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Samantha O'Neill



 

In my experience, people tend to think that melanoma is a cancer that they’ll either never get or will get later in life. I was just 23 when I was diagnosed.

I grew up in Dubbo, NSW, and spent a lot of time outdoors playing sport. Having always been fair, I was careful in the sun and never intentionally sunbaked or tried to get a sun tan.

Towards the end of 2011, I noticed that a mole on the back of my left leg had changed appearance over winter. It had been bleeding when I shaved my legs, become darker, split in to two and the border had changed. I showed it to my doctor who told me it ‘probably’ needed to be removed. My gut feeling was that something was wrong so I asked to be referred to a dermatologist.

The local dermatologist was booked out until March 2012, so I asked to make an appointment in their Sydney office (despite the extra inconvenience). Thankfully, I was able to book an appointment for December. My surgeon later told me that if I had waited until the following March, my prognosis could have been much worse.

The dermatologist did a biopsy of the mole on the spot and called me a week later to tell me that my concerning mole was a stage 2 melanoma, 1.3mm deep. I was in complete shock after hearing the news; I wasn’t sure what to say or how to act and had so many questions but didn’t know where to start finding the answers. I was terrified of having an operation but travelled again from Dubbo to Sydney to meet with the surgeon.

On 11 January 2011, I had the sentinel node and wider area operation. This operation involved removing the mole and its 5cm perimeter to ensure all the cancerous cells were taken. I also underwent lymph node mapping (where dye is injected into the cancer-affected site) which highlighted three nodes potentially affected, so I had these removed as well. Although the stitches and staples in my leg were painful, my body recovered well from the operation.

"My life has completely changed since my experience with melanoma ... I try and exercise regularly, eat healthy and am more aware of my body and checking changes."
Samantha

I was back in Dubbo when I received a phone call from the surgeon saying that they had discovered cancer in two of the three lymph nodes they had removed. She asked me to come back to Sydney in 10 days to remove the stitches and staples and to bring someone with me as important decisions needed to be made. Following the advice from my surgeon, I underwent another operation to remove all the lymph nodes in my left leg. This has resulted in lymphoedema (leg swelling resulting from the removal of lymph nodes) but thankfully the lymph nodes that were removed came up clear with testing.

I have a reasonably strong family history of skin cancer. My paternal grandfather died of melanoma and his daughter (my aunty) had a melanoma in the exact same spot that I did and survived. My family have also experienced other types of cancer – my paternal grandmother had a mastectomy due to breast cancer and my mother and her sister have both also had breast cancer. They are both doing well.

Witnessing my mum’s cancer experience a couple of years before my own helped bring us together. In both my own and my mum’s story, surgery to remove the cancer was necessary. Neither of us underwent chemotherapy, however mum did have radiotherapy. I’m lucky my mum is so supportive and caring, often putting my health above her own healing and recovery.

Both mum and I had to travel to Sydney for treatment and medical appointments. Going through this journey outside of a major city was difficult and often isolating. I found it hard to find people to talk to about my cancer experience, so I had to seek support and information from Sydney, other states and overseas.

Going through this process in a rural town, I found it beneficial to connect with others, usually online. I connected with organisations such as Cancer Council, Red Kite, Melanoma Patients Australia (Queensland branch), many American and overseas groups and lymphoedema support groups both in Australia and overseas.

My life has completely changed since my experience with melanoma. I now live with lymphoedema and the pain and discomfort associated with that. In one month, I suffered through two separate cellulitis complications (infection due to the lymphoedema) and since that moment, I have been learning about how to achieve a healthier lifestyle. I try and exercise regularly, eat healthy and I am more aware of my body and checking for and noticing changes. I now have a different approach to life and am thankful and happy. I even made a Facebook page to help others - Love the Skin You're in.

In the future, I’m looking to become more involved with melanoma campaigns and increase awareness around the dangers of skin cancer in Australia. It’s important for me to continue learning about how to become healthier and lead a healthy lifestyle to help prevent and manage disease. As a teacher, I have been able to use my story in class to encourage my students to be safe in the sun. I was only 23 when I was diagnosed with melanoma, so it can happen to anyone, at any age. Hopefully my story will help encourage everyone to embrace their natural skin and get anything they are worried about checked out straight away.
 

Samantha, 25, New South Wales

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This page was last updated on: Friday, February 21, 2014