Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

The Melanoma Man’s message for the Warrane boys

He used to be a truck driver but these days, it’s something else that keeps Jay Allen on the move. Allen, now dubbed as Melanoma Man is on a mission to raise awareness about melanoma – the cancer which nearly took his life. And on Wednesday 14 September, he wanted to convey one main message to the Warrane boys: how important it is for them to be sun-smart and get their skin checked at least once a year.

“It nearly took my life, so I want to save other people from enduring that,” Allen told the boys.

He’s not being pedantic – the stats show that 1 in 24 women and 1 in 14 men are diagnosed with melanoma in Australia; not to mention that Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of the cancer.

“If you put a chicken in an oven, it cooks; it burns,” said Allen. “And this is what your skin does when it’s outside at the hottest parts of the day… it [the sun] damages the cells in the mole or freckle, and they begin to spread.”

It was in 2007 that Allen was diagnosed with life-threatening stage III melanoma. As if two major operations and a bout of chemotherapy wasn’t enough, he also had a check-up every three months for five years. Psychologically, it’s affecting his life for longer still.

“After I got given the all-clear, after having chemotherapy and all that sort of stuff…I was scared for my life, you know,” said Allen. “You go home after been giving a diagnosis of cancer and everything goes back to normal…but you’ve got a different mindset. You’re thinking ‘What if this cancer comes back to get me?’ It took me eight months to get over this – I went and started seeing a counsellor… I still see a psychologist now every six months just to put things in perspective and make sure I’m on the right track.”

Thankfully, Allen is now healthy, grateful, and working for Melanoma Institute Australia, which is all about research, education and treatment.

A melanoma only needs to get to 1mm deep to spread (most quickly to the liver, lungs or brain), via the lymphatic and blood system. In Allen’s case, the melanoma got to 1.95mm deep, and he thinks a lot of it had to do with his solarium use – hence how his work to ban sunbeds began.

It took him around four years to do, but with the facts as his weapon – including that those under 35 who use a solarium just once increase their chances of developing melanoma by 75% – he was able to get sunbeds banned in the Australia.

“I thought, I’ve got to start doing something about this – what if other people start using a solarium?” said Allen. “I started a campaign and called it sunbedban.com…. To cut a long story short, from the end of 2008 to December 2012, it took me that long to ban solariums. I contacted every politician in Australia, I went and did advocacy courses through the Cancer Council of NSW, any person that would listen, I wrote to them.”

“I spoke from the heart but there were so many knockbacks,” he continued. “I’d be a bit down for about 12 hours but then I’d wake up the next morning and think ‘You know what, let’s try and do this’ – something else, because I had the passion. But I also had the scans and the blood tests every three months to make sure this melanoma didn’t come back so there was a chance I might not be here in 12 months, so I had to do everything now. So I just kept persisting.”

Allen’s work continues, from sharing stories and raising awareness on ‘The Melanoma Man’ Facebook page, to walking 29 days from Brisbane to Sydney next March in the hopes of raising $250K for research.

Melanoma may be common, but it’s probably also the most curable cancer. If worried about a mole or growth on the skin, Allen said to look out for ‘A-B-C-D-E’ – asymmetry, border (irregular), colour, diameter (bigger than 6mm), and evolution (if it’s changing). When discovered early, there’s a 90% chance that everything will turn out well; and 85% of cases can be cured with just a single-incision surgery. It’s no wonder that Allen just couldn’t reiterate enough to the boys how life-saving a simple annual check can be.

“I can’t stress enough to go in there and get a skin check,” he said. “It doesn’t take long, maybe 15 or 20 minutes out of your life.”

“Life’s precious guys, and it’s not until you’re diagnosed with some sort of serious illness that you realise how precious it is. I’m lucky I’ve got my life.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]