Even America’s Heroes Get Melanoma

Meet Army Reserve veteran Erin Ball, who served eight years, including a tour in Iraq in 2004.  She was diagnosed with melanoma in 2010, while she was 26 weeks pregnant with her second child.  Today, Erin lives in Alabama with her husband and three children.  Her experience with melanoma pushes her to live life to the fullest every day.

Tell us the Basics

I was diagnosed in 2010 with melanoma on my right shin, close to my calf. I was only 25 years old. The original biopsy showed my melanoma was a Clark’s Level IV. I wasn’t able to do the full sentinel node biopsy because I was 26 weeks pregnant with my second child.

How did you feel when you were first diagnosed? 

I was terrified. I was 25, and I thought I was invincible. I thought I had done everything right, and yet I had just been told I had cancer, and that I might not get to carry my baby to term. My husband was worried about me, and I was worried about my baby.

How did you choose to tell your family about your diagnosis?  

My husband had just picked me up from the airport when I got the call from the Nurse Practitioner, and I immediately burst into tears, so he knew it was not the news I was expecting to hear.  I called my parents right away. I couldn’t keep that kind of news to myself; it would eat me up. And from there we shared with family and friends.

Where were you treated/followed for melanoma?

I was followed by my OBGYN and an oncologist at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown WV, and that’s also where I had my excision surgery.  I worked in the NICU there, so if I had to deliver early for radiation, I would have my work family to take care of him. When you are pregnant and diagnosed with cancer, your options are limited, and working at the hospital where I would deliver made me feel a little more comfortable.

Tell us about your support system

My support system has mainly been my family and a few close friends.  Social media wasn’t as big then as it is now, so I didn’t know of any online support.  I joined AIM as soon as I learned about it, mostly for the newest updates and research on treatments in case I was diagnosed again.  However, I have found it helpful in a social sense as well:  It is comforting to see comments from other survivors and pictures of their scars; I know I’m not alone.  And I’m very lucky.

What was your biggest challenge during cancer treatment and into survivorship?

Dealing with the permanent scars was hard.  Thankfully, I did not have radiation, but the physical scars left behind are rather large.  My doctors were able to remove the cancer completely by cutting into the muscle on my leg, but because I was pregnant and my legs were swollen, they were unable to close the incision the way they had hoped.  Therefore, they took a skin graft from my lower thigh and covered the wound.  It did not heal well from the poor circulation, so it took a while for me to accept the way I looked.  At 25 years old, it was quite difficult. In recent years, I have become more comfortable with my journey and sharing it with others. I’m no longer afraid of showing my scars.

Where are you now in your melanoma journey?

Now, I am in ‘maintenance mode.’ I get full body checks about once a year, or more often if I notice anything odd.  I’m constantly aware of my risk, so I have to be very careful about what I do on a daily basis.  Sunscreen is my best friend! And everyone knows they’d better find me a shady spot at the beach!

What kinds of things did you do to distract yourself when you were going through treatment?

I threw myself into being a mom to my other child.  I had a two-year-old at home, so there was plenty to distract me!  When I was healing from the surgery I was supposed to keep my leg elevated, and I tried, but while running around after a toddler helped distract me, it didn’t do me any favors in the healing department.  I also distracted myself by making sure my pregnancy proceeded as it needed to. Keeping busy with my children helped me know that healing wasn’t an option. I had to get better so that I could be there for them.

What would you tell people who think they need to have a tan in order to be perceived as attractive?

I ask people all the time, Is it really worth it?  I usually show them my scar and ask them if they consider themselves high risk, because I sure didn’t. I have dark hair and fair skin, and I have never been ‘freckly’ or had more than one or two moles.  I NEVER thought it would happen to me, and I wish everyone could appreciate their skin for the color they were born with.  Our natural skin color is beautiful, AND it’s healthy!  I am asked at times if I used an indoor tanning device, and I tell this story: I once bought a tanning package to get a “base tan.” I went for my first session, and while waiting I picked up a magazine with an article about tanning and melanoma. The girl in it had a scar from her surgeries, and it scared me enough to just get up and leave. No refund. I never went back.

What do you do in your spare time?

I am a nurse. I’ve always worked with babies, either in a NICU or newborn nursery.  My first try in adult life was to be a musical theater major and star on Broadway!  That changed when I was deployed with the military and met my husband.  But I still sing with the church choir, and I also enjoy dance: I take adult tap and hip hop classes at the same studio as my daughter.

What words of wisdom would you share with someone facing melanoma?

I would say Melanoma does not have to consume youIt does not define you.  Live your life, enjoy the outdoors, go on the beach trip—just be smart about it.  At first, I was devastated that I would never be able to enjoy the sunshine ever again, but I’ve learned that I can:  I just bring my hat, sunscreen, and a big umbrella!  I am stylish AND safe!

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