Skin Cancer Is like a Plague in Our Family

Daily Mail (London), September 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

Skin Cancer Is like a Plague in Our Family


Byline: HELEN RENSHAW

A ROW broke out recently after two leading skin specialists suggested that links between skin cancer and sunbathing had been exaggerated.

Professors Jonathan Rees and Sam Shuster of Newcastle University claimed that, while there is evidence that exposure to the sun can trigger skin cancer, other factors, such as genetics, may also play a part.

In 15 years skin cancer has doubled in Britain. It is now the second most common form of cancer with 36,000 new cases each year and 2,000 deaths. News that heredity may be a factor came as no surprise to Sylvia Paterson, 50, a secretary from Callander, Perthshire.

She suffers from skin cancer, as does her mother. The disease also afflicted her grandmother, four uncles and aunts and two cousins. Here Sylvia .

SKIN cancer is so common in our family, that it's almost like a family plague. I can remember as a child being told: 'At least you won't get it - your colouring is different from ours.' I'm very dark, whereas most of my family have a red-gold colouring. But obviously it's not linked to complexion after all. I developed the disease 16 years ago, and it seems to be continuing to spread through the generations.

No one can remember whether my great-grandmother suffered from the disease. But we do know that she married twice and both my grandmother and her half-sister developed the disease. We're pretty sure it comes from her line.

My grandmother had 13 children, five of whom died before they could have children. Five of the remaining eight including my mother - went on to develop a form of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma.

Now three of the next generation, including me, are afflicted, and I fear that my two daughters - Dawn, a 26-year-old trainee accountant, and Susan, a 22-year-old care assistant - will develop the disease.

My first awareness of skin cancer came in 1960, when my grandmother had an operation to remove the cancerous skin from the front of her legs at the age of 76. She needed skin grafts to replace what was lost.

For 40 years she had been told she had eczema, and by the time her condition was correctly diagnosed she was in great pain and severely incapacitated. I remember noticing a red mark on the inside of my mother's arm when she was in her 40s.

It didn't weep or itch - it was quite innocent looking. But it refused to heal and slowly grew larger. When it had reached the size of a 50p piece, I persuaded her to see the doctor about it. It was diagnosed as cancer and she had the tumour removed. Since then, my mother has had 60 such removals as similar patches have sprung up on her legs, back, face and nose. It's quite disfiguring, as every removal leaves a scar.

And the way the anaesthetic is administered is extremely painful.

Each time it happens, it brings tears to your eyes. The needle doesn't look very big, but they plunge it in quite deep and then seem to wiggle it about.

Then they cut out the tumour, which can leave a nasty wound.

I've had four or five stitches each time. Now, my mother has got to the stage where she is saying: 'No more.' In recent years she seems to have been going in for treatment all the time. Also, the wounds are taking longer to heal as she grows older - the last took about five months. So now she wants just to let the disease to run its course.

When I noticed the first tiny bright red patch on one of my legs, I thought: 'I've got the same as my mum.' But when I showed it to my doctor, she said: 'No way. I'll show you what skin cancer looks like.' And she got down a book full of pictures of lumpy brown tumours.

I thought she must know best, so for the next seven years I just kept an eye on it. During that time, my husband died and the red spot on my leg was the last thing on my mind. But, very slowly, it grew until it was the size of the nail on my little finger. …

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