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Personal cancer story

Paul James

Two in three Australians will sadly be diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in their lifetime. 

For Paul, a licenced aircraft engineer from Riverton in Western Australia, it was 30 years ago when he had his first encounter with skin cancer. In 1992, at 21 years old, Paul’s younger sister Carolyn passed away due to melanoma. 

“Back then, no one really understood what melanoma was. Unless you had it, you didn’t want to know about it,” he said. 

“When my sister died, I started to avoid spending time on the beach and going out in the sun without protection.”  

Fast forward 23 years later, after routine skin checks, Paul would unfortunately begin his own journey with melanoma. His first diagnosis came when he was 52 years old. Paul noticed marks on his arm but didn’t think much of it- until the marks got darker. A visit to the dermatologist confirmed that this would be his first skin cancer removal.  

Paul underwent multiple melanoma diagnoses over the next few years, however, it was a mass on the left side of his skull that would alter his life most significantly.  

“The neurosurgeon took one look at my scans and his jaw dropped. He told me there was nothing he could do. I was determined to have a second opinion, so phoned my dermatologist who recommended another neurosurgeon. After a seven-hour operation in December 2017, a squamous cell carcinoma was removed from the base of my skull.” 

Paul underwent multiple surgeries and rounds of radiation as the tumour moved down his facial nerves, skull and wrapped around nerves in his neck.  

“It left me with my left vocal cord disconnected, a half-twisted tongue and reduced control of my bottom lip. The doctors needed to chop the nerve off so you couldn’t hear me. At family dinners, I could only sit in the corner in silence." 

During this time, Paul found great support in the caring hospital staff and love of those around him, especially his wife Sally who was by his side every step of the way.   

Despite treatment and several operations, the cancer continued to return and spread. Paul was diagnosed with cerebellum and meninges (lining of the brain) cancer.  

“The radiation oncologist told me the worse possible news. I was now terminal with months, not years, to live,” he recalled. 

Inspired by his late sister and driven by a will to survive, Paul opted for immunotherapy shots to give him the best chance of prolonging his life and being with his family. 

After around 50.5 hours of surgery, 9 days in ICU and 79 days in hospital, Paul is now considered stable and is recovering from the scars of his journey, five years on from his last major surgeries.  

He has since proudly seen his children graduate from university and been able to keep his passion for working with aeroplanes going by volunteering with the local Aviation Heritage Museum. 

Now, Paul avoids going outside in the harsh midday sun, and if he does, he makes sure he is wearing sunscreen, a broad brim hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt, and seeks shade. 

Paul’s message to all Australians is to take skin cancer seriously and ensure they slip, slop, slap, seek and slide whenever the UV outside is 3 or above.  

“It doesn’t have to feel hot for it to be a high UV level. I want people to realise the damage they are doing when they’re not protecting themselves from the sun and know it’s simple to save your skin.” 

Read more stories about people's personal experiences with cancer