Melissa Fitzgerald describes her medical history as ‘interesting’. As a working mum in her mid-30s, Melissa was diagnosed with cancer and participated in a clinical trial that she felt gave her some control over her life. Now, eight years later, Melissa is an advocate for greater access to clinical trials and the treatments that come out of them. Melissa is sharing her story ahead of Clinical Trials Day.


Melissa was a new mum when she saw her GP feeling extremely tired and short of breath. She underwent extensive testing that didn’t provide any real answers.

“We had investigated for what felt like everything, even parasites and coeliac disease. I was a new, breastfeeding mum so ‘life factors’ around that were considered, like tiredness and iron deficiency,” said Melissa.

Melissa’s condition deteriorated and she was eventually admitted to Greenslopes Private Hospital (GPH).

“Once in GPH, I took one of those capsule cameras and it got stuck part way. They said: ‘we think we know what the problem is; it’s stuck on a massive tumour in your bowel,’ which had also been preventing nutrients from getting into my body,” said Melissa.

After the tumour was surgically removed, Professor Victoria Atkinson met with Melissa to explain that the cancer was the result of a melanoma that Melissa had removed from her scalp five years prior but had moved to her bowel.

“When I had the mole cut out five years before, it was just the standard story: it looked a bit suspicious, I got it tested and they took a bit more skin. I was patched up and sent on my way. Then when the cancer in my bowel was diagnosed as metastasized melanoma and removed, I was told there weren’t any further treatments available except to just monitor me into the future,” said Melissa.

“Professor Atkinson told me about a unique clinical trial that she was running with Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation. I felt better knowing I could do something about it; be part of something preventative, rather than sit around hoping that this cancer doesn’t come back again. I knew nothing about clinical trials, but I thought, if there’s something I’m doing that makes me feel like I’m in control of this and I have a fighting chance, then I’m grabbing onto that.”


Dr Suzanne Elliott, Associate Director of Clinical Trials at Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation describes how melanoma can return and why clinical trials are important:

“Once the melanoma goes through the skin into the bloodstream, micro-deposits can hide away from the body’s own surveillance, or any types of treatment. So having it removed doesn’t mean that micro-deposits are not hiding somewhere waiting to come back.

There is a large group of people who will have recurring cancer within 5 years. So, it is a consideration for people to participate in these trials so we can assess if the trial treatment will prevent further growth or even test if it can fully eradicate the cancer. This is an alternative option, rather than just to wait, see and hope it doesn’t come back.”

Melissa participated in the blinded immunotherapy clinical trial with other patients who had similar experiences. A blinded trial is a study of a drug in which the recipient does not know if they are receiving the actual drug versus a placebo (inactive drug).

“It’s always nice to know that you’re not alone. I met people on similar journeys, and we would share our experiences and not feel weird about sitting in a chair with an IV in our arms,” said Melissa.

The trial involved attending the Cyril Gilbert Cancer Centre at GPH every couple of weeks for the treatment, and Melissa was able to continue being a mum and working in her job.

“I feel very fortunate that my tumour was discovered at that time and that Dr Atkinson – who is such an amazing specialist in the field of melanoma – offered me the opportunity to participate in this trial. It probably changed the course of my life for the better,” said Melissa.

“If I didn’t have the trial, I guess I’d always be thinking ‘what’s coming next’? But the trial has given me confidence, reassurance.”


Melissa joined a group of fellow clinical trial participants and researchers on a recent trip to Canberra to advocate for clinical trials to be more widely available across Australia.

“I feel like this treatment option should be available to everyone. I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was to be in the right place at the right time. But I am proud to have supported a push for others to have the same opportunity,” said Melissa.

Following the clinical trial that Melissa participated in, the immunotherapy treatment that was researched is now available Australia-wide through the PBS.

“It’s an amazing outcome; there is now a treatment option for people who are in the position I was in. It’s nice to know too that the option is there for me if the worst happens and my melanoma comes back,” said Melissa.

“But it’s also a great feeling that I was a part of achieving that.”

Sadly, not all clinical trials are as successful and not every participant responds well to the trial treatment like Melissa did. Our trials are coordinated in partnership with Greenslopes Private Hospital, Ramsay Pharmacy and the Cyril Gilbert Cancer Centre.


Our Clinical Trials Unit includes a team of specialist research nurses and scientists who provide our research partners with first-class conduct, management and coordination of multi-centre national and international clinical research trials. Patient-focussed care is at the heart of everything they do.

For more information on our currently recruiting studies scan the QR code below and search Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation.