After being told she had skin cancer, a 37-year-old woman in Sydney, Australia, who had only burned twice in her whole life and thought she was safe in the sun, has only a few months to live.
In 2006, Hayley Bourke was just 21 years old when she was first told she had melanoma. The first diagnosis was made after she accidentally bumped a freckle on her left shoulder blade that was giving her pain and had it checked out.
Hayley had the freckle taken off, but ten years later, she found a golf ball-sized lump under her left armpit. A biopsy showed that the cancer was back for sure.
‘It’s so frustrating because I was never one to go out in the sun or use tanning beds; I’m quite fair and growing up I was taught to always ‘slip, slop, slap’ and use sunscreen,’ Hayley said.
‘Now I just think ‘why me?’ It’s just bad luck I guess.’
Since 2006, the 37-year-old woman has been fighting stage-four cancer. She has had a number of surgeries and treatments during this time. Recently, she got terrible news: a doctor told her that she didn’t have long to live.
Hayley told FEMAIL that when she first saw the strange freckle, she was “naive” about the whole thing. She said she was trying to put it out of her mind.
‘One day I accidentally hit my shoulder blade where the freckle was and it hurt so I showed mum thinking it was an insect bite,’ she said.
Her mother took her to a nearby primary care doctor because she was worried about the freckle. Soon after, the freckle was removed for a biopsy.
Hayley said the freckle was “very small” and didn’t measure more than 2 millimeters across. However, tests showed that it was a cancerous melanoma.
‘Because I was so young, I didn’t know how serious a melanoma is – and because of my lack of knowledge about it I thought I’d just get it cut out then be done with it,’ she recalled.
She continued to get regular skin checks for the next five years. During that time, her doctors told her she had nothing to worry about and told her to “keep living.”
And everything was fine until she found a lump under her left armpit ten years later. She hadn’t had any problems before that.
‘It was quite deep and wasn’t visible; I had my right hand feeling up under my left armpit,’ she said.
In 2016, she felt a lump in her breast during one of the long weekends. She made an appointment with her doctor for the following Tuesday right away.
Hayley was hopeful about how things would turn out, but tests showed that cancer had come back and was worse than before. The doctors thought the first freckle was the most likely culprit.
‘It’s so weird because I only had only symptom – the freckle. I didn’t feel tired or nauseous,’ she said.
What happened next was a hard-fought battle that included radiotherapy, a total of 12 surgeries, and three trials of different treatments.
She tried to get rid of cancer for three years by getting “targeted treatment” and immunotherapy.
The cancer cells themselves have a type of genetic change called a BRAF genetic mutation.
When Hayley first started treatment, she was very worried about being able to have children, and she hoped to be cancer-free within the next five years.
‘It took a while for me to accept the fact that I’ll never have kids,’ she said.
In February 2022, she had neck surgery again to remove more lymph nodes. However, during the procedure, the surgeons saw black spots in the tissue under the skin, which is a sign of cancer.
‘A 25-minute surgery turned into a five-hour surgery and they had to remove my thyroid too – so I woke up in the recovery room wondering why my throat was so sore,’ she said.
‘I was so shocked when they told me they had taken a whole organ out, but there was no way they could cut around the cancer.’
After getting better in the hospital for two weeks, she started a new treatment in March. This treatment was a mix of several immunotherapies. As part of a clinical trial, this treatment was given.
Unfortunately, none of the treatments worked to fight aggressive cancer that has spread to her liver, stomach, neck, breast, ovaries, uterus, and pelvis. The doctors did “everything” they could.
Hayley is taking each day as it comes right now, and she says that the fact that she only has a few months to live hasn’t hit her yet.
‘Most days I still feel okay – I’m still able to do things and see friends, I’m not bedridden. I have pain in stomach and the medication that makes me tired,’ she said.
‘You wouldn’t think I’m sick just by looking at me. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I feel sorry for my family.’
She has decided to stop working so she can focus on herself and make the most of the time she has left.
Hayley has a good attitude no matter what is going on, and she is on a mission to tell her story to as many people as she can to get them to get skin checks.
‘A lot of Aussies put off getting their skin checked because they’re afraid of the possible outcomes,’ she said.
‘Early detection is so important and it can mean the difference between whether you live or die from something like this.’
Hayley feels great when she realizes she can help others avoid the same thing that happened to her.