It was a chance remark to her GP that led to Karen Byrne being diagnosed with skin cancer - and since then she has had 30 moles removed from her body.
She tells AASMA DAY her story and why she is so passionate about raising awareness of the disease and the importance of sun cream protection
It was during a visit to the doctor with her baby son who had chicken pox that Karen Byrne casually mentioned a tiny black mole at the back of her leg.
Karen, who was 30 at the time and is now 45, says: “My son Jack was one at the time and had chicken pox so I took him to the doctor.
“While I was there, I just happened to mention the mole at the back of my leg.
“I have always had a lot of moles and, to this day, I don’t know what made me get it checked out.
“It was just a very small mole with a bit of white in it but something about it must not have looked right to me.
“I just said to the doctor: ‘Can you just have a look at this while I’m here?’”
Karen’s GP immediately spotted something was wrong and later that day Karen received a telephone call asking her to go to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.
However, she admits she wasn’t worried at all and thought they were just taking precautions and assumed they might just remove the mole.
A biopsy was carried out and, to Karen’s shock, it revealed she had malignant melanoma – skin cancer.
Karen remembers: “It did not quite sink in at first.
“You always think things like this happen to someone else.
“When it did sink in, I was okay in dealing with it. It was the people around me who cared about me who found it more difficult.
“I had to be matter-of-fact and just get on with things because of my little boy.
“Doctors said I had to go into hospital for five days and have a skin graft and my first reaction was that I did not want to leave my little boy for five days.”
Karen decided she did not want skin grafts and asked to have a local anaesthetic instead of a general one.
She underwent surgery at Royal Preston Hospital to remove part of the skin and muscle on her lower leg and the extent of her treatment meant she couldn’t put her foot down for nine weeks.
Karen has since had two further malignant melanomas removed, one from her back and one from her leg on the line of the scar where the original mole had been removed.
She has had around 30 further moles removed as a precaution, from her legs, arms, face and back and continues to have regular check-ups with her GP.
Karen, who is married to Arthur and has three step-children as well as son Jack, who is now 16, was working for the police at the time of her diagnosis but her cancer experience prompted her to swap her job on the front desk of Lancaster Police Station to follow her dream of becoming a personal trainer.
Karen explains: “I was in the police for 20 years and, as well as being on the front desk at Lancaster Police Station, I worked at Blackpool Police Station and Garstang Police Station.
“My husband Arthur has been a boxer all his life and wanted to set up his own business.
“I had done boxing and it was my dream to be a personal trainer.
“After what I had been through, I decided: ‘You only live once’ and decided to leave the police and follow my dream.”
Karen now owns her own companym Bowerham ABC Boxing and Fitnessm with Arthur where they train people of all ages, levels and abilities.
The couple take any opportunity to raise awareness of skin cancer and promote sun safety at the gym, as well as raise money for cancer research and are passionate about helping charity North West Cancer Research highlight awareness of the disease.
Karen and Arthur are supporting North West Cancer Research’s #suncream- selfie campaign this summer to help raise awareness of skin cancer, its symptoms and the importance of sun protection.
Karen says: “Skin cancer is one of the biggest cancer killers in the North West and, having had it myself, I know how life changing the disease can be.
“There are lots of factors which can cause it, some of which are preventable.
“In my case, I wasn’t a regular user of sunbeds and I had only burnt occasionally when I was younger, but my fair skin meant that I was more susceptible to the disease.
“Being told that I had skin cancer when I was only 30 and then spending the last 15 years in and out of hospital has been really difficult but I have been lucky enough to receive and continue to receive, expert treatment and advice from the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and Royal Preston Hospital.
“Skin cancer is a particularly scary form of cancer as it can appear anywhere on your body and spread quickly if left untreated and this is something I have been trying to highlight to my friends and family.
“Skin cancer is like a silent killer because you don’t know where it can appear and, if it is not found, it can spread to your other organs quickly.
“Since my diagnosis, I encouraged my father to have his moles examined by his GP and he was diagnosed with two malignant melanoma which were quickly removed from his chest.
“This shows how important it is that we are aware of what to look for and regularly check our skin.”
Husband Arthur, 49, has praised Karen for the way she has dealt with her skin cancer.
He says: “Karen has been amazing and really strong. But it has been horrible for her.
“I think there needs to be more awareness about skin cancer as I don’t think people realise how dangerous it can be.
“There needs to be a lot more awareness about putting suncream on.”
Karen agrees. She says: “People go on holiday abroad and put sun cream on automatically.
“But they don’t think about it in this country, even though the weather can get very hot such as with the recent spell of good weather we’ve had.
“Being more aware of the measures we can take to protect ourselves from getting skin cancer is really important, especially in the UK, which is why we’ll be slapping on the sun cream this summer, sharing our selfies and encouraging our friends and families to do the same.
“I would also urge people to get their moles checked out.”
• To support Karen and North West Cancer Research and take your very own #suncreamselfie, visit the campaign page online at: www.nwcr.org/staticpage/ suncream-selfie?utm_source=release&%3 Butm_campaign=sun_cream_selfie
NORTH WEST CANCER RESEARCH
A skin cancer awareness survey was commissioned by North West Cancer Research as part of its campaign to encourage people to stay safe in the sun this summer.
It revealed that almost 90 per cent of people in Lancashire are oblivious to skin cancer early warning signs, despite the region’s high skin cancer rates.
The results of the survey showed that almost one third of those surveyed revealed they have never checked their skin for signs of skin cancer, despite 75 per cent admitting to having been sunburned.
The survey also revealed that around one in five people in the region don’t use sun cream when it’s sunny in the UK, preferring to only use sun cream when abroad.
Finally, 54 per cent revealed they have used a sunbed, four per cent more than the North West average.
Alarmingly, 95 per cent of sunbed users are aware of the skin cancer risks associated and still choose to use them.
The latest regional statistics show that 748 people in Lancashire were diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer between 2011 and 2013.
Nationally, incidence rates for melanoma skin cancer are projected to rise by seven per cent in the UK between 2014 and 2035.
Lancaster-based charity North West Cancer Research has launched its #suncreamselfie awareness campaign to help tackle these rising rates and encourage people to think about covering up before they head out in the sun.
It is urging people all over the North West to get creative when applying sun cream, take a selfie and upload it to social media with the hash tag #suncreamselfie.
Stars from reality TV show Real Housewives of Cheshire Katie Kane, Rachel Lungo and Tanya Bardsley have already backed the campaign, sharing their #suncreamselfies online.
Alastair Richards, CEO for North West Cancer Research, says: “By raising awareness of skin cancer, its symptoms and the associated risk factors of over exposure to UV rays, we hope we can encourage people to stay safe in the sun and reduce the number of skin cancer cases in Lancashire and across the North West.”
The #suncreamselife campaign will educate people about the early warning signs of skin cancer and the importance of visiting their GP as soon as they have any concerns.
Dr Sarah Allinson, a skin cancer researcher based at Lancaster University, says: “It is important to remember that over exposure to harmful UV rays can potentially lead to skin cancer, which is why people should be sensible when spending time in the sun, both abroad and here in the UK.
“Skin cancer is a major cancer killer in the UK, but if it is caught early enough then, as with all cancers, patients can have a good prognosis.
“Changes in your moles, as well as the appearance of new moles and skin blemishes, are potential markers of skin cancer.
“Get to know your skin and make sure you check it regularly for any changes.”
The ABCDE method of checking is an easy rule to remember when checking your skin. It stands for;
Asymmetry: does the mole look uneven or misshapen
Border: is the edge of the mole blurred?
Colour: is it a mix of shades, has your mole darkened since the last time you checked?
Diameter: is it bigger than 6mm?
Elevation or enlargement: has it changed in shape or become raised above the skin’s surface
Dr Allinson says: “You should always also look out for itching, bleeding and crusting and contact your GP straight away if you spot these symptoms, who will usually refer you to a skin specialist.”