Featured Survivor Story:
By Vallerie A. Malkin
Carrie Jeffries describes her style as “vampire”: The 33-year-old new mom has white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, and the only lipstick she ever wears is deep red. It’s a great look that gets her noticed in a crowd. Unfortunately, Carrie is also the poster child for sunburns.
Her family is of Irish and Scottish heritage, with a dash of English, and they have the porcelain skin to prove it. Her grandfather had melanoma 40 years ago, and her mother was recently diagnosed with melanoma in situ, she explains, noting that nearly everyone in her family has the same very light complexion.
With the exception of dabbling now and then with tanning beds for prom or homecoming when she was younger, Carrie was never a sun worshiper and hadn’t spent much time in the sun at all in recent years. In fact, her doctor discovered she is Vitamin D deficient.
Carrie does recall getting a few bad sunburns when she was younger: “There are a lot of pictures of me burned to a crisp.” According to Carrie, just one severe burn as a child can put you in the risk pool for melanoma.
Sunburns in youth were not top of mind in August 2018, when Carrie answered a phone call at work (she runs talent acquisition for a small financial technology company focused on the healthcare industry): Her doctor told her a recent biopsy of a pimple-like mole on her back had turned out to be melanoma. Carrie broke into tears.
Carrie had been visiting a dermatologist once a year, and that’s how they discovered squamous cells on her leg and arm, but these had resembled moles much more so than this spot on her back that looked like an innocent pimple.
“I was in shock,” says Carrie. The first person she contacted was her mother. But she saved the news for her husband, Kevin, “the sweetest man on earth,” until she could deliver it face to face that night.
One of her sisters is a doctor and asked her a bunch of questions. Her dermatologist referred her to the best surgical oncologist in Charlotte.
Unveiling the long, purple scar
Carrie was fast-tracked to surgery on August 23. She didn’t expect recovery from surgery to be so painful. She had been in a car accident in 2015 and damaged the left side of her shoulder, the same shoulder on which she had surgery.
“I’m a person who walks fast, talks fast, and thinks fast,” says Carrie, “and not being able to do anything was mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging, so I got frustrated a lot.”
Had she known it would take such a long time to feel better, she would have bought “500 magazines and a book.” Instead, she cuddled with her dogs and watched movies.
Now she had a six or seven-inch purple scar in a horizontal line across her shoulder blade but says her surgeon did a really good job. Over time it has healed up nicely. But she was keenly aware that even Stage IA melanoma was something to be concerned about for the rest of her life.
Not one to verbalize when she is feeling upset, Carrie says it took her a while to open up about her illness. One way to turn a bad situation around, she thought, is to share her story with others who may be helped by it. She focused on “the awareness” piece of melanoma and what she could do to convey to others how important it is to protect themselves from the sun, and to get to a doctor as soon as they notice a new growth.
“I’m not a vain person, but I don’t post pictures normally where I look horrible,” says Carrie, who decided to put her scar out there on Instagram first. From the get-go, she received really supportive feedback that boosted her willingness to share more pictures and information about her melanoma.
“People thanked me for having the courage to show my pictures and share my story,” says Carrie, “and sharing got easier.” She regularly uses Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat to spread the word.
“I had a new sense of obligation to spread awareness to anyone and everyone,” she says, adding that a few of her social media connections have reported they made appointments with their doctor to have an area checked out because of her postings.
Staying on top of it
Now that Carrie has had a run-in with melanoma and a good outcome, she knows she will always have to stay on top of things because melanoma is notorious for spreading and cropping up in other places. “Skin is your biggest organ and you never know what might pop up,” says Carrie. “Plus it likes to get down into the layers.”
Since melanoma is insidious that way, when a person is diagnosed there is a bit of anxiety they take forward, even if treatment has gone well and their scans are clean. To offset this anxiety, Carrie does meditation and yoga and deep breathing exercises.
Carrie explains that colon cancer runs in her family and between that and the melanoma she now has to think about two of the “unsexiest” cancers. Each demands vigilance and requires a person to take responsibility for early detection (annual colonoscopies in the case of colon cancer prevention, and skin checks in the case of melanoma prevention).
Carrie will follow up with a derm every three months for two years to make sure there are no new signs of growth. After that, she has to see a derm every six months for several more years. She will continue to do regular skin checks at home.
The power of staying positive
Since she got melanoma, Carrie faces life a little differently: “I know how different summer will be for me,” she says. She and members of her family will have to reapply sunscreen throughout the day, wear hats and clothing outdoors, and stay under umbrellas where possible.
“I’m all about spray tans!” she says. “That’s our new thing.”
Carrie and her husband still plan to have beach vacations—but she will make sure she and her family are protected.
As the oldest daughter and granddaughter, she is also protective of her siblings and wants to make sure none of her family members develops melanoma.
Today Carrie is busy working and raising her new baby, Alice (she became pregnant three months after her surgery), with her husband. She likes to volunteer; in the past, she did work for the Humane Society and continues organizing an annual walk for her family for colon cancer.
In addition to their jobs, she and her husband run a small wedding coordinator service for DIY brides working mostly for friends and friends of friends.
Even though Carrie is busier than ever, melanoma is never far from her mind – particularly in terms of her commitment to spreading the word so that others can avoid what she went through.
“The big thing is to raise awareness,” says Carrie, “and positivity is truly magical and powerful.” She has found a tremendous support network through AIM’s Facebook and other social media outlets.
Carrie says she is resilient and having melanoma has really put some things into perspective in a good way: “All the things I thought were a big deal are just not a big deal anymore,” says Carrie. “Things that would stress you out – I don’t see them that way anymore.”