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  • Cherrie Ann


1981 I was 5, going on 6 years old when Cancer Council released their Slip! Slop! Slap! campaign that featured an animated seagull singing a little ditty encouraging Australian children to protect their skin from the sun's UV rays by slipping on a t-shirt, slopping on some sunscreen and slapping on a hat.

Applying sunscreen to my face was part of my daily morning routine and long exposure in the sun, such as going to the beach, meant being lathered in thick, neon coloured zinc. It was, after all, the 80's!

As the years went by, we were hammered with the message to keep our moles in check. As a precaution I had 4 moles removed from my back when I was about 18 by a male GP who gave himself permission to do a rough job, having made the comment "It's not like you'll ever be a model so I don't have to be careful about scarring." 😞

Despite all the warnings, I didn't know why skin cancer or melanomas were life-threatening. To be honest, I didn't want to know because I'd tried to convince myself that I was impervious to diseases like cancer, even though I suspected the mole on my leg was growing. I even took a photo to keep an eye on it.

(Image Warning: Some photos contain open wounds)

The First Time I Was Concerned: 22nd May 2012

It's rare that I venture to the doctors, shrugging most things off as a temporary inconvenience, so it was about a year before I mentioned the mole in passing to a local GP who didn't seem concerned at all.

Over the years, I'd notice subtle changes that would make me pause and wonder if it was changing or if it was my imagination. Silly me didn't refer back to the photo I had taken, even though that's why I had taken the photo.

I didn't do too much more about it until my younger sister Aimée commented on the size of the mole and strongly suggested that I get it checked.

Taking her words into consideration, I had my leg looked at by another local GP who again didn't show any immediate concern about the changes to the mole, he simply suggested a dermatologist have a look. I made the call to book an appointment but at the time my $350 (the price of a consultation fee, let alone any additional charges) was better spent in other places, so I let it slide.

Sometime later, I mentioned the mole during another doctor's visit. Again there was no display of concern or urgency, even though by now, it was a decisively irregular, odd shape and the pigment had become patchy. It was extremely dark in some places, almost like a blood blister under the surface and very pale in others.

He simply said he couldn't remove it because it was too big. The same thing happened during my fourth consult with a different GP.

I kept hoping that a doctor would suggest a next step that didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. {Oh the irony!}

Eventually, I couldn't ignore the issue. I knew the prognosis wasn’t going to be favourable once the mole had disappeared, replaced by an ulcer that wouldn't heal and bled at the slightest touch. It was an embarrassing mess that I kept covered with band-aids when I left the house or went to bed.

The fifth doctor was concerned but removing it was out of her realm of experience. Even still, she was going to let me walk out without any further treatment or any suggestions. It wasn’t until I insisted on an affordable referral, that something happened.

Within a few days, I was booked to see the team at Fiona Stanley Plastics Centre.

The moment attending doctors and surgeons saw my leg it was evident they were all extremely concerned. After such blasé treatment from all the GP's I found it a little too dramatic. I mean, all the talk in the world about what the ulcer was likely to be, wasn't going to change the fact that it needed to be cut out of my leg.

My concern was more about the possibility that the appointment date for the emergency biopsy would clash with our holidays or, that if I had the biopsy done before we left for Bali, that it would cause some 'inconvenience'.

However, the timing all worked out perfectly (as always) and a few days after returning from Bali I was scheduled in for the biopsy.

On the day, I was given the choice of a) doing a small biopsy or b) completely remove the ulcerated area including a large margin plus remove flesh from my groin to graft into the wound.

By now I just wanted the mess gone so I didn’t have to deal with the constant nagging in my head about getting it sorted so I opted for the complete surgical procedure where a team of plastic surgeons and nurses went to work.

I had no idea that I was about to undergo 2 months of continuous graft care which really tested my mental strength but it also gave me a new appreciation for my body, especially its miraculous healing abilities.

The first week was physically awkward because I couldn't get any areas wet including my groin. The pain was pretty mild except I often overdid it which created a deep ache towards the end of the night but I couldn’t figure out why there was a constant pinch in one small area of my leg.

Pain always feels easier to deal with when I know what's going on so I asked my partner Paul to describe the wound to me when he replaced the first lot of bandages. He was fascinated to discover that a piece of surgical wadding had been sewn into my leg to compress the donor skin into the site.

At first, I was horrified by the idea. I didn’t want to see anything more than a rough drawing of what it looked like but I knew that I was inevitably going to document the healing process, so I’d have to look sooner or later.

A few hours later I googled some images to get an idea. It looked barbaric but the photos explained that the pinching sensation was the stitches pulling.

It wasn’t until those stitches and wadding were removed that I realised how precarious the life of my graft was. I had no idea how to care for it but thankfully the lovely nurses from Silver Chain did.

However, even with their expertise, it took much longer than anticipated to know if the graft was going to live and the healing process took a lot longer than most, possibly because of my EDS.

For the first few weeks, the deep ache in my leg messed with my head because it felt like my body was trying to push the graft out but after a dose of antibiotics and topical colloidal silver everything seemed to settle.

To my sheer relief, one day my nurse Marie was finally able to point out a small area of new skin.

Two weeks into healing and my biopsy results were available but there wasn’t a free appointment for anyone to tell me what those results were until the 4-week mark. Instead of waiting a month to get my results, I asked an attending nurse for a printout and took the analysis home to review myself.

It never ceases to amaze me how much one can learn from the internet. Within an hour I knew the results were positive for malignant melanoma and how invasive it had been.

Later that same day, I took the print out to my local GP where he clarified my interpretation and shared that he expected the next step would be a PET scan to check my body for any other tumours and everything else should be smooth sailing because they got it all.

Ummm no, that wasn’t to be the case at all.

A month after the initial surgery, with everything finally starting to heal and life starting to get back to normal, the plastics teams told me they had a different plan.

When a tumour grows, it often releases seed-like clones around itself which is why surgeons remove the tumour plus a ‘just in case’ margin.

Based on the biopsy results, they believed they hadn’t exorcised a large enough margin for their liking. Their suggestion was to exorcise the area again and then some, starting the process all over again.

Plus, the surgeons told me that once a tumour has ulcerated, the body naturally sends in immune defences in an attempt to heal the ulcer. Part of that process often involves taking the cancer cells back through the lymphatic system, spreading the disease into the lymph nodes and potentially into other organs throughout the body.

They needed more information and the only way to do this was to perform a PET scan and a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB), a procedure in which the sentinel lymph node in the groin is found, removed and examined to determine whether cancer cells are present.

This news came as a shock to my system, especially after struggling with how involved the healing process had been and for the first time, I cried.

It was at this point I realised why skin cancers were deadly. I agreed to go ahead with the SLNB but that presented another issue.

The SLNB is performed under general anesthetic which involved putting tubes down my throat to assist with breathing whilst I was under.

Not only was I scared of being put under (and being conscious during surgery), I also had complications with an eye tooth, again most likely caused from EDS. It caused all sorts of painful issues every time I ate but I’d been tolerating the pain for years because I didn't want to spend any time without a front tooth and I couldn't bear the thought of having a plated denture as I'd struggled with a plate after I'd had my braces.

But the anesthetist knew that I would bite down on the tubes whilst under, causing the tooth to fall out which would risk becoming an obstruction of my airway. The anesthetist wouldn't work with that risk.

We looked for all sorts of solutions such as doing the surgery awake but in the end, there was no alternative except to have the tooth removed prior to surgery and somehow restore my smile after surgery.

A week later I sat in the car and sobbed my heart out. I looked like a hillbilly with no idea how I was going to feel beautiful around Paul. I emotionally hit rock bottom and my carefree smile disappeared.

Along with the looming date of surgery, wondering what the results of the second biopsy would be and preparing myself for my leg to be redone, I realised that I'd continually put my health last on the list and worse still, I'd allowed people in the medical field to do the same.

On top of it all, a day later I developed a painful hematoma in my cheek, resulting from where she had numbed my gum (and had been extremely rough).

A second meeting held where several ‘ologists’ sat around the table, glanced at my case, decided the fate of my leg and then informed me of their decision.

However, during my consultation, although the team confirmed they wanted my leg redone with larger margins removed, the head of plastics who was overseeing my case told me that the research material which recommended a specific margin be removed around the perimeter of cancer was "limited and outdated" and that I had only been about 1 millimetre off that recommended margin anyway so he "wouldn't be opposed if I decided that I didn't want the procedure redone, especially as my leg had finally healed."

He then went on to say that there was no guarantee that despite a second surgery, the cancer wouldn’t come back anyway and "you'd have to have really bad luck for that to happen."

Considering myself a very lucky person, my decision was made. I'd have the lymph node removed but my leg would remain intact! I even asked that they change the information on their system to reflect the decision I'd made.

Come the morning of my SLNB surgery the team at Fiona Stanley truly tried to put me at ease as best they could but I was scared.

I was also annoyed that I had to repeat several times that my leg was not to be touched despite their paperwork stating another removal would be done.

They even sent the surgeon to come and speak to me about having it removed and I firmly said "No."

Reluctantly they updated their paperwork to reflect my decision about my body.

And then it was time. The nurses wheeled me into theatre which was of some comfort because I could stay in the bed and clutch onto the blankets.

The last thing I heard was the anesthetist saying "You might feel dizzy now." My final thought was "Why would I feel dizzy?"

Then I awoke as if from the best sleep I'd had since I was a child into the warmest, snuggliest sunshiny feeling. It was like a lovely hug.

For the first time after any surgery, I was raring to go. Later that afternoon the drain was removed and I was released.

My groin healed exceptionally well. All the stitches were done internally and the outer layers of the skin were glued together which was fantastic. The most painful part was massaging down the underlying scar tissue but even that seemed to suddenly disappear.

Two weeks later, the biopsy results came back clear!

The next day we celebrated Jansen's, Paul's and my results with Indoor Skydiving where I did my best to hide my toothless grin but it is so fun that it was impossible!

A couple of months later I returned to the dentist to have the mold made for my plate. Sadly, she wanted to drill into perfectly healthy teeth to accommodate room for the wire. I refused and insisted on a better solution, especially as the plate was a temporary measure.

Then when the plate was finally ready, not only was the colour mismatched, she couldn't fit it into my mouth so she filed down the fake tooth which made it look ridiculous. A local dentist attempted a bit of optical illusion work on my teeth and the denture but I still wasn't happy.

The whole thing was a waste of money, not only did the denture draw even more attention to my crap smile, I couldn't talk without gagging.

But the great news is I found a pain free, cost-effective solution that not only gave me back my smile and confidence, but it also gave me back a smile even better than what I had before surgery!

Now my biggest issue is making sure I don't get lipstick on my 'teeth'! 😄

UPDATE - October 2019

Question Time

Have you ever gone against "doctors advice"?