May is Melanoma Awareness month and Fara Minnick and Liz Heene both say they are examples of why skin awareness and early detection is key when it comes to detecting any possible skin cancer.
In May 2017, as the school year was nearing, Minnick, a speech therapist at Chillicothe Elementary School, noticed a spot on her back that was bothersome. It started to grow and become more irritated, but the busy mom decided to wait, so she put off going to see her doctor until August when a friend at school told her about their dermatologist and noted that the spot on her back “didn't look right,” Minnick recalled.
“When I called the dermatologist my friend recommended, they said it was October before I could be seen,” she said. “So i went to the dermatologist on Oct. 9, to remove several spots on my skin.”
One of the smaller areas Minnick had removed tested positive for basal cell carcinoma. Before the largest, and most concerning spot was removed, the dermatologist told Minnick it could be one of two things: a skin tag with a blood blister on it or melanoma.
“I will never forget when she removed the spot, and wrote on the lab note, ‘rush’,” she said.
The next day Minnick received a life-changing call from the doctor.
“I got a call from the doctor and was told i had stage 3 nodular melanoma,” she said. “Her exact words during that call was that i had the ‘fight of my life ahead of me’.”
During that same phone call Minnick was told they had caught the cancer “just in time.”
Nodular melanoma is a fast growing cancer that grows out of the body at the same rate it grows down into the layers of skin. The marble size bump on Minnick was 8 mm, and required surgery to be removed. The surgery requires all of the layers of skin and tissue be removed down to the muscle in the affected area, and one inch round it. Since that surgery Minnick has had two others both of them on the same area on her back.
Testing also noted she had lymph nodes affected and she chose to have them removed as well.
“One thing i have learned ins that melanoma doesn't follow any pattern or expected course, it is different for every person and in every instance the same person has another encounter. I had five lymph nodes affected and i am very glad I had them all removed. Affected lymph nodes is what can cause the cancer to spread to other internal organs.”
Her last surgery was June 21. Since her original diagnosis in October of 2017 Minnick has also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to her thyroid removed last December, she began immunotherapy in February, originally she received the treatment every two weeks, then every month, for a year.
Much like Minnick, Liz Heene enjoyed being out in the sun as a child and teen. Though, Heene admitted she loved tanning beds and Minnick only used them occasionally. Heene rarely, if ever thought skin cancer would touch her life. Then after hearing Minnick’s story, she decided to go see a dermatologist and have herself checked for skin cancer.
“Her story scared me enough to go get checked,” Heene said. The original spot she went to be seen for was determined to be nothing of concern, however, shortly after going to see her dermatologist in Cameron, she was diagnosed with what is now categorized as stage 3 melanoma.
“Most people do not realize that melanoma - skin cancer - can be anywhere on your body, it isn’t just on your arms or exposed skin.”
In October 2018, one year after her friend, Heene was diagnosed with cancer and had lymph nodes removed in her groin area in February, she also underwent immunotherapy.
Both women say they are sharing their stories in hopes of spreading the word that early detection is key.
“It is so important to pay attention to your skin and any changes you see,’ Minnick said. “I wish I had paid attention, i wish I had gone to see a dermatologist when I first noticed the original spot on my back. I could have saved my lymph nodes.”
Having a dermatologist, who you see at least annually will help them determine what is and is not normal for your skin, and will help faster treatment and an opportunity to be seen quicker should a problem arise, Minnick added.
Heene said that melanoma and any form of skin cancer is a big deal.
“I hear all the time, ‘well it is just skin cancer’,” she said. “It isn’t ‘just skin cancer’, it could cost you your life.”
Minnick said she has heard from several ladies she works with about their close encounters with melanoma and other skins cancers as well, she again said early detection is key.
“The earlier you find it the easier it will be to treat.”
Heene said that between the two of them they know of at least four other Chillicothe area residents who have melanoma, “I know there has to be more too.”
The pair admit this will be a different summer for them as they are more aware of the dangers to their skin.
Heene recommended using mineral sunscreen or sunscreen with zinc. Minnick noted that people should be aware of the proper time frame for applying their sunscreen.
“I am still going to enjoy the summer and being outside, I will just be more aware,” she said.
Events like the screening sponsored by the Livingston County Health Department are great chances to stay local and have a screening done, and the pair encourages everyone to go be checked.
“Your skin is the largest organ in your body, go check it, it could save your life,’” Minnick said.