More Than Skin Deep

By Kevin McKay

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Cancer survivor Claire Harcus with her daughter Christie.

In 2001, Claire Harcus received the diagnosis that no one wants to hear: skin cancer. She had no choice but to face it head on. “There was definitely a lot of fear when I heard, but there was also quite a bit of relief because I was no longer in denial and now I knew I could address it and deal with it,” she says.

Claire was working as an elementary school principal in Surrey, a job she held for a quarter of a century before retiring that same year when she noticed that something may be wrong. She had concerns with an area on her neck, but pretended she did not notice, a decision she would come to regret.

“I saw signs that something was happening with my neck, but I neglected it because of fear,” she says. “I had heard somewhere that skin cancers on the neck are among the worst, so in my mind, I was hoping that if I did not pay it any attention it may just go away. Now I know differently and would urge everyone to not delay and get things checked out right away if you have any cause for concern. It is better to go and find out that all is well than to ignore a problem while you still have time to fix it.”

The delay in having her melanoma diagnosed caused Claire some grave difficulties. Because the cancer had advanced so far it was extremely difficult to treat. She wound up having three operations involving skin grafts, radiation after the first surgery, and a long, painful rehabilitation.

“It was very complicated because of where it was located though I have been told I was quite brave,” says Claire. “I also know it was more difficult than it needed to be and that I had caused my own misery to increase.”

Claire is now an outspoken advocate for cancer research and that is not only due to what happened to her. Previously, her mother had a case of skin cancer and, subsequently, Claire’s cousin had dealt with his own case of the disease. Fortunately, each of them discovered their tumors early and dealt with them before they had developed too far.

The scariest thing to happen to her family, however, was when Claire’s daughter, Christie, became concerned about a mole on her back in 2012 only to discover it was malignant.

“I found out that even while I was undergoing treatments for my skin cancer, Christie was going to sun tan booths to get the glow she wanted.  These booths are just deadly to your skin as we found out first hand,” says Claire.

When Christie found another mole, though not very large, she had to convince her doctor to have it checked further. Claire says, “She urged her doctor to have it tested and he used the new Aura machine designed for early detection of skin cancer. When he saw the results, he told her at once that they needed to deal with the melanoma right away, which they did.”

The Aura, a device invented by the BC Cancer Agency, is a life-saving, non-invasive diagnostic tool used to detect skin cancer. According to the BC Cancer Agency, the Aura uses a Raman spectroscopy system to provide valuable information by identifying spectral changes associated with the biochemistry of skin cancer cells in less than a second. Claire adds, “They told me the Aura can read the molecular level below the skin, which is just stunning.”

One thing that frustrates Claire is that so many people are unaware of some of the breakthroughs in cancer research, a cause she is passionate about. That is one of the reasons she is excited about Aura.

I always direct my donations to research. Each year, it accelerates, what the research is able to accomplish. Aura, alone, is a huge winner.”

Claire is so dedicated to cancer research she has even become a planned giving donor, meaning she is leaving a gift in her will to the BC Cancer Foundation.

“Anything I can do for them I will,” she says. “Three people die each week in British Columbia from melanoma. I wish I could win the lottery, so I could provide them with more help right now. It would be so wonderful if every small community in this province could have their own Aura machine. I have put a donation for research right into my will and will give as much as I can before I go.”

Visit to make a donation or to learn how you can make a difference in the lives of those affected by cancer.



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