A Legacy of Awareness

Apr 2, 2024 | News, Stories

Wellingtonian businesswoman Julie Vaughan will be forever grateful to her late friend Polly who, after she was diagnosed with melanoma, insisted all her friends get their skin checked.

Sadly, Polly passed away in 2020, but it was Polly’s insistence that led to Julie’s melanoma diagnosis and possibly saved her life.

Raising awareness about the importance of skin checks has become a legacy that Julie and her family are continuing after two others in her extended family, plus her oldest son in his 20s, were also diagnosed with melanoma.

Julie has never been a sun worshipper and recalls getting sunburnt only once as a teenager. As far as she knows, there had never been any other previous family history of melanoma. However, on Polly’s advice, Julie made an appointment in 2019 with her GP. She got her GP to check a mole on her arm, which resulted in a referral to a dermatologist. It was during the check with the dermatologist that he noticed a small pink nodule on the top of her leg, which resulted in an immediate biopsy. The results showed that it was stage 1A melanoma and required more extensive surgery to her leg to remove the melanoma.

Once diagnosed, Julie read everything she could find about melanoma and joined a few support groups on social media. She also had her eyes checked, informed her optometrist and hairdresser, and had it added to her dental information so that they could all be alert to any risk of melanoma also.

Over the last four years, Julie has had another six biopsies, including a lymph node biopsy, to rule anything out. In recent months, a tumour appeared on the hard palate in her mouth, and her specialist actioned it quickly to rule out any malignancy. Luckily, it was benign, and she had it surgically removed and grafted in January.
Since her diagnosis, as a family, they are now on high alert for any skin changes and ensure that the rest of her immediate family are having annual checks.

“High self-awareness and educating yourself are two of the most important components with a melanoma diagnosis, and as a family, we will continue to be vigilant and proactive about this.”

Julie’s 28-year-old son, Harrison, said he was shocked when his mother was diagnosed with melanoma because she had always been so careful.

He said he also never lay in the sun to tan, so skin checks were never on his to-do list, especially being under 30. However, because his mother encouraged the family to be vigilant, he had his first check two years ago, and it was clear.

“Then, during my check in November last year, there were two inflamed moles they were interested in – one right in between my shoulder blade and the other on the side of my waist. Unfortunately, the one on my back was melanoma. It was on the top of the skin – so it was very easy to deal with and cut out.

Harrison is very vocal about his experience with his friends and colleagues. He actively encourages his colleagues to get their skin checked and ensures they have wide-brimmed hats and UPF protective clothing provided as part of their uniform.

“It’s trickled down. You want to tell as many people as possible and share your experience. It’s your life you’re talking about. You have to do everything you need to protect it.”

As well as encouraging family and friends to have their skin checked, Julie actively shares information from Melanoma New Zealand, including spot check details, on her social media platforms. She also tells people to wear protective clothing, a good sunhat, sunscreen, and to stay out of the sun.

“It’s not until it affects your family or friends that awareness becomes more apparent. Sunbathing at a young age is where it comes back and bites you later in life. Everyone dreams of having a great tan, but people need to be more educated about the damage the sun can do and how deadly it can be.”

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