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Jennifer Temple: Melanoma

Jennifer is a 78-year-old mother, grandmother, and great grandmother from Morpeth in Northumberland. She has been living with melanoma since she was 21.

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Jennifer's story: Living with multiple melanomas

At the age of 16, Jennifer’s world was turned upside down after a mole on her mother’s leg was found to be cancerous. After unsuccessful radiotherapy, her mother had surgery to remove a large area of her lower leg and was told she was unlikely to survive more than a year.

Jennifer abandoned plans to go to college, found a job in the city and stayed at home to look after her father and sister. After months in hospital, her mother returned home and had to learn how to walk again. She lived to the age of 80.

Finding the melanoma

Jennifer will never forget her 21st birthday. She was married and expecting her first child when she discovered a worrying mole on her back. She went to her local doctor several times but was repeatedly told there was nothing to be concerned about. By the time she was seven months pregnant the mole had become red, itchy and unpleasant looking so she went to the doctor again and was admitted to hospital the following day.

The prognosis was grave and Jennifer was warned she was unlikely to reach the age of 30. She was told that her skin cancer wasn’t hereditary, but she was advised not to have any more children and to protect herself in the sun.

Ongoing surgeries and treatment

After her initial surgery, she went for regular check-ups and every mole that might rub or that was in an awkward place was removed. She was in and out of hospital on a regular basis for years and had around 30 operations, including the removal of 10 melanomas, under both local and general anaesthetic.

Jennifer said: “I was on the operating table so many times I told the theatre staff they should charge me rent!”

At one point her condition deteriorated to such an extent that she was warned she wouldn’t make it to Christmas. After an operation to remove some glands, she came round from the anaesthetic to find a vicar standing over her saying prayers.

After Jennifer’s first marriage broke down, she married again in 1976 to Clive - a farmer in Morpeth.

Jennifer said: “He had no idea what he was doing when he took me on. He spent years going to and from hospital with me, sitting in hospital waiting areas and coffee shops and fetching and carrying for me.”

“I decided to take the risk of having more children as I have always been a very positive person and I didn’t think I was going to die. But I brought my sons up to be very independent in case anything happened to me.”

How Jennifer got involved in genetic testing

Jennifer, surrounded by her family.

In the mid-1990s, Jennifer became involved with the Human Genome Project, a ground-breaking international research programme aimed at deciphering the entire human genetic code. She and her family all contributed DNA samples to understand why some families developed multiple melanomas.

In 2012, consultant dermatologist Dr Neil Rajan invited her to become involved in further genetic research.

Dr Neil Rajan explains: “We need to thank Jennifer and members of her family as they’ve played an important part in our understanding of melanomas. They were among the first to donate DNA samples to some of the early research to understand why some families developed multiple melanomas. This was central to finding that alterations in the CDKN2A gene increased melanoma risk in some melanoma families.”

Jennifer’s eldest child was found to be carrying the same gene mutation. He has had melanomas removed but is now fit, healthy and cancer free.

Living life to the fullest

Jennifer has devoted her life to public service despite being told on numerous occasions that she only had three months to live. She was Mayoress of The Borough of Castle Morpeth from 1990-91, has served on the local Macmillan Cancer Support committee for 25 years, been a guest at two Buckingham Palace garden parties and even hosted Princess Margaret for a day during a visit to a local children’s home.

Jennifer is keen to encourage as many people as possible to become involved in genetic testing and research. The more people who are tested, she says, the more valuable knowledge is gained to enable researchers and doctors to build a fuller picture and make advances in treating melanoma and other types of skin cancer.

Jennifer said: “I appreciate the fact I am still alive and I have been allowed to grow old and be there for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I’m so thankful for every day of my life. I would not be here if it wasn’t for all the care I have had over the years. I am happy and well and it is all thanks to the NHS – all the doctors, surgeons and the people involved in genetic testing."

Jennifer celebrated her 78th birthday on July 7, 2022. She’s the mother of three sons and a daughter, stepmother to three daughters, a grandmother and step great grandmother.

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