Here, Katherine, 52 tells the story in her own words.
￼Living on a farm in the basking heat of WA, it’s hard to avoid the sun’s intense rays. Despite using sun cream daily, my husband, Alan, and I both often ended up with farmer’s tans. ‘Got yourself another white sleeve,’ I’d laugh, pointing at his red neck and white upper arms. But after he had skin- cancer scares, I lectured him about protecting his skin.
It all began when we noticed an old snake bite scar on his leg had started weeping and wouldn’t heal. Doctors found melanoma and it was removed. While some kept coming back, he had regular checks and removals so we thought we were on top of it. We had seven children between us from past relationships but six of them lived in Victoria. Living at the farm, it was just me, Alan, our son Lyndsey, 22, and our Jack Russell, James. And our pooch was extra special as he was completely blind.
James lost his sight at four due to a genetic condition. There was nothing vets could do apart from offer to put him down. ‘No way,’ I cried, stroking his fluffy head. Besides, he didn’t seem too bothered by his blindness. After having his eyes removed, he was still the same happy, cheery dog he’d always been.
‘Get down, will you?’ Alan laughed as James climbed up to lick his neck. Our lovable pup had a habit of licking Alan’s skin. Then in early 2014 we got some devastating news. Doctors found a melanoma on Alan’s neck and this time it was terminal. It was the exact spot James had been licking. ‘Were you trying to tell us something?’ I cooed, patting James on the head.
Despite the shocking diagnosis, Alan was determined to battle through. And after 19 years of marriage, I couldn’t imagine life without him. ‘We’ll fight this together,’ I told my hubby.
After eight weeks of chemotherapy and 32 rounds of radiation on his neck, his cancer was disappearing. By October, we had the news we desperately wanted. Alan was in remission. ‘Ring the family, ring the family,’ Alan shrieked. He wanted everyone to know the good news. But our happiness was short lived.
Just weeks later, James started licking the other side of Alan’s neck. ‘There’s nothing there. I can’t see anything on your skin,’ I said, peering close. But our gut instinct told us both not to ignore James like we had in the past. ‘It’s cancer and it has spread to your tonsils, thyroid and lymph nodes,’ a doctor told Alan.
Our world came crashing down. There was no cure. Alan underwent a neck dissection in June 2016. He’d have a massive scar across his head and neck but that didn’t bother Alan. ‘That’s what hats are for,’ he laughed. When he came around from the operation, his health continued to decline.
Cancerous tumours were forming all over his body.James slept close to Alan throughout. ‘We’ve beat the terminal diagnosis before,’ I said. But I knew this was different. Alan was tired of treatment and didn’t want to fight anymore. ‘I want to die at home,’ he begged, so we stopped treatment and went back to the farm.
On October 15, 2016, I said goodbye to my beloved hubby forever. After Alan passed away, James and I were lost without him. ‘You tried to warn us, didn’t you?’ I said, stroking my blind pup, who was now 11.
As weeks turned to months, I continued to work outdoors at the farm. But in August 2017, James started licking my finger. For weeks I tried my best to ignore it but, despite being scared, I realised I couldn’t make the same mistake again. There was a small area of skin on my finger that wasn’t healing.
‘What are you trying to tell me?’ I asked James.I was feeling terrified. Surely I wasn’t about to suffer the same fate as Alan. So I booked myself a doctor’s appointment for later that day.‘We’ll need to take a biopsy,’ he said. And tests revealed my worst fears. It was skin cancer.
I’d heard the words so many times but without Alan by my side, I felt so scared. ‘It’s been caught early. Once the skin is removed, you’ll make a full recovery,’ the doctor said. A week later the skin was removed and I got the all clear. I was so thankful to James.
‘How do you always know?’ I cried, ruffling my pooch’s ears. He has saved my life just like he tried to save Alan’s.
We had ignored his licks for years but I’ll never do that again. I’m sharing my story to encourage other people to get their skin checked regularly, especially anyone who works outdoors.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a pooch like mine who can detect cancer before it’s even visible to the human eye. James is my little hero and he saved my life.
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