Stuart McLean’s death could help boost melanoma awareness, experts say

In the shock and mourning of Stuart McLean’s death, two skin cancer experts see a positive side to his battle with melanoma and the profound impact it could have on others. 

The veteran storyteller and host of CBC’s The Vinyl Café died Wednesday at the age of 68. In 2015, he was diagnosed with melanoma — one of the most common forms of cancer in Canada.

Dr. Richard Langley, a dermatologist and medical researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said several of his patients have brought up McLean’s death in recent visits.

“This has been shown when you look at other diseases,” he said. “If a famous celebrity develops something, it increases awareness and that increase in awareness can lead to action.”

Awareness is crucial

Langley said awareness is a big part of preventing any cancer. But because melanoma can be easily overlooked in its early stages, it’s especially crucial.

Melanoma’s telltale signs can appear on a part of the body that can be overlooked easily, such as the scalp. 

Dermatologist Dr. Richard Langley says while Stuart McLean’s death from melanoma is a tragic event, it may help boost awareness about the disease and lead to early diagnoses. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

“I think most people, if they look at themselves they’ll find a mole,” said Langley. “They’ll find the spot and there are many times where people haven’t examined themselves before and they’ll start to look at their own skin.”

If diagnosed early enough, Langley said the majority of melanomas are “almost 100 per cent curable.”

Countering that ‘healthy glow’

Annette Cyr, the founder of the Melanoma Network of Canada, has survived the disease three times. She said McLean had attended one of the group’s patient education sessions last winter.

“I was saddened,” she said of his death. “I was so hopeful that he would be one of the responders to some of the new drug therapies.”

His death may help raise the disease’s public profile, she said. The network works to spread awareness about the dangers of ultraviolet radiation, which can come from the sun or tanning beds.

A typical melanoma lesion. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

“[The network tries] to get that message out when there’s so much in the media and so much marketing around ‘the healthy glow’ and that you need to get vitamin D and you need to be bronzed up before you go on vacation,” she said. 

“I think one of his [McLean’s] legacies can be hopefully raising the profile of the disease and how serious it can get.” 

She cites actor Hugh Jackman’s multiple treatments as an example of a high-profile skin cancer case that boosts awareness.

Melanoma cases on the rise

Langley said while McLean’s death is “a tragic event,” there is comfort in knowing it could lead to more diagnoses and successful treatments.

He tells the story of a 32-year-old patient whose melanoma was diagnosed and now the mother of three is cured.

“Her life and her family’s life will continue,” said Langley.

According to 2016 statistics published by the Canadian Cancer Society, rates of melanoma in men and women have increased over the past several decades. It estimated 6,800 new cases of melanoma would be diagnosed that year.

Besides UV radiation, the society said other risk factors include moles, having a fair complexion, family history of skin cancer and a weak immune system.

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