I thought skin cancer was a white person’s disease

Posted on 15 January 2018

When motivational speaker and actress Naniki Seboni ignored a small mole on her knee, she had no idea how serious the outcome would be.

I call my two scars Ugly Betty and her sister. This was after a close friend, who realised I was struggling to come to terms with my post-surgery body, suggested I name my scars in order to normalise them. I’m particularly sensitive about Ugly Betty – the one in my groin area – and it upsets me to look at it.

I ignored my mole for five years

When I first noticed my mole, it looked like a cute little beauty spot just above my knee. I really liked it – and used to show it off by wearing short skirts. About four years after it first appeared, I bumped myself against a coffee table and it opened up and bled profusely for about 20 minutes. I was alarmed, but once the bleeding stopped I simply became more careful about bumping against furniture.

Later I noticed it had changed shape and now looked more like a fat, squashed fly than anything else. It also started hurting when I wore tight jeans or trousers, so I simply worked around that too. At one point I even tried to bind it off with a piece of thread.

My black friends all said it was nothing to worry about. But my white friends, including my radio production lecturer at the time, urged me to get it checked out. After five years of ignoring my strange little blemish, I eventually booked an appointment with a dermatologist. Two weeks later I got the results back from the biopsy and my world shattered.

As the doctors were telling me I had stage three melanoma (the most severe form), I started making jokes about the “fact” that black people never get skin cancer.

But then it hit me. While they discussed different forms of treatment – including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – I just switched off. It was a defence mechanism; I just couldn’t handle what they were telling me.

I needed support

I was already struggling with anxiety, insomnia and depression following the unexpected death of my dad from a sudden illness. Now I was forced to confront my own mortality too. Although the dermatologist had scheduled surgery, I was a complete basket case. For six months I was terrified of the operation and kept delaying it. I was even more terrified about chemotherapy or amputation, which were possible outcomes that could only be determined following surgery. I even considered cutting my hair because I did not want to lose it through chemo.

Although my boyfriend, Tumi, was incredibly supportive, I needed help from people who could identify with what I was experiencing. I eventually reached out to a cancer survivors’ support group on social media and I was overwhelmed by how positive and reassuring complete strangers were. With their help, I finally plucked up the courage to follow through with the operation, six months after my diagnosis.

I’m so angry with myself

Because I’d waited so long to have my mole examined, the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in my groin. After the surgery I was on crutches for two months because walking was too painful. Thankfully I did not need chemotherapy, but I am still angry with myself for not seeing a doctor earlier. I’ve subsequently learned that my grandmother had skin cancer.

The scar on my leg makes me feel a little self-conscious when I’m wearing skirts. But if I think about how fortunate I am to be alive, these blemishes don’t bother me at all.

Since the operation to remove my malignant melanoma, the pain has subsided, and although I still feel discomfort when I’m driving and changing gears, I can now walk properly again. Plus, I’ve turned my experience into a positive one.

I’m now a spokesperson for Cancervive – a special initiative of the organisation People Living With Cancer – and I encourage people not to make my mistake.

My message is: no matter what your skin colour, have any suspicious-looking moles investigated by a doctor.

Types of skin cancer

Melanoma develops from cells called melanocytes (pigment-making cells) in the skin.

It may arise from existing moles or out of the blue. The majority of melanomas appear on parts of the body that aren’t exposed to the sun. If they are not picked up early and treated, they can be fatal. Melanoma presents as a tan to pitch-black spot or nodule on the skin. Some do not have the characteristic pigment and are called amelanotic melanomas.

Get yourself checked if your mole has an irregular shape (asymmetrical), has variation in colour (different colors within the same lesion), has vague borders, or starts to grow.

Basal Cell Carcinoma is a slow-growing, locally invasive cancer of the skin. It occurs on sun-exposed skin only (often the face), and typically looks like a translucent papule or nodule with a raised pearly edge and small red blood vessels on the surface. Treatment includes cauterisation and curettage or surgical excision after confirmation by biopsy.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma can develop in different regions of the skin as well as the mouth, oesophagus and genitalia. A typical lesion is a firm nodule that may be ulcerated and fungating. If not removed early, it may spread to the lymph nodes or via bloodflow to other organs. Treatment includes surgical excision, cauterisation and curettage, and radiotherapy

  1. Melanoma                                       
  2. Basal Cell Carcinoma         
  3. Squamous Cell Carcinoma

types of skin cancer

Published in Cancer

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