Erin Shannon was only 19 years old when she became a melanoma survivor. If not for a routine skin examination, she might not have even known she was in danger. But even when one is being proactive about their health, it's hard to be prepared for this kind of news.
A Frightening Diagnosis
It was in Erin's sophomore year of college that her dermatologist recommended a biopsy after noticing a slight change in a mole. Suddenly, she went from having a routine exam to waiting to find out whether she had cancer. The pathology report revealed that the mole on her right arm was in fact melanoma, a virulent form of skin cancer that an estimated 1 million people in the United States were living with in 2013, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Erin needed to start scheduling doctor appointments, more tests, and another surgery. Because time doesn't pause for cancer, her college term continued. She still had books to read, papers to write, and exams to prepare for, which was difficult when her brain kept jumping back to the topic of cancer and all its potential outcomes. She contemplated withdrawing from school for the term, but decided to power through. Her family was wonderfully supportive, but Erin was shocked to discover that many of her professors and peers were dismissive of her ordeal. "People were saying things like, 'It's just skin cancer,' and 'Skin cancer isn't really cancer,'" she said. "They acted like it wasn't a big deal."
This was a big deal. According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma can be deadly, especially if the cancer isn't caught early enough. If it's already metastasized to distant organs at the time of diagnosis, the five-year survival rate is 18 percent. Early detection is critical; if caught before it spreads, it has a 91.5 percent five-year survival rate. Understandably, "Did we catch it early enough?" was one of the questions Erin and her doctors pondered as they prepared for her surgery that October.
During the operation, they cleaned out the area around the malignancy, removing all traces of the cancer. Seven lymph nodes were also removed to test for cancer and determine whether it was spreading. Erin sports a 6-inch scar on her right bicep as a result of the surgery, and she lives with lymphedema, a common side effect of cancer treatment that can cause life-long issues with pain, neuropathy, and swelling in the affected limb. But the news was good: there was no cancer in her lymph nodes. She didn't need chemotherapy or radiation treatment, and her prognosis was excellent.
Since her diagnosis, Erin's life has changed considerably. She graduated from college on time in 2015, traveled through Europe, and started a successful career as an auditor in Boston. But that wasn't enough to make her feel complete. "Cancer made me feel like I lost some control in my life, so I started running," she said. Putting one foot in front of the other helps her feel like she has control over her body, where she's going, and what she's doing. "Cancer has definitely opened my eyes to the fact that you only have one life to live, to live it to the fullest, and take good care of your body."
Erin also found a way to make a difference in the lives of others. She volunteers with the Melanoma Foundation of New England, working with community education and outreach. She helps educate people about the dangers of tanning beds and UV exposure, and the importance of regular skin checks and early detection. She's passionate about changing the conversation around melanoma. "I was around so many people who were dismissive of melanoma, and I hope that by sharing my story, I can save a life," she said. "We really need to reduce the idea that melanoma isn't deadly."
As Erin approaches the end of the five-year treatment and monitoring plan, she's looking forward to saying goodbye to the frequent blood tests and skin exams. At the five-year mark, she'll graduate from oncology patient to wellness patient, officially moving forward with her life. To celebrate, this melanoma survivor is planning to participate in a marathon on the fifth anniversary of her diagnosis, taking control of her body, and her health, with a monumental run.