was chopped out of my face, leaving a whopping scar behind. I may look like a very straight-laced pirate for a fair while, but that’s a million times better than having cancer. Please, please, please book in a skin check - even if you don’t have any moles you’re worried about. I hadn’t even noticed the one that caused all the trouble, and neither had my GP, so go and see a dermatologist if you can and get checked out. #fuckcancer

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Being in recovery from my surgery with no physical contact from anyone outside of my household was tough. Brilliant friends and family members sent me flowers, chocolate, wine and cheese and checked in with me via text and FaceTime, but I really craved human interaction. 

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Everything had gone from normal to far from it in such a short space of time that I was craving some bog-standard reality. Instead I was isolated and had what I now refer to as cancer-whiplash, when all the sensations whack you well after the fact.

A few weeks later as the stitches were getting pulled out of my cheek, COVID restrictions eased, allowing me to get my fill of real-life face time. Getting back to my pre-COVID-pre-cancer routine was the absolute best medicine for me in that moment – that and hearing the confirmation that every single nugget of cancer had been removed during the operation.

The many stages of Scarry McScarface. Image: Supplied.

I now sleep with a slab of silicone strapped to my face every night and massage bio oil into that six centimetres of scar three times a day. It’s coming up an absolute treat! 

But the two most crucial steps in my scar-management is making sure I lather myself with sunscreen every damn day to both protect my scar and prevent further skin cancer flare-ups AND telling everyone I know to get their skin checked. 

This now includes you.  

Please book a skin check with your GP or a dermatologist as soon as you can. I felt like I had absolutely nothing to worry about and the reality is I could have unknowingly had cancer growing on my face for years and years. I was so glad to have caught it skin-deep and for it to have been operable, but my story could have been so different if I had waited. 

Let my rather dashing pirate-esque scar be a reminder to book in your skin check. Please.


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