Melanoma at 25
How would you cope?
Twenty-five year-old Gemma Cottam was recently shocked to discover that a mole on her face was in fact a stage 3 melanoma. After ten years, Gemma decided to have it removed for cosmetic reasons after getting engaged.
It was discovered that the melanoma had spread to the lymph nodes in Gemma’s neck, meaning they needed surgery to be removed. Gemma was left with big scars and is undergoing physio for nerve damage in her ear, neck and arm.
Whilst being helped back to recovery by fiancé Paul, Gemma wanted to share her story and show her scars to warn others to check their moles regularly. She has also been kind enough to chat with the team over here at the British Skin Foundation.
Gemma, you said you had the mole for ten years before getting it removed. If you could go back ten years, what would you say to your younger self?
Wow, I’ve been asked that question a lot, honestly, I have two answers. First of all I would go back and shake myself silly for not getting the mole removed in the first place… But, then I stop myself and think – if I hadn’t developed cancer, I wouldn’t be raising awareness like I am today. Going through it first-hand gives me a more powerful message, proof I suppose that I was one of those people who thought “it won’t happen to me!” Well it did and it can happen to you too!
But if I could, I would educate myself to the dangers, signs of melanoma, changes in my skin and the damage sunbeds can cause. I would tell myself, that tan you want isn’t worth it! “Gem, stick with the fake tan!”
Did you ever suspect that the mole was a melanoma or cancerous?
It had crossed my mind and looking back, I guess subconsciously that’s one of the main reasons I got it removed. You hear cancer everywhere, but once again you don’t think it will happen to you. So as quick as I thought about it, I forgot it. Looking back, I honestly didn’t think that my mole would have been a very serious stage 3 cancer.
What has been the hardest part about being diagnosed with melanoma?
Not knowing what’s going to happen to you. You hear cancer and think the worst. My world came to a standstill, it was like a horrible sickening ride and I wanted to get off. You hear that word and you think I’m going to die.
There was a point when I was at my lowest, around the time I was diagnosed as stage 3 melanoma, when I sat and questioned what would happen if the worst should occur. (Not many people know that).
Thinking back to that time is heart-breaking, especially watching the pain my family went through. Seeing how my cancer affected them too, I felt helpless but strangely grateful it was me fighting it, as I know I wouldn’t have been brave enough to watch one of them.
How did you react to the news that the melanoma had spread to your lymph nodes and that you would need an operation to remove them?
We had already been prepared for that news, but when it’s actually said to you it’s still a shock. I remember my family and fiancé Paul taking it badly. I sat there numb, watching his and my mum’s faces, watching the fear, worry and tears of heartbreak explode in front of me.
It took me a week or so to cry and let it out, then it was back to business. They explained the type of operation I was facing and I knew they wouldn’t scar a 25 year old girl so drastically on the neck if it wasn’t serious. It was devastating and this was the point at which I really began to get scared, beforehand I hadn’t let it.
I threw myself into my work raising awareness, keeping my Facebook page busy, building my website and sharing my story. That became one of my focuses.
Christmas started early. My results were due on the 25th November so by 29th my deccies were up! I’m a massive Christmas person so that became another focus. I even took a Christmas tree into hospital with me as I knew I’d be in there a while. Thankfully, they let me home in time for Christmas to be with my family and loved ones.
In terms of recovery after the operation, what part has been most challenging?
Oh gosh, I didn’t think it would take me so long to recover. The operation to have 22 lymph nodes removed was a very serious one – I’ve been left with a very big scar now.
During my first operation I had 3cm of extra skin taken and two primary lymph nodes removed. I basically had a face lift on one side where they pulled my skin up to close the 3cm gap, saving me from having a skin graft.
Recovery is hard and I’m still in a lot of pain from the last operation. I’m having physiotherapy for the nerve and tendon damage and I’m still unable to wash my own hair. Living with the tightness of my scar is like having someone’s hands wrapped around my neck 24/7 – the sensation is somewhat choking!
The physical changes in my appearance have also been hard. Whilst I’m very proud of my scar, it’s still sometimes hard not to let it get me down, especially when it’s so painful.
I’m very independent, so not being allowed to drive has been hard too. But since my results on the 13th January it has made it all worthwhile. None of the 22 lymph nodes removed contained any cancer.
What would you say to someone else in a similar position to you? Do you have any words of advice on how to cope?
I’ve been asked what the best advice I gave to myself was, so here it is…
Only worry when someone gives you something to worry about! After my operations always came the agonising wait for results. I taught myself that the hard part was over (the operation) and I focused on getting better rather than worrying in advance what the results might show. Sometimes it worked better than others, but it’s normal to have all sorts of emotions. Feel and embrace the negative ones but don’t let them rule you, there are good and bad days.
Don’t ever think you’re alone, there’s help available. You’re stronger than you think, braver than you see, you’re doing an amazing job – don’t give up hope!
My advice to people reading this who are worried about skin cancer, there’s info and help available. My Facebook and website has info about what to look out for. If you’re worried about anything – a mole, lump or irregular skin, please get it checked out! I got my mole checked and removed – it saved my life.
We know you’re keen to warn others to check their moles regularly following your experience, so we’ve included some handy links on checking skin below.
Remember, if you see any unusual changes to a patch of skin or mole then get it checked by your GP or dermatologist ASAP.
Team BSF wish Gemma all the best for her recovery, you can follow her journey on Facebook or her blog.
Check your skin!
Click here for advice on how to check your skin and more info on skin cancer.
Click here to view our It Takes 7 skin cancer campaign.
Follow our skin cancer campaign on Facebook or Twitter.
Find out about Molly the Mole here.