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Take Action for National Skin Cancer Action Week

Michelle Douglas with her kids.

by MICHELLE DOUGLAS

I am 39 years old and I was 36 when I was diagnosed with melanoma on my back.  I’ll never forget the phone call and the doctor’s voice telling me ‘unfortunately you have malignant melanoma’.  At the time I had no further information so really didn’t understand how invasive it was and basically whether I’d live or die.   I had two little boys aged 4 months and 19 months so being faced with cancer and my boys growing up without their mum was devastating.

Melanoma claims approximately 1900 lives per year in Australia.  We have the highest rates of melanoma incidence in the world and rates are on the rise.  It is the most common cancer in 15-44 year olds.

I’ll never know exactly what caused my melanoma.  It may have been my childhood holiday sunburns, which every other kid had back in the 1970s.   Or it may have been my solarium use in my early 20s. Probably a combination of both given that overexposure to ultraviolet radiation is the major cause of skin cancer.

I’ve never liked the sun for as long as I could remember.  In fact I hate the heat and sun so much that I’ve avoided being out in it for the last 10-15 years.    I could never have been a sun baker so the idea of a few minutes in a solarium for a tan was very appealing for someone like me.  I used them irregularly in my early-mid 20s at a time when there was no readily available information on the dangers of solarium use.  I was shocked when I heard the most recent evidence that shows solarium use before the age of 35 boosts the risk of melanoma by 87%!

The NSW government has passed a law banning solariums from 2014 and many other states are considering following.  Solariums can omit UV levels that are up the 6 times higher than the midday sun and are now placed in the same category as asbestos and cigarettes as far as carcinogenics.

It seems so silly to me now and I wish I could turn back the clock and never have used them. Back then I did see being tanned as being more beautiful.  That’s the way it just was. – people thought tanned skin looked healthy.  But the truth is that there is nothing healthy about a tan.   Nowadays I’m quite happy being pale.  I’m always wearing a big hat and summer scarf and I’m extra cautious in the sun during the middle of the day when the UV rays are most intense.

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My message is simple – be safe in the sun.  The bottom line is that no tan is worth dying for.  You may end up with melanoma or another type of skin cancer and it’s just not worth it.  Besides the cancer risk, you’ll do irreversible damage to your skin as far as wrinkles and texture and look older than you are when you are in your 40s and 50s.

Slip, slop, slap.

I urge all women (and men) to get to know their skin and if anything changes or looks suspicious to get it looked at by a professional.  Obviously prevention is important, so protecting yourself from the sun is a must, but for people like me who did damage years ago, it’s also really important to keep a check on your moles for any changes because it could come out years down the track.  Early detection certainly saved my life and could save yours.

Get familiar with every inch of your skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun. Be alert for changes in shape, colour or size, or a new spot. If you notice any change in an existing mole or discover a new one that looks suspicious, see your GP immediately.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  Thankfully my melanoma was found early.  After the initial biopsy I went into hospital and had it surgically removed with no spreading to lymph nodes.   It’s often not as simple as ‘cut it out and everything will be okay’ like a lot of people think.   I have 3 monthly skin checks as well as checks for any lumps in my lymph nodes and will continue to for another couple of years.  I feel extremely grateful and fortunate that my cancer was found when it was.  It’s something that has changed my life forever and I hope that by sharing my story I can help others avoid a similar experience.

Michelle Douglas is a 39 years old Victorian mum of two boys aged 4 and 3. She has been a stay-at-home mum the last 3 years, after working in Business Banking for much of her career.  She was just 36 when she was diagnosed with melanoma.

November 18-35 is National Skin Cancer Awareness Week. Switch Off Solariums is a coalition of public health organisations including Cancer Council Victoria, the Australia Medical Association Victorian Division, Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc, and the Australasian College of Dermatologists Victorian Faculty who want to see a ban on solariums and their use in Victoria. You can sign the petition here

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