Silver Fern Shannon Francois on the cancer diagnosis that changed her life completely

Initially dismissed by her doctor because she was young, Shannon followed her gut instinct and persisted. "I knew something wasn't right," she says.

By Kelly Bertrand
Sweeping her long blonde hair aside, Shannon Francois smiles as she points to a patch on the right side of her face that's a lot shorter than the rest of her mane.
"You should have seen it a few weeks ago," she says ruefully.
"They left the sideburn, but this big patch was shaved… I looked like I just had a mega sideburn. Very attractive! It makes me look tough, though, I suppose."
While the star Silver Fern mid-courter can laugh at her wonky 'do now, it was a different story last June, when the 27-year-old Dunedin-based athlete was told the last words anyone wants to hear – "you have cancer".
Fully recovered after not one, but two operations for multiple basal cell carcinomas, Shannon is physically in tip-top shape as she counts down to the Commonwealth Games in April, but admits her cancer diagnosis has changed her life completely.
"I just had a wee patch of red skin on my head, but I get eczema, so I just brushed it off for ages," begins Shannon.
"But any time I'd go home to see Mum in Motueka, she'd comment that it had gotten bigger. And then my sister was diagnosed. That made me go and get checked out quick smart."
However, when Shannon visited her doctor, her suspicions were initially dismissed as she was "young". Not satisfied, Shannon followed her gut instinct and saw a specialist, who immediately conducted a biopsy.
Sitting at home on a Friday night, Shannon answered a call from her doctor, who confirmed her fears.
"I was mentally prepared for it because I just knew it was something bad," she remembers. "I knew something wasn't right. Hearing those words… yeah, it was quite scary. Though, apparently, it's the 'best type' of cancer you can get."
While Shannon tried to stay calm, she admits she fell apart when telling her fiancé Marcus Saunders.
"His face just dropped and he was like, 'Oh, my God, are you serious?'" Shannon tells.
"That's when it hit me, this isn't just nothing."
Thankfully, after an operation Shannon managed to squeeze in between netball games, all traces of the cancer were removed – and just eight days later, she was back on court for the Southern Steel, albeit with 30 stitches in her head!
"We were doing quite well, so I didn't let the team down," she says.
"The surgeon wasn't so happy with me playing so quickly, but I just left the stitches in and hoped I wouldn't get hit in the head. I was fine until the last five minutes of the game, when I got hit twice!"
Despite her youth, Shannon's doctors told her she was the perfect candidate for skin cancer – blue eyes, blonde hair, fair skin – as well as the fact she grew up in one of the sunniest parts of the country on her parents' orchard.
"I spent so much of my childhood outdoors," she nods. "I thought I was quite good at putting on sunscreen, and I always wore a hat, but I suppose when you're sweating and you're outside all day, sunblock only does so much."
These days, Shannon is hyper-aware of the sun, even encouraging her teammates to stay out of the harmful rays, and she's always the first to offer sunscreen to anyone who needs it.
"I definitely think about it more now. I wear a lot more long sleeves, that's for sure!"
And she'll have to be vigilant about it for the rest of her life – even discovering another basal cell carcinoma on her back in December, which was swiftly removed.
"I was actually quite sad there was another one," she tells. "It got me thinking, 'How many times will this happen? How many will I have to have cut out? Will I still be having surgeries when I'm 90?'"
Shannon's cancer scares capped off a turbulent year for the young athlete, who was also hospitalised just weeks before her first diagnosis when the van she and her Southern Steel teammates were travelling in crashed in Christchurch. While Shannon sustained only a minor injury to her elbow, team captain Wendy Frew required surgery to her elbow and leg.
However, with her inclusion in the New Zealand Commonwealth Games netball team, 2018 is looking much brighter, though she does admit to putting perhaps a bit too much pressure on herself to perform.
"It's always disappointing when you're not playing your best," she says.
"We haven't been doing super-well and there's been quite a lot of media about that.But people don't know what it's like to be in the team.
"We don't go out there to lose, we're trying hard and we'll definitely be giving it our all!"

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