Daily Mail: Amanda Platell ‘obliterates her skin cancer’ using Photodynamic Therapy
A beam of light obliterated my skin cancer – and didn’t even leave a scar
By Amanda Platell
Twelve years ago my doctor diagnosed two basal cell carcinomas on my forehead.
I knew something was wrong because these innocent-looking bits of dried, slightly scabby skin had refused to heal or go away — a telltale sign I had a BCC, as they’re known in the skin cancer trade.
BCCs are a form of pre-cancerous sun damage that can develop into skin cancer, which is why they have to come off.
Growing up in Australia long before we knew how damaging the sun was, I’d had my first BCC removed when I was just 25 — and I’d have another batch removed every three or four years or so.
I was never a sun worshipper, but living in a sunny climate exposes your skin to danger. A Mediterranean climate with an English complexion is a recipe for disaster.
In those days, they used liquid ice to burn off small BCCs. If you didn’t catch them early, they had to be cut out, which is what happened 12 years ago in London when I found the two on my forehead.
I had the best plastic surgeon in Britain do the job, but removing the one in my eyebrow left me with a scar and a chunk of the eyebrow was permanently missing. The larger one on my forehead left another scar the size and shape of a five pence piece.
But that is a thing of the past now. A revolutionary new laser treatment can remove BCCs without having to resort to the knife, so avoiding nasty scars.
Four months ago, I had this treatment — photodynamic therapy — and not only has the lesion completely gone, but I have no scarring. It really is incredible.
My BCC was the return of the one I’d had removed in 1998. For some reason, the surgeon didn’t manage to get all the pre-cancerous cells out and it regrew. I’d noticed the suspicious piece of dry skin in my eyebrow ages ago, but ignored it because my eyebrow covered it.
Last Christmas, when I was back in Australia, I had my annual skin cancer check-up. This involves stripping to your bra and undies and having every part of your body inspected (except the bits under your bikini line — unless you’re a naturalist, in which case it’s the lot!).
A pair of magnifying goggles, like a miner’s torch, are worn by a specialist, to shine a light on your skin to highlight the sun damage. These days, they even check the soles of your feet and between your toes. They also check all through your hair, a procedure not dissimilar to being inspected for head lice — you can get skin cancer on your scalp, although no one realised for years.
The only suspicious spot was in my eyebrow. Back in London, I went to see my skin specialist Lee Garrett, from Freedomhealth, who did a biopsy of the lesion by scraping a small amount off.
The result came back as we suspected. I’ve probably had about 50 pre-cancerous lesions removed from my face, neck and arms over the years and they almost always leave some scarring. The bigger ones certainly do.
So when I heard about a scar-free way to remove BCCs, I wanted to try it. Photodynamic therapy uses drugs that make cancer cells sensitive to light. When the treated area is exposed to a laser, the cancer cells are destroyed. It’s a pioneering treatment that’s being used to treat neck and mouth cancers and, more recently, oesophageal cancer too.
Much of the work into the treatment, which involves inserting fibre optics into the body, is being done at University College Hospital, London.
Photodynamic therapy is also used to treat sun-related skin damage — BCCs, Bowen’s disease (a pre-cancerous skin condition) and actinic keratoses (areas of raised, rough skin that are sensitive to the sun and have a small risk of developing into skin cancer).
The skin cancer is treated in two stages, one week apart. First, a special cream is applied to and around the lesion and covered by a light-blocking dressing. The chemicals in the cream are attracted to theabnormally growing cancer cells, sensitising them to light.
Then comes the laser bit. Here, you lie down in a darkened room with protective glasses for your eyes and the bandage is removed.
Under the laser, you can see how big the lesion is; it also shows up any surrounding skin cells that are damaged but not visibly so to the naked eye.
A BCC is like an iceberg — what you see is just the tip of the cancer. On the surface, my main one was as wide as the finest spaghetti and about a third of an inch long. But — shockingly — underneath my skin it was the circumference of a golf ball.
Lee said I needed ten minutes of laser treatment. They were ten long minutes, as it causes a burning sensation that stops when the light is turned off. When the procedure was repeated a week later, Lee anaesthetised the area and gave me some painkillers. I have a high pain threshold, but even I found it uncomfortable.
However, I was able to get up and go back to work after the treatment, on both occasions.
I had to wear a bandage over the treated area for a couple of weeks until it healed, but that was more due to vanity than necessity.
Not long afterwards, my father arrived from Australia. He had just had a BCC cut off his face in the old fashioned way and I was reminded of how bad the scarring can be.
For a seasoned old skin cancer veteran like me, it truly is miraculous the way, with photodynamic therapy, the skin had not been damaged and yet the carcinoma is completely gone.
I’d never have another one treated in any other way, provided I catch it in time. Photodynamic therapy is not suitable for developed melanomas, but if you are alert to the signs, you can catch them early.
Yet BCCs are such tricky little devils. While we were doing the treatment, the photographer Ben asked Lee what they look like.
He told him they come in a variety of guises, but often it’s just a bit of dry skin that won’t heal and occasionally gets scabby.
‘Like that on your arm, there,’ Lee said, pointing to what looked like an early BCC. ‘Or that one there.’
Despite the benefits, photodynamic therapy for skin cancer is not easily accessible on the NHS.
It costs £1,480 privately, including biopsy — less than half what my cosmetic surgeon charged me to cut off two BCCs 12 years ago.