How being diagnosed with skin cancer taught these Northern Ireland people to take care in sun
Skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the UK — however, most cases can be cured if detected early. Here, three people who have had the disease tell Leona O’Neill about their experiences and warn others to respect sunlight.
'The doctor said my skin cancer might have originated in childhood... we didn't really wear sunscreen then'
Adrian Carlin (48) is a taxi driver who lives in the Bogside, Londonderry. Since 2010 he has had 13 skin cancer lesions removed. He is currently having two more spots investigated on his neck and forehead.
"Back in 2009 I went to the doctor with a kidney infection," he says. "I hate going to the doctor and I wasn't even going to go until my partner Nichola convinced me. When I was in I mentioned to the doctor about a nodule with flakes of really dry skin on my nose. It would have bled, then healed over and then opened up again ... and this went on for a few months.
"The doctor said there and then that it was basal cell carcinoma. I asked him if that was cancer. And he said it was, but that I wasn't going to be making my will just yet. I was taken aback, but I wasn't afraid. I just wanted it sorted out.
"He said that my cancer was normally slow growing and that it was a lesser form of the skin cancer. He said it normally stays local and doesn't spread.
"But I seem to be a walking contradiction, because it has spread to a few places with me."
Adrian was referred to Altnagelvin Hospital and had his first surgery just before Christmas that year.
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"They removed the spot from my nose," he says. "Because of where it was on my nose they had to take a skin graft from my neck. It looked small on my nose but whatever way it grows it burrows deep and they had to go right into the bone.
"Two years later I developed another two nodules on my eyebrow and I had to have surgery there too. It was awful. I ended up having to get around 40 stitches. It was all done under local anaesthetic.
"They just freeze you up like at the dentist. They have to keep you awake because they cut out the cancer and cut a margin around it, then they have to do a quick lab test to make sure they have got it all or need to cut some more. It was really bad looking and took a long time to recover.
"In 2012 I developed another nodule, and another in 2014. I developed four pre-cancer lesions along the bottom of my neck in 2016, all of which were dealt with and I have one on the side of my neck which I have to have investigated now."
Adrian says he wouldn't have spent his days sunbathing and has never been on a foreign holiday in the sun.
"I wouldn't have been a big sun worshipper," he says.
"The doctor did say that skin cancer is usually caused by sun damage.
"He says that it might have been caused in childhood. We didn't really wear sunscreen when we were kids, we all just ran around from morning until night during summers. He said that it could have happened back then and lain dormant and come out.
"I don't take foreign holidays - I don't like flying - and don't lie out in the sun. But I still got it.
"I do look after my skin now. I always make sure that I am covered up and wear sunscreen even on cloudy days. My doctor told me to wear hats that cover my face and neck. He advised me to cover up, even when it's cloudy.
"My experience has made me very aware. I am hyper-vigilant and I can spot things on my own skin. And I spot things on other people's skin and I tell them to go to the doctor."
Adrian says that, although he has had quite the journey with skin cancer, he doesn't feel that "it is on the same scale as other cancers".
"When you tell people you have cancer, they think you are dying," he said. "I'm not. There are people with brain tumours and lung tumours who are a lot, lot worse.
"I feel embarrassed telling people about it, because I think people might think, it's only skin cancer, forget about it.
"It doesn't scare me. I just think that it is irrelevant compared to some people's situations."
‘I brought this upon myself... all I wanted was to have a tan like everyone else’
Jacqueline Gallagher (54) is a mother-of-two from Strabane. The fair-skinned redhead, who is married to Paul, says when she was told that she had skin cancer she felt she 'brought it on' herself by spending years seeking tanned skin.
"I noticed something on my nose that would never heal properly back in 2013," she says. "One day it was like a cut, the next it was healed. I would get an appointment to see the doctor and it would be gone again. This went on for a long time.
"I went to the doctor and he said it was a basal cell carcinoma. I was totally shocked. I thought I was going to die of skin cancer. It scared the living daylights out of me. It was awful.
"They sent me to the hospital and they removed it, but it kept coming back and it seemed to get deeper. Then it was diagnosed as a tumour and then they removed that also. I had to have a skin graft because the area being removed was so big, they used the skin on my neck. But then about seven of these basal cells on my chest and back were activated. I had to have them treated and burnt off.
"I have a scar on my nose, which is demoralising, particularly for a female.
"It's not vanity, but your face is your face."
Jacqueline blames years of sunbathing for her condition.
"I thought through this, I have basically done this to myself," she says. "I have abused myself. When I was a child I had no say on whether I had sun cream on or not. But later on, all I wanted to be was tanned because everyone else was.
"I am a redhead with fair skin. But when I went on holiday I lay out in the sun and was the last one away from the pool.
"I remember one of the doctors at the hospital saying to me that I should never have been in the sun with my red hair, freckles and fair skin. I have relatives and friends who are red-haired and have freckles, and I am constantly telling them to be wary.
"But sometimes it doesn't matter what you tell them, people are still dying for a tan."
Jacqueline says she is still getting treatment for more spots on her nose and has to be constantly vigilant about changes in her skin.
"Your whole lifestyle changes," she says. "You are putting sun cream on all the time. You have to wear hats. Your clothes change. You wouldn't wear vest tops outside. It has made me hyper-vigilant.
"Every time I get up in the morning I check my skin. I have to do it.
"I would rather catch it before it gets too far.
"There was a girl I know who was diagnosed at the same time as me. She developed a melanoma and she died. And that scared me.
"This type of experience has made me think about my own mortality and also of the things I could have done to prevent this cancer happening.
"Between sunbeds and sun worshipping and lying out without proper sun protection, it is scary what I did - but people are still doing it.
"I think people should stay away from sunbeds.
"People need to respect the sun and protect themselves."
‘Being swarthy, I thought it couldn’t happen to me... but I was taken to theatre right away ’
George Larmour (70), who is retired, lives in Belfast with his wife Sadie. The self-confessed 'sun worshipper' says he was shocked to discover a small spot on the tip of his nose was basal cell carcinoma.
"I had gone to Florida for most of my life with my family and I had been to Portugal too," he says. "I was a sun worshipper. I'm swarthy, whereas my wife would be fair-skinned.
"Over the years I would have always used sun cream because I am aware that the Florida sunshine is pretty severe.
"I went to Portugal last September and I came back with what you would almost consider a mosquito bite, it was that tiny. It was on the tip of my nose. And no matter what I put on it, it didn't seem to heal.
"I felt stupid going to my doctor for what looked like a red spot. But he looked at it up close and sent me to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
"The doctor there said it looked like a basal cell carcinoma. I asked him what it was and he said it was the lowest form of skin cancer.
"He said that it was the sort that can't go anywhere else, but it's usually something that is caused by too much sun over the years. I was shocked. Being swarthy I thought it couldn't happen to me. I asked him if he was sure and he said he was taking me to theatre right there and then.
"And they did, to do what they call a 'punch biopsy' to take out the core. I was awake when they did it. That was last September and it has only just settled into a kind of dent in my skin."
George warns others to wear sunscreen, even when they are not on holidays.
"People wear sun cream when they are in Spain on holiday," he says. "But as my doctor said to me, what people don't realise is that they are walking around Northern Ireland without protection when it's sunny and they don't feel that it's important.
"I guess what happened to me is that I had lounged in the sun for a number of years on holiday, yes, but also not being aware that I should really have been doing the same here when we get good weather.
"It came out of the blue for me, but my doctor said that I was very lucky. He said that if it had been a squamous cell carcinoma I would have had to have done all sorts of tests to see if it had gone somewhere else.
"He said that had I left it, the punch biopsy that they would have had to do would have been much larger and they might have had to take half of my nose away.
"I am very aware now about changes in my skin. But I have a bit of a blase attitude to life, that there are worse things in life that happen. In the grand scheme of life, I am 70 years old. Such is life. I think people are mad for going on sunbeds. They don't know what they are doing to themselves. I would encourage people to enjoy life and enjoy sunshine, but be sensible and wear sunscreen and a hat."
For more information on what to look out for on your skin, visit www.britishskinfoundation.org.uk/what-is-skin-cancer