Valerie and Dr. Jennifer Chen at Valerie’s 6 month skin check-up, celebrating three years cancer free!
The risk of melanoma increases as we age, but melanoma is not uncommon among adults under the age of 30. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers for young adults, especially women, according to the Melanoma Research Alliance.
Valerie was diagnosed with melanoma at age 12. While childhood melanoma is rare, 300-400 cases in the United States annually, it is the most common skin cancer in pediatric patients. Because it is so rare, many childhood melanomas are found in the later stages when treatment becomes more involved. We are very thankful Valerie and her mother, Tami, shared their story to further our skin cancer awareness reach and shed light on the importance of skin checks for all ages.
Valerie (Age 15): I noticed this strange mole on the back of my arm in the shape of a four-leaf clover. My mom asked my pediatrician about it, but together we assumed it was nothing to worry about. A few years later, I looked at the mole again and noticed it had changed shape. It looked more like a snowman. I thought it was weird, so my mom took me to the dermatologist.
Tami (Valerie’s Mother): Valerie’s pediatrician told Valerie to watch the shape of her freckle/mole and to see a dermatologist if we noticed any change. Valerie is the one who noticed the shape of her mole changed and told me about it. I honestly believe an angel from above showed her that the mole had changed, so we could catch it early before it had time to spread. (Valerie was named after my mom, who is in heaven, and I believe she showed Valerie.)
Valerie (Age 15): During my first appointment, the dermatologist looked at the mole on the back of my arm and assumed it was nothing to worry about due to my age. I was 12 at the time. She did do a biopsy of the mole just in case. Thank goodness she did!
Tami (Valerie’s Mother): The dermatologist took a small sample of the freckle/mole to biopsy. She told us not to worry, because melanoma in kids is extremely rare.
Valerie (Age 15): I found out a few weeks after the biopsy. It was terrifying to hear I had melanoma at age 12. I was scared of the changes it would make to my life and how it would affect me. At the time, I didn’t truly understand what melanoma even was. I just heard the word “cancer” and freaked out. After talking with my parents and doctors, I felt much better knowing I was in good hands and that I was extremely lucky to have caught it early.
Tami (Valerie’s Mother): The doctor called me and could hardly speak. When she told me, I literally could not breathe. I was scared for Valerie’s life. The dermatologist told me they had to do surgery to remove the rest of Valerie’s mole, as well as a large part of surrounding tissues, just to make sure they cleared all of the cancer.
Valerie’s case was escalated to the Pediatric Melanoma Specialists at Stanford and UCSF for review. The specialists were shocked the biopsy was from a child. Since Valerie was so young...and never in the sun...how could this happen? The doctors ran additional tests and learned the melanoma had not spread and that it had a genetic cancer marker from a relative. The genetic cancer marker made sense. According the American Academy of Dermatology, only about 10% of people who develop melanoma have one of these genes.
Valerie (Age 15): Thankfully, I was never much of a huge sun person anyway. I have sensitive skin and I’m prone to sunburns, so I typically like to stay inside. Since my diagnosis, I have been extra careful and try to avoid the sun when possible. But I don’t let my diagnosis stop me from enjoying outdoor activities when I can! I understand the importance of sunscreen and UV sun protection and I allow myself to enjoy the outdoors safely.
Tami (Valerie’s Mother): We take Valerie for skin exams every 6 months. We make sure she has sunscreen and protective gear, so she can enjoy being outside. Luckily, Valerie is a theatre girl and loves being in the theatre. Valerie understands how serious this is and is 100% on board with staying sun safe while living and enjoying her life.
What do You Hope People Learn by Sharing Your Story:
Valerie (Age 15): I hope readers learn to always trust their instincts! If you have a weird mole or spot on your skin, go get it checked out! You can never be too careful and you could catch it early and save yourself from worse issues in the future. No matter how old you are, it is important to be aware and cautious in the sun. Always protect yourself!
Tami (Valerie’s Mother): I love what Valerie wrote. I’ve been in tears as I’m writing this blog and still can’t believe that my daughter is a cancer survivor. She is a special one. Valerie has a big scar on the back of her arm that she rocks with confidence. When people ask Valerie what happened to her arm, she never misses a beat and says, “I got bit by a shark at our pool.” She’s so funny!
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends monthly self-exams and an annual full body skin exam. Use this link to find a board-certified dermatologist near you: https://find-a-derm.aad.org