A 33-year-old wasn't worried about the 'tiny little dark freckle' on her stomach. It turned out to be skin cancer.

A 33-year-old wasn't worried about the 'tiny little dark freckle' on her stomach. It turned out to be skin cancer.
picture of Rachael Lee, picture of the tiny mole on her stomach
Rachael Lee was a "big sun baker" until she was diagnosed with melanoma.Don Arnold/WireImage via Getty Images, Rachael Lee on Instagram
  • A 33-year-old mom was shocked when a tiny dot on her stomach turned out to be skin cancer.

  • She was terrified she'd never be able to enjoy the sun again.

  • But with a new routine of sunscreen, regular skin checks, and spray tans, she's feeling much safer.

Rachael Lee had always considered herself a natural at tanning.

Every summer, from about the age of 15, she'd head to the sunny beaches around Sydney, Australia and tan for hours on end. After school, she'd hop on the bus with her girlfriends and they'd all go slide into tanning beds in the city, hoping to achieve a nice bronze for their next outing or event.

"Every summer I would go so, so dark," Lee told Insider. "My stomach would always go the darkest."

Instead of sunscreen, she'd use oil or tanning accelerators to get an even deeper hue, faster.

"It is a big culture in Australia," Lee said.

But Australia's proclivity for tanning comes at a price. Melanoma is called Australia's "national cancer" because along with New Zealand, the country is home to the highest rates of this deadly skin cancer on Earth.

While skin cancer can technically happen anywhere on a person's body, it is most commonly found on skin — like Lee's — that has been exposed to damaging ultraviolet radiation from the sun, or from artificial UV lights in tanning beds. Scientists estimate that people who indoor tan have a more than 30% increased risk of developing melanoma, the most fatal form of skin cancer.

A routine skin check revealed skin cancer

As Lee got older, she started going in to the dermatologist regularly to get her skin checked. By age 33, she'd had one precancerous mole removed by her doctor. He recommended that she use sunscreen, but she kept on tanning the same way she had for 15-plus years, not feeling too concerned about the spot removal.

So when she went in and had a second piece of skin removed, a "tiny — tiny little dark freckle" on her stomach, she didn't think much of it.

"I said, 'What? That one? It is so little.'"

Her dermatologist kept the dark freckle for a biopsy, examining the dot under the microscope for signs of skin cancer. Within a week, Lee was diagnosed with melanoma at age 33. She was devastated.

"I took it so hard — I'm such a health freak," she said. "I thought I'm never going to be able to go on family holidays. I'm not going to be able to go to sunny places, because I can never go into the sun again."

"I thought my life was over," she said.

It was not. Lee's melanoma was diagnosed early, at stage one. The cancer had not yet spread to her lymph nodes, or any other parts of her body besides her skin.

She went back to the clinic, where her doctor removed a four inch "chunk" of skin from her stomach in an effort to extract any remaining cancer cells.

"If I'd left it like two, three months, it would've been a whole different story," she said. "That's just how quick it can turn."

Melanoma is a common cancer among young women

dermatologist checking skin
Dermatologists often use a handheld device called a dermatoscope to check for moles or growths that may be cancerous on the skin.BSIP/UIG via Getty images

Lee is emblematic of a larger trend: melanoma is one of the most common cancers that young women get. This is especially true in Australia, where melanoma is the most common cancer for women aged 15 to 39. Melanoma kills more young Australians than any other cancer.

"A lot of people my age, in their 30s, I think we just think it's an older person's disease," Lee said. Her doctor reminded her that Bob Marley died of melanoma at the age of 36.

According to the National Cancer Institute in the US, the 5-year relative survival rate for melanomas that are diagnosed locally, before the cancer has a chance to spread to other areas of the body, is 99.4%. But the 5-year survival rate for melanoma that has metastasized and spread is far lower, just 29.8%. This is why early diagnosis and treatment is key.

Melanoma mortality has been declining over the past decade, especially since newer treatments have become available.

Spray tans, sunscreen, and skin checks are Lee's new routines

With time, Lee's learned more about how to enjoy the sun safely. She uses sunscreen, wears long sleeves, and avoids the peak sunshine hours of 10 AM to 2 PM. She also goes in for skin checks every three to six months, which helps her feel safe.

"I'm never going to get to that later stage, cause I'm constantly getting my skin checked," she said.

And she has developed some different routines for glowing skin. She gets an organic spray tan done once a week, and uses sunscreen daily, even on the cloudiest of days. "My chest and my face — always," she said.

 

She still has a scar of "little dots" on her stomach from where the hunk of skin was taken out two years ago. She felt a bit self-conscious about it at first, but now if anyone asks about it, she uses it as an opportunity to remind them to wear their sunscreen and avoid the silent killer.

Her advice: "Just get your skin check," Lee, who's now an ambassador for the Australian Skin Cancer Foundation, said. "It's literally an hour out of your day, once a year. It can save your life."

Read the original article on Insider