A 37-year-old Sydney woman who considered herself sun safe and had only been burnt twice in her life now has only months to live after being diagnosed with skin cancer.
Hayley Bourke was first diagnosed with melanoma at just 21 in 2006 after having a freckle on her left shoulder blade checked after it caused pain when she accidentally bumped it.
The freckle was removed but ten years later Hayley noticed a lump the size of a golf ball under the left armpit and a biopsy confirmed the cancer had returned.
‘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.’
The 37-year-old has been battling the stage four cancer for six years and undergone a number of surgeries and treatment trails, but tragically she was given a terminal diagnosis last Wednesday.
Recalling when she first noticed the sinister freckle, Hayley told FEMAIL she was ‘naive’ to the whole situation.
‘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.
With her mum she visited a local GP who was suspicious about the freckle and soon after it was cut out for a biopsy.
Hayley described the freckle as ‘very small’ – no bigger than 2mm across – but testing confirmed 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.
For the next five years she had regular skin checks and doctors reassured her she had nothing to worry about and to ‘continue on with life’.
And everything was fine, until 10 years on when she noticed a lump under her left armpit.
‘It was quite deep and wasn’t visible; I had my right hand feeling up under my left armpit,’ she said.
She noticed the lump one long weekend in 2016 then rushed to the doctor the following Tuesday.
Hayley hoped for the best but unfortunately testing confirmed the cancer had returned more aggressively than before, and doctors assumed the initial freckle was the primary suspect.
‘It’s so weird because I only had only symptom – the freckle. I didn’t feel tired or nauseous,’ she said.
What followed was a distressing battle of radiotherapy treatment, 12 surgeries, and three different treatment trails.
For three years she had ‘targeted treatment’ as well as immunotherapy that attempted to kill the cancer.
The cancer itself also has a type of genetic mutation (BRAF) in the genes.
When she started treatment, Hayley was highly concerned about her fertility and hoped to be cancer-free within 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 but during the procedure surgeons noticed the tissue beneath the skin was riddled with black specks indicating 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.’
She spent two weeks in hospital recovering then in March began a new trail treatment – which was a combination of different immunotherapies.
Doctors tried ‘everything’ but unfortunately none of the treatments worked on attacking the aggressive cancer that’s now in her liver, stomach, neck, breast, ovaries, uterus and pelvis.
Today Hayely is taking it day-by-day and says the terminal diagnosis has not sunk in 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’s now stopped working to focus on herself and enjoy the time she has left.
Despite the situation, Hayley remains positive and is on a mission to share her story with as many people as possible to encourage others to get a skin check.
‘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 finds joy in knowing she’s able to help others avoid the same fate.