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A Mother’s Melanoma Wake-Up Call Comes from a Popular TV Series

For as long as I can remember, my mom has checked my skin for new or changed spots, even into adulthood she still will look at my arms or neck and check for changes. She found my very first ‘spot’ in a dressing room while I was trying on new school clothes for my 3rd grade year. It was a dark black mole on my shoulder that had suddenly popped up overnight it seemed. The doctor removed it months later. Thankfully, it was only an atypical mole with no sign of cancer.

In 2003, when my mother mentioned that she did not like a mole I had on my jaw/neck area, I brushed it off with, “it’s fine, mom. No, mom, it hasn’t changed”. At the time, I was a 31-year-old mother with an 18-month-old toddler and an elementary school-aged son. My husband was in the military and we had just moved to a new town, so I did not have time to go to the doctor and investigate a mole that was probably nothing.

Then, I found the photograph that changed everything. I was looking through a box of old photos and came across an image of me laughing with my head cocked back to the side. It wasn’t a great photo but for some reason it caught my attention. I looked at the side of my face and neck. There was no mole. I flipped the photo over and looked for the date. It taken was about 2 years prior. It seemed strange that the mole had grown so large in such a short amount of time. Perhaps my mom was right to be concerned.

I made an appointment with my doctor who sent me to a dermatologist to have it removed. I remember when he called to give me the results. I thought it was odd that he was calling me. No one ever called with results. Everything was always fine. He used the word melanoma and began talking about a referral to a MOHS office for another surgery. I recall telling my parents and my husband that it was no big deal. I had my second surgery and clean margins, then I’d have skin checks every 3 months for a year, followed by every 6 months for a year. I could do that. No big deal. It’s fine. Everything is fine.

I really believed that. I really thought it was all fine. And then—I saw the Grey’s Anatomy episode about Izzy being diagnosed with melanoma and a metastasis. Wait…this can kill me? An older woman at my church had a spot on her foot that wasn’t healing. She had surgery, it was melanoma that had metastasized and she died six months later. My dad was diagnosed with melanoma a year after me and had to have a lymph node removed. I was learning that everything was definitely NOT fine. This was and is a big deal.

This realization absolutely changed things for me. Like my mother, my drive to protect my children from skin cancer became much more important. We already knew that sunscreen was an important part of going outside, but now it was vital. I also started being aware of what time of day we should avoid being outside. We lived near the beach, so I became an early morning or evening beachgoer and always used an umbrella. When watching my kids play sports, I found shade or made my own. As my children grew, they knew that a sunburn was something they had to avoid. I expected them to take sun safety seriously. After all, their grandpa and their mom both had melanoma.

Most recently I’ve learned a lot more about sun-protective clothing through Polka Dot Mama and Coolibar. Anything I can add to my family’s routine to help keep them safe really helps me feel like they’re safe out in the sun.

What I want everyone else to learn from my story is to take it seriously! Never think that skin cancer is ‘no big deal’. Be diligent about your skin and listen to your friends, family, or even a stranger in the coffee line if they think something doesn’t look right. In my case my mother was always looking out for me and she hounded my dad about the mole on his arm which ended up being melanoma. Her skin checks likely saved our lives.

My other advice is to take care of yourself. I was a busy mom and I made the excuse that I didn’t have time to take care of myself. This is SO common in mothers. But please remember that you are always worth the care you give yourself—especially when it comes to your health. Early detection really can save your life when it comes to melanoma. Since my initial diagnosis, I have met so many other melanoma survivors. The one survivor that has inspired me the most is my friend, Tracy Callahan, of the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation. Her story is so different from mine, yet we have so much in common. She has taught me more about melanoma than anyone—how to live a full life with the diagnosis and how to make a difference in the world because of it. Education and information are key components to helping people recognize the need for sun safety and how to take care of their skin. Tracy does an amazing job both educating and providing free skin screenings. She is a living embodiment of taking a challenging personal journey and using it to positively impact the lives of others.

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Skin Diaries

The Warrior Behind Polka Dot Mama

At the age of 38, Tracy Callahan received a phone call that would change her life. It was her dermatologist calling with good news. She had melanoma, but they caught it early. Her obvious first question, ‘How is this good news?’.  As a nurse, and a mother of two young boys, Tracy’s life as she knew it had changed.

Over the next three years, Tracy would receive that same phone call another three times. It never got easier, but she eventually came to realize that ‘catching it early’ was indeed good news. When caught early, the survival rate for melanoma is 92%*. She is reminded daily that she continues to be one of the lucky ones.

After Tracy received her third diagnosis, she decided to do something. Inspired by the name ‘Polka Dot Mama’, given to her by her two boys after numerous wide excision surgeries and biopsies, Tracy started a blog and began to network with survivors and skin cancer organizations across the country.

“The more educated I became, the more I wanted to educate others. Unlike so many other cancers, scientists have actually figured out the secret to avoiding most types of melanomas—protect yourself from the sun and avoid tanning beds. But as simple as it sounds, I discovered that people have so many misconceptions about melanoma.”

A few months later, Tracy’s simple blog quickly morphed into an idea for a non-profit organization that could fund research, raise awareness and promote the early detection of melanoma. In September of 2015, she officially founded the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation, a federally granted 501(C)(3) non-profit, and appointed a board of directors.

In its inaugural year, with the help of many incredible supporters and volunteers, the organization was able to fund-raise over $70,000. More than half of that money was donated specifically towards melanoma research. In 2018, the foundation increased that amount and raised over $500,000. It began focusing on education and awareness efforts with projects like the Shade Shuttle and free skin cancer screenings.

In 2019, Polka Dot Mama set a new Guinness Book of World Record for the most skin cancer screenings—32 dermatologists and over 150 volunteers worked together to screen 963 patients over the course of 7 hours! The team of volunteers reached people of all ages, races and socioeconomic status. They even had a dedicated team for Spanish speaking patients. In the last two years, Polka Dot Mama has helped screen over 1,500 patients and identified some form of skin cancer in about 15-20% of those patients. Although this statistic is scary, it has reinforced the need to keep providing as many free skin screenings as possible.

“You never want to identify melanoma in the patients you see; but knowing that our efforts are saving lives is what keeps me motivated”.

For those who have connected with the amazing team at the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation, they know that their community is at the heart of what they do. They take pride in being a grassroots organization with a national reach—including an appearance on the Today Show with Al Roker! The organization is passionate about coming together for one common goal—the prevention and detection of melanoma. And Tracy and her story are at the center of this. Everything Tracy has experienced helps her live each day with a grateful heart. She often says, “If I can make a difference in someone’s life by sharing my journey, then these scars will be given purpose”.  

To learn more about Tracy Callahan and Polka Dot Mama, please visit www.polkadotmama.org. You can also register for the 6th annual Taste For a Cure Gala at www.tasteforacuregala.com. Coolibar will be there!

Source: *American Cancer Society

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