I was terrified that I wouldn’t be around to see my kids grow up
The actress tells CAROL DAVIS how her love of sunbathing led to a skin cancer diagnosis
‘I’d be out there when the sun rose until it set’ ‘It’s upsetting 40 per cent of kids have been burnt’
FOR years Terri Dwyer has loved nothing more than getting away with her family for a well-earned break in the sun. “I’ve had wonderful holidays, always on a sun lounger and anywhere hot, including Sri Lanka, Florida and Cuba,” says the actress, 42, best known for her role as Ruth Osborne in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks. “I’d be out there from the moment the sun rose to the time it set and usually had a great suntan.”
But as the former model – who is now a TV presenter appearing on ITV’s Loose Women and This Morning – discovered, there was a high price to pay for her suntan.
Even though Terri, who is married to Sean Marley, 47, and has two sons Caiden, 10, and Kylan, six, has always been meticulous about taking care of her skin with regular visits to a dermatologist, she was horrified to be diagnosed with stage 2 malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
“I was incredibly upset,” says Terri, who lives with her family in the Wirral, Cheshire. “I’d lost both my parents to cancer (her mum Doreen died of ovarian cancer when Terri was 22, while her father Tony died of stomach cancer in 2003) and I knew what it was like to marry and have children without having parents around.
“All I could think was that Caiden and Kylan would lose their mum and I wouldn’t be around to watch them grow up.”
Terri’s cancer scare began just before a family holiday to Italy two years ago.
She had a routine appointment with a dermatologist who noticed a tiny black spot on her back and insisted on removing it straightaway.
“I’d had lots of moles removed before so I didn’t give it a second thought,” says Terri. But on her return the skin specialist broke the bad news. The “dot” was a malignant melanoma, an often aggressive type of cancer and more tests were needed to check if it had spread to her lymph nodes.
More than 100,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year, making it now the fifth most common cancer in the country. And last year about 2,400 deaths were due to melanoma. Malignant melanoma rates are now rising faster than any other cancer.
“Malignant melanoma is the least common but more serious form of skin cancer which can be fatal if not caught and removed early,” warns consultant dermatologist Dr Bav Shergill of the British Skin Foundation. “It usually appears in or near to a mole and can spread to other areas such as lymph nodes, liver and lungs.”
Exposure to too much ultraviolet light in sunlight is the main preventable cause of melanomas and artificial ultraviolet light, such as from sunbeds, also raises the risk of melanoma.
Those most at risk include people with pale skin who burn easily, those who have had episodes of sunburn, people with many ordinary or unusual moles, with a family history of melanoma or who have previously had skin cancer.
Terri, who had a sunbed at home when she was 18 which she used a couple of times a week, needed a dye test to check whether or not the cancer had started to spread around her body. She needed more surgery to remove lymph nodes and also a larger area of tissue around where the mole had been.
She then faced an agonising wait for results although fortunately there was no evidence that the cancer had spread.
“I’d visited the dermatologist to have moles removed just four months earlier and there was no sign of it then,” says Terri. “That’s how fast malignant melanomas can grow which is why they are so incredibly dangerous.”
After her diagnosis Terri says her attitude to sun exposure has completely changed. She continues to have regular checks and any suspicious mole is surgically removed.
“I knew I was at higher risk of the cancer returning, especially in the first year after diagnosis,” she says.
Terri is now working with the patient support and advocacy group Melanoma UK to support suncream brand SunSense’s Dying For A Tan tour, which is going around Britain and asking people to step under a UV camera that reveals hidden sun damage. “When I tried it I was shocked to see so many damaged patches,” she says.
A SunSense survey reveals there is still huge ignorance among Britons about the damaging effects of the sun. Over half of respondents believed it was safer to build a base tan before going on holiday and 10 per cent wrongly thought sunbeds were a safe way to tan.
“One of the things that really struck me about the survey was that 60 per cent of parents use factor 50/50+ on their children but most will only use SPF 25 or less on themselves,” says Terri.
“It’s something I was guilty of doing before my diagnosis but I have learnt how important it is to protect myself as much as I protect my children.
“It was also extremely upsetting to see that 40 per cent of children have been burnt by the sun. I now wear sunscreen every day, whether I’m in the UK or on holiday.”
DURING a recent holiday in Morocco Terri went to extreme measures to protect her skin. Before her trip she visited her dermatologist who examined a mole but decided not to remove it immediately.
“On holiday I wore SPF 50 sunscreen all the time, a hat and stayed in the shade,” says Terri.
“But even so I came back with a glow and I’m not sure how, it must have been from the 15 or so minutes I’d spend in the pool with my boys.
“I now have a lot of scars and each surgery means two weeks’ recovery so I can’t go to the gym which I love,” she says.
“I’ll need moles removing regularly in spite of all my precautions. And yet I still see young girls going into sunbed salons in cities, just as I once did. I would like to see sunbeds banned although I’ve had to learn that the hard way.”