Liz Elgar is the first to admit she might appear overzealous about sun protection. ‘I’m that mother you see in the park or on the beach running around after her children applying a thick layer of factor 50,’ she says.
‘I then apply it to myself and reapply every hour.’
But Liz has reason to be cautious. In 2012, she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer — despite rarely going in the sun, never using a sunbed and always applying sunscreen.
It was back in 2008 that she first spotted a tiny new mole.
‘I’d recently given birth to my second son and was breastfeeding when I noticed a mole on my upper chest,’ says Liz, 48, an office worker who lives in Hertfordshire with her husband Jeff, 47, a local government officer.
The mole was a malignant melanoma — the most dangerous form of skin cancer, which can quickly spread elsewhere in the body and claims more than 2,000 lives each year in the UK [File photo]
‘It looked normal and I thought perhaps it was hormonal after pregnancy.’
Some pregnant women do find they are more prone to moles and skin tags as a result of the surge in hormones.
The mole didn’t seem to grow, itch or change shape, so Liz, who has two sons, George, 16, and Francis, 13, forgot about it. Then one day in 2012 she was dressing when she noticed a change.
‘The mole was bigger and had changed shape from round to jagged and asymmetrical. It was now the size of a five pence piece and lots of different shades of brown. My stomach lurched.’
Liz saw her GP the next day and was referred to a dermatologist, who said ‘it was probably OK, but that I should have it removed and tested to see if it’s cancerous’, says Liz.
Two weeks later, the mole and some surrounding tissue were removed under anaesthetic; three weeks later, she got the results.
‘I wasn’t too worried because it didn’t itch or bleed and so I didn’t think it was bad,’ says Liz.
‘I sat opposite the consultant and she began speaking. I heard a word . . . ‘malignant’ and my heart sank.’
‘I’m that mother you see in the park or on the beach running around after her children applying a thick layer of factor 50,’ she says
The mole was a malignant melanoma — the most dangerous form of skin cancer, which can quickly spread elsewhere in the body and claims more than 2,000 lives each year in the UK.
It occurs when the melanocytes, the cells that make the pigment that gives skin its colour, grow out of control, forming tumours.
While the cancer can begin in an existing mole, more commonly it starts in a new one.
‘I instantly thought of my children growing up without a mother,’ she says. ‘I thought: Will I die? And what might the treatment be?’
The doctors explained that as the mole was at stage 1B (one of the earliest), her outlook was better than it could have been.
Cases of melanoma are on the rise, says Dr Rachel Abbott, a consultant dermatologist in Cardiff and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation. There are about 15,400 new cases a year — 50 per cent more than a decade ago.
‘That’s 42 new cases every day,’ says Dr Abbott.
The sharp rise is thought to be because of the ageing population, exposure to the sun on foreign holidays and the use of sunbeds.
While UV radiation from the sun is estimated to cause nine out of ten melanomas, other factors including having fair skin, lots of moles (more than 50) and sunburn early in life can also raise the risk.
Rates in men have increased by 64 per cent, compared with 39 per cent in women — it’s thought men are less likely to take precautions or examine their skin for suspicious changes.
Many people can find moles ‘appear’ during their lifetime. Dr Abbott says this is normal, ‘but a new mole appearing after age 40 should be monitored closely as it is unusual to develop moles after this age.’
She stresses that a mole does not have to itch to be melanoma. And while melanomas begin in the melanocytes — pigment cells — they are not always black or brown. They can also be skin-coloured, pink, red, purple, blue or white — and may not even start as a mole.
In fact, ‘melanoma most commonly arises from normal-appearing skin,’ says Dr Abbott. She adds that the reason a mole changes colour as the melanoma progresses is that the melanocytes spread deeper into the skin, giving it a ‘blueish’ appearance.
After her diagnosis, Liz had surgery under general anaesthetic to have a wide border of tissue removed and examined for any spread of cancer. A sample of the nearest lymph node, a common site of spread, was also taken from her right armpit.
‘I waited for six weeks for my results, which was very worrying,’ says Liz. But the news was good: there was no evidence the cancer had spread and she needed no further treatment.
‘I felt elated,’ she says, ‘and so very lucky.
‘I’m telling my story to make other people aware that a mole can look ordinary or appear after something like pregnancy, but you should never ignore it.’