Wednesday 16 August 2017

'An insignificant freckle on my thigh was a malignant melanoma' - Dad (32) diagnosed with skin cancer after welcoming son

In 2016, after welcoming his first son with wife Aisling, Brian Quinn (32) was diagnosed with skin cancer

Brian Quinn with his wife Aisling and baby son Conor, now 20 months.
Brian Quinn with his wife Aisling and baby son Conor, now 20 months.
Brian Quinn with his wife Aisling and baby son Conor, now 20 months.
Brian Quinn was diagnosed with melanoma in 2016.
Brian Quinn was diagnosed with cancer soon after welcoming son Conor, now 20 months.

Brian Quinn

It was Friday December 2 and as I awaited my name to be called by the doctor I had one thought running over and over in my head - "I hope they hurry up or I’ll miss the start of the Christmas party."

My primary concern was how inconvenient it was that a work social gathering was clashing with a follow up with the Dermatology Department of Tallaght Hospital. In my head this was simply a routine appointment and I even remarked to a friend that it was going to one of those typical appointments where I’d wait around just to be told the biopsy was all clear, simple straight forward news that could have been delivered over the phone.

Brian Quinn with his wife Aisling and baby son Conor, now 20 months.
Brian Quinn with his wife Aisling and baby son Conor, now 20 months.

Never once had I considered the news could be anything but positive. I was 32,  going to the gym four days a week, cycling 60km in and out of work each week. I had a good diet. I didn’t look sick, I didn’t feel sick. I reassured myself safe in the knowledge that a healthy person can’t be a sick person.

Life at this stage really couldn’t be any better. I was a new dad to the most wonderful little boy, Conor. Our lives were about trips to the park and singing nursery rhymes. Myself and my wife Aisling had just started our lives together, and yet one little word seemed to bring all that crashing down – cancer. 

What I considered to be an insignificant freckle on my right thigh was a malignant melanoma. Malignant melanoma? My first reaction was well at least it wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t until a couple of minutes later that the actual term skin cancer made its way into the conversation and from that point it all became a blur.

I’m a huge believer in the power of the mind and its effect on controlling the rest of the body, but as I sat there being told what it all meant, I listened to every word the doctor said and heard absolutely none of it. I left with pamphlets from the National Cancer Society and a print out about the stages of melanoma stuffed in my pocket – almost in fear that people would now know I was leaving the hospital ‘with’ skin cancer.

The number of Irish people diagnosed with melanoma in Ireland trebled since 1994. Credit: Irish Skin Foundation/Protect &Inspect
The number of Irish people diagnosed with melanoma in Ireland trebled since 1994. Credit: Irish Skin Foundation/Protect &Inspect

It was on that short drive home from Tallaght that I decided not to tell Aisling. I was strong enough to take this news and compartmentalise it and I would dig it out when I was ready to share. I justified my silence through my absence of detail. I would do some research over the weekend and then explain everything. Honestly I felt it would be selfish to tell her and I was scared she’d look at me with pity – that was one emotion I couldn’t handle.

I arrived late to the Christmas Party and stayed out later – as I put the key in the door the thought wouldn’t leave my mind - I have skin cancer. I went up to bed and woke my sleeping wife and broke down.  Bottling it up had only made it worse. With the news still so raw I needed support and reassurance and Aisling was there to provide it in abundance. Over the following days, I had various phone calls from the hospital. Surgery was scheduled in five days time.

Saying to friends and family that you have cancer creates a unique, uncomfortable sadness. Apart from that one night I never shed a tear as a result of this illness. I was now telling friends and family and at times I had to manage their grief more than my own. Every single one of them was coming from a place of love and support and I was so lucky to have it but retelling the story and explaining what had happened over and over was both mentally and physically exhausting. Letters of get well soon and Mass cards from well-wishing relatives, were hastily read, acknowledged with a text of thanks, and quickly shoved in a drawer. One could argue in doing so I wasn’t truly dealing with it but my focus was maintaining as much normality as possible and being reminded to get well just didn’t do it for me.

I considered myself very fortunate. All the talk was that the surgery was a success and in my head cancer would soon be behind me. I had one final hospital visit on the 23rd December. With stitches removed and about to walk out the door I couldn’t resist "any sign of the results?" I’ll never forget my surgeon diligently checking the system before briefly pausing to tell me "unfortunately it has spread." We discussed the options at length but in essence I needed to prepare myself for treatment and additional surgery.

Brian Quinn with his wife Aisling and baby son Conor, now 20 months.
Brian Quinn with his wife Aisling and baby son Conor, now 20 months.

At home we were wrapping presents and planning for our first real family Christmas. In the space of three weeks, cancer had taken a lot from me and I had no idea what was ahead of me. I wanted Christmas 2016 to be memorable, so having learned nothing I promised to keep moving forward and keep the news to myself once again.

When I did finally tell my wife on December 27, we both sat there having a glass of wine in silence. In the weirdest of ways it was a special moment. There is something amazing about a person knowing exactly what you are thinking without saying a word. That evening we agreed that whatever was ahead of us would require all our energy; we couldn’t waste any of it on the things we couldn’t change. Mentally I now viewed this as a competition. I have always been competitive and treating it this way was my first step towards actually coping.

This year hasn’t been easy. There have been ups and plenty of downs but I’ve been very lucky following additional successful surgeries. At times I have felt like a part-time dad and a part time husband. I’ve been so lucky to be supported by so many along my journey but no more so than my wife. Aisling has been my rock and I couldn’t have done it without her. They say people often walk alongside you during the difficult times. In Aisling’s case she walked behind me and pushed me forward when I needed it. Changing dressings, emptying drains, and sitting alongside me for hours at appointments – never once did she give out. She’s been amazing and words cannot express how grateful I am. Cancer has now made me value the most important things in life friends, family and relationships.

I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of cancer and I’m comfortable with that. From a medical perspective I’ll be in the system for the next seven years with a plethora of scans and follow ups. No doubt the sense of nerves and unease will return each time one of these scans rears its head but that’s to be expected. Hopefully at the end of the seven years I will be saying I’m officially cancer free but it’ll never be gone. Wearing sun cream in March, wearing a cap in September, these small changes will all be a subtle reminder of how lucky I’ve been and what I went through.

Brian Quinn was diagnosed with melanoma in 2016.
Brian Quinn was diagnosed with melanoma in 2016.

To all the team in Tallaght Hospital who I met along this journey, in particular Dr Amy Gillis, I thank you. I struggle to express how much of a positive impact you made during the most difficult of times. Your medical expertise was to be expected but the care, compassion and friendship you displayed towards me went way beyond what I could have envisioned and I am truly appreciative of all that you have done.

I was so fortunate because I caught the cancer early. Males, in particular young males, don’t bother to get things checked. I was one of them too – why make a fuss. If I was sick I’d know – you’d see signs. Luckily I heeded the advice of others. Malignant melanoma is now the fastest growing form of cancer in Ireland. If you have any concerns at all just go get yourself checked. The news doesn’t get any better the longer you leave it.

Brian Quinn was diagnosed with cancer soon after welcoming son Conor, now 20 months.
Brian Quinn was diagnosed with cancer soon after welcoming son Conor, now 20 months.

Alarming new figures released by the Irish Skin Foundation this month show that melanoma is becoming more and more prevalent in this country.

More than a thousand Irish people were diagnosed with melanoma in 2014 - almost three times as many as in 1994, when 386 cases were documented.

For more information on the symptoms of melanoma, and for tips on how to protect yourself in the sun visit irishskin.ie or www.melanomatrust.com

Symptoms of Melanoma

Melanomas tend to:

1) Be Asymmetrical

2) Have an irregular Border

3) Have multiple Colours

4) Have a Diameter greater than 6mm

5) Evolve, enlarge or change

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