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
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