Consultant, 37, diagnosed with skin cancer at just 21 after noticing a freckle on her shoulder
A 37-year-old Sydney woman who considered herself safe from the sun and had only been sunburned twice in her life, now has just months to live after being diagnosed with skin cancer.
Hayley Bourke was first diagnosed with melanoma in 2006 at age 21 after having a freckle checked on her left shoulder blade after it caused pain when she accidentally bumped into it.
The freckle was removed, but ten years later Hayley noticed a golf ball-sized lump under the left armpit and a biopsy confirmed the cancer had returned.
“It’s so frustrating because I’ve never been one to go out in the sun or use tanning beds; I’m pretty honest, and growing up I was taught to always ‘slip, slobber, hit’ 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 stage four cancer for six years and has undergone a number of surgeries and courses of treatment, but tragically she was given a terminal diagnosis last Wednesday.
Hayley Bourke (pictured) was diagnosed with melanoma at age 21 after a freckle on her shoulder blade hurt. While the freckle was being removed, 10 years later Hayley noticed a golf ball-sized lump under the left armpit and a biopsy confirmed the cancer had returned.
Hayley told FEMAIL she’s only been burned twice in her life and always wore sunscreen when out in the sun. To this day, doctors cannot determine the exact cause of the aggressive melanoma
Hayley recalled noticing the sinister freckle for the first time and told FEMAIL she was “naive” about the whole situation.
“One day I accidentally hit my shoulder blade where the freckle was and it hurt, so I let my mom think it was an insect bite,” she said.
With her mother, she visited a local GP who was suspicious of the freckle and shortly afterwards it was cut out for a biopsy.
Hayley described the freckle as “very small” – no bigger than 2mm – but tests confirmed it was a cancerous melanoma.
“Being so young, I didn’t know how serious a melanoma is — and because of my lack of knowledge about it, I thought I should just have it cut out and then be done with it,” she recalls.
After the freckle was removed in 2006, Hayley had regular skin checks for five years, and doctors assured her she had nothing to worry about and “go on with life (Photo: Where the freckle was removed). It came as a complete shock when the cancer returned
For the next five years, she had regular skin checks and doctors assured her that she had nothing to worry about and “go on with life.”
And everything was fine, until 10 years later she noticed a lump under her left armpit.
‘It was quite deep and not visible; I felt my right hand under my left armpit,” she said.
She noticed the lump over a long weekend in 2016 and rushed to the doctor the following Tuesday.
Hayley hoped for the best, but unfortunately tests confirmed the cancer had come back more aggressively than before, and doctors assumed the first freckle was the prime suspect.
“It’s so weird because I only had symptoms: the freckle. I didn’t feel tired or nauseous,” she said.
“It’s so weird because I only had symptoms: the freckle. I didn’t feel tired or nauseous,” she said
What followed was a disturbing battle of radiotherapy treatments, 12 surgeries and three different treatment pathways
What followed was a troubling battle of radiotherapy treatment, 12 surgeries, and three different courses of treatment.
For three years she had had “targeted treatment” and immunotherapy that tried to kill the cancer.
The cancer itself also has a type of genetic mutation (BRAF) in the genes.
When she started treatment, Hayley was very concerned about her fertility and hoped to be cancer-free within five years.
“It took me a while to accept the fact that I will never have children,” she said.
For three years she had had ‘targeted treatment’ as well as immunotherapy that tried to kill the cancer
In February 2022, she had another neck surgery to remove more lymph nodes, but during the procedure, the surgeons noticed that under the skin were black spots of cancer.
Scans show where the cancer has spread in her body and organs (pictured)
In February 2022, she had another neck surgery to remove more lymph nodes, but during the procedure, the surgeons noticed that the tissue under the skin was littered with black dots that indicated cancer.
“A 25 minute operation turned into a five hour operation and they also had to remove my thyroid — 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 an entire organ, but they couldn’t cut around the cancer.”
She spent two weeks in the hospital recovering and in March began a new trail treatment — a combination of several immunotherapies.
Doctors tried ‘everything’, but unfortunately none of the treatments worked to tackle the aggressive cancer that is now in her liver, stomach, neck, breast, ovaries, uterus and pelvis.
Today Hayely takes it day by day and says the terminal diagnosis hasn’t sunk in yet.
“Most days I still feel good – I can still do things and see friends, I’m not bedridden. I have a pain in my stomach and the drugs that make me tired,” she said.
“You wouldn’t think I’m sick just looking at me. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I feel sorry for my family.’
She has now stopped working to focus on herself and enjoy the time she has left.
Today Hayely takes it day by day and says the terminal diagnosis hasn’t sunk in yet. She has 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
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.
“Many 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 living or dying from something like this.”
Hayley finds joy in the knowledge that she can help others avoid the same fate.