I had skin cancer at 25

 

An estimated two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. After New Zealand, Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma – the most dangerous type of skin cancer – in the world. Writer TARYN STENVEI shares her experience of finding out she had a melanoma at the age of 25, and what it taught her about caring for her health.

I was 25-years-old when I was diagnosed with a melanoma. It was probably the scariest thing to ever happen to me. A mole I’d always had on the top of my left foot had a small blue-black growth on top of it, and as soon as I noticed it, I knew something wasn’t right. I booked in to have it checked, and had a routine removal soon after.

I’ve always had a lot of moles. There are too many to count, but I’d estimate that I have over 200 on my body, all of different shapes and sizes. No one else in my family has as many as me, and there’s no history of melanoma – or even skin cancer – in my family.

I had what I’d call a regular level of exposure to the sun as a kid. I grew up in the sunny beachside town of Newcastle in New South Wales. I had one or two bad sunburns as a kid, but nothing out of the ordinary. I never used tanning beds (which elevate the risk of melanoma) and I wasn’t big on sitting out in the sun as a teenager. That said, the sun is very hard to avoid in Australia, and even a small amount of exposure to UV radiation can result in irreparable damage to your skin and cells.

By the time I was 25, I’d already had 11 moles removed. They had all mainly been taken out as a precaution because of my pale skin type and my excess of moles with atypical shapes. None of them has been cancerous, but my skin is always something I’ve been conscious of.

Nothing could have prepared me for hearing that I had cancer. When I got the call from the doctor a few days after the mole was removed, I was devastated and afraid. I felt like I was too young to be dealing with that sort of thing. The following week was awful, waiting for the full diagnosis and next course of action. I was a nervous wreck, and I couldn’t clear my head of the hurricane of anxiety that overtook it.

I was lucky. There are four stages of melanoma, depending on the deepness of the growth, and the higher the stage, the more likely it is that the cancer has reached your lymph nodes and spread through your body. Mine was less than a millimetre deep, which meant it was classed as a ‘stage one’ melanoma. I’d caught it early. Thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread to the surrounding tissue.

My treatment was an urgent follow up operation. I had about 13 stitches in my foot, and was bedridden for a week, then on crutches for three weeks. While it was a pretty hard time, I know it could have been so much worse if I wasn’t diligent about getting checked.

I’m so careful about sun exposure now. I wear sunscreen, hats and long sleeves, and I nag other people to do the same – especially young people who think it could never happen to them. I’ve learnt that a tan is never worth the risk. I get very regular checks. Every six months, I take myself to the skin cancer clinic for a checkup. It’s never my favourite time of year. I get pretty nervous in the week leading up to the check because it brings back so many things, but I’m proud of myself for prioritising my health. I’ll never take it for granted again.

 

Want to get on top of your health? Sign up for myOwn health insurance and choose the type of cover that suits you. All of our combined policies (except accident-only) cover melanoma surveillance photography and mole mapping. Plus, members get access to the AIA Vitality program, which rewards you for taking steps to improve your health, including online skin self-examinations and annual health checks with your preferred health care provider.