Cover up and don’t let cancer into your body

Tuesday 14 November, 2023

Karen wearing a broad brimmed hat and sunglasses

Karen Trafford, hardworking mother of two, and community champion was in her early 50s when her husband first noticed a suspicious mole on her back.

It was hard to get a good look, so Karen asked her friend to take a photo so she could get a better look. It wasn’t until an osteopath who was treating another issue told her it looked ‘angry’ that Karen decided to get it checked by her GP.

“After my doctor saw it, they told me I needed to get it cut out the next week. Within two weeks of my first appointment, it had been removed," she said.

“Even after they had removed the mole, they started talking to me about how much extra tissue they would need to remove. I couldn’t really believe it. At this stage it still didn’t seem too serious to me. I thought they have cut it out and that was great. It wasn’t until I was at hospital with dye running through my veins and having these large scanners whizzing around me, that it really sunk in the seriousness of what was happening."

After further testing, Karen was diagnosed with melanoma that has spread to lymph nodes in her arms.

“I had to have a lymph node in my left arm removed, and 28 lymph nodes removed from my right arm, leaving me with a large scar and I have lymphoedema in my right arm because of the melanoma," she said.

“I now must wear a sleeve and glove on my right arm for my lymphopenia and often other cancer survivors or people who have had families with cancer notice it and ask if I had cancer. While they recognise some of the side effects, they are often really shocked when I say this is all a result of melanoma," she said.

If Karen had waited much longer, she was advised the cancer could have spread to vital organs.

Karen has always had fairer skin and no moles, as an adult she would avoid sitting outside in the sun for long periods of time but reflects as a teen she did spend time, using oils and not covering her skin against UV radiation.

“My skin would go from white, to red, to peeling back to white but I still didn’t switch to protecting or covering up my skin.”

However, through the ‘slip, slop, slap’ era, her opinions and knowledge around sun protection and UV radiation changed.

“My doctor told me that while the damage could have started when I was teen and spending lots of time in the sun, that every time I went outside without sun protection, that the UV would have built up over time and led to the melanoma on my back which then spread into my body," she said.

“I just think 'Oh my god, if I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve'. But you don’t always think skin cancer or melanoma until it happens. You know I never really had it on my radar but now I think about it a lot, and as I drive down the street or go out, I notice people not protecting themselves, wearing a hat or clothing and I just think why haven’t you heard about UV radiation, you need to cover up."

Following Karen’s melanoma diagnosis and treatment, her perspective and attitudes towards protecting her skin changed.

“I use many more forms of sun protection, I always wear sleeves, hat and clothing along with much more sunscreen. I also know the moles on my body and get them checked much quicker if I notice any changes," she said.

“You realise that sadly melanoma is common, and the stories of people who are diagnosed are not easy. I’ve had people tell me about stories of their family members they’ve lost to melanoma.”

“Until someone has gone through a cancer treatment for melanoma, you can think it won't happen to you or ignore it. But please don’t take it for granted. Cover up your skin and do everything you can to prevent melanoma from happening and if you do have moles or anything on your skin, don’t put it off."

Karen is sharing her story as part of SunSmart Victoria's sun protection campaign 'Don’t Let Cancer In' to remind others like her to cover their skin every time you head outside when the UV index is 3 or above.