Body

The new melanoma spotting phone app that could save your life

'If it wasn't for their app I could well have been in a far worse situation and his kids might not have their mother.'

By Lynley Ward

When a large mole on Leah Smith's back started to grow bigger and darken, the Wellington mum-of-two thought about going to the doctor – but her hectic life got in the way.

"I thought, 'That's probably not that great,' but I was so busy with kids I put it out of my mind and told myself I didn't need to worry about it," she recalls.

"Besides, it had never been exposed to sun – I wasn't one for wearing bikinis!"

With no history of skin cancer in her family, the 40-year-old, who is mum to Eilah (9) and Isaac (6), continued to ignore the mole for the best part of 2016 – despite it continuing to grow and change shape.

But by Christmas she could no longer turn a blind eye to the dramatic change taking place on her lower back. The mole was now the largest it had ever been measuring a whopping 1.5cm across and 1cm high.

"It was an odd shape and I said to my partner Aaron Mishkin, 'Do you think this looks a little bit strange? Should I go and get it looked at?'"

She remembers Aaron being aghast when she pointed it out.

"He was really shocked and really angry with me that I hadn't done anything about it sooner."

Sensing this had to be dealt with immediately, tech-savvy Aaron jumped on his cellphone for an answer.

"Aaron is very technology-based as part of his background and work in IT. He said instantly there must be an app for this sort of thing."

It didn't take long for him to find smartphone app Firstcheck, a new virtual health initiative giving people low-cost consultations with skin cancer specialists. Within minutes he had downloaded it to his cellphone, taken a photo of the troubling mole, filled out a form detailing the growth's history and paid the one-off $19.95 for it to be seen by top skin doctors.

A few days later, the specialists replied with the grim warning – the mole needed to be looked at straight away.

Within a week Leah had booked in to the Skin Institute to see specialist Dr Shona Dalzell. But alarmingly, on the eve of her appointment, the mole started bleeding.

Leah says the seriousness of the situation suddenly hit home when Dr Dalzell told her she would miss her lunch break to cut out the dangerous-looking mole.

"She looked at it and she said, 'Okay, it's serious enough that we need to remove it now. I can forgo my lunch break and we can do it right now, otherwise you can go and check with your GP. But I suggest you get this taken out and looked at within a week. Don't leave it any longer.'"

Shocked by the need for urgency, Leah rang her partner.

"Aaron said, 'Pay the money. Let's just do it. Get it taken out.'"

The mole was removed, and a week later laboratory tests came back confirming the growth was deadly melanoma.

Leah was referred to the plastics unit at Hutt Hospital with surgery taking place a month later to remove a much larger area of skin.

"They were hoping to get everything – any cancerous cells that may have moved," explains Leah.

"They also took two lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread."

After a fortnight's nervous wait there was cause for celebration when results confirmed the cancer had not spread.

"I was extremely lucky – it was caught in the nick of time," says a grateful Leah. "I dodged a bullet there!"

Not surprisingly, she credits the smartphone tool for saving her life.

The Wellington mother with her daughter Eilah and son Isaac.
The Wellington mother with her daughter Eilah and son Isaac.

"If that app hadn't have been there and if it wasn't so easy to use, it would have been left up to me to go to my GP and make an appointment. By that stage everything would have taken a lot longer and the result could have been so much worse."

She says following surgery her partner wrote a heartfelt letter to the app's developers thanking them for creating the life-saving tool.

"Aaron, on my behalf, sent a letter to Firstcheck telling them if it wasn't for their app I could well have been in a far worse situation and his kids might not have their mother."

Now Leah is being checked every four months for changes in moles.

"I was busy with young kids and life, and that classic 'it couldn't happen to me'. I really was quite naïve. Now I am the biggest advocate for that app."

Melanoma check

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