After her diagnosis, the award-winning Co Armagh hairdresser and mother-of-one Keris Weir, who says she was never a sun worshipper, talks to Stephanie Bell
Top Northern Ireland hairdresser Keris Weir is starting the New Year feeling lucky to be alive after a recent skin cancer diagnosis.
The Co Armagh stylist and Belfast Telegraph columnist spent an anxious Christmas waiting for the results of a biopsy following a second surgery in December on a malignant mole.
And news just last week that she is now clear of cancer has prompted her to speak out and urge others not to take any chances with their health.
The mum-of-one is pleading with people to avoid sunbeds and the deadly risks they pose in causing melanoma.
Keris (39) from Lurgan, who is a single mum to Sienna (4), had ignored changes to the shape of a mole on her stomach for many months before mentioning it to her doctor last September.
She was still unconcerned when she found herself very quickly referred to hospital and, as a result, was completely unprepared when told she had stage two skin cancer.
“I feel so lucky that I did finally get the mole checked but I had ignored it for a long time thinking it was nothing to be worried about,” she says.
“I grew up with a poor education on skin cancer. I wasn’t a sun worshipper or someone who used sunbeds, which is what I associated skin cancer with.
“I am fair skinned and blue eyed and apparently that makes me more susceptible — something I never knew. My message is that people really do need to know the risks.
“Sunbeds are huge now and it’s almost like an addiction for some people.
“To me, getting into a sunbed is like getting into your own coffin and, as harsh as that sounds, you are raising your risk of skin cancer every time you get on a sunbed.”
Keris, who runs the Keris Weir salon in Lurgan, which was famously founded by her mum Margaret Gardiner, is best known for having won the UK-wide E4 TV series Great British Hairdresser in 2011.
She has always been very driven in her career and has won numerous industry awards including Northern Ireland Hairdresser of the Year and All-Ireland Hairdresser of the Year three times.
She is also a British Hairdressing champion, British Bridal champion, British Ladies Cut and Blowdry champion and Goldwell Master Colourist.
But winning the E4 series, which involved competing with nine other high street hairdressers for the chance to win a dream job with celebrity stylist James Brown, really propelled her into the limelight and put her among the elite in the industry.
She spent the next three years in London living the dream while working as a stylist for top TV shows such as the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, and touring the world to work with supermodels like Kate Moss and celebrities like Nicole Scherzinger.
A day at the office often meant styling models or celebrities for glossy magazine photoshoots for the likes of Vogue, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Tatler, OK and Heat.
Since returning home she has poured her heart into establishing her Lurgan salon and has attracted such a large clientele that this year she has ambitious plans to open a second “cutting edge” outlet and new hairdressing training centre in Belfast.
Looking forward to what she hopes will be a huge year ahead for her business, Keris says her out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis led to a fearful end to 2019.
“I do have a lot of moles and I am very freckly and fair skinned,” she says. “I grew up in the Eighties with a mum who was very dark and swarthy and who would have put oil on to sunbathe, so I was never aware of the risks of skin cancer.
“I had a mole under my chest high up on the right hand side of my stomach which seemed to change shape slightly after my pregnancy with Sienna.
“I just thought it was due to the pregnancy and the stretching of the skin during it. It was a circular mole about the size of a five pence piece and it had become a bit lopsided and a bit darker in colour but it wasn’t raised or causing me any bother.
“It had been like that for a couple of years and it was only when I was at the doctor in September about something else that I mentioned it and asked him to have a look at it.
“My GP thought it would be best to get it checked and referred me to the dermatology unit in Craigavon Hospital.”
Keris was surprised when she received an appointment just two weeks later to attend the clinic. After the mole was examined, a further appointment was made for her to come in for a day surgery to have it removed.
“I wasn’t alarmed at all,” she says. “It never dawned on me that it could be something sinister and, being a busy mum and running a business, I thought I would go in, get it removed and it would be nothing.
“On the day of the surgery I was still thinking it was going to be easy and wasn’t at all concerned. It took longer than I thought and they cut away a lot more than I thought. But they patched me up and I had 11 stitches — and away I went still not thinking that it was anything to worry about.”
That was at the end of September and on November 6 Keris was called back to the hospital for what she thought was a check-up. She was totally unprepared to be told she had cancer.
“As soon as I arrived at the hospital I just knew by the way the nurse was talking that she was the bearer of bad tidings,” she recalls.
“She said to me ‘unfortunately it is not good news’ and my heart dropped as I thought I was there just for a check-up. I was in no way prepared for what she was about to tell me.
“She said they had found cancer in the mole. My body went all funny, like I had pins and needles. Then she said it was stage two and alarm bells really began to ring.
“I had left the salon to go to the appointment and I had another client booked in after it, so I had to go straight back to work. I was told I needed more surgery to remove a large area around the mole, and I was given a Macmillan leaflet and sent on my way.
“I think I was on autopilot as I walked back to the car and went back to work. Work proved to be a saving grace for me as it gave me something to focus on.
“The nurse did say that I was lucky they had got it on time and that stuck in my head — I was so thankful that I went to the doctor when I did, especially as I wasn’t worried about it.”
Keris underwent more surgery to have a large area of skin removed from around her mole just before Christmas.
She spent an anxious time over the Christmas period worrying about biopsy results and was relieved last week to be told that she was clear.
She now feels compelled to help raise awareness of the risks of skin cancer.
“I really thought skin cancer was something that happened to people who were sun worshippers or who used sunbeds a lot and the fact that I didn’t fall into either of these two categories is what makes it even scarier,” she admits.
“I honestly never thought I was at risk of skin cancer.
“I believe skin cancer awareness isn’t great and especially among young people who use sunbeds.
“I faced a waiting game over Christmas to see if the cancer had spread as apparently it can go into your lymph nodes.
“When you are a mother it is very scary as you just don’t have yourself to think about but also a child who is so dependent on you.
“All sorts go through your head and I even thought ‘could this be my last Christmas?’
“When I got the phone call last week to say the biopsy was clear I was delighted.
“I do feel very lucky, although now I have the cancer label and that changes things. I will have to go for check-ups every three months and they showed me how to check my lymph glands which I now have to do regularly.
“It will make me very cancer-aware for the rest of my days.
“I am so grateful that my life was saved and it has made me want to warn others of the dangers of skin cancer and the importance of getting checked as early as possible, especially if a mole has changed in any way.”
A very relieved Keris is now firmly focused on the year ahead when she has ambitious plans to open a new salon in Belfast, the details of which she is keeping under wraps for now.
Known for her balayage hair colouring and, as a specialist in hair extensions, she plans to create a salon that will also serve as a training school to teach both techniques.
“I am hoping that 2020 is exceptional for me as I have big plans and I am super-excited,” she says.
“What I am planning is really cool and something that hasn’t been done before. I hope to give Belfast something it doesn’t have.
“I don’t want to say much more yet until details are confirmed but if all goes according to plan I hope to open it in March or April.”
Keris plans to split her time between her well established salon in Lurgan’s Union Street and her new venture in Belfast.
“What I plan is to offer people a magical experience in what will be a very cool and chic and ‘Instagramable’ salon,” she adds.