Though Melissa grew up a fair way from the coast at Woodberry and Thornton, her dad and brother were keen surfers so summer weekends were family days at the beach. Holidays were always to some tropical beach location like Queensland, Port Macquarie or Fiji - the beach culture was a way of life for Melissa.
"As a teenager I would regularly catch the train into the beach with friends to sun bake, without sunscreen, to get a tan.” Melissa said “I was a blonde, blue-eyed and quite freckled so I would always burn - at times so badly that I would blister.” Skin cancer and melanoma were not on Melissa’s radar until she was in her early twenties and began getting her skin checked once a year at her GP. In August 2016 just prior to a skincheck, she noticed a clear small lump come up underneath a freckle she had on her right forearm.
"It just looked like a normal freckle, I wasn’t worried about it.” Melissa’s GP agreed - he thought it looked fine but, just to be safe, removed the freckle and sent it away for testing. The test came back all clear. Melissa then went to Bali for a carefree, sun-soaked holiday and spent the following summer sunbaking on the local beaches whenever the chance arose. Ten months after the initial excision and pathology Melissa received a call from her GP.
It seems there was a problem with the original pathology ten months earlier.
One particular pathologist was diagnosed with an eyesight problem causing a review of all cases that pathologist had worked on in the prior 12 months. Unfortunately, the GP explained, Melissa had been misdiagnosed, the pathology was incorrect and her ‘benign freckle” was in fact melanoma. This was a devastating blow. There was no melanoma in her family - a few bcc skin cancers burnt off here and there in older generations, but Melissa did not consider herself a high risk of melanoma.
“It was quite a shock to suddenly be visiting the Newcastle Melanoma Unit and preparing for surgery for a wider excision on my forearm as well as precautionary removal of a lymph node” she says looking back. Luckily the surgeon was able to give Melissa the good news that he removed all trace of the melanoma on her arm and the lymph node was clear of melanoma - which meant it hadn’t spread during the long delay in diagnosis.
Melissa know’s blue eyed fair-skinned people are more likely to suffer from skin cancers - but the carefree beach lifestyle and that elusive tan were much more front of mind for a teenager…. with no thoughts of melanoma or skin damage.
“I don’t go out in the sun now without sun protection… hat, sunscreen, sleeves... and if I ever feel the need for a tan, I get a spray tan” said Melissa. “I’d like young people to realise it CAN happen to them! I never thought it would happen to me - and it did. I’m just really lucky this deadly disease didn’t cut my life short."