Personal cancer story
Samantha Coyle was just 23 when she was diagnosed with melanoma.
Being fair skinned, she never intentionally sun baked or tried to get a tan when she was young, but like any typical kid, she spent many hours playing sports under the hot Australian sun in her hometown of Dubbo, NSW. It was this every day, incidental sun exposure that eventually caught up with her.
“Towards the end of 2010, I noticed that a mole on the back of my left leg had changed appearance over winter. It had been bleeding when I shaved my legs, had become darker, split into two and the border had changed.”
Sam’s doctor advised that the mole probably needed to be removed, but her gut instinct said something was wrong, so she asked for a referral to a dermatologist. Her local specialist didn’t have any appointments for three months, but not wanting to take any chances, she booked into their Sydney practice for an earlier appointment. It was a decision that might have saved her life.
My surgeon later told me that if I had waited until the following March, my prognosis could have been much worse."
A biopsy of Sam’s mole revealed it was stage 2 melanoma: 1.3 mm deep. At just 23 years of age at the time, the news was terrifying.
“I was in complete shock after hearing the news; I wasn’t sure what to say or how to act. I had so many questions but didn't know where to start finding the answers.”
On 11 January 2011, Sam underwent surgery to remove the mole, including its 4 cm perimeter, to ensure all the cancerous cells were taken out. Lymph node mapping highlighted that an additional three nodes were potentially affected by the cancer, so those were removed too. Lying in hospital with painful stitches and staples in her leg, Sam thought she’d gotten through the worst of it – until receiving another call from her surgeon when she returned home.
“They had discovered cancer in two of the three lymph nodes they had removed. They asked me to come back to Sydney in 10 days to remove the stitches and staples, and to bring someone with me as important decisions needed to be made.”
Following advice from her surgeon, Sam underwent another operation to remove all the lymph nodes in her left leg. What resulted was lymphoedema, a painful leg swelling condition. But thankfully, all the lymph nodes that were removed came up clear of cancer.
For Sam, witnessing her own mother’s experience with cancer just a couple of years before her own meant that the two of them were brought closer together. Sam and her mum were a strong support for each other during treatment – particularly as they lived in a remote area.
“Both mum and I had to travel to Sydney for treatment and medical appointments. Going through this journey outside of a major city was difficult and often isolating…I found it beneficial to connect with others, usually online. I connected with organisations such as Cancer Council … as well as many lymphoedema support groups both in Australia and overseas.”
Since her experience with melanoma, Sam’s life has completely changed. She now lives with lymphoedema, and the pain and discomfort associated with that. During one particular month, she suffered through two separate cellulitis complications (infection due to the lymphoedema) and since that time, she’s been learning about how to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
My life has completely changed since my experience with melanoma ... I try and exercise regularly, eat healthy and am more aware of my body and checking changes."
Today, Sam is a teacher. She uses her experience to educate and encourage her students to be safe in the sun. In the future, she is looking to become more involved with melanoma campaigns and increase awareness around the dangers of skin cancer in Australia. She’s grateful for organisations like Cancer Council that are dedicated to reducing the impact of melanoma on people’s lives – whether that be through research, prevention or support services.
“It’s relieving to know that Cancer Council is there to support people in the most vulnerable time. The awareness that is being raised in the community by Cancer Council is saving lives and is key to early diagnosis and prevention. It is such a vital organisation, and its support for cancer patients and families is immeasurable. Cancer affects so many people in our community, but with Cancer Council’s support, I hope this can be significantly reduced.”
Read more stories about people's personal experiences with cancer