A Melanoma Called Wally

His name was Wally.

He was a small mole on my left forearm, two inches above my wrist. My husband Gareth had given him a name.

“When are you going to do something about Wally?” he said one day, “I don’t like the look of him.”

Is this mole melanoma?

Here in the UK, we have the National Health Service, so rather than seeing a dermatologist right away as you might do in the US, my first step was to see my GP (primary physician).

They measured Wally and compared him to what kinda looked like a “chart of dodgy moles”, then declared him nothing to worry about. Fair enough, I thought.

Changing and growing mole

But the following summer I was convinced Wally had grown. He looked taller, wider and darker.

Gareth brought it up again, too. He’s a laidback and quiet guy, so if he's made multiple mentions of something aside from motorbikes or homebrewing, I knew I had to pay attention.

So I did. I went to the doctor where again they said they thought the mole looked fine.

In the past, I'd not always been the best at advocating for myself so I nearly said, “Okay then, you’re the doctor”. But this time I insisted on getting a referral to the consultant dermatologist.

Playing it safe

Due to the waiting list, I’d moved to another city by the time my appointment came through. So I visited a new GP. They offered to remove the mole at the doctor's office day surgery, rather than restart the lengthy referral process.

“It’s up to you though,” they said, “But I think he looks innocent. Just to warn you, the scar would be bigger than the mole itself.”

I wasn’t a fan of medical stuff so I briefly considered leaving it, but ended up opting for the procedure. I had a lot of moles and freckles on my body, and Wally just seemed a different beast from the other guys. Better to be safe than sorry.

Melanoma disguised as an innocent mole

And so, Wally was removed and sent away for testing.

A few days later, the GP called me in with the news. Wally was a malignant melanoma, 5.3 millimeters thick.

Because of his size, I was urgently referred to the consultant dermatologist, who explained that they'd need to do a wide excision and sentinel lymph node biopsy to see if it had spread elsewhere.

Shocked despite knowing the skin cancer risk factors

I was shellshocked. It was hard to know just how worried to be. Being Australian, I knew dozens of people who'd had melanomas and other skin cancers chopped out. No worries mate!

On the other hand, I had a lot of risk factors: growing up in blazing hot Australia. Multiple childhood sunburns despite vigilant sun protection. Close family members that had melanomas. Pale Fitzpatrick Type I skin. Ginger hair and moles galore. Not to mention the length of time Wally had been there.

From anxiety to clear margins

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to fast forward through the pre-surgery fears, the surgery itself, the recovery and the results-waiting anxiety and get right to the happy ending. The margins and lymph nodes were clear. That was June 2014, and I’ve been fine since then.

It’s easy after four years to reduce the whole experience to a brief sentence: “Once upon a time I had a melanoma and it turned out fine". I have a cool 5-inch scar wrapped around my wrist that a friend likes to joke I got from being bitten by a very small shark.

The importance of knowing our skin

But I know how lucky I am and how easily it may not have been fine. If I'd ignored Wally’s growing presence, simply dismissing it as yet another mole on my dotty bod. If I'd not piped up at the doctor’s office. If I'd opted not to have him removed.

I learned a lot of things from my melanoma experience but the biggest one would have to be: We know our bodies. We know our skin. We're the ones looking at ourselves every dang day! So we know when things are different, unusual; changing.

These days, I am that person who pesters their friends to put on their SPF and sunglasses and do regular Mole Patrols of their skin. And now we all know that if we spot a Wally, we won't be shy to speak up right away.

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