Skin Cancer Wake-Up Call: ‘I was 27 when a routine skin check changed my life’

A real-life tale.

Think skin cancer only affects older people? Think again.

Meet Laura Hughes. A 29-year-old Sydney native juggling the chaos of a hospitality job while squeezing in quality time with friends and family. At 27, just as she was about to jet off on a European adventure, a routine skin check threw her plans off course. What started as a precautionary measure ended with an unexpected diagnosis: it was melanoma.

Cue a whirlwind of emotions as she grappled with the reality of facing skin cancer at such a young age. Fast forward through surgery, a 7cm scar and countless check-ups, and now Laura is sharing her journey in the hope it will help others.

“It really is an experience that changes your life,” she confesses. “It’s the fear of knowing that it might potentially come back – and for me that’s more a matter of when and not if. I want to go out and enjoy my life in my 20s and not be scared.”

Laura admits she was blasé about sun protection before her diagnosis. “Travelling in Greece before my diagnosis when I thought I was carefree and enjoying the sunshine. I was wearing SPF30+ and sunglasses, but no other sun protection,” she shares.

Thankfully, attitudes around sun tanning are shifting, with more of us taking pride and confidence in our own skin, and protecting it from sun damage as best we can. We all know (or if you don’t, take note!) about the five forms of sun protection – wearing protective, long-sleeved clothing, using a SPF50+ sunscreen, adding a hat if outside, seeking shade where we can, and wearing sunglasses.

We spoke to Laura for her thoughts on how her experience has influenced her take on sun safety, sun tanning trends, why skin cancer isn’t just an ‘older person’s issue’, and how she hopes telling her story will help others to protect themselves from the sun.

marie claire: Did you have any signs or symptoms, or what prompted you to go for a skin check in the first place?

Laura: I had noticed I was developing more moles over the years but never had any concerns about their colour or shape, etc. I was asymptomatic.

Can you walk us through the moments leading up to your diagnosis of skin cancer at such a young age, and how did you cope with the news?

I had been to my GP who conducted a skin check, and there was one mole that was looking a little off. He gave me the option to monitor it over time, or to err on the side of caution and get it removed – which was the option I went with. I had the mole extracted on Wednesday afternoon. It was 6pm on Friday night and I was at work, I had multiple missed calls on my phone from my GP, he was also calling my work line and had contacted my Mum who then also tried to get a hold of me – I knew something was not right.

I was finally able to take his call to which I remember him saying ‘I’m so sorry, it’s melanoma, I have booked you in on Monday morning to see the specialist – are you OK?’ I was in complete shock. I took a moment outside to call my mum and let her know the news. My team at work saw that I was upset, but I chose to focus on finishing the night at work as I did not know what else to do or how to feel. In short, I wasn’t coping. I was in complete and utter shock. I was numb and I feared what was to come.

How did your diagnosis impact your plans for your Europe trip, did you make any changes?

My specialist allowed to me to go to Europe but said – ‘please wear lots of sunscreen!’ While overseas, I was scared to leave the room without sunscreen or protective clothing. Travel was and is such a huge part of my life, but that trip was not the same; I felt like travelling had been stripped of joy. I don’t think I could explain how it feels to be afraid to go outside. I became cautious about everything I did and spent a lot more time planning my day around sun exposure. Essentially, my reality had completely changed.

“Before my melanoma surgery, I was feeling extremely panicked. I was not allowed to have anyone with me because of Covid restrictions, so I sent this photo to my family to reassure them that I was in OK spirits,” Laura shares.

What was it like waiting for surgery after receiving your diagnosis?

It felt like the longest few weeks of my life. Even though my specialist had done a wonderful job of reassuring me that my life was not at risk and that we had caught the melanoma early enough, there is always that element of ‘what if?’ Since we didn’t know how long the cancer was there for, I had nothing but fear running through my mind, wondering if one more day was going to make things 10 times worse for me, the sheer panic each morning of wondering if this was going to be the day that things turned for the worse.

Each day that I had to wait for the surgery felt like years. I was relieved to have it removed, not to signify the end of my journey, but to have the peace of mind knowing that this melanoma was gone, I could breathe again.

How do you balance enjoying your life with managing the fear the melanoma may reoccur?

It is still something that crosses my mind every time I leave the house, except now I feel like I have taken control, and I am doing everything in my power to minimise the risk. I grew up knowing that I should use SPF in the morning, now I don’t leave home without it. I have paid less attention to social media and external voices who try to tell me that I don’t need to wear a hat, or to the people who tell me not to worry about a little bit of sunburn here and there. The truth is that every single day, I worry if it’s today; every time I look at a freckle, I worry that this is the next one, but at least now I can take comfort in knowing I am doing my best to minimise the chances.

How did your diagnosis and treatment affect your relationships with friends and family?

My friends knew me as an outdoor, sun loving person who, most of the time, wore sunscreen. They would call me to ask me to go for a walk along the beach, or paddle boarding, or our usual outdoor activities, and I always made up an excuse. I didn’t talk to my friends or my family about it from fear of judgement initially, and because I didn’t want anyone to see my scar. My family tried to shelter me from the sun, making sure all our catch ups were indoors or shade was heavily available. I spent a lot more time alone and excluded myself from events. I lost myself and my spark for life. Now that I have learnt to manage my fear, I have used my experience to help educate my friends, colleagues and family.

Laura (left) says she sometimes went without sunscreen when she was younger, which meant her skin burned and left her with tan lines, so she could ‘fit in’ with her friends. “Here I’m sun burnt at my sister’s wedding in Fiji after using tanning oil,” she says.

You mention you now pay less attention to the people who normalise unsafe sun tanning behaviours. How did these voices affect your attitude towards sun protection over the years?

When I was younger, I definitely made choices that negatively impacted my health and wellbeing in effort to look a certain way or to fit in. My friends with Italian heritage would pick on me for using SPF50+, claiming I was already white enough. I would choose not to wear sunscreen even when I felt my skin burning just so that they wouldn’t say anything.

We would compare tan lines and think that my sunburn was funny. I wore backless and sleeveless items of clothing without sunscreen so that I would fit in. I am now hoping to spread awareness about melanoma so anyone who has ever questioned their value without suntanned skin doesn’t have to go through this experience.

In what ways has your perspective on sun tanning and sun exposure shifted since your diagnosis?

Now, I couldn’t be further away from that thinking. I do not pay attention to what people think of me for wearing sunscreen and putting my health first. We are a society that has worked so hard on body positivity and acceptance of self, so why not extend that to our skin health? Wear the cowboy hat if it’s your only wide-brimmed hat, smell like coconut if it means you’re covered in SPF – nothing is worth more than your health or your life. Your skin is beautiful no matter what shade.

Can you expand on how your physical scar has influenced your self-image and confidence?

People want to tan because they think their clothes look better. My clothes don’t look better with a massive scar on my back. 18 months on and I am still struggling to find clothing that makes me feel sexy and confident. I am under 30 and feel like parts of my youth have been stolen from me. That carefree, worry-free life I used to have is gone. I have had to learn to love my scar but at times it is easier to cover it up. A lot of clothes I used to wear have sat in my wardrobe, they don’t feel like they belong to me anymore, so I am still trying to work on that part of my life and how I can start to feel like myself again.

Laura has a 7cm scar after surgery to remove the melanoma. Left: “My scar 3 months after my surgery, still very bruised and sore.” Right: Laura’s scar now.

Reflecting on your teenage years, when you sometimes avoided sun protection to fit in, what advice would you give to your younger self knowing what you know now?

Don’t do it! My experience has been traumatic and ongoing; I would give anything to go back and take some very simple measures to protect myself and block out any negativity or judgement. Your Instagram post isn’t worth it.

How have your regular check-ups with your specialist impacted your sense of security and peace of mind?

I go through the same stress and re-live the trauma of the experience every six months at my check-ups. My specialist performs very thorough checks of my entire body. The anxiety is sickening as I wait for him to say the outcome of the assessment. The weeks before my appointment, I spend scanning my body wondering which one he is going to pay closer attention to, trying to mentally prepare myself for the worst news. The days before, it’s all I can think about, work barely a distraction. The sigh of relief that after this time, I am lucky, nothing to report, until next time.

Laura is now vigilant about sun protection and doesn’t step outside without it. “Travelling with my partner (Tim) after my diagnosis. I’m very sun conscious, always wearing SPF50+, hat, and covered shoulders,” she shares.

As someone who wants to raise awareness among young people about the risks of skin cancer, what message would you like to convey to others?

It is real and does affect young people! Whenever I tell people about my experience, they often will say, oh my uncle, or grandparent had that, but no one ever says their friend, girlfriend or sister has had melanoma. Never be afraid to be yourself; social media trends and beauty standards will always change, your health will not. Not only is it a disease that affects your physical health, but your mental health. I promise, it’s not worth the suntan.

Brought to you by Cancer Council and The Australian Government.

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