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'I found out I had a deadly melanoma at 38 weeks pregnant'

Clair and baby Dax. Picture: supplied.
Clair and baby Dax. Picture: supplied.

CLAIR Helmrich noticed a spot on her left cheek that looked innocent enough, but then it slowly began to grow and change shape. At 38 weeks pregnant Clair received some devastating news - she had a potentially deadly skin cancer, a melanoma.

I'd been to a skin cancer clinic twice after I noticed the spot on my face had started changing. I said, I wanted to have it removed, but on both occasions was told there was no issue with the spot, removing it would be for vanity reasons only, so I left it.

But as time passed, I still had a niggling feeling, it kept changing. So, when I went on maternity leave, I decided to get it checked again. But when I turned up for my appointment at the skin cancer clinic, it was closed. With my pregnancy brain in high gear, I realised I'd made an appointment at the wrong place. I discovered I'd accidentally booked into the dermatologist across the road. It was a mistake that probably saved my life.

The doctor there took one look at my face, and I could see he was really worried. He did a punch biopsy that day, and then I went back for the results a few days later. I was told it was a malignant melanoma and it needed to come out. It didn't sink in right away, I was trying to be practical, I had a baby on the way. Beside me, my mum was in tears….I asked the doctor, "ok what's next, what can we do?"

They wanted to take it out within days, but there was a risk I'd go into labour on the operating table, and I didn't want that. I asked if I could wait until after my baby was born, and the doctor agreed, but if I went past my due date, I'd have to be induced. 

Luckily for me, I ended up having my baby just two days later. I started feeling labour pains, and when I was far enough along, I went to the hospital - two hours later my baby Dax, was born. It was love at first sight. I was a mum! Everything went well, no drugs and no interventions - I just had this horrible cancer now to deal with.

The spot on my face wasn't painful. At that point I was all wrapped up in the hormone high bubble of having a new baby; surgery was booked for a few weeks' time.

I had a rotation flap surgery, they took a large arrowhead shaped section of my cheek. I was so nervous beforehand, I didn't want to leave Dax behind. I also don't like the idea of being knocked out. I remember wondering if I'd even wake up, I have an irrational fear of going under aesthetic.

The surgery went for around an hour and a half, and I had over 200 stitches, some were internal ones. The surgeon was confident that the likelihood of the melanoma returning was pretty slim. There was lots of bruising afterwards… I couldn't laugh, and smiling really hurt. I was fortunate though, I had a very straightforward recovery.

There were 200 stitches in Clair's face. Picture: supplied.
There were 200 stitches in Clair's face. Picture: supplied.

My parents, particularly my mum Kerrie was amazing and very supportive, she came to all my appointments and the follow-ups over the next five years. Now I have four kids, as well as Dax who is now 9, Elliot,7, Taj ,5, and Bonnie,3.

It's the best it's going to look, but it's not really that obvious. As for why I got skin cancer, well, no one really knows. I grew up getting sunburnt a few times as a kid, but no more than any other Aussie kid. I wasn't a sun worshiper, and as I got older I was pretty sun aware. I did go to a solarium a handful of times in my late teens though, and I'm sure that didn't help.

The organisation I work for now, Brightside Co, sponsor the Melanoma March, we lost a colleague to melanoma, that part of my journey is supported by my workplace.

I'm passionate about spreading the word about prevention and early detection. Melanoma really is a shit of a cancer, it's hard to treat, if it metastasizes and goes to your organs, there's not much that can be done. It doesn't really respond to chemo and radiation.

The kids understand, and we are sun smart, but not in an extreme way - we still love being outdoors. Life now is great. Having a melanoma has changed my perspective on many things. At first, I had a lot of fear going through it - I'd wake up in the night and think, will it come back? I just want to be here for my kids…. I don't want to miss anything in this lifetime. Now I feel like I don't say no to things, I'm open to new experiences and I just want to experience life. I have a lot more positive outlook and I don't sweat the small stuff. Life is too short, and I have been given a second chance at mine, I'm not going to waste it.

According to the Melanoma Institute Australia, this country has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. On average, 30 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma every day and more than 1,200 will die from the disease each year. For more information about melanoma its causes, and prevention, check out www.melanoma.org.au and www.melanomamarch.com.au

This originally appeared on Kidspot and has been republished here with permission.

Topics:  editors picks health melanoma pregnant skin cancer

News Corp Australia