Skin cancer… ouch!

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world – it’s our #1 most common type of cancer. According to the Australian Cancer Council, 2 in 3 Aussies will have been diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they’re 70.

As a kid, a lot of my older relatives had skin cancers cut off – one uncle had half of his nose removed. He said it was “too much golf”. It looked a bit odd, but he was fine. So in my young mind, it was something that affected older people, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. All of my relatives were a little bit scarred, but otherwise healthy.

Then one Sunday night, I saw an episode of a TV show called 60 Minutes that really affected me. It was about a man, only in his 20s, who was dying from a skin cancer on his back. That’s when it hit me that it could happen to anyone, at any age, and we all had to be vigilant. I now get a skin cancer check by a dermatologist every year.

My most recent appointment was in July, and the doctor had a young trainee from England observe our session. I laid down on the bench while the doctor checked my face, stomach, legs. Then after a minute, he had me turn over and spent another minute looking at my back, and told me it was “all clear”.

Then the English trainee said, “What about this?”

And the doctor said, “Oh, I saw that, it’s nothing.”

Me, being overcautious, asked, “Can you chop it out anyway?”.

The doctor agreed. “I’ll nick that off.” He put it in a tiny bottle – and unbeknownst to me, sent it off for testing.

A few days later he called me. “I’m terribly sorry. That thing is a cancerous melanoma. I need you to come back ASAP.”

I was working out of the SSW Brisbane office at the time, and flew home to Sydney to meet him at 8am the next day.

He cut a big hole in my back. For a tiny speck, barely a millimeter or so in size, the hole is huge. They had to go deep and wide to be sure they got it all, in order to keep it from metastasizing.

What I found especially interesting was that the spot wasn’t a big dark, spreading mole, like the kind I’ve been told to be wary of. This was small and white, easy to overlook. And yet it was cancer.

Figure: That small scab is where the doctor initially removed the spot and sent it for testing

Figure: Pixellated for the faint of heart – click the image to see the uncensored photo of the great hole the doctor had to cut in my back to remove all the surrounding tissue

My mate Andrew Vaughan also had a skin cancer removed recently. We were comparing notes when he said that 13% of people die when they get a melanoma, so he said that there was a 26% chance that one of us would die. I’m not sure about Vaughanie’s numbers, but I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I nearly had this left in my back for another year. That would have been crazy dangerous.

I’m a big believer in having built-in redundancy. I make sure it’s in the software SSW produces, and I apply it in my personal life – if I see a dentist who recommends a procedure like tooth removal, I’ll get a second opinion before making an unchangeable decision.

If I had my time again, I would have doubled my skin checks to every 6 months alternating experts, and I will from now on. I got lucky this time, but it’s not a chance I want to take again. I still have a lot to get done in this world.

Usually I try to keep my blog posts about business, but if just one person reads this and has the same “Aha moment” that I did when I saw that young man on the TV as a kid, then it will be worth it. Look after yourselves.