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I have skin cancer, but 5 GPs didn’t believe me. Here’s what I want you to know

·7-min read
Close image of specialist checking back for skin cancer, Jane Elliott smiles at camera while wearing colourful headband.
Jane Elliott's skin cancer was missed by 5 GPs. (Source: Brighter Day)

If there’s one thing hairdresser, fashion designer and stage four cancer patient Jane Elliott wants Australians to do, it’s to get a skin check by a specialist.

She’s been living with cancer for years, after being diagnosed with melanoma in 2006.

But five GPs missed the signs.

Diagnosis

“I was 23 at the time and [the diagnosis] just came out of nowhere. I had a mole on my hand that I asked to get removed, and I’d previously had plenty of GPs say, ‘It looks fine,’” Elliott told Yahoo Finance.

Eventually, she had the mole cut out simply because she didn’t like the way it looked.

“When [the results] came back, I wasn’t expecting anything like that at all. It’s hard to put it into words. You’re at 23 and everything’s just starting then all of a sudden it’s stopped, and you’re in hospital.”

Briony's story:

She’d had the mole for as long as she could remember, but it had changed and grown.

“It had done all the things that I was told to look out for,” Elliott said.

“That’s why it’s important to see a specialist because … sometimes GPs think they know enough, and given this is a specialist field, you need someone who is looking at them everyday, just to really check them.”

Unfortunately, Elliott’s story isn’t uncommon. She’s part of an online community of melanoma patients across Australia, and it’s a story she hears repeated frequently.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, that happened to me. I’ve had that moment.’ That’s frustrating’,” she said.

Elliott beat back the initial cancer with surgery and treatment - as much as was possible. But skin cancer is the sort of illness that’s difficult to eradicate entirely, she said.

In 2017, she received the news that the cancer was well and truly back, and this time it was metastatic.

She’s now in treatment for stage four cancer, a diagnosis so severe that she’s become eligible to access the life insurance within her superannuation.

A lot of hard conversations

For Elliott, the debate around whether to access her life insurance was only the latest in the series of major conversations she’d had with herself since her diagnosis.

“It took me a long time to claim. I had a friend who was also being treated for cancer and we’re the same age,” she said.

“She claimed her life insurance through super because her breast cancer diagnosis was terminal, but with a pretty clear timeframe. She claimed hers straight away and she was able to go travelling and she said to me, ‘You should do it’.

“But I was really struggling mentally with what that meant. It felt like if I took out my life insurance, it was like saying to myself that I only had 12 months to live.”

A melanoma diagnosis has no cure, which means Elliott is technically terminal. However, it is much harder to get a timeline as the treatments are so varied and still developing.

She ultimately decided to tap into the super so she could enjoy a comfortable life, and also to invest in her fashion business Brighter Day.

By this stage, Elliott was used to defining herself in her own terms.

As she explained, cancer can rob you of your health, but it will also come for your identity.

After her initial diagnosis, her identity as a young hairdresser who liked going to live gigs transformed. Suddenly, she was a young woman with a scary form of cancer who spent a lot of time in and out of treatment.

“The biggest thing that I really struggled with was a loss of control and a loss of identity. I spent a good year working through that while I was on treatment,” she said.

“I’ve had to have a lot of really hard conversations with myself.”

Her metastatic diagnosis in 2017 came just after she’d completed her midwifery study, and she grieved that career.

Rebuilding mentally after that was hard, but she did it by looking at the reasons she wanted to become a midwife. It came down to a drive to help people - something she could still do.

She believes this reflection is something more people should do: it’s easy to tie an identity to a job, but it’s more fulfilling to tie it to a purpose.

“What comes through now is that I’m able to support women who are undergoing treatment for cancer or another illness through clothing.”

Something to look forward to

Jane Elliott is putting her energy into fashion business Brighter Day, which sells scarves, scrunchies and masks. (Source: Brighter Day)
Jane Elliott is putting her energy into fashion business Brighter Day, which sells scarves, scrunchies and masks. (Source: Brighter Day)

Elliott’s immunotherapy treatment seems to be working well and the side effects are minimal for her. She’ll know in about a month how well the treatment is progressing.

“For now, it’s nice to have a break from feeling sick all the time.”

But it’s still a strange position to be in: Elliott is drawing down on her life insurance and accessing superannuation early, while simultaneously charging for the future by launching a fashion business.

Brighter Day sells colourful scarfs, masks, heat packs and scrunchies. In February, Elliott hopes to begin selling blouses designed for women undergoing cancer treatment who use chest ports.

“There are very, very few labels that are designed around things like this that are adaptive … and the ones that I did find are quite basic and, for me, just a little bit boring,” she said.

“I wanted something that we can wear that’s still a bit fashionable, but a bit comfortable to be in during treatment.

“But also, I wanted something that felt like they were getting a big hug. I just feel like everyone in that situation could do with a great big hug.”

Elliott has received a $240,000 payout through accessing her super early, and is also receiving regular payments through her insurance.

She’s invested a sizeable amount into the business.

“Building a business can be expensive, especially when it’s in fashion, but having that financial backing for me has given me the boost that I needed.”

Taking out the life insurance felt like defeat at the time, but looking back, Elliott is glad she made the decision she did.

“[Brighter Day] has given me a project to work on, it’s given me something to look forward to. It’s made me feel important and useful again,” she said.

“It means I have something to focus on that isn’t about me. It’s about looking forward and it’s about other people.”

Skin cancer signs to watch out for

Magnifying glass over strange mark on white person's skin.
These are the signs to watch out for. (Source: Getty)

Melanoma is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, with 16,878 Australians diagnosed in 2021 so far.

According to the Cancer Council, these are the signs you need to watch out for:

  • Spots that are asymmetrical

  • Spots with spreading or irregular edges

  • Spots with blotchy colours like black, red, blue, white or grey

  • Spots that are growing in size

  • Spots that are changing or growing

It’s also important to keep an eye on moles or spots that are new, that become raised, that change colour or become scaly, rough or ulcerated. Moles that itch, tingle, bleed or weep should also be checked, as well as spots that simply look different to the others.

“Normal moles usually look alike. See your doctor if a mole looks different or if a new mole appears after the age of 25,” the Cancer Council advises.

“The more moles a person has, the higher the risk of melanoma.”

It’s also important to note that even sun-smart people can develop skin cancer, as Elliott experienced. While the majority of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure, genetics also have a large role to play.

That means that no matter how careful you are with your skin, it’s probably worth booking in for a check.

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