Hannah’s dad, Glen Ryan - a teacher at Lake Macquarie High School - was just 58 when he died from melanoma leaving his wife, Annette, Hannah and her brother Nicholas, devastated.
"There were no warning signs. Dad just woke up one morning uncoordinated and unresponsive and was taken to emergency where he had seizures and was revived. An MRI revealed two brain tumours requiring urgent brain surgery. The pathology confirmed a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma. Our world, as we knew it, was turned upside down.” Hannah said.
A full body PET scan revealed more tumours in Glen’s lung which required invasive lung surgery. Targeted radiation therapy on the site of the brain tumours began, followed by full brain radiation that caused some debilitating side effects. This treatment coincided with the discovery that the tumours had returned at the original site along with 15 new ones.
"Dad’s health was deteriorating rapidly and at this point the doctors realised they were fighting a losing battle.”
Glen was admitted to the Mater Hospital but did not respond to medication. Although his doctors had not given up on the possibility of trialing a new treatment, unfortunately, there were no more treatment options available. Perhaps if the melanoma had not spread to Glen's brain, he may have survived longer.
Glen passed away in October 2015 - just 8 months after he was first diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. Doctors did not find the original site of the melanoma on his skin.
For Hannah and her family the question remains - if Glen had been for regular skin checks - could his early death have been prevented? No-one can answer that - but to suddenly find yourself with Stage 4 melanoma - the likelihood that it did start from a skin lesion is high.
Glen grew up in Charlestown and spent long days as a kid in the sun around the family pool and at Cams Wharf, the Broadwater in Queensland, body surfing at Nobbys and, in his later years, his days were spent fishing around Lake Macquarie in his beloved tinny off the boat ramp at Valentine (where Hannah was photographed). He inherited his fair, freckled skin from his Scottish mother and Irish father who both came from regions where a sunburnt childhood was never a problem. Take northern hemisphere skin and put it on a scorching beach in NSW and the risk of skin cancer soars. There was no talk of sun safety, sunscreen or skin cancer back in the day… it was all bronzed Aussies and 'healthy tans'.
He was an accomplished basketball player reaching a national level in under 20s, playing for Newcastle Hunters (Life member and Hunter Institute of Sport Hall of Famer) so his chosen sport was indoor and could not have been a contributing factor.
"He loved camping and caravanning” Hannah said. "I have great memories of family holidays camping at Harrington and Grassy Head. In fact Dad, being the planner he was, had already looked into going caravanning with mum as soon as he retired. He was looking forward to having the time of his life - not being thrust into the fight of his life - which he could never win” Hannah lamented.
"Dad was the type of person who always put other people first whether it be his family, friends or colleagues. He supported his family to the upmost and ensured they were always looked after. He was the superglue that held our family of four together, as well as his extended family, being one of six siblings."
Glen had never had a skin check. Though his father, two brothers and two sisters had been diagnosed with melanomas - picked up through skin checks - for some reason it did not occur to him to have his done. "As a father he was much more aware of staying out of the sun and using sun protection on us kids - but unfortunately the damage was done. The skin remembers.
I know there is a bowel cancer screening kit that gets sent out every 2 years to everyone over 50 as part of an early detection program…. maybe a reminder to get your skin checked could be sent out at the same time?
The simple truth is - a ten minute skin check could have saved my father’s life. My brother and I both have regular skin checks now and many people that know us and knew Dad now get skin checks as well. I’d like to shout it from the rooftops … “Get your skin checked!!!". This disease is 95% curable when detected early. Believe me, you don’t want to go through what my dad and our family have been through."
The shock and sadness of witnessing a life suddenly cut short by melanoma is all too common.
"There’s not a day that goes past where he isn't missed… but he will never be forgotten. When you lose someone who has had such a impact on so many lives, you are constantly reminded with beautiful memories of a remarkable son, husband, father and uncle. We are frequently reminded with sadness of what we’re missing out on with him not being here with, us through the little things to the big milestones, like becoming a grandfather for the first time in June 2018."
*It is thought in some quarters, that the many pale-skinned miners that came from the colder climes of the northern hemisphere to work underground in our Hunter Valley mines could well be a contributing factor to this region's unusually high incidence of melanoma. To this day many miners spend up to 48 weeks a year underground and 4-6 weeks holidays at the beach. These short burst of intense sun and sunburns puts them at a higher risk of skin cancer and melanoma.