News & Press
Pediatric Melanoma Awareness Month: Nobody Is Invincible
For our Pediatric Melanoma Awareness campaign, we share melanoma thriver and advocate, Christine Sams’, guest blog post– who was diagnosed with melanoma after years of underage tanning bed use.
I was in middle school when I first used a tanning bed. I remember begging my mom to buy a tanning package at our local salon. Visiting the tanning bed after school was what all the “cool kids” seemed to be doing. Spring dances and summer vacations were coming up, and it felt like every girl that I knew wanted that “beach” glow. Suddenly, my beautiful skin wasn’t beautiful in my mind anymore.
There is a 75% increased risk of melanoma from just one indoor tanning session before the age of 35. Over the years, more and more information has been released about how much both artificial and natural UV rays effect our skin and health. Like most teenagers, I thought skin cancer wasn’t a big deal. I had been told that it was just something you could have cut out at the doctor. It certainly was not anything that was life threatening, or so I believed. Throughout my school years and into young adulthood, I continued my regular visits to our local tanning salons.
Fast forward to 2010, I sadly lost my mother to breast cancer at the age of 54. Losing her put a spark in me to want to be more proactive in my own healthcare. So, I put a stop to unhealthy habits; like using a tanning bed. I started eating healthier, getting mammograms earlier than most, and staying on top of all of my routine health checkups with my doctors, including the dermatologist.
My husband, Chad and I rescued our dog, Lexi, in early 2012. A couple of years later, it was Lexi that would alert me to a freckle on my lower left calf. It began as simple as a sniff on my leg as I walked by. This quickly turned into an everyday situation. The small sniffs from Lexi turned into deep inhaling and being constantly trailed by her around the house. I remember telling Chad that it was worrying me because I had read stories in the past about dogs who had the ability to sniff out cancer. I had seen the poster with pictures of skin cancer on the back of the door at the dermatologist though and my freckle looked nothing like that. It wasn’t dark or crusty looking. It wasn’t very big or oddly shaped. I was almost positive that it was nothing too concerning, but I would ask my dermatologist at my next skin exam which was coming up in a few weeks.
Initially, my dermatologist did not seem worried about the freckle given that he agreed that it didn’t seem to really follow the ABCDE (Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving) check for helping to identify skin cancers. However, what he was concerned about were two very dark moles on my back which seemed to have grown since my last exam. The moles were more than likely caused by the UV damage from my tanning bed days. It was then my dermatologist decided that he would perform three punch biopsies that day to check for possible cancer: the two on my back and the freckle on my leg. Hearing how concerned I was about Lexi and her interest in this freckle helped make his decision to go ahead and remove it. Twelve days later, on May 13, 2014, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 (Clark Level III) Malignant Melanoma. The culprit…the mysterious freckle on my leg.
Cancer, one of the scariest words ever. I had so many questions. My doctor explained to me that I would need WLE (Wide Local Excision) surgery to remove more tissue around where the cancer was found to make sure that it was completely gone. My next appointment was to a plastic surgeon in our neighboring state. It was discovered at this visit that I would also need a skin graft due to the cancer location being on the muscle of my calf. The skin for the graft would be harvested from my abdomen and would cover the excision area, which is a little larger than the size of a golf ball. I was also sent for bloodwork and X-rays of my lungs to make sure there wasn’t any signs that my cancer may have spread any deeper than my original diagnosis.
Surgery was scheduled for a few weeks later. I was very nervous in the days leading up to it, but thankfully, everything went well, and I was even able to return home that afternoon to begin my recovery. I would learn about a week later that all of my margins were clear, and I was oﬃcially cancer free. I was very blessed to not need any lymph nodes removed for further testing or require any additional treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. My visits to the dermatologist, however, would become more frequent after my initial recovery. I was required to have skin exams scheduled at least every three months for about the first two years after my cancer surgery. Now, I am required to go in for exams at least every six months. After my original diagnosis in 2014, I have had around 30 biopsies on questionable spots all over my body. I have been extremely lucky to have caught several of these spots that have turned out to be precancerous or found to have abnormal cells. Early detection and removal saved me.
Melanoma reoccurrence is something that I will have to look out for the rest of my life. After my cancer diagnosis, I realized there was a crucial need to better educate others on sun safety and to bring more awareness to the seriousness of skin cancer, especially to younger people. Since that time, I have been committed to sharing my experiences and knowledge of skin cancer prevention and the importance of early detection. Learning to protect your skin from harmful UV rays, staying out of tanning beds, and scheduling an annual skin exam with a dermatologist could very well save your life or the life of someone you love.
Advocating and sharing my Melanoma story with others has become an important part of my life. I have connected with so many amazing people who have shared similar experiences. I have also been involved with some wonderful fundraising organizations such as the Melanoma Research Foundation, Mitsy’s Wings and Relay for Life.
In 2017, I was honored to be crowned Mrs. All-Star United States and most recently Mrs. West Virginia International in 2021. I have spent both of my reigns sharing my story and speaking throughout the state and country about my platform, skin cancer and melanoma awareness. It has also been therapeutic in a sense to share this journey within the pageant community as well. For many members of the pageant and performance community, being “stage ready” was synonymous with having bronzed skin.
It is with advocacy and continuing education that will help prevent future generations from making the same mistakes that I did with tanning beds. Thanks to legislation passed in 2017, my state of West Virginia has completely banned the use of tanning bed facilities for anyone under the age of 18. I know it is a huge goal for so many of us advocates to see this law passed nationwide. Fifteen other states, as well as the District of Columbia, have also banned tanning bed use for minors under 18. Although there is still a lot of work to do, this is a great start in the right direction. Last year, I was inspired to write a proclamation that was sent to our state capital. Our Governor signed it and oﬃcially declared that May was National Skin Cancer and Melanoma Awareness month in the State of West Virginia. It was such a rewarding moment to be a small part of something meaningful for so many advocates, caregivers, survivors, and the ones who continue their fight.
This summer, I celebrated 8 years of becoming a Melanoma survivor. Here are just a few things that I have learned throughout my journey so far: 1. Listen to your body (and sometimes your dog) and if something doesn’t feel right, have it checked out. 2. No one is too young (or old) to learn about sunscreen and ways to protect your skin. 3. Skin cancer does not discriminate. It has an agenda and the ability to affect any of one of us, no matter your age, gender or ethnicity. And lastly, Never be ashamed of your scars. They are the beautiful reminders that prove you survived the very thing that tried to hurt you.