There is little in this world that hurts as much as losing a loved one, especially when it’s to something that could have been prevented. We sat down with health campaigner Jimmy Niggles and spoke about losing his best friend and the grief that spurred him to make a difference.
Tell us about your experiences with grief...
Our mate Wes was only 26 when he died from melanoma. He had a suspicious looking spot on his neck that he didn’t know was bad until it was too late.
Losing a best friend is the worst feeling. I felt so helpless – especially in his final few months. This thing is just eating away at his body and you can see him getting further and further away from you. It’s gut-wrenching. No one should have to go through that.
At his wake, we decided to pour our grief into helping others so we came up with an idea called Beard Season – formerly known as winter. The deal was we’d commit to growing our beards, getting a skin check and then using our beards to encourage others to do the same.
Nothing can bring him back, but we just don’t want his death to be in vain. If his story can inspire people to avoid the suffering he did then it helps a little, because melanoma is absolutely brutal.
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This is #WesBonny. Nine years ago today he was tragically taken from us by #melanoma – at the age of 26. He was truly one of the best. A warm, adventurous character with a cheeky grin and a heart of gold. Everyone he encountered will always remember him. Someone we dearly wish were still around today. The truth is, in many ways he still is… Thanks to a very emotional ad campaign, so many Australian’s know of Wes’s story and it’s impact on his family and friends. Amost every time we mention his name we receive a respectful, knowing nod. A campaign to educate people that “there’s nothing safe about a tan”. Wes was never really a ‘tanner’, and he had no idea he had a suss looking spot until it was too late – which is why we decided to focus on #EarlyDetection. Now, Wes lives on in everything #BeardSeason does. In our free #skincheck clinics, our partnerships, parties and superb community of #BeardSeasonAmbassadors. I have no doubt that he’s working behind the scenes. Divinely orchestrating. Opening doors and facilitating chance introductions. And because of Wes, we now potentially save more than a life a week. People who could have avoided a similar, tragic fate. Our #BeardSeasonVictories. All of you who get a #BeardSeasonSkincheck with a GP or dermatologist at least once a year – and find something which could have been fatal. Wes is the reason we do this. Wes and two thirds of Australian’s who are likely to get some form of #skincancer before they’re 75. It’s a harsh reality in this country. AND indeed the world… One we’re on a mission to change. We’d love you to join us this #winter. It’d be an honour to have you on board.
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Grief, solo travel and the lessons you'll learn
What challenges did you face when coming to terms with your loss?
I couldn’t imagine what his family was going through… Wes was in the prime of his life and seriously one of THE BEST of our best mates. Such a caring, generous, smart, funny gentleman. Watching them lose their brilliant son really tore us up. And he wasn’t even a sun worshipper – he wore sunscreen, loved his hats and everything. He was just massively unlucky and that’s the thing with melanoma; it can happen to anyone.
What's your favourite memory with Wes?
We had some epic trips when we were at university together – missions down to Melbourne, up to the Snowy Mountains to go skiing, heading down the coast for camping trips and back to his farm for water-skiing. Travelling teaches you a lot about your mates and Wes was the best kind of co-captain. He was super easy-going, hilarious and always steering us towards the best adventures.
How do you think losing a friend changed you?
It hurts. I suppose the main thing is that person isn’t around any more. It sounds weird but you find yourself wanting to call them or expect to see them at parties or down the beach like back in the day. I swear though, he hasn’t left. There have been so many times when I’ve felt him around, as if he’s orchestrated certain moments just for a laugh, or to help us with Beard Season.
I never want to take life for granted and now I’m way more conscious about jumping on opportunities. It’s all about timing and when things pop up, I value the opportunity a lot more – going after my goals with a ton more determination.
Tell us about your mission to help others...
We did a little research after what happened to Wes. We didn’t realise that melanoma kills more young Aussies than any other cancer, especially men. So, I figured that we needed to focus on those men who might not go to a doctor if they found a suss-looking spot.
This is why we decided to focus on boards – growing a beard is all about commitment and doing something with purpose. That’s pretty much all it takes to make an appointment and see a skin specialist. The beard is a badge of honour that you’re getting it done and acts as inspiration for challenging your mates to do the same. By doing this we’re turning those most at risk into our biggest advocates. Hairy, handsome heroes for early detection!
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As far as land based events go, #HIRW is also pretty hard to beat. Take the @PaspaleyPearls lunch for example… A brilliant collection of (we’ll hatted & sunsafe) champions down on the lawns of #PebbleBeach at @QualiaResort. Such a top day filled with beautiful food, music and conversation which soon spilled out onto the beach after a round of ouzo and a few bars of #ZorbaTheGreek – celebrating 100 years since the founder of #Paspaley travelled to Australia from the remote Greek Island of #Castellorizo. We want to send a big hug to the team from @HamiltonIsland and #PaspaleyPearls for the invitation as well as Dan and his Dad from @ZinkAndSons for helping @JimmyNiggles and the #MillionDollarBeard scrub up for the occasion. Such an honour to be sharing our story with so many awesome people. Making some superb connections with a whole lot of fun thrown in for good measure. 📷 by the brilliant @KenButti 🙌 OPA!!!
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How has the mission helped you come to terms with your loss?
It’s something I work towards each and every day. The charity has also grown way more than I could have ever imagined. Seeing other people jump on board and drive it in new and interesting directions really inspires me. So many people have connected with Wes’ story and it’s awesome to have something people can add to and build on and it just goes to show what the healing power of grief can accomplish. He’d be pretty stoked with everything I reckon.
What are your top tips for being sun-safe while travelling?
- Always pack a slick pair of sunnies (with a solid back-up pair).
- Wear a tidy, broad-rimmed hat. It might be tricky to fit into your luggage but a good Akubra will last a lifetime and get better with age. Plus, other Aussies will spot you in a crow and want to say g’day.
- A tube of zinc/physical/reef-safe sunscreen – not only for you but people you’re travelling with or want to help out on the beach.
- Annnnnd I always discourage people from going out during the hottest part of the day. You’re best to find somewhere cool and shady, have a long lunch and really settle in for a while.
What’s your favourite destination?
I love visiting mum and dad on the farm out in west Victoria. Port Fair isn’t far from their place and has an amazing coastline full of surf breaks and places to explore. But if I could, I’d love to hit Japan every year. A little place called Nozawa Onsen. The BEST snow in the world. Or Europe. Even a cheeky trip to The Rockies in Canada. I’m happy anywhere so long as I have good people, waves, snow, culture, food and music.