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Ingrown hair or melanoma? Dean’s skin cancer story

Dean and his girlfriend in a garden
At 27, Dean didn't consider himself at risk of skin cancer.

Three months after having surgery to remove melanoma from his thigh, Dean’s just started to be able to walk around normally again. If it wasn’t for his girlfriend Jess, he might be missing a lot more of his leg or undergoing even more significant treatments.

A 27-year-old IT consultant, checking his skin for changes that could indicate cancer wasn’t really a priority for Dean. But after returning from a trip to Italy where the couple saw a lot of sun, Jess was keen that they both get their skin checked.

“I was just being a stubborn 27-year-old, just being lazy, I guess. I thought I didn’t need to go,” says Dean.

But he had a few suspicious moles on his back and the appointment was free, so Dean went along to get checked. The moles turned out to be fine, but as his doctor looked over the rest of his body, he was interested in a small, pink bump on Dean’s upper thigh.

“It looked like a little ingrown hair or a pimple or something,” says Dean. “It was about 2-3 millimetres across. He asked me what it was, and I said, ‘I don’t know, just an ingrown hair?’”

But the doctor wasn’t so sure and took some close-up pictures of the spot. When Dean returned just three weeks later, the doctor was able to show him how it had changed in size and shape. It was melanoma.

“They took a biopsy and confirmed it was cancer. We found out it was cancerous on the Thursday and I had it out on the Monday after that.”

The spot that turned out to be melanoma on Dean's leg

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. While it’s one of the less common types of skin cancer, it’s very serious because it can spread to other parts of the body. More than 3,600 Queenslanders will be diagnosed with melanoma every year. In 2019 alone, an estimated 1,725 Australians will die from the disease.

Around 95% of cases of melanoma are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun. Unprotected exposure to the sun, particularly during childhood, is one of the main risk factors for developing melanoma. Other risk factors include:

  • a history of childhood tanning or sunburn
  • lots of moles on the body – more than 10 moles above the elbow on your arms and more than 100 on your body put you at a higher risk
  • moles that have an irregular shape and uneven colour
  • having previously had melanoma or a different type of skin cancer
  • a strong family history of melanoma
  • pale, fair or freckled skin that burns easily and doesn’t tan
  • a history of short, intense periods of sun exposure, such as tanning on the weekend or on holidays, especially if it caused sunburn
  • green or blue coloured eyes and fair or red hair
  • a weakened immune system from using immune suppression medicines

You can check your melanoma risk using the Melanoma Risk Predictor created by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, and talk to your GP about ways to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

Dean doesn’t have a family history of skin cancers, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time in the sun. His cancer was so high up on his leg, he didn’t really think about getting skin cancer there. “If anything, I thought it would be on my nose – I’ve got a pretty big Italian nose that has been burnt in the past,” he says.

When should I get checked for skin cancers?

As Dean’s story shows, skin cancer isn’t just something that affects older people. In fact, melanoma is the most common cancer in young Aussies aged 15-39.

At any age, it’s really important that you’re aware of your skin and what moles or marks you have, so you can see if anything new appears or anything changes. Read our guide about how to check your own skin for changes and make it a regular habit. If you notice a change, get it checked out by your doctor as soon as possible.

Cancer Council Australia recommends getting familiar with your skin as the best step to noticing changes possibly linked to skin cancer. Your GP or a specialist doctor can check your skin for you as well, but remember that you are the person who sees your skin every day. Taking responsibility for knowing your skin could be potentially lifesaving.

How can I prevent melanoma?

The best way to prevent melanoma is reduce your exposure to UV radiation from the sun. If possible plan your outdoor activities for early morning or late afternoon when UV radiation is less intense, and  follow the Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide rule. You can read more tips for sun safety in our article Five things every Queenslander should know about sun safety.

Like Dean, you could still develop melanoma without having a lot of sun exposure or high-risk skin. This is why it’s so important to be aware of what your skin normally looks like, so you spot any early changes to existing moles or freckles, or new ones appearing.

The scar from Dean's surgery.

Recovering and staying aware

It’s safe to say, Jess is pretty happy she forced Dean to get his skin checked.

“We’re both very happy I went. I think she took it worse than me, because I wasn’t going to go. I’ll forever be thankful for her talking me into going!”

To treat Dean’s melanoma, the affected area and surrounding tissue were cut out of his leg. Because it was caught early, he didn’t have to have other treatments, like removal of lymph nodes or radiation therapy, which can be used to treat more advanced melanomas. Even so, he spent weeks on the couch and found it hard to move around as he recovered. “It was pretty sore,” he remembers. “I couldn’t play sport for months, I just use that part of my leg so much to move.”

Dean will now return for check-ups every three months. If he stays clear of melanoma, in two years, he can drop back to every 6 months. In the meantime, he’s keeping a close eye on his skin.

“I’m hyper aware of these things now. I wouldn’t say I’m on edge, because I don’t think that’s a good way to live if you’re constantly fretting about it. But I do take the extra minute, say if I’m in the shower and I see something and think that looks funny, I should keep an eye on that.”

And what would Dean tell other young people about skin cancer, now that he’s beaten it himself?

“I’ve been telling all my friends to notice changes on their skin and go get checked. It takes half an hour. Just do it, no matter how much you’re in the sun. If you’re in the sun once a year like I was, or if you’re in the sun all day every day, just go get checked.”

More information

You can find more information about melanoma and other skin cancers at the links below.

Cancer Council Queensland – Information and symptoms of melanoma

Queensland Government – Sun safety and skin cancer

Melanoma Institute Australia

Cancer Australia – Melanoma of the skin

Last updated: 3 December 2019