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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 15 August, 2018
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'I thought a mark on my face was acne, but it was skin cancer'

Orla Fallon was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma at the start of her Leaving Cert year.

unnamed (5) Orla at her debs Source: Orla Fallon

THERE WAS A small, waxy scar on Orla Fallon’s forehead for years – something she put down to acne.

“I did suffer with acne so I thought it was just an acne scar. It started to get bigger, it was waxy and had a curly effect,” Orla recalls.

Over time, it started to tingle so she went to a GP. They suspected it was deep skin pigmentation – a condition that affects the colour of a person’s skin.

The doctor sent away for some tests to be carried out and, when Orla didn’t hear back, she presumed everything was fine.

“I completely forgot about it, thought it was nothing,” Orla, 19, says.

However, about a year later the pain worsened and started to burn so she went to see a dermatologist privately.

“I was diagnosed nearly straight away, the doctor in Sligo rang me after a few days and asked me to come back in, I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s not going to be good news’.”

Orla, who is from Bundoran in Donegal, was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – a type of skin cancer.

A huge shock 

This was a huge shock for her – she was just 17 years old and about to start her Leaving Cert year. She says she’s also not one for sunbathing so “couldn’t really understand why” she had this type of cancer.

“A lot of people think it’s a result of tanning beds and wearing oil [in the sun], there’s a stigma around it but anyone can get it,” Orla notes.

She says her diagnosis also surprised her doctors as she was so young and had no family history of skin cancer.

It’s just one of those things, the luck of the draw.

A biopsy at St James’s Hospital in Dublin confirmed it was BCC.

Surgery 

Orla underwent Mohs surgery – a specialised technique where tissue is removed piece by piece and looked at under a microscope until no traces of cancer cells are left.

A skin graft is usually needed afterwards. Other treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy are sometimes needed to treat skin cancer.

unnamed (1) Orla post-surgery Source: Orla Fallon

Orla was under local anaesthetic for the surgery – meaning she was awake throughout the procedure.

I was awake for the whole thing. I couldn’t feel anything, part of my face was numb but I could feel blood trickling down my head. I was very nervous but I was putting on a brave face.

“They take a bit of skin away and test it to see if there are cancer cells left … I had to go back in three times to remove more skin each time.”

The surgery was a success and Orla got the all-clear about three weeks later.

Leaving Cert

Despite her diagnosis, Orla only missed about a month of school throughout her Leaving Cert year.

The surgery was carried out just before Christmas so she had time to recover over the holiday period. Orla says it was “very hard” to deal with the stress of the Leaving Cert as well as being sick, but her school and medical team were very supportive.

She says the staff in St James’s were “lovely” and “didn’t want me to miss much school so they worked around my schedule”.

Orla returned to school about two weeks after her classmates in January.

“I was put on heavy painkillers but I’m not one to take painkillers if I can avoid it. Some days I’d wake up and have to close the curtains, it was too bright.

“I had over 60 stitches in my forehead. I had a big bandage on my head so didn’t want to go in [to school] and have people looking at me.”

unnamed

The stitches were removed after about 10 days.

“The school (Magh Éne College in Bundoran) was brilliant. They put my course material online, they thought I’d be out for longer too.”

Orla, who is now studying Business at IT Sligo, says: “Everything is good now. Great, thank God.” She has check-ups every six month in Dublin.

For anyone who may be concerned about a scar, her advice is simple: “Get it checked out.”

“All my family are coming up to me now, saying ‘I’ve a mark, look at this’. I’m a skin expert now,” she jokes.

UV levels 

There are three major types of skin cancer: BCC, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. The first two skin cancers are non-melanoma skin cancers.

The latest figures available from the National Cancer Registry show that in 2014 there were 10,304 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 1,041 cases of melanoma in Ireland.

The Irish Cancer Society (ICS) has a SunSmart Code, which has advice for people about staying safe in the sun and reducing their risk of developing skin cancer.

Most summer days, even cloudy ones, have high enough UV levels to damage a person’s skin, meaning sun cream and other precautions could be necessary.

“I’m always checking the UV index, I’m the biggest sun nerd,” Orla says, adding that information compiled by the ICS has helped her become more knowledgeable about this important topic.

Marathon in a Month 

Orla tells us she “wanted to give back” and will be taking part in the ICS’s Marathon in a Month in July – a fundraiser in which participants aim to complete the distance of a marathon (just over 42km) over the course of a month through walking, jogging or running.

The society notes that people should be doing 150 minutes of physical activity every week. That’s the same number of people who get a cancer diagnosis in Ireland every day.

The initiative aims to get people exercising while raising vital funds for the ICS’s work. For more information about the campaign, click here.

More information and advice about skin cancer can be read here.

Read: A growing problem: There were over 1,000 cases of melanoma in Ireland in 2014

Read: ‘My sister died from it, then my mam had it, then I got it’

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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