Human stories behind skin cancer

Their story is Australia's story.

This year, three incredible Australians who have personally experienced skin cancer share their experiences with us. Each of their stories are powerful and unique. Yet, there is a consistent theme, no matter your skin type, prevention is better than a cure. And the simplest form of prevention is getting a skin check to catch and stop skin cancer before it spreads.

Because if we learnt anything this past year, it’s that disease doesn’t discriminate. But more importantly, it’s shown us that our family, friends and community mean so much to us. We now know, more than ever, that we need to look after ourselves and the ones closest to us.

We're all one under the sun

Natalie, 26
Living with skin cancer

"Melanoma was never something I thought could happen to me, and yet that’s the very cancer I’ve been fighting on and off for six years."
Kristie, 33
Skin cancer survivor

"It’s a natural tendency for mothers and parents to be looking out for our loved ones when it comes to engaging in skin safety. I’m now paying the price for not being just as diligent when it came to myself."
Wim, 61
Skin cancer survivor

"The skin check saved my life. I now understand the importance of booking a professional skin check if there are
concerns about a changing spot."
Read their stories

Take it from me, book a skin check today

Read the stories of three Australians who have experienced skin cancer.

Natalie Fornasier, 26

Living with skin cancer

Melanoma was never something I thought could happen to me, and yet that’s the very cancer I’ve been fighting on and off for six years.

A misconception a lot of Australians believe is that you need to be a certain skin tone (pale), with certain colour hair (red) and a specific shade of eye colour (blue) to only be affected by melanoma or skin cancer. This is not true.

It happened to me, a young and healthy girl with olive skin, brown hair, and hazel eyes.

Let me be clear when I say that cancer doesn’t discriminate.

My mother is from Chile. She came here when she was sixteen, and one of her first memories was of how different the sun felt on her skin. It burned. My father is first generation born Australian, to two Italian migrants. As a product of my parents who both have olive skin, it was believed no matter the regular skin checks that I had when I was young, or my mother’s obsessive sun safety measures, or the record that there was no melanoma in my family history, that I would be safe. That I wouldn’t contribute to the statistics, that I would live a normal life and enjoy my twenties like every other true blue Australian.

In October 2014, I was told I had stage III metastatic melanoma at 20 years old. This meant that the cancer had spread from its original point (a mole on my toe that began to give me grief just a few months prior) to the lymph nodes in my groin. Such a diagnosis turned my life upside down – no twenty-year-old is prepared to hear those words, especially when you’ve been told all your life that this cancer is mainly sun related.

I had a hard time accepting it – and to this day I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I live with such a frightful diagnosis. After multiple surgeries in 2014, one of which included a full lymph-node dissection and an amputation of the toe where the mole was, I was in the clear. Just as quickly as this journey had started, it stopped. I had to learn how to live as someone who had a stage III cancer diagnosis hanging over their head, a new condition called lymphoedema (swelling of a part of the body) and somehow make sense of life, when life had lost all sense of meaning.

For four years, I hustled to put the pieces of my life back together as best as I could. I changed university degrees, lost and made new friends, lived overseas for eight months and I fell in love. Only for all of that to come crashing down when I hopped off the plane at Sydney International Airport after an eight-month whirlwind of an exchange, which were the best months of my life. Over that time, while experiencing the culture of my heritage, and giving in to allowing myself to enjoy life - I finally came to peace with my cancer diagnosis, but I was very aware that it could come back at any time. I wasn’t naïve. I knew the statistics – if you got to five years, you were likely to be okay. Not completely in the clear, but it was a good sign. By 2018, I was in my fourth year of remission. A little nudge in my stomach however, told me to be weary. For some reason, I had always suspected that my dance with this cancer wasn’t finished. Sadly, I was right. I had come home to only be told after a routine scan, that my melanoma had returned and this time, it was in my lungs.

Melanoma isn’t just a skin cancer as so many believe. It’s more than that. It’s like every other cancer that creeps up on you and makes you question every tether to the earth. I asked my oncologist how it was possible for it to pop up there as only one millimetre had deposited into my lymph nodes. She told me melanoma is a smart, dormant type of cancer. All it takes is one cell to travel around the body, for years, until it decides to latch onto something (an organ, in my case) and then wake up.

In May 2018, I was diagnosed as a Stage IV cancer patient. I was 24 and I was terrified. Cancer in an organ is never a good thing, but a cancer that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy was even scarier. My doctors told me that a lot had changed in the world of melanoma during the four years I was in remission. The advancements in treatment options had exploded; immunotherapy was extending the life expectancies of patients by the hundreds and had everyone in the medical community on the edges of their seats brimming with excitement. It was an easy choice; immunotherapy was the drug for me.

If only it would be that easy. Due to the nature of immunotherapy being so new, it’s impossible to determine whether my fertility would be affected. Generally speaking, stage IV melanoma isn’t common for young people. No one could tell me if it would affect my ability to have children; something cancer made me realise I want even more. So, we decided to do IVF. It was insane. I had six days to complete a full cycle, most women get 5-6 weeks. It was successful, with a good amount of eggs but during that time we needed a new scan to confirm measurements before I started immunotherapy. Unfortunately, the scan showed that my tumours had grown rapidly, thus placing me in the ‘aggressive’ category of tumour growth.

My immunotherapy plan had to change, which went from having a success rate of about 70% to 50%. The next two years, up until this very day, I’ve had my limits pushed to the furthest extent. Between immunotherapy working for a while, to not working at all, to hospitalisations once every three months and having to undergo the most extensive surgery of my life, to then going back on a different type of immunotherapy and all the breakdowns in between: it's been the hardest years of my life.

Melanoma has taken my twenties away from me. There’s no denying it. Unlike my friends who could focus on their careers, I am career-less. They’re out having fun, I’m at home hugging the toilet bowl from nausea. This isn’t a pity contest, it’s just my life. The only life I’ve known. It’s important for me to say that I did everything right. I wore SPF, was sun safe, I didn’t tan or burn my skin in my teens, I got my skin checked.

To this day, my team aren’t exactly sure how it came about – all they know is that this mole was genetically dispositioned to transform into this malicious melanoma, which is responsible for the statistic of being the most common cancer in 15-39-year old’s. I’m thankful I spoke up when I did about the mole, because who knows what could have been. I’m thankful that despite all the statistics on paper telling me I’m not supposed to be here right now, I am, and I’m determined to keep it that way.

Cancer, no matter what form, catapults you headfirst into a club no one wants to be a part of. A club where everyone is aware of the main currency in life: our health. Our health is all we have; it is literally the single most important facet of our lives and we need to protect it. To look after it with every fibre of our being. Skin cancer and melanoma doesn’t discriminate. Your skin is looking to you to be its best and only advocate – so we must do just that.

 

Back to top.

 

Natalie's Story

Natalie Fornasier, 26

Living with skin cancer

Melanoma was never something I thought could happen to me, and yet that’s the very cancer I’ve been fighting on and off for six years.

A misconception a lot of Australians believe is that you need to be a certain skin tone (pale), with certain colour hair (red) and a specific shade of eye colour (blue) to only be affected by melanoma or skin cancer. This is not true.

It happened to me, a young and healthy girl with olive skin, brown hair, and hazel eyes.

Let me be clear when I say that cancer doesn’t discriminate.

My mother is from Chile. She came here when she was sixteen, and one of her first memories was of how different the sun felt on her skin. It burned. My father is first generation born Australian, to two Italian migrants. As a product of my parents who both have olive skin, it was believed no matter the regular skin checks that I had when I was young, or my mother’s obsessive sun safety measures, or the record that there was no melanoma in my family history, that I would be safe. That I wouldn’t contribute to the statistics, that I would live a normal life and enjoy my twenties like every other true blue Australian.

In October 2014, I was told I had stage III metastatic melanoma at 20 years old. This meant that the cancer had spread from its original point (a mole on my toe that began to give me grief just a few months prior) to the lymph nodes in my groin. Such a diagnosis turned my life upside down – no twenty-year-old is prepared to hear those words, especially when you’ve been told all your life that this cancer is mainly sun related.

I had a hard time accepting it – and to this day I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I live with such a frightful diagnosis. After multiple surgeries in 2014, one of which included a full lymph-node dissection and an amputation of the toe where the mole was, I was in the clear. Just as quickly as this journey had started, it stopped. I had to learn how to live as someone who had a stage III cancer diagnosis hanging over their head, a new condition called lymphoedema (swelling of a part of the body) and somehow make sense of life, when life had lost all sense of meaning.

For four years, I hustled to put the pieces of my life back together as best as I could. I changed university degrees, lost and made new friends, lived overseas for eight months and I fell in love. Only for all of that to come crashing down when I hopped off the plane at Sydney International Airport after an eight-month whirlwind of an exchange, which were the best months of my life. Over that time, while experiencing the culture of my heritage, and giving in to allowing myself to enjoy life - I finally came to peace with my cancer diagnosis, but I was very aware that it could come back at any time. I wasn’t naïve. I knew the statistics – if you got to five years, you were likely to be okay. Not completely in the clear, but it was a good sign. By 2018, I was in my fourth year of remission. A little nudge in my stomach however, told me to be weary. For some reason, I had always suspected that my dance with this cancer wasn’t finished. Sadly, I was right. I had come home to only be told after a routine scan, that my melanoma had returned and this time, it was in my lungs.

Melanoma isn’t just a skin cancer as so many believe. It’s more than that. It’s like every other cancer that creeps up on you and makes you question every tether to the earth. I asked my oncologist how it was possible for it to pop up there as only one millimetre had deposited into my lymph nodes. She told me melanoma is a smart, dormant type of cancer. All it takes is one cell to travel around the body, for years, until it decides to latch onto something (an organ, in my case) and then wake up.

In May 2018, I was diagnosed as a Stage IV cancer patient. I was 24 and I was terrified. Cancer in an organ is never a good thing, but a cancer that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy was even scarier. My doctors told me that a lot had changed in the world of melanoma during the four years I was in remission. The advancements in treatment options had exploded; immunotherapy was extending the life expectancies of patients by the hundreds and had everyone in the medical community on the edges of their seats brimming with excitement. It was an easy choice; immunotherapy was the drug for me.

If only it would be that easy. Due to the nature of immunotherapy being so new, it’s impossible to determine whether my fertility would be affected. Generally speaking, stage IV melanoma isn’t common for young people. No one could tell me if it would affect my ability to have children; something cancer made me realise I want even more. So, we decided to do IVF. It was insane. I had six days to complete a full cycle, most women get 5-6 weeks. It was successful, with a good amount of eggs but during that time we needed a new scan to confirm measurements before I started immunotherapy. Unfortunately, the scan showed that my tumours had grown rapidly, thus placing me in the ‘aggressive’ category of tumour growth.

My immunotherapy plan had to change, which went from having a success rate of about 70% to 50%. The next two years, up until this very day, I’ve had my limits pushed to the furthest extent. Between immunotherapy working for a while, to not working at all, to hospitalisations once every three months and having to undergo the most extensive surgery of my life, to then going back on a different type of immunotherapy and all the breakdowns in between: it's been the hardest years of my life.

Melanoma has taken my twenties away from me. There’s no denying it. Unlike my friends who could focus on their careers, I am career-less. They’re out having fun, I’m at home hugging the toilet bowl from nausea. This isn’t a pity contest, it’s just my life. The only life I’ve known. It’s important for me to say that I did everything right. I wore SPF, was sun safe, I didn’t tan or burn my skin in my teens, I got my skin checked.

To this day, my team aren’t exactly sure how it came about – all they know is that this mole was genetically dispositioned to transform into this malicious melanoma, which is responsible for the statistic of being the most common cancer in 15-39-year old’s. I’m thankful I spoke up when I did about the mole, because who knows what could have been. I’m thankful that despite all the statistics on paper telling me I’m not supposed to be here right now, I am, and I’m determined to keep it that way.

Cancer, no matter what form, catapults you headfirst into a club no one wants to be a part of. A club where everyone is aware of the main currency in life: our health. Our health is all we have; it is literally the single most important facet of our lives and we need to protect it. To look after it with every fibre of our being. Skin cancer and melanoma doesn’t discriminate. Your skin is looking to you to be its best and only advocate – so we must do just that.

 

Back to top.

 

Kristie's Story

Kristie Webster, 33

Skin cancer survivor

Culturally-speaking, as a nation we are all about enjoying the great outdoors and I think being in the sun goes hand-in-hand with that. But we underestimate just how dangerous that can be. It’s tough because we all love having a healthy tan, and it’s also down to the instant gratification that we get from being out in the sun all day.

I was always fairly conscious when it came to skin safety – well, as conscious as you can be with two little kids. I would wear SPF when at the beach or outdoors for long periods of time, but on a daily basis I’d be lucky to put a tinted moisturiser with SPF on my face and would actually only wear a hat if it was scorching hot (or if it matched my outfit!). My priority was always making sure my kids were protected and I tended to forget about my own health and wellness. I guess it’s a natural tendency for mothers and parents to be looking out for our loved ones when it comes to engaging in skin safety. I’m now paying the price for not being just as diligent when it came to myself.

In February 2018, I was doing my usual morning skin routine and applying face moisturiser when I felt an unusual small white lump under my left eye. I honestly didn’t think twice about it, I actually just thought it was a blind pimple. I carried on with my life and normal routines. Little did I know; hindsight is a powerful thing.

A couple of months passed, and I was telling my sister about the lump and she recommended I get it checked out asap by a professional. We’re really close and she harassed me until I did finally get it checked, and it was lucky that I did.

Within only a week of getting my skin checked, I was given unexpected news.

The skin specialist checked my whole body for freckles, moles, and spots on my skin. I was told that I had an aggressive Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) growing in my face that needed removing immediately. He explained that BCC is the most common type of skin cancer that develops on parts of the body that are heavily exposed to the sun, and it often starts with a small lump or sore that doesn’t naturally heal. I don’t think I realised how common BCCs are and how quickly they can appear on the skin until this appointment.

I was in so much shock. Firstly, so shocked that the results came back positive for skin cancer. And secondly, shocked that it was on my face, in such a noticeable and visible place on my body and that I had absolutely no idea. It was at this point that I realised I needed to be more careful and take any measures to protect myself.

It was so terrifying to hear that if I didn’t have the BCC removed immediately it would spread across my entire cheek. Naturally, I booked my surgery with a plastic surgeon the next week. I couldn’t book it fast enough.

The morning of my surgery I was so unbelievably nervous. I was scared of the unknown, I was scared of having my face cut open, I was scared that the cancer may have spread, I was scared the surgery wouldn’t be successful, and I was scared they wouldn’t get it all out.

I thank my lucky stars the surgery was successful, and the surgeon was able to completely remove the cancer.

The recovery process took a number of weeks and it left me with a number of stitches. When I was finally able to remove the stitches, I had to wear a skin colour tape over the scar for an additional two weeks.

My surgery left me with a deep, red scar the shape of a “P” on my face. I was super diligent with putting a scar treatment cream on my face daily and was conscious to not get any sun exposure on my face.

The sun safety message has become so ingrained now into my consciousness.

My scar is still quite prominent and it’s my daily reminder to be sun smart. At first, I was embarrassed and was always trying to hide the scar with makeup. But now when I look at it, I’m grateful that I got that skin check and caught the cancer before it developed. It could have been a very different outcome if I didn’t get that check and I will be forever thankful to my sister for encouraging me.

I now have to get my skin checked at a specialised skin cancer clinic every 12 months, given my history. Whenever I get checked I will post about it on my social channels and remind my family and friends to do the same. I know I’ll be spreading the word forever, because I’ve experienced firsthand the importance of skin checks.

I know self-checking is just as important as getting regular professional skin checks. I check all my moles and freckles that I already have to ensure that they haven’t changed in appearance. My husband also checks the ones on my back that I can’t quite see because I know if anything changes, I’ll need to go for a professional skin check straight away.

Skin safety is now at the forefront of my mind every day. For me this means ensuring my body is covered, wearing SPF on any exposed skin, and wearing a hat when outdoors. For me it’s the whole “slip, slop, slap”. I also keep a really close eye on my kids to make sure they are aware of the dangers of the Australian sun too. My family and my kids are the reason I am so vigilant with my sun protection and skin checks. I want to be around to support and love them.

Australians need to be more vigilant than ever with their skin checks and with their skin checking behaviours in detecting and preventing skin cancer. We all need to put ourselves first and look after our skin.

 

Back to top.

 

Wim's Story

Wim Eshuys, 61

Skin cancer survivor

Aussies love the outdoors and beaches are a second home to most of us during the summer months. In a country full of vast open spaces and beautiful coastlines, our lifestyle is built around the sunshine and spending time outdoors with loved ones. But this isn’t without cost.

We hear a lot about being sun safe in Australia and we know the sun can cause permanent, horrible damage to our skin, but I don’t think Australians really understand the severity of what skin cancer can do. What’s more, is the reality that millions of us don’t realise that anyone - regardless of age, race, or skin tone - can develop skin cancer. We’re all susceptible to skin cancer.

I am a healthy, active 61-year-old male. I know we only have one life and I’m determined to make the most of it. I try to make consistent healthy choices so I can lead a long, fulfilled life. I eat healthily, I exercise every day, and I make an annual visit to my GP for a check-up. I know how important being fit and active is, and I want to be a good example for my children and family too.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the sun and now, in my older years, I’m still enjoying time outdoors. Being able to spend time outdoors being active keeps me young at heart. Over the last five years, I have completed the Sydney half marathon and set goals to complete five more over the coming years. The importance of remaining fit and eating right also goes with my attitudes towards preventative health.

Earlier this year in June, I noticed a mole on my shoulder that had changed colour and shape. It was only at that point in time that I realised that after so many years of annual health checks, I’d never had a skin check as part of that. After a few weeks of staring at the mole, I took action. I booked an appointment with my GP to bring the spot to my doctor’s attention. I wanted my mind to be put to rest.

After the doctor examined the suspicious mole, he referred me to a skin specialist for further testing. I was so anxious of the unknown. I didn’t know what the results were going to be, but I was staying as positive as I could.

After a thorough examination of my whole body (he checked places on my body I wouldn’t even think to check myself), the skin specialist determined that the mole I pointed out was actually okay, and it was nothing for me to be worried about. Unfortunately, what he did find was a tiny pin head sized abnormality on my right shin that he didn’t like the look of. He immediately did a biopsy and sent the sample away for further examination.

The results came in a few days later. The results were bad. I was told that the tiny pin head sized spot was a malignant skin cancer and it needed to be removed immediately.

At this stage, to say I was shocked was an understatement. I think what made me most scared was that the spot was so tiny I never would have noticed it unless I’d gone to get a professional skin check. So, for that reason I feel very lucky it was caught in time!

Soon after receiving the news, I had the growth of abnormal cells removed. I was told that I would need to continue to get a skin check every year for the rest of my life.

I have an unsightly scar now on my shin, but the alternative was far worse. It could have spread and potentially become life-threatening and my scar is my reminder of the importance of skin checks and self-checking my body.

I was very fortunate that I had a skin check when I did and was able to get the spot removed almost immediately. It didn’t take long. And best of all, so far, I have had no further issues relating to skin cancer since.

As a grown man with Dutch heritage, I never really thought skin cancer was something that could happen to me. My skin tone isn’t naturally pale or white and I grew up believing that fair-skinned people are the ones who are most vulnerable to developing skin cancer.

Since my diagnosis, my attitudes towards the sun have totally changed. I now have a very regimented approach towards skin safety. I know I need to take better care of my skin to match the attitude I have towards my general health, wellbeing, and fitness.

Since this skin scare, my lifestyle hasn’t changed but I am paying more attention to when I do certain activities. I still go cycling on nice days and take long walks around my local park as it makes me happy. Instead of sporadically thinking about skin safety being included as part of my healthy living lifestyle, I take the steps to protect my skin before going outside. Sun safety to me now is all about ensuring my body is covered, I’m wearing SPF on any exposed skin, I’m wearing a hat when outdoors and getting regular professional skin checks. Beyond making changes to my own life to protect my skin, I’ve also found myself urging others to get a skin check by a professional on a regular basis.

The skin check saved my life. I now understand the importance of booking a professional skin check if there are concerns about a changing spot. No matter how small the change may be, I would encourage everyone to consult a doctor. A spot that doesn’t fit in with the others on your body or feels sore needs to be checked and the sooner you do it, the better position you will be in if it turns out to be something that’s potentially dangerous. It can make a huge difference to your ongoing health.

Skin checks should be an important part of everyone’s annual health checks. It’s better to be safe than sorry. My best advice to anyone who is worried about anything new, changing or just plain unusual on their skin is to trust your instincts and get it checked out.

 

Back to top.

 

Early detection can save lives

Check your skin at home

Get to know your skin with regular self-checks to maximise your chances of detecting skin cancer early.

Find out what to look for

A Firstcheck spot check

Upload photos of a spot or mole for a skin cancer expert to review anytime, anywhere. TAL is partnering with Firstcheck to provide up to 1,500 free online spot checks to Australians.1

Get a free Firstcheck spot check

Make online booking
A professional skin check

In addition to self-checking regularly, it is also important to get regular professional skin checks by your GP, dermatologist or a skin cancer clinic.

Book a skin check with a GP

  1. FREE SPOT CHECK PACKAGES ARE LIMITED TO 1,500, OR UNTIL 11.59PM (AEDT) 31 MARCH, 2021. This OFFER is SUBJECT TO TERMS AND CONDITIONS.