It feels very strange to meet up with Deborah Hutton and not be greeted by her usual beaming smile. But smiles are not possible at the moment.
Deborah’s face is a swollen dull yellow on one side and looks strained and painful with a sizeable band-aid stretching from her nose down her cheek.
The dressing is protecting a gaudy wound and as we settle down to talk about her recent unexpected cancer surgery she can’t help but shield her lip with her hand, an involuntary protection instinct.
When I ask what her face looks like underneath the dressing, Deb pulls out her phone and shows me a photo taken a couple of days ago by the nurse before she removed the stitches too numerous to count.
It’s a raw, arresting shot revealing a meandering oval-shaped angry scar criss-crossed with neat stitches mapping out the edges of the skin flap that was lifted in surgery and then sewn back in place.
The affected area is surprisingly large, tracing right down along the top and corner of Deborah’s lip. When she shared the photo on Instagram expressing her relief and gratitude that “they’ve got it all”, it sparked an unprecedented outpouring of support from more than 7000 people from all over Australia.
“I um-ed and ah-ed about doing that. Instagram is the only social media I use and then only if I want to say something.”
“But it shocked me to see my face after the surgery and I thought, I want people to see this because there’s an ugliness to skin cancer that frightens the s*** out of you.”
“It has certainly frightened me. But what’s more frightening is if you just sweep it under the carpet and put your head in the sand. I got a real wake-up call.”
Like many Australians, Deborah is not a newcomer to skin cancer, but this one caught her completely unawares. “I didn’t notice it at all,” she says.
“I had my first skin cancer about 15 to 20 years ago. I wasn’t scared because my whole family is riddled with it. It was our normal. My uncle looks like a patchwork quilt, he’s had so many cancers removed.
We’re Queenslanders without Mediterranean blood. Mum’s had stuff cut out and burned off. I just accept it as part of Australian life.
“Then nine years ago I had an infiltrating BCC [Basal cell carcinoma]. It was very similar to this cancer, in exactly the same spot, although this one is a bit bigger.
That was massive for me back then and a huge shock. I had flap surgery where they do a frozen section procedure. They put me under and just kept on cutting until they had everything.”
From that moment on Deborah’s attitude changed. “I really took it seriously. That was the slap – literally – across the face when I realised: ‘you’ve been an absolute idiot.'”
Like most of us Deborah was raised in an era when sunscreen was seen as something that got in the way of a tan.
When I was going to school, there was a great pride in getting burnt because if you shed your skin, you peeled and that was paraded as ‘my first peel for the season’; seasoning like you do for a new frypan or wok. It was all right, summer’s here! What were we thinking?”
As a TV presenter, celebrity ambassador and former model Deborah’s face is also her calling card.
WATCH BELOW: Deborah interviews Dr Joanna McMillan on how a healthy diet helps prevent cancer. Story continues below.
It has graced many covers of The Weekly, not to mention TV shows and the Foxtel Arts channel TV ads, so the prospect of permanent scarring could also be career defining.
But the severity of that first big surgery put all that into perspective and made Deb realise she had been taking cancer, a potentially life-threatening disease, for granted.
“It all changed for me then, nine years ago,” she says. “I started a new regime of having my skin checked religiously by a specialist every 12 months and if anything was spotted I check again every three months until it’s all clear.
“And it was on one of these random visits when my dermatologist said, ‘I think there’s something there, let’s keep an eye on it, come back in six months’.
I couldn’t see anything. There was no redness, no pain, no dryness, no bleeding, just a tiny little bump, like a pimple but without the pimple. But it didn’t go away.”
Deborah mentioned the bump to her surgeon who immediately agreed a biopsy was needed. “When they went in they actually had to do two biopsies because there were bumps on either side of the original scar,” she adds.
It took a couple of days to receive the results and Deborah confesses she was anxious. “There’s a paranoia that sets in. I thought ‘here we go again’, and I was very, very nervous.”
“The two spots were about a centimetre apart from each other. That’s not good. And I could tell that one was more across the lip. So I thought…How much of my lip will be left? Do they have to take part of my nose as well?”
As she waited, Deborah started to research other therapies that might not involve invasive surgery on her face.
She talked to a good friend who knew about alternative therapies, plant-based creams and the like, and she was surprised when her friend turned round and said: “Let’s be clear Deborah, you have cancer.”
“She was right of course. You think oh, it’s just a skin cancer and you burn it off, cut it out, you use a cream or whatever, and there’s a levity about it.”
“Skin cancer feels less scary than cervical cancer, lung cancer or brain cancer, and there are obviously greater degrees of the way it affects your system. But people can die from melanoma and the sooner you detect it and treat it the greater you chance you have for survival.”
The results from the biopsies were definitive. Deborah had two pernicious skin cancers. “One they described as ‘nodular’ which is very similar to what I had the first time. I became quite fearful,” she admits.
Deborah received her diagnosis just before COVID-19 restrictions were implemented and had to wait until pathologists were able to return before she could go in for the day surgery.
“I was under for three hours and when I woke up I didn’t know if I was Arthur or Martha,” she says.
“But I did understand what had gone on. A friend of mine came to pick me up and the nurse said to him ‘you don’t need to go and buy a lottery ticket today, she just won the lottery’.”
“Basically if I had I left it any later it would have been quite precarious; there was a good chance it was going to enter the bloodstream…. That really hit me.”
Deborah’s face was dressed so she couldn’t yet see the scar. “The swelling was huge and I came out looking like I’d done a couple of rounds with Joe Bugner and he’d seriously won!”
“When I went back in to get my bandages changed, they said ‘we’re taking the stitches out now’. I wasn’t ready for that.”
Deborah asked the nurse to take a photo rather than bring a mirror. “I wanted to look when I was calm and ready.” And when, a couple of hours later, she finally saw her face it was a shock.
“I had cried when I came out of surgery because it was all so much bigger than I thought. And then after the stitches came out and I looked at it…Wow! I shed more tears.”
“The surgeon had done a great job and I know that my skin is strong and heals brilliantly, but I just didn’t expect it to be that big. The most frightening thing was that I had only just caught it in time.”
Deborah knows the wounds will fade and she says she’s not worried about scar lines on her face – like others she has this one will tell a story which is why she wanted to show it on The Weekly cover.
Stay sun safe
According to the Cancer Council approximately two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70.
Early detection is key to avoiding surgery or in the case of serious melanoma and other skin cancer, potential disfigurement or death.
If you notice any crusty, non-healing sores, small lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour or new spot, freckles or moles changing colour or shape see your GP immediately.
For best protection from skin cancer seek shade, wear sunglasses and sun-protective clothing, broad protection water resistant SPF 30+ sunscreen and a hat.
For more information, visit the Cancer Council website.