Couple's important melanoma warning for other young Kiwis

A pinhead-sized freckle led to major surgery and a quest for fitness.

By Julie Jacobson
When Danielle Merry finally persuaded her partner to have a large mole on his arm looked at, little did the young couple know it would be a tiny dot on his calf that would set their lives on a new course.
It was 2015 and Danielle (26) had been growing increasingly worried about a mole on her Air Force corporal partner Elliot Thompson’s arm. It was big and nasty-looking, and over three months had become scaly.
After considerable urging, Elliot (25) dutifully headed off to the doctor to have it, along with several smaller moles, checked.
He was somewhat blasé, he admits now. His doctor, however, was worried, not about the large lesion on Elliot’s arm but a pinhead-sized one on his left calf. Tests soon showed the tiny freckle was a malignant melanoma.
Says Danielle, “Elliot assured me at first it was nothing, that it wasn’t melanoma. He didn’t want me to worry. I knew that New Zealand has the highest incidence rate of melanoma in the world but I never expected it to happen to us.”
Plastic surgeons at Wakefield Hospital in Wellington removed the mole and the surrounding flesh, pulling a flap of skin down and over the muscle, leaving Elliot with what he describes as a scar “like a massive teardrop”.
He relied on crutches for six weeks, unable to put any weight on the leg. He recalls at one stage using an office chair to wheel himself around the house.
“I didn’t want to be a nuisance to others, so I would fall over rather than ask for help.”
For someone who had always been fit and mobile, the cancer scare and subsequent surgery was a less-than-subtle reminder that life is precious.
While many people recovering from a major illness might decide to take things easy, Elliot – who has recently started an electrical engineering apprenticeship – has chosen an altogether more challenging path.
“He just came in one day and said he’d signed us up for a marathon,” laughs Danielle.
“I said, ‘Can you repeat that, did you mean both of us or just you?’ He thought it would be something we could achieve together.”
Less than impressed – “I’m not a runner” – Danielle agreed to take part in October’s inaugural Tauranga International Marathon, but only if she could downgrade to a half marathon.
The couple – who are building a house together in the Bay of Plenty city – have been training for the past two months and, as extra motivation, have told anyone and everyone that they’ve entered.
Elliot says he entered them both in the marathon largely as a post-melanoma goal for himself but also as “a team-bonding exercise”.
Training together has proved somewhat fraught, not least because of their differing fitness levels, but also because the pair aren’t currently living in the same town. Danielle is now living with her parents in Matamata before the big shift to Tauranga while Elliot is based at Whenuapai, Auckland. They’re hoping to move into their new home together in September.
“We did do some runs together,” grins Elliot. “I tried a few tactics – the, ‘come, on, hurry up’ and the, ‘you’re doing really well’ route – but I don’t think my motivational talks were very well received.”
Chips in Danielle, “We’d just end up having an argument. He thought he was being supportive – and he was – but I find I do better on my own.”
Still, she credits Elliot with setting their lives on an exciting new course.
“He knows what he wants and manages to motivate me to do the important things and achieve what I want to achieve. I’ve dreamed of having my own home, but having him here to share that with has made it much more important.”
Elliot still needs three-monthly check-ups but his prognosis is good. There is no family history of melanoma, but he wonders if getting sunburnt as a kid, plus “too much tanning” in Dubai, where he was deployed for three months, may have been contributing factors.
As for Danielle, she now knows size doesn’t matter.
“I just thought the larger the mole, the more you should be concerned. But this just goes to show that’s not always the case.”

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