Jackie Byrnes OAM is the woman credited with discovering and training a whole generation of Australian track stars including world champion hurdler Jana Pittman and champion sprinter Melinda Gainsford-Taylor.
The years spent trackside have taken their toll on Jackie, with the now 78-year-old revealing she is battling multiple melanomas and other skin cancers.
‘I spent 30 years earning a living as a track coach, which meant I was out in the sun a lot,’ Jackie said. ‘There was no such thing as sunscreen when I was young, and coupled with my very fair complexion, it was a recipe for disaster. Here I am now, battling multiple melanomas and other skin cancers, and want my story to be a warning to others to protect their skin from the sun.’
Jackie, who lives in Maroochydore Queensland, has undergone numerous surgeries on her face and most recently finished her last bout of radiation therapy.
‘When the doctor rang me to say a mole they cut off my ear was a melanoma, I knew I was in trouble,’ Jackie added. ‘It is amazing I am still here, and that’s why I have chosen to share my story as part of the Game On Mole campaign. If my story saves just one other person from going through what I have, then it will be all worthwhile.’
Supporting Jackie in her battle are Jana Pittman, now a doctor, and Melinda Gainsford-Taylor who is now herself an athletics coach. Both were discovered by Jackie and were part of the same training squad that saw them become Australian and world champions.
‘Jackie is like a second mum to me,’ said Melinda Gainsford-Taylor. ‘I have been really worried about her during her treatment, but she’s tough and she’s a fighter.’ Dr Jana Pittman added, ‘she instilled that same determination in us on the track, she’s an incredible woman.’
Jana and Melinda have also joined the Game On Mole awareness campaign in support of Jackie and urge all Australians to be sun safe and check their skin for changes.
‘It was the nature of our sporting careers that we all spent many long hours out in the sun, and seeing Jackie go through this is a stark reminder of the need to protect your skin from the sun and also be aware of any changes,’ said Jana.
‘Game On Mole is a great conversation starter about sun safety and early detection of melanoma and other skin cancers, which are key messages that all Australians need to hear,’ Melinda added.
Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA), the world’s largest research and treatment institute with a single focus on melanoma and complex skin cancers, has revealed alarming figures showing the number of new patients attending the specialist centre for treatment have dropped to a 12-year low.
New patient numbers dropped by 18% in 2020 and likely 20% in 2021, compared to pre-pandemic rates (2019), sparking fears COVID lockdowns have deterred patients from seeking potentially life-saving medical treatment.
‘This drop in numbers doesn’t mean less Australians actually have melanoma, rather that they haven’t been diagnosed yet due to COVID delaying them seeking medical treatment,’ said Melanoma Institute Australia Co-Medical Director Professor Georgina Long AO.
‘If caught early 90% of melanomas can be cured with surgery alone, but if left undetected, melanoma can quickly spread to organs including the lungs, liver and brain,’ she said.
There are fears this drop in new patients may result in a spike in lives lost to the disease in the coming few years.
‘We urge all Australians to know the skin you’re in. If you notice something changing or new, we recommend seeking medical advice and having it checked out,’ added MIA Co-Medical Director Professor Richard Scolyer AO.
‘We are so grateful for the support of Jackie, Melinda and Jana for our Game On Mole campaign, as raising awareness about sun safety and early detection is critical to saving lives,’ he said.
To find out more about the Game On Mole campaign, and buy the t-shirt, go to www.gameonmole.com.au
Watch Jackie, Jana and Melinda share their message on A Current Affair: