Melanoma loss: 'The doctor told me to get our affairs in order'

Melanoma, known as the sneaky cancer, claims hundreds of lives every year, including Carrine Weston. A fighter to the very end, she wanted to raise awareness of the disease. JODIE DUFFY reports.

Long-distance runner Carrine Weston Weston did all she could to be a mother, including a decade of IVF treatment and inter-country adoption, but 10 months after her third child Nini was placed in her arms in a Taipei orphanage, the Windang woman was diagnosed with melanoma.

For three years Carrine battled the deadly cancer with the same determination that had seen her run four marathons and an ultra marathon. Not once did she complain.

A nurturer by nature, she had longed for motherhood and when her family finally became a reality - first with Jedd and then with Ming and Nini, it was a dream come true.

So even though she knew she was dying she kept up a brave face to protect her family - to save them from sadness and worry, so she could be, in the short time she had left, the best possible mother.

Gus Weston says his wife's strength was an inspiration, not only to her friends and family, but to the wider community as she raised awareness of the dangers of melanoma and the importance of being sun smart.

With the help of her sister, Tennille Shelley, and close friend Karen Ryan, she set up a support group for Illawarra melanoma victims and their families.

"She was so brave and courageous," Gus says.

"Not even when she was really, really sick did she complain that she was tired or in pain.

"Instead her focus was on how we were coping. She didn't want to hurt any of us with conversations or reminders about cancer and death."

The pink, raised mole, the size of a pea, on Carrine's shoulder appeared suddenly in 2008 and two doctors gave it the all-clear. When, three weeks later, it began to bleed she had it removed.

Tests revealed that the mole had roots almost 4.5 millimetres deep, but the good news was it hadn't yet spread to the sentinel lymph node in her armpit.

Melanoma, though, is known as the sneaky cancer and what they didn't know then was that it had already made its way into her blood stream.

Having skipped the nodes in her armpit, the cancerous cells settled in the lymph nodes of her groin. By the time she discovered them four months later, the nodes were the size of golf balls.

"The mole didn't fit the typical melanoma diagnosis, which is rough, blotchy, dark edges," Gus says.

"Hers was a soft pink and perfectly round. It turned ugly really quickly and from there things spiralled out of control."

A trial drug in 2009 gave the family hope and for a while Carrine was well, until one weekend in September 2010, when the headaches began.

The following week doctors confirmed their worst fears - the cancer had spread to her brain. Carrine was given a few months to live.

"The doctor told me then to get our affairs in order," says Gus.

"Those four words changed my life forever. I'll never forget them.

"Everyone sees the television advertisements on melanoma, but you never think it can happen to you.

"Carrine was a healthy, young mother. She's proof that no-one is safe from this cancer."

Carrine faced death like an athlete and lived for another 18 months, dying in February this year at the age of 40.

In that extra time she managed to stay alive she shared with her family a number of milestones, including two Christmas days, hers and her husband's 40th birthdays, her daughter's first day at school, her son's vice-captaincy presentation at primary school and his first day of high school, and her mother Jean's 60th birthday.

Carrine's life had been a marathon, having struggled for so long to have children, she had wanted to enjoy as much of motherhood as she could. "The one thing you can say about our life together is that it was never boring. We felt alive the two of us. We had lots of good times," Gus says.

Carrine was involved in Kembla Joggers and after her initial diagnosis participated in the 2010 Relay for Life at Beaton Park, running almost every minute of the 24 hours.

"She just wanted to raise awareness of melanoma," says her sister Tennille. "Even when she was sick she was happy to give talks about the dangers of melanoma. She wanted to let people know how important it is to put sunscreen on. She wanted people to look after themselves and their children. She was such a fighter."

Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world with 11,000 new cases each year.

It's the second-most common cancer in men and the third-most common cancer in women. Each year 3500 people in NSW are diagnosed with melanoma and 463 people will die from it.

In the Illawarra there are 135 new cases annually, making it one of the region's most serious health issues.

Early detection, though, can save a life.

Albion Park Rail's Nathan Pegler was 22 when doctors cut off a cancerous mole from his stomach. The former Wests Illawarra player spotted the dark spot in the shower, not much bigger than a pin head. Though it was tiny on the surface of his skin, underneath it had grown 2.4 millimetres deep.

"It was jet black, but not raised," says Nathan.

"I went to the doctors with my mum and they said not to worry about it. But mum thought it best to have it removed, just to be safe."

He was glad he listened to her because the cancer had already spread to the sentinel node in his armpit.

After that he had 50 glands removed resulting in 60 staples from the middle of his chest to his rib cage. He then went through two years of clinical trials in which he had 200 injections.

Now 30, Nathan is married with children and working as a draftsman for a shopfitting company. The cancer hasn't returned, but he has regular check-ups and blood tests every six months.

"I always wore a hat as a kid and only occasionally got sunburnt," says Nathan, who is fair-skinned.

"Doctors believe in my case it may be hereditary because my Nan and her sisters had it. Even so I'm much more aware of sun care now and even more particular with my own children. Our beach culture and outdoor lifestyle means we all have to be more vigilant with our skin and everyone needs to have regular check-ups."

The best way to prevent melanoma is to protect your skin from the sun with sunscreen, hats and clothing.

Recent studies also show that using solariums can dramatically increase a person's risk of developing the disease.

Melanoma Institute Australia community co-ordinator Jay Allen was diagnosed with melanoma in 2000. The former truck driver noticed a suspicious mole on his ankle that kept scabbing and bleeding. After six months his wife persuaded him to see a doctor.

"If my wife hadn't persisted I might not be here today," Jay says.

"I had no idea how invasive melanoma could be. After the initial diagnosis cancerous cells were then found in the lymph nodes in my groin and I ended up having 20 of them removed. I thought I was going to die; it was so scary."

In his 20s he began using solariums, believing that they were a safer, controlled way to get a tan.

Research shows that solariums emit UV up to five times stronger than the midday summer sun, with scientists giving sun beds the same carcinogen rating as smoking - placing it in the highest risk category.

Jay is calling for a national ban on solariums.

"I've been to Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria giving talks on melanoma and warning people of the risks. No tan is worth dying for. Just don't do it." ■

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