Courtesy Sarah Lee
A BBC journalist is opening up about how her skin cancer was initially mistaken for a less serious ailment.
Last week, Sarah Lee shared a message on Twitter about sun exposure, alongside an article she wrote highlighting her “terrifying surprise” when she learned that she had been diagnosed with skin cancer.
“PLEASE don’t underestimate the damage the sun can do. Wear SPF, a hat, stay in the shade and get your moles checked, ” Lee, 29, tweeted Friday, beside her BBC article about her cancer journey.
In her post, Lee detailed that she discovered “a pea-sized black mole” on her scalp one day and visited a dermatologist, who told her that the mark “didn’t look unusual,” and that she “was too young to have skin cancer.” She also claimed that the dermatologist told her that it was “almost impossible to get melanoma on the scalp.”
Five months later, the mole had “grown and multiplied,” Lee wrote. She went to her general practitioner, who told her that the spot “was a fungus that would go away on its own.”
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Courtesy Sarah Lee
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Still feeling uneasy, Lee said that she sought out a second dermatologist, who ordered an immediate removal of the mole for a biopsy.
A week after the mole’s removal, it was replaced by a scar, Lee wrote, and sometime later she learned that she had stage three malignant nodular melanoma, which is a faster-developing form of skin cancer, according to the National Health Service.
The cancer, Lee added, had spread all the way down to her skull. “When the nurse told me the news over the phone, I was so shocked I almost collapsed,” she wrote in her BBC piece. “I wasn’t a sunbed user, I used factor 30 sun cream and I grew up in Wales, where it almost always rains.”
After undergoing various CT, MRI and PET scans, Lee learned that the cancer had also spread to a lymph node in her neck. To treat the illness, she needed a radical dissection, which, according to the National Cancer Institute, is a surgery that removes lymph nodes and tissue.
Following the eight-hour operation, Lee began a “lengthy recovery” — but she no longer has any signs of cancer in her body.
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However, she still has to undergo a 12-month treatment plan, using targeted cancer growth-blocker drugs to prevent the melanoma from coming back.
Noting that “there is a 75 percent chance my cancer won’t return,” Lee detailed some of her side effects from the treatment plan: nausea, vomiting, fever, severe fatigue and rashes.
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Concluding her post, Lee wrote about “the toll the diagnosis, numerous surgeries, scans and appointments have had on my mental health.”
Explaining that she is now “afraid” of a doctor’s medical judgement, Lee continued, “I am terrified of the cancer coming back and I’m angry it could have been spotted sooner.”
She did note though that she has “gained a tremendous amount of strength,” calling the news of her cancer a “terrifying surprise.”
“Having cancer at the age of 29 has been a terrifying surprise, but it has taught me to laugh harder, to live happier and to love bigger,” she said.
Lee also pled with readers to look after their skin “and push for a second, third or fourth opinion if you must.”
Courtesy Sarah Lee
Speaking with PEOPLE, Lee further reiterated the importance of keeping your skin healthy by monitoring time out in the sun.
“What I don’t think people truly understand is that any kind of tan is unhealthy. Any changes in the color of your skin due to the sun is skin damage which increases your risk of skin cancer,” she says. “Left untreated, this can spread to your vital organs and be a lot harder to treat. It’s really not worth it.”
Lee also shut down misconceptions about skin cancer, saying, “A lot of people also think that melanoma is the case of just cutting out a mole, and trust me, I wish that’s all I had to have done. People see skin cancer as the nicer or lesser cancer, but when it gets to your organs it can spread like wildfire. It can hide and lay dormant and come back years later.”
“Because of this I will always live in fear of it coming back. I will always be anxious of the sun and of every scan result,” she adds. “Melanoma has changed me completely and I just don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
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