This is Laura. When she was 28, she was given the news that she had melanoma skin cancer
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and with another impending heatwave in the UK, we wanted to profile this often misunderstood and underestimated disease.
By Faith Richardson
We’re always reminded to check our breasts for lumps and to attend appointments for cervical screenings every few years, but we’re rarely reminded to keep an eye out for one of the most common threats to skin health – melanoma skin cancer.
We spoke to Kerry Rafferty, co-founder of Melanoma-Me Foundation to find out more about how to recognise the signs of melanoma, the symptoms, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you suspect you may have melanoma skin cancer.
Every year, there are approximately 16,200 new melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK – that’s 44 every single day. As the 5th most common type of cancer in the UK, it’s important that we’re aware of just how to check for it and what to do if we suspect we may have it.
*Warning, this article contains some graphic imagery*
What is melanoma?
Melanoma skin cancer is found in skin cells called melanocytes, in the deep epidermis layer of your skin. Melanocytes are responsible for creating the melanin pigment in your skin which gives you your natural colour. People who originate, or have ancestors who originate, from hotter climates with more exposure to the sun will have naturally darker skin as their melanocytes are far more active than those who hail from colder climates, causing them to have darker pigmentation in their skin.
For people with paler or fairer skin, when activated by the sun your melanocytes are responsible for giving you a tan. This pigment is then passed onto your other skin cells and helps to protect them from the sun.
Whilst this pigment is designed to help protect your body from the sun’s UV radiation, overexposure to the sun will cause sunburn. Unfortunately, each time you get sunburnt, it causes damage to the genetic material in your skin cells. Over time this can cause enough damage to encourage your cells to grow uncontrollably, leading to early stage melanoma.
Types of melanoma
There are several different types of skin cancer (you can read about them in-depth on the NHS website, here), however, the most common type in the UK is superficial spreading melanoma. 60-70% of those with melanoma have this type. It has a tendency to grow outwards which does not cause an initial problem, however, if left untreated they can begin to grow downwards into the skin’s layers. If you have moles or dark spots on your face or body, keep an eye on them and immediately consult with your GP if you suspect they are getting larger, or if their edges have an irregular shape. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
Nodular melanoma is another more common type of melanoma – it appears as a darkened lump on the surface of the skin and is usually indicative that the melanoma has grown downwards into the skin’s lower layers. Most commonly found on the head, neck and back, these require immediate attention, so again, don’t hesitate to make a doctor’s appointment.
How to identify melanoma skin cancer
Skin cancer can be hard to detect, so Kerry recommends using a simple model to determine whether it’s time to visit your GP.
She said: “Working with so many people with melanoma the most obvious sign for me is a changing lesion on the skin. Melanoma can be sneaky and no two look the same, so the ‘ABCDE model’ is a good one to use.”
A = Asymmetry
B = Blurred or notched borders
C= More than one colour
D= 6mm or above in diameter
E= Evolution – cancer will grow and change
There are other things to look out for too, for example, if you have a lesion that is growing rapidly and is firm to touch and sensation (itching, painful, bleeding etc.) then it is definitely worth getting this checked out too.
If you catch your early stage melanoma and treat it straight away, you have around a 98% chance of surviving five years, as opposed to only 10% if it’s caught late.”
Melanoma skin cancer, like most cancers, doesn’t discriminate. You can catch it at any stage in life, so it’s best to try to prevent it rather than cure it. We spoke to Laura Cooper, a 29-year-old from the North East, and asked her to share her story of being diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer at just 28.
My name is Laura Cooper, I’m 29. When I was 28, I was given the news I had melanoma.
I had heard of melanoma but honestly never really knew what it was and I certainly didn’t know how serious it was. I didn’t know it was a type of skin cancer and I didn’t think it was something I would ever have to worry about.
Growing up I’ve always had quite a few moles, mainly on the front and back of my body with the odd one on my arms and legs. I was so used to them I forgot I even had them most of the time, I definitely didn’t think that I should be taking extra care of my skin.
In my late teens, I started using sunbeds and at the time I didn’t think I overused them, I probably used them for a couple of years or less about twice a week. I never protected my skin before using sunbeds.
In 2014 I moved to Dubai for work and fully took advantage of my days off in the sun. I have to admit I wasn’t always sun safe and often used oil as low as SPF 15 to make sure I got that tan I loved. Sometimes I didn’t use anything at all and as a result of that I often ended up burnt.
In 2015, after meeting my now fiancé, I moved to Australia. The sun there was on another level, I think I got burnt the first day and I only went for a walk. Our apartment was directly opposite the beach, so again I’d spend most of my free time there without really protecting my skin.
I burnt my skin a lot in Australia and even once had very bad sunstroke; I was ill for a week and wearing clothes was almost unbearable. The sun was very strong.
About three years ago I went to the doctors for a mole I noticed had changed. Luckily, it wasn’t cancerous, but the doctor said if I’d left it longer, it would more than likely turn cancerous – so it was removed. I thought that’d be the end of that and didn’t think much more about it.
My partner Scott and I welcomed our first baby in March 2018, and while I was breastfeeding one of the midwives noticed a mole on my left breast and said I should get it checked…had this been at any other time I might have brushed it off but, because I had just given birth I wanted to be on the safe side. I had my daughter to think of now. I didn’t go until a little over a month later – being a new mum your priorities are elsewhere – but my mum encouraged me to get it checked.
The first thing the doctor asked me was how much time I had spent in the sun, if I used protection in the sun and if I had ever used sunbeds. That day I had five biopsies taken for moles the doctor thought were suspicious.
When I went for the results, the doctor read them for the first time with me in the room. She paused briefly before saying “I’m really sorry it’s melanoma, I’m so shocked because I actually didn’t think it would be.”
I didn’t know just how life-threatening melanoma could be. The doctor said it would have to be removed there and then to make sure it didn’t spread any further. It was caught at stage 1 so I was very lucky.
There was another mole that was suspicious and had to be cut out with the same depth as the one with melanoma. A further couple (that weren’t as progressed as the first two) were also removed. I now have five scars with the biggest about three inches long. The results confirmed all the melanoma had been removed but the doctor explained that I still needed to have a full skin check every six months.
In March this year, we moved back to England for the sake of our daughter – I could no longer enjoy the Australian lifestyle. The doctor advised me to avoid the sun as much as possible, which was difficult in Australia. I was always smothering myself and my daughter in sunscreen as well as covering up.
On returning home I spotted another mole I wasn’t happy with and the doctors removed it straight away given my history, leaving me with a sixth scar. At the hospital, it was made clear that I would need to check my own skin regularly for any changes going forward. I worry about missing something on the back of my body.
I know the melanoma could come back at any time, anywhere on my body. Although I’ve successfully had the melanoma removed it’s on my mind every day – thinking about the ‘what ifs’. I’m constantly checking my body and worrying whether my moles are normal, the fear never really leaves you.
I know I have been very lucky, my situation could have been much worse. I’m so grateful to the midwife for pointing out my mole as I probably wouldn’t have bothered checking it and might not have been so lucky.
Even now I have another couple of moles that I’m going to get checked out, with everything crossed that it’ll be ok. I’m sharing my story to help people (especially younger people) realise that tanning from UV rays just isn’t worth it. Whilst the tan might feel good, it’s far better to use fake tan. The ‘natural’ tan that everyone longs for is not worth dying for.”
How to stay protected
Whilst we’ve been in lockdown, we’ve been blessed with some uncharacteristically warm and sunny weather. We all want to take advantage of this rare chance to enjoy some sun, especially now holidays are a distant memory, but in order to make the most of our backyards without putting ourselves at risk, it’s definitely worth remembering that just because we aren’t somewhere tropical it doesn’t mean the sun can’t damage our skin.
We tend to adopt less strict sunbathing practices in the UK, forgoing sun cream and spending longer sat in the sun than we would on holiday. It’s still the same sun, so be as vigilant with the SPF as you would be abroad.
Here are some of Kerry’s top tips for staying safe in the sun, whether you’re in the UK or abroad:
Begin as early as possible – sunburn in childhood can lead to melanoma in later life, so it’s important to make sure our children are protected in the sun as much as possible.
Wear loose light clothing that protects the shoulders, a hat to protect the scalp and sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Seek shade and be mindful of UV levels
Find the best sun cream that has high UVA and UVB protection and reapply at least every two hours, or more often if you’re in and out of water or engaging in activities that cause sweating or rubbing off of sun cream.
Kiehl’s Ultra Light Daily UV Defense SPF50
Perfect for keeping your face protected from both UVA and UVB rays, add this onto the end of your skincare routine after moisturiser but before make-up. Lightweight and oil-free, wave goodbye to memories of pore-clogging greasy sun creams from the past.
Heliocare 360 Gel Oil-Free SPF 50
Recommended for anyone with sensitive or acne-prone skin, Heliocare’s sun cream is medigrade and dermatologically tested. It’s also broad-spectrum, making sure you’re well protected from harmful UVA and UVB rays, and infra-red light.
Soltan Protect & Tan SPF30 Sun Cream Spray
With the highest possible protection from UVA rays and hefty protection from UVB rays to boot, Soltan’s Protect & Tan not only guards your skin against harmful rays but also helps to maintain your natural tan in a totally safe way.
Lancaster Sun Sport Cooling Invisible Body Mist SPF30
With protection from the full spectrum of light, including UVA, UVB and infra-red, this is the sun cream that’ll take care of you wherever you are. Specially developed for use during sports, it can also be applied directly onto wet skin, so you don’t need to wait to dry off before applying it.
Vita Liberata Neroli and Argan Milk SPF 50
With broad-spectrum protection, this one is lightweight enough to be used on both the face and body, it also contains argan oil as a photo-ageing preventative and reforcyl to encourage a firmer and smoother looking appearance. Perfect as an everyday sun cream to help keep your skin safe and looking younger.
If you’d like support or information about melanoma skin cancer, Melanoma-Me Foundation is a wonderful organisation based in the North East, offering education, support and counselling to patients suffering from melanoma.
After Kerry’s diagnosis with melanoma, she co-founded Melanoma-Me Foundation, with her friend and colleague Elaine Taylor as a community interest group in 2017, and in May 2019 became a registered charity.
They work to offer training and education to a range of industries, including hairdressers, sexual health nurses, and beauty therapists, to teach them to detect early symptoms of skin cancer lesions in their clients. You can join their awareness sessions over Zoom during lockdown to learn more about melanoma skin cancer.