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Queensland woman Kelsie Dummètt was once an adrenaline junkie and avid horse rider – but the 26-year-old is now in the fight of her life after being diagnosed with melanoma and undergoing 14 operations to remove multiple tumours from her body.
The Mater Private Hospital Brisbane patient was diagnosed with melanoma in June last year following six biopsies from across her breasts, abdomen, back and hip.
The Brisbane City resident, who also has an auto-immune disorder, said her melanoma diagnosis had “completely destroyed” the life she had created for herself, and is sharing her story to raise awareness that melanoma can affect all ages.
“I loved riding horses and adrenaline sports, and started my own digital marketing business in August last year to make ends meet with medical bills, but now a year on from my diagnosis, seven surgeries in and a lot of immunotherapy, I can barely walk around my own apartment,” Ms Dummètt said.
“My days are filled with back-to-back specialist appointments and treatment in hospital, completely taking away my ability to work at all. I’ve completely spent all my life savings.”
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer and one of the most aggressive cancers due to its extremely fast growth rate. It develops in the skin cells called melanocytes and usually occurs on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun. Rare melanomas can also start inside the eye or in a part of the body that has never been exposed to the sun.
Ms Dummètt said often people do not realise how serious melanoma can be until diagnosis.
Australia is the skin cancer capital of the world, with more than 11,500 Australians diagnosed with melanoma each year, including 3600 in Queensland, according to Cancer Council Australia.
Meanwhile, Mater Research is taking a lead in finding a cure for melanoma, working to develop an immunotherapy treatment that can directly destroy a cancer tumour with minimal side effects for patients.
Mater Research Fellow, Professor Brian Gabrielli’s research focuses on harnessing the body’s own immune system to fight disease.
“Our treatment when used in pre-clinical models is very effective in destroying a lot of melanomas, including melanoma types that have become resistant to current therapies,” Professor Gabrielli said.
“Our lab tests show this therapy works as a short-term treatment to get a tumour under control and elicit an immune response that could provide ongoing protection, without the toxicity and other side effects of conventional chemotherapy.”
“The next step is for us to take this therapy to clinical trials in melanoma patients, which we hope to do in the near future.”
Professor Gabrielli said being one of the only cancers that can be detected by sight externally on the skin, melanoma starts within the pigment producing melanocytes of the skin. It can then spread anywhere in the body, far beyond the skin, most often to the lung, liver, bones and brain. Melanoma kills one Australian every six hours.
Ms Dummètt said she felt “lost and disheartened” as there was no answer as to why the melanomas were growing all over her body.
“Many people assume melanoma is always caused by the sun, but it was not in my case,” she said.
“I have always been vigilant about sun safety and always wear sunscreen and protective clothing, and I’m rarely in the sun by choice.
“My case is uncommon because I am so young and have had so many tumours removed and they keep recurring. Other young people can get melanoma but usually it’s a one slice and dice and then done situation.
“Every third monthly cancer scan my doctors are finding more tumours to remove, with my cancer tumour count up to 22 now. It’s only advancements in immunotherapy trials and melanoma diagnostic advancements that are keeping me going.”
Diagnosed with an auto-immune disease when she was just 17, on an average day Ms Dummètt takes 15 pills, one injection to help absorb food and energy, and attends several doctors’ appointments at Mater Hospital Brisbane.
“I’m so young and have already had a 7.5cm resection from my right breast, and several on my abdomen. My body is full of scars,” she said.
Ms Dummètt was diagnosed with cancer in July 2021after falling “really sick”.
“My auto-immune disease flared up and I had so many tests done however it was a skin check which revealed skin abnormalities,” she said.
Due to her disorder, Ms Dummètt said the melanoma invading her body would not respond to chemotherapy or radiation treatment, and her only option was immunotherapy, which is the use of medicines to help her immune system recognise and destroy cancer cells more effectively.
“My cancer is very uncommon. It’s fast and aggressive and I hope one day there is a cure for melanoma,” she said.
Mater Hospital Brisbane Director of Gastroenterology and Mater Researcher, Associate Professor Jakob Begun is successfully treating Ms Dummètt for her auto-immune disorder using a systemic treatment targeted to the gut.
“This treatment is very gut selective and has been working on Kelsie for the last four months. It can be used in patients long-term to provide a healthy gut,” Dr Begun said.
Dr Begun described Ms Dummètt as resilient and a “rare patient”.
“She is very engaged and invested in her healthcare and has a positive outlook on life,” he said.
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