How a daughter saved her mother’s life

Living Well | Words: Peter Hanlon | Photos: Shannon Morris | Posted on 24 November 2017

A chance remark about an unusual mole made all the difference for Jodie Harper.

Jodie Harper and kids

Jodie Harper’s life was saved when her little daughter pointed to a mole on her back.

In the summers of her childhood, Jodie Harper remembers her father coming home from long, hot days spent outdoors “looking like a lobster”. As his sunburnt body healed, she’d sit and peel the dead skin off his back. “He thought it was hilarious, the funniest thing ever.”

Jodie recalls many times when her pale, freckled skin was burnt to the point of blistering. Thankfully in a single generation much has changed around awareness and attitude when it comes to shielding ourselves from the sun. It might just have saved Jodie’s life.

In late 2015 Jodie was applying make-up after a shower, watched by her inquisitive twin daughters Liv and Leni. “Liv pointed to a mole on the back of my shoulder and said, ‘Mummy, that looks different. It’s got white next to it that wasn’t there before.’ ”

Jodie didn’t even know the mole was there. “It wasn’t raised, wasn’t annoying.”

Still, she was in two minds about whether to get it checked, and ultimately made the call to visit her GP out of a sense that she should set a parental example. “If one of my friends had found it, maybe I wouldn’t have done anything. But I thought, ‘She’s seen it, she’s mentioned it, she needs to see that there are steps that you take from here.’ ”

Her doctor told her there was a minute chance it was sinister, but referred Jodie to a surgeon just in case. In the pre-Christmas rush she was given a late-January appointment and put on stand-by for cancellations. When a gap opened that week the surgeon echoed the GP’s assessment: one per cent chance, you’ll be fine.

Every site I looked at, they all said it can go from nothing to lethal in six weeks.

“They did the incision and said that I wouldn’t hear anything for a few days. He rang within 24 hours and said, ‘You’re the one per cent’. That’s rung in my ears ever since.”

A second operation excised a bigger margin around the site, and Jodie endured an agonising Christmas in which her state of mind wasn’t helped by immersing herself in ‘Dr Google’ and absorbing all things melanoma. “There was a bit of panic. Every site I looked at, they all said it can go from nothing to lethal in six weeks. That stuck.”

At length she was referred to dermatologist Rosemary Nixon, “an amazing lady” who every medical person she’d seen had raved about. Dr Nixon, an RACV member,  is vice president of the Skin and Cancer Foundation.

In late January, Jodie walked into Dr Nixon’s East Melbourne rooms. “Straight away she said, ‘The first thing I want to tell you is you don’t have cancer’. I needed to hear those words.”

Sunsmart mother and children at beach

Just 15 minutes can be damaging

Jodie has never been a sun-worshipper, leading Dr Nixon to speculate that her melanoma could be traced to those childhood sunburns. Yet as little as 15 minutes of “incidental sun” can be damaging, even a walk to and from work to grab lunch or a coffee without covering up.

Now 40, Jodie remembers the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign of the 1980s and is eternally grateful the message truly resonates with her own children, whose diligence was embedded at childcare where no one went outside without a hat and sunscreen.

Liv and Leni are now at school, but the lesson is front of mind. “We’ll be in the supermarket, or buying sunscreen, and Liv will be telling strangers, ‘I saved my Mum’s life’. She’s going to carry that with her forever.”

Jodie likens herself to an ex-smoker, badgering friends who notice changes in their bodies to take action. “I tell my story and it’s the same response: ‘Yeah, I’ve got one I want to get checked too’. But they never do. And I say, ‘I very nearly wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for a little person…’ ”

Protect yourself from melanoma

The Skin and Cancer Foundation advises Victorians to protect themselves against the sun’s harmful UV rays, even on cloudy days. Skin cancer and melanoma can nearly always be prevented by taking simple steps: slip, slop, slap, seek and slide – slip on a shirt, slop on the sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on some sunglasses.

If diagnosed early, skin cancer and melanoma can nearly always be treated successfully. Check your skin regularly and, if you notice anything unusual, see a doctor quickly. Visit