Fargo woman describes life-changing experience with melanomaJaney Helland remembers the summer day in 2010 when her dermatologist told her she had melanoma, a very serious type of skin cancer.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Janey Helland remembers the summer day in 2010 when her dermatologist told her she had melanoma, a very serious type of skin cancer.
The 21-year-old college student had just started an internship in Alabama when she received the call from her dermatologist in Mankato, Minn.
“He said, ‘We got your biopsy results back. I’m sorry, it’s cancer.’”
After that, she didn’t really hear anything else.
“Your mind instantly goes all over the place. You’re in denial.”
A couple of months before, Helland had noticed a small pink bump on the back of her right thigh.
“It looked like a zit,” she said. “My roommate thought so, too.”
Helland, a member of her college track team, didn’t like that the bump was visible when she wore her uniform.
“It was gross. It never went away.”
After it was removed, her doctor told her he’d send it in for analysis, but gave no reason to worry. The bump didn’t match the examples of skin cancer that are commonly publicized, she said. “You’re told to look for blue or black, nasty-looking (moles),” said Helland, who now works as a nurse assistant at Sanford Health in Fargo.
“That was what was so weird about it. It was not what you typically are hearing about.”
Initially, she didn’t think it actually was a mole because of its light color. Her doctor later explained that moles appear as different types, “like chocolate or vanilla ice cream,” she said. “Mine was like vanilla.”
She had had moles removed before without any unusual results, but this time, it took three weeks, longer than expected to get results back.
When she did receive word, she quickly returned from Alabama to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for surgery.
“I lucked out, I had no chemo or radiation,” she said. “They took three lymph nodes from my groin area” where, doctors said, the cancer would appear, if it returned, and “they came back clear.”
She remembers that as “a very hard time,” she said, especially dealing with uncertainty.
“Who knows? (Cancer) could be floating around in my body. You’re hugely more aware of it.”
After surgery and recovery, she completed her internship in Alabama and earned a bachelor’s degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
No family history
Her father had been treated for basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, less serious forms of skin cancer, but there was no history of melanoma in her family.
Even so, Helland did have several risk factors, she said, including an active outdoor lifestyle that regularly exposed her skin to the sun.
“I have light skin, hair and eyes, and I used tanning beds quite a lot in high school.”
She would visit tanning salons before homecoming festivities and in preparation for prom all four years of high school in Mapleton, Minn.
“Looking back, what was the point? It’s not at all worth it …. Kids would say it’s no big deal, but it is a big deal.”
Even a single tanning session significantly increases one’s chances of getting melanoma, she said. “That’s scary.”
Because of her experience, she has become an advocate for awareness and prevention of skin cancer, speaking to high school and college students about the disease and the dangers of tanning booths and sun exposure.
“I share my story, what I’ve learned,” she said. “I’m not an expert by any means, but if I can touch a few people, and have them rethink their tanning-bed behavior,” it’s worthwhile.
People tend to think of cancer as a disease that strikes the elderly, but melanoma is a “young person’s cancer,” she said. Adults in the 25- to 29-year age range are most likely to get it.
“It’s a little more common in women and on the back of the legs, like what I had.”
Her message to others is to take these preventive precautions, “especially if you have a lot of moles or the risk factors,” she said.
“Know your body. That’s the biggest thing… Anything that’s different or new, have it checked out.
“And avoid tanning beds.”
The cancer scare made her “more aware,” she said. She’s taken steps to better protect her skin including annual skin exams by a dermatologist.
When outside, she applies sunscreen and wears hats and sunglasses. She doesn’t lay out in the sun or frequent tanning salons. She runs in the morning or late afternoon, rather than mid-day when the sun’s rays are strongest.
“I get mad at myself if I look a little tanner,” she said.
She’s 100 percent behind the “Go with your own glow” campaign of the Skin Cancer Foundation (www.skincancer.org), she said. “Your own natural look is best.”
Cancer also impacted her life in other ways.
“In an odd way, it kind of changed it for the better. I appreciate that everything can be taken away.”
It also gave her life “direction,” she said.
While undergoing treatment at Mayo, she met a physician assistant (PA) who “helped me feel better about my future,” she said, and inspired Helland’s decision to apply to PA programs. She plans to enroll next spring.
Skin Cancer: Prevalent and potentially deadly
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. More than 2 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer every year.
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime, the Skin Cancer Foundation has stated.
“Each year, the number of skin care (cases) diagnosed is higher than the number of people who are diagnosed with breast, prostate, colon and lung cancer combined,” said Jennifer Tinkler, nurse practitioner with Truyu, part of Altru Health System, Grand Forks.
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer because it can spread through the blood and lymph systems, she said. It can occur anywhere, including the bottom of the feet and places that are never exposed to sunlight.
When detected early, melanoma often can be cured. Left untreated, it can spread to other areas of the body and be deadly. One person dies of melanoma every hour.
Caucasians and men older than 50 have an increased risk of developing melanoma.
Other skin cancers, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, are less serious because they present lower risk of spreading to other parts of the body.
They are more likely to develop in fair-skinned people, but can occur in people with dark skin. Both have high cure rates. Left untreated, they can be disfiguring.
“They are related to sun exposure,” she said, and are usually treated with surgery.
Treatment “depends on the type (of cancer) and what stage it’s in,” she said. Chemotherapy or radiation may be needed if the cancer is advanced.
“Early detection is very important, as is screening… Any sore that doesn’t heal, or anything that is changing or growing, make an appointment and have it checked. Don’t ignore it.”
Use of tanning beds can increase one’s risk of skin cancer by 75 percent, she said. “The UVA (rays) from tanning are 12 to 15 times stronger than rays from the sun.” Instead, get a spray tan or use self-tanning products.
New methods of detecting melanoma have advanced the process of determining which lesions should be biopsied, she said. A technology called “Melafind” is touted for the ability to detect melanoma at its most curable stage.
A developing technology, “confocal laser scanning microscopy,” is also being used to diagnose and screen melanoma, she said.
Suspicious skin features:
Skin cancer can develop anywhere on the skin. Ask someone for help when checking your skin, especially in hard-to-see places. If you notice a mole different from others, or that changes, enlarges, itches or bleeds (even if it is small), you should see a dermatologist.
Watch for the ABCDEs of melanoma:
• Asymmetry — One half unlike the other half
• Border — Irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border
• Color — Varied from one area to another, shades of tan and brown, black; sometimes white, red or blue
• Diameter — While melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller
• Evolving — A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color
Source: American Academy of Dermatology
How to prevent skin cancer:
• Use sun screen with SPF of 15-30 and “broad spectrum” protection from UVA and UVB rays
• Reapply every two hours
• Avoid exposure to the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (when the sun’s rays are strongest)
• Wear protective clothing (hat, long-sleeved clothing, cover-ups)
• Examine your skin regularly and get an annual skin exam from your health care provider
FREE SKIN CANCER SCREENING
5-7 p.m., Sept. 23
East Grand Forks Altru Clinic
607 DeMers Avenue
Call for appointment: (218) 773-0357
Knudson covers Health and Family for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext.1107 or email@example.com.