Since her early twenties, Maureen Meehan, 63, has been diligent in protecting her skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays and frequently checking moles on her body.
For this reason, it came as a major shock to the London, Ont., resident in August of 2017, when she found out she had stage 3 melanoma — a fatal form of skin cancer, which had quickly metastasized, spreading to her lymph nodes.
“The first thing I thought of was my daughter and husband and it was upsetting for me to think that maybe they’d have to go on without me,” Meehan said. “It was truly awful and the fact that it had metastasized was really scary.”
Meehan had a mole on her right forearm for many years, but it wasn’t until she was out on a bike ride one day that she noticed it felt “funny and a little itchy.” She immediately told her family doctor, who initially dismissed the concerns, but after following up and getting tested, it proved to be cancerous.
In 2022, an estimated 9,000 Canadians were diagnosed with melanoma and 1,200 died from it, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. That’s up from approximately 8,700 in 2021, which was already an 8.5 per cent increase from 2020.
WATCH | Melanoma survivor shares her experience:
Meehan had surgery on her forearm to remove the melanoma. Doctors also took out two affected lymph nodes from her right armpit.
Now that she is officially one year into remission, Meehan is sharing her experience to spread awareness of the importance of early detection and advocating for one’s own health.
“Once you’ve had cancer, the fear of it never goes away and that insistence that I have my mole checked literally saved my life,” she said.
So what should you look out for?
Follow the ABCDEs, says doctor
According to onco-dermatologist Dr. Maxwell Sauder, melanoma is a cancer that starts in the skin and generally presents as an irregular looking mole.
“It’s basically the pigment producing cell in the skin that goes bad and eventually it can grow large, but then it can also spread elsewhere into the body,” he said, adding that melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer if not caught early.
The vast majority of melanoma are limited to the skin, and can be found anywhere on the body but common sites include your back, calves, and sun exposed areas, said Sauder.
The Toronto-based doctor suggests following the ABCDEs of melanoma. This means looking for:
- Asymmetry – If you were to cut a mole in half it should look different on either sides.
- Border – If the edge of the mole is uneven or irregular.
- Colour – If the colour of the mole is not the same throughout, it could have shades of three or more different colours.
- Diameter – If the mole is larger than the end of a pen or pencil eraser.
- Evolution – Any part of the mole that changes dramatically in size, shape, colour, or symptoms.
For areas of the skin you can’t see like your back, Sauder advises having someone else take a look or to use a hand-held mirror while your back is toward a full-length mirror to check it.
Melanoma’s thickness is an important factor in determining if it spreads. The majority of cases in Canada are relatively thin, Sauder said, emphasizing the importance of early detection.
“When caught early, it’s a very simple and straightforward treatment of cutting it out. It’s when we let things progress, that’s when the five-year overall survival rate goes lower so catching it early is almost infinitely curable,” he said.
Sauder recommends safe sun practices that include avoiding tanning beds, minimizing your time in peak sunlight, and regularly using sunscreen. Meehan’s advice is not to take melanoma lightly.
“It can happen to anybody and even someone who is as careful as I was about being out in the sun. Don’t dismiss or disregard by thinking it’s probably nothing because it might be something.”