Hi, I'm Katharine Stephens.
Smart, funny, athletic, determined, positive.
This summer 2018, my mother, sister, and I went to our dermatologist for full body skin checks. It had been over a year since we had been and my mom thought it would be a good idea for all of us to get an exam. None of us had any particular spots we were concerned about or thought looked abnormal. The doctor, however, found a mole on my lower calf that she thought looked just a little different than the rest. She biopsied it and it came back as melanoma in situ — the earliest and most curable form of melanoma.
After this diagnosis, we scheduled another exam to do a followup skin check to make sure she had not missed anything. At this appointment, she decided to biopsy a mole that was near the original melanoma in situ lesion. She thought this one looked relatively normal but wanted to check it anyway. The biopsy results came back as stage 1 malignant melanoma! This news was very frightening for my family and me and my dermatologist was very concerned considering that I was only 18-years-old. I had both lesions on my calf surgically excised by a plastic surgeon with deep and wide margins which resulted in 2 significant scars on my leg that took over 3 months to heal.
The good news is that my surgeon got all of the cancer cells and those 2 sites are clear. With my dermatologist’s help, we found a melanoma specialist in Chicago who I see every 3 months for regular skin checks. Since this summer I have had 2 more lesions removed that came back showing moderate and severe atypia but at least not melanoma.
My background is mostly Irish and I have classic Irish red hair and fair skin. I grew up using sunscreen pretty consistently and my parents always required it whenever I went swimming or if we were going to be outside for a long time like at soccer games or other outdoor events.
I never purposely got sunburned, layout to get a tan or used a tanning bed like some of my friends but unfortunately, with my fair skin it doesn’t take much sun exposure to turn pink and I have been burned a few times. I always knew sunburns were harmful, but I never really understood the damage that even one sunburn can do to your skin, especially as a redhead. Since my skin cancer diagnosis, I have completely changed the way I view the sun and sun protection.
Now I always make sure I have sunscreen on if I’m going to be outside or I cover up with sun protective clothing. The biggest challenge I have had to face in this journey is figuring out how I can continue to play soccer. I have played soccer since I was little and I currently play NCAA Division 1 soccer for Loyola University Chicago. Soccer has always been one of my biggest passions and I was afraid my skin cancer diagnosis was going to prohibit me from playing the sport I love. Thankfully, I continue to play and enjoy the outdoors—I just make sure to wear UPF clothing and UPF base layers under my uniform and I use mineral-based sunscreens on the exposed areas of my skin.
I have also started wearing hats more often when I’m outside or on the sidelines and I look for shady spots to rest when we have practice breaks. I am much more aware of the damage the sun can cause and the importance of sun protection.
It’s a new lifestyle for me but one that I know will keep me safe and healthy for the rest of my life.
Thanks Katharine, for sharing your story with us and our Solbari Community.
The Solbari Team
It is very difficult to the untrained eye to identify melanomas and skin cancers because they can come in many different shapes and sizes.
As Associate Professor Rosemary Nixon from the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc. says, "the earlier a skin cancer is identified and treated, the better the chance of avoiding surgery, or in the case of a serious melanoma or skin cancer, potential disfigurement or even death."