In honor of skin cancer awareness month this May, we’re proud to share Kate’s story, one of strength and survival in the face of Melanoma. Today, Kate is a healthy mom of 5, and she uses her experience to spread awareness and encourage others to be proactive about their skin health.
Can you share your story with us?
My journey begins the week of my 26th birthday. Birthdays are such a happy, memorable time, aren’t they? At least that had always been true for myself, and this was one I would truly remember for the rest of my life. This birthday week would be the point of impact for my story, because it is indeed when the bomb was dropped that would change the rest of my life. Up to this point in my life I was free-spirited, outgoing and driven but after this, things would be different forever.
Let’s rewind to my teenage years and my early twenties. Back then I loved tanning and being tan. It didn’t matter if I was laying on the beach, in a tanning bed or in the standup machine, I just wanted my skin to have some color. I have milky white skin, which I undoubtedly inherited from my Irish father, and call it a blessing, call it a curse or maybe even one of those cases where you want something you don’t have, but all I longed for was that sun kissed skin tone. In order for myself to obtain this, I had to follow a process which consisted of getting a real good sunburn and letting it fade until I ended up with just the right color. The sad truth is, what I was actually doing was arming all of these little land mines, “moles,” under my skin, and it would just be a matter of time before they decided to detonate.
Let’s jump to me being 24 and at an annual physical, still 2 years before impact. Physicals were never an issue for me because I always knew I’d get a clean bill of health. Somehow however, this physical was a bit different. During this visit, while my physician was listening to my lungs from my back, his focus turned to a mole sitting just below where had placed his stethoscope. Now, he had mentioned before that it may not be a bad idea to see a dermatologist due to all my freckles and moles, precautionary of course, but today his tone was different. He became insistent that I have this mole checked out immediately. I explained that mole had been there forever and my pediatrician always kept an eye on it. He then explained regardless of the past, it was irregular in shape and quite dark and needed to be checked. So in the interest of maintaining my clean bill of health, I appeased him by assuring him I would make an appointment with someone in his group ASAP. The truth is, I did nothing of the sort.
So we’re at the week of my 26th birthday and it’s been two years since my last physical, so I may as well get one out of the way. I’m not even thinking about the fib I told my physician last time, that I would have that mole checked out, but he was thinking about it. He had not forgotten and was in shock to learn I had done nothing about this mole. The physical quickly turned to “cancel whatever you have going on for the rest of the day” and he would make sure I was seen by a dermatologist in his group today. In my head, I couldn’t understand why he was overreacting like this. I just didn’t see why the sense of urgency, but decided to just go along with it knowing it would be a minute to have this thing removed and I would be on my way, and indeed that was the case. About 48 hours later, when I was asked to return to the dermatologist’s office due to the biopsy results, the reality of the matter still hadn’t kicked in. I went to the appointment alone, figuring this would be a quick visit, and after showing up, “you have malignant Melanoma Kate,” “you’re going to have to meet with an Oncologist and have surgery as soon as possible.” I simply replied, “Why can’t you just laser it off?” which I was then greeted with the response “obviously, you do not understand the severity of this.” He was right, I did not. To say I was naïve when it came to skin cancer was an understatement. I always associated it with the elderly or someone that looked like Magda from the movie “There’s something about Mary.” Regardless, this was happening to me, and my entire birthday week turned into one big blur to me. The only way to describe it was like if I was a famous actor on the press tour from hell. I was being rushed off from one place to the next, answering the same questions and giving the same answers. I was poked, prodded and studied from every angle. Everything felt so invasive however the surgery and partial lymph node biopsy did prove to be a success. Of course this was at the cost of a whole lot of pain and a huge reminder on my lower back of what I went through. The remainder of that year proved to be one of the most challenging I would ever live.
Adjusting to this new lifestyle of being constantly biopsied and having surgeries, all I really wanted was my life to go back to the way it was before my diagnosis. Until now, the focus of my biopsies and surgeries were all on my back, so I began having the mentality that I would treat my body like a paper doll. Focus on the front and just ignore the back, ultimately pretending that nothing ever happened. Then I had to have surgery due to squamous cell carcinoma on my breast and stomach. I received many stitches during that surgery and when I could finally shower, I remember catching a glimpse of my front in the mirror and it hit me like a ton of bricks. That was the first time I had felt an emotion, anger, and I was overcome by it. My body was no longer the paper doll, instead I saw a body that was quite broken and I did not like it. I began punching things and yelling, yet surprisingly, not a tear would fall. And with that anger, my life just took a downward spiral. My boyfriend and I had ended our relationship, I decided to just up and quit my corporate job, and I could not concentrate or focus on anything. I was separating from the person I once was, and people were noticing. It was my Oncologist that finally requested I see a cancer therapist. His recommendation and a dash of my parents telling me that they hadn’t seen me smile in so long was just the right mixture for me to agree to see someone.
The first few times going to therapy I let the therapist do most of the talking because I still really had nothing to say. It wasn’t until our fourth session that she pulled out my chart and read the notes that my Oncologist had written about me. He described me as the following: “Kate has made a decision to avoid in engaging emotional connections. She runs from situations and I am concerned that as a survivor of trauma that she has developed into PTSD.” The therapist then pulled out a book and said that she was going to read me a poem. The poem was about a day at the beach with friends. One of the friends decides to swim out by themselves in the ocean. The undertow and waves prove to be too much for him or her. He or she can see their friends on land. There is no lifeguard on duty, so in order to be saved, they would have to ask for the help of their friends. The person tries to swim and fights to get closer to the shore but ends up letting the ocean take them instead of calling out for help. The therapist looked up at me and says to me, “that person in the ocean, that person drowning, is you. You would rather drown then be saved by asking for help.” She said to me that I am running away from something that will eventually catch up to me. Through everything I had been through, I finally cracked and broke down. The beauty of hitting bottom however, is you can only go up.
Today, I am happy and comfortable in my skin. My priorities in life have changed as well as what is really “beautiful.” I have grown in so many ways but my journey still continues. I will always have dermatology appointments and biopsies once in a while but I have accepted that. I have also made it a personal mission to raise awareness for Melanoma. Social media has proven to be a huge part of raising awareness and serves as a vehicle for victim and survivor personal stories. I commend these people because it takes a strong person to share something so raw and private and that was always something I had great difficulty with. As I conclude, I want to share two things that I have learned:
Everyone has scars, I just wear mine on the outside and AWARENESS IS BEAUTIFUL.
How has your journey changed you?
To begin with, my journey has had a positive change on the way I look at the everyday things most of us don’t stop to pay attention to. For instance, prior to my journey, I was very naïve in thinking I was unstoppable and couldn’t be affected by any kind of health issue. After going through melanoma, I have a heightened awareness around my health and paying attention to things my body is telling/showing me. It has also taught me to slow down and take the time to appreciate the things around me, instead of going 100 mph all the time. It also changed me or trained me, depending on how you view it, as a parent. If not for this journey, I would never be as proactive as I am in teaching my kids to take care of their skin. Because of this, more often than not they’re reminding me to put lotion on them, instead of me telling them they have to. For me that’s pretty magical in itself, being able to teach what I’ve learned.
What does skin positivity mean to you?
To me, skin positivity means embracing and feeling blessed with the skin you have. You only get one skin to live in, so take care of it, love it, rock what you have, and above all else, never stop encouraging others to do the same.
What are your go-to tips for taking care of your skin?
First and foremost, anytime I know I’m going to be outdoors, I make sure to apply a safe and clean sunscreen. If you’re wondering what sunscreens and moisturizers are safe and clean, the “Think Dirty” app will tell you which ones are safest. Another habit I started years ago is applying a daily moisturizer and lip conditioner that both have SPF in them. Lastly, I follow a strict bedtime skincare routine.
What does #AerieREAL mean to you?
To me, #AerieREAL means feeling confident in your own skin. It means not conforming to how someone thinks or says you should look and just being comfortable with how you look.
Need to refresh your sun protection routine? Check out Sun Bum, zinc-based mineral sunscreens that protect your skin from UVA/UVB rays. Try their SPF 50 lotion, SPF 30 spray and more products at Aerie.com to stay safe in the sunshine.