Rotorua mum, makeup artist and dairy farm owner, Ceitha Andrews, remembers being taken out of school when she was 13 to visit her dad in the hospital as he’d had surgery for melanoma.
“He was only 34, and little did I know then what lay in front of us as a family,” she says.
“Dad was initially diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma, but two years later it tragically came back. We were incredibly fortunate that Dad lived for another 12 years with this awful disease. He was just 49 years old when he passed away, leaving my mum and our family absolutely devastated.
“Dad was amazing; full of life, always hunting and fishing and busy outdoors. He was still working on his computer the day he died. Losing him so young has left such a gap in our lives; he was really close to my older kids, but sadly, my youngest daughter will never know him.”
Growing up in sunny Tauranga, Ceitha says that she spent a huge amount of time enjoying the outdoors, swimming in the lake, camping, playing outside. However, even after what happened to her dad, she never really thought she was at serious risk of developing a melanoma.
“In 2011, I went to the doctor for a check-up and a warrant of fitness, and during the consultation she noticed a mole on the back of my neck. I’d had it most of my life and never really thought about it. Looking back, it was a bit itchy, but I figured it was because my necklace was rubbing on it.
“My doctor took it off immediately, and shortly after, I was diagnosed with a stage 2 melanoma. I was 33, just a year younger than my dad was. I was really shocked and angry; so many things go through your head when you hear the word cancer. I will never forget having to ring my mum and tell her. She was devastated and travelled to be with me right away. She was terrified that after losing dad, she was going to lose me too. I was given the all-clear after a further excision on my neck but was told my chances of it coming back over the next 5-10 years are high.
“That knowledge has been really tough to live with, and I have been through anxiety and depression. I know it could pop up again tomorrow; that’s the nature of this insidious disease. I’ve lost friends along this journey who were diagnosed at the same time as me, and I feel lucky to be alive eight years after my own diagnosis.
“The scary thing is, there still aren’t additional treatment options for people diagnosed with Stage 2 melanoma, over and above surgery and close monitoring. Both my dad and I were vigilant in supporting our health and immune system through diet and other therapies.
“I’ve since had a lot of other moles removed over the years – around 20 – and thankfully none of them has been a melanoma. We had a scare with my youngest daughter a couple of years ago; she was only 11, and had a mole removed from between her toes. While it was benign, it was showing early signs of nesting cells and we were told it may have eventually developed into a melanoma.
“Cancer impacts the whole family, and I have been so lucky to have so much support. My husband Chris has been an absolute lifeline for me with both my dad’s battle, and now my cancer diagnosis. He watched him decline which was awful, and is supporting me going through the exact same cancer. I know he finds it difficult sometimes, but he is always there for me.
“We are now incredibly diligent as a family with our skin checks, sunscreen and covering up when outside. I wasn’t aware of melanoma until it affected my family, and my strong message is that we need to educate people at a young age on the very real danger of developing melanoma. Our sun is so harsh in New Zealand, and kids need to know that getting burnt or tanning is not cool; in fact, it could cost them their lives.
“I also think schools need to support educating our children and ensure their students are protected from getting sunburnt during school activities – by providing shade and ensuring children wear hats and regularly apply sunscreen. Kids often forget to do that during their busy school day, but applying sunscreen needs to be something that is taught at both home and school to really get the message across. Ensuring our children understand the risks and how to prevent melanoma might save their lives.