Lee Winkler hopes to soon be back in the waves after a frightening and painful battle against cancer.
Lee Winkler hopes to soon be back in the waves after a frightening and painful battle against cancer. Bruce Thomas

Winkler's new battle on land

LOCAL surfing icon Lee Winkler has survived the greatest battle of his life.

The former Word Champion Tour surfer has spent the past six months enduring radiation therapy and surgery for a desmoplastic melanoma which he never knew existed.

Losing 10 kilos, being unable to eat for six weeks and enduring pain he never imagined, Winkler admits that coming out the other side of such a terrible period has made him thankful for the little things in life.

“To have to go through it and then get through it and come out the other side is an eye opener,” Winkler said.

“I’m heaps more motivated to do what you want in your day, don’t think too far ahead and enjoy everything.”

Sporting a scar across his chin from where a melanoma roughly the size of a pea was surgically removed from his lip, the 33 year-old explained that his ordeal started in August during a routine lesson teaching children how to surf.

There was one youngster named Koby who was struggling to catch a wave and Winkler moved in close to give the youngster a hand.

As Winkler is often known to do, he took extra time with his student to help him catch a wave like the rest of the group was doing.

On this occasion young Koby kicked extra hard to catch a wave and his foot caught Winkler flush on the lip. It was that innocuous moment that sent the 33 year-old down a path that he never wishes to travel on again.

“It felt like a wasp sting that sort of held the pain so I booked myself in for a regular skin check up,” Winkler recalled.

His regular doctor took a biopsy but pathologists in Coffs Harbour were unsure what to make of the results.

The usual wait for results on a biopsy is three days but with inconclusive results meaning the test had to be taken to Sydney, Winkler was forced to wait five weeks to finally get a proper diagnosis of what was wrong.

On edge over the entire period due to the uncertainty, Winkler admits that as painful as treatment was, that was that probably the darkest time.

“Not knowing , that was hard,” he said.

“Once I got all the answers to what I was thinking in my head and the doctors start telling you the different scenarios that gave some clarity then.”

A final diagnosis wasn’t reached until Winkler’s case crossed the desk of Dr Michael Quinn at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital’s Sydney Melanoma Unit. Having read the notes on Winkler’s case it was Thompson who diagnosed a desmoplastic melanoma ... an aggressive form of melanoma but not one which spreads quickly.

“It was two tumours that were side by side and basically I had to go and go get all of my teeth done, chest X-rays, blood tests to make sure everything was right because he was pretty much aware that radiotherapy would be needed to make sure that that if there were any small cells that had been affected around it that they would eventually go,” he said.

“I had the treatment from my top lip down to the bottom of my throat.”

Being able to have his radiotherapy in Coffs Harbour was a blessing for Winkler especially when he had to be admitted into the hospital after only a few weeks of treatment.

“It was a pretty severe reaction that I had and then I got an infection,” he said. “I ended up on a nasal gastric tube and there was no eating for about six weeks.

“Everything was just fed by machine and by the time I’d got off it I’d lost about 10 kilos.”

It wasn’t the weight loss that was the worst part though.

The diminutive surfer admits that having radiotherapy so close to his mouth caused a side effect that he didn’t see coming and never wants to experience again.

“I had blisters and ulcers where about 15 to 25 per cent of my mouth was really affected with cuts and sores and my tongue, I never expected pain like that,” he said. “I’ve had a knee reconstruction and had ulcers in my eye but nothing was that painful.”

“I’d be sitting in a chair in the middle of the night with liquid morphine and anaesthetic just to drink water. Water felt like petrol on a cut and milk was worse.

“I had to take anaesthetic just to drink water and I couldn’t taste any food for two or three months.

“Worse, my teeth felt like razors. I couldn’t talk and sometimes just moving the muscles in your tongue hurt and when it hit my teeth it was just like razors.”

Being given a clean bill of health at the end of the saga has made it worthwhile.

“I had my first check up back in Sydney at the new nuclear medicine centre and everything is all clean but I still have to follow the plan,” he said. “I’ve got another four and a half years where I have to keep going back ... four months for three years and then every six months for the last two years.”

Evidence of Winkler’s recovery can be seen in the 5kg in weight he has put on in the past fortnight but a regular return to the waves is a goal that can’t be attained at this stage.

“If you’re burning up the food that you’re eating then that’s taking away nutrients you need to get better,” the talented sportsman explained.

“They just said to take it easy.”

Melanoma can spread to the lymph nodes or major organs such as the liver, lungs and brain. That’s when it’s deadly and why early detection is vital.

It is for this reason that Winkler urges everyone to be vigilant when it comes to looking after themselves.

“Go and get yourself checked out and ask some questions,” he said.

“I could say it was painful but the big message out of this experience is making sure people have the awareness and are getting themselves checked out so they don’t have to go through it.”

“Prevention is the key.”

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