From the Hunter to the Hunted
West Australian skin cancer nurse Kylie Laverty never imagined she would go from the skin cancer hunter to the hunted.
In February 2019, my daughter Hailey, noticed a new small thin mole (later confirmed to be a melanoma) on the right side of my back, between my shoulder blades. Fortunately, my daughter has a sharp eye because it was such a small mole. It hadn’t been there 6 weeks earlier when she last checked my back, and this therefore raised concerns. In fact, it was so small and early in its development that the next week when I went to see my skin cancer doctor, he didn’t think it was anything to worry about.
Changes in the mole
This new ‘mole’ was in a location that at first, I couldn’t even see when I looked in the mirror, but gradually over a 5-month period as it grew and got darker, I was able to see it. I asked my partner to put my dermatoscope on the mole and to take a photo, so I could see it clearly. It was then that I suspected it was a melanoma. I immediately made an appointment to see an accredited skin cancer college doctor. He agreed that it certainly looked like a melanoma and was behaving like one too. A biopsy was performed 5 days later.
As a nurse, I knew how bad it could be
Being a Dermatoscopist/skin cancer nurse and knowing full well the potential outcome of a positive biopsy result, it was a very long and stressful wait for the pathology results. My doctor called me on a Sunday (as soon as he received the results) from his home because he knew I would be thinking the worst and I was.
I’d had vertigo only weeks earlier and I kept thinking maybe it wasn’t vertigo but a tumour on my brain because melanoma metastasizes to the brain. Pathology came back positive for melanoma, but the biopsy showed that the melanoma was completely removed with no infiltration into the deeper layers of my skin or blood stream. I cried because the relief that my melanoma had not spread was so overwhelming.
I felt like I have been given a second chance at life. I was required to undergo a second surgery to remove more tissue two weeks later. This was done as a precaution to ensure there was an even wider margin of clear tissue. After another pathology, I was finally given the all-clear for melanoma.
Melanoma can happen to anyone
I first became aware of how hideous this disease (Melanoma) is while working as a beauty therapist in Coolum Beach, QLD some 20 years earlier. A gorgeous client was diagnosed with melanoma just after her wedding, which unfortunately took her life. This prompted me to have my first ever skin cancer check, I was 27. It was during this consultation that the doctor took a biopsy of a mole on my face I’d had my entire life.
Fortunately, the biopsy revealed a benign blue nevus. I remember how worried I was then that I may have skin cancer, despite the doctor telling me I had great skin. However, he did inform me that my childhood sun exposure, which included numerous blistering and peeling sunburns, my very fair skin, strawberry blonde hair, and blue eyes meant that I was a high risk of developing some form of skin cancer in my lifetime.
The last time I was sun burnt I was 20 and I’d fallen asleep on the pebbly beach of the French Riviera. For the last 20 years I made every effort to wear sunscreen, a hat and cover up as much as possible. I have never sun baked or attempted to get a tan, even as a teenager, and I still got melanoma.
Discovering melanoma activism
Interestingly my career lead me to gain a Bachelor of Dermal Science, where I was introduced to dermatoscopy. After completing my degree, I completed a post grad in Dermatoscopy and Histopathology. I then gained my Master of Nursing and became a dermatoscopist aka ‘Skin Cancer Hunter’.
I have been ‘hunting for skin cancers’ in my role as a dermatoscopist/skin cancer nurse with Skin Smart Australia, conducting skin checks in a corporate employee skin cancer screening program. These skin checks consist of a physical examination for benign and malignant skin lesions and premalignant conditions, with an emphasis on providing education to patients about healthy sun protection habits, preventative behaviours, and the importance of early detection. A rewarding role in which I have identified hundreds of skin cancers and helped save many lives in the process. I also volunteer with the Lion’s Cancer Institute, traveling to remote and regional area’s in WA to perform skin cancer examinations.
Evangelistic about prevention
Outside of work I have had face-to-face conversations with fellow horse-riding competitors, numerous posts on social media and articles; even chats at cafes and bus stops with people I have never met before. I have had so many people contact me (known and unknown) to thank me for spreading the word because it has saved their life or the life of someone they knew. Sharing this knowledge with my daughter about melanoma has now saved my life.
The personal experience changed me
This experience has made me more committed to make a difference to other people’s lives. My personal experience provides me with the unique opportunity and responsibility to share my story. I am fully aware how very fortunate to have survived my melanoma. Others are still facing/fighting major battles. Some battles were won, whilst others were not and sadly one Australian loses their battle with melanoma every five hours.
My doctor told me that if it wasn’t for my education and job, my melanoma may have taken my life too. I do feel a little bit frightened still. Although this melanoma is all clear, I fear that there is a real possibility I could get another one. Unfortunately, Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. Through this life-changing experience and my role as skin cancer hunter/educator, I have the undeniable opportunity to help save the lives of so many people.
Prevention can save your life
Wear your damn sunscreen, put on a broad brim hat, and cover up with clothing BUT most of all book a skin cancer examination. It is 20 minutes that could save your life. It’s your doctor’s job to diagnose skin cancer, but you will know better than anyone else if something on your skin is Sore, Changing, Abnormal or New. Take the time to SCAN your skin - look for a spot or mole that is:
- Sore: scaly, itchy, bleeding, tender and doesn’t heal within 6 weeks.
- Changing: in size, shape, colour, or texture.
- Abnormal: looks different, feels different, or stands out when compared to your other spots and moles.
- New: has appeared on your skin recently. Any new moles or spots should be checked, especially if you are over 40.
The more of the above features a spot or mole has, the more concerning it is. Please get it checked by a doctor urgently.
Behind my scar is a story that needs to be told and a goal to continue to save lives because early detection and education saved my life.
How often do you speak to your family members about skin cancer?