Dunedin-based life coach and public speaker Julie Woods lost her sight at the age of 31, and in this edition of Spot News, she shares her inspirational story of how learning to manage her blindness has helped her through the shock and uncertainty of a melanoma diagnosis seven years ago.
56-year-old Julie is stepmother to Melanie Esplin, Partnerships Manager with the Melanoma New Zealand team working to raise awareness about melanoma prevention and early detection, and provide patient support.
“I guess it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’; I couldn’t see my skin, so while I knew about skin cancer, melanoma still wasn’t on my radar, and I didn’t think to ever get my skin checked,” says Julie.
“I was up in Auckland on holiday in 2015 and had just had a shower. I remember coming out of the shower, and my husband Ron said that he didn’t like the look of a mole on my back. I had been blind for 18 years at this stage and I couldn’t see the mole myself, so I basically ignored him!
“However, three weeks later I was in the Bendon store back home in Dunedin and was trying on a bra. The retail assistant who I knew pointed the mole out to me and said that I should get it checked.
“I decided then that I should probably do something about it, and Ron and I went to the doctor together as he also had a spot he was concerned about. We both had biopsies and while Ron’s came back negative, I was really shocked to find out mine was melanoma.
“I had to have further surgery and four lymph nodes taken out. I was left in no doubt that it was serious, and I was pretty worried. I was so relieved when they told me the tests were all clear and they had got it all, but I continued to have regular checks for seven years to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back, and that I had no further melanomas. I was finally discharged from the hospital earlier this year and it was a day of celebration! I will of course continue to get regular skin checks but being officially discharged felt like a major milestone.
“It took a while to sink in when I was initially diagnosed that this was cancer and that it was life threatening. It was really frightening; but in many ways I was fortunate as I was able to draw on my experiences of losing my sight at such a young age to help me cope with the uncertainty a diagnosis of cancer brings.”
Julie was just 18 years old when she was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration and lost her central vision. She then developed an inflammation of the retina in 1997 and went blind within three months. She was married with two young children aged one and three at the time, and had to dig very deep to focus on what she could do, rather than what she couldn’t. After her experiences of learning to live with a major disability, Julie approaches life with a ‘why not’ attitude and also understands the importance of peer support to help her through life’s challenges.
“I think I’ve become really good at dealing with what is in front of me, and I know the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. Since I went blind, my approach to life has been to just get out there and give things a go. I’ve walked ten half marathons, visited the seven wonders of the world, and cycled the Otago Rail Trail!
“When Ron and I walked out of the hospital after finding out it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, we went straight to the travel agent and booked our bucket list trip. I had always wanted to visit New York and Tokyo, and we took off and travelled to 20 countries in 107 days.
“I think everything I have gone through in dealing with my blindness has taught me to ask for help when faced with life’s challenges, and to reach out to others going through something similar.”
Sadly, a good friend of Julie’s who was diagnosed with melanoma at the same time as she was, passed away which Julie found really confronting. “I’ve learnt that sometimes you just don’t want to deal with things, but you have to, and that’s your way through. My advice to anyone who has been diagnosed with melanoma is to reach out to Melanoma New Zealand for support; it will really help to talk to people who completely understand what you are going through.
“My focus has always been on dealing with my blindness, and of course I couldn’t see my back. But the thing is, it’s difficult for sighted people to check their backs too, but we all need to make sure we get our skin checked regularly. Make the effort to turn up to the doctor even when you don’t really want to – it could save your life.”