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Success story: Jo's discovery of a melanoma

June 2011

Jo and family

On 4 December 2009 Jo was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. She had recently given birth to her fourth child and had taken her two-week old son to the doctors because he had nappy rash.

"As I was leaving I turned and said ‘By the way I have this thing on my arm.' I thought it was due to my pregnancy and was just another small change to my body as a result of that. He agreed but said we should remove it anyway."

It was a melanoma. It was caught early but was a nodular tumour. Jo was told that there was a chance that her pregnancy had accelerated the skin cancer's growth.

Jo had a scan to locate her sentinel node. Dye was injected directly into the tumour site and then she waited 40 minutes for the machine to take the scan.

"My body was so still but my mind was racing. I was going through the children's Christmas wish lists, singing songs to myself – basically doing anything I could to distract myself from worry about what they might find."

Two days after seeing the specialist Jo was in surgery. They made a wide incision around the tumour and took a node biopsy to see if the cancer had spread to her lymphatic system.

After the operation Jo had to wait for the results, to see if the melanoma had spread. It was a week before Christmas. "I was so nervous. In the patient waiting room I tried to catch my doctor's eye to see if I could read anything into his expression."

The initial results from the node biopsy showed no evidence that the cancer had spread. A month later Jo went to a follow up appointment and was told there had been a mistake with Jo's results. They had found that the melanoma had spread to Jo's lymph nodes.

"That moment will last with me forever. I knew that melanoma was difficult to treat once it had spread because it does not respond to conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy."

Jo then underwent a series of tests followed by a second operation. "The operation was a full auxiliary clearance where they removed the lymph nodes under my left arm. As I was preparing to have the operation my main concern was my eight-week old baby: I'd be in hospital for five days and only had a week to wean him."

The results from the operation were good. A follow up PET scan in July showed Jo was clear. "I am fortunate."

Jo says, "One of the things that I feel it's really important to pass onto others is that my melanoma didn't look like a mole or a freckle. It was bright red and was more like a skin tag that bled occasionally."

"So if you see any changes whatsoever in your skin you should not hesitate to get yourself checked. Then follow-up on that check up."

Jo grew up on a farm but has never been someone to purposefully tan or use a solarium. "I was always cautious about the sun but I was outside a lot as a child. I am so vigilant to follow the recommendations around how to protect skin from UV damage, both for myself, my husband and my children. I've also downloaded the SunSmart iPhone app, so I can check the UV levels wherever I am."

"Throughout my treatment a number of medical practitioners said to me ‘You're so lucky that you are fit and healthy' – this made a big difference to my recovery rate and chance of beating the cancer."

To find out more about early detection of skin cancer download this SunSmart fact sheet and for tips on prevention download the Being SunSmart resource.

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