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Katie Maxwell's Scars Are The Reason We Need To Stop Glorifying Tanning

According to Katie "we’ve all got an obligation to raise awareness," so this is her pledge to use her story to warn others about the dangers of skin cancer.

We catch Katie Maxwell while she's on her way to the doctor, to have her stitches taken out. Only days earlier, she had surgery to remove two skin cancers; one from her forehead, one from her scalp.

The photos she took following the procedure are -- as Katie herself describes them -- "gruesome." Which is exactly why she wants you to see them.

"People need to see them to really hit home how damaging overexposure can really be," the 34-year-old told 10 daily. 

"We’ve all got an obligation to raise awareness."

The Melbourne mum's skin cancer journey began in May 2018, after a GP assured her the bump on her head was nothing to worry about. It was a Sebaceous Cyst, said the doctor, a non-cancerous, slow growing bump below the skin.

Katie Maxwell following her surgery. Image: Supplied

"I didn't think I needed to second-guess this," Katie said.

So 20 months later, sitting on the couch running her hands through her hair, she was surprised to feel a pain when she touched it.

"I guess her words in the back of my mind were like: ‘No it's just cosmetic, it's not hurting you so there’s nothing to worry about.’ So the moment that it started hurting, I got my partner to look at it," she said.

"He said it’s changed in shape, it’s changed in colour and in size."

"I went to see a GP, he took one look at it and said: 'I guarantee that will be cancerous'."

It was a Basal Cell Carcinoma, a non-melanocytic skin cancer that commonly appears where the body is most exposed to the sun. Katie's cancer sat at her hair's part.

Image: Supplied

Leading up to the surgery, her health took another turn.

"Over the course of the next few weeks I noticed another little spot on my forehead. I had a bit of a gut feeling that it wasn’t right," she said. The spot was a second BCC.

The dermatologist and the plastic surgeon worked together to organise both skin cancers to be removed. Katie is currently recovering from the surgery, with the scars to prove it.

According to the Cancer Council, approximately two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70. It's a statistic made all the more disheartening knowing that skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers.

Katie never considered herself somebody to ignore the warnings. And yet, only in her early 30s, she is already going under the knife for the disease.

Katie's scars following her surgery. Image: Supplied

"I wear sunscreen, I wear protective clothing and have been mindful of that. And I’ve always been a huge fake tanner," Katie told 10 daily.

"But have I always worn hats and have I always been mindful of not sitting in the sun directly? No. I think that’s what's really shocked me most."

Australia's dangerous relationship with sun baking is well-documented, but as an office-worker, Katie thought she would escape the worst of it.

"I was actually classed as vitamin D deficient when I was pregnant. I can’t win here! Not enough sun but too much sun?" she said.

Having just started a new job and as the mother of a small child -- little Maeve is almost two -- Katie's health scare has only added to her already laborious mental load. But she remains determined to tell her story, and warn others of the dangers of sun exposure.

Katie posted her photos to the Shameless Podcast Community Facebook group, containing 35,000 fans of the Melbourne-based podcast for young Australian women.

Zara McDonald and Michelle Andrews host the Shameless podcast. Image: Instagram

Katie's post garnered dozens of comments from followers saying her photos prompted them to book skin checks of their own.

"I was so pleased to see that because that was the exact intent behind posting the photos," Katie said.

"Even if there was just a small handful of people who took that on board and are wearing a hat, or recommending what sun protection to wear, or getting a skin check... that is exactly the awareness that I wanted to raise."

Katie's motivation to post her photos was spurred on by the power of the #IPledge Campaign, an initiative spearheaded by Shameless podcast hosts Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald that aims to educate Australian women about the dangers of tanning culture.

"I think where we want to start at the moment is that melanoma is the most common cancer among young Australians. It's about educating women that one person every five hours dies from this. But also educating that melanoma is the most preventable cancer of all the cancers," Michelle told 10 daily.

The pair were inspired to throw their influence behind the sun safety movement after meeting and interviewing Natalie Fornasier, a young woman fighting stage 4 melanoma.

Instagram has played an undeniable role in ensuring young women think that they need to be exposed to the sun, that their beauty or their 'wellness' depends on it.

But rather than make an enemy out of the social media platform, Zara and Michelle instead want to harness its power to cause change.

"The most realistic way to stop young women from doing things at the moment is them feeling some kind of embarrassment for tanning," Zara said.

It's people like Katie Maxwell, who are sharing their stories, that are bringing much needed attention to the issue. Image: Facebook

"I really don’t subscribe to the belief that criticising a woman means you are a woman-hater or that you are anti-feminist," Michelle said.

"The vulnerable women in this situation are not the influencers who are profiting off tanning accelerators and oils. The vulnerable women here are the ones who are logging onto Instagram and seeing these things promoted as the ideal and what they should be doing."