North·First Person

I lost my dad to melanoma. It's not 'cancer-lite'

My father scoffed when I suggested he get checked for melanoma. A year later, that response would haunt our family, writes Simon Blakesley of Whitehorse.

Why didn’t Dad listen to me? Was I not convincing enough or worthy to be listened to?

Simon Blakesley of Whitehorse with his dad, Peter Blakesley of Nova Scotia, in November 2018 just before one of Peter's oncology appointments. Peter died about a month after this photo was taken. (Tim Blakesley)

This First Person column is written by Simon Blakesley of Whitehorse. Read more about CBC North First Person columns here.

I sat in my car after the appointment, the numbness sinking in. I'd received the dreaded call-back — the one to discuss my biopsy results.

In 2015 I was approaching 50. Believing in preventative maintenance, I scheduled an annual physical, feeling empowered by being proactive about my health.

Chatting with my doctor, I stripped down. About to place his stethoscope he paused at my left shoulder and said, "I don't like the look of this mole that I'm seeing here." 

The culprit was a dark, irregular loonie-sized patch. We agreed a surgeon should remove the lesion.

Three weeks later, a four-inch scar replaced the mole. The biopsy was positive for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. 

My three older brothers immediately got checked. Suggesting to my stubbornly proud English father that he do the same, he refused, stating, "If I saw a doctor every time I noticed a mole or pimple, I'd never be out the bloody lineup."   

His response would haunt him and our family.

A year later, my dad noticed blood on the back of his shirt. Tests confirmed Stage 3 melanoma. A 6x6-inch excision removed the lesion but too late: the cancer had moved to his lymph nodes. 

Dad's life changed from enjoying friends, family, and his life-long love of photography to one of appointments, agonizing surgeries, and pain management. His 6'3" frame was progressively whittled away as his face, back, and shoulder were sacrificed in a race against further spread.

Eventually there was nothing left. Melanoma, aggressive and cruelly disfiguring, had won in less than two years. 

Medical assistance in dying was his only means of escape. 

I share this for two reasons: The first is to grapple with guilt. Why didn't Dad listen to me? Was I not convincing enough or worthy to be listened to on such a life-altering matter? I'll never know the answers and they won't make a difference now. 

This leads me to the second reason.

While I couldn't make a difference with Dad, this story might help others learn that skin cancer is avoidable, preventable and detectable. 

We can limit our sun exposure, cover up or wear sunscreen and scan our skin for irregularities. 

Skin cancer is a cancer we can actually see — a huge advantage for early detection. My scar collection now includes my cheek and a graft on my nose. Each lesion was self-detected.

Skin cancer isn't "cancer-lite" or a mere cosmetic inconvenience. It's one of the most common cancer types, but is relatively easy to prevent. According the Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation, there's a 99 per cent survival rate if it's detected early

For many in Canada, especially in the North, winters are indeed long and dark. Yet, that isn't a protective factor. 

A photo of a snow-covered field in Yukon with a sun flare. Sunshine can be scarce in our Northern winters but that's no guarantee against skin cancer, Blakesley writes. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

We've all seen or done it: the sun-burned face after ice fishing. The first day boating when we peel off our shirts, and our scorched skin peels days afterwards. Burning body parts that haven't seen the sun for months on a "hot holiday" and sporting the redness as a triumph over the long winter. 

I recently had my six-month check with my dermatologist. He knows photography is a passion I shared with my dad. I mentioned that I discuss melanoma in photo presentations I make, framing over-exposure as something to be mindful of — both photographically and with our skin. 

His response surprised me, as he said that patients who won't take his advice are often more willing to listen to someone like me who has lived it.

My oldest brother was just diagnosed with melanoma. That's three of five in my family.

Genetic testing may identify information that might encourage our children to sun-protect and live lives free from skin cancer. 

This gives me hope for the future.

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Simon Blakesley is a retired educator and former Royal Canadian Air Force member. He is now an aviation photographer who lives in Whitehorse, Yukon.


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