It was meant to be a routine checkup. There were no symptoms, nothing itched or bled. So when Jacqui Hunter was told this month that she had aggressive melanoma cancer requiring immediate surgery, she was blindsided.
“My stomach just dropped when the doctor told me. I was in complete denial at first. I’ve always been a sun worshipper, so the signs were there, but you don’t think it’s going to happen to you,” says Jacqui (44). The executive assistant to an internet CEO and sister to New Zealand’s Got Talent judge Rachel (43) is at home in the sisters’ adopted town of Los Angeles, slowly recovering from an operation on April 30 which has left her with a six-inch scar on her back and another in her groin, where three lymph nodes have been removed. “I’m one of the lucky ones. The doctors think they have managed to remove all the melanoma, and they also took out three lymph nodes in my groin before the cancer could spread,” says Jacqui. “If the cancer hadn’t been detected early, it would have been a different story.”
“Jacqui has been through a huge ordeal – I feel hugely protective of her at the moment. We are still processing what’s happened,” says Rachel, who was the first person Jacqui told when she received the news.
Says Jacqui: ‘“I couldn’t have done any of this without the support of Rachel and my mum and dad – they’ve been awesome. Two weeks before I was diagnosed, I had a mammogram which showed I have a lump really close to my bone. I’ve had a biopsy and it’s benign, but that was scary. Now this has happened.”
Despite being warned of the dangers of the New Zealand sun as a child, Jacqui happily spent hours outdoors, giving little regard to the possible consequences. “I’m a typical Kiwi. I love the sun and the ocean, and spent years on New Zealand beaches. I love all the outside sports – and I’ve had three pre-cancerous moles burned off my face,” she says.
“I didn’t worry too much about them as they are quite common. But this time, it didn’t look like anything. All I had to show for this was a tiny dot on my back, something I
hadn’t given a second thought to. How could I have known that underneath it there was a melanoma four inches deep and six inches long?
Walking into the Cancer Institute at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, Jacqui was shocked to see so many people suffering from the disease.
“I couldn’t quite believe it was me, walking into the Cancer Institute. I’m so relieved I got the checkup and we caught the cancer early – seeing so many people with cancer made me realise just how lucky I am that mine was caught, and it’s out.”
Both sisters are still coming to terms with the events of the past few weeks. Rachel clearly remembers the moment Jacqui rang to say she had melanoma cancer. “I was actually quite calm – I’m one of those people who deals with situations quite well at the time then it hits me later,” she says. “There are different stages and degrees of melanoma, so I thought she’d be fine – at that point I wasn’t thinking she was going to have such a huge chunk taken out of her back!’
After several tests, which included being injected with a nuclear dye to see which lymph nodes – the armpit or the groin – the cancer was travelling to, Jacqui was told her melanoma would require surgery. With the sisters living 10 minutes’ drive apart, it was easy for Rachel to ferry Jacqui to appointments.
Back home, Rachel quickly took on the role of nurse – much to Jacqui’s immense gratitude.
“Rachel and I have always been close – our whole family was there for me the whole time. I’m not sure how I’d have got through this without them. They’ve been awesome,”
“Everything happened so quickly, there was no point Mum and Dad coming over from New Zealand, but Rachel and the kids [Rachel’s son Liam (18) and daughter Renee (20)] were fantastic. Rachel’s face was the last one I saw before I went into the operation, and the first one I saw when I came to. She was such a good little nurse – she ran around everywhere, making sure I had food, that my medication was given to me properly. I appreciated what she was doing so much, because I was in pain, and in shock. I still am a bit, I think.”
“It’s what you do, with the people you love, isn’t it?” says Rachel, who spent two days with Jacqui after she was discharged to ensure she rested. “I know from when I had to have back surgery for two slipped discs in 2010 that our bodies take time to heal. We aren’t 16 any more, and Jacqui needed a lot of healing, both physically and emotionally. I needed to keep her still, so I got her all three seasons of Downton Abbey to watch. She’s hooked now.”
Jacqui will take several weeks to recover, and needs regular checkups for the rest of her life. But both Hunter women are resolutely optimistic, and see what has happened to Jacqui as a way of making sure other Kiwis stay vigilant. “Please, get yourself checked,” implores Jacqui. “So many friends have been for a checkup since this happened to me, which I’m so grateful for. One visit to the doctor and you’re good to go. You can’t check yourself – only the specialists know what to look for.”
“Go to the doctor. Google is not going to be able to diagnose your cancer,” adds Rachel. “Jacqui is one very important person to me who has been touched by cancer, but there are tens of thousands of people who will be affected by the disease, but won’t find out until it’s too late because they put off going to get checked out. Thank God, Jacqui went.”
While Jacqui will recover physically from her cancer, she says the experience has changed her forever. “The Jacqui that stands here now is a different Jacqui to the one who walked into the dermatologist’s office that day,” she says. “After an experience like this, you come out different. Seeing people in that institute whose lives have been changed forever, and realising that life is so precious. I’m looking at everything differently now.”
“This experience has changed us all,” says Rachel, who has been for a skin check since Jacqui’s experience. “Melanoma cancer is such a sneaky, nasty disease. Being in that environment, seeing people who won’t recover – it changes you. The small stuff doesn’t seem so important any more.”
● Around 2200 Kiwis are diagnosed with melanoma every year – that’s six people every day.
● Melanoma is the most serious skin cancer; it is life-threatening and can spread rapidly.
● New Zealand has the highest melanoma incidence in the world.
For more information on melanoma, visit www.melanoma.org.nz