Laura Russell, 38, from Dundee, was first diagnosed and successfully treated for early-stage melanoma at 18. Since then, she has had four recurrences, the latest of which has made her want to raise awareness of the importance of getting checked early.
The mum of three, whose mum also had melanoma, expressed her gratitude to the NHS for her care, and reflected on her resolve to live life to the full following her diagnoses.
“When I was 18 I had a mole on my calf which I noticed was a little bit darker. My mum was super conscious of melanoma after her own experience and took me to the GP practice to get it checked.
“I was referred to the hospital and the decision was taken to remove the mole because of my mum’s history. It turned out to be melanoma in situ – which is early stage – meaning the cells are on the top layer of skin. More surgery was required to check the cells hadn’t spread horizontally or vertically which thankfully they hadn’t.
“It took me a while to process my diagnosis and understand it, and without doubt the waiting for results was – and still is – the hardest part.”
Laura continued to be checked regularly – and over the course of 20 years all but one of her melanomas have been found at the earliest stage. The most recent, found on her back, was an established melanoma - a stage later than her previous diagnoses - but found early enough that it could be treated with a couple of surgeries. She now self-monitors, alongside getting checked every four months to keep on top of any changes.
Speaking about how her diagnoses have affected her life, Laura said:
“I’ve had genetic testing but don’t have the faulty gene, and it’s not due to sun exposure as some melanomas have been found on areas not exposed to sun.
“The constant nature of checking my moles and getting them checked is quite difficult. I often say, ‘can you just take all my moles off’, but melanoma will often occur in new moles so this wouldn’t remove the risk.
“The mental part is more difficult than the surgeries themselves, it has changed me and probably made me more anxious. I’m hyper vigilant, especially with the kids.
“Up until last year I was scared of my own shadow, and although that last melanoma really impacted me, it also made me want to do more to raise awareness. You only get one life, so I’ve tried to push myself to do more. I don’t want it to stop me seeing places and giving my children amazing experiences.
“You’ve got to appreciate what you’ve got. It’s never going away for me, so I just need to learn to live with it and find a way forward. I could not be more thankful for the care I’ve received from the NHS.”
Laura did the Kiltwalk last year to raise money for Cancer Research UK and is determined to use her experience to raise awareness.
“If you have a concern, it can be looked at quickly by a health professional. It’s not because it’s going to be cancer - I’ve had twenty moles removed that have turned out to be nothing – but if it is melanoma, the sooner it’s found the better.
“Protect your skin and check your moles. Taking pictures of your moles and checking them every month can help you keep track or any small changes. If you’re worried about any change, make that appointment with your GP practice. I know what it’s like to sit and worry so understand why people hesitate or think that they’re wasting their GPs’ time, but I can’t stress enough how important it is.”