Ag soc founder urges action on skin cancer symptoms

One of the founders of Trinity College’s agricultural society has spoken out about his personal experience of skin cancer and expressed concern about the drop in new cancer diagnoses being made at present.

Conor Stapleton from Vicarstown in Laois is just finishing his fourth year in medicine in Trinity College.

“What a year it has been,” he reflected. “I first noticed a mole on my back near the end of 2018. It didn’t strike me as anything to be worried about.

“There was no dark pigment, no irregular borders, none of the other features I was told to look for as a medical student. I visited the college GP a few months later and got referred to see a dermatologist for removal.”

Unfortunately, when removed and viewed under a microscope, it was found that the mole was far from innocent.

“It was a melanoma. Two further surgeries and a PET scan later, I was informed that this melanoma had spread to my lymph nodes and I was going to need a year-long course of a drug called Nivolumab,” Conor said.

“This is a form of immunotherapy which uses the body’s own immune system to attack any remaining cancerous cells. I am now three months into my treatment and thankfully there are no side effects to report so far.

I began my treatment before the pandemic reached our shores which has meant that my care has been relatively unaffected. What is worrying, however, is the drop in new cancer diagnoses being made. Please visit your GP if you have any worrying symptoms.

Melanoma awareness month

“May is melanoma awareness month. Over 1,000 people are diagnosed with a melanoma each year in Ireland and over 100 people die from this disease. The best way of lowering these figures is by prevention.

“The same way as we brush our teeth daily without thinking about it, we should also apply sun cream of at least SPF 30 daily, even on cloudy days. Also, please avoid indoor tanning beds. Using tanning beds before age 30 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75%,” said Conor.

“Before starting to study medicine, I have to admit that my knowledge of the dangers of sun damage, and its link to skin cancer, was limited. I didn’t spend much time thinking about it if I am being honest. I always put on my sun cream when on holidays or on a sunny day in Ireland, but that was the extent of my skin care,” he said.

It can often be difficult to imagine public health warnings applying to you, especially when you are young.

Kevin O’Hagan, cancer prevention manager with the Irish Cancer Society, said that farmers should take measures to protect themselves.

“The dangers of skin cancer among farmers have often been neglected, because of other serious and more immediate risks on the farm which are often considered higher and more immediate. However, long-term exposure to the invisible hazard of the sun’s ultraviolet rays puts farmers at a high risk of skin cancer.”

Meanwhile, Conor is preparing to take a step back from the running of the ag soc in Trinity.

“In my first year, we founded an ag soc on campus which has gone from strength to strength since. We have gone from a small group gathered around a table with cups of tea in student accommodation to a society with over 100 members and weekly events.

“Next year I won’t be part of the committee for the first time but the future of the society is in safe hands. We have elected a fantastic new committee over Zoom, headed by a student nurse currently working on the frontline in Saint James’s Hospital.

Normal People

“Hopefully, there will be a huge influx of new members next year, searching for a significant other from the country, emulating the hugely successful Normal People drama series,” said Conor.

His interest in agriculture comes from growing up on a dairy farm.

“My father, Christy, milks 70 cows, which are a mix of British and Holstein Friesians. He is a Glanbia supplier and milks all year round, with 20% of the cows calving in September/October. I am the youngest of five, and we all had to put in our shift when it came to milking,” he said.

The Laois student’s philosophy is to take every day as it comes.

“I have been lucky to be able to keep up with my college course despite surgery and treatment. I have one year left in my degree, and hopefully this time next year I will be preparing for my graduation as a doctor.

“The future also brings more scans, more treatment, and more uncertainty. I am so grateful for the fantastic care I receive from all the staff of the Mater Hospital and the Mater Private,” said Conor.

“This uncertainty is a familiar feeling to us all during this current pandemic but hope will get us through.”

More information on skin cancer prevention is available on: www.cancer.ie.