It started in 2004 with a freckle on her left shoulder.
Shirley McEntee, from Galway, noticed the new freckle but wasn’t unduly concerned.
Aged 31 at the time, she nonetheless mentioned it to her Limerick-based GP during an unrelated visit in September that year.
“He advised me to have it removed, so I did,” says Shirley. “The biopsy showed melanoma.”
She thought that, once the freckle had been removed, the melanoma was gone, but she required further surgery to remove surrounding tissue.
A paramedic with the HSE in Limerick, Shirley was out of work for six weeks after surgery.
In December 2004, she was reviewed at University Hospital Limerick and sent to Cork to see if the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.
The tests came back clear but November the following year she developed a lump on her neck. Again, the tests came back clear.
Then, in 2009, she had a series of chest infections.
“I developed such a bad cough in work one day that I went to the emergency department in Limerick,” she says. “They took an X-ray and found a spot on the lower lobe of my left lung.”
The melanoma had returned and further surgery was required.
By January 2011, she was on Interferon to try to keep the cancer at bay. But, come September, a scan showed cancer in her right ovary and right adrenal gland. In November, she had both removed. But, on New Year’s Eve, she noticed a swelling on her neck.
A scan showed cancer in the carotid artery, which supplies the head and neck with oxygenated blood. Radiotherapy was recommended. She was given six months. “We were all kinda shocked,” Shirley says.
With Shirley running out of options, consultant oncologist Raj Gupta suggested Ipilimumab, a drug described as “a melanoma milestone”.
She went for a review in May 2012 to assess if the drug had worked.
“The doctor called me in and said: ‘I think you should go buy the biggest bottle of champagne ever. We’ve gone through your scans and we’ve got others to go through them and there isn’t a trace of cancer.’ I could hardly believe him.”
All went well until September 2013. Shirley started to get headaches. This January, she fell and couldn’t regain her balance. She had melanoma on the brain.
Shirley was sent for surgery and a shunt had to be fitted later because of the pressure in her head. She now feels “100 times better”, but the spectre of melanoma lurks.
Her independence is gone because of the danger of seizures. She can’t work. She’s had to move back in with her parents and has to her house in Limerick.
After a decade of living with melanoma, Shirley wants others to avoid making the harmful choices she made. Her message is: “Stay away from sunbeds.”
“I was an avid sunbed user when I was younger,” she says. “I was a red head with milk-bottle skin and I thought I’d be brown as a berry if I went on a sunbed. Back when I was 20, everyone was on them. People were not aware of the dangers and I would use them once or twice a week.
“All I ever got was scalded, but I used them anyway from my late teens into my early 20s.”
She wasn’t big on suncream either. Now she is acutely aware of the dangers of the sun and speaks out on behalf of the Irish Skin Foundation, which supports people with skin conditions.
“Maybe I’m just noticing more because of what I’ve been through, but there seems to be tanning studios every-where. I see young ones going to their debs and going in and scalding themselves on sunbeds like I used to do.
“What I’d say is if St Tropez is good enough for Kate Moss, it’s good enough for any of us.”
The Irish Skin Foundation is holding a skin awareness event in Cork’s Kingsley Hotel tomorrow. It will include a talk on how to recognise and prevent skin cancer, living with psoriasis, and practical management of eczema. Admission is free. irishskinfoundation.ie
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