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Julie Smith: “I may have Stage IV Melanoma, but it doesn’t have me.”

I was first diagnosed with melanoma on April 11th, 2013. I had a mole on my right shoulder blade that itched and would bleed. My family physician removed the mole, then called to let me know it was melanoma. A surgeon removed the rest of it and I was labeled “cancer-free”. At the time, I was grateful that I didn’t need to remove any lymph nodes or get a CT scan, I simply needed to visit my dermatologist every six months. I felt relief and followed the doctor’s recommendation.  

Then, in December 2017, I was experiencing pain around my stomach and had a hard time breathing. I thought I had pulled a muscle in my back. I visited a chiropractor, but I was still in pain. In March 2018, I contacted my family physician who checked me out and requested a CT Scan. He was initially checking to see if I had a blood clot in my lung, but instead, the results showed a 15cm mass on my right adrenal gland. It was pushing up against my lungs and making it hard for me to breathe.

At this point, my husband and I paused, looked back to my experience in 2013 and completely reconsidered my cancer-free diagnosis. Five years later, after meeting additional oncologists and medical professionals, we knew more and questioned everything that had happened in 2013. Had we been given the opportunity to go back to 2013, we would have taken every additional precautionary test or scan to make sure that the cancer-free diagnosis was accurate. While we had enjoyed five years with a false sense of safety, my cancer had metastasized.

That April, an oncologist biopsied the growth to see what it was and what we’d need to do next. Before the biopsy even happened, I knew I had cancer.  My faith in God has always been very important to me and I’d had a vision where God told me what my diagnosis would be and that I was going to share my story. I could see myself sitting in a room getting chemotherapy while sharing stories with other patients. God was preparing me for my upcoming journey.

I visited my neighbor down the street who was a pastor and asked him to pray with me. He asked me, “If this is cancer, what is your prayer?” I told him that I wanted to pray for the strength and the ability to help others with my story, and vice versa. I wanted to be able to make sure all of us are never alone while we go through this.

On April 9th, my husband and I saw my Oncologist and he gave us the news. He told us that I had Stage IV Melanoma that had metastasized and landed on my right adrenal gland, but it was curable and treatable. Just over a week later, I had surgery to remove the mass. I was cut from the bottom of my sternum to just past my belly button. They didn’t get all the cancer out, so I started immunotherapy and Opdivo and Yervoy at the beginning of May. I ended up in the hospital from mid-July to the beginning of August because the side effects made me severely sick. But, a PET Scan on August 6th showed that the mass that started at 15cm had been reduced by almost 6cm! We were making progress. The side effects continued to the point where I ended up having a hysterectomy in September.

A PET Scan in November showed that the mass, which had reached 6.2cm had stopped shrinking. They put me on oral target medicines called Mekinist and Tafinlar that I take daily. I’m truly blessed to be able to take this as it only works on someone with the BRAF gene. If I didn’t have that gene, I would not be sharing my story right now. By February 2019 the mass had shrunk to 4.5cm and I was officially in “partial remission”. My scan in May 2019 showed a reduction to 2.2 cm. By August of this same year, I received news that it had reduced another 24%! 

Already this year, I have been stronger and doing a lot more. I had previously lost my job because of the cancer, but I’m happy to report that I was able to go back to work in July 2019. I am working part-time and getting stronger day by day.

I have been asked numerous times what keeps me going and how I keep a smile on my face. The answer to that question is this…

Faith. Family. Friends.

We are all put on this earth for a purpose. My story helped me do something dear to my heart… glorify God by helping others along their journey. Without the support of my family and friends and knowing that God is with me always, I don’t know where I would be right now. There have been times when I’ve been so depressed that I’ve told God he could take me anytime. I didn’t want to go through anymore. But He has bigger and brighter plans for me. He’s not done with me and I’m not done fighting.

Every day, I’m amazed at how far I have come. Today, I am working, able to get outside and enjoy some of the many wonderful things God has created and enjoying time with family and friends, which absolutely means the most to me.

I may have stage IV melanoma, but it doesn’t have me.

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Skin Diaries

A Mission That Goes Beyond a Career

“Dry skin, maybe psoriasis, it’s nothing”, that’s what 3 different dermatologists told me when I asked about a small patch of skin behind my left ear. It came and went over at least 10 years and sometimes itched and felt dry. Sometimes I could barely feel it. I obviously couldn’t see it and they were the experts, so I assumed it was just my sensitive skin acting up. Maybe I didn’t wash behind my ears enough?

The itchy, dry patch behind my ear was basal cell cancer. Ironically, I was diagnosed 2 weeks after I started working at Coolibar. As VP of Brand Marketing and Creative Services at the time, I was immersing myself in the mission, sun-facts, warrior stories and education about prevention and our unique sun-protective clothing and accessories. It was kind of like Googling “skin cancer” except the knowledge I had gained in my first few weeks at Coolibar was completely factual. I had a heightened awareness of the potential consequences of my diagnosis. Although basal cell cancer is slow growing, I’d had it for over a decade. The voice inside my head immediately began cussing every derm who has ever looked at it and not taken the step to biopsy, even when I was advocating for myself. I was really angry! But that quickly turned into thankfulness for my primary care doctor who had referred me to Dr. Mary Meighan, who listened carefully, asked thoughtful questions and took her time during my annual skin check. I wasn’t even going to say anything about that itchy patch, but I did. Thank goodness.

I have practiced sun-safety for the majority of my life. During my teen years, I realized that even if I was tan, no one noticed because my skin is naturally very pale. So, while everyone else was tanning, I decided to be a rebel and achieve the palest skin possible. That said, I remember getting burned. In fact, there is a family story about me falling asleep curled up in a fishing boat and getting sunburned across the exposed strip of skin between my top and pants around age 3. I personally remember getting a brutal burn on my back as a teen, after spending the day at a surfing lesson with only SPF 30 lotion to protect me. My father got diagnosed with melanoma in his late 70’s. I knew it was in my cards. But, as they say, nothing prepares you for that diagnosis.

The suspense was killing me. How bad was it? I felt humbled by my vanity. I didn’t want a big scar. But the bigger fear was that I didn’t want cancer or any limitation from being a mother to my 10-year old daughter. Dr. Meighan referred me to her colleague at Zell Clinic, Dr. Karl Vance for Mohs surgery. I arrived for surgery and told him that I worked at Coolibar and that I was going to write a blog about my experience to help educate and support others. He was immediately all in and couldn’t have been more accommodating, narrating his every move. He even let me go behind the scenes where he was literally looking thru a microscope at the skin graft he’d just taken from behind my ear. He was making sure he got all the cancer in his first cut and wanted to see a minimum 2mm edge of clean cells all the way around the cut and he said, with some well-earned pride, that it was important for him to retain his stellar record. 99% of his Mohs surgeries got the cancer with the first cut. His record remained intact and so did my ear.

The cancer hadn’t gone very deep and only a little over an inch around. It was tiny compared to the skin cancer warrior’s I’d met on the Coolibar blog. I didn’t need to experience skin cancer to want to work at a mission-driven company like Coolibar. I already knew that tan skin is damaged skin and sun protection promotes anti-aging. My friends who worshipped the sun in their younger years now look their age and I, the eccentric pale girl, often pass for younger. But here I am, a cautionary tale, waiting for the next diagnosis. Hoping it’s not the big M. Take care of your skin! Get skin checks by a qualified dermatologist. Check your loved ones. Self-advocate with your doctors. Spread the word. That’s what I’m doing at Coolibar.

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This is Brave

This is Brave: The Inspiration Behind the Campaign

In 2018, we were introduced to a young girl who inspired our entire organization to “Be Brave”. When her brother Graham was ready to give up after five years of treatments and surgeries for his pediatric melanoma, Quinn reminded him to be brave. He could do it!

Quinn and Graham’s entire family continues to show us, and everyone in the greater melanoma and skin cancer community, what it means to “Be Brave”. Since Graham was first diagnosed, they continue to advocate for education, prevention and research. In fact, they got their start by raising more than $34,000 for cancer research by selling bracelets, which got the attention of President Barak Obama. To learn more about their work visit: www.facebook.com/Grahams-Gift.

This April, Quinn, her mother Cheryl, stepfather Bob, and brothers Graham and Charlie, stopped by the Coolibar offices to talk about the past year and what it has meant to them to “Be Brave”.

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Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Eric Martin

It all started in 2011 with a stubborn scab-like spot on my back. I ignored it thinking it would go away on its own, but after it started to change colors and even bleed I decided to see a dermatologist. While in the waiting room, I was surrounded by posters of melanoma. It looked just like the mark on my back. Before the doctor had even said a word, I knew I had it.

“Am I going to die? What’s going to happen? What’s next?”

Up to this point in my life, I had never really been to a doctor before. I’d never even broken a bone! I was confused and scared. Even more so when my oncologist told me I had a 50/50 shot. Thankfully, my response was to have faith and put my game face on. I found a doctor who specialized in melanoma, Dr. Gregory Daniels at the University of California San Diego Moores Cancer Center.

Treatment started with surgery and adjuvant interferon, but it was soon discontinued when another lump was found with more melanoma. The cycle of surgery and interferon was repeated – but the reprieve was short lived. In August 2012, follow-up scans revealed 20 ‘relatively small’ tumors all over my liver. This time, surgery and interferon weren’t going to be enough. My doctor and I decided that the best bet was enrolling in a promising trial investigating tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte – or TIL therapy – at the National Institutes of Health with Dr. Steven Rosenberg. Some patients were seeing incredible results, which of course were not guaranteed.

At this point in my life – late 2011 – the stakes seemed higher than ever. My wife just found out she was pregnant with our first child which would be my second. Luckily, the TIL therapy worked. In fact, it was considered a “complete response,” meaning that I wasn’t necessarily cured, but signs of cancer had disappeared. It was a great year for me. My beautiful son was born, I was cancer-free, and things started to look up. Then, three green dots appeared on my right pectoral.

Immediately, I started a second clinical trial examining the experimental combination of nivolumab + ipilimumab. After my first infusion of ipilimumab, I landed in the hospital. The side effects of the immunotherapy were so extreme that I had to drop the ipilimumab altogether. Nivolumab and surgery kept the tumors at bay, but eventually, the spots came back. Tumors were now visible under my skin, and biopsies confirmed, every single one was melanoma.

I started interleukin-2 (IL-2) and over two sessions had 50-60 doses of the medication infused into my bloodstream. Once again, the side effects brought on by activating the immune system reared their ugly head. In all honesty, I wanted to die. It was horrible – easily the worst treatment I’ve ever gone through. I had every side effect that they warn you about. What’s worse, it was all for nothing. The IL-2 didn’t work.

The next two clinical trials I enrolled in were based on vaccines that were injected into my tumors. We saw some results, but the tumors continued to grow. We then tried Keytruda by itself, but after six doses the tumors still continued to grow. At this point, Dr. Daniels had run out of trials to enroll me in, but I was determined not to give up or lose hope.

In late 2017, I tried a new approach and a new clinic three hours north of San Diego, Dr. Omid Hamid at The Angeles Clinic. I’ve been through two clinical trials with Dr. Hamid now and our battle to keep my tumors at bay seems never-ending. But there is a silver lining. My experience motivated me to start my own prevention-focused non-profit organization called Stage FREE Melanoma. I don’t want people to have a story like mine. I want to make a difference. Stage 1 stories are so much easier. If we make early detection easy, fewer people will reach an advanced stage of cancer.

In 2019, we’re launching our mobile dermatology bus to offer free skin screenings and education on melanoma prevention at local parks and beaches in Southern California. We had an amazing “Build the Bus 5K” to raise funds to outfit the bus and get started. It’s going to be a great year for early detection and prevention!

People ask me how I stay positive after nearly a decade of trials and surgeries. I have faith. I know that researchers across the globe are working every day to crack the code and find a treatment that will work. Even if they haven’t beaten my cancer, clinical trials have kept me alive. After nine clinical trials, ten surgeries and more infusions than I can count—I’m still here, eight years after being diagnosed with melanoma. I’ve had ups and downs and have tried practically every FDA-approved therapy for melanoma – but the crux of my story, which all readers need to understand, is that my fight isn’t yet finished. I’m still searching for my silver bullet and the elusive letters N.E.D. (no evidence of disease). In the meantime, I have no intention of letting melanoma get in the way of life. I have faith and I’m going to put it to good use.

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Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Bradly Tomberlin

I was the third person in my family to get melanoma. Not because my family had a genetic form of it…I was simply the third.

My dad Paul had a spot removed from his hand in his 30’s (the 1980’s) and on his scalp and face after he had a heart transplant in 2008. The anti-rejection drugs he had to take effected his immune system and put him more at risk. My sister Natalie also had a melanoma removed but was lucky to catch it early. So, we all knew about melanoma, but generally never thought too much about it.

Throughout my adulthood, I’ve been a male model. Which, for the sake of this story, means that I have had regular visits with a dermatologist – who did, in fact, remove a few moles and things to stay “on the safe side”. Although I was keeping up with my regular appointments, I still was outdoors a lot trying to get a tan and keep what I thought was a good color for modeling. In my younger days when I did more fitness jobs, I was always tan and laying out and even went to tanning beds. It was what you did to get and keep jobs. Just part of the career.

When I lost my mother Sandra to pancreatic cancer in 2016, I was checked to make sure I didn’t have the gene that linked pancreatic cancer and melanoma. Luckily, I didn’t have it.

Then, in January 2017, when I was 42, I had a weird bump on my head that almost felt like a pimple. I kept scratching at it for months thinking it would eventually go away. I finally showed it to my wife Julie, who is a pediatrician and she had me get it checked.

My dermatologist saw it and seemed to know pretty quickly; it was melanoma. She biopsied it right away and rushed the results. Yup. Melanoma. At this point, I was pretty shocked. Finding out you have melanoma is a pretty big bummer. When they said they’d have to cut in wider and deeper around the mole to makes sure they got all the cancer, I got pretty scared and anxious.

They ended up taking a pretty deep-sized cut from my head and creating more scars when they removed the closest lymph nodes in my neck to make sure it hadn’t spread. Thankfully, this is where the fear over my mortality and not knowing how sick I was started to pass. I had a great plastic surgeon help put my scalp back together and my fears moved to my career.

At this point, I was 42 and had been a model for 25 years, but I’d never considered ending my career yet. When it came time to face surgery and plan for the aftermath, I had enough sense to try to salvage my career. My plastic surgeon repaired my scalp in an ‘S’ shape to reduce the visible damage. He did a great job! You can still see the scars if I cut my hair too short, but thankfully my hair covers most of them.

Since the procedures, when I’m not working, I still enjoy being outside. I play golf with my Dad – I’m terrible but it’s a great time together – and I often hike with my wife or go mountain biking. We live in Texas and Utah throughout the year and I always try to wear long-sleeve shirts, sunscreen and hats now. I also see an oncologist every six months and dermatologist every three months. Both my wife and I have increased our awareness of the risks.

Reflecting on all of this, I remember when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and doctors said there was really nothing they could do. They gave us a set period of time that we might have left with her, and that was that. I remember telling her, “You know, none of us are guaranteed a tomorrow.” I’m grateful I’m still here. Grateful that I DID get regular skin checks and found my melanoma in time.

Ultimately, you never know when it’s over. It’s an idea that crosses my mind a bit. For this reason, I’m all the more grateful that I still have more time.

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Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Laurie Rivard

It all started with a patch of flaky, dry skin on my face that would come and go. A friend suggested I have it checked, that’s when my cancer journey began…

I quickly became familiar with the term “punch biopsy”. It’s when your doctor takes a tool that punches out a piece of skin for testing. As you can imagine, it hurts! On my very first visit, they found melanoma on my nose and cheek.

I was shocked that this was happening to me. I shouldn’t have been surprised as my face is always exposed to the sun. In an effort to preserve my appearance, I found the best plastic surgeon around. He was as conservative as he could be but left me with a nose full of stitches. It was extremely humbling to have to wear a huge bandage on my face, but I carried on and healed with little scaring. I was so thankful that my friend was concerned enough to get me to a doctor.

Three months later, I returned for my quarterly appointment and had more spots “punched” out of my face and leg, followed by another cancer diagnosis.

At this point, I remember being mad at my mother for not protecting me from the sun. Truth is, there was so much we didn’t know back then, and still don’t know now! As my children got older, we had many arguments about sunscreen and tanning booths. Along with my friends, they saw what I was going through but assumed they weren’t at risk. I had cancer because I was blonde and fair skinned. Not true.

I was learning how lonely skin cancer can be. I was ashamed that I had opened the door for skin cancer every time I tanned without protection. Every three months, they cut out a little more of me and left me with more and more scars. I felt emotionally and physically disfigured and couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I also had to watch my friends and family keep making mistakes I’d made in the past.

I quietly started to change my way of life because I was afraid of the sun. The Caribbean vacations I used to love were no longer an option. When we’d go on biking trips, I was never comfortable unless we knew it would be very cloudy or shady. When we golfed, I insisted on a golf cart. We started to fall off our friend’s list because I was too high maintenance. I was scared!

While I was rearranging my personal life to fit the sun’s schedule, I continued my quarterly visits to the doctor and found more cancer. This time we used a chemo cream that ate away all the skin on my face and chest. I looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie. I joke about it, but inside I wasn’t laughing. I still had to work, which was the extent of me leaving the house. It’s a very lonely disease. How do you talk to friends about this when you’re hiding inside and they’re out enjoying the sun worry-free?

On my next visit, they removed a piece of my chest about three-inches long and one-inch wide and prescribed more chemo cream. It was extremely painful—a truly bloody mess. I’d sleep on my side and the ooze would dry, then crack when I moved. It was very painful and ugly, but I had to do it. I wore a lot of shawls to cover my chest.

While I was recovering from that, I had two more punch biopsy’s and we found melanoma on my back that left a horrible scar. Luckily, that was the last melanoma I had removed. Over the next few years, I was diagnosed with squamous cell, which thankfully could be taken care of with nitrogen.

In January 2018, I celebrated five years without cancer! I left my appointment wondering who I would celebrate with. People don’t think of skin cancer like they do lung or breast cancer, but people still die from it every day. I celebrated quietly with my husband as I scheduled an annual (not quarterly) check-up. SUCH a wonderful feeling.

These days, I have very few moments of shame or loneliness. I know how to protect and care for myself and can make sure others do too. Sun protective clothing has been a God-send. I can get out and golf, ride bikes and enjoy the pool with my grandchildren without as much fear. I’m finally learning to get back in the sun.

I’m also not alone anymore. I am so thankful for the doctors and dermatologists that help diagnose and treat skin damage before it becomes melanoma. Because of them, everyone is more aware of the risks. Because of my experience, I have the power to make sure others know what they’re up against when they go outside. Everyone has to make their own choices, but I have the knowledge to help keep them safe. For that I’m grateful.

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Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Susanne Milne

In May 2009, I noticed a mole on my thigh had changed. The surface had become rougher, so I made an appointment with my dermatologist as quickly as possible. They removed and biopsied the mole and sent me away with a weekend of worry about my diagnosis. On June 3rd, I received the news that the mole was in fact melanoma.

I immediately connected with a team of doctors at NYU Langone Health. They identified it as Stage III Melanoma and scheduled an operation to remove it. I powered through that operation, and a following one to remove lymph nodes adjacent to the mole. By August 18th, I was given the all-clear as all my scans showed No Evidence of Disease (NED), and I continued my life at full force.

The changes to my life were small following this intense two-month period of surgeries. Mainly, it consisted of diligently applying sunscreen and quarterly mole checks. With a Stage III diagnosis, there was a 50/50 chance the cancer could come back. After two years, if all went well, I’d be able to go every six months. Aside from sun protection and appointments, I continued to work hard as an architect while enjoying all New York City can offer with the support from my family, extra-mums and great friends.

By Fall 2013, I had been cancer-free for four years and my fear of it returning had diminished greatly. When it came time for my second scan of the year, I was less nervous than I had ever been. However, the scan showed something in my lung. A specialist reviewed it and recommended a biopsy. I spent New Year’s Eve 2013 having a biopsy of my lung. I started 2014 with the anticipation of possible bad news.

The news came January 3rd, 2014; I had a tumor in my lung and was now a Stage IV Melanoma patient. This was the start of five-year pinball game of tumors in my liver, brain, liver again, brain again and again, stomach, breast, lung again and adrenal gland. The only way through this was surgeries, different medications and immunotherapies—all with their own set of side effects. I was able to reduce my cancer, and the few tumors I still have are stable and no new tumors have come up since September 2018. However, I’m still waiting to hear the magic words “No Evidence of Disease”.

Generally, I don’t speak a lot about my disease and have kept my journey private; but meeting other patients and caregivers has allowed me to look at my situation differently. I have been lucky in the sense that I have always received excellent care, all my surgeries have gone extremely well (even the scary brain surgeries), and I have been able to work full-time throughout my cancer journey. This is proof of my own tenacity, courage and optimism, but more importantly the support of my medical team, workplace, amazing family, extra-mums and friends. Knowing that I have been so lucky has helped me expand my focus beyond my own story to a bigger cause.

In January 2015, I joined the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) to connect with other melanoma patients and be an advocate for melanoma research and education. Being part of the MRF has been rewarding on many levels. I have made new friends who are melanoma warriors and have become an advocate for education, awareness and prevention. Each year, I travel to D.C. for the MRF’s Hill Day where we approach Senators and Representatives to speak about melanoma as an advocate for sun protection use, tanning bed legislation, among other things. Being a part of the MRF in this way has taught me to value my voice and my story as a tool that can help save lives.

I often get asked how I’ve done it all since my first diagnosis. Early on in my Stage IV journey, my oncologist, Anna Pavlick, sat me down after a rough run with my medications which I had—per usual—tried to power through. We had a conversation about the need to check in and let my doctors know about my conditions and side effects rather than just take my medications, regardless of how bad I felt.

Dr. Pavlicks message to me was this:

“It is my job to take care of and manage your cancer; your job is to live your life to the fullest.”

This changed my attitude about how to cope and live with an aggressive cancer. It has allowed me to trust in my medical team, to not worry all the time about my treatments, and to continue living my life according to my own rules and abilities. I may have cancer for the rest of my life. I can’t ignore the impact it will have on me and my body, but I can learn how to manage it and maintain life. Accept that I am not running a sprint but a marathon. I have learned to take care of myself. To eat well, do yoga, stay in bed all day Sundays if I need it, travel, read a book and spend time with the people I love. Always choose to stay positive, always live in the moment, be brave and be here.

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Skin Diaries This is Brave

This is Brave: Cassie Beisel

For me, change happened on January 24th, 2011. I will never forget those words, “You have cancer.” “How is this even possible?” I thought to myself.  As an avid outdoor enthusiast and rock climber, I was in the best shape of my life. How could I have cancer? As I would come to find out, the answer to that question was easy. As an outdoor enthusiast and someone with misinformation about base tans, I often spent many spring seasons prepping my skin in a tanning bed as a preventative measure to burning.

With the presentation of a swollen lymph node in my right arm and no primary mole, it took my doctors a month to realize that this was stage 3B melanoma and not breast cancer. I was 32 and had no clue what melanoma was but based on the doctor’s reactions, I knew that treating this was something of urgency.

Not knowing what to ask my doctors and perhaps feeling a bit naive for not know what melanoma was, I immediately took to the web, where I came across the Melanoma Research Foundation’s (MRF) website. It was here where I found an abundance of educational resources about melanoma helping me to better understand my diagnosis and treatment options. I underwent a full lymph node dissection, finding melanoma in three out of 36 lymph nodes and completed a year of interferon.

The MRF played such an important role in my journey from diagnosis to recovery. Six months after my treatment ended, I dedicated my time to fundraising for them as a volunteer. I would ride 100 miles to raise funds to help other young adults like me; hoping to make their journey a little easier through funding life-saving research.

It was three days after my ride that I would land in the hospital with acute leukemia. After a bone marrow transplant and two years of recovery, it was time for me to return to the workforce. As a young adult with two cancers and four year’s out of the workforce, I knew that returning to my everyday life in the hospitality business would be challenging for me. I just couldn’t go back to where I’d come from. My melanoma diagnosis had changed everything for me.

In 2014, I joined the Melanoma Research Foundation. Currently, I lead the organization’s advocacy efforts to mobilize advances in policy and federal funding. I also represent and engage the interest of the melanoma community and focus on partnering with industries seeking to amplify our voice.

My journey with skin cancer hasn’t ended, recently I had my Moh’s surgery to remove my third squamous cell carcinoma (the second most common form of skin cancer). I still live with the fear of a melanoma recurrence daily.

Melanoma is not “just skin cancer,” no skin cancer is “just skin cancer.” It is a big deal and it impacts the lives of millions across the globe and contributes to over tens of thousands of deaths each year. I am honored to have survived and been able to devote my career to helping those who have been impacted by this disease.

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This is Brave

This is Brave: Instead of Silence, Norah Chose to Be Vulnerable

We’ve all got the t-shirts that say “Be Brave”, right? Well, I’ve been listening a lot lately to Brene Brown, who says in order to be brave, we must be vulnerable.

“There is no courage without being all in. If you can do something and not feel vulnerable, it’s probably not that brave.”

Brene Brown nails it! One of the most vulnerable things we can do is talk about an illness and our health. So here I go:

In late 2016, my dermatologist informed me I had been diagnosed with a very early stage of melanoma. Early detection and surgery saved my life. At first, I thought I would keep my diagnosis silent. Why did I need to share something that made me feel and appear vulnerable?

With the help of friends, I decided to go public with my diagnosis. And what came next shocked me. There was not only an outpouring of support, but also many people thanked me. “I have not gotten a skin check in years, but after I read your story, I scheduled an appointment,” said one male executive at CBS. Another middle-aged gentleman who works at CBS showed up in our CBS This Morning studio with a big bandage on his forward and said, “Hey, Norah. Because of you, I got checked and they removed a skin cancer.”

And for my part, since my diagnosis and surgery, I’ve continued to see my dermatologist every 4-5 months for a check-up and have been much more mindful about my exposure to the sun.

By sharing our experiences, we are helping to inform one another and protect one another. This is part of our common humanity. So thank you for helping me learn that my vulnerability makes me brave, and let’s pray, will help save lives.

Want to read more? Catch up on Norah’s battle and story she shared with us from last year

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This is Brave

This is Brave: Life Post-Viral Video with Janet KJ103

Let me catch you up on my story! One day I woke up with what I thought was a whitehead pimple on the side of my nose. My only thought was that it was going to be painful when I popped it because of its location. The worst spot ever to get a pimple! I thought I got lucky when it popped all by itself; then I realized something was different. This pimple bled a lot. Three weeks later, there was still a scab, so my husband encouraged me to visit the doctor. I was pretty sure the doctor was going to laugh at me for making an appointment for a pimple. I was wrong, he took one look at it and said he was pretty sure I had skin cancer. Two months later they removed the skin cancer which turned out to be a mixture of basal and squamous cell carcinoma; the removal left a dime size hole in the side of my nose.

Now, the reconstruction begins. The hole was too big to cover with a skin graph, so I would get the dreaded forehead flap instead! The forehead flap consists of using skin from your forehead to cover the spot on your nose. Doesn’t sound that bad at first until you find out that the flap of skin then has to be fed by a vein, that hangs across your face, for three long weeks. It’s totally a sci-fi process. I’m not sure who thought this procedure up, but something tells me people weren’t jumping at the chance to be the first one to have it done.

After the three week process, they remove the vein, re-stitch your forehead and send you on your way.

The hardest part of this process is not the vein on your face. The hardest part of this process is not knowing where the next spot will be.  That’s what no one tells you about having skin cancer.  I was told that my spot was something I’ve had since I was a child.  A majority of my sun exposure came as a teen and young adult.  Every new freckle you see, you think its skin cancer.  Every time you get a pimple, you think its skin cancer. There is a part of you that lives in fear.

When you face challenges in life, the best thing you can do is share your story. Someone somewhere needs to hear that they are not alone in their fight.  My year was full of people reaching out to me who were about to have the same procedure. I loved seeing their before, during, and after photos. I love that I was able to be a light to them in their darkness because I know they will eventually be a light in someone else’s darkness.

This past year, I had the honor of working with the Stephenson Cancer Center and Miles Against Melanoma to bring free-to-the-public sunscreen dispensers to the OKC Zoo. Protecting yourself against skin cancer by using sunscreen is easy.  Sometimes we just need a simple reminder. Next time you’re out in the sun, break out some sunscreen and watch how quickly other people catch on. Sunscreen use is contagious! The only problem is… sunscreen doesn’t work if you don’t use it!

Read on to hear her STORY from last year and learn why instead of fear, Janet chose love in her journey.

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