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Kath's skin cancer story

Kath Sorrell lives in Ipswich - she was 39 years old when she spotted a small mole on her leg which was different to the others on the rest of her body. Kath knew it didn't look right and went to her GP for advice but it was to be some time before her skin cancer was formally diagnosed. This is her story.

THE MOLE THAT DIDN'T LOOK RIGHT

In the summer of 2012 I noticed a small mole just next to my right knee which was a lot darker than other moles I had. I thought I’d had this mole for some time but didn’t recall it being quite so dark … I wasn’t particularly worried as I was always under the impression that people with fair skin, which burns easily, were more likely to get skin cancer and as I have always tanned really easily and very rarely got burnt I honestly thought I was immune to skin cancer. In fact, I had always been the envy of my fair skinned friends when we were younger and going on holiday as I would tan very easily and go instantly brown – insisting that no sun cream with a factor more than 4 would go near my body! I’d start the holiday on factor 4, then move to factor 2 and finishing off the holiday with zero factor oil! From 1994 to 1999 I lived and worked overseas as a holiday rep, spending long hot summers (and winters) in places such as Jamaica, Cuba, The Gambia, Tenerife, Ibiza, Majorca, Dominic Republic. I very rarely used suncream throughout this time because I thought I was immune as I was living in the sun and so my skin was used to it.

I’m not a particularly “molely” person but I do have a few small ones located around my body. I wouldn’t usually have been particularly fussed about this mole but I remembered a friend of mine had seen a skin cancer specialist when he was travelling around Australia as he is a very “moley” person and what stuck in my mind was that the doctor told him "you don’t have to worry about the larger moles – it’s the small, dark ones you need to worry about" so this did get me thinking. Something else which was niggling me was that a friend of mine had found a mole a few years earlier which had indeed turned out to be a malignant melanoma (the most severe form of skin cancer). Fortunately she’d had it removed and still remains cancer free to this day. Now this particular friend of mine had similar skin to me – dark skin which instantly tans and never appears to burn. I had previously thought that people with this type of skin were immune to skin cancer and was very shocked that out of all my friends, it was her who had suffered with skin cancer … surely it would have been one of my fairer skinned friends I thought .. proving how wrong I was to think like this!!

LET'S GET THIS MOLE CHECKED OUT

So I decided I should check with a doctor just to be on the safe side about this small, dark mole of mine. The GP I saw was really lovely and said she thought the mole looked fine and as the only difference I had noticed was a slight change in colour she wasn’t particularly concerned. I was also pregnant with my third child at the time and she advised me that pregnancy can make your skin pigmentation change colour so put this down to why my mole had got darker. I went away feeling slightly silly for thinking there was anything wrong with it and apologised for wasting her time. Ella was born in February 2013 and my time was kept very busy with a new baby and also looking after my other children.

THAT NAGGING FEELING

Ella turned six months old in August 2013 and I remember thinking my mole was still very dark. Surely if it was pregnancy related as to why it had changed colour then it should have faded back to normal colour by now as I hadn’t been pregnant for six months and I wasn’t breastfeeding either so I felt my hormones should have returned to normal by now. I decided to leave it a bit longer to see if it faded.

When, in September 2013, my mole was still very, very dark I thought I would return to the GP and ask why it hadn’t returned to the same colour as my other moles. This time the GP was not so friendly and after examining my mole, explained that I only needed to worry about moles if they were changing shape and colour within a matter of weeks, if they were bleeding or looked like some of the disgusting internet images of bad moles (or words to that effect!). He told me to measure it and go back to him if it grew significantly within a matter of weeks. I definitely came away from there feeling very bad for wasting his time! I came home, measured my mole and took a photo – it was only about 3mm so nothing to worry about I thought.

SHOULD I GO BACK AND GET THIS MOLE CHECKED OUT AGAIN?

Nearly a year passed and I regularly measured my mole to see if it was growing or changing shape. It wasn’t so everything's OK I thought. Late summer 2014 and I still had a nagging feeling in my mind about this mole and I can’t put this down to any reason except remembering my friend visiting that Australian skin cancer specialist who told him it was the small, dark moles you need to worry about and also thinking about my friend with very dark skin who had skin cancer therefore making me not as immune as I had thought! I decided another trip to the GP was in order, even if I was wasting their time. I thought maybe they could refer me to a specialist who could put my mind at rest and even remove the mole so I didn’t have to worry.

September 2014 I went back to the GP – this time she was definitely friendlier than the last one. She examined the mole and said I had nothing to worry about. I pushed for a referral to the hospital to have it removed and she said that in order to refer me she had to tick two changes on her form and as the only change was the colour this didn’t meet the criteria for a referral. I immediately lied and said I had noticed it had been very itchy over the previous few weeks and finally she said she would then be able to make a referral as that was two changes.

TIME TO GET THE MOLE TAKEN AWAY "JUST IN CASE"

My appointment came through to see the Dermatologist at the hospital. He inspected it with his microscope and told me he didn’t think it was anything to worry about but he would remove it anyway. I had to go back to have the minor op under local anaesthetic to have the mole removed and I don’t remember this being too painful during or afterwards. The nurse told me the mole would be sent off for testing and I would hear back in 2-4 weeks. I wasn’t really concerned at this point as the professional had told me it looked ok.

THINGS ARE DEFINITELY NOT OK

So I waited to hear back from the hospital … after 4 weeks I hadn't heard anything so I assumed everything was OK. After 5 weeks had passed I decided I should probably call the hospital to double check as I hadn’t heard anything, but assumed it must be OK as they surely would have contacted me .. or so I thought!! It was early December 2014 that I phoned the hospital to check my results. I spoke to a receptionist and was put on hold .. she then came back to say they needed to see me and could I come in that afternoon? It was difficult as I had to arrange childcare at short notice and I asked if I could come in the following week. I really didn’t think it was anything to worry about as they would have contacted me before now so I assumed there was something in the results they wanted to discuss but never thought it would be something serious. The lady on the phone was adamant I should come in straight away as the consultant was in that afternoon (he was normally based at a different hospital) so I called my husband, Clinton, to come back from work early to look after the children while I went to the hospital. He questioned if it was anything to worry about but I really didn’t think it was as, so I set off for the hospital on my own that afternoon.

On arrival at the hospital I only had to wait a short time until I was invited into the doctor’s room – the doctor was there as well as two other ladies. He introduced one as a nurse and the other lady he introduced to me was from Macmillan which immediately set alarm bells ringing as I suddenly realised Macmillan was to do with cancer (I was fortunate in that I’d never had to come across them before). The doctor then proceeded to tell me that the mole they removed was indeed malignant melanoma and they would now have to do another operation to remove 2cms of skin around the mole and also a lymph gland in my groin to see if the cancer had spread into my blood stream. I was horrified no one had contacted me sooner. I then went into a separate room with the Macmillan nurse where she asked me if I had a life insurance policy with critical illness cover as I would be able to make a claim ... this just made me feel so much worse as obviously this was quite serious and if I was able to make a claim on my life insurance policy then there was a real possibility I was going to die. I stayed in that room while she made enquiries about the next stage and eventually she was able to tell me my operation was booked in for Norwich Hospital on 6th January which meant I had a whole four weeks to wait, not knowing if the cancer had spread or not.

After leaving the hospital I immediately phoned my friend who had gone through exactly the same thing a few years ago – she really reassured me as her experience was so similar and she was able to tell me everything she had gone through and she also gave me hope as her cancer had not spread so I was really hoping mine would be the same.

MAKING PREPARATIONS AND LOOKING AHEAD

The next four weeks passed very slowly waiting for my operation – it was over the Christmas period so I was just trying to make it as happy as possible for my family but it really was not a happy time for me. I started to think about making preparations for the possibility that I might not be around. I would tell Clinton all about what I did in the house and what I did for the children, gave him some basic cooking lessons as normally I would do all the cooking! And I started to think about how he would cope without me ..  our son is disabled and with three children to look after I just wasn’t sure how he would cope. I was the one who looked after all the bills and paperwork, so I went through everything and labelled it clearly so he would know exactly where everything was. We had already made our wills some years earlier so I knew that was all in hand. It was quite a morbid time thinking of all these things and seemed to be even worse as it was Christmas and everyone was happy. We decided not to tell the children as they were still very young and we didn’t want to worry them so I just tried to carry on as normal. In the meantime all I could think of was how long it had been since my mole had changed colour (nearly three years) and surely the cancer would have had time to spread in that time?

THE DAY OF THE OPERATION ARRIVES

Finally 6th January 2015 arrived. Childcare was arranged and Clinton drove me to Norwich hospital. On arrival at the hospital I was informed they had a bed crisis and all operations had been cancelled, however they were trying to see if mine could still go ahead as it was a day case and I wouldn’t necessarily need a bed. I couldn’t believe I had been waiting four weeks and now I might have to wait even longer!  Finally they confirmed I could have the operation but there would be no bed for me afterwards so I would have to go straight home. Even though it was a day case, I would normally have had a bed for a few hours after the operation to recover from the general anaesthetic but this time I wouldn’t have. Obviously I agreed and was just so relieved I was having the operation. We waited in the waiting room until it was time for my operation. I walked to the operating theatre and was put under general anaesthetic so don’t remember anything until I was being woken up afterwards. I didn’t feel any pain when I awoke, just groggy from the anaesthetic. They made me get up as soon as I could and sent me home. Unfortunately it was an hour’s drive back and I felt very sick from the anaesthetic – luckily the hospital had given me a sick bowl to take home!  

WAITING FOR THE RESULTS

I then nervously waited for three days until I received the results, which thankfully were that the cancer had not spread to my lymph gland. Wow I was so relieved they had caught it in time! The feeling of relief was immense and I knew I would never ever be sunbathing again. I knew how lucky I was and my life is definitely not worth risking for a suntan!

IT'S BEEN A NARROW ESCAPE

I had to go back to the hospital for regular checks over the next five years .. checking the site where the mole was, where my lymph gland was removed and any other moles on my body. Finally in January 2020 I was given the all clear as it had been five years since the cancer was removed.

AM I A SUN WORSHIPPER NOW - NO!

Ever since then I have never laid in the sun. I regularly wear minimum factor 30 and always avoid sitting in the sun wherever possible. I am always seeking shade, try to cover up as much as possible when out and about and always wear a hat. I have also discovered fake tan but I always make sure I wear gloves when applying it as I have had a few disasters!! I know I am susceptible to getting skin cancer again as I have had it once so I am now very careful in the sun. I am now always reminding my friends and family to put suncream on and to wear a hat!

I really hope my story will make other people realise how dangerous sunbathing can be and having tanned skin really isn’t worth risking your life just to look good, especially as there are so many fake tan products on the market now. I realise I am lucky and this story could have had a very different ending. I am so lucky I pestered the professionals as I now realise they cannot always be trusted to know everything and if you think something isn’t quite right you should definitely get it checked out – time and time again if necessary!