October 1, 2018
Backing a Life Saving Cause
Photos bliss photography by leah
With exception of the double-jointed acrobats among us – it’s impossible to apply sunscreen to your own back. Raph McGowan has come to the rescue with an innovative device to make us all more sunsmart and ease the frustrations of applying medical creams and lotions in the hardest to reach places.
Growing up, Raph McGowan and his four sisters and two brothers were taught about sun safety. Being of Irish descent, they were blessed with fair skin and always applied sunscreen and covered up when outdoors.
“We would holiday in beach locations and Mum and Dad were always strict with wearing a hat and putting on sunscreen because you would see people around you who didn’t and they would get burnt. But the word melanoma wasn’t really on my radar, not until we heard it as a family.”
Tess McGowan-Chan, Raph’s older sister, was a creative being. She loved music and acting and Raph remembers reluctantly attending school plays to see her perform.
“I wish I took more of an interest in it and looking back over all of this, I certainly took time for granted in those early years.”
In 2011, when Tess was three-months pregnant with her first child, her husband Victor, who was studying to be an anaesthetist, noticed a mole on Tess’s back and told her to get it checked, not thinking anything of it.
“They got it checked and removed and it came back as a melanoma,” says Raph, explaining she chose to forgo chemotherapy because of her unborn baby.
“Whether it had spread wasn’t quite known and it wasn’t until after the pregnancy that they found they had to remove the lymph gland and it had spread throughout all of her organs.”
Tess was given less than 12 months to live and within 11 months of being diagnosed, she passed away, aged 31. In the months leading up to her death, Raph and his whole family moved to Sydney.
“I lived with Tess and her husband and was on hand to help out, whether it be feeding their daughter Mabel, or sitting with Tess when she went to her appointments. As the months progressed, you could see Tess was in more and more pain and that was the hardest thing, not being able to do anything, and it became about managing the pain and making Tess as comfortable as possible,” says Raph.
“Over the next couple of months we knew the next step was palliative care. Tess wasn’t getting any better, the treatment she did start to have she wasn’t responding to and I found it quite surprising Tess never questioned, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ It was more about, ‘This is what’s happening’, and she really valued the time each of the family spent with her.”
The idea for Raph’s hand-held lotion application device, called bakslap, came shortly after Tess passed away, as sun protection was understandably on his radar and he spent a lot of time at Melanoma Institute Australia – the world’s leading treatment and research facility.
He has spent the past seven years raising awareness and funds for the institute as a volunteer, as well as working in his full-time career, and as a result of this, Raph’s business has forged a corporate partnership with the institute and will donate $1 from each bakslap sold towards their research to find a cure.
“I learned that people in Australia aged 20 to 39 years old, melanoma is the biggest killer out of all the cancers. That hit home because that’s my age and all my friends. You’re under the impression when you’re younger that it’s only going to happen when you’re in your 50s and 60s, after decades out in the sun, but it’s not the case,” he says.
“I started noticing where people were getting sunburnt and as someone who enjoys cycling and surfing, when I’d sit on the beach and look at people, they would try to apply it to their back but no one has the flexibility or the reach and it’s this little triangle in the middle of your back that would be missed and I kept seeing it over again.
“Another thing people were saying is they don’t want sunscreen on their hands and would put their hands in a plastic bag and put sunscreen on and rub it in. In this day and age with all of the technology, people are using a plastic bag, or another person had a wooden spoon, one guy told me he’d squirt sunscreen on the wall in the shower behind him and rub his back on the wall – I thought there’s got to be a more effective approach.”
Over the next year, Raph sketched ideas and began learning about what it took to manufacture a product and create a brand. In 2013, he started writing a business plan, but shelved it to raise more money for the Melanoma Institute and in 2016, felt it was the right time to commit to the project.
“I’ve called bakslap a lotion applicator, because it’s not just for sunscreen, although that is where it started. During the Kickstarter I had people come to me who had had an operation and needed to apply medical cream to their back but couldn’t reach.”
“I quit my job and came back to the Sunshine Coast and used everything I had financially to get it off the ground and I continue to work at a weekend job, so anything I had I put into getting this product out there,” he says.
Raph recently wrapped a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, where he raised $48,000 in four weeks, gaining attention and support not only here in Australia, but in the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and Brazil.
He has started the first stage of production, which involves having the moulds made, and in the coming months will do the first production run using the Kickstarter funds, to make sure bakslap is available for summer.
“I’ve called bakslap a lotion applicator, because it’s not just for sunscreen, although that is where it started. During the Kickstarter I had people come to me who had had an operation and needed to apply medical cream to their back but couldn’t reach, a younger guy pre-bought one to give to his grandmother because she has mobility problems and can’t reach her leg and she gets dry skin. A world of other uses have opened up.”
Given we live on the Sunshine Coast, among a lifestyle which beckons for us to be outdoors, Raph has one overarching piece of advice, “You can enjoy it, just enjoy it responsibly”.
“I learned that people in Australia aged 20 to 39 years old, melanoma is the biggest killer out of all the cancers.”
Melanoma facts and figures
- One Australian dies from melanoma every five hours
- Melanoma is the most common cancer affecting 15 to 39-year-old Australians and kills more 20 to 39-year-old Australians than any other cancer
- Australia and New Zealand have the highest melanoma rates in the world
- Some 14,000 Australians are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma this year and an estimated 1800 will die from the disease
- If detected early, 90% of melanomas can be successfully treated with surgery alone
- Over the past five years, the use of surgery plus additional treatment has significantly extended life expectancy of advanced melanoma patients
- Intense, intermittent sun exposure leading to sunburn, particularly prior to puberty, increases your risk of developing melanoma
- The back is the most at-risk place for developing fatal melanoma
Source: Melanoma Institute Australia