Woman speaks out after skin check at age 15 saved her life

SUN SMART: Regan O’Grady and Joan Green are skin cancer survivors.
SUN SMART: Regan O’Grady and Joan Green are skin cancer survivors. Mara Pattison-Sowden

AVOIDING the sun is difficult when we're encouraged to spend time outdoors for health and happiness, but more than 90% of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure.

While the "Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide" SunSmart message is a fairly obvious one these days and children in many schools have "no hat, no play" policies, we can still take precautions to scan our skin.

Regan O'Grady was a once sun-loving teenager who thought nothing of heading out to the beach for a tan.

It was common to return to school sunburnt and peeling.

But the way she feels about the outdoors has changed after she had a cancer scare at the age of 17.

"Every 17-year-old is invincible," she said.

Now 22, and at the end of the five-year "remission" period, she is using this year's International Women's Day theme of "Inspiring Change" to spread the message about skin health.

"I worry about the people who sit out in the sun and bake," she said.

Regan went for a skin check at 15, but it was at the end of high school when people were telling her she should get a mole on her face checked, and she wanted to put their comments to rest.

The doctor was able to compare the test to that two years earlier, and she was quickly pulled back in to be told she had a stage 2 malignant melanoma.

It was 2cm wide and 9cm long.

"It was pretty much half my face," she said.

"It hadn't really clicked that I had cancer yet.

"But I believe the test I did at 15 changed my life."

She was told a matter of weeks could have made the difference between life and death.

"Melanoma is almost 100% curable if found early enough - I was one of the lucky ones."

Melanoma is the third most common life-threatening cancer in men and women.

Gladstone Women's Health Centre manager Sandy Prizeman said when putting on this year's International Women's Day event they wanted to talk about a chronic disease that anybody could be susceptible to.

"You don't have to burn to get a melanoma, but everyone should be doing skin checks," she said.

"They're not going to change unless it touches them in some way."

At this year's event, held on Wednesday at the Gladstone Golf Club, 120 people turned up to listen to Regan O'Grady's story about surviving skin cancer.

But a quick test around the room showed many of the crowd had either had skin cancers cut out or were at high risk of developing skin cancer due to earlier damage.

Ms Prizeman said although only doctors could diagnose skin cancer, everyone had the ability to scan their skin and know what they were looking for in a suspicious spot or mole.

How to detect skin cancer

Look for:

  • A spot that just doesn't look like any other spot on your body - a so-called "ugly duckling"
  • A spot that is changing - in size, shape, colour or texture
  • A spot that is tender or recurrently bleeds, gets crusty or heals then breaks down again
  • A spot that is elevated, firm and growing - these can be the more aggressive type of melanoma

Make it a habit to thoroughly examine your skin every three months.

Knowledge is power

THE sun's damage has already been done for Joan Green.

In a generation before anybody knew about "slip, slop, slap", the 78-year-old, originally from the United Kingdom, would spend holidays crisping on the beaches of Spain.

When she moved to Australia in 1972, the tradition of tanning on the beach continued.

Joan has had three of the most dangerous cancers removed from her wrist, shoulder and cheek.

"If you're not brought up with sunscreen you don't worry," she said.

"The damage is done but the doctor keeps an eye on me."

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