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Broaching the c-word

Shane McCormick, southern sales director of the Talasey Group, shares his story of being diagnosed with melanoma to encourage others within the industry to be more aware of the dangers of sun exposure.

It was a Friday morning in late April when Shane McCormick was first diagnosed. The ex-landscaper, now southern sales director of the Talasey Group, was due to spend the weekend in Cornwall with his wife and friends. The car was packed, and routes were planned. The last thing for Shane to do was to attend a hospital appointment.

Three weeks beforehand, he’d visited his doctor to ask about having a mole on his face removed. “It had become quite big, so I thought I’d better get it checked out,” says Shane. “It was for cosmetic reasons, really. I just wanted it cut off.”

After examining the mole on Shane’s face, though, the doctor also wanted to take a look at Shane’s back, where a suspicious-looking mole was found. He was referred to a specialist and within two weeks had undergone a biopsy, where samples of body tissue were removed to be examined more closely.

He was called back to Royal Hampshire County Hospital after only a few days to receive the results. It was then, on that day in April two years ago, Shane was told he had melanoma, a form of skin cancer.

Around 14,500 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year in the UK, according to Macmillan. And this figure is on the rise, with one of the main causes being exposure to UV radiation. The Melanoma Fund says skin cancer is now the most common and fastest growing cancer in the UK, adding men are more likely to develop melanoma on their backs and in areas that are hard to spot, making the warning signs easier to miss, leading to a later diagnosis and higher death rates.

A growing awareness of melanoma has led to an increase in early diagnoses, but Macmillan is urging people to be more aware of the damage long-term exposure to the sun can cause.

Shane worked as a landscaper for over a decade, spending hours outdoors each day without wearing sun lotion. He’s now eager to share his experience with the horticulture industry to raise awareness of melanoma and to encourage those who spend hours in the sun to take protective measures.

“As an industry, it could be a huge problem,” says Shane. “How many people must have been affected but not told a story about it?” He adds that working outside for lengthy periods is “highly likely to have been the cause”, and that a couple of decades ago melanoma was not a wellknown issue and sun lotion was rarely used. “I can’t go back and change what’s happened, but I can make sure others are more aware now.”

Following Shane’s diagnosis, the malignant mole was removed along with nearby lymph nodes to test if the cancer had spread. The tests after this came back clear, but Shane was then on what he calls “cancer watch”, with regular dermatology appointments and check-ups after the surgery. “Everything was fine, though. I went back to work, I took a holiday in Turkey. But then November came along.”

Shane had attended the BALI National Landscape Awards on the Friday night, then had taken a few contractors to watch the England team play in a rugby match on the Saturday. When he awoke Sunday morning, he was aching. “I reached under my arm and there was a swelling the size of a tennis ball which had appeared overnight,” says Shane.

He still went to work on the Monday, though, feeling “groggy” and was later admitted to Royal South Hants hospital with a fever and a suspected infection. He underwent numerous scans to determine the cause. “They discharged me but said my results would be ready by Friday. Because I’d had melanoma before, I was a high priority.”

The doctors found a 4.5cm tumour, which they removed alongside 25 lymph nodes. The lymph nodes under Shane’s arm had swollen due to an infection, which Shane says was “probably a good thing looking back as it highlighted the lump”.

The surgery took place in January, and by mid-February the doctor told Shane that he was confident the cancer was removed but as cancer cells can travel, Shane will have to go on a year-long treatment called immunotherapy.

He’s been easing himself back into work, saying the Talasey Group has been hugely supportive of his need to recuperate following the surgery, which left him unable to even raise his hand in the air for weeks. Even a handshake was agony. Shane admits that if he was still a landscaper, he would not have been able to return to work, “not in a million years”. “I couldn’t use a rubber hammer to knock a paving slab down or use a rake or a shovel. And it’s all down to working outside without putting sun lotion on. This is the result.”

Shane is now very careful when outside. “I wear SPF 50 sun lotion from April to November, checking the back of the bottle to make sure it’s UVA five star. When I went on holiday to Turkey last year, I spent most of the week under an umbrella in the shade with a hat on and wearing sun cream. There’s more surprising measures as well, such as not having a glass roof on my car.” He also continues to attend regular check-ups and scans.

The Melanoma Fund is urging people to take similar methods with this month’s launch of Watch Your Back, its annual campaign to encourage gardeners, both professionals and hobbyists, to protect themselves against sunburn which increases the risk of melanoma. Despite finding it difficult to tell his story,Shane is eager for people to take campaigns such as this seriously in the hope fewer people will receive the terrible news he did two years ago.

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