Television presenter Pam Royle has spoken out about her skin cancer diagnosis to highlight the dangers of ignoring the warning signs.
It was while she was relaxing in the bath after taking the family’s springer spaniel, Lola, for a walk last summer that Pam Royle first noticed something unusual just above her left knee.
At first, the much-loved Tyne Tees news presenter thought it was a thorn from her walk in the countryside, and she dismissed it as a minor irritation that would sort itself out.
A week later, she was surprised to see it was still there but, again, decided it was nothing to worry about. It was only a week further on, when she looked more closely and saw that the tiny dark freckle had developed a light brown ring round it, that she went to see her GP.
Even husband Mike thought she was overreacting but she ended up being referred to the One Life Centre, run by the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Middlesbrough, on August 25.
“They made the diagnosis there and then,” says Pam. “They knew it was cancer straight away – what they called a melanoma in situ. They just didn’t know how far it had gone.”
She had immediate surgery under local anaesthetic and waited for the results of the biopsy. Two weeks later, she was given the shattering news that the cancer was “invasive”. That meant it had progressed through the outer layer of skin – the epidermis - and into the dermis, the skin tissue containing blood cells.
Pam admits that she cried when she was given the news. “I was horrified that something that looked so innocuous could have turned out to be potentially deadly,” she recalls. “I wasn’t so much frightened for me but what it could mean for my family. It was a terrible time.”
However, Pam maintained her silence, not even telling her children Philippa, 26, and Lawrence, 23, until she knew more about what she was facing. Only her doctors and husband Mike knew what she was going through as she continued to smile into the cameras as she presented the North-East news.
Further surgery followed. The first had been to remove the tumour, the second was to remove a deeper layer of skin, eight centimetres in diameter.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” says Pam. “It never dawned on me that I might get skin cancer. There’s no history of it in my family. It was absolutely shocking and your mind races ahead.”
It is only now that Pam feels ready to speak publicly about the diagnosis and, nearly a year down the line, the news is positive. Although she’s having regular checks, there’s no sign so far that the cancer has spread, and she can’t speak highly enough of the quality of care she has received.
“The doctors have told me I’ve been very, very lucky,” she says, stroking her beloved Lola in her garden, near Darlington.
“If it had been left a little while longer, it might have been a different story. Hopefully, it’s been caught just in time and my immune system has dealt with any affected blood cells.”
Pam has become one of the region’s most familiar faces during her distinguished career as a broadcaster. Her job is telling other people’s news and she’s uncomfortable at being the subject of the news herself.
“Mike and I talked long and hard about it because I’m not looking to make a drama out of it or seek sympathy,” she says. “But we decided that it was important to get the message out there about the warning signs and how they must never be underestimated.”
Mike adds: “The frightening thing is that if the melanoma had been on the back of Pam’s leg, she would never have noticed it and it may well have been too late.”
Pam also acknowledges that her career in TV, covering stories about skin cancer over the years, may also have been a factor in saving her life. Jarrow GP Ajay Bedi, who is regularly used as a medical adviser by Tyne Tees, has become a friend.
“Perhaps if I hadn’t been educated about skin cancer, through covering those stories and listening to Ajay, I might have reacted differently,” she admits.
According to latest figures from Cancer Research UK, nearly 2,500 die in the UK each year from skin cancer but survival rates are high – as long as it’s caught early.
A major cause of skin cancer is exposure to the sun and Pam is a self-confessed sun-worshipper.
“I’ve always loved the sun and, when the children were small and I was juggling my career, I’d use sunbeds before going on holiday,” she says.
Sun bathing is a thing of the past for Pam now and she can’t stress too strongly how important it is to use sun cream. She also urges people to watch for any freckles or moles that look misshapen or appear to be getting bigger.
“Skin cancer travels very quickly so, if you see something even slightly unusual, don’t ignore it – go to see your doctor,” she says.
Pam knows she’s had a lucky escape but, by talking about it publicly, she hopes that lives will be saved.
“Even if one person goes to see their doctor because of reading this, and their cancer is caught early, then that makes it all worthwhile,” she says.
The headline being broadcast by north east newsreader Pam Royle couldn’t be clearer: “Don’t take any chances with skin cancer.”
‘The longer a melanoma is left, the deeper it can invade’
Dr Rob Ellis, consultant dermatologist at The James Cook University Hospital, said: “It was extremely fortunate that Pam noticed the change to her skin that led to the discovery of her melanoma and it could be removed at an early stage.
“The assumption is that melanoma begins in the top layer of skin - or the epidermis - and over time, likely months, this can begin to invade through the bottom of the epidermis, into the dermis.
“This is where blood vessels and lymphatic vessels are located and once they reach this point, the melanoma can use these vessels to spread to other parts of the body.
“The longer a melanoma is left, the deeper it can invade - and hence the worse the prognosis. If they are caught early and removed when less than one millimetre in size, the majority of melanomas are cured, whereas the likelihood of spread increases greatly for every millimetre deeper.
“That is why it is crucial to check your skin regularly and be aware of any new moles or skin conditions you may develop, or any changes to existing moles and skin conditions or lesions. These should be reported to your GP as soon as you spot them and if he or she thinks these require further investigation, you can then be referred to a skin specialist.”