Warning after deadly detail in photo dismissed by doctors: 'SO shocked'

·News Editor
·5-min read

When Sarah Lee, 29, discovered a disconcerting growth on top of her head, she knew it probably wasn't good news.

Like anyone, she relied on the medical advice she received. But after multiple doctors told her it wasn't anything to worry about, Ms Lee was understandably horrified when she was later diagnosed with a stage three malignant melanoma.

That was January. Now the BBC journalist is sharing her story in hopes of warning others about the danger of the sun and the risk of melanomas – something that thousands of Australians are diagnosed with each year.

"PLEASE don’t underestimate the damage the sun can do," she posted on Twitter on Friday.

"Wear SPF, a hat, stay in the shade and get your moles checked."

The 29-year-old couldn't believe the news when she finally managed to get a biopsy of the mole.
The 29-year-old couldn't believe the news when she finally managed to get a biopsy of the mole. Source: BBC/Twitter

Ms Lee says she was taking a photo of her scalp in July last year to check if she needed new highlights for her hair. That's when she noticed the mole.

Writing about her experience in an article for the BBC, Ms Lee explained that her GP referred her to a dermatologist who ultimately dismissed the severity of the strange black growth on the top of her scalp.

"The skin specialist told me three things: it didn't look unusual, I was too young to have skin cancer, and that it was almost impossible to get melanoma on the scalp, as the hair acts as a barrier to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation," she wrote.

"Little did I know that all three of these statements were wrong and would soon put my life in danger."

About five months later, the mole had grown and multiplied. When she returned to the GP, the doctor reportedly told her it was likely a type of fungus that would soon go away on its own.

Sharing pictures of the mole this month, she still can't believe the faulty medical advice she received.

Sensing something wasn't right, she pushed to see another doctor and when a different dermatologist ordered a biopsy on the mole, Ms Lee's worst suspicions were confirmed.

"I had stage three malignant nodular melanoma - the most aggressive form of skin cancer. It had spread all the way down my skull," she wrote.

She was stunned. Growing up in Wales, she didn't use tanning beds and tried to take precautions in the sun.

After learning the cancer had spread, she soon went under the knife (multiple times) to remove all of the lymph nodes and tissue on the left side of her neck.

Currently there are no more signs of cancer in her body but Ms Lee is undergoing what she described as a "gruelling" 12-month regimen of cancer growth-blocking drugs.

After multiple surgeries, Ms Lee is cancer free, for now.
After multiple surgeries, Ms Lee is cancer free, for now. Source: Twitter/Instagram

In sharing her story, she wants people to understand the holistic impact a diagnosis like this case have on a patient.

"What people don't necessarily see is the toll the diagnosis, numerous surgeries, scans and appointments have had on my mental health," she wrote in the BBC article.

"From someone who loved the sun, I now shy away from it."

Melanoma instances on the decline in Australia

According to the Australian government's Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW), Ms Lee is relatively unlucky to be among those diagnosed with melanoma by the age of 30.

Thanks to numerous public education campaigns in recent decades, the risk of being diagnosed with melanoma of the skin by the age of 30 has more than halved in Australia after peaking at about 1 in 430 people in 1997, according to AIHW.

Following years of consistent decline, the risk of death from melanoma by the age of 30 is estimated at about 1 in 62,000 persons.

According to the Cancer Council Australia, there were 16,878 new cases of melanoma of the skin diagnosed in 2021.

There are three main types of skin cancer. While melanomas are the rarest, they’re also the deadliest.

"That’s the one people think of when they think of skin cancer," Heather Walker, the Chair of the National Skin Cancer Committee at the Cancer Council Australia, previously told Yahoo News Australia.

The other two, named after the cells they affect, are known as Basal cell carcinomas and Squamous cell carcinomas. They are much more common but less deadly.

"We might see around 15,000 cases a year of melanomas," Ms Walker said. "But almost a million treatments for other skin cancers a year in Australia."

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