Sun­shine robbed me of my care­free days

Es­ther Allen’s world changed for­ever when she got skin can­cer. Here, she tells Anne Garvey she wishes sun wor­ship­pers would wake up to the per­ils

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - BODY & SOUL -

You look around at the tod­dler club and think, “All the mothers here have their worries, but they’re about what to have for tea, or if their wash­ing ma­chine is about to break down.” I would love to be so nor­mal.’ Es­ther Allen is bright, di­rect and straight­for­ward. At 32, she looks much younger. Apart from a barely per­cep­ti­ble scar down one side of her neck, there is noth­ing in her healthy-look­ing face or re­laxed, trim body to in­di­cate that there is any­thing wrong. She is a young woman with a zest for life. But Es­ther suf­fers from melanoma, a con­di­tion that means her life is lived on a tightrope be­tween one scan and the next, con­stantly fret­ting that the can­cer has re­turned. ‘Be­cause there’s no dra­matic chemo­ther­apy fol­low­ing surgery, no alarm­ing hair loss or any ra­dio­ther­apy, peo­ple as­sume you must be fine. They don’t get that you’re not hav­ing th­ese treat­ments, not be­cause you don’t need them, but be­cause they don’t work,’ says Es­ther.

It was 17 years ago when Es­ther, at the age of 15, first no­ticed an odd mole on her tem­ple. She went to the doc­tor and was told it was noth­ing. Not sat­is­fied, her mother took her back again, and her GP re­ferred her to a spe­cial­ist, who ex­cised the mole. The fam­ily waited for the biopsy re­port and was re­lieved to be told that the growth was be­nign, noth­ing to worry about. ‘And that was the end of that,’ says Es­ther, ‘for nine years.’

The fam­ily thought no more of it. They went on a long hol­i­day to Aus­tralia, some­thing Es­ther feels sure they would never have done if they’d known that she did in fact have melanoma. The teenage Es­ther en­joyed the sun, but ‘af­ter 20 min­utes on the beach I would re­tire to the shade. As I got older and when I met my hus­band, Chris, we en­joyed the re­laxed at­mos­phere of a warm cli­mate, but I was not vain enough to want a mas­sive tan.’

Now, how­ever, Es­ther has to be ex­tremely vig­i­lant. ‘I sit in the shade. Melanoma is trig­gered by sun­light — had I known I had that, I would not have ex­posed my­self to it. But I was spared years of worry by the mis­di­ag­no­sis, and I look back to those days when I was free of anx­i­ety.’

To­day Es­ther knows her life­style has to be dif­fer­ent, yet still longs for that ev­ery­day freedom from worry most of us take for granted: ‘I don’t want to be the “girl with can­cer”, I sim­ply want an or­di­nary life,’ she says. Un­til re­cently, Es­ther’s life ev­ery­day nor­mal. She says, ‘Chris and I were talk­ing about mov­ing in to­gether in my lit­tle house, and only a few months af­ter our first meet­ing, we did.’

They were plan­ning to start a fam­ily and ‘care­free’, a word Es­ther uses quite of­ten to­day with a re­signed sad­dened look. Just eight weeks af­ter they be­gan dat­ing in June 2005, Es­ther found a lump near her ear. ‘I didn’t think much of it’, but her GP thought it wor­ry­ing enough for a hos­pi­tal check. Af­ter a biopsy, Es­ther was told the lump was ‘deeper and big­ger’ than the doc­tors had first thought.

In De­cem­ber, Es­ther re­turned to the hos­pi­tal for the re­sults. ‘My mum and I were taken into what I call the Bad News Room. There was a weird at­mos­phere and I knew it was not good. I was told that I had ma­lig­nant melanoma. Mum and I lis­tened in shock. There was no other op­tion but to go home and carry on.’ Es­ther had a CT and MRI scan to check for other ab­nor­mal­i­ties. The hos­pi­tal retested the biopsy from all those years ago. It was con­firmed the orig­i­nal mole was in fact ma­lig­nant melanoma. In some ways, the out­come would not have been any dif­fer­ent had the di­ag­no­sis been cor­rect and Es­ther sees the mis­take as an eight-year re­prieve from worry.

The surgery re­quired was im­mense: a rad­i­cal neck dis­sec­tion to re­move 41 lymph nodes and the parotid gland. The sur­geon had to care­fully cut the gland out and leave the nerves in­tact, or Es­ther’s face would have been paral­ysed. The op­er­a­tion lasted 11 hours. ‘I felt dread­ful. I could hardly bring my­self to look at my re­flec­tion,’ she re­calls. ‘The in­ci­sion went right down my face and into my throat. I re­mem­ber Chris’s mother com­ing to see me. “He’s never go­ing to like me now,” I told her. “I look like Franken­stein.” But

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