Vanessa’s story

Vanessa McPhee is on a mission to save a life by raising awareness of melanoma. She has started her own Facebook page, A Mother’s Melanoma, to help raise awareness of melanoma.Vanessa did her first Melanoma March in Adelaide in 2015 and with her team, raised over $1000 for melanoma research.
After pregnancy with my second daughter, I noticed that my skin pigmentation had changed. I’ve always had pale skin but my freckles and moles increased or grew darker and a few sun spots appeared on my face and hands. I saw a doctor who told me that many of my moles had grown skin tags which were barely visible and this was considered normal. I was told to watch them for any changes as anyone normally should.
Fast forward a year or so, to January 2015, when I noticed that two moles on my inner left ankle had started to change. I’ve had them since adolescence and used to affectionately call them “my little snake bite” because that’s what they looked like – two small even spots alongside each other. One had grown slightly darker and increased in size compared to the other mole.
My GP advised that it did not appear nasty at this point but to come back if it rapidly changed in colour, shape or size.

Over the next few months the two moles had joined to become one, were mottled in colour and growing rapidly. My GP immediately referred me to a plastic surgeon as the mole grew across tendons with little skin to work with, so she could not remove it in her rooms.
I didn’t make this appointment with the plastic surgeon until 3-4 weeks later. In hindsight I don’t know why I waited this long. I suppose I had a “it will never happen to me” mentality.

My first appointment with the plastic surgeon was Thursday 5th June: The day life became all too precious. Shortly after my surgeon examined me, he sat me down in his office and said “I’m not saying it is melanoma, but I can’t tell you it isn’t.”
He then booked my first surgery to remove the mole for biopsy the next day. THE NEXT DAY? What does that mean? I thought. My whole world changed right there.

The first surgery took place on Friday 6th June. I was told that pathology results would take up to a week however I understood that if anything nasty was found I would hear back sooner.

That weekend was a long weekend… the wait was agonising, I hoped and prayed not to receive “that” call but yes, it came the following working day with the devastating news “the Dr would like to see you at 4pm today.” My heart sank, I went into a brief hysteria crying in my room while my 20-month-old daughter sat eating lunch in her high chair. I didn’t want her to see me like that – my head in my hands. Then I called my husband and my mum and broke their hearts too.

The first thing I saw when I walked into my surgeon’s rooms was my pathology report stating in bold – malignant melanoma. I don’t know how long my husband Travis and I were there for…it’s all a blur. We spent half of the appointment learning what skin cancer is, what melanoma is and its severity levels. This background needed to be fully explained in order for us to completely understand my situation, what I was dealing with and what was to come.

My melanoma was a little complicated. It was growing across the skin, but it was also growing vertically which was more aggressive. Deeper, wider surgery within certain margins of the first surgery would be required to try and fully remove all the melanoma cells. I would need a skin flap or skin graft to cover the golf-ball-sized hole that would remain. 

Given its difficult position, we discussed how tendons, veins and nerves may or may not be affected. My second surgery was booked for 10 days time with strict instructions that my first surgery had to fully heal before the second could take place. Would this be the end of my melanoma? I didn’t want to think about it. I really do have cancer…
The next 10 days I had too much time to think as I was laid up on the lounge. My foot had to stay above heart level to heal as too much blood rushing to the foot meant my stitches could split. This time was terrifying. I imagined my two beautiful daughters Dayna (6) and Baylie (23 months) growing up without their mother. Every time I looked at them I felt that time was so precious. I had terrible anxiety to the point of feeling as though I could not breathe. I was restlessness day and night and was nauseous. 

My thoughts would not stop at night, every single itch, ache or freckle was “part of the cancer” in my mind. I almost made peace with the fact that my children would be okay without me, they had their dad, they had each other and they had our families.

In the shower I would scrutinize my body… how many other moles or freckles on my body are going to take me away from my girls?

It wasn’t until my pre-op appointment the day before my next surgery that my surgeon and nurse looked thoroughly over my body for anything else suspicious. Thankfully nothing more could be found, this was a huge weight lifted from my soul – but these skin checks will be a regular occurrence for me for the rest of my life. 

Prepped for surgery I lay waiting alone outside the operating theatre. It’s hard to describe but despite the immense love and support from my family and close friends, it was such a lonely experience. I just wanted to go to sleep and forget it was all happening – wake me up when it’s all over. The anaesthetist and nurses were lovely and I was reminded several times that day that I am young, fit and healthy, and that I will get through it and recover well.

I woke up from the anaesthetic with my surgeon telling me the operation had gone well, a layer of skin had been taken from my inner thigh and placed over the open wound. My leg was casted with strict instructions for it to be elevated for a week in hospital, with absolute best rest and no movement. Any blood flow at all to the foot would mean the skin graft would lift and not take.

The next day we organised an ambulance transfer to a much smaller hospital closer to home. What I needed was traditional nursing with genuine care and it allowed a steady flow of family and friends to visit. My GP visited me that first night while my mum and sister were visiting, she had my pathology results: No melanoma cells had been detected. I am cancer free! Now to recover.

On my second visit back to my surgeon my stitches were removed and I managed not to faint at the sight of my wound like I did the first time! Despite what looked terrible to me, he told me that my leg and foot looked so good that I don’t have to see him again for 3 months! I find this terrifying but he has confidence in my healing and I have trust in him. 

Recovery feels slow, but as far as the wound and skin graft are concerned, the healing is going well. I have had to change my life, I no longer play netball or run because I am not sure when I will be able to comfortably wear a closed shoe again. I am a very social person normally and going out for more than an hour often results in swelling if my foot is not rested or elevated – but its early days. 

Mentally I think it will take longer to recover, at times I still think I have cancer and the fear is gripping. I didn’t want to make plans for the future (such as holidays), but now I have booked a mini getaway with some girlfriends, and I know it will get better.

I have been warned that if I had of waited a further 6 months to have my moles checked, my story would have had a very different and grave ending.

I don’t need anybody to remind me how overwhelmingly lucky I am. My outcome is the best anyone in my situation can hope for. I have life, I have love, I have family, I am healthy and I am forever grateful. 

I am also eternally thankful to the family, friends and professionals who have helped me through an extremely difficult time, I am loved. My husband has been my saving grace, he has seen me at my best and my worst and loves and supports me in any case. Our family bond is stronger than I had thought possible

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