A surfers story about his tangle with the Jack Dancer – skin cancer.

(L) Phil Leadley's lip, (R) Even grey-day perfection is fraught with UV danger. Pic: Spence Hornby

Surfing is a great way of life. When I was a younger jobs, money, and relationships all took a back seat as I chased perfect waves all over the planet.
It keeps you fit and agile, sharpens your reflexes, and exposes you to the elements. Even now as an older working professional I surf every opportunity I can, while many of my mates have fallen by the wayside… the pub, the punt, pokies, drugs or even worse.  It’s a heavy toll.

Yep, it’s a good life being a surfer, but recently I found out a downside to all the time spent in the water. For several years I’ve had a scaly bit of flaky skin on my bottom lip. At times it would almost disappear and then come back. I went to a doctor who ran a cancer clinic and he froze it off… but again, it came back.

My missus was onto me about it all the time, especially, as when things turned amorous; I would pull back on the kissing because my lip was sensitive.  The crunch came when the doctor I had been seeing turned up one night on a current affairs program about his dodgy behaviour after numerous complaints from his patients. Soon after I got a letter from NSW Health saying he had got punted and as I was a former patient I should seek further treatment. My new doctor sent me to a specialist at Prince of Wales Private Hospital in Sydney who took a biopsy (they cut a small section out and sent it off for examination) of my lip and a dry spot on my cheek.

One week later the results are back.  

The cheek is sweet, but the lip has an early cancer, known as squamous cell carcinoma. Shit, I can’t even pronounce that, let alone know what it is.
According to Dr Garry Buckland it’s got to come out.

A week later I’m in hospital going into the full day surgery, bright lights, doctors, anesthetic, the whole deal.  A couple of hours later I’m groggy and light-headed, heading home with some 40 + stitches I didn’t have this morning. Not only did they have to cut the cancer out of my lip but also a wedge below the lip so that it all marries up sweetly. There are some 30 odd internal stitches through 3 layers of skin and 10 external.

The next couple of days are pretty uncomfortable. I have a fat lip, a swollen face and everyone I bump into thinks I’ve been beaten up. The only food I can eat is the odd smoothie and soggy Weetbix through a straw. By the time I headed back to the doctor a week later I’d shed 4kgs.

Arriving back at hospital was a daunting experience, the pain had been far worse than I thought and I don’t want to have to go through that again. But the results are in, and they got all the cancer from my lip. STOKED!

It’s amazing; since this has happened how many people I have come into contact with, mention a spot or mole that they reckon needs checking (I’m no expert, but some of these spots looked like they needed attention, and I told them so). Or they tell me a story about someone in their family who has had a skin cancer scare. This is the reason I wrote this story. What happened to me was heavy, but it could have been far worse. If I’d acted earlier it would have been much easier to treat.

The doctor reckons one in two Aussies will have some form of skin cancer by the age of 50. A big problem with surfing is we get a double dose of harmful solar radiation – once from the sun, and again from the reflection off the ocean.

I remember as a grommet, the more burnt we got the better - the slip, slop, slap message wasn’t around in those days. It’s only in recent years I’ve donned the zinc every time I surf. Dr Buckland reckons the mineral; Zinc titanium cream, is better than the chemical sunscreens with 30+ SPF’s etc, as the zinc blocks the harmful solar UVA’s and UVB’s where the SPF’s only filter it.

I’m back in the water and covered up each time I walk out the door. I have to look after the scar with vitamin E cream and massage it to help dissolve the internal stitches (my chick is happy with that, she thinks she’ll get a bit more lip action!) and zinc up every day to avoid the scar turning brown.
The thing about the sun is you don’t know what kind of skin cancer you’re going to get. Mine was squamous cell carcinoma but it could have been a melanoma and my story could have ended very differently.
So to anyone who is reading this and has a spot, mole or scaly bit of skin they are not sure about, my advice is get to your local doctor and get it checked out ASAP. More importantly, take the preventative measures that will minimise the risk that your skin is exposed to in the sun.
I got lucky – a fat lip, a swollen face and some stitches – a whole lot better than the worst-case scenario. I’m looking at it positively, as the word on the street is; that chicks dig blokes with scars.

Phil Leadley