Michelle Kitcheman, 40, is the healthiest she’s ever been. She’s fit, happy and about to embark on a 300-kilometer walk from Canberra to Sydney in aid of skin cancer research.
Six years ago, her life wasn’t so rosy, although it should have been. Kitcheman and her husband Lee, 47, had just welcomed their third child, daughter Lyla, and were enjoying their completed family.
Then, she noticed a mole on the back of her neck had changed.
“It was catching on my dresses and my shirts,” the Sydney mum tells 9Honey. “It came out of nowhere, all of a sudden I was feeling it.
“I wasn’t worried at all. I was very naive. It wasn’t painful or bleeding.
“I went to the skin cancer clinic to have it removed because it was bothering me. It felt funny, like it didn’t belong.”
Kitcheman was told to return to the clinic in a fortnight for test results and admits she “delayed the follow-up by a week or so.”
“I was naive, I knew about skin cancer but I didn’t really think it would ever happen to me, I guess.”
“I went back and I just knew, the look on the doctor’s face, he said it was melanoma and I’d have to go to the hospital to take more skin off to make sure the margins were clear,” she recalls.
“He said he couldn’t do it and sent me to a surgical oncologist.”
Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, according to the Melanoma Institute Australia. It develops in the skin’s pigment cells, known as melanocytes, and can spread via the blood and lymphatic system to distant organs like the lungs, liver and brain.
Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, with approximately two in three people diagnosed with skin cancer during their lifetime – and melanoma is the most dangerous.
“I was naive, I knew about skin cancer but I didn’t really think it would ever happen to me I guess,” Kitcheman says. “I didn’t know how serious it could be. I understood how serious it was when the doctor gave me the surgical oncologist’s card and I spoke to my mum and she said, ‘This is not good.'”
She says her husband shared her naivety.
“He said, ‘Can’t they just cut it out?’ And I said, ‘No, this is really serious. I have to go to Westmead.’ [hospital] to check my lymph nodes to see if it has spread.”
More skin was removed at the hospital and Kitcheman spent another two weeks waiting for the results.
“By this stage it was right on Christmas in 2016 and the test came back as having spread, so I had to have the lymph nodes on the left of my neck removed and that’s when they ordered full-body scans as well.”
Kitcheman recalls this as being the most terrifying time of her life.
“I felt the most scared that week,” she says.
“I’d think it may not be the worst case and then I’d flip and think it may be and I’d go from one to the other. My husband was really good.
“We had a friend who had gone through breast cancer and they said to just get out of the house, so we’d go to the park or for a walk but as soon as we got home it would hit again.”
When the results came in, Kitcheman was told the cancer hadn’t spread any further although she was diagnosed as Stage 3.
At the time, the most effective treatment available for melanoma was called Inteferon.
“It actually wasn’t too bad, it felt like flu-like symptoms,” she explains. “But I did experience depression and went on anti-depressants. I had to go to hospital for treatment every month.
“The first month was the toughest because I was on a really high dose.”
The treatment worked, Kitcheman’s scar from the surgery healed and the mother-of-three was left to move on with her life.
“The scar healed very well, it goes from my collarbone all the way to my neck,” she explains. “I’ve lost all feeling there because they had to cut through the nerve. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve adapted. Some say they don’t notice the scar.”
These days Kitcheman is as sun safe as possible, including with her children Sienna, 11, Jayden, nine, Lyla, six.
She urges Australians to book in for a skin check and continue them regularly.
“During my treatment I remember thinking I wanted to get through it and then I wanted to start running,” Kitcheman says.
“I had always wanted to run but I had never had the motivation. After treatment I started running and achieved my goal of being able to run five kilometers.
“Now I run in half marathons and I am planning to run 50 kilometers next year. I go to the gym and I love it. I do free weights.”
This weekend Kitcheman will be walking 300 kilometers from Canberra to Sydney for Jay’s Mission Melanoma Walk.
The 10-day walk led by Jay Allen OAM, a melanoma survivor, encourages people to join any part of the journey and to support the cause by donating to the Australian Skin Cancer Foundation (ASCF) which he founded to raise money for research, support , education and drive advocacy for melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.
“I’ve never walked 300 kilometers before so I don’t know what to expect,” Kitcheman says.
“I think it will be easy compared to melanoma. I’ll be walking with people who have lost loved ones and my daughter Sienna will do the last nine kilometers with me and my husband and our two other children will be waiting for us at the finish line.”
Visit www.australianskincancerfoundation.org to find out how you can support the cause.
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