‘A tan is not worth dying for’; Jenny shares her melanoma journey

Geelong melanoma survivor Jenny Thulborn with toy poodle Noah. (Ivan Kemp) 391141_10

Geelong’s Jenny Thulborn, 60, first discovered she had melanoma 30 years ago after the birth of her second child. Now cancer-free, she will participate in the Melanoma Institute Australia’s Geelong Melanoma March on March 3. She speaks with Jena Carr about her journey through many health scares and surviving stage four melanoma.

As a young girl growing up in Victoria, Jenny Thulborn was chasing the sun and using tanning beds to try and get the perfect tan.

But 30 years ago, when Jenny was 30 and going through the pregnancy of her second child, she spotted a dark and funny-looking mole between her shoulder blades.

“I had a little three-year-old girl and a 12-week-old baby, and I was told that after that (mole) was removed, it (the melanoma) had gone 1.55 millimetres deep into my skin,” she said.

“I had to live with not knowing whether it was going to spread through my body or not and have an ugly scar with around 100 stitches on my back.

“I was always worried that it was going to spread. Sometimes I’d feel a lump under my armpit or in my groin, and I’d find myself feeling that lump thinking that it spread to my lymph nodes.”

Three years later, Jenny was 24 weeks into the pregnancy of her third child when she had a pain in her shoulder tip and began to feel unwell.

“This beast has been on my shoulder for three years and I thought I was going to go… I had an ultrasound and saw a massive tumour the size of a grapefruit in my liver,” she said.

“It took a couple of weeks till they did the biopsy, and doctors had organised a team in Melbourne to take the baby at 29 weeks and put me on steroids.

“The biopsy came back, and it was not melanoma; it was a benign tumour. That was good news, but it was pretty horrific what I went through with another scare that I was going to die of melanoma.

“I had that tumour removed after I had my baby when she was five months and moved on with life. I did have another baby, so I had four children.”

This would not be the last of Jenny’s melanoma scares, as she started to feel unwell again 17 years after her initial diagnosis. She was diagnosed with stage four melanoma at age 47.

“Melanoma is a very sneaky cancer, so it just sort of sits there and lays dormant and then bang. It didn’t just go to the lymph nodes; it went straight to my brain and my lung,” she said.

“The brain tumour was so big that I probably could have died within two weeks. So, I had to go on steroids in the hospital for a while and had the tumour surgically removed from my brain.

“I went on a BRAF-targeted drug therapy treatment, and from then on, I’ve had eight brain metastases (cancer growths) out of my head and three brain surgeries.

“I’ve also had stereotactic radiosurgery (brain radiation) in my brain and my lung. All these things along the way kept me alive.”

Jenny had just lost her brother to melanoma a year before and spent the next seven years “just surviving in between surgeries and other treatments”.

“It was pretty horrific for my children. They’ve lost an uncle to stage four melanoma the year before and they knew what they were going to be in for with me,” she said.

“The outcome I had was about 12 months, but I kept going for seven years, and after that, I had another reccurrence. I had a brain seizure, and I don’t remember three days after that.

“Those years of not knowing whether I was going to live and having surgeries, treatment and radiation, it was almost like the only thing that kept me alive was my four children.

“One of my daughters was crying as a young girl, saying, ‘I want you to be there to zip up my wedding dress. I want my mum to be at my wedding. I want them you to be there when I have my children.’

“I was worried about them, and I was fighting for my life for them. Some days it would have been easier for me to just give up.”

Jenny became involved in the Melanoma Institute’s immunotherapy drug trials, and now, at 60 years old, she has been clear of cancer for eight years.

“Had immunotherapy not come out, I would not be alive today… I turned 60 in November, and I feel like my life just started. I feel like I’m happy in my own skin and I’m happy with my life,” she said.

“You’re on watch and it never really leaves you, but you learn to live a new normal life and be grateful for every day. My motto now is, I live the rest of my life, the best of my life.”

Jenny said she wanted to inform people of the dangers of trying to get the perfect tan and that she wished she could tell her 16-year-old self what she knew now.

“If I could go back to the teenage girl who lay in the sun and used solariums (tanning beds) I would tell that girl exactly this message,” she said.

“Your skin is the largest organ on your body, and the UV rays, the solariums or whatever your poison is, are killing your skin.

“It’s like putting a chicken in a rotisserie. It’s white when it goes in but burnt and cooked when it comes out. That’s exactly what we’re doing to our skin.

“Learn to love the skin that you’re in and work on the inside so that you’re okay with not having to feel that you need to be a different colour to be accepted.

“I now put 50-plus sunscreen next to where my toothpaste is and make it a part of my daily skin care routine on my hands, arms, chest, and face even just to go out on days that aren’t sunny.”

Jenny will participate in the Melanoma Institute Australia’s Geelong Melanoma March on Sunday, March 3, at the Fyansford Papermill to raise money and awareness for melanoma research.