A mother had her ear amputated due to skin cancer which was misdiagnosed as a wart for five years.
Anthea Smith, 43, visited her GP on a number of occasions, who she claims were ‘reluctant’ to refer her to a dermatologist.
The small, red lump grew and eventually her whole ear was covered by the black and brown warty-growth.
An emergency biopsy in 2015 in revealed Mrs Smith, from Winstanley, Greater Manchester, had stage 3C melanoma.
After two long operations and 32 gruelling radiotherapy sessions, Mrs Smith now wears a prosthetic ear and lives with perpetual balance problems, facial numbness and tinnitus.
Mrs Smith wants sunbeds banned, blaming her ‘naive’ use of them from the age of 14 for her devastating diagnosis.
Andrea Smith, 43, from Winstanley, Greater Manchester had her ear amputated due to skin cancer which was misdiagnosed as a wart for five years
The wart, pictured, concerned Mrs Smith and her hairdresser, but she was told not to worry
The small red lump grew and eventually her whole ear was covered by the black and brown warty-growth which bled and became scabby
Mrs Smith visited her GP on a number of occasions, the first time in 2010, who she claims were ‘reluctant’ to refer her to a dermatologist
Mrs Smith, who is a community assessment worker at Bolton Council, said: ‘I feel like the GP and the dermatologist let me down very much. At that point the lesion had been there for five years. It was a long time.
‘My melanoma is not atypical and it’s not textbook in any shape or form. It had just been a lesion, it was tiny – not even a mole.
‘Initially a lump appeared on the tip of my left ear, inside the top part where it folds over. It itched a little bit.
‘I spoke to my doctor and my doctor said it was nothing to worry about, it was just a wart.’
Mrs Smith first noticed a strange red spot on the fold of her outer ear in 2010, but claims she was not worried when her GP at the Winstanley Medical Centre in Wigan, Greater Manchester, dismissed it.
After comments from her hairdresser and having an itchy ear from wearing a headset at work, Mrs Smith claims she returned to the same GP only to be told it was a wart again.
She became embarrassed about the visible red mark on her ear and had an asymmetrical haircut to cover it up.
Mrs Smith said: ‘It didn’t change colour at that point. It was fleshy coloured but it did grow. Every time I got my hair done my hairdresser commented on it.’
‘I went back to my doctor and the doctor said again that it was nothing to worry about, that I was worrying about nothing.
‘Although it was frustrating it was also reassuring at the same time because I thought if my GP isn’t too concerned about it I shouldn’t be either.’
Mrs Smith became embarrassed about the visible red mark on her ear and had an asymmetrical haircut to cover it up
Mrs Smith had two operations to remove her full outer and inner ear, lymph nodes, tragus, salivary glands and temporal bone
Doctors used skin from Mrs Smith’s right leg and hip to cover up the wound
Mrs Smith had 32 rounds of head and neck radiotherapy which she described as ‘brutal’
WHAT IS STAGE 3C MELANOMA?
Stage 3 is part of the number staging system. Stage 3 means that cancer cells have spread into skin, lymph vessels, or lymph glands close to the melanoma. It depends on a number of factors including ulceration. Ulceration is when the skin covering the melanoma is broken.
Stage 3 can be divided into 3A, 3B and 3C.
Stage 3C means one of the following:
- Your lymph nodes contain melanoma cells, and there are melanoma cells in the skin or lymph channels close to the main melanoma
- Your melanoma is ulcerated and has spread to between one and three lymph nodes nearby which are enlarged
- Your melanoma may or may not be ulcerated and has spread to four or more nearby lymph nodes
- Your melanoma may or may not be ulcerated and has spread to lymph nodes that have joined together
Source: Cancer Research UK
It wasn’t until a smear test in October 2014 when she showed a nurse the now ulcerated and mahogany and black marks on her left ear that she was booked in for another appointment with her GP the next morning.
Mrs Smith claims the GP then ‘reluctantly’ referred her to a dermatologist in the St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals Trust for a different lesion on her shin.
After four months, tests confirmed the lesion on her shin was non-cancerous.
But the dermatologist referred her to a plastic surgeon for ‘the warts’ on her ear in April 2015.
Mrs Smith said: ‘By the time I was referred to the plastic surgeon, it had literally covered the whole of my outer ear. It was heading into what they call “conchal bubbles” into my ear drum.
‘It looked like it was a mahogany red. It had scabbed, it had ulcerated. Each time I put a phone to my ear it bled. If anything touched it, it bled. I couldn’t use that ear.
‘I would wake up and there would be blood on my pillow if I had rolled over and slept on my side.’
The surgeon performed an emergency biopsy and diagnosed Mrs Smith with stage 3C melanoma in July 2015.
Nearly half of patients diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma will be alive five years later, according to Melanoma UK.
Mrs Smith said: ‘If it hadn’t been from the plastic surgeon moving so quickly then I probably wouldn’t be alive today. It’s scary.
‘They were amazed that it hadn’t spread to my brain… The lungs were clear.’
Mrs Smith had two operations on August 5 and November 5, 2015 to remove her full outer and inner ear, lymph nodes, tragus, salivary glands and temporal bone.
After the first operation, which removed her outer ear and tragus, Mrs Smith claims she felt like an ‘alien’ with the exposed hole in her head that lead to her eardrums.
She said: ‘It sounds crazy but I looked a bit like an alien with the hole at the side of my head.’
After the first operation in August 2015, which removed her outer ear and tragus, Mrs Smith claims she felt like an ‘alien’ with the exposed hole in her head that lead to her eardrums
Mrs Smith said: ‘If it hadn’t been from the plastic surgeon moving so quickly then I probably wouldn’t be alive today. It’s scary.’ Pictured, Mrs Smith’s hair loss during radiotherapy
During the second operation, which was 13 hours, doctors removed the inner ear, middle ear, and used skin from Mrs Smith’s right leg and hip to cover up the wound.
Mrs Smith was left deaf in one ear and with constant balance issues from then on.
She said: ‘I recovered as best I could from that and then I had 32 sessions of head and neck radiotherapy in January 2016.
‘It was absolutely brutal. I totally underestimated radiotherapy by thinking surgery would be the hardest part, but it kicked my ass and it kicked it hard.
‘The surgery wiped out a lot of my sense of taste, but with the radiotherapy I lost all sense of taste. Everything tasted like soap or bleach.
‘I had lesions and burns inside my mouth, throat, outside my head. I had a constant dry mouth. I lost two and a half stone during that treatment.’
Mrs Smith said she rarely uses her prosthetic ear that the Aintree Prosthesis department gave her because she doesn’t need to wear glasses.
Despite being in a state of ‘no evidence of active disease’ (NEAD) since 2016, Mrs Smith lives with the terrifying possibility that the aggressive skin cancer could return and cost her life.
She said: ‘Nobody has a crystal ball with melanoma. Once you’re diagnosed it never goes.
‘Some people who do know what melanoma is think that it’s a dark black mole and it’s literally something you cut out and it’s gone.
‘They don’t realise how deadly it is. It isn’t what people think it is.’
Mrs Smith is now calling for the UK to follow example of countries such as Australia and Brazil and ban sunbeds.
Current UK law bans under 18s from using sunbeds – but Mrs Smith claims underage teenagers will still find a way around the law if they are desperate for a tan.
Mrs Smith now wears a prosthetic ear and lives with perpetual balance problems, facial numbness and tinnitus but has been in a state of ‘no evidence of active disease’ since 2016
Mrs Smith said she doesn’t wear her prosthetic ear much because she doesn’t wear glasses
She said: ‘We were all naive and thought if we were going abroad we needed to prepare our skin.
‘Sun beds were promoted for that purpose really. The sunbed would be delivered to your house and everyone in the house would use it. You would hire it for about a month at a time.
‘You’re brought up to believe that a tan is healthy whereas it’s the total opposite to that really. It’s very upsetting seeing it on social media.
‘My main ambition and aim is to get sunbeds banned. It would be a celebration for me if we did get banned in the UK. There’s no reason for sunbeds.’
Mrs Smith is intent on making memories with her two teenage sons Harry, 18, and 17-year-old Robbie, and husband Ste.
She said: ‘I feel a level of guilt for my family because this was all for a tan that I am potentially not going to be around forever.
‘I can’t guarantee that I will see my sons married or become a grandmother, but worrying about it spoils the now. I try and focus on today.
‘Someone told me it was my own fault for using sunbeds so what did I expect?
‘I’m not a martyr. I don’t preach. But I will preach to save lives.’
Mrs Smith, pictured with her husband, Ste, is urging for the ban of sunbeds which she used since the age of 14
Around 42 people are diagnosed with melanoma every day, according to Cancer Research UK.
Mrs Smith is supporting the petition by Melanoma UK calling for all sunbeds to be banned in the UK, which 1,347 people have signed.
Gillian Nuttall, chief executive of Melanoma UK, said: ‘We understand that there is evidence of a link between sunbed use and melanoma: studies have suggested that those who have used a sunbed at least once in their life have a 20 per cent higher risk of developing melanoma than those that haven’t.
‘Those with a first exposure to sunbeds before the age of 35 years have a 75% increased risk of melanoma.’
Dr Tim Dalton, local GP and chair of NHS Wigan Borough CCG, said: ‘Although we cannot comment on individual patients due to patient confidentiality, we are pleased to hear that Anthea has been told that there isn’t any evidence of active disease.
‘When patients have concerns about their treatment and diagnosis, they should talk it through with the GP or Practice Manager so that they can understand the concerns and potentially seek a second opinion.
‘However, if patients don’t feel comfortable with this, or they feel that they aren’t being listened to, then they can contact ourselves or NHS England who can offer advice or look in to the matter.
The St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals Trust declined to comment on behalf of the dermatologist.
You can sign the petition here.
WHAT IS MELANOMA AND HOW CAN YOU PREVENT IT?
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. It happens after the DNA in skin cells is damaged (typically due to harmful UV rays) and then not repaired so it triggers mutations that can form malignant tumors.
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 91,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma in the US in 2018 and more than 9,000 are expected to die from it.
Around 15,900 new cases occur every year in the UK, with 2,285 Britons dying from the disease in 2016, according to Cancer Research UK statistics.
- Sun exposure: UV and UVB rays from the sun and tanning beds are harmful to the skin
- Moles: The more moles you have, the greater the risk for getting melanoma
- Skin type: Fairer skin has a higher risk for getting melanoma
- Hair color: Red heads are more at risk than others
- Personal history: If you’ve had melanoma once, then you are more likely to get it again
- Family history: If previous relatives have been diagnosed, then that increases your risk
- Removal of the melanoma:
This can be done by removing the entire section of the tumor or by the surgeon removing the skin layer by layer. When a surgeon removes it layer by layer, this helps them figure out exactly where the cancer stops so they don’t have to remove more skin than is necessary.
- Skin grafting:
The patient can decide to use a skin graft if the surgery has left behind discoloration or an indent.
- Immunotherapy, radiation treatment or chemotherapy:
This is needed if the cancer reaches stage III or IV. That means that the cancerous cells have spread to the lymph nodes or other organs in the body.
- Use sunscreen and do not burn
- Avoid tanning outside and in beds
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside
- Keep newborns out of the sun
- Examine your skin every month
- See your physician every year for a skin exam
Source: Skin Cancer Foundation and American Cancer Society