Personal cancer story
Growing up in the coastal town of Sawtell, New South Wales, Craig was no stranger to the Australian sun. Spending many of his younger years out in the ocean, he says that for surfers like himself, it was almost a rite of passage to develop a tan over the summer.
“I remember people always used to say ‘you look so good with a tan’”.
Going through high school in the 1980s, Craig recalls there was some awareness of skin cancer developing amongst his peers, but in that era, kids were still baking themselves for a tan and it was never compulsory to wear hats at school. For the most part, people just weren’t aware of how common skin cancer was, and thought, ‘it just won’t happen to me’.
He remembers seeing Cancer Council’s very first Slip! Slop! Slap! Advertisement on TV.
“It was a bit of a gamechanger. I remember the tune catching on, and people singing it at places like the cricket. It really prompted parents to take action.”
It wasn’t for another thirty years that the effects of Craig’s early years of sun exposure caught up with him.
“Everything started for me in May 2018, when I noticed I had a little lump on the inside of my lip.”
Craig took himself to the doctor, who expressed little concern about the lump but suggested he see a dermatologist to have it cut out for safe measure.
“At that time, I certainly didn’t think it was melanoma”, Craig says.
After the lump was removed a month later, Craig’s dermatologist asked him to come back in to discuss his results. The conversation turned quite serious, quickly.
“They told me I had a 6mm nodular melanoma on my lip and I was referred to the melanoma team at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. They diagnosed me with stage 2 cancer, which wasn’t the worst possible outcome, but we needed to act straight away.”
Not wasting any time, Craig had surgery to remove 1cm off his bottom lip – requiring a wide incision down his chin that he still has the scars from today. To be safe, he also had lymph nodes removed from his neck and throat in case the cancer had spread, but results came back saying they were all clear.
“After those positive test results, I was told that it was very unlikely it would become a problem later down the track.”
After surgery, Craig went through radiation therapy on one side of his face - once a day for about 10 minutes, for twenty days straight.
Of all the treatment I eventually had, the radiation was by far the worst. They’re effectively burning that area of the face. I lost a lot of weight. To be honest, I was a wreck."
Post radiation, Craig went back for a scan in October 2018. Two days later, he received the news he never wanted to hear.
“I remember the moment and the feeling, not the exact words. He said something like, ‘there is a bit of a concern’. My oncologist at the time had already talked me through the different stages of cancer. I knew that if you became stage 4, you had a serious problem on your hands. He’d explained the numbers to me. At that time, 55% of people were responding to immunotherapy, and 40% survived beyond 5 years.”
Craig knew what was coming before his oncologist even said the words.
I said, So I asked if I was stage 4 now, and he said, ‘yes’."
Craig’s cancer had shown up in his pelvis, and after a biopsy – a tough procedure he describes as ‘having a hole drilled in your spine’ – the results confirmed that it was melanoma and that Craig would require immunotherapy to try and treat it.
“I was 45 years old with two small kids. I started to realise that I was at the start of a very long journey and it really knocked me. The first thing you think when you wake up is ‘I’m stage 4 cancer’. You’re staring at your mortality, it’s very confronting.”
Being a numbers man, Craig was starkly aware of his chances of survival, but with the support of his medical team, family and friends, he started a dual treatment of immunotherapy drugs – ‘an all guns blazing approach’. A month after his initial diagnosis, Craig was now being treated with two incredibly strong drugs, with significant side effects.
“The hardest aspect was the mental side of things. I had to be on these drugs for 3 months before I had my first scan to see if they were working”.
During this time, Craig dedicated himself to finding people who had undergone similar treatment to him, and had survived.
“I reached out to one friend of a friend who had gone through a similar situation and responded well to the drug. I just said to him “I am scared”, and he listened.”
Craig also joined a melanoma support group on Facebook, where he could talk to people undergoing, or who had gone through, similar experiences. He remains in touch with the group today.
“It kept me going, and gave me something to hold on to. If these people had gone through the same thing, then it could work for me to.”
It was the 8th February 2019, at 2:08pm when Craig received the news of his first scan results since commencing his immunotherapy treatment.
I heard my oncologist’s voice on the other end of the phone say ‘I’m calling about a really great scan result’. I was sitting on public transport and had to get off at the next stop because I felt so overwhelmed. All my scans had come back completely clear. I’d had a complete response to the drugs. It was a feeling of absolute euphoria."
Craig continued on a single drug immunotherapy treatment, and today receives it once a month, and will continue to do so for the next two years. His scans in May, August and October 2019 were all clear.
“I know it’s working, but I still experience ‘scanxiety’ around the scans, because you know there’s always potential that the drugs can stop working. I’ve taken action to make sure from an emotional and mental health point of view I’m looking after myself. I see a therapist regularly, and for me, it’s all about the rebuilding stage now and working out who I am, after going through such a life-altering experience”.
Craig says that he always encourages his friends to check their skin for changes, and that he’s pedantic about educating his young kids about being SunSmart.
“It’s just these little adjustments you can make to your daily life to make sure you’re safe. I get angered when I see people still out tanning themselves, but I know it’s all about education.”
“That’s why it’s just so important that Cancer Council doesn’t go away. They’re keeping skin cancer at the forefront, and making sure that people realise it’s still very much an issue that needs addressing.”
“If you’re thinking about supporting an organisation, and want to help stop cancer and support people too, Cancer Council is one of the best. It’s just a situation where you know that your hard earned money is being put to good use.”
Read more stories about people's personal experiences with cancer