Farmer’s warning after radical facial surgery saves him from melanoma

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John Seccombe had regularly checked his skin and even had small cancers on his face removed, but nothing prepared him for the moment when the right side of his face went numb. 

He was a fair-skinned boy who grew up on a farm.

Later in life, he managed a cattle station and a feedlot at Gurly Station, south of Moree in north west New South Wales, before becoming the chair of Casino Food Co-op, the largest meat co-op in the country.

He was aware of the danger of skin cancers, regularly went to the dermatologist, and had a squamous cell carcinomas removed in his 30s.

But the disease returned, and this time, it was a “rampant” cancer that was heading into his brain stem, crushing a facial nerve.

According to his doctors, it was a death sentence. 

“I had to under go radiation for two years, at the end of that it was still growing and they gave me 12 months to live and said ‘go home and hug your children’,” Mr Seccombe said.

Farmer standing in a paddock with land in the backgroundFarmer standing in a paddock with land in the background
Skin cancer death rates for farmers over 65 are double that of other Australians.(Supplied: John Seccombe)

That was 22 years ago. 

Mr Seccombe was saved by radical experimental surgery that involved three operations on his face.

“I had to have three lots of craniotomies, where they enter your face through the skull base,” he said.

“They removed as much damaged tissue as they could but it left my right eye left in a precarious position so I had to have another one, removed my eye, and I basically lost the right side of my face.”

Check your skin

Images of different melanomasImages of different melanomas
Melanomas can be extremely serious, but there are ways of identifying them.(Supplied: Melanoma Patients Association)

Mr Seccombe is now living on a farm on the north coast of New South Wales and is the chairman of Melanoma Patients Australia, a charitable organisation that advocates and supports people diagnosed with melanoma.

He is urging men in regional and rural areas to check their own skin

That is because the statistics in those parts of Australia, often a long way from the beach, are shocking.

The death rates in farmers over 65 from skin cancer are more than double the rate of other Australians, while the total disease burden rate in remote Australia is 1.4 times as high as in major cities.

And it is expected to get worse.

About 8,000 Australians in regional areas were diagnosed with melanoma last year, and that is forecast to rise to over 11,000 annually by 2030.

That is because the population is ageing, and men are twice as likely as women to die of melanoma due to complacency about sun safety, according to the Cancer Council.

Early detection is critical.