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Melanoma diagnosis at age 20 inspires young Aussie to start fake tan company

Within three weeks of finding the innocuous freckle, Teish was undergoing chemotherapy after finding out she had stage 3C melanoma.

A young Aussie who spent her teenage years "lying in the sun" has shared her harrowing experience of being diagnosed with stage 3C melanoma at just 20 years old — and how it led her to start fake tan company GT Skin with her sister, in a bid to advocate against sun tanning.

Teish Ward was forced to undergo surgery to remove cancer and 11 lymph nodes in 2019, as well as a year and a half of chemotherapy and immunotherapy. She is now warning other Aussies about the dangers of "baking in the sun".

"You always think it will never happen to you but it can — and it did to me," the Melbourne local told Yahoo News Australia.

Images of Teish Ward in hospital being treated for cancer.
Teish Ward said she was completely 'oblivious' to how bad melanoma was. Source: Supplied

The social side of tanning in Australia

Teish reveals that while she always wore sunscreen growing up – her mum making sure to "drum" it into her and her siblings – in her "teenage years" she still tanned and lay in the sun socially.

"In my teenage years, going to the beach and laying around the pool with your girlfriends [was] a social thing, we loved doing it," she said. "I’ve grown up along the beach my whole life as well so, while I definitely wore a hat and wore sunscreen, I did also tan and lie in the sun."

Teish is not alone in this, a growing number of young people still appear to hold the belief skin cancer won't affect them. Worryingly, new data conducted by Cancer Council Australia reveals almost one in three young Australians (31 per cent) think "it’s fine to suntan at their age".

From a freckle to chemotherapy in three weeks

In July 2019, when Teish was just 20, her sister Georgia (22 at the time) noticed a freckle on Teish’s back that was "quite dark" and had risen above her skin. "It actually started bleeding when I would scratch it," Teish recalled. "So that’s when we thought we better go get it checked out."

Georgia and their dad Darren drove Teish to get her skin checked by a doctor days later who immediately noticed the small raised lump, going over that spot "again and again" before Teish asked if everything was "okay".

Left: An image of Teish in hospital. Right: Teish's parents with her in hospital.
After getting a freckle checked at the local clinic, Teish (left) found out she had melanoma and immediately had to have surgery before starting chemotherapy. Source: Supplied

"He said, 'I’m 99% sure that's melanoma, we need to book to get this cut out as soon as possible'.

Despite this, Teish says she was "oblivious to the whole thing", thinking melanoma was not a big deal. "At the time, I was working in real estate and I was like, 'I'm just going to check with work to see when I can take the day to get it cut out'."

After getting back into the car following her appointment, Darren asked Teish how her check went and while letting them know what the doctor had said, she quickly dismissed the severity saying "it was fine" and "they’ll cut it out." But, her dad immediately went into action, telling Teish it was "more serious" than that, getting out of the car and going back into the clinic to ask the doctor for more information.

"We ended up getting it cut out two days later," Teish shared. "After that, I got a call saying that it had actually already gone underneath the skin so they needed to go in and do surgery".

About four days later, Teish went to the Alfred Hospital oncology unit in Melbourne where they did a "dye test" to find activated cancer cells in her body. They then removed not just the cancer around her freckle, but 11 lymph nodes that were cancerous from under both her armpits.

While the surgery was tough, Teish and her family were "confident" this was the end of her cancer journey since they had been told that was the case for "95% of people with this size melanoma" – but soon these hopes were dashed.

"We walked into the room and there was a big team of people and they told us, 'This is a really unfortunate case [and] it has actually spread. It's stage 3C melanoma'," Teish recalls of the moment her world as she knew it truly changed. "It happened so quickly."

Teish spent a year and a half doing rounds of chemotherapy and immunotherapy to save her from cancer while getting PET and MRI scans every six months to check her progress.

"I got super sick and lost a lot of weight. I was in a hospital quite often [and] when I was going through treatment, I just wanted to live a normal life as much as possible."

Cancer battle leads to GT Skin fake tan launch

After her third set of scans and with the help of the "amazing team at the Alfred", and support of her "incredible family and partner", Teish was able to come off chemotherapy at the end of 2020. Three months later, using her ordeal as inspiration, the idea for GT Skin bloomed.

"[My sister and I] decided there wasn't enough awareness around skin cancer. I was a classic example, I had absolutely no idea," she said. "What can we do to help people and stop them from tanning in the sun? Fake tan."

Left, is an image is of Teish and her family. Right image is of Teish and Georgia celebrating the launch of their company.
Three months after finishing chemotherapy, Teish and her sister Georgia (right) came up with an idea to help fight against sun tanning, GT Skin. Source: Supplied

While a lot of experts told the pair not to use a brand name associated with their own personal names just in case they wanted to sell the company one day, the two knew by not doing so they would "contradict their mission" so used their initials anyway.

"We don't want to be affiliated with laying in the sun, that goes against everything we're saying," Teish said. "That's why we decided to call it GT skin because the whole reason we started it was because of my story."

The "slow process" of building the product and brand while working full-time meant the sisters finally launched in June, 2023. And, in August 2024, if her final test comes back with good results, Teish will have been in remission from her cancer for five years — meaning she will finally be out of the most likely time for cancer to return.

Skin cancer in Australia fast facts

  • Every year in Australia, skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers.

  • Around two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.

  • Exposure to UV radiation causes 95% of melanomas, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

  • Every year, over 2000 people in Australia are expected to die from skin cancer.

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