Friday 19 October 2018

'It was the size of my finger nail' - mum-of-three gets shock diagnosis of melanoma

An ad for mole screening led to a diagnosis of melanoma for one woman, writes Arlene Harris

Catherine Gaughan, who was diagnosed with skin cancer after having a mole test, at her home in Bohola, Co. Mayo. Photo : Keith Heneghan
Catherine Gaughan, who was diagnosed with skin cancer after having a mole test, at her home in Bohola, Co. Mayo. Photo : Keith Heneghan

Catherine Gaughan had a lot on her mind when her mother pointed out a large mole on her leg - so the Mayo woman ignored it for several months until a radio advert propelled her to have it checked out. And although she wasn't expecting there to be anything amiss, she was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma.

"At the beginning of the year, I had been suffering from stress, anxiety and depression so my mother dragged me out for a walk, during which she told me to get the mole on my left inside calf checked out," says the mother of three - Dylan (19), Hannah (9 ½ ) and Mollie (8).

"It was the size of my finger nail, a mixture of black, brown, red and white and was an irregular shape.

"I had gained three stone in weight so the mole, which had started out as a freckle during my last pregnancy, had got bigger too. I didn't do anything about it initially as I was finding life very hard and my main concern was getting my old self back but in the middle of June, my mum heard a lady on the radio talking about a new mole screening service from Boots and told me to book an appointment as soon as possible - which I did."

A week or so later, Catherine, who is married to Michael, went for a scan and within 24 hours was told that she needed to undergo further investigation.

"The assistant took my details and used a special device called an SIA Scope which emits light that can see 2mm below the skin," she says. "The procedure took 20 minutes and cost €39 - and €19 for each additional mole - and I was told that I would hear back within a week. But the next morning I got a call to say that my scan had been analysed and I needed to see my GP urgently to get referred to a specialist as it was possible I had a malignant melanoma.

"The nurse who called me was really supportive and emailed me the scan results to give to my GP. I rang my husband first to tell him the news and then my mother before calling my doctor to arrange an appointment.

He was highly concerned and I had an appointment in the urgent care unit in Roscommon a few days later."

The specialist decreed that it was almost certainly melanoma and Catherine underwent an excision biopsy before the mole was sent off for analysis. Results revealed that the mole was indeed malignant and she would need a further excision to ensure that the cells hadn't spread elsewhere.

She was given information about the procedure which lay ahead and also told she would be monitored every three months for the next 10 years as there was a risk of developing a malignant melanoma again.

"I was in shock and felt like I was having a bad dream," admits the 38-year-old. "I told my family and friends but deep down I could not believe it was happening - I was afraid I would die and I was worried about what my leg would look like if I had a skin graft, how we would pay the hospital bills and also how my children would cope.

"I also felt guilty about not going when my mother first noticed it and for not looking after myself properly - I felt I was letting my family down, first with the depression and anxiety and then getting cancer."

On August 13, Catherine went to hospital in Galway for the treatment which would remove any cancer cells.

"I was very scared - afraid of the unknown, if the melanoma had gone to my lymph nodes and what my leg would look like after," she says. The procedure took over two and half hours and the excision involved removing an area of 33mm x 20mm with a depth of 25mm.

"I also had a lymph node removed but thankfully I didn't have a skin graft.

I had a lot of pain afterwards and was in a plaster from knee to toe. Three days later I had my wounds checked and although I was anxious about what it would look like, the surgeon did a great job and it looked very neat."

Unfortunately, the ordeal wasn't over for the mother of three who went on to develop complications.

"A few days later my groin was very hard and swollen and I was given antibiotics but it didn't improve so I was sent back to hospital to have two lumps removed from my private area and fluid drained from my groin," she says.

"I was very sore for days and had more fluid removed and was advised to go for little walks and to try to stop the fluid building up.

"I was shown how to do manual lymph drainage as I am at risk of getting lymphoedema - a lifelong side effect of lymph node surgery. But I am well today and extremely grateful to Boots Ireland for their excellent service and also to the medical team, my family and friends.

"We all need to be educated on what to look for and should use sun protection every single day. It has been a life-changing experience for me and although I have never been one to sit out in the sun, I'm even more careful now and know that melanoma is the most serious and sneaky cancer you can get - and you can get it on any part of your body."

Developed in conjunction with ScreenCancer, the Boots Mole Scanning Service allows people aged 18 and over to have their moles or pigmented lesions scanned using a specialist device called a SIAscope.

The scan is then assessed by a dermatology specialist and each person will receive a report based on the specialist assessment.

Should a suspicious lesion be identified, the individual will be referred to their doctor or specialist for follow-on treatment. Ireland has then highest rate of deaths in Europe from malignant melanoma with 159 people dying from the disease each year, according to the Irish Cancer Society.

Other mole screenings available

* are located in Dublin and Limerick, tests cost from €30. n offers a full body check for €100 (adult) and €70 (child). n in Galway offers full body mapping and dermoscopy for €250. n with clinics in Dublin and Limerick offers individual mole mapping for €100 and full body mapping for €200

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