Surviving Skin Cancer


Dr Vaughn Jones wanted to try the least invasive treatment first. She prescribed a cream called Efudix, which singles out cancer cells and kills them. It is very powerful and its effects are horrible. My patch became weepy and nasty. I started wearing trousers all the time to hide my legs, which is not like me at all. I’ve always been rather proud of my legs and enjoyed showing them off. I feel more elegant and confident in a slim skirt when I’m speaking or at meetings.

Three months later, the cream hadn’t worked. Dr Vaughn Jones then tried cryotherapy ? effectively freezing away the cancerous cells, but that was no use either. That’s when I was booked in for surgery. And when I discovered the inner strength to say no thanks to the surgeon, whatever the cost ? financial, emotional or physical. When I got home from my rejected operation, I called Cancer Research UK and asked to speak to Professor Gordon McVie, the charity’s director-general. I’d worked for Cancer Research UK for years, and met the professor many times. If anyone could offer me an alternative, it would be him, although I was a little nervous he might tell me off for my impetuosity.

“Well, Diana,” he began in his lovely Scottish accent.
“You’re in luck. We’ve been doing research at Christie’s hospital in Manchester on the Paterson lamp.”
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“It’s a scarlet light?” said the professor. “It might be the answer for you.”
“They’re using it at a hospital in Gatwick. Let’s get you an appointment.”

Not long after that, I saw Dr Sandeep Cliff, a handsome young consultant dermatologist at Bupa’s Gatwick Park Hospital. I went private again, but the treatment is available on the NHS too. Dr Cliff was very reassuring: “We can deal with this quite easily,” he said, booking me in for a session of this new photodynamic therapy (PDT). It works by using a sensitising agent ? a cream or a drug ? to make certain cells such as cancerous ones susceptible to light. Then a powerful red light is shone over the area and targets these activated cells, killing them. It’s very quick and effective, only a little uncomfortable and leaves no scarring. A few days later, I went back for my treatment. First I had the special light-sensitive cream smeared over my lower leg. It was covered up and I was sent off for three hours while it worked. When I came back, I was settled on a bed wearing goggles to protect my eyes from the glare. Then the Paterson lamp was aimed at the cancerous patch. The first session lasted 20 minutes, and the doctor asked how uncomfortable it was on a scale of one to ten.

“Oooh,” I cried. “Seven or eight at least.”

In later sessions, of course, I was saying “Only three or four,” because it doesn’t hurt. It’s just a question of expectations. I say later sessions because, of course, the cancer has come back, just as I was warned. I had my most recent patch treated in August last year.
It’s becoming a familiar sight for me: a patch that starts off like a tiny pink blemish or a change in pigmentation. Then it could go crusty, or maybe I’d see a little spot of blood. It’s terrifying that this ongoing fight is going to be the legacy of my love affair with the sun that began more than 40 years ago.

But I find it oddly comforting that my treatment is due to another sort of legacy. I have learned from Cancer Research UK that the work done on the Paterson lamp was funded in part by legacies. Indeed, half of all the charity’s research is funded by money left in the wills of ordinary people who wanted to make a difference when they died. Well, at 77 I am living proof that they have made a difference and there are lots of others just like me. It’s certainly spurred me on to include Cancer Research UK in the will I am about to remake.
Friends in Australia recently described me as an Eel, an Eccentric English Lady, because I carry an umbrella everywhere to shade me from the sun.

So, yes, I do still go out in it, but now I enjoy its rays safely under the awning on a boat or, best of all, beneath a patch of swaying palms in the Caribbean with a cold glass of white wine in one hand. I’m not a killjoy. But do take care in the sun this August, won’t you?

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