Peter Klinken's 30 years of research into cancer - recently into melanoma - could not prevent him from falling victim to the deadly disease he studies.
The Director of the WA Institute for Medical Research, home of the Scott Kirkbride Melanoma Research Centre, had what appeared to be a mole removed from his left forearm last spring - and it turned out to be a malignant melanoma.
"I had talked so often to so many people about cancer, pointing out that one in three Australians would get it, but somehow I never thought I would be part of those statistics," he said.
"Early last spring I rolled up my sleeves to mow the lawn and saw that a mole had become bigger. It was black, raised and solid and I knew it wasn't a good sign." He went straight to his long-time GP Dr Jamie Prendiville, who had also been Scott Kirkbride's family doctor, and had the mole removed then and there.
"When it was found to be cancerous, I had what is called a conservative re-excision, to remove any remnants," Professor Klinken said. The operation was done by one of his former students, plastic surgeon Dr Mark Hanikeri.
"I was very lucky the melanoma was in a place that I could easily see and that Jamie decided to act so quickly. I feel very fortunate that the cancer was removed completely and I didn't have to go through radio or chemotherapy."
Just a few months before Professor Klinken's cancer was discovered, his research team at WAIMR, led by Dr Louise Winteringham, found that a gene they had been working on was also involved in melanoma.
Professor Klinken said promising new drug trials were currently under way for melanoma, based on specific genetic mutations.
"I hoped that this new drug would be available to me if my cancer re-emerged, but genetic testing found that my melanoma does not carry the particular genetic mutation that is targeted by the new drug," he said.
"The whole process has reaffirmed for me the need for more research in all areas of cancer, but now more specifically in melanoma."
The Scott Kirkbride Melanoma Research Centre was set up within WAIMR five years ago after the death of the 27-year-old Perth golfer from malignant melanoma. The funds raised by the Scott Kirkbride Foundation for skin cancer research are matched by UWA.
"I can't stress how important it is to protect yourself from the sun," Professor Klinken said. "We are not quite sure how long a melanoma takes to develop, but we do know that every time you get sunburnt you increase the risk."
He said he could only recall his arms getting sunburnt twice in his life: driving back from Exmouth about 35 years ago (which would not have affected his left forearm), and while he was sailing with his brother-in-law about 15 years ago.
"I had lathered up with sunscreen, but forgot to re-lather during the day, and both my arms ended up quite burnt," he said. Professor Klinken also said regular skin checks were essential to help to keep melanoma from developing.
"While I have a clean bill of health right now, the reality is that most people diagnosed with cancer live with the thought in the back of their minds that it may just rear its ugly head again.
"The initial diagnosis certainly rocks you."
Published in UWA News, 23 August 2010