Bill Casey still remembers vividly the day he learned he had skin cancer.
It was in June 2006 and a committee meeting he was attending on Parliament Hill wrapped up early. Instead of going back to his office, the former MP chose to go to a screening clinic being put on by the wife of the late Chuck Cadman, who had recently died of malignant melanoma.
“It’s a day that saved my life,” Casey said. “I could just as easily have turned left and went back to my office, but I chose to go get checked to support Chuck’s wife’s campaign. I didn’t know anything was wrong until the doctor said ‘we have a problem.”
Casey underwent two surgeries to have the cancerous mole removed and he’s had no further issues since then. He also battled prostate cancer a couple of years later.
“I had no idea anything was wrong. I had no symptoms, there was no itching and no irritation, but the doctor said I was five out of five. If I hadn’t gotten it checked I might now be here today,” Casey said.
Casey, who is now retired from politics, said he is not surprised that the most recent cancer numbers show malignant melanoma as one of the fastest growing cancers in Canada.
"I think it’s a big surprise, particularly in our region. One of the biggest challenges we face here in Nova Scotia is public perception and assumption that we have lower skin cancer because of our climate,” Kelly Cull, the manager of government and partner relations for the Canadian Cancer Society, said. “Not only are our rates high, but among women they’re the highest in the country.”
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Canada, with an estimated 6,500 new cases of malignant melanoma and another 76,100 cases of non-melanoma skin cancers expected to be diagnosed in 2014.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, with 1,050 Canadians expected to die from it this year.
Cull said the cancer society is working to change perceptions about skin cancer as well as to education people on how to be skin safe when it comes to exposure to the sun and tanning beds.
Casey said he knew little about skin cancer before he was diagnosed.
“When I was a kid the first thing you’d do was get a big sunburn and you never wore anything like sunscreen,” said Casey, who will be sharing his personal cancer story at Amherst’s Relay for Life fundraiser next week. “You just never thought of those things. Now, you have to be vigilant all the time when you’re out in the sun and if you see something that’s not normal go get it checked right away.
In most people, skin cancers develop slowly and behaviours as a young person may impact someone decades down the road.
“This is about a behavioural change and a cultural shift,” Cull said. “We are approaching this as a denormalizing campaign. A lot of people equate tanned skin with beautiful skin, especially among our younger demographic. These are harmful assumptions. We need to shift our thinking to our natural skin is beautiful skin.”
Cull said everyone should have a sun protection plan that includes protective clothing, seeking shade, wearing sunglasses and applying sunscreen regularly.
She said it also shows the importance of continuing fundraising events like Relay for Life.
“We in Nova Scotia are very affected by cancer and we still know Nova Scotia has some of the highest cancer rates in Canada,” she said. “Two in five Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer and one in four will die. Participating in relay not only helps support the research but also supports people who are living with cancer.”