I had skin cancer like Fergie – don’t make the same mistake as me

In the wake of the Duchess of York’s diagnosis of a malignant melanoma, we explain why it’s so important to check your skin regularly – whatever your age.

The Duchess of York has announced that she has been diagnosed with the most serious form of skin cancer – a malignant melanoma.

Sarah Ferguson had a number of moles removed while undergoing breast reconstruction surgery last year and one was found to be cancerous. She is now undergoing further investigations.

Every year 2,300 people die from one of three types of skin cancer, yet almost all cases can be treated if they are diagnosed early enough. Like the Duchess, I was diagnosed with skin cancer, but like so many people, I didn’t think it would happen to me and lived with the cancer for two years before going to my GP.

A piece of paper with a partial description of skin cancer with a highligher pen which has highlighted melanomaCredit: Shutterstock /alejandro dans neergaard

Skin cancer rates in the UK are on the rise, with 270,000 new cases per year (of these some 250,000 are the less serious non-malignant forms), making it the most common cancer in the UK by far.

The three forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and, the most serious, malignant melanoma – this is the one the Duchess of York has been diagnosed with.

It isn’t the most common form of skin cancer but it causes twice as many deaths as the other skin cancers combined.

I didn’t know I had skin cancer

I lived with skin cancer for two years

When I first noticed the mark on my shin I thought it was a horse fly bite. I love walking and being outdoors and regularly pick up bites, stings and scratches on my legs.

But as the months passed this mark didn’t heal. I assumed I’d scratched it by accident, it had rubbed on my clothes or I’d caught it on something.

Then it would fade and I would forget about it, until it happened all over again. It was only a tiny mark and given time, I was sure it would go. It didn’t look like the images of skin cancers I had seen in magazines, newspapers and online. It just looked like a bite that wouldn’t heal.

Why I finally called the doctor

A year and then two years went by and it was still there. I read yet another skin cancer article in yet another newspaper and this time I decided to call my GP surgery. The receptionist told me to send in a photograph.

Two days later I was sat in front of the doctor, by luck a dermatologist. She booked me in the following week for a biopsy – “nothing to worry about,” she told me.  “Just a precaution.”

A week after the biopsy, the surgery called – the doctor wanted to see me. It’s the call that makes your heart sink and by the time she broke the news, I was ready for it. Skin cancer, but luckily for me it was the mildest version – a basal cell carcinoma.

My skin cancer treatment

Just a couple of weeks later I had the cancer and all the surrounding tissue cut out of the front of my shin. I was off my feet for a few days and hobbling for a couple of weeks. With so little flesh around the operation site, the healing took time and it was a few months before I could get back walking in the mountains again.

Waiting that extra time meant the cancer had grown, so more tissue had to be cut out and my recovery took longer – but it was an inconvenience rather than life changing.

I shared these photos on social media and a few weeks later a friend got in touch. She’d dismissed a mark on her arm as I had done. After seeing my post she’d had it checked, it was skin cancer and now she was due to have it removed.

Being so fair I’ve always used sun cream, but this was historic sun damage from the days when the highest SPF sun cream was eight and as a child I would often be covered in calamine lotion after a sunny weekend. Now I am vigilant in checking my skin regularly, so if it does come back I’ll be ready for it.

The risk of skin cancer increases with age

Do I need to check for skin cancer as I get older?

Saga spoke to Kathryn Clifford, the Co-founder of skin cancer charity, SKCIN – the only UK charity that represents both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. She founded it in 2006, following the loss of her mother Karen Clifford to melanoma at the age of 61.

She explained that it’s vital we keep checking for skin cancer, whatever our age.

“Skin cancer can strike at any time,” she said. “However, there’s no avoiding the fact that risk increases with age. It is incredibly important to conduct monthly, full-body, self-examinations, looking out for any new, unusual or changing lesions on the skin and to take immediate action with any concerns.”

Get to know your skin

“SKCIN recommend getting to ‘know’ your skin – paying attention to every lump, bump, mole, freckle and mark, to help you build confidence in recognising potential abnormalities.

“The majority of skin cancers arise on areas of skin that have been frequently exposed to the sun – such as the scalp, face, ears, neck, forearms and lower legs. However, it can arise anywhere on the skin, hence the need to take charge of your skin surveillance and, if possible, get someone to help you check hard-to-see areas, such as your back.

The signs of skin cancer

What does skin cancer look like and how can you minimise your risk? There are various signs to look out for, both in malignant and non-malignant forms – we’ve got all the facts here.

I’m worried about a mole – should I contact my doctor?

Should you bother your GP about a mark or mole?

Clifford says: “Getting them checked out as soon as possible is extremely important to remove any doubt and should treatment be required, immediate action can be taken. Early detection and diagnosis saves lives.”

Get it checked

Skin cancer seldom hurts and is far more frequently seen than felt. But, if detected, diagnosed and treated early, almost all cases are treatable or curable.

There are various types of skin cancer, that have a very varied appearance, so it’s important to know how to recognise potential signs and symptoms.

Recent statistics reveal that one in four men and one in five women in the UK will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime – and rates of the disease are rising faster than any other.

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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